To receive a letter 70 years after it was posted seems to be a Hollywood story or a fairytale,  but life is often more interesting than any movie storyline.

In February of 2010, with the assistance of the State control service over transportation of cultural property and Foreign Ministry, Ukraine received from Austria a unique collection of 108 unread letters, written by Ukrainians back in 1941. The mail was sent to the Memorial Complex "National history museum of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45". The workers of the department studied the letters and realized that without doubt they must be delivered to the descendants of the authors.

ForUm had an interview with Yaroslava Pasichko, the senior research assistant of the Memorial Complex, and asked her what militaries were writing  about and how many letters had finally found their addressees.

- Yaroslava Leonidovna, how could these letters stay unopened for so many years?

- The major part of letters was written in Kamenetsk-Podolski. They date back to the end of June - beginning of July of 1941. When the soviet army retreated to the east of Ukraine, the city was occupied by Nazis, who instituted control over all structures of the city including the post office.

We believe that unsent letters got to the inspector of the telegraph service of Reich Commission "Ukraine" Gustav Ohlschlager. It was him who sent these letters to his friend Erhard Riedel in Vienna with the cover letter, in which Gustav asked to keep the collection untouched to study it later, in particular to study the psychological state of soviet people at the beginning of the war. We discovered that Ohlschlager went missing in 1944 and Riedel died in 1958. Thanks to them the collection was preserved. For about 70 years it was kept in the archives of Post Museum of Vienna, till 2009, and now the letters returned to Ukraine.

- What did you feel reading these letters?

- Well, people who wrote these letters had no idea what they were about to experience in 1941. It is like voices from the next world, as we know that many soldiers never came back home.

When you read these letters, there is a feeling it could have been the voice of your father or grandpa. You open a letter and see the address "Dear Manusya", for example. We thought then that this Manusya might be around 80 years old now. May be she is still alive, but has never read this letter!

- Thus, you decided to send these letters to the relatives?

- Not quite. First of all we studied and analyzed them, and then formed three exhibitions. However, we understand that it is our moral duty to give these letters to those they are addressed to. Thus, within the humanitarian action we deliver copies of the letters to the relatives. The originals, though, stay in the museum as showpieces.

- Who makes the copies, and how good are they?

- Workers of our restoration department make very good copies, including stamps, paper, ink. We also have a special table to copy handwritings. If there were photos attached to the letters we scan and print them as well. In some letters we find  dried flowers, so we make the same.

Moreover, envelopes are so different. Soldiers used everything they could find to put the letter in. Some used standard or handmade envelopes. Others glued, sewed up or even nailed their letters. Anyway, it is does not matter how a letter looks like, and even if it contains only three words, it is still of great importance for descendants. I remember how we delivered the letter to Kateryna Kurchenko from her fallen father. She was ten when the war started and remembers her father well. As soon as I stepped in the room, introduced myself and handed her the letter, she started crying and kissing the letter not even opening it.

Her father went missing in August of 1941. Only in 1985 his grave was found and relatives were informed. Kateryna does have any things left from her father, and here the letter from Eternity comes...

Total recall

- So, what did people write about in first days of the war?

- Well, this letter, for example, was written by a young soldier Yefimov: "...It is more interesting here than in Kharkiv. Our mood is ok, sometimes we have fun, sometimes we have to hide in the forest...Our soldiers fight very bravely, and German cities are in bigger troubles than our territory. A thousand of our planes bombed Berlin recently..." Remember that the letter was written in summer of 1941! A bravado of a young man...

Unfortunately, it was difficult to trace further fate of Yefimov. We know only that he worked in Kharkiv cinema "Udarnik" and was writing to the director and the staff. However, we have not found any traces of this cinema. Even locals do not know about it.

In fact, many young people wrote with enthusiasm about close victory, while older people, who survived Finish campaign, were not so optimistic. We have letters from militaries, officers, civilians, students, hospital patients... Some letters date July 7,8 - just before the occupation of Kamenets-Podolski. People asked for help with evacuation, but already on 10th the city was occupied...

The biggest value of these letters is that the military censorship did not have time to check them. The letters speak about first true impressions. In most cases the letters speak about routine: "Musia, prepare bread, sell the cow, take care of the children, make a bomb shelter in the garden." There are many lover messages, tender and touching.

There are also anonymous letters and denunciations. Those were difficult times and people did what they could to survive.

- How many letters have already found their addressees?

- 500 out of 1208 letters. The major part of the letters was addressed to Khmelnitsk region. However, there are letters to all parts of the former Soviet Union.

- How do you find addressees? Or they find you?

- Well, on our website there is the list of addresses, classified by republics (Tatarstan, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, etc.) and regions (Vinnytsa, Voronezh, etc.), where you can find scanned copies of envelopes with names of authors and addressees. The same information was sent to all regional administrations and district centers. 

Moreover, we spread a word among search organizations with a request to inform about missing people. The TV project "Wait for me" helps a lot. Thanks to the show we have found addressees from all over the former USSR. The project came as a bombshell. People called from Ukrainians villages, Russian cities, Europe, Asia, the US.

- Did you have cases when a letter went back to the author?

- There was on case. Anna Kornilova from Khmelnitski received the letter she wrote to her brother in 1941. Back then she was a student of a teachers college.

Spies and encrypted codes

- What difficulties did you face during the project realization?

- Translation difficulties were the biggest problem, in all senses. We had to translate and decode addresses, names. Some letters are signed simply "Dmitriy", for example, others have address of a field post office only. Thus, we had to establish numbers of military units, search for any leads.
Misaddressed letters also complicate the search process. One soldier, for example, wrote on the envelope "Silkucha". What a time it took us to search for this settlement until we realized it was 'selo (village) Kucha'. Moreover, many geographical names no longer exist nowadays, villages and even cities have been renamed.

Scrawling hand is yet another enemy. For example, it is written "Nichenko". So we put it on our website, but then receive a call from Dovgenke village of Izum district of Kharkiv region, and they say they have never had the Nichenkos, but there are the Isochenkos, and there was Maria Isochenko living back then. In the result, the letter was given to her grandson. Besides, in 40s people wrote with pencils and texts have faded...

- Did people write only in Russia and Ukrainian or other languages as well? Did anyone use some kind of a code to hide information from the enemy?

- Oh, we have 'spies' in every second letter! Many people used abbreviations, like "K.L.M. asks F.S.T. to burn all his documents" and so on. Who was that K.L.M.? How can we possible read it? Nobody knows.

More than 40 letters were written in Yiddish. Nobody we asked could make adequate translation. Another 19 letters were written in Kazakh with Latin alphabet, used until 1948. Only specialized linguists can translate this. Such letters are very particular, written in the style of Omar Khayyam's poetry.

Anyway, all the letters are beautiful in this way or another. When you read them, you imagine how they were written, under what conditions, for who and from who. It is very interesting and touching. These letters touched the heart of every worker of the museum. I hope that even after 70 years they will find the addressees.

Alina Yeremeyeva, photos by Maxim Trebukhov


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