Image: my Dad and I at a Ukrainian Social Club event, Hudderfield, UK. 1980s.
For a long time, I’ve debated about sharing a part of my family history for fear of being judged. There’s a terrible word that comes up often in the research that my Mum and I conduct, so much so that we’ve become desensitised to it, but for the wider world, it’s a word that echoes terror and fear.
But, I am no reflection of my ancestors and the choices they made, why they made them, and the struggle they endured to survive so I could exist. For their bravery, I am thankful.
My grandad was a Nazi*
(edit: *he wasn’t a Nazi. He fought for the Germany Army, which came from the Nazi side of things)
Wait, it’s not as simple as that. He wasn’t simply “a Nazi”. I don’t believe he was into their abhorrent ideals. I believe this is a story worth sharing: for education, for posterity. Please save your negative, anti-Nazi comments for your own mind or the Daily Mail: they’re not welcome here. I don’t agree with their actions either! Anyone in my situation, wanting desperately to know where their family hail from: I hope this helps you.
So, my grandma is from Belarus. She was taken from her home aged 14 (so much for chasing boys, gossiping and those childhood ‘worries’ we all take for granted) by the Nazi army invading what was, at the time, Poland. She spent her teenage years being forced to work in a slate factory in Germany, dug trenches for the Nazi army in the Netherlands, and more besides, shifted from camp to camp like a character in many an Oscar-worthy tear-jerking war epic. When I watch those films I watch in awe and fascination: at my grandma’s will to survive, and in sadness – that someone I cared for had to live through that. Because let’s face it, nobody should. Especially not a 14 year-old child, who never saw any of her family ever again. She took many of these stories to her grave.
We know all this because when she was alive, my parents wanted to take her to their holiday home in France. Grandma was never naturalised: she never became a British citizen. War deportees in the 40s and 50s were given permits and papers when they were allowed to settle in the UK by the Government, but never a passport. Her legal status was that of Displaced Person: a person without a home or nation. How heartbreaking is that, to never belong? She had to recount her life story to get a visa to visit France, before eventually applying for war compensation from the Red Cross (the same Red Cross dealing with refugees that you see in the news today), and then a British passport in when living out her 70s.
Can you imagine the fear she must have felt when leaving the UK for France, for a simple vacation? Handing over her papers, hoping she’d be okay, hoping she’d be allowed back in the UK again once they returned home? She never left once she came here in the 1940s, the last time she travelled was as an ex-slave casualty of war. You can see a video I made about her story and how 3 years ago I was reunited with her family right here, and I’ll talk much more about her journey in detail in another post. Today, I want to talk about her husband: my Jeddu.
Jeddu is Ukrainian for ‘grandfather’, and thus having two, I needed to distinguish between them: I grew up with a grandad and a Jeddu. My grandparents met as newly-settled refugees in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, after coming from their respective motherlands. He was from Ukraine, and settled in the community after having spent several years in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Fakenham, Norfolk.
This story has two parts: Jeddu’s history/the tracing of his war records, and my journey to find any living relatives of his. Let’s focus first on his history – what we know, and what we’ve found out.
Jeddu was born one one of 2 dates in the 1920s. Both he and grandma had 2 birth dates, presumed borne of a desire to avoid repatriation and certain death from the Soviet Union post-World War Two: if you were of certain ages (we’re unsure of the details), one wouldn’t have to ‘go back’.
He was born in Drohobyzc in Poland, now Drohobych in the western/Galician region of Ukraine, as moved like below (Drohobych in in the yellow area). It’s near Lvov.
Drohobych was a big deal in the Second World War: the home of a huge Jewish ghetto and camp, and I try not to think about the atrocities that happened in that town.
What we knew before we started researching was, that he was in the German Army, a regiment called the Waffen SS Galizien, also known as the 1st Ukrainian National Army. We don’t know much about his life before then, but we do know he signed up toward the end of the war.
What happened before then? We’re still piecing it together, in a very backwards order. Mum and I found this on Boxing Day night:
Yep, that’s my Jeddu. He’s on a list of soldiers, the entire 1st Ukrainian Army regiment completely with their identification numbers and whatnot. His name, his DOB (hidden), his army regiment, and his hometown. On a Russian website, marked as “was captured (collaborated with the enemy)”. Of course, the Soviets would say that. The Red Army counted him as their own, even though we was part of Poland/Ukraine, a region with a distinct identity, called Galicia in Western Ukraine, near Lvov. This document is a German/Nazi register of all Ukrainians who fought for them, with scribbles all over it in Russian handwriting. But Jeddu was not a USSR deserter, that was a Stalinist view on proceedings.
The added script notes things like “a list of Soviet citizens in camp 5c”, camp 5c being in Rimini, Italy. Remember ‘Rimini’ for a bit later in this post.
This translates to “a list of USSR citizens contained in the Rimini camp 5C (ex-German-Ukrainian SS Divisions, earlier transported to England”
Information relating to file pages:
So Jeddu was fighting for the Nazi side. And it’s here in writing. I’d never seen any evidence before, only been told. When he died, my grandma burned the photo of him in his SS uniform, and I never saw it. I can’t imagine how odd that would have been to see. I’d read a lot about the army, and his regiment, and the operation that brought him to the UK, but I’d never seen anything with his name on, an SS number and well, people effectively spying on him.
We don’t know much about his army career, but from what we can gather he didn’t want to be a communist (even though the Soviets considered him a citizen), so he had no choice to sign up to the Germany Army. We’ve read that, in certain areas, German conscription was effectively in force for all males aged 18-25, so he may not have had a choice. The army is documented as a volunteer regiment, but that’s not so likely once you read into it. The army was pretty desperate and had to reduce its minimum height requirement to encourage more people boost recruitment numbers.
SS Galizien Appeal leaflet in Ukrainian. Includes a description of the division inauguration ceremony. General Government, May 1943.
His family – his brother, his parents – were sent to Siberia by the Russians. They worked forcibly in a salt mine until the 1970s, when they returned home and made contact with Jeddu. Likely a payment for him signing up with the enemy: we’ll never know as he passed in the late 90s.
“Join the fight against Bolshivekism” recruitment poster
We know little about Jeddu’s army years – he maintained he worked in the stores, and that he never fought. My mum, his daughter-in-law, has resigned herself to this, but I think that’s a naive assumption. The 1st Ukrainian Army was involved in some crazy stuff. They were known for three major assaults, and weren’t the Nazis we in Europe normally associate with: they didn’t target the Allied Forces on the Western Front. This was a group of Ukrainian men and a strictly eastern affair targeting Poles and Soviet partisans, sometimes joining up with German forces. We do know that they didn’t really operate near Drohobych.
SS Galizien recruits waiting for district head of the SS Kreishauptmann Galizien in Sanok, Poland. Wikipedia/Muzeum Historyczne Sanok
At The Battle of Brody in 1944 (Brody was a bit prone to attacks), the unit was mostly destroyed (73%) – those captured became slaves or were executed – the 3,000 remaining soldiers being left to rebuild the 14th SS division again. Thinking about that alone makes me a bit of a statistic. Some of the remaining army (2,000 of them) joined the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) who fought against the Soviets well into the 50s. The unit moved to Slovakia, then Slovenia before fighting against the Red Army in Austria in April 1945, where again they suffered major casualties.
In 1945, American war correspondent Edgar Snow visited Ukraine and wrote: “It was not until I went on a sobering journey into this twilight of war that I fully realized the price which 40,000,000 Ukrainians paid for Soviet and Allied Victory. The whole titanic struggle… was first of all a Ukrainian war. No fewer than 10,000,000 people had been lost to… Ukraine since 1941…” A relatively small part of [Russia} was actually invaded, but… Ukraine… was devastated. Poland, Belorussia, and, above all, Ukraine were the battlegrounds of the Eastern Front – trampled and terrorized by the armies of two brutal invaders, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.” 1 (see bottom of post for references)
By 10 May 1945, the Ukrainian 14th SS Grenadier Division surrendered to US and British forces. Which is where Jeddu’s story gets interesting, and a bit creepy.
The Ukrainian soldiers were taken to Rimini (camp 5c – as per the Russian document Jeddu is confirmed in above) in Italy where they were interned in a camp by Polish forces for the next two years whilst numerous nations fought over their fate.
Rimini Displaced Persons’ camp, 1946
The camp itself was an interesting concept: the men created newspapers, buildings, primary and secondary education, businesses, religious organisations and much more besides. There’s a list of all the men who stayed at Rimini at the National Archives, but it’s classified and likely classified indefinitely, to protect the men and their families from tabloid-toting so-called ‘Nazi hunters’ and their peers.
The Russian document I introduced you to earlier in this post clearly documents that the Soviets had their eyes on repatriating their ‘citizens’, and were keeping an eye on them long after the war. The date ‘1953’ sticks out for me as that’s the year my grandparents had their first child, my father.
“During the Division’s internment at Rimini, it was investigated by the British authorities and cleared of war crimes. The British Commission responsible for the investigation noted that the veterans of the Division held no affinity for Hitler but were united by their aversion to Stalin and the USSR. In June 1947 the veterans of the 14th were taken to England, and released. Most settled in Canada, the United States and Britain.” 2
We’ve managed to source some documents from the National Archives in Kew, London, though. I can’t share with them you, but I can tell you that everything was very hush-hush. The Foreign Office, Secretary of State, the Prime Minister at the time and a number of international parties as well as MI5 were involved. There was plenty of discussion about Argentina taking some of the displaced population, and we know that many went to the United States and Canada. References to organisations include Refugee Screening Commission and Surrendered Enemy Personnel Camp. They’re a fascinating insight.
Document collections include:
“…This mass of soldiers, numbering over 10,000, demoralized by the protracted war, morally and physically exhausted by the efforts of the war’s final months, found themselves in questionable circumstances facing an uncertain future. Living in the merciless Mediterranean heat, inadequately nourished and isolated from their loved ones, whose whereabouts and fate were also indeterminate, they succumbed to apathy.” 3
“The boys stood…the sun beat down…one’s head swam and circles floated before one’s eyes… It was difficult to recognize them as the sons of Ukraine’s wide steppes… They were emaciated, with sunken eyes and sharply defined noses. Standing was unbearable. One wanted to escape to the shade of a tent…but they maintained their composure…they were curious’. What would their former fellow soldiers, now their conquerors, have to say, those with whom only two months previously they had shared the soldier’s lot? Thus they stood, their heads bowed, defeated and exiled. Their hopes had not been realized, and many had died in vain…” 3
From what Jeddu told my parents, he was taken by ship to a Polish Resettlement Camp in Fakenham, Norfolk in 1947 where he would have worked and lived for 2 years before being released into the United Kingdom as a free man. As free as the USSR and his memories would let him be. Jeddu doesn’t appear on those ship manifests like many civilians saved do – he was brought to the UK in-secret.
I have much, much more to tell on this story and I will continue to tell it. Mum and I have found out a lot more than in this introduction. We’ve found more, we’re written to places and are trying to find his war records. Yesterday I received a letter from Berlin noting that we’re in a queue and could wait up to 12 months to receive an update, but it’s a start.
My biggest takeaway from whatever you might be thinking right now? My grandma was so inhumanely treated by the German army, yet she married one of them.