"We have already gone through a Great Tribulation!” This is what my parents painfully exclaimed when they read in the biblical accounts in Revelation, Matthew and Daniel about the terrible end-time events that would embroil the entire world. What was described was wars, disease, famine and then the mass annihilation, genocide and martyrdom of many people.
They winced when they read Matthew 24:21 Matthew 24:21For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
American King James Version×: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” To them, these words were excruciatingly reminiscent of what they had personally lived through two decades previously. When they saw what the Bible prophesied for our time, the description became real—too real—for them.
Eastern Europe’s “bloodlands”
World War II ended 75 years ago. For 70 million people, the war ended in their personal demise. It was the deadliest military conflict in history. Vast quantities of blood were spilled on battlefields. People died in indiscriminate carpet bombings, in the Holocaust, of starvation in sieges, and of rampant accompanying diseases such as cholera, hepatitis and typhus.
In total war where nations pummel other nations, civilian populations suffer along with the military. Half the war dead were non-combatants. Cities such as Warsaw and Stalingrad were 90 percent destroyed. The grand finale of the war was a nuclear inferno that killed some 200,000 people in two Japanese cities—horrifying yet likely preventing millions more deaths.
Losses were staggering in a war that started a mere 20 years after World War I—the war that was supposed to “end all wars.” This pause gave just enough time for the world to take a deep breath, repopulate and then expend another generation of men in a bloodbath. In essence World War I was fought all over again in Europe on two fronts, but now with much higher devastation and death. World War II was even more global in scope, as the Pacific theater war produced enormous casualties in China, the Philippines, Japan and other places.
The Russian-led Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R) suffered an astounding 15 million military and 15 million civilian deaths. Half the nation’s housing was destroyed. Of those who entered military service at age 19, only one in 100 returned. After the war, the population proportion in the Soviet Union was 65 men to every 100 women. One in seven people in the U.S.S.R. perished.
In his 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Yale historian Timothy Snyder examined the political, cultural and ideological context tied to Central and Eastern Europe in the war. This region that he calls the “bloodlands” is comprised of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), northeastern Romania and the westernmost fringes of Russia.
The regimes of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany killed an estimated 14 million non-combatants between 1933 and 1945. This was in addition to those who died in the death camps of the Holocaust. Stalin and Hitler, while fighting each other, increased suffering and bloodshed many times worse than any seen in Western history.
My parents were born in the heart of the bloodlands during the 20-year “peacetime” that was all but peaceful. They lived under the dominion of Joseph Stalin, one of the most cruelly depraved figures of all time. He is responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million of his own people in addition to the 30 million who perished in the war.
The magnitude of misery during this time was beyond comprehension. The mass statistics individually represent millions of sons, husbands, families and loved ones that were no more. These numbers express suffering, tears and grief beyond words. One can study war as geopolitics or the movements of armies on maps, but the real story is told in the innumerable personal stories of tragedy and despair.
Living through a hellish nightmare
Over the years and on several visits to Eastern Europe, I retraced the steps of both my parents and followed their migration from the bloodlands to the United States.
My mother Nina was born in 1926 in Pervomaysk, not far from Kharkiv, Ukraine. My father was born in 1923 in what was then Poland. But in 1939, the area where he lived became part of Ukraine as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact signed on Aug. 23 that divided Poland between Germany and the U.S.S.R. Immediately after the signing, Germany invaded Poland. Britain reciprocated by declaring war on Germany on Sept. 1, igniting World War II.
During Stalin’s years, the police routinely snatched people from their homes and sent them off to gulags, labor camps where many millions died. These abductions were typically carried out at night using a black government vehicle the people frighteningly called “the Black Raven.” One of the victims was my mother’s father, who was picked up by the Black Raven and vanished. But then, after eight years, he suddenly returned home, unannounced, to his family’s surprise and joy.
In 1933 a devastating famine called Holodomor, which means “death by hunger,” was engineered by Stalin. In the space of little more than a year, this famine took the lives of as many people as the Holocaust later did in Germany and Poland.
Stalin sold off Ukraine’s grain to finance an industrialized Russia. My mother, who was eight years old then, later remembered too well the morbid sight of bodies thrown into ditches waiting to be collected as refuse. Her family made it through that difficult time on crushed corn cobs, to which some flour was added, and some other food they had managed to hide in the walls of their home.
Her mother sold her wedding ring to buy bread for a week for the children. Another man in town desperately slaughtered a horse lying dead on the ground to feed his family. The whole family soon died from eating the spoiled meat. The poignant and horrific stories go on and on.
In June 1941 Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. My mother’s town of Pervomaysk was bombed, and 700 people died that day. My mother, then 15, was bringing cows home from the field when bombs from German planes exploded near her. She was terrified beyond words. Her hands developed a permanent shake that I remember her being afflicted with for the rest of her life.
After the first year of occupation, the Germans required that one child from every family go to Germany to work. They needed extra labor because Germany was fighting a two-front war. The young people were told that this excursion would last for only six months, after which they would return home. My mother, now 16, was one of those workers. She didn’t know it would be another 27 years before she would see her family again.
Along with many other teenagers, she was transported by train across Poland and assigned to work in a boot factory in Magdeburg, Germany, about 50 miles west of Berlin. Her neighboring friend Dusya was also on that train, and both stayed close through the war.
My father’s story
My father Igor hailed from the village of Uhorsk in Western Ukraine but was born in the neighboring village of Stizhok. At 18 he was taken to Germany to work under similar conditions as my mother. His friend Volodya was on the same journey, and they remained friends through the war and beyond. He was assigned to work in a fruit-canning factory in Magdeburg.
On one of my visits, my relatives took me to my father’s birthplace and told me the horrifying history of the German invasion. When the Germans arrived, the local population at first greeted them as liberators from the Russians. The Germans, however, with warped racial views that looked down on Slavic peoples, were suspicious of Ukrainians and did not want or need their support.
They burned down village after village. Two years into the occupation in Stizhok, they rounded up more than 50 people into a barn and burned it to the ground. I visited the chapel memorializing this ghastly event. My grandparents used to live right next to the site of this atrocity. This area also saw many partisan guerilla groups warring against the Germans and Russians and often against one another. Welcome to the bloodlands!
After arriving in Magdeburg, foreign workers like my father found working conditions very harsh. Strict controls were imposed on their movements. They had to display a big patch with the word Ost on it, which means “east.” They had to continually identify themselves as Ost Arbeiters or “East Workers.”
German attitudes toward other nationalities and races were clearly noted. Captured American and British soldiers were treated with a higher level of respect. However, one time a black paratrooper came down. He was immediately executed. Jewish males were identified by checking whether they were circumcised (Germans and Russians typically were not). Gypsies, priests and the mentally impaired were undesirables and often sent to the death camps. Hate was not covered up.
Nevertheless, living in Magdeburg was relatively safe in the early part of the war. The killing was primarily taking place in the bloodlands.
Some of the largest battles of all time were fought on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Stalingrad from August 1942 to February 1943 resulted in nearly 2 million casualties. Most of the city’s civilian population also died during the combat. An American general visiting Stalingrad and seeing the almost total destruction of the city recommended it not be rebuilt, but left as a memorial to the futility of war. The Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle of all time, was fought in July and August 1943 and resulted in more than a million casualties. Two thousand tanks were destroyed along with almost that many aircraft.
A struggle for survival
After my mother’s death in 1984, I found a few letters between her and her family in Ukraine that express what was happening during the war. One from her brother Victor in Ukraine, dated June 7, 1943, read:
“Our family greets you, Nina. Are you all right? You write that you are getting lonely living on foreign soil, but you’re not the only one separated from their family. Many people are finding themselves in this condition. We’re not receiving your letters. In 1943 we have received only two postcards from you, one dated Jan. 20 and the other Feb. 8, which we received in June.
“If we live, we will meet again. The weather has been good for growing, the gardens look good, and we’ll have things to eat in the winter. The Russians came in February, but the Germans returned in March. On the front where we are there has been no shooting, but in May many people in the neighboring village died. The land is covered with blood, and the end of the war is not in sight.”
My mother’s hometown changed hands six times between the Russians and the Germans during the war.
We had a family reunion in Pervomaysk in 1988, and my uncle Victor took us up and down the streets of the town and showed us what had been destroyed. He explained how people survived and coped. For two years, they lived in underground cellars because all their homes were destroyed.
Back in Magdeburg from 1942 to 1944, my father became acquainted with Nina and started dating her. His friend Volodya dated Dusya, as the four spent a lot of time together. However, my father was suddenly arrested by the Gestapo and put into a concentration camp. The Germans used these prisoners after air raids for clearing rubble and pulling out unexploded bombs. Prisoners were expendable if a bomb exploded.
My father’s friend Volodya would look at the columns of marching prisoners and throw Igor a piece of bread when he could. Months went by, and there was no help for my father in the concentration camp.
But one day a miracle happened. Volodya was walking down a street that had been bombed just the day before when he heard a voice. “Volodya, Volodya!” He turned around and saw a shadowy figure in the rubble. “It’s me, Igor.” Volodya could hardly recognize his friend. He wore the striped uniform of a prisoner and was scratched from head to toe from working in the rubble. After a brief hug, he took my dad to a friend’s apartment.
There was so much chaos in the last days of the war that my father’s absence was not followed up on. Volodya waited until nighttime to find a place for Igor but decided to get him out to a farm. Nobody was asking questions. Germans and foreign workers alike were waiting for the war to end and thinking only about survival.
Allied bombing was incessant. American bombers came by day and the British by night. Magdeburg was a strategic city for fuel storage. The two men were now out in the countryside, but the girls were still working in the factory in town. The men were so afraid that the girls would perish or had perished. Nightly the girls went into the bomb shelters.
The Germans used the Ost Arbeiters as human shields and would march them onto bridges before a bombing attack. Nina and Dusya were in a column headed for a bridge. Igor and Volodya spotted their column and, when the guards were distracted, pulled them out of the line and took them out to the farm where they hid them in the attic.
Finally, the Americans arrived on April 20, 1945. Liberation! An American paratrooper came across my father and offered him a candy bar and chewing gum. The happy American spirit was everywhere. The war was over. Freedom at last!
Or so they thought.
A new struggle begins
The Potsdam Conference starting in July partitioned Germany among the United States, France, Britain and the U.S.S.R. Magdeburg was assigned to the Soviet sector. One morning in July my parents were no longer hearing English voices. The voices were now Russian. According to the agreement, the Americans had to pull back and let the Russians come in.
Things grew bad very quickly. The Russians treated the Ost Arbeiters with contempt. They considered them traitors and collaborators with the Germans. They herded them into transition camps and interrogated them relentlessly. The Russians were going to send them off to Siberia, and the men were going into the service since Russia had just now declared war on Japan.
The foursome knew they had to escape. My father was given some duties outside the camp, and while he was out he spoke to a border guard and asked what it would take to get him and three others across the border. The guard replied, “Give me a suit, a bottle of vodka and a watch and I’ll get you across at midnight.” The four knew they could be betrayed at any time and killed.
Their dwelling place at the loosely guarded transition camp was on the outer perimeter. The four crawled out through a window and headed for the border on a train. There they met the guard and presented the gifts. The guard had to pay off each of his adjacent guards with one of the gifts. Finally, at the guard change at midnight they passed through the border into the British Zone. As they started running, shots were fired in their direction. They continued to run and run and run until they could run no more. They made it to safety, surprised they were still alive!
Finding safety at last
They then worked their way over to Hanover and found safe haven in a refugee camp. On the day they arrived, the news of the day was that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
They lived in the camp for four years as they searched for a new homeland. My parents married in 1946, and I was born in 1947. They looked and looked for asylum in Canada, Australia and other places, but found only dead ends. They almost resigned to go back to Ukraine. But at the last moment, they found a sponsor in Minnesota. We sailed to the United States past the Statue of Liberty and landed on Ellis Island on the troop ship USS General C.H. Muir.
My parents reminded us five siblings often of their odyssey of physical salvation. But God granted my mother and father an even greater and more permanent salvation. He called them out of this evil, suffering world that continually turns on itself and will bring on itself the Great Tribulation as foretold in Bible prophecy. My parents committed their lives to God, and that is the joyous conclusion to this story.
My parents’ story is an amazing saga of tribulation, redemption, God’s grace and mercy, love, friendship, survival, courage, liberation and triumph through God’s providential guidance and protection. It’s a story filled with parallels to our spiritual journey from this world to the Kingdom of God as stated by the apostle Paul: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 Acts 14:22Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.
American King James Version×).
It’s awful to contemplate, but there will yet be an even worse time of “Great Tribulation.” Let us pray for deliverance and for the long-awaited Kingdom of God to come and, at last, end such senseless suffering!