YAKUTSK, Russia (AP) — On the 75th anniversary of the allied victory in World War II, The Associated Press spoke to veterans in ex-Soviet countries and discovered that lessons they learned during the war are helping them cope with a new major challenge — the coronavirus pandemic. As they recalled the horrors of the war, they also talked about how strength and tenacity were key to survival both then and now. Here is some of their testimony.
‘Giving in to panic is like surrendering to the enemy’
For Russian World War II veteran Valentina Efremova, the coronavirus pandemic is like going through the war all over again.
After the war, the 96-year-old said, “our lives were improving, year after year. And suddenly there’s this pandemic, which is like another war … this time, a biological one.”
But Efremova knows better than to panic and believes the outbreak — just like the Nazis back in the 1940s — will be defeated in the end. “Giving in to panic is like surrendering to the enemy,” she said.
Efremova served as a nurse in field hospitals on the frontlines of the Red Army throughout the war and the apartment she shares with her daughter in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Yakutsk is decorated with numerous war-time photos. Dozens of medals weigh heavily on her jacket.
A 17-year-old high school student, she lived with her family in a small town north of Moscow when the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was a nice summer, she recalls, and everyone was planning their vacations.
“And then, like a bombshell, Molotov’s (the USSR’s foreign minister) announcement came: On June 22, at 4 a.m., the war started. Hitler attacked us,” Efremova said.
Efremova was first drafted to dig trenches outside Moscow. After several weeks, she volunteered to help out the army medics and started working in field hospitals. “I’d never had anything to do with medicine, not to mention the horror of seeing mutilated men — both young and old,” she said.
She worked as a military nurse for the next four years, moving around the country with her division. She tended wounds, fed and dressed soldiers, played guitar and sang to her patients. “They would sing along,” she said. “They seemed no longer in as much pain. They seemed at home.”
By the end of the war, she carried three war wounds, including one that makes her limp to this day.
Efremova was having lunch not far from Kaliningrad in western Russia on May 9, 1945, when she heard gun shots. Efremova’s first thought was that it was yet another Nazi attack, but it turns out it was Russian officers firing shots into the air, celebrating victory.
Efremova remembers the joyous moment to this day and says that marking the 75th anniversary of Victory Day is important to Russian veterans. For many of them, it could be the last one.
She is used to celebrating the occasion with lots of guests in the house. On Saturday, they are planning a small parade outside her window. She realizes there might not be that many such celebrations left.
“We’re the last remaining veterans,” she said.
Fighting spirit hasn’t dimmed
The coronavirus does not scare Anatoly Grakovich.
The 91-year-old who fought the Nazis as a teenage member of partisan formations in Soviet Belarus intends to take part in Belarus’ Victory Day commemorations on Saturday.
The country has not imposed restrictions despite a growing number of confirmed infections and will hold a large parade in Minsk to mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Grakovich began working with the partisans in 1942 at the age of 13, first as a courier for weapons and eventually as a fighter.
“Children are less afraid of death. I did not feel fear, there was excitement. Only after the war, I began to realize that I was walking along the edge,” Grakovich said.
In 1943, he was wounded in his hand during an operation to attack Nazis near the village of Oputok.
“The partisans were hungry and ate the bark of trees all the time, but a wound in the arm and pain helped me to forget about food. Then I realized that there can only be one pain,” he recalled.
Grakovich said he never counted how many Germans he killed, but said he “cried with joy” at saving villages from the occupiers.
“There was a lot of death and filth in the war, but more often it’s the bright moments that come to mind,” he said.
On participation in the parade, he said that “our president says that we don’t need to be afraid of the virus, it’s all panic.”
“War teaches us that fear kills worse than disease. I was not afraid of diseases then, I’m not afraid even now,” he said.