What the Nazi-Soviet Fight in Ukraine Tells Us About the War TodayRoundup
tags: Russia, Ukraine, World War 2, Eastern European History
Pascal Trees is an Eastern Europe historian and a freelance translator.
They were always there. The paintings, sketches and a pair of small Christian Orthodox icons that seemed strangely out of place. Ever since my widowed grandfather found himself a new companion, his children and grandchildren, myself included, would get invited to her house for various family reunions. Sitting at the dining table in her parlor, we found ourselves surrounded by an artwork collection that would always, at some point, become a topic of conversation.
Some watercolor paintings depicted bright summer streets in the southwest of France, but many more came from vastly different places and stood in stark contrast to those holiday scenes. They showed mostly women and children with an air of misery about them, an impression reinforced by a striking black-and-white sketching technique. To be sure, no undiscovered Picasso had been at work here, but the artist clearly knew what he was doing: portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, even a few battle scenes. German infantry in positions near Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Fighter planes attacking some ship. A painter at war? A painting soldier? These images were as inscrutable as they were fascinating.
As it turned out, Ulla, my soon-to-be new grandmother, couldn’t offer much in the way of an explanation. We knew that the artist was her own father, Anton Kellerhaus, a skilled painter who was drafted into Hitler’s army. For simplicity’s sake, and because it’s pretty much his German nickname, I’ll just call him Tony here. He served in the Soviet Union, including parts of Russia and Ukraine — though it was more common in West Germany to refer to this area collectively as Russia and Russian — and perished when Ulla, his first-born daughter, was only 4 years old. Growing up during the late 1940s and early 1950s, she found herself alone with a baby sister and her mother, who would promise the girls their father’s return for quite some time before she eventually gave up on him. Therese Kellerhaus had her husband declared dead five years after the war and never remarried. That, and the fact that Tony’s last letter to her was dated Aug. 15, 1944, was about all we knew for sure. Otherwise, details were vague. The circumstances and even the place of his death were unclear. Uttering the words “missing in Russia” worked like a spell that rendered all further questions pointless. Everything about this missing man seemed to confirm what a German military leader had pointed out long ago. “Russia is so vast, she would swallow the largest army.” Tony had belonged to one of them.
Still, there was a story here, and as I happened to be the family’s freshly minted historian of Eastern Europe, I found myself called upon to do something about it, even though nobody would say it aloud and expectations seemed generally low. After all, that parlor-decorating artwork had been there for a long time, and the documents he left had been stowed away by Ulla in two binders marked “Letters from my father.” There was no hurry, especially since nobody else could get to them. But that all changed on Feb. 24, 2022.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed his armies on Ukraine, failed to capture Kyiv and redirected them to the Donbas area, Tony’s letters and sketches from Mariupol turned our family history project into a matter of current affairs. “In Ukraine,” he wrote in February 1943, “everything is really, totally different from the rest of filthy Russia. … A completely different people that has nothing at all to do with the other Russians appears to have settled in this place. It would be tragic if we could not put a stop to the Russians’ advance here, but what is one to do?”
Yes, what indeed? Tony’s blatantly racist remark on Russia aside, he must have gained an insight that prompted this comparison. Finding how a German soldier’s ideas about the enemy country and its people evolved may radically change the way we look at their war against the Soviets and provide a historical lens on the conflict inflicted on the area today. The German army had been called upon to fight a war of annihilation against a state that was home to an “inferior race,” and we have come to imagine them with an ideology-infused, murderous mindset that goes a long way to explain the horrors of this most devastating of land wars. This is all true, yet if Tony’s letters are anything to go by, there appears to have been more to their experiences.
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