Volodymyr Szafranowycz survived the worst that the 20th Century could serve up. He is now dead; a troubled death in many ways – but who complains when death comes in their 80s? His family recorded the details of this 20th Century life in a life story video memorial. A video memorial whose value is now assured by the disappearance and eternal inaccessibility of its subject.
The 20th Century was one of the ugliest in all of human history. Nations rose and fell, wars and revolutions were fought, and there was starvation and genocide – to say nothing of economic collapse and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. More than a few still alive among us suffered through much of this maelstrom. And some, like Volodymyr Szafranowycz – who survived the Nazis and more – have had video memorials erected to their passing.
Was the 20th Century the bloodiest in all of humanity’s experience? Based on the sheer and absolute volume of death recorded, the answer has to be yes. The numbers are so staggering as to be incomprehensible. But is it really as Stalin once said: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”? For those who swam in the violent waters of the 20th Century, who came close to death themselves or who had loved ones die, there is tragedy aplenty in that million. And even more tragedy in the millions more who also perished.
Consider the life of a person – like Volodymyr – who at their inception in 1915 felt the concussions of the guns of the First World War, who lost their father to the civil war and the communist revolution in Russia, who suffered through the famine orchestrated by Stalin to kill off the troublesome Kulaks (and associated peasants); who was pressed into service to defend Soviet Russia against the German Army – only to become a prisoner of the Nazis.
Consider the chances for surviving all of those events – only to emerge at the other end of the Second World War to be captured anew and imprisoned by their own country accused of collaboration because they had not died defending their motherland.
Extraordinary as all that may sound to modern ears, you could almost say that that person had a pretty average 20th Century. Better than some it’s true, worse than others. Luckier than some to be sure, less fortunate than others. Not that special. Not that unusual.
WWII Survivor: Life Story Video Memorial
He was born in Ukraine in 1915. His father was on the side of the communist revolutionaries and so Volodymyr saw little of him when he was a boy. And then Lenin died and Stalin took over the Party. And Volodymyr’s father was shot as a “counter revolutionary”.
Next the “Holodomor”, a famine encouraged by the Communists in 1932/3 to help rid the country of Kulak holdouts – those small farmers resisting the drive to collectivize the land and means of production, as the Party dictated. Volodymyr survived that, although his grandmother succumbed to the hunger and his uncle was eaten (cannibalized). He saw childhood friends waste away and die – including one boy who staggered to the cemetery to die – to be less of a burden on his family.
By the time Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Volodymyr had been conscripted into the Soviet Army. Volodymyr’s voice can be heard elsewhere in the video memorial (he made audio tapes when he was in his 70s) telling how there were not quite enough guns to go around – but the men were reassured that with the normal toll of battle a rifle would become available as comrades fell. Stationed in Poland – in the land which Stalin had occupied in his side deal with Hitler – Volodymyr was captured on the first day of the invasion. He didn’t have time to find that gun – the Germans were like a tide.
Volodymyr was not Jewish – so he was spared the worst of the Nazi’s hatred. But he was a “Slav”, which put him near the bottom of the Nazi race totem pole. He was not going to get any special favors and he became a prisoner of war and spent time in a concentration camp. But as he was the first to admit, it could have been much worse. Because he survived the ordeal and escaped the German child and elderly guards as the Russians advanced.
Frying pan to fire
He was saved, right? Not so much. Stalin had specifically said that soldiers must die defending their country. Volodymyr was imprisoned by the Soviets: his crime then was that he did not die, as mandated. He was interrogated by SMERSH. (Volodymyr’s voice can be heard to crack as he recounts this story in the video memorial.) He was forced to dig his own grave. A gun was put to his head. What else did he know? What could he know? He survived with just a bashing. He was to be sent back to Mother Russia to be dealt with there.
So late one night it was a squeeze under the barbed wire and escape to the American Zone. Then three years as a displaced person in a UNRAA Camp. Then he was on a ship. He was getting to emigrate to a new country. Of course he had no family, no qualifications, he was 33 and he had no money. And he couldn’t speak the language of his new home.
You gotta love that 20th Century. Quite a doozy.
But Volodymyr Szafranowycz’s life story is just not that unusual for a 20th Century European. His suffering wasn’t all that bad. There is barely a single Jewish family that does not have a far more chilling story that Volodymyr’s. And what about the blighted Armenians – to name just one more persecuted group?
But these stories are still important, if not unique. The people involved are more than the mere statistics that Stalin would condemn them to be. They are flesh and blood. And families have a duty to record these stories – to record all their stories of death, suffering, immigration, struggle and survival. And life story video memorials are one way of doing that for people who have passed.
A thoughtfully assembled video memorial will collect all the material remaining of the life just passed – the photographic record, the yellowing identity papers and immigration records, maps, the detritus of war service, the good opinions, the chronology, the genealogy, the audio and video which may have been made once the subject reached sanctuary. All that material can be woven into a fitting and deserved memorial recorded to video for all of posterity. This is work that can be done on a home computer and there are professionals who specialize in preserving extraordinary stories in video memorials .