Poor economy turns neighbors into killers

Ukrainian woman slain for her reparations pay

May 06, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OTINIYA, Ukraine - In the awful days of the war, the Germans took Maria Kolybabjuk away, but they didn't kill her. They made her work. It was her neighbors who did the murder, just last winter.

Yet a thread leads from one to the other, across the decades. Half a century after more than 7 million people were forced to leave their homes in Eastern and Central Europe and labor without pay in the factories and fields of the Third Reich, the Germans have begun making reparations to those still alive.

Kolybabjuk, living at the age of 71 on a pension of $12 a month, had received a first installment - 650 German marks, or about $325. She spent a little but put the rest away, stuffed into a purse in her wardrobe.

Three neighbors, drunk and broke, knew it was there because there are no secrets in a little village such as Otiniya, and they went in to get it. Before they were done, they had stomped her to death.

The crime reverberated through the town. People were angry that young men of their village had fallen so low, that the factories had closed and the money had dried up. They were scared, too, and they were angry because they were scared.

"This is an indescribable shock and pain in the soul," said the Rev. Ivan Moroz, the Orthodox priest here.

People in Otiniya - survivors of war, Stalinism, Communist mismanagement and then economic collapse - are wondering where it will end.

Kolybabjuk hadn't talked about her deportation very much, and maybe people knew why without asking. Fifty years in Soviet, and then post-Soviet, Ukraine could have been enough to make her reflect that her life as a forced worker in Germany was not, as it should have been, a distant nightmare, but a tolerable prelude to a lifetime of unhappiness.

She had worked as a so-called "ausarbeiter" on a farm there, taking care of the farmer's children. She once told an acquaintance, wistfully, that the farmer had given her a bicycle and asked her to stay on after the war.

Several years ago neighbors thought they saw her across the fields in the cemetery where German war dead are buried; she was with some elderly German tourists, and they were hugging.

"Her house was small," Moroz said, "but it had the kind of order you'd find only in the house of an ausarbeiter. Neat. Well-ordered. The people who survived Germany and the work there have a different view of everything. Good manners, and love and respect."

Mikhailo Bogachenko, a few years older than Kolybabjuk, talked to her just once about the war, a few years ago. "She said if she'd been in the American sector when the war ended and not the Soviet one, she'd have run away to America and been happy."

Kolybabjuk lived alone in a tiny whitewashed house out past the fields. She never married and had no close relatives. She used to stop and chat sometimes with the farm families along Doroshenko Street, which leads into town, and with Father Ivan, who lives on the way to the sausage store, and with the women down at the train station, where she once worked as a janitor in the shop, until it closed down.

She was born in 1929, in a nearby village in what was then southeastern Poland. When she was 10, the Soviet Union and Germany divided Poland between themselves; this whole region, once the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, became Soviet.

In 1941 it was overrun by the invading Nazis. A year later, Maria and her mother, Nastya, were deported together to Germany, after Hitler ordered the removal of a half-million Ukrainian young women to work in the Reich. What became of her father, Adolf, is unknown.

At the time of her death, Kolybabjuk had been preparing an application for further reparations, to a $5 billion fund set up in July by the German government called "Memory, Responsibility and Future." Neighbors had been helping her with the writing, because she was illiterate. In it she said that she had been deported to a farm in a town called Bad Polsen - though no place by that name appears to exist in Germany today.

Altogether, about 2.5 million people were forced to leave the Soviet Union to work in Germany - that amounts to about 20,000 a week during the war.

Of the 7 million ausarbeiters who came from all countries, millions died, but an estimated 1.5 million to 2.3 million are alive today, according to statistics collected in Germany.(While this mostly Slavic population was being rounded up for work, Eastern Europe's Jews were being killed on the spot or sent off to death camps in even greater numbers.)

When the war ended, 16-year-old Maria returned with her mother to her native village, now again part of the Soviet Union. Galicia had been spared the artificial famines that Josef Stalin unleashed in the 1930s on the rest of Ukraine, but life took a grim turn nonetheless.

"In the 1950s they started the collective farm," said Anelje Guk, who lives on Doroshenko Street. "They took away our cows and horses and tools. Of course it was a disaster."

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