Two wars These Ukrainians survived World War II. Russia’s invasion made them refugees.
Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine has driven more than 5 million people out of the country. Most of these refugees have sought safe haven in neighboring countries like Moldova, which has taken in nearly 500,000 Ukrainians. Among those who have sought refuge in Moldova are elderly people who survived World War II as children. Photographer Sergei Stroitelev spent nearly two months photographing refugees from Ukraine at a shelter in Chișinău. While there, he interviewed several survivors of World War II about what it’s like to live through two wars in one lifetime. Here are their stories.
Ukrainian refugees who survived World War II are now very elderly — and they never thought they’d have to live through the horrors of wartime again. Having fled to Moldova, they’re now living in what was, until recently, a coronavirus hospital set up at the MoldExpo exhibition complex in Chișinău. Their new home is made up of plastic cubicles without ceilings or doors, but they don’t complain. On the contrary, they’re grateful. Here, there are doctors on duty around the clock, ready to tend to their health problems.
I spent more than a month and a half working inside the “hospital” and was able to get to know these people better. We spoke about the two wars that now bookend their lives.
One day, a man was brought into the “hospital” who could no longer walk on his own. He couldn’t speak and only drank water. His daughter explained that he was 94 years old and had fought in Kharkiv during the Great Patriotic War (WWII). I don’t know if he’s still alive today. It’s terrible that someone who deserved to experience old age in peace lost their home and was forced to travel for many kilometers and take refuge inside a cubicle.
This story is being published on May 9. In post-Soviet countries, this date is celebrated as Victory Day over Nazi Germany. This year, everything has changed completely.
92 years old, from Mykolayiv
The war began when I was 12 years old. In August 1941, there were already Germans in our village near Mykolayiv. Two of my older brothers went off to fight and my carefree days were over. The Germans washed their uniforms and military equipment in the Bug River, where my brothers and I swam and caught fish. They didn’t touch us. A year later the Romanians came — the Magyars. The Germans promised them this territory after the end of the war.
The occupation lasted three years. Emotionally, it was a difficult time. My parents got news from the front that my older brother was killed and my middle brother was wounded. I spoke to my older brother in my dreams for a while, I remember it very well. We didn’t starve under the Romanians, I’d like to acknowledge that. They treated all of the kids in the village to sweets from time to time. They even organized some parties at the local club. They were kind of like us, like Ukrainians, in terms of character. Perhaps they felt this too. In 1944, the Vlasovtsy [soldiers from the collaborationist Russian Liberation Army] came to our village, they were retreating. They brought mayhem: they beat people, shot them, and committed rapes. We had to hide our sister in straw so they wouldn’t find her. It’s a good thing they only spent two days in the village and then left.
After the war ended, in 1945, a famine began: there were no harvests, the fields were burned. My father died. I worked as a plowman. I was 15 years old at the time, but I worked as much as the adults. I provided for my family, because my middle brother couldn’t work after being wounded. In 1946, they started putting up heavy industry all over the Mykolayiv region — and I was transferred from the collective farm to a shipyard, where I worked as a blacksmith. I forged for the rest of my life — 51 years of experience, without going anywhere. I had a daughter, served in the convocation of municipal deputies in my hometown twice, and now I’ve become a refugee.
In March 2022, Russian forces began shelling Mykolayiv. To be honest I wasn’t afraid for myself, but for my daughter. When they’re bombing, I calmly sit and drink my tea. I have problems with my hearing, I almost couldn’t hear it, but Katya was shuddering. We were hiding in the basement, my daughter and the neighbors helped me get down there: they took me by the arms and carried me down the stairs. In the basement we slept on mattresses. Once, I saw a bright orange flash outside the window, the room lit up: a missile flew right over the house. In the end, Katya and I decided to flee. I didn’t want to [go], but my daughter convinced me. We got ready in 20 minutes; Katya didn’t even finish making the borscht. We got to Odesa and then through Palanka [a border checkpoint] to Chișinău. I went to Moldova in 1980, so I knew where we were going. At the time I went there as a tourist and bought a gas stove — we couldn’t get one [in Ukraine].
I can resign myself, but I’m very worried about my grandson. He escaped from Mariupol when the Germans, I mean the fascists, arrived [Editor’s note: Vladimir is referring to Russian troops]. But can you really say he’s safe? His mother-in-law was killed by shrapnel — she went out to get water and only made it a few steps from the entryway. They buried her right there, somewhere in the garden. Some of our relatives were whisked off to Russia; their documents were taken away and now they can’t even be reached by phone. It’s terrible to talk about it, because we didn’t even see anything like this in 1941. I want the earth to swallow me up and not to remember any of this. I’m just waiting to die, nothing else will save me.
88 years old, from Odesa
During [World War II] I lived with my grandmother in a village not far from Izmail [a city in Ukraine’s Odesa region]. The Germans came in very quickly, no one warned us. We started living in basements, we were constantly hiding and very hungry. People were dying. The Germans occupied their homes, took their livestock. Their tanks stood right in the gardens and corpses lay in the roads.
Some time after the start of the war a mass grave appeared in the village. [That’s] where our neighbors ended up — I saw it all. I remember this difficult time and I’m very grateful to my parents: they lived for their children and only thought about keeping my brothers and sisters and me safe. We were mad at them because they wouldn’t let us go play outside, but now I remember it with love. The Romanians came in 1942, I was eight years old at the time. We crawled out of the basements, but still lived in fear. We feared for our parents and they for us.
When the occupiers left this land, there was nothing left. They took a lot with them, including some people — mainly young women. Russian soldiers came and with them the restoration of the farms began. We were all from the [Soviet] Union. Gradually, after the first harvests, the situation improved; people had the chance to buy livestock. My parents worked on their own land, they were individual farmers — they did the planting and harvesting themselves. We even had a mill and ground flour. I was a little girl, but I had to go to school and help my parents with housework, there was no time for games and entertainment.
I got married young, at 18 years old. And I went with my husband to Odesa, where I worked in a factory as a cleaner, but made decent money. [When I was] closer to thirty I started having serious problems with my nerves, I remembered the war and what I saw. This, of course, had an impact on my life going forward.
We had seven children during our marriage. I became a widow at 50: my husband died of cancer. My psychological problems worsened and I had to go to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. My children left one after the other, for various reasons, I don’t want to remember. Only one stayed — he’s already 68 years old. He made me leave Odesa, he put me on a bus. All I brought with me was a handkerchief and all of my medications — a whole pharmacy — the most expensive and necessary thing for staying alive. My son stayed in Odesa. He said he would go fight, if need be, regardless of the fact that he’s retired. He’ll send his children out of the country and go himself. “I hold a [military] rank, I was in the army, if I leave then I’ll feel guilty,” that’s what he said. All of our boys are coming out [to fight], all of our people.
I never thought it would all happen again. The Russians were our people, we were all one. My daughter married a Russian and I was nothing but glad. Show me someone who doesn’t have relatives in Russia. Everyone does. It turns out that brother attacked brother and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. God willing, everything will wrap up, I’ll go home, and I’ll die there.
81 years old, from Mykolayiv
I remember, at the age of two, I left the yard in the village on my own. There was black ice. I slipped, got scared, and screamed. My grandmother was a young woman then, she ran out and picked me up. But I distinctly remembered how the Germans were marching down the street in formation — their boots were banging on the ice. For some reason this stuck in my memory, their steps were like the sound of train wheels. I also remember the fires — all of the neighboring villages near Mykolayiv were in flames. And the acacia [trees] with the small grove underneath; we hid there from the bombings, and during hide-and-seek — the children also played war.
After the war my father returned from the front — he was a pilot. They sent him to Leningrad to finish his studies at a party school, so my mother and I went with him. I started first grade there. At the time, the Germans were finishing construction on our half-ruined school. The other children and I treated them to these round buns — pampushky. Then we returned home to my native village. My parents separated, it didn’t work out. My mom was just a medical attendant and my dad had a high-level position. Apparently he needed a woman of the same rank.
My mother dressed me in white pants, a shirt, and canvas shoes. The village boys greeted me with shouts of “Take your drawers off!”. They grabbed me and smeared me with [dried manure] — it was a village childhood, but I remember it fondly.
I moved to Mykolayiv as a teenager. My mother worked at the regional hospital there and took me away from my grandmother. I joined the navy, then the army, did my service, and met a woman — Lena. And well, like with many boys, it was fate. Then there was a dark period in my life — the Afghan [War]. I lost all of my nerves and my legs there. The worst time of my life, which I regret, was fighting for lowlifes.
About a month and a half ago those damn bombardments started. The sirens howled. Those with legs went to the basement quickly, and I sat myself in the hall, I didn’t care. Maybe it’s due to my age, but most likely I was just hardened in Afghanistan. My daughter has an acquaintance from Moldova; she called him and he offered to pick us all up himself. He said that he could come in literally an hour and a half. He came, picked us up, and drove 150 kilometers [93 miles] along the highway — that’s when I got scared.
My wife and I have been living in this “covid hospital” for a month now. I’m already sick of this war and these horrors in the news, but I read it anyway. I can’t not read it, my hand reaches for my phone on its own. It’s constant stress. There’s only one type of good news for me now — when a column of rashisty [Russian fascists] is destroyed. You know, when I was young, I loved to travel by car. I’ve been to many places in Russia, I saw how the Russians live; I saw their villages. They should’ve gotten their own house in order, but instead they came to ours.
The future is uncertain— if this continues, where will we live? In our entire, nine-story building there are two men left. They’ll tell us if it blows and our apartment is gone, but then what? I want to go home. I have a workshop, I did crafts there. I liked sharpening things by hand; I made keys for my friends for free, just as a hobby.
81 years old, from Kharkiv
Despite the fact that I was very little when the war began in 1941 — it would be more accurate to say that I was born with the first bombs — I’m convinced that I absorbed all of the grief of what happened. Children are developing very actively at this time and the psychological and emotional context is important. Back then, there were people around who were suffering very deeply. I was evacuated when I was 1.5 months old, my grandmother insisted. My parents set off with me: we spent a month and a half on a freight train through Astrakhan and crossed the Caspian Sea on a barge under bombardment, and then went to Siberia. Mama and papa were fourth-year university students, they were just kids. I can’t imagine how they survived it all. When we got to the Arctic a local took us in, caring people met refugees right on the platform [at the train station]. My mother got off the train completely exhausted, she couldn’t think straight, and I had typhus. We were spotted by a big Siberian woman named Katya. She grabbed me and pressed me to her bosom, took my mother by the arm, and took us to her home, despite the fact that she had 11 children of her own. She cured me with clever coniferous potions.
My father taught all of Katya’s children to read and write as a token of his gratitude — their dad had died at the front.
Kharkiv was liberated in 1943. We returned a year later but our house was gone. My grandmother had a small cottage near Kharkiv, so we went there. A few years later my father got another apartment in the city and they took me there. I went to school, first to a girl’s school and then, at my father’s suggestion, I was transferred to a physics and mathematics school. Papa believed that nothing develops a person like these sciences. But I didn’t follow in these footsteps. I really loved to sing and during one of the evenings at the local club, my parents — who were in the auditorium — were given a note: it said, We want your daughter to audition at the conservatory for the especially gifted. As a result, they took me for a trial period of one year. When I graduated, I immediately became a teacher at the school and worked in this position all my life, well into my retirement years, which I don’t regret one bit. It was a beautiful time in a beautiful city — the best city in the world.
I knew that a war was coming. We were aware of the events, we read the news, but it was difficult to believe it until the last moment. My daughter also didn’t fully believe it until she heard the first explosions. We ran to a damp basement and to the subway. The stations were packed, it was awful. All of this had a great influence on my daughter, she’s a very sensitive person. Some people don’t care, but she started having panic attacks. My mother was the same way — after the war, the old one, she became afraid of fireworks. She plugged her ears with cotton and sat at home, while my father and I went to watch them. What I mean is that my daughter would have completely lost her mind if we hadn’t left a month ago. I never would have fled my hometown — I’m hardened, I’ve seen many fates. As they say, if you’re going out, go out in style!
81 years old, from Mykolayiv
I’m a child of war. I was born in Mykolayiv in 1941. My parents told me about those times, but very little. I didn’t really ask, I didn’t want to take them back to those times. Now I understand that it’s very difficult. Once, my mother remembered an interesting story — just before the liberation I saved a woman. Imagine, at 2.5 years old! Our family hardly knew her, she was a friend of friends and had no children. Such women were being taken [to Nazi Germany] for hard labor. She approached my mother on the street and begged for help, she said they were coming for her. My mother told me to hold this woman’s hand and call her “mama.” In the end they left her alone — apparently, there was no time for document checks. They barked something [at us] and left.
After the war the famine began, there was a drought. My grandmother collected crumbs, like a mouse, to feed me and my brothers. There was nothing, not even a piece of bread. But we scraped through.
I got married in 1962. We had two children. I worked at the market, selling shoes, and then in a big store, selling clothes. I worked there for 10 years. In 1973, I got a job as a teacher in a kindergarten and stayed there for a longer period of time — 23 years. I retired in 1996.
And now…I remember how my daughter came running home from working at the market and said they had introduced martial law. My heart sank! Then the shelling started, it got worse and closer every day. We were under bombardment for almost a month. We ran into the corridor and closed all the doors to the rooms, so nothing would fly through the windows and hit us. But there’s a limit to everything — I left with my daughter and granddaughter on March 20. Our administration allocated five free buses and we were lucky enough to squeeze on to [one of] them.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to return home now, we all feel the urge, but it’s impossible to go [back] there! My granddaughter’s husband stayed there, he keeps us up to date on what’s happening. He says we should stay in Moldova — in the “covid hospital” without ceilings and doors. But, as they say, it’s a bit tight, but we’re alright. Old age turned out to be sad — not only did my brothers die, but my son died in a car accident and now there’s another war. I was born right in the first year of a war and now what, am I supposed to die? I just want peace and quiet. I just want to sit and look out the window. A beautiful maple tree grew in front of the window at our house. I looked at it all day long.
I can’t wrap my head around the fact that this people [the Russians] are fighting against us. The pressure is rising, I just can’t take it. But still, there’s more hope than hopelessness. After all, young people should live happily and in peace — not just my daughter and grandchildren, and not only Ukrainians. Everyone everywhere.
Translation by Eilish Hart