World War II Holiday Brings Ukrainian Nightmares

May 9 is the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, a holiday called "Victory Day" in most countries of the former Soviet Union. But Ukrainians had a profoundly different experience of the war. Along with the Belarusians, they suffered the greatest losses of any country during the war, as both the German and Soviet armies passed through their land twice in advance and in retreat.

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Tomorrow, surviving World War II veterans, their chests full of medals, will parade through Red Square in Moscow and also down the main street of Kiev in Ukraine. Victory Day is one of the biggest holidays in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It marks the defeat of Nazi Germany 65 years ago. But for many Ukrainians, it wasn't much of a victory.

Brigid McCarthy reports from Kiev on some of the real stories of that dark time that are starting to surface.

BRIGID MCCARTHY: For Ukraine, World War II was mostly a nightmarish experience of Nazi occupation and trying to stay alive - whatever that took. Leonid Kotliar was 19 years old when Hitler launched his surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. He rushed to sign up with the Red Army and spent about two days digging ditches near Kiev before his unit was encircled and captured.

The Germans marched the men into a ditch, then ordered all the Jews and communists to step forward.

Mr. LEONID KOTLIAR: (Through translator) There was this one guy who knew I was a Jew and was standing next to me and almost started to say I was a Jew, but this other guy pushed him, so he shut up and didn't say anything.

MCCARTHY: The Germans forced the prisoners to march 300 miles to southern Ukraine, and ordered them to build a prison camp. Kotliar says hundreds of men died every day. He says he nearly died. One morning he could barely stand, he was so weak from hunger and dysentery. A German sergeant spotted him and asked him what was wrong.

Mr. KOTLIAR: (Through translator) And I showed him my stomach, and he said wait right here.

MCCARTHY: Kotliar thought he was loading his gun, but when the German came back, he handed Kotliar a fistful of seeds.

Mr. KOTLIAR: (Through translator) And he says, here, eat these really slowly. And he's kind of looking around so that no one would see him giving me anything. And so I put them in my pockets and ate them very slowly.

MCCARTHY: Kotliar is convinced this act of kindness saved his life. Soon after, he escaped from the camp and hid in the Ukrainian countryside. Most weren't so lucky. During the war, the Germans took more than 5 million Red Army soldiers captive. At least 3 million starved to death while in German custody.

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has written that had the Holocaust not occurred, Nazi Germany's treatment of Soviet prisoners of war would likely be seen as the greatest war crime of the 20th century.

But the Nazis weren't the first to use hunger as a weapon of mass destruction in Ukraine. Less than a decade earlier, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had starved millions of Ukrainian peasants into submission because they'd refused to work on collective farms. In 1932 and '33, Ukrainian villages and cities were filled up with the corpses of men, women and children.

Professor VLADISLAV HRYNEVYCH (National Academy of Sciences, Ukraine): And after this, Ukrainian peasantry have no opportunity as to wait for liberator. Such liberator they consider Hitler. Thats why Hitler so easy take Ukraine.

MCCARTHY: Vladislav Hrynevych is a historian at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He says a lot of Ukrainians desperately wanted out of the Soviet Union. After the famine, the Ukrainians didnt want to fight for Stalin. Many deserted the Red Army in droves, or surrendered willingly to the Germans.

Prof. HRYNEVYCH: And very many Ukrainians thought that Hitler liberated Ukraine from Stalin through - but Hitler was not better, maybe in some sense worse for Ukrainians than Stalin.

MCCARTHY: During the occupation, the Nazis obliterated tens of thousands of villages; starved the residents of Ukraine's capital, Kiev; and deported more than 2 million civilians - mostly women and children - to work as forced laborers in Germany and Austria.

Prof. HRYNEVYCH: It was not a very simple choice for Ukrainians, which army to serve.

MCCARTHY: Myron Stachiw's father joined a Ukrainian division within the German army.

Mr. MYRON STACHIW (Director, Fulbright Office, Ukraine): I was very proud of the fact that my father was someone who fought for an independent Ukraine, albeit within the German army.

MCCARTHY: Stachiw, whose parents emigrated to the United States after the war, once got into a fistfight with a kid who called his family Nazis.

Mr. STACHIW: They were not Nazis. They were soldiers fighting against the Soviets.

MCCARTHY: Stachiw is director of the Fulbright program in Ukraine. Stachiw has spent much of his adult life trying to understand the choices that his father and other Ukrainians made during the war.

There's another controversial part of the war thats rarely mentioned: Ukraine's participation in the Jewish Holocaust. During the occupation, Nazi execution squads went from town to town, rounded up more than a million of Ukraine's Jews, shot them, and threw them into mass graves. German officers ordered non-Jewish neighbors and even children to dig pits for mass executions. And the Germans got help rounding up the Jews from Ukrainian Red Army soldiers whom they'd released from POW camps. This may be the war's cruelest legacy because it turned victims into collaborators.

Stachiw says it's one reason scholars remain bitterly divided over Ukraine's role in the Holocaust.

Mr. STACHIW: Well, on the one side there's description that they were voluntarily and actively and gleefully participating in it. And undoubtedly, some did. But to condemn the whole nation - you did it or you died. And so it's hard for us to judge.

MCCARTHY: Ukraine lost one-sixth of its entire population during the war. Historian Vladislav Hrynevych says in the end, the war was a victory for Stalin but not for Ukrainians. And tomorrow's Victory Day holiday, he says, should be a reminder that the great patriotic war wasnt so much a heroic event as a collective tragedy.

For NPR News, Im Brigid McCarthy in Kiev, Ukraine.

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