The days are quiet now for several Russian men who live modestly in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. Little excitement passes their way. But once in a while they get together and talk about what they did more than 60 years ago near the Volga River in Russia.
These rare men fought and survived in what many historians consider to be the greatest and bloodiest combat in all of history - The Battle of Stalingrad.
Up to two million people died there from August, 1942 to Feb. 2, 1943. When it was over, the once proud and mighty 6th Army of Germany - as well as the Nazi aura of invincibility - was like the city of Stalingrand itself; in ruins.
Some of the veterans, brought to America decades ago by sons and daughters. sat recently in the Hollywood Boulevard offices of the Russian newspaper “Panorama” and talked about the ferocity that was Stalingrad.
West Hollywood resident Vladimir Barkon was not quite 17 when his military training was cut short and he received orders to “get on a train.”
“At first we didn’t know where we were going, so we weren’t scared,” said Barkon, 79, a short, stocky man with the dour look of a Brezhnev-era politburo member. Then one September night, Barkon and about 800 others were told they were being sent to the front. “There was no fear. Absolutely nyet.”
The fear would come later.
On, Sept. 29, 1942 Vladimir Barkon crossed the Volga.
““The river was on fire,” said Barkon who is vice president of the Association of Russian Veterans. “We crossed as fast as we could. Many people died on the boat.”
After crossing the river and entering the shattered city, the Russians cowered from German Stuka dive bombers whose engine’s screaming howl was utterly terrifying.
“They made such a horrible noise,” said Moysev Duginsky, 81. “The Germans were blowing up everything. What was left to defend was already destroyed.”
They defended the infamous Tractor Factory, scene of the most horrific close quarters fighting. For these Russians life was, as stated in Anthony Beevor’s book “Stalingrad - The Fateful Siege”- “an endless hell of automatic fire, sniper shots, artillery explosions, Stuka dive bombers, Russian Katyusha rockers, heavy smoke, rubble, hunger, sleepless nights and the stench of death.”
Many consider the battle to be the “turning point” of the war, including the United States President at the time. The Russians proudly show off a copy of a proclamation.
“In the name of the people of the United States of America I present this scroll to the city of Stalingrad to commemorate our admiration for the gallant defender whose courage, fortitude and devotion during the siege in 1942 and ‘1943 will inspire forever the hearts and minds of free people. Their glorious victory stemmed the tide of the invasion and marked the turning point of the war of the Allied Nations against the force of aggression.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 19, 1944.
“You see,” said Barkon, who was wounded in the tractor factory and later worked as a construction manager, “The Americans know all about Stalingrad. But, they pretend they don’t. Here, all you hear about is Normandy and how they beat the Germans there.”
Attempts to find German survivors of the battle were unsuccessful. “I don’t know anyone who survived Stalingrad who lives here,” said Michael Wolff, press attache of the German Consulate of Los Angeles.
Mikail Volman thinks back on the German enemy.
“I remember the German soldiers were so full of pride when they were attacking,” said Volman, 80, who has lived with his wife in Santa Monica since 1992. “And I remember how pitiful they looked when they were captured.”
During the United States’ march toward Baghdad, Volman heard reports how the city might be “defended like Stalingrad.”
Volamn and Barkon laugh at that thought.
“Only people who have no idea of what Stalingrand was could make such a comparison,” said Volman. who became an electrical engineer after the war. “Don’t even ask me about the weather. I still get shivers.”
One of the Russians brought his proof. Like the Burgess Meredith character Mickey in “Rocky” who carries around an old newspaper clipping of his glory days, Makail Lembersriy removes a folded piece of paper from his worn brown wallet. With a nod and the barest crack of a smile, he hands the yellowed paper to a translator. It is a certificate stating that Lembersriy, a sergeant in the 62nd Army of Russia fought at Stalingrad. The old soldier retrieves the paper, folds it carefully and works it back into the wallet.
Some of the men showed off medals they had earned during World War II. Irene Parker, the editor of Panorama, deeply admires them. “These men are rare,” said Parker. “Nine out of 10 of our fighters were killed in Stalingrad. It is not common to see men such as these. It wasn’t hard for the government to give them medals. There weren’t many medals to give out because there weren’t many men who survived.”