Final number of the fallen for the years of the Great Patriotic War has never been announced. According to approximate data, 8-10 million people died for 1941-45 years, including 3-3.5 million of soldiers. Taking into account secondary demographic losses, famine, emigration and deportation took about 14.5 million people from Ukraine.

Third part of the Red Army went missing. It's been more than half a century, but our citizens still hope for their dears to come back. Children and grandchildren want to learn the fate of their ancestors, to find their graves, to pay respects.

In an interview with ForUm, Ludmyla Rybchenko, head of the search department of the Memorial complex "National history museum of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945", explained what to do to find the traces of a missing relative.

- It's been 68 years, but many people keep searching for their relatives, gone missing during the war. Is it possible to find a person after so many years?

- Yes, it is,  but people should prepared that this search can take much time and efforts. It is not enough to make a request and sit and wait for someone to give you all details. Information, if there is any, can be scattered among different archives, and it can take years to connect the dots. For the past five years our workers have managed to find traces of about 350 soldiers. In some cases it was possible to find their graves.

- Is it the job of museum's workers to do the search?

- The fact is that our museum has the biggest collection of materials on human losses during the war - more than 8.5 thousand archive documents with three million personal evidences about fallen and missing persons, called up for the war from Ukraine's territory.

Before 1991, these documents were kept in military registration offices and were classified. To create Ukrainian Books of condolence it was decided to unclassified the data, but the storage conditions were not always perfect. We saw it for ourselves when we were working on new museum displays and had to study death notices. Thus, in 2006 our museum appealed to the Defense Ministry to keep the documents here in Kyiv, in our museum. The Ministry met our request, and since they we have been systemizing, studying, restoring and scanning the materials to create the All-Ukrainian e-database of the fallen.

From the first working day of our museum people started to come and ask for help in finding their missing relatives. We receiver more than 1.5 thousand requests annually. The time of search depends on the available data, but in general we try to finish within a month.

Honestly, it still surprises me that even after 70 years people still hope to find the missing.

- Who look for the missing? Close relatives, probably?

- There are different cases. Most often, these are children of the fallen - children of the war, old people, pensioners. On the threshold of life, people are inclined to summarise it, and such suspense haunts their minds. Then there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren, mostly those who are interested in history, are members of historical clubs or search organizations.

There are also those who need documents and proofs for solving some legal issues, like heritage, supplementary pension, change of country of residence.

- Do you receive requests from Ukrainians only, or there are calls from other countries?

- The majority of appeals comes from Ukraine (60%). About 20% of letters come from Russia, as well as from Belarus and other USSR republics. There are also people calling from Germany, Israel, US and other countries where there are Ukrainian Diaspora. We cooperate with the search service of the Red Cross of Ukraine and TV show "Wait for me".

Cold case

- What are the major reasons why relatives could not find soldiers back then?

- The most common reason is misspelling of names in the military documents: dead lists, passports of mass graves, death notices. As a result, families did not receive original death notices from military units and persons were announced missing.

There was a case, when a daughter was searching for her father. His name was quite unusual - Fedula Yeliseyevich. His last name was very common - Bykov. We had to search for all fallen Bykovs with name initial "F". By indirect data we finally found out that in the military documents of the war period Fedula Yeliseyevich was listed as Fedor Alekseyevich.

The fact is that documents were registered under extreme conditions of war and not always by literate clerks. Thus, the names were misspelled and Gaponenko, for example, was registered as Ganonenko. Recently we found the grave of a soldier, whose name after many years of rewriting turned from Alarkon to Olyarkov. It took us much time and efforts to establish it was the same person.

The process of registering the fallen was poor, as nobody in military units controlled it. Centralized registration was held by the Department on registration of human losses, but this Department changed its attachment four times, and the last one - Department for logistics -  simply could not control the troops of the active army.

Moreover, registries on losses were considered "top secret" and were the first to be burned in case of threat of captivity. Thus, some of the data is lost forever. For example, we will never know what happened to 200 thousand soldiers of 349th rifle division, which was surrounded by the enemy. The commander-in-chief made the decision to burn all the documents, divide into small groups and try to reach the allies.  Many soldiers managed to survive, but the fallen were listed as missing.

- How about prisoners of war. Did anybody count them?

- Hard to say. At the beginning of the war, many soldiers of the Red Army were captured, and the order was issued to announce them "public enemies" and to persecute their families. There was another decree to register all surrendered soldiers and report data very ten days. However, the situation at the front was tense, commander-in-chiefs feared repressions for a big number of surrendered soldiers from their units, thus it was more convenient for commanders to register the captured or surrendered as missing persons.

It is difficult to find information about further fate of those people. The fact is there was a huge number of prisoners of war on the territory of Ukraine - about two million people. Some of captured prisoners were sent to camps in Poland, Germany, Romania, others stayed on the territory of Ukraine. Foreign camps kept detailed tabs on every prisoner - name, date of birth, place of capture, biometric data, period of stay in this or that camp, date of death and burial place. The files also included photos. These documents have been unclassified recently by the German side and can be found in Internet.  

Camps on Ukrainian territory, however, did not keep any tabs on prisoners. Unfortunately, to find prisoners who died in the native land is more difficult than those died in Germany, for example.

Every day at war

- How can one learn to search for missing persons? how do you teach new colleges, for example?

- Apart from learning how to use files, funds, etc., it is important for a new worker to have a personal experience of successful search of a relative, for example.

- Is it emotionally hard to study people's lives every day?

- It is. When you search a missing person, you become this missing person, you live his life and take things personally. However, when we receive letters of thanks from the relatives of found persons, we understand that what we do is blessed work.

We are often invited to the reburial of remains. Such ceremonies are very emotions, but frankly speaking we try to avoid them. We are every day "at war", and every day we "bury" soldiers, thus it is very difficult to listen to even more stories about death and see people crying. I cannot even watch war films anymore.

- At the beginning of the interview you spoke about museum displays based on death notices. What are they?

- Well, for example, we took all death notices of soldiers with the name Shevchenko and laid them out in the shape of an orthodox cross to show the scale of Ukraine's tragedy in the war.

With another death notices we tried to express the tragedy of a mother, who lost all her sons; the tragedy of a widow who had to raise her children by herself; the tragedy of the country, which sacrificed many of its sons at the altar of victory.

I think our society does not quite understand the scale of this tragedy. Ukraine was in the very center of events, and I wish Ukrainians always remember about those great and terrible days.

Alina Yeremeyeva, photos by Maxim Trebukhov


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