Laurence Rees: On the 22nd June 1941 - the day the Germans invaded the Soviet Union - Georgy Semenyak was a soldier with the Soviet 11th Mechanised Corps.
Words of Georgy Semenyak: When we were told that the war started, I was right at the border. Of course, we were not sure whether we would survive or not. We knew we had to fight for real. We believed in Communist ideas. We had it with our mother’s milk. We still think so, we still believe that the Communist ideas were good, were right ones. They were aimed at a great future. And for that purpose, we were ready to defend them, to our last drop of blood. We knew we had to do our duty, each one of us, and we were ready to fight. We were well brought up in this sense. We were patriots. We were patriots of our homeland, and we knew we had to do our best not to allow the enemy to intrude. But the real situation was completely different. The real situation showed itself a few hours later. We’ve seen aeroplanes, we’ve seen them bombing, and for the first time in my life I saw people dying. It was the feeling of fear, of course. Although we were prepared for it, but still, every man treasures one’s life. I fought on the border for three days and three nights. The bombing, shooting, explosions of artillery gunfire continued non-stop. The first fights were not to our advantage. We felt somebody betrayed us, or there were some misunderstandings in the upper level. It was a dismal picture. During the day aeroplanes continuously dropped bombs on the retreating soldiers. When the order was given for retreat there were huge numbers of people heading in every direction – although the majority were heading east. The lieutenants, captains, second lieutenants took rides on passing vehicles, mostly trucks travelling eastwards.
Laurence Rees: By the time Georgy Semenyak and his comrades reached Minsk, capital of the Soviet republic of Belorussia, there were virtually no officers left to command them.
Words of Georgy Semenyak: And without commanders, our ability to defend ourselves was so severely weakened that there was really nothing we could do. The fact that they used their rank to save their own lives, we felt this to be wrong. But every man has his weakness. And since we had no commanders, our ability to defend ourselves was much lower. We couldn’t do anything. Fourteen days later, on the 6th July 1941, very close to Minsk, we were surrounded. When we found out that we were surrounded, and we were surrounded by tanks, we did everything to destroy things that would work to our disadvantage, such as ID cards and party membership cards. All possible documents, because we knew it will work either to the advantage of our enemies, or else won’t do us any good.
Laurence Rees: The German treatment of Soviet prisoners of war was appalling. Out of the five million or so prisoners the Germans took, only two million survived the war. And Georgy Semenyak’s experience at the hands of the Germans demonstrates just why so many died.
Words of Georgy Semenyak: The first camp for the prisoners of war was situated next to Minsk. There were fields in this area, and there was wheat. It was a vast open space that was then surrounded by the German soldiers. And under the open sky, with no barbed wire, only controlled with soldiers, the camp was then organised. There were about eighty thousand people in there. They were not fed and they were not given water during the first week, we could only get water from the river and there was no food at all. If any one had some food with them, that was their only supply they had. Every soldier was given something before we started the campaign, but the summer was so hot, and the roads were so bad, and it was so difficult for us to move, that we started to throw things away. And by then we had practically thrown away all the food, we had only sugar and some dried bread left. We also got rid of spare clothes and of our heavy coats, and this was the most dreadful thing to do, to throw food and coats away. We were staying there, under the open sky, with no food and no water. In the second week, they threw boxes with food into the crowd. There were boxes with salted herring and there were boxes with tobacco and some dried stuff. So these boxes were thrown into the crowd, to be ripped in to pieces. They never considered us to be humans. They could kill us or beat us up for no reason. I saw it a few times, when the whole barrack, all the people who lived there, were beaten up practically to death. They were beaten up with sticks. They just never considered us humans.
Laurence Rees: Then Georgy was transferred to another POW camp for Soviet prisoners in Poland. And here his life took a seemingly impossible turn – and deteriorated still further.
Words of Georgy Semenyak: It was even worse there, more people, about one hundred thousand people. And we all sat under an open sky too. Nowhere to hide. What we tried to do is during the night time we dug holes in the ground and tried to sleep there, because they were shooting at us all the time. We had lice in this camp, and therefore they all started to die of typhus. Lice was really a disaster. Somebody’s head could simply move because of lice. And if you’d sit on the ground, then the sand would move afterwards, when you get up. We spent about two or three months there, up to 1st December. There were many rats around and there were times when a man would catch a rat by the tail. And the rat starts biting the man’s hand, and you know how rat’s teeth are very strong teeth, so she starts biting a man. And he hits the rat, doesn’t let it go, strikes until it dies. Then he would get a piece of meat which he could cook and eat. And this proves how hungry we were. And this is where the first cases of cannibalism started to take place. This was all because of hunger and feeling completely hopeless and everything being a complete disaster. People had to get food somehow, and this is where they went as far as cannibalism. They started to cut out some flesh from the dead bodies, and they tried to either boil that or fry it and eat it. I couldn’t possibly imagine that even the conditions we had in this camp would ever make me do that, would ever make me allow myself to do that.
Laurence Rees: The plight of the Soviet prisoners of war has another tragic dimension – beyond the story of their appalling mistreatment in Germany captivity. Because any that survived were then mistreated by their own fellow countrymen on their release. For Stalin had announced that the Soviet Union had no prisoners of war – only traitors.
Words of Georgy Semenyak: We did know that he called us the traitors to our motherland. But absolutely all of us said we want to go back to the Soviet Union. We were told, you know, ‘They think you are traitors, and they will send you off to the concentration camps too.’ And we answered, ‘We went through such horrors in here that nothing can be compared to that. We are not afraid, we want to see our parents, we want to go back to our places where we were born, and if we have to pay for it, pay for the fact that we were imprisoned, we are ready to do it.’ In the course of nearly fifty years, I felt the results. It was difficult to get a job. Our wages were very low. One couldn’t possibly build a career. I wasn’t paid enough, and I wasn’t paid as much as I deserved. And these were the results of us being imprisoned. But I was lucky enough to survive, this is one thing. It was a wrong order, and he was wrong in this sense. But I know the Russian people. When the grip is not tight, then the Russian people go astray, and this is why we had to accept it.
Originally recorded in Russian, this transcript is taken from a simultaneous translation.