My project started off focusing on pilots, but when I was photographing combat pilots in Ukraine I had the opportunity to meet an extraordinary group of women who had been partisans, aircrew and soldiers fighting against the Germans in the Soviet Union and Germany during WWII. Here are some of the photos I made of them.
In time I will write profiles on each of them and post video versions of their stories to my YouTube channel Pilots and Partisans.
I had the privilege and pleasure of photographing and interviewing a truly remarkable group of people. The last women who were active as partisans, who fought as soldiers or aircrew, or who are acknowledged as The Righteous Among Nations for helping Jews when the punishment for doing so was death.
The following photograph is of Vira Fedorivna Volkova. She told me
“Our position was attacked by the Germans. Our machine gunner was killed, so I crawled to him, pushed him aside and started firing at them until I was shot in the leg.
“The bullet is still there”.
She said, pointing at her calf.
Vira Fedorivna walked to the photo session from the Metro and refused my offer of a taxi ride home.
Best regards for now.
It has been a huge privilege to meet these amazing people and photograph them, and of course to hear their remarkable stories.
Here is some of my work, I hope you like it.
Lyubov Belenkaya became a partisan after she finished school and eventually joined the army, fighting all the way across Ukraine to Berlin; where she became famous, because she was filmed directing traffic in front of the Brandenberg Gate.
Sofia Yarova is acknowledged as one of The Righteous Among Nations for saving Jews in Kyiv, an act punishable by death. She later became a much loved teacher. When I spent time with her, I felt I was in the presence of someone truly remarkable. She was filled with love.
Anna Volomeytseva was a tail gunner in a Soviet aircraft and is credited with having shot down a German Bf 109 fighter plane. She told me she used to tell off her pilot with great gusto when they were in air battles. Later they got married and spent a happy life together.
As a young girl Valentina Zymnya led a group of men, who had just escaped from their captors (whom they had killed), to safety in the forest under the very nose of a German patrol. Once they got away they were able to join the partisans.
To understand the risks these women took, it helps to have some idea of the context and the potential consequences of their actions.
So much can be said about this, but I shall settle for this extract from the experience of Julian Eugeniusz Kulski. This young Polish boy was arrested by the Gestapo in Poland and, astonishingly, released after two weeks of interrogation.
Tuesday (July 13, 1943) morning, I was sitting in my cell in total despair, thinking about my parents whom I was now sure I would never see again. But the ‘Kapo,’ the criminal trustee, suddenly called to me, ‘You are being set free.’
He gave me my release card. I just could not believe it!
But I was the only one who was silent. From the gloomy corners of the cell, sad jealous eyes looked at me and I heard everyone saying that I was lucky. The rule of the Pawiak prison is that the innocent go to Auschwitz, the guilty before a firing squad. Being released is almost unheard of.
Half an hour later I was sitting in the prison van on the way to Szucha Avenue.
Three pretty girls, their heads erect, were sitting by me in the van. Their quiet dignity caught my attention. I started to share my joy with them, but they told me that they were to be executed. The Germans had found out that they belonged to the Underground Army. They were Krystyna (16), Barbara (17) and Irena (20).
They told me about their fate so simply and openly that I did not know how to reply. Finally, I shook hands with each of them, and in this way paid tribute to their bravery. As a good-bye, they asked me to say a prayer for them in church.
Back at Szucha Avenue, I was put into the ‘sanitorium’ waiting room again. A man sitting near me had a face which one could call neither human nor animal. His jaw and cheekbones were all out of place and covered with coagulated blood. In place of his right eye was a raw wound. I could only wonder how he was still alive.
A lady of about thirty years of age was sitting on the next chair, quietly discussing with a companion the tortures she had gone through. She was talking about them in a strangely matter-of-fact way, her arms crossed over bandages where her breasts used to be. She said she had been told that she would be put on the rack sometime the next day, and implied that she hoped everything would end at last.
These people who, for their country or their faith, were suffering torture and death so bravely made a deep impression on me, and I could not help wondering if I would be so brave if it happened to me.
The above is an extract from the book by Julian Engeniusz Kulski: Dying, We Live: The personal chronicle of a young freedom fighter in Warsaw (1939-1945).
I feel it is extremely important that we never forget what happened in places like Poland and Ukraine (and a long list of other places). History shows again and again that humans are capable of the most appalling barbarity, if circumstances allow.
And in the 30’s and 40’s circumstances allowed even the most civilized nations to commit unspeakable atrocities. Let us never forget that this happened. Let’s not sweep it under the table and pretend it never happened. It did happen and it continues to happen on Europe’s border. And in my opinion it is not out of the question it could happen again in Europe.
I know it is a worn cliche, but forgetting what happened, especially at a personal level, as retold by individuals who went through it, is likely to make possible a set of circumstances that will pave the way for a repeat of the tragedy.
John Martin Bradley