On May 9, 1945, Germany capitulated to the Soviet Union after years of brutal war. Representatives of the Red Army and the German regime signed the surrender document late on the evening of May 8 in Berlin, one day after the defeated nation had signed a similar treaty with the Allied forces.
Despite having signed a non-aggression pact, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the years of fighting between both powers would become one of the cruelest chapters of 20th century history. An estimated 26 million Soviets perished in the war. Hundreds of thousands died of disease and starvation. Soldiers were sacrificed en masse on the battlefield. Citizens were executed for cowardice, deserters hunted and executed.
And so began the bitter and bloody battle. More than 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, but Stalin initially forbade any evacuation from the city, even of children. Soviet reinforcements had to cross the Volga from the east and many of them drowned under the weight of their clothing and weapons. The average life-expectancy of a Soviet private soldier during the battle of Stalingrad was just 24 hours.The infamous Penal Units -- some of them including political prisoners -- took part in suicidal missions as a way of atoning for their 'sins'. By the end of the siege, one million Soviet soldiers had died on the Stalingrad front.
"Signatures of War," a project by Ukrainian-based photographer Arthur Bondar, focuses on the survivors of WWII in the former Soviet Union and the effects of the war on their lives. The photographer approached Soviet vets with an old polaroid camera and asked them to sign their portraits.
"The project is about people and their destinies. About the destinies that were changed by the war forever," the photographer explains. "These people have given the best years of their lives to the war. They have gone through the war, lost their friends and relatives and came back to their empty houses to start from the very beginning. And they are definitely worthy to be remembered as heroes."
"Fear of death by the Nazis gave us the strength to live and fight against them," one of the veterans told Bondar.
Another vet said, "Many people ask him how the victory looked like. Was it sparkling? Was it festive? The only thing it was was something reached through much suffering."
Bondar started the project after learning about his grandmothers' experiences during the war years. He discovered a letter, written by one of the women when Germany started compensating people who had been forced to work in German factories and work camps.
In an excerpt from the letter, she wrote:
For three days we had been hustled around different offices, naked like animals, and then during the day the Germans hustled us in file to the station and there the guards with dogs drove us into the cattle carriages. Girls and boys were in separate ones. You could not escape from there. This way we were taken to Peremyshl. The conditions were terrible. In order for us to go to the toilet the Germans stopped the whole train somewhere in the field, got everybody out and we went right near the carriages. If somebody tried to escape under the train they shot without warning.
There was a holding center in Peremyshl and we spent another two days there. We were counted over and treated like cattle, beaten by sticks while we were walking around naked to different commissions. We were given some special bag meals to eat. My girlfriends asked me to stay and watch their things while they went to pick up the food and I agreed. But when I came for my food, the Germans did not give me any and chased me away with dogs, the German shepherds –- they thought I came for food second time since we all looked the same to them. So I stayed hungry. I was lucky that my parents gave me some dried bread.
Take a look at Arthur Bondar's polaroids in the slideshow and visit his website for more of his projects.