By Erin Erickson
In recent years an unlikely population has been rediscovered -- Soviet women combat veterans. Great losses of Soviet men during World War II made women in the military essential. Their numbers reached nearly one million, a small portion of which were directly involved in combat. Most of these women volunteered -- they loved their motherland and would fight to save her. The amazing stories of twenty-seven of them will be told in an upcoming exhibition in Ohio.
How the exhibition of Soviet combat veterans came to Ohio is intriguing. In 1990, Noel Julnes-Dahner, an ordained Episcopalian priest, went to Kharkiv, Ukraine, under the Cincinnati-Kharkiv sister city project. She was graciously received by the Ukrainians, who made an event of her arrival. A lavish reception was held in the veterans hall where the veterans donned their medals, and spoke of their times with the Americans during World War II. Curiously, many of the veterans were women. Had these women been in combat? Could there be an untold story behind these faces?
Unfortunately, Noel Julnes-Dehner's stay in the Ukraine would not provide the time to explore the histories of these veterans. She returned to the U.S. with no answers, but armed with a new pursuit -- she would one day go back to the Ukraine and uncover the stories of these women, so their lives could be shared with the people of Ohio.
In October of 1996, Julnes-Dehner and a colleague, Joanne Lindy, departed for Kharkiv. Ten days with twenty-seven women combat veterans produced narratives, photos, newspaper articles and a new perspective on World War II. "Their poignant stories of the war brought about great emotion," says Joanne Lindy.
Take the story of Lydia Vasilievna Sitalskaya, a corporal during the war: "Kharkiv was taken by the Germans in October, 1941. I was there. We saw everything. There was no water on our street. Children went to get some water and the Germans shot them." Lydia joined the army in 1943 after Kharkiv was liberated. She was a good soldier and after the war received the Order of Glory, the highest medal, for her actions in Moldavia. It was there, on the border, that she took five prisoners-of-war. "We went into the village to find them. Another communications officer and I had radios and so when the shooting started, our soldiers came to help us. Then I was left alone and I had to lead the five German prisoners. When they realized I was the only one there, a woman, they started running through the field. I took a gun and killed three of them. I could do nothing else."
Natalia Zakruzhetskaya was seventeen when her father was killed at Stalingrad. The retreating Germans then burned their house. She could no longer watch the atrocities -- she had to fight. Natalia spent nearly two years on the battlefield. Only a teenager, she was exposed to things that most adults will never see. "Our commander, the tankman, and I were under a tank. A bomb exploded nearby. All of a sudden, I saw the head of our commander, in a uniform cap, rolling by." And, that was not the worst. "My worst experience? Everything was hard. The worst experience was burying my friends, our tankmen, seeing cripples, holding my fellow soldiers as they died in my arms."
The emotional toll on these women was great. Lydia Sokolova- Korchmar, a sniper during the war, describes one experience. "The Germans were so close...I started shooting. They were so close that I thought if I would aim higher, I might miss. So I aimed at their legs. That was the thing that saved me. They were falling down on me,... The Germans thought I was dead."
Eugenia Ustimchouk was one of the rare women pilots. She was admitted in January of 1942 in the same unit as her husband. Each flew in their own planes. "We had a women's bomber pilot regiment who flew heavy planes called P-2. I remember one, Liuba Gubena, who studied with me and flew that plane. German planes were pursuing her and her plane caught on fire. She gave her crew the command to bail out, but her navigator's parachute got caught on the plane's tail. Liuba started to do all kinds of maneuvers to throw off the navigator, to save her. Liuba Gubena, in trying to save her navigator, perished herself."
Watching so many die made life after the war difficult, but these women retained a passion for life and learning. "After the victory, my fiancé and I got married in Czechoslovakia...I got my education degree...and worked as a nursery school teacher for twenty-one years. My dream came true. Later I got a degree from the teachers' college...and became principal at a nursery school. I brought up a lot of students to be patriotic, kind, honest, respectful of older people. I raised three good children of my own...my family knows about my military experience and they are proud of me. I brought up my children on the examples of heroism of our soldiers at the front...We love our motherland, our beautiful and blooming Ukraine!" says Natalia Zakruzhetskaya.
Today the Soviet women are unable to come to agreement on the role of women in the military. Many feel they had no choice -- they had to fight for their motherland. "About going to war," says Zakruzhetskaya, "I would tell my daughters, `Defend our motherland and be as brave, honest and courageous as my generation, as your parents.'" Not all women combat veterans agree. "If there were a war now," Lydia Vasilievna Sitalskaya says, "I wouldn't go... Let the men go. It is not for women... Women exist to create, not to destroy."
These Soviet women combat veterans shared a courage and spirit that even age has not marred. At the closing reception held in their honor, these women sang old war songs and danced throughout the night.