In that split second, I had to make a choice: I could be killed by the Russians or killed by the Germans. I decided to run towards the tanks.

At Book of My Life we believe that every life story is worth telling. It might not set the world on fire, but your story will provide a unique insight into the past nonetheless. It will be a precious slice of social history which will shine a light on years gone by.

But occasionally we meet someone whose story stops us in our tracks. There was the Jewish woman who, as a child in the 1930s, lived next door to Hitler (yes, really). There was the woman who worked with the code breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and didn’t tell a soul — including close family — for 50 years. Then there was Wolodymyr Papuca, born in Ukraine in 1925, a few years before Stalin’s Terror-Famine — or Holodomor — brought death to up to 10 million Ukrainians. It’s an extraordinary tale of survival — against all the odds. You can read an extract of Wally’s memoir below:

In the summer of 1941, I was outside our bungalow near the storage area when, out of nowhere, came a loud, wailing siren. I looked over my shoulder to see the source of this horrible sound—a German Stuka ground-attack aircraft with its Jericho Trumpet heralding its arrival. It was heading directly towards me, and seemed about to attack me. The bungalow was several hundred metres away, and I would never make it back in time. So I started to run for my life towards the storage area which was on stilts. I threw my body to the ground and crawled underneath. I covered my ears and closed my eyes tightly, certain that my time was up, waiting for the blast and the blackness of death.

I waited for an age for the end to come, until eventually I realised that the noise had quietened. The aircraft was flying away. No shots had been fired and no bombs dropped. Perhaps the pilot had just meant to scare me. If so, he had certainly succeeded in his mission.

The Germans reached Donetsk but they did not, in 1941, occupy the area of eastern Ukraine where we lived. They were held up 20 kilometres short of us, largely because of the onset of the harsh, unrelenting winter. We were used to it. The Germans, in contrast, were ill-equipped to deal with such difficult conditions. Snow fell upon snow, and it was so cold that the Germans’ cars froze.

The Germans didn’t give up easily and, with the warmer weather of 1942, began pushing forward again. In May, my mother’s worst fears came true. My parents received another letter from the Soviet authorities: I was required to join another group heading east. Again, I had to take food for three days. 

“My poor Wolodymyr!” cried my mother, weeping uncontrollably. I’d escaped once, it didn’t seem likely that I could do so again. My mother became convinced that she’d never see me again and struggled to contain the feelings of panic and fear that were filling her heart.

My father was more positive. “Keep your head down, Wolodymyr, and you’ll be all right.”

I was not convinced that I would, although I had no choice. Reluctantly, I joined the group on the appointed day. On this second march, there were only about 30 students, all Young Communists. There were about a dozen Russian soldiers guarding us. Again there was no hope of escape. We marched through the Donbas area, and at seven o’clock in the evening we started to climb a hill through a field. Suddenly, some German tanks appeared over the brow of the hill and moved towards us.

Without warning, gun shots rang out. It wasn’t the Germans, it was our Russian guards. They were shooting the students on the opposite side of our group. The Russians would rather we died than fall into German hands; our lives were worth nothing. In that split second, I had to make a choice: I could be killed by the Russians or killed by the Germans. I decided to run towards the tanks, along with a boy I knew from technical college. I learned later that we were the only two to escape; all the others, many of them close friends, were shot dead.

Extract © 2016 Wolodymyr Papuca

If you’d like to read more of Wally’s extraordinary story of survival, his book, The Winter of the Wolf, is available from our store. 

Wolodymyr Papuca as a young man

Wolodymyr Papuca as a young man

Wally in 2016 with his family

Wally in 2016 with his family

Memoir of Soviet Ukraine and Nazi Germany written and printed by Book of My Life