About a year ago I bought a DVD with more than 12,000 images of World War Two . Most of them were either Russian or German.
This first photograph shows a little Russian boy who appeared in one of the previous photographs in the Blog Post “Photographs of the Eastern Front in World War Two (4)”. Both he and his grandad stand in the smoking ruins of their house, and of their village. We can only guess at the circumstances. Personally, given the fact that the two individuals do not look particularly shocked or desolate, I think that the Germans have set fire to their village as they retreat back to Germany with the Red Army keenly pursuing them.
In this winter scene, Grandad and grandson are planning the future, perhaps where they will live, or where they hope a neighbour will help them rebuild their house and so on. Grandad is carrying his cane, but what’s that in his left hand? Incidentally, after much careful examination with Blog Post No 4, I do not think these two are the same individuals featured there, although, of course, you may not agree.
With victory in sight, though, and the tide of war now relatively far away, the refugees gradually came back. Here’s Granny, with her two daughters and five, perhaps six children. Everybody is barefoot, but they’re going home, so walking’s easy. And the two fathers? Well, they could have been starved to death in a POW camp, or worked to death as slave labourers in Poland or even in the Channel Islands.
This careful close up excludes any adults and focusses on the children with two brothers making manful efforts to carry as much as they could on a handcart. The baby sleeps the sleep of the innocent little child. Notice how she may well be strapped in for safety. We will never know if the family’s house was still there when they arrived. In Byelorussia alone, up to 1500 villages were razed to the ground.
As the conquering hero returns, it’s the village kids who spot him first. He has a smile wide enough to indicate that he has already asked somebody whether his family is still alive. Under the German occupation, nobody was safe.
If I were going to give this photograph a title, it would be “The Love of a Mother”. Ordinary young soldiers walked back home, starting as a group which lost a member or two as they passed by each village. These were villages where the inhabitants would not have known whether a particular young serviceman was alive or dead. Yuri Gagarin’s two brothers performed slave labour in Poland, escaped and the Red Army conscripted them. The rest of the family thought both of them were dead, and Yuri became seriously ill with “grief and hunger”. They got back home in late 1945:
And still the refugees stream westwards to their homes. These bring two cows with them and a sturdy cart with substantial wheels. There are eight people, with, for me, two grannies, two mothers, two boys and a young woman. They all have boots and one boy has a Red Army infantryman’s cap. Did they find their house even vaguely intact? And what about at least two husbands?
Even more so, what about the bear who appears to be asleep on the back of the cart? Or have I got to take more water with it?
Most stories in Russia, though, had a sad ending. A house smashed to pieces by a German tank, because the crew wanted to use it as a hiding place. A woman with perhaps five mouths to feed and no husband in sight. It’s enough to make even tough little Russian lads burst into tears. But don’t worry. Everything will be made good within a few years.
Indeed, things did get better ! So smile and enjoy being alive, enjoy sitting in the summer sunshine of 1945. As many as 20 million Russians were not able to say that.
As far as the present war in the Ukraine is concerned, I would expect the Russians to remember the destruction wrought on so many towns, cities and villages of the old Soviet Union, and to begin face-to-face discussions before resorting to the senseless violence they have evidenced so far. But, as we know in the West, hardly any people who witnessed the Second World War are still alive, and that must have been enough for a glory seeking politician to forget the ways of peace and to take up the pointless violence of the invader.