Former Soviet soldier shares his war stories with history students

April 16, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

The hunger, snow, frigid temperatures and the relentless German Army made life unbearable for Soviet soldier Leonid Kalichman during World War II. He often wondered if it would be better if he died.

"The situations were terrible," said Mr. Kalichman, who last week shared his story with honors students at Howard Community College. "With the cold, hunger and incredible discomfort, sometimes I thought it would be a blessing to die."

Mr. Kalichman, 75, survived the war and the brutal Battle of Stalingrad, in which Soviet deaths totaled 1.1 million. But his parents, a brother and two sisters were killed by the Germans during the war. "I lost everything," he said.

Mr. Kalichman's presentation to a European history class came at the invitation of Professor Vladimir Marinich, who sought a way to make the war come alive for the students on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II later this year.

Two other local World War II veterans, Gerald B. Johnston and Joseph Spontak, both of whom served in the U.S. armed forces, addressed Mr. Marinich's western civilization class.

Mr. Johnston, 69, a former paratrooper, was wounded in the Netherlands when his platoon tried to capture a bridge in St. Oedenrode.

Mr. Spontak, 70, a B-24 bomber navigator, was shot down Aug. 3, 1944, over the southern Alps in Germany and held eight months in three German POW camps. He was freed from a camp in Moosburg, Germany, on April 29, 1945, by Gen. George S. Patton and his troops.

"It's a good time to have some kind of information and assessment of what went on," Mr. Marinich said. "This is reality. By bringing somebody who was there, you're getting firsthand information about what the war was like."

Standing behind a lectern in the classroom, Mr. Kalichman, speaking with a strong Russian accent, recounted his war experiences while his wife, Irene, sat in the first row.

The native of Moldova, Romania, was drafted into the Soviet Army on June 22, 1941. He served until the war ended in 1945.

At the beginning of the war, the former student watchmaker served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit and was later assigned to lay and remove mines.

"It was a mistake to pick up the mines," he told the students. "The mines exploded."

He served two months in the 200-day Battle of Stalingrad, now Volgograd, in which Soviet soldiers fought the German troops, who on Sept. 14, 1942, had forced their way into the industrial center on the banks of the Volga River. "I lost many friends there," Mr. Kalichman said. "I think sometimes that I was dying.

"Soldiers in the middle of the war had to sleep in trenches and in some kind of dugouts. When you go out in the snow, you come back and you lost your food."

Mr. Kalichman survived the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the decisive battles of World War II, unscathed, but he returned home to learn that German forces had killed his parents and three of his siblings.

He later moved into an apartment with a surviving sister and got a job in a watch factory.

Seeking freedom, he wanted to leave Communist Romania, but his wife, who was a psychiatrist, wanted to stay. He eventually persuaded her to leave in 1989, and they came to the United States with one of their sons. Two years later, their other son followed. The couple, who live in Columbia, became U.S. citizens last July. "I like it here," Mrs. Kalichman said. "I am an American person."

To prove to the students that he served in World War II -- what the former Soviet Union called "The Great Struggle for the Fatherland" -- Mr. Kalichman passed around his three Soviet Army medals and official Soviet documentation.

Students said they appreciated Mr. Kalichman's willingness to share his story.

"The information is important to pass on so we don't have it

happen again, the Nazi regime," Keith Burdett said. She took the course "out of respect" for her father, who was a colonel in World War II, and other veterans.

"They gave their lives for us so we can have freedom now," she said.

Before Mr. Kalichman left, he thanked the students. "Thank you," they responded, applauding.

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