YAKUTSK, Russia (AP) — On the 75th anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II, The Associated Press spoke to veterans in ex-Soviet countries and discovered that lessons they learned during the war are helping them cope with a new major challenge — the coronavirus pandemic. As they recalled the horrors of the war, they also talked about how strength and tenacity were key to survival both then and now. Here is some of their testimony.
‘GIVING IN TO PANIC IS LIKE SURRENDERING TO THE ENEMY’
For Russian World War II veteran Valentina Efremova, the coronavirus pandemic is like going through the war all over again.
After the war, the 96-year-old said, “our lives were improving, year after year. And suddenly there’s this pandemic, which is like another war … this time, a biological one.”
But Efremova knows better than to panic and believes the outbreak — just like the Nazis back in the 1940s — will be defeated in the end. “Giving in to panic is like surrendering to the enemy,” she said.
Efremova served as a nurse in field hospitals on the front lines of the Red Army throughout the war and the apartment she shares with her daughter in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Yakutsk is decorated with numerous war-time photos. Dozens of medals weigh heavily on her jacket.
A 17-year-old high school student, she lived with her family in a small town north of Moscow when the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was a nice summer, she recalls, and everyone was planning their vacations.
“And then, like a bombshell, Molotov’s (the USSR’s foreign minister) announcement came: On June 22, at 4 a.m., the war started. Hitler attacked us,” Efremova said.
Efremova was first drafted to dig trenches outside Moscow. After several weeks, she volunteered to help out the army medics and started working in field hospitals. “I’d never had anything to do with medicine, not to mention the horror of seeing mutilated men — both young and old,” she said.
She worked as a military nurse for the next four years, moving around the country with her division. She tended wounds, fed and dressed soldiers, played guitar and sang to her patients. “They would sing along,” she said. “They seemed no longer in as much pain. They seemed at home.”
By the end of the war, she carried three war wounds, including one that makes her limp to this day.
Efremova was having lunch not far from Kaliningrad in Western Russia on May 9, 1945, when she heard gun shots. Efremova’s first thought was that it was yet another Nazi attack, but it turns out it was Russian officers firing shots into the air, celebrating victory.
Efremova remembers the joyous moment to this day and says that marking the 75th anniversary of Victory Day is important to Russian veterans. For many of them, it could be the last one.
She is used to celebrating the occasion with lots of guests in the house. On Saturday, they are planning a small parade outside her window. She realizes there might not be that many such celebrations left.