The Second World War was fought by an entire generation of men from more than sixty nations—all embroiled in a war that killed over fifty millions soldiers and civilians, the bloodiest conflict in human history. When the European war ended on May 8, 1945, entire villages and towns were left with a mere fraction of the young men who were there a decade earlier. Over the past five years, I have traveled to twelve different countries to meet, photograph and interview men who served in the war, on both sides, and survived. On the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day, this project offers no pretense to judge, criticize or celebrate the actions taken by any of these men, but merely to recollect their stories before they are gone.
At the age of seventeen, “I was forced by German troops to travel to a work camp in Austria to aid in the war effort,” remembers Adolph Straka. Born in 1925 in Duplje, Slovenia, at the time part of Yugoslavia, Straka worked in a steel factory for a year before being sent to the outskirts of Munich for artillery and anti-tank training. Five months later, in June 1943, he went to Dijon, France as part of a tank-hunter unit with other Slovenians and Austrians, then traveled by train to the Eastern Front in Belarus. There, “the Ruskies hit us with intense artillery firing,” Straka recalls. “Many dead were around me. I kept on fighting with my German machine gun and grenades.” His unit fought in the region for one month before being surrounded in an open field by Russian tanks and finally surrendering. He remained a prisoner of war for only three days, however, before he swore allegiance to Stalin. Because he bore the same first name as Hitler, they made him change it. He says the Russian soldiers drank too much vodka and were poorly disciplined compared to the Germans. In July 1944, Straka was promoted to lieutenant and sent to the Battle of Belgrade, where one-third of his First Yugoslavian Brigade fell. Those who remained moved westward and Straka was transferred to a tank unit. His tank was hit and destroyed in April 1945 but he survived and was given a new one. On V-E Day he was in Slovenia, where fighting continued as German troops tried to escape. At the time of this interview he lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
I had four brothers, all were drafted into the Red Army,” recalls Sergey Adgorian. “One disappeared (the oldest), the second fought in Austria late in the war, the third also fought against the Germans and in Manchuria against the Japanese.” Born in 1924 in Yerevan, Armenia (then part of the Soviet Union) Adgorian volunteered in June 1941 when the Germans invaded the USSR. He was turned down because he was too young, only sixteen. When he tried again the following year, the recruitment officer bent the rules and agreed. He first saw action in Chechnya, fighting against local partisans who were aided by German commandos. One day, he was chosen to search for two missing Russian soldiers. Riding on horseback, he heard their screams and moved forward toward a small ravine. But it was a trap. The Chechens had captured the two Russian soldiers and a gun battle ensued as more Russia troops arrived. Adgorian was shot in the shoulder and wounded in the right hand by a grenade. He continued serving in the field, was promoted to platoon leader, and remained in the region until the end of the war in August 1945.
Born in 1921 in Sant’Elia Fiumerapido, in the province of Frosinone in Central Italy, Antonio Rufo left school at thirteen to work on the family estate, cultivating olive oil and grapes. He worked as a farmer until receiving an official draft letter from the Italian Army in January 1941. Rufo did not want to participate in a combat unit and asked to be transferred to the Italian Red Cross. He was accepted as a volunteer in Rome, where he saw many dead and wounded men returning from the front in Albania. He found this harder to bear than the front, and asked to be returned to the 115th Infantry Regiment. “We received orders to burn villages in Albania due to constant Communist activities,” says Rufo. “We had to burn each house, after machine-gunning the village so the locals would leave the premises.” He often saw other Italian soldiers torture locals in an effort to secure information about hidden weapon depots. They would force a man to lie down with his legs straight and hit him hard against the bottoms of his feet with the rifle butt. Rufo was transferred to a police unit in Athens in December 1942, where he was lucky to remain in camp one day when ten of his fellow soldiers were sent to Livadeia, where they were caught, tortured and burned alive inside their truck by the Greek People’s Liberation Army. After the Italians signed an armistice with the allies in September 1943, German soldiers arrested him and took him to work camps in Germany. He was often beaten, with no chance to seek Red Cross assistance. Starving, he stole dog food to survive. On April 8th 1945, he was freed by French troops and retuned home to his family in Italy. In 1957, he immigrated to France and worked in construction until retiring in 1981.
I lost my arm during the battle of Stalingrad,” says Mrav Hakobyan, “during a close quarter action against a German soldier who used a shovel to fight me, and cut off my right arm.” Born in 1920 in what is now the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, Hakobyan was drafted into the Red Army and sent to defend Moscow from the invading Germans in 1942. It was in Stalingrad, during close combat against a German trooper that he lost his right arm, which was cut off with a shovel. For his courage, he was decorated and sent back to the South Caucasus, where he spent the rest of the war in his native village of Getavan.
An ethnic Austrian, Ernst Gottstein was born in 1922 in Schreibendorf, Czechoslovakia, part of the Sudetenland. His father was in charge of storage facilities for farmers in the region, and for eleven years, young Ernst was sent far from home to study at a Catholic school in Teplice. In 1938, the invading Germans closed the school and Ernst finished his schooling at home. His family supported the German annexation of the Sudetenland, feeling their political situation in Czechoslovakia was lesser than that of the Czechs. Faced with the choice of volunteering for the German Wehrmacht or serving in the labor camps, Ernst Gottstein decided to join a tank outfit and was sent to the Russian Front. Approaching the enemy lines one day in a sidecar, a friend from training school was shot in the head by a Russian sniper. “I was so angry,” says Gottstein, “that I started to shoot everywhere with my machine gun.” He fought for months in the Russian countryside, his division at one point getting as close as twenty kilometers from Moscow. The winter was harsh and they suffered constant Russian attacks. On more than one occasion they had to defend their position with knives and shovels as they ran out of ammunition. In April 1942, Gottstein was wounded in the shoulder by a burst artillery shell and sent by train to Austria to be treated. On the way, dead soldiers were thrown out of the train at each stop. Arriving in Vienna to be treated on a sunny, spring day was the best day of his life. His motivation and confidence in Germany’s eventual victory was gone by this time, and he felt like an old man. Not wanting to return to Russia, he volunteered for the Afrika Korps. He saw heavy action against the British in Libya and was wounded again when an artillery shell hit him on the side of his abdomen. He flew to Denmark for treatment. Promoted to lieutenant after his recovery, his new unit was sent to France in June 1944 to fight off the Allied invasion. By the end of these decisive battles, he estimated that only one fourth of his unit remained. Gottstein was then relocated to the Siegfried Line to defend the small village of Oberlauringen in Germany. As American tanks closed in and killed some of the soldiers with a Panzerfaust, the blast burned him severely. Shortly after, he was taken prisoner by American troops, who treated him for his injuries.
As a child growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, the tenth of eleven children, “I used to read everything about WWI pilots fighting in Europe,” says General F. M. Rodgers. “I specifically loved the stories of the flying aces. I knew I had to become a pilot. So I enlisted.” After graduating high school in Boston in 1939, Rodgers turned down a scholarship to Brown and volunteered to become a pilot. He was sent to Santa Ana in California to earn his wings. By March 1943 he graduated as a second lieutenant, then joined the 354th fighter group. During his first escort mission over Germany, an American B17 gunner mistook him for a German fighter plane and shot at his aircraft, destroying parts of his fuel tank. Rodgers survived and flew over 100 missions both in Western Europe and Italy, where he learned to dive bomb. By the end of the war he had shot down twelve German aircraft, and took part in the D-Day invasion of Western France in June 1944.
Born in Gjøvik, Norway in 1923, Bjørn Østring was raised by his grandparents. His father passed away when he was four years old, and his mother remarried to a man who did not want him. In 1934, he joined the extreme right party, the Nasjonal Samling or NS, led by Vidkun Quisling. Following the German invasion of Norway, he became head of the National Youth Organization under the new German-allied government of Quisling. He then fought on the Russian Front and traveled to Poland as a platoon leader, defending three positions against relentless Russian attack. “After a year at the front in Russia, I only had sixteen men left out of the thirty-three who departed from Norway,” he recalls. In the autumn of 1942 he was asked by Quisling to return to Norway, where he became the chief of security. After the war, Østring was sentenced to seven years in jail for treason, but released after two. He became a painter, a trade he learned while in prison. At the time of the interview, he was retired and living with his wife in a modest apartment outside of Oslo.
I will never forget when my friend, wounded, was crawling in the snow trying to escape the fight, and a Russian tank purposely overran him using its tracks,” says Fernand Kaisergruber. To this day, this image never left me.” Born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1923, fearing the German invasion in May of 1940, his father, a former colonialist, thought it more prudent to bring his family to the Congo. They traveled from Brussels to the Spanish border, helped by locals, but were unable to pass, so they backtracked to Bordeaux where they remained until September 1940. Fernand Kaisergruber then returned to Brussels to finish his studies, but was dismissed from the school and eventually sent to work at a factory in Germany. Because he spoke good German, he was used as an interpreter for the German Army to help the French prisoners working there. He later joined the Belgian legion, arriving in Slavyansk, Ukraine, before receiving orders to travel to the Caucasus, on foot, a voyage of 1,400 kilometers and 40 days. Most of the men were sick with malaria and dysentery, and even the very sick could not be sent back to be treated. By November 1942, they were forced to retreat near the Black Sea, and Kaisergruber became very ill before being evacuated by air and train to a German military hospital in Belgium. He fought in the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket in early 1944, where, encircled by the Russians, he says only 687 of the 2,200 soldiers in his division survived. During the final assault, he was closely followed by three comrades because he was known for being lucky. He remembers suddenly passing out, then waking with a broken leg, wounded by shrapnel. His friends were lying dead next to him. He crawled away in the snow as Russian tanks wheeled by, before being spotted by a German soldier on horseback who picked him up. While the horse was killed by a Russian anti-tank shot, he and the German soldier made it to the Tikitch River and on the other side three German tanks came to their rescue. He was put inside a house to recover, where another soldier from his regiment, wounded with seven machine gun bullets, died soon after, saying, “the hardest is to know that we made it out, but that I am going to die here.” Kaisergruber made it back to Poland, where he was operated on, and then to Germany. At the time of the interview, he was living in Brussels with his wife.
Vladimir Blaicka was born in 1923 in Zbobunov—now part of Ukraine, then Czech territory. As a teenager he worked on the railways until the war broke out. Then, “one day in 1941, a Russian man came and asked me if I would be interested in joining the partisans to fight Germans,” he recalls. Between 1941 and 1944 Blaicka fought in a partisan outfit, supplied by Red Army parachute supply drops. He fought with this group until March of 1944, when he enlisted in the Czech Army, which had recently joined the Allied effort. After the battle of Zindranova in Poland, his unit reached a river and noticed a bunch of women crossing in their direction, but because these people were not lifting their skirts to prevent them from getting wet, they soon realized there were German soldiers dressed a women to trick the advancing Czechs. They shot and killed them all. The next morning many units were grouped together to attack German positions on the Czech border. It was very misty, the country was hilly, and Germans occupied the top, so they advanced slowly. The Germans destroyed many of their tanks, but they kept moving forward. His own tank caught on fire and his men bailed out. He was wounded in the leg by machine gun fire, but managed to help one of his crewmembers who was also wounded. As they retreated he fell in a German trench, carrying his comrade with him. A German spotted them and ordered them to surrender, but Blaicka threw a grenade and killed him, then was able to rejoin the Czech line, fighting through to Slovakia in 1945.
On the front lines in early January while surrounded by Russian troops, the temperature dropped so much, that we could not stay more then twenty minutes outside the bunkers,” recalls Giovanni Dorreta, “otherwise you would freeze to death.” Dorreta was born in Paris in 1921; his parents had moved to France after the WWI, when his father fought in the Italian Army. At twelve, he was proud to start working in a local factory, where he made one franc an hour, ten hours a day. In 1935, he returned with his parents to Northern Italy to work on the family farm. In 1941 he was drafted into a mountain artillery unit and the following year sent to the Russian Front, where his unit was completely surrounded by Russians and retreated westward before surrendering. He recalls walking all night, the Russian soldiers systematically killing those who would not continue. They were later put on trains to the Ural Mountains, and a typhoid epidemic killed most of the Italian soldiers. He was fortunate to be treated at a Russian hospital where, because he spoke French, he was able to make some Russian friends. In early 1943, he was transferred to Moscow to work in a factory; later the Russian authorities used Dorreta and other prisoners to guard German POW camps. He finally returned home on Apri 1,1946. Of the fifty-two men in his village who left for the war, he was one of only four who returned. At church, mothers would routinely grab him and ask about their sons; he never had good news to share.