An American in the Red Army
The story of his life is fascinating…
As you might know, by the end of WWII among allies there was a race towards Berlin. According to this article in Christian Science Monitor, President Eisenhower gave these three reasons not to cross the river Elba:
– His armies were already well beyond the line of the western occupation zones that had been agreed to with the Soviets.
– Why take casualties for land that would have to be handed over? He had always worried about his troops meeting Soviets on the run around a corner. He thought it safer to meet them with a broad river between.
– And, finally, “Berlin is only a political objective, not a military objective.”
Besides, Russians pushed hard no matter losses. Stalin wanted to be the first and it matched the aspiration of every Russian who suffered so much from the German invasion. So, they entered Berlin, took over Reichstag, and wrote their names on its walls.
The Russian war correspondents followed closely and were dumbfounded to read on one of the walls the following:
Bethlehem, Pa., USA, Donbass, Ukraine, Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, Berlin, Germany, May 1945 — Nicholas.
In English! What happened? Were Americans here first after all?!
A tank commander, Nicholas Burlak had moved to the Soviet Union as a boy, a few years before the war. His father had been a Ukrainian immigrant in the United States. He returned to his homeland during the Great Depression to help build steelworks at the request of the Soviet government. His son Nicholas, determined to fight the Nazis, became an American volunteer in the Red Army (he, actually, used the turmoil of the first war years and pretended his documents were lost, so he could disguise himself as a Russian-born because KGB considered him as a potential turn-coat otherwise).
He was wounded four times, twice suffered shell shock, and received several medals for bravery as he participated in several major battles, including the battle at Kursk — the biggest tank battle in history.
In the heat of the war, he also met his love and this story matches those of the highest of Shakespeare’s dramas.
Reading his memories was a deeply emotional experience for me. Once started, I could not stop until I finished it. Fascinating story! Amazing life! Deep understanding of life and vision I share with all my heart. I wanted to thank the author in person, but unfortunately, he had died in January 2016! His book will be a must-read for generations of my family, I am sure. Not only because it teaches everybody valuable lessons and provides a sound worldview, so needed for any young person, but also because the life of his family is uniquely close in so many details to our family.
To start with, my mother was born in Makeevka and lived there when Nicholas walked the same streets. Her father Nick (Nikolay, I was named in his memory) was killed in Stalingrad in the street near the Mechanical Plant in October 1942. That was when Nicholas volunteered to fight in the Red Army — exactly the same time my father volunteered too. Nicholas walked fighting from there all the way to Berlin in 1945 (my father ended his war service at the same time in Prague, Czechoslovakia). The previous generation of Nicholas family (before emigrating to the US) lived in the area of Askania Nova — the same area where my father’s family lived. There is much more in common between our families and probably between many other Ukrainian families too. I could go on for pages.
It is such a waste that people are so divided politically. There is no good reason for us to be so separated. We all people and humans who want to live and let others live too. So simple.
Nicholas’ book describes vividly the raw reality of war. He kept a diary throughout the war (which is a whole another amazing story and testimony to the beautiful friendship-in-war because nobody was supposed to keep notes during the active duty, he could be sentenced to death just for that). Time and again, through his eyes, we witness unbelievable heroism or a tragedy that makes the heart bleed, and then seemingly impossible lucky recovery moistens the eyes.
Nicholas happened to take part in several key battles of the war and met several greatest participants in person. He paints them in the details one cannot make up. Nicholas had to be killed so many times that his survival is a true miracle. And his views of life change through this experience and the reader inevitably shares this change — from plain slogan-patriotic to the deep wise understanding of human nature and wrongness of those who wage a war, any war for that matter.
By the very end of the war, because of his special status (as a native English speaker), Nicholas was part of the group of scouts assigned to the task of finding Hitler’s body. They were in front of the front while coming into the Reichskanzlei’s garden. They were shot from all sides but continued crawling losing their war friends left and right. Nicholas describes it in simple words, but exactly this simplicity gets you. I do not recall a more powerful war-action account, although I have read many memories of veterans.
This is a major first-hand account of WWII and a memorable presentation of the life of a soldier in any war. I highly recommend it to everybody. Here is the book Love and War I was talking about. And here is his (Nicholas) website.
And, since we are on the topic, there was another American who fought on the Russian side, although only a month. His name is Joseph Beyrle.
Those people went through so much, we cannot even imagine how they felt.