I will slowly be releasing the 1998 Interviews I conducted in the Cherkassy region of Ukraine on the topic of sexual violence and World War II for the completion of my PhD dissertation, “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II,” 2004.*
Except for a couple exceptions (one woman and an officer spoke standard Ukrainian they had learned in school), the Ukrainians I interviewed spoke a dialect that was difficult for even Ukrainians from other regions to understand. The language has a mix of Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian words. An entire generation of children were never able to go to school because the German invasions and subsequent war. They either never learned standard Ukrainian or never used it, and spoke their local language.
I spoke Russian with my interpreter and recognized some of the standard Ukrainian words, but not the dialect. A Ukrainian service transcribed the interviews for me from the tapes. Afterward, I worked many months with a native Ukrainian woman in Minnesota to translate the interviews into English. I typed while she translated verbally. She came from another region of Ukraine, so very often the language was difficult for her to not only understand, but also to translate into English.
In her translations, the colloquialism of the original language comes through in the English. I never went in and correctly positioned the verbs or other awkward word order.
Having attended a conference in Cherkasy, I then lived with the interpreter and his family in a small town in the region. My interpreter had some ideas of people we could speak with. A few people were in this town, but most were in the neighboring villages. While I was there, he kept making calls to find more people. We also asked at the interviews if the people knew anyone else. With many not having phones, we would show up at people’s doors spontaneously or ask people sitting on benches outside. A few times, we even stopped people on the road or walked past the house benches to ask babas sitting there. I remember him speaking loudly, sometimes even out of the car, “Baba! Do you remember the war?”
Sometimes after initiating the interviews with me, my interpreter left to do his own business. We planned this on a few occasions because we thought the women might open up more if there weren’t a man present. I would continue, hoping for the best and communicating with Russian, broken Ukrainian, and body language. Sometimes this was a little frustrating, but the women were grateful to share, and we did our best. They also knew that if I didn’t understand all the details in that moment I would eventually.
Additionally, with just a few exceptions, the people I interviewed spoke as if they hadn’t ever told these stories before. The words poured out like water from a dam. Their memories came out in a jumble and a rush. The interviews are verbatim, exactly how how the conversations went, how people remember stories. They had not prepared their stories.
Timing of the Interviews
In 1998 the former Soviet Union was experiencing a tremendous recession. People across the country were having a hard time finding work, enough food, and basic living supplies, such as soap. Several Babas complained to me, a few crying about the hardships they faced. They pined for their lives under Brezhnev, when things were more stable and they had enough food on the table.
Some of the people had been teenagers during the war and others small children. A few were young adults. I interviewed three men. One was an army officer in charge of a regiment of soldiers moving west. Another was a child who witnessed the Germans raping his mother until she died. Unofficially, my interpreter’s father also told me of heading toward Berlin and seeing the soldiers lined up to rape. At the time, sexual violence and the war was not a topic that many people had researched, let alone talked about.
I think it was painful for the people to talk about these memories, but it was also cathartic in a way. Only a few were distrustful of a westerner coming to “make money” off of their stories. (I actually only had more debt, LOL). Most of the interviewees lived in poverty
Difficulty of the Topic
Sexual violence and World War II is an extremely sad topic to research. Sometimes my interpreter did not fill me in as the interviews progressed. A few times he decided to let me find out on my own once I had the translations. The most graphic scene was a horrific surprise for me and my local Ukrainian friend. I will never forget us sitting at her table working together, and she suddenly coughed and sputtered. She had to leave the room for a cigarette. When she came back, it was hard for her to get the words out between her sobs.
Svitlana cried during many of the interviews. I would also get emotional, feeling the interviews again, as well as her personal pain. Anyone would have a hard time working so closely with these stories of such sad experiences. But she had experienced great losses during the war as well. Her baby sister had perished because her starving mom had run out of milk while they were on the run. After that, they still had a long journey before reaching safety.
Somehow the process of her reading, speaking, and I typing and asking questions, was incredibly painful. I will never forget sitting there with Svitlana, her wrinkled face, longer hair, and smoker’s voice and cough. The sound of her English, with the Ukrainianisms and accent, along with knowing the tragedies she had endured in Ukraine as a child during the war and in the United States as a woman is seared into my memory. She was a survivor in every sense of the word.
Living the Topic of Sexual Violence and War
Translating approximately fifty hours of interviews was a monumental project that took us more than a full year. I relived the interviews with the Ukrainians and again intimately felt the sadness of what they had told me. The experience of working with someone who intimately understood the tragedy of what she was translating made the process even more emotional and poignant. I am truly and forever grateful for Svitlana’s contribution to this work. I saw the pain it caused her, but I know she also understood how important it is to get these stories out.
The Silence of Sexual Violence and War
It was extremely rare for someone to ask openly about sexual violence during the war. Similar to other Slavic cultures, Ukrainians did not speak about sex or sexual violence. The silence was deafening, but without my interpreter to approach the villagers with this topic, I don’t think I would have gotten very far. Often, during the interviews, the women or men would whisper amongst each other.
One woman told me her whole sad story in the third person, as if it had happened to someone else. Several other people had told her story and led us to her, but even as an elderly person, she could or would not talk about it openly as her experience. As a survivor myself, I know this silence and shame. I think the Slavic and Christian Orthodox culture also throws even more conservative, often misogynist ideas into the mix of feelings one has about sexual violence.
The idea that women were to blame for their rapes was deeply ingrained. Even my educated interpreter, who lived in a town in a nice house with an educated wife and daughters, had to rethink a few things. After one interview about a Polish man who drugged a Ukrainian woman and had sex with her while she was passed out, he said that he didn’t think that was rape. We had several conversations about this, and when I left he said that he saw some things differently now. Society blamed that poor woman and harassed and bullied her daughter born from the rape.
Please read these interviews with a forgiving attitude toward the language and with respect. Imagine that you are listening to this older person speak of starvation, deprivation, cunning and deceit, as well as violence many of us cannot even fathom.
I remember how welcoming so many of the women were, how sad the one man was, and in general all the emotion that we all felt while speaking with one another. People often teared up talking about the war. They also could not believe they were speaking with an American since it was not a common occurrence to have an Americans visit these villages.
Another memorable interview was of one woman who basically yelled for two hours. She was so excited to talk, to have visitors, and to meet an American. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, but had a terrible headache afterward, and my interpreter was in some trouble at home because we arrived there so late. She kept calling me her little bird, and in between talking to us, she would screech at her chickens to be quiet. She was so sweet and had lived through so much: the Civil War, collectivization and starvation, and then the war.
Most of the people were extremely poor and had either nothing to offer me or something very small. They would pull out an old fold-out chair for me to sit on or they would have me sit on a bench or elsewhere. Before I could sit though, they would put a piece of newspaper on the chair so that I wouldn’t get my clothes dirty. They treated me with the utmost respect and generosity. I had little gifts to give to them, but it felt so small considering the conditions they were enduring.
Because of the colloquialisms and grammatical errors in the translations from my Ukrainian friend, I have been torn as to “clean” up the English to a more standard form or leave them as is. I have a feeling that she would be fine with whatever I decide. What she did for me for very little pay was enormous. It was difficult mentally and emotionally. I never changed the interviews to more standard English, because I wasn’t sharing them. I wrote about them and only quoted small portions in my published work.
For now, I will post them basically as they are. Later, if time permits, I can perhaps annotate or provide cleaner versions with links to the originals. I think to be more expedient, since I have waited so long to get this done (life basically got in the way), this is a good plan.
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* In addition to the over thirty interviews, I consulted archival documents in Germany, Latvia, Estonia, and the United States. Because of the nature of the topic, the full text is available free of charge online.
The abstract to Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II.