My Babushka, My Hero

An interview with Tatiana Brooke about the little told story of atrocities endured during and after WWII by Ukrainian residents of Kherson and nearby rural villages

By Robin Jay

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Tatiana Pisarchuk Brooke, then 4 in 1978, with her Babushka Maria Sipko Poteriyako in Musikovka, Ukraine

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(l-r): Tatiana Brooke’s Great Grandmother Tatiana Sipko who is holding her Aunt Katerina, with her mother, Luba, standing center front next to her other Aunt, Nadia (blonde). Her Grandfather Nikolay and Maria sitting in the back.

On April 26, 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Ukraine’s catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear explosion, an intriguing press movie trailer arrived in my inbox. It promoted ‘Babushkas of Chernobyl,’ a documentary about the remarkable Ukrainian grandmothers who, with a veracious love of their homeland, refused to evacuate the toxic radioactive zone and have, uncannily, far outlived their husbands who fled three decades ago. How do these amazing Ukrainian women survive against all odds?

I remembered my colleague Dan Brooke had recently traveled to the Ukraine with his wife, Tatiana, to visit her family in Kherson. Might she possibly know a Babushka whose story I could tell?

The answer was ‘yes.’ Communists had forced Tatiana’s uncle Evegeniy, 30 at the time and father of two boys, to help clean Chernobyl. “They took only men with children because they knew when they returned they wouldn’t be able to have children,” Tatiana said. “Evegeniy was forced to keep it secret and no one heard from him for two months. When he came home, he lost all his teeth, but he always joked, ‘at least I am alive.’ ”

Little did I expect that Tatiana’s story about her Babushka Maria Sipko would prove even more captivating. Why? Because, unlike the well publicized Chernobyl story today, the story about Maria Sipko – shocking in its atrocities – is not found in our history books. This Babushka’s story is about the extreme strife that she, her family and her village of Musikovka endured to survive German occupation during WWII – and even worse hardships after the Red Army returned post war. How has this story gone ignored by the world for decades?

Surviving Total War

A panoramic view of the holiday village at the Dnieper riverbank near Kherson (Ukraine)

A panoramic view of the holiday village at the Dnieper riverbank near Kherson (Ukraine)

I came upon the 2013 thesis of Vladyslav Christian Alexander at the University of Texas at Austin entitled, ‘Surviving Total War in Kherson Region, Ukraine.’ He had researched the important story for his Babushka who, like Maria, had lived it. Alexander wrote, “While there are plenty of published materials concerning survival in Ukraine during World War II, most of those bypass the Kherson region and focus primarily on the German occupation [and not the struggles during the post-war return of the Red Army]. This work attempts to provide an answer to the question of why the population of a provincial city, which endured no major combat, was reduced from about 100,000 residents in 1941 to less than 100 on the day of return of the Soviets in 1944.”

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Ukrainian villagers curiously watch as a German soldier types a report during Operation Barbarossa; the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

The Fateful Day in 1941
On the pre-dawn morning of August 19,1941, in the Ukrainian farming village of Musikovka, about three kilometers from Kherson, a mother and two children were stirring in their two-room cottage built of clay walls and thatched roof.
Tatiana Sipko (Maria Sipko’s mother and Tatiana Brooke’s great grandmother) fired up the earthen oven to make breakfast. She kneaded fresh bread dough formed from wheat harvested on her farm. Nearby, daughter Maria, 20, braided her long brown hair as her older brother Vasiliy prepared to walk to the well for water. A tattered photo of their father Stepan and their brothers Ivan and Stepan Jr., who were away at war, laid nearby.

As Maria donned an apron to help Tatiana, she ignored the far-off sound of motorbikes heading toward Kherson, the city founded in 1778 by Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin on demand by Catherine the Great.

Alexander wrote, “The locals say several motorcyclists showed up, climbed onto the trees, and after surveying the territory through binoculars resolved that there was no military stationed in the city [Kherson]. A few hours later the troops [Germans] occupied the city without any resistance… The conquered population anxiously observed, through holes in the fences and windows, the victors marching through the city streets…

…“Germans entered the cities and towns of Ukraine and other conquered countries as liberators, hoping to convince the people that they should be thankful to Hitler for freeing them from Soviet oppression…

…“The largest portion of the population, those natives who decided to maintain political neutrality, indirectly agreed to the terms and conditions of the occupational authorities in order to ensure survival, often leaving own fate to chance,” Alexander’s thesis said. “On September 30, 1941, all citizens of the city ages 16 to 45 were required to register with the Labor Office, where the unemployed received ration cards, entitling them to 12 kilograms of flour and 175 grams of butter per person per month. The only categories exempt from registration were married women with children and schoolchildren. Those who disregarded the occupational government’s directive… could be sent to Germany as forced labor.”

Back In Musikovka
Alexander wrote, “It would be incorrect to state that it was easier to survive in the countryside than in the city, as life under German occupation in settlements of the region entailed their own dangers…Peasants in the countryside were heavily exploited by the Germans…”

Russian Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov said an interim war report told of mass rape occurring as the Germans pushed through the Soviet Union

Russian Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov said an interim war report told of mass rape occurring as the Germans pushed through the Soviet UnionAlexander wrote, “It would be incorrect to state that it was easier to survive in the countryside than in the city, as life under German occupation in settlements of the region entailed their own dangers…Peasants in the countryside were heavily exploited by the Germans…”

“My Babushka Maria said people were terrified,” said Tatiana [Brooke]. “Village people had to cook, clean and wash the coats of the occupying Nazi soldiers – or otherwise be killed. Many young people in Musikovka, including Maria’s brother Vasiliy,  were taken to German concentration camps. (Vasiliy died at the camp.)

“Tatiana tried to disguise Maria so the soldiers wouldn’t rape her or take her to the camp. She put coal dust on her daughter’s face and dressed her in heavy coveralls so that if German soldiers found her, they might think it was an ugly man. When uniformed men arrived, they pulled at her clothes. Somehow Maria exposed her hand and they saw it was a young girl’s. The man dragged Maria by her hair through the village, while Tatiana chased them and screamed,  ‘Please stop!’”

A German Commander heard the commotion and came outside. “My Babushka ran to him yelling ‘help!’ Because Tatiana had already cooked meals for the soldiers, the Commander was appreciative and ordered the soldier to release Maria. The angry Nazi man smashed Tatiana’s face with the rifle butt. She had a scar on her face for the rest of her life.”

The Commander whispered to Tatiana, “You need to hide Maria.” And so she did – in the mud oven. “It was a dangerous hiding spot because soldiers would check the deep ovens by stabbing into them with their rifle knives. Maria was nearly killed when the sword sliced deep cuts in her back. The Nazis didn’t find her that time, but Tatiana knew she had to find a new hiding spot for her daughter,” Brooke said. The cow house in the backyard – a structure used to store feed for cows and pigs and dried cow manure paddies for oven fuel – became Maria’s next hiding place. Tatiana stacked piles of cow chips around her as camouflage. Maria hid in the cow paddies for weeks at a time, surviving on what little food and water Tatiana could sneak to her.

Jewish Boy’s Refuge
According to Alexander’s thesis, “The Jewish population of the Kherson region, just as elsewhere in the German-occupied territories, suffered from tremendous cruelty and had a very low chance of survival.”

“My Babushka Maria told me that in her small village, the Nazis took a Jewish family away and killed them. A son managed to elude the Germans, so Tatiana allowed the boy to hide inside a mud wall in their home. They poked a hole in the wall and gave the boy a small wheat straw through which to breathe. When the German soldiers would arrive, Tatiana put mud on the wall and painted it white to ensure the men could not see the hole,” Brooke said.

Soldiers Spotted Maria
The Jewish boy managed to hide for the full war, but Maria wasn’t as fortunate. A year before the war’s end, soldiers found Maria in hiding and sent her to a German concentration camp. “They forced her to do hard labor…to move rocks and metal pieces. The Nazis used wooden rods to beat her legs to make her work faster. When Maria came home, she had horrible scars on her legs. I asked, ‘What is that grandma?’ She didn’t want to talk about it. She never complained. She said her treatment wasn’t as harsh as the torture her husband’s sister Nina suffered at another camp – Nazis forced her to run outside naked in snow; and they raped her frequently.”

When Maria was 89, her leg was amputated. “It was heartbreaking, but it didn’t slow my Babushka,” Brooke said. “She refused to allow people to bring her food; she would crawl to the table on her own. She was a strong woman who believed one should never give up and that it’s better to help others than one’s self.”

After WWII, a famine was induced by Stalin’s scorched earth policy and a Red Army that pilfered nearly every grain in this breadbasket region of the Ukraine.

After WWII, a famine was induced by Stalin’s scorched earth policy and a Red Army that pilfered nearly every grain in this breadbasket region of the Ukraine.

The War’s Harsh Toll
“According to the Kherson Regional Emergency Committee that was established in the region on May 13, 1944, two months after liberation, 28,500 civilians were shot, 43,589 civilians were tortured to death, and nearly 37,000 were sent to Germany as slave labor,” Alexander’s thesis said.  And Ukrainians who were drafted into the Red Army suffered harsh treatment from the Russians, as well.

“Maria’s father Stepan and brothers  Stepan Jr. and Ivan fought in World War II on the Russian side. One day, the Ukrainian soldiers were marching in the heat for hours. A Russian Commander ordered them to stop and sit. He said, ‘Do not move!’ A badly wounded soldier sitting next to Ivan and Stepan Jr. had cracked lips and whispered to my uncle, ‘Water. Water.’ So Stepan Jr. ran to a river, filled his helmet with water and gave it to the soldier. The Russian Commander came back and said to my uncle, “I ordered you do not move!” He shot Stepan Jr. dead right in front of Ivan.
My uncle was devastated,” Brooke said. (Stepan Sr. also died at war. Ivan is alive today in the Ukraine.)

Post-War Hell
The war’s end was no reprieve for the Ukrainian residents in Musikovka. A famine was induced by Stalin’s scorched earth policy and a Red Army that pilfered the grain in the Ukraine’s breadbasket region. “When the Russians arrived in the village, they were very tough,” Brooke said. “They lined up the whole village and told the armed soldiers, ‘Shoot all of them, because they were helping the Germans. You are all traitors because you gave them food!’

“One brave woman stood up and said, ‘What would you do if you were in our shoes? What would you do if you knew they would take your family? We had no choice. We were worried about our lives.’ The Commander told the soldiers, ‘Okay, don’t kill them.’”

“My Babushka said after World War II everybody was starving. Ukraine once had very rich land full of grain and potatoes, corn, watermelon and tomatoes. Stalin’s troops came in with tractors and they dug up every grain and destroyed the farms. The Russians took everything from us for the people in Moscow.” Tatiana’s hardworking family survived day by day. Maria married Nikolay and they had three daughters, including Luba, who today is Tatiana Brooke’s mother. However, famine persisted and Nikolay lost an eye in combat, returning home as an invalid.

“In 1958, Maria went to work as a cook in a school cafeteria to support her family. But even with a little money, the stores contained practically nothing – no bread, no sugar, no flour. Desperate to bring home food for her own children, Maria took a piece of leftover school bread, wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it in her skirt. Somebody saw her take it and reported it to village government. Officials came to investigate. Maria told them, ‘I had to feed my family. The school was just throwing away the bread.’”

Stoic Endurance

‘Babushka’s of Chernobyl airs later this year in remembrance of the 30th anniversary of the nuclear explosion.

‘Babushka’s of Chernobyl airs later this year in remembrance of the 30th anniversary of the nuclear explosion.

“My Babushka Maria was a very strong woman who never gave up on anything. She made me a stronger person, too. She would tell me ‘it doesn’t matter what is happening in your life, you always need to think positive. My mom, Luba, is very much like Maria and still lives in Kherson. Her favorite time is the summertime because she can eat from her garden – apples, cherries, watermelon and peaches. And when she visits me in the United States, she can hardly believe how much food we have here. She always tells me never to waste any of it – and never, ever take the freedom and opportunity you have in the United States for granted.”

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*A PDF of Anderson’s complete thesis is available at www.SouthFloridaOpulence.com. The citation handle is: hdl.handle.net/2152/22445
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My Babushka, My Hero