World War II, Through the Eyes of a Red Army Medic

Yevdokia Ivanovna Syemchonok was small, somehow reminding me of an aging falcon, her sharp eyes fading as she blinked in the bright light. Ninety-four, she stood straight and resisted my attempt to take her arm. In the Moscow apartment we sat at her daughter's table, her grandson Alexei on her right to translate.

She had brought photographs of herself before, during and after the Great War, and she spread them on the table. The last showed her standing straight wearing a dozen medals and ribbons common in photos of Red Army veterans. They are so common we in the West tend to doubt their meaning. Across those 76 years of photos, her smile was tight-lipped. But in the first, taken when she was 18, her lips were relaxed and full. They said she would be hard to interview -- strong-willed, she would go on and where she wanted. I asked her grandson to explain we had only 30 minutes, to say she should speak one or two sentences at a time to enable him to translate exactly. If she went on too long, he was to gently press her arm.

She tried to follow the instructions but the urgency in her voice would grow at times and she would finish what she wanted to say. Again and again her grandson, 35 and a businessman, would move his hand toward her, but could not bring himself to touch her arm.

"My parents were peasants. It was the 1920s and 30s and I was one of 6 children. I was the only one to finish school. My oldest brother was killed in the war.

"In that life I learned the values of family and hard work."

She told how her father, drinking with friends, had made a joke critical of some part of Soviet life. It was 1937, when nearly a million Soviet citizens were accused of treason and shot, millions more sent to prison camps. Her father was sentenced to 6 years' hard labor, the family punished.

"I was 20 when the war came in 1941. It was Sunday, June 22nd. We were on holiday when we heard the Germans had invaded. We were shocked, but confident we would win. Stalin spoke, people standing by telephone poles where the megaphones relayed his voice. We believed in him.

"I was a medic and joined the infantry. In the first weeks and months of the war we lost many battles -- Kharkov, Kiev, Smolensk, they came close to Moscow and blockaded Leningrad. I was stationed at Stalinsk and the freight trains began to arrive. Three levels of racks had been built in the cars to hold the wounded. There were thousands in the beginning. But we had medical supplies and helped them. Some recovered well and a train took them back to the front.

"There were a few Germans among our thousands of wounded. We treated them the same. Our work was to do a good job fixing wounds.

"It was hard work and we did not have time to sleep for days at a time. With an abdominal wound they have 18 hours for surgery or they die.

"Over time we moved with the fighting, close to the front. I was at Stalingrad in '42, eight to ten miles from the battle line, which ran 100 miles north to south. The Germans knew where we were and attacked with airplanes and artillery and tanks. With reinforcements we held on. The whole battle lasted 6 months, from August into winter of the next year. Even after we defeated them I did not realize the significance. They still were very strong and had more tanks and planes than we did."

She spoke quietly and clearly in telling her story, and there was no stopping her when she wanted to finish a point. When I asked about her feelings she would pause to collect herself, her eyes concentrating on something far way and she would take a breath before answering. Unspoken thoughts or images came at times and she would dab her eyes with a neatly folded handkerchief.

"There were many battles in 1943 before Kursk. There the Germans brought all their tanks and tried to break through one last time. They gained 20 miles but we stopped them. Our tanks were not as good, but we dug them into the ground to hide them. I was at Prokhorovka, where their final attack came. Hundreds of tanks fought from early morning until night. We were very close to the front." I remembered Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. More than 2,000 tanks destroyed on each side, and the climactic battle at the village of Prokhorovka, the tanks charging like cavalry and fighting at point blank range. She paused in her story, carefully collected her photographs from the table, and put them in a small red book. "Later in '44 we were near the Dnieper River in Ukraine fighting for a hill. The Germans attacked and our troops were driven from the top and ordered to retreat. On our side of the hill were two stone houses with thirty seriously wounded soldiers. Night was coming and when our troops withdrew I was ordered to leave. I refused; I had to stay with the wounded.

"In the dark the Germans did not know how many soldiers we had there. We had one automatic rifle and I gave it to a severely wounded officer. He crawled from the house and fired bursts in random directions. He knew he was dying, but he kept firing to confuse them. He died and I took the rifle and crawled to different places and kept firing.

"The Germans held back.

"In the morning our men returned with Katyusha rockets and bombarded the hill. Katyushas make a wonderful sound! The Germans retreated and we took the hill. During the night, 25 of our 30 wounded died.

"There were many times we did not sleep for days and had no food. Our shoes were full of holes. We followed the moving front on foot and people learned to sleep while walking. Sometimes I did not think I could walk any further, not another step, but they would say, 'Step! Step!" and I did, one leg at a time. The Party was very organized and had great influence with us and the troops.

"In May, 1945 I was in Czechoslovakia when we learned the Germans had surrendered. People lined the streets and threw flowers to our troops riding tanks and trucks. Everyone felt deep joy. They kept shouting 'Victory!', 'Victory!' 'Victory!'"

After the interview, I sorted through her photographs, selecting two. In the first, taken before the war, her face was fully young, sensitive, open and gentle. Ready to be kissed and loved and to kiss and love in return. In the second, she is dressed in a worn Army cape, trousers and leather combat boots. Her face is still gentle, but the eyes are changed. They penetrate, knowing and seeking more.

We walked from the apartment. Standing at the elevator I said, "You have lived a deeply honorable life."

She looked at me with fading, penetrating, questioning eyes. "It has been very hard."