Irpin, Ukraine

My name is Valentina Gavrylivna Kylinych, and my maiden name is Smolyar. I was born in what it is now Cherkassy region, in a village called Vilshana. My family were peasants, though not very typical ones. The thing is that my father, when he was only a kid, was sent to a big city, Dnipropetrovsk, to a Jewish tailor so that he could teach him his trade. As for my mother, she was a peasant. Before collectivization we had had two hectares of land, a cow, and a couple of pigs. That wasn't a lot, but it was our own, which is most important, as my parents had five kids to feed.

I was born in 1920, and I was the eldest child in the family. Then, two years later my sister was born. A little bit later in 1925, our brother Ivan was born. Then there was another boy, Mykola. Much later, when my mother was already thirty-nine, as they say, in the evening of the youth, she gave birth yet to another child - Volodymyr. He was the most handsome of all the brothers. Unfortunately, he passed. So, our youngest brother is no longer with us, but my two other brothers and the sister are still alive.

Before the war my parents had to join the collective farm (kolkhoz), like all other peasants. They had no choice. It was difficult to earn one's living while in kolkhoz, but we had our own cow that gave milk and helped to feed the kids.

However, in 1932 this cow could not help us any more, as it was the year when Holodomor began. I was twelve then. Some people say that it was a man-made famine, and some say it wasn't. I know for sure that it was Holodomor, meaning that it was planned by the regime. If it hadn't been for my father, nobody from our family would have survived. I remember very well how it all happened. It was the time for reaping, and I used to help my mother in the field to cut the crops and make sheaves. Hardly had we finished this job and left the sheaves to get dry that we were all sent to build some dirt-road, around 10 kilometers long, allegedly because of the threat of the war. They took all the horses and the bulls from the village, and all the adults were obliged to put all the other work aside, take their spades and build this road. In the meanwhile autumn rains began, and by the time the people were allowed to return to the fields and take away the crops, the grain that was lying on top had already started to sprout. Everything that remained dry was taken away straight to the regional centre in Vilshany.

It was always like this then. Most of all the crops a kolkhoz managed to reap were to be given away to the state. They took the harvest to the regional centre from where it was to be distributed, but none of us knew how. We were allowed to keep and store in our local granary only those crops that had begun to sprout. I remember the head of our kolkhoz violated this rule and secretly hid some good dry grain in the local granary. Somebody reported him and one day all three of them, the head, his deputy and the granary manager, were taken away and were never to be seen again. Since that day they were known as public enemies.

My younger sister and I used to roam the fields and gather occasional ears of wheat that were left after all the crops had been removed. However, it was forbidden, and there were special officers who patrolled the fields on horseback and drove away all the people like us.
Looking at this alarming situation, my father understood that we should better go somewhere else where it would be possible to feed the children, before it was too late. And so we did. One day we boarded up all the windows and the doors of our house and left the village. As for our belongings, we only took the sewing machine - as my dad was a tailor - and some clothes - no more than a couple of shirts for each of us. My father had definitely heard something about the coming famine, as we went as far as to the Volga. Somewhere in Kuybyshev region (now - Samara, Russia). We stayed in different houses, where my father sewed clothes in exchange for food and shelter.

This is how we survived through that winter of famine. In spring we decided to come back to our home in Ukraine. My father didn't want to return so fast, but my mother insisted saying that we shouldn't lose the precious time for planting vegetables in our garden. And so we went, although, in fact, we shouldn't have. We ourselves were in bad shape, but when we came to our village we saw some terrible things indeed. Half of the village had starved to death. Anyway, I don't think it is time to speak about it now. It is enough to say that it was difficult to survive, and besides, it seems we had a sort of bad luck. First we lost our cow, and then my father had been cheated out of money trying to get a better house, but in the end we lost both our house and the money. In a word, everything was going downhill.

In 1937 my sister was already studying in a vocational school, but I decided to finish secondary school and enter the so-called workers' courses (rabfak) that gave the possibility to get enrolled in the university without admission examinations. I was really eager to study and after finishing rabfak I successfully entered a teachers' institute.

It was the year of 1938. I began going out with a young man, Petro Kulinich. He was a soldier who was doing extended military service and planning to go in for further military career. He proposed to me, and I agreed. It was the best choice for me, since my parents were still staying in some other people's house, and they had younger children to take care of. Three months after our wedding my husband received an invitation to a military school. It was his dream to become an officer. Though he was from a poor peasant family, he was made for this career, as he was an extremely organized and self-disciplined man, my husband. But on the other hand, I was already three months pregnant... So, what were we to do? I supported my husband, and he accepted the invitation. It was a good choice, and some time later he even received an apartment. My parents came to live with us, together with my little brothers: Ivan, Mykola and newly-born Volodya, who was only six months older than my first-born daughter, the one who already died. We lived together with my parents until the beginning of the war. In March 1941 my husband finished the military school and became an officer. At that time I was staying in Western Ukraine, working there as a Ukrainian teacher. It was a common thing then - to be sent somewhere far away from your home place. Being a member of Komsomol (Young Communist League) I couldn't refuse. In March 1941 Petro finished his studies and brought me back home. We had to give up our apartment, as he received a posting in Kuybyshev. So we all went with him.

In Kuybyshev I got a job in one of the military units. The thing is that many of the officers did not have secondary education, which was an obligatory condition for an officer. So, they organized schools where they could catch up on their education. I for one taught them Russian. I worked there from March to May 1941. And in May the whole unit went to a summer training camp some place in Orenburg region.

Two weeks before the beginning of the war, our commander-in-chief announced to us that instead of the summer camp training, the unit was supposed to go to the western border of the country to take part in some training maneuvers. We all came back to Kuybyshev, and on the very next day the war broke out, and the unit did go to the western border. And this time they were going to a real war instead of a shooting range.

Some time later there was a threat that the Germans might take Moscow, so the whole government moved to Kuybyshev. A lot of Ukrainian plants and factories had already been evacuated deep into the country, beyond the Urals, while the Moscow-based ball bearing plant was transferred to our military camp in Kuybyshev. The officers' families that still remained in the city were given a choice either to go to Central Asia or to stay here in Kuybyshev but with accommodation reduced to only one room per family. As we were a big family: me, my daughter, my parents, three brothers and a sister, it was hard to imagine how we could squeeze into one room. So we decided to move to Central Asia. As for me, since the beginning of the war I had already been doing a training course to become a nurse. After all, my husband was at the front, and many other school teachers had already re-trained as nurses. Why couldn't I do the same? So I received a diploma of a nurse, which gave me the right to work in hospitals and at the front. It happened so that on the way to Central Asia, my daughter fell ill, and she died on the very first night when we came to our final destination. After that I decided to go to war as a volunteer.

First I worked as a nurse in a hospital. Then there was a massive retreat from Kharkiv towards the east, all the way up to the Volga, and my hospital was evacuated deep into the country. I didn't want to return back to where I started so I asked for a posting in a fighting unit. As all our fighting units retreated massively up to the Don river, there was a huge confusion and before too long it became almost impossible to figure out which army was where. I remember the horrible mess at that crossing over the Don, with German air raids from above and a huge congestion of our trucks, tanks and other machines on the bank of the river. I came up to some tank that belonged to the 6th Guards tank brigade, which was moving from Belgorod to Stalingrad. They took me across the Don, and I stayed with them, as a combat medic, in the 2nd separate tank battalion.

When our military unit finally left Stalingrad, there was in fact only one tank left, and even that one had been badly damaged. You should understand that, as privates, we never knew the full picture of what was happening around. It was only after the war that I met one commander who told me that out of every hundred people in his unit who went to Stalingrad, only three people would remain unharmed, and another five would end up in hospital. It means that only eight people out of hundred survived that great battle.

Having crossed the Volga in early November, our military unit was transferred from the 62nd army to the newly-formed 28th army that was to go to Kalmykiya, and from there to Rostov and further to Ukraine. It was there, in Kalmykiya, near Elista, that I was wounded. I spent a month in hospital in Astrakhan and then I was sent back to the front. As many other soldiers after some time in hospital, I had to join a reserve battalion, instead of returning to my former unit. A "buyer", as we called them, from a reserve battalion would come to a hospital and recruit necessary people.

So I found myself in a front-line military hospital for cranio-cerebral injuries. We received the wounded straight from the battlefield. There I stayed until the end of the war. When the war was over, all the hospitals returned to their former locations, but I, as an educated person, was to remain in the headquarters of the 28th army, to work with papers. That was in Bautsen district in Germany.

As for my husband, I received a "killed in battle" notice as early as in September 1941. But in fact, he wasn't dead. He was taken prisoner but managed to escape. During the whole war he fought in two partisan regiments: the 28th and the 15th, and was awarded the orders of Red Banner and Red Star, as well as the medal of Partisan. He was wounded twice, and after the second injury he was able to come to Ukraine, which had already been liberated by that time. So he came to Poltava region which was his homeland. As it was a liberated territory, people were allowed to return to their places from evacuation, though not all at once. One had to receive an invitation first. It happened so that by some mistake they issued an invitation to his sister (his mother and two sisters had been evacuated as well) instead of me. So his sister met Petro and told him everything she knew about me. They offered him to stay in Ukraine, but he refused and went back to the fighting unit to the front. He was killed in the very end of the war, on April 29, 1945.

After the war I got demobilized and returned to my home in Ukraine. As I didn't have a husband any more, I decided to take my parents to live with me. Moreover, I was their eldest child and I had a degree with the prospect of a good job. So I got back to teaching at school and besides I was actively engaged in Party work. Soon I married my second husband. Five years younger than me, he was also a veteran. It's recently been twenty years since he died. Together we built a house in Mironivka and lived there with my parents. So, step by step, life returned to its usual routine. As for my brothers and sisters, the eldest brother Ivan had been drafted in 1943 and was sent to the Far East. Volodymyr, the youngest, got enrolled into a law school. My sister also got married and was working. My parents were staying with me all the time, first in Mironivka, and then here, in Irpin, where they died.

In 1946 my second child was born - a daughter. She was a still a student in Kyiv when she got married and gave birth to a child. In order to help her somehow, we sold the house in Mironivka and bought this one in Irpin. I have been living in Irpin for forty years already. I got a degree from the local Academy, which is now the National State Tax Service University of Ukraine. Funnily enough, I am considered to be veteran of the University, although it used to be a mere college when I first came to Irpin and started to work here, teaching social science. In Mironovka I used to work as the head teacher at school, but parallel to that I was studying part-time to get a degree in social science. Besides teaching, I was also actively engaged in social life. In Irpin I organized the Club of veterans of war and labor. It is called "Pam'yat", meaning "memory". We have a good choir of veterans where we sing a whole range of war-time songs, Ukrainian folk songs and classical music.

I believe it is important to enjoy life as it is. To move forward against all odds, to follow this stream of life, if you understand what I mean. Love for life and for other people - this is what has always given me a lot of energy.

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