Return to the scene of the crime
PAINTING REPRODUCTION COURTESY S.G. KOROLKOFF
“Betrayal of the Cossacks at Lienz” by S.G. Korolkoff. Korolkoff was a survivor of the forced repatriations and the people depicted in the painting were all real people who were there. Korolkoff recreated the faces from photographs.
My father was driving me nuts, but my mother had made me promise not to kill him.
Before we even arrived at Villach, the Austrian town where he was born shortly after World War II, it became obvious I was more interested in exploring the place than he was.
"These aren't really my roots," he said. "I didn't really live here. My parents didn't really live here. It was more like some place we were passing through. This is like trying to find the taxicab you were born in."
While he didn't consider our visit to his birthplace germane to our purpose, we were in Austria to explore our roots.
A few miles down the road from Villach is a town called Lienz where, in a little-known episode of history, 30,000 Russians who had fled Stalin's tyranny before and during the Second World War were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. Many were killed by British soldiers for trying to escape; many more were beaten for resisting.
An untold number of them committed suicide rather than return.
My grandparents, great-aunt and then-infant uncle were among those who survived and escaped.
The episode has been little discussed. You rarely see it in history books. The first reference I ever heard to it outside family stories or the Russian-American immigrant community was a James Bond movie — the main villain's motivation was taking revenge on Great Britain because his parents were at Lienz.
Since my father's semi-retirement, he's conceived of a number of projects. One of them was collaborating with me on a book about the incident and how our family made its way across Europe during and after the war.
I didn't need any convincing.
Background in order
My father, William Dritschilo, and I are Cossacks, members of a group of Russians most easily described as a socio-political subculture that evolved into a distinct ethnicity, though some scholars will doubtless argue with that definition.
Cossacks were romanticized by authors such as Tolstoy and Pushkin in a manner similar to the American cowboy — they were proud, free-spirited men and ferocious warriors. They were also demonized by Russian Jews — not always unjustly — as brutal anti-Semites who gleefully joined in pogroms.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Jews and Muslims became Cossacks, showing there was a tolerance of other religions, but those who fought the Cossacks did not simply imagine the terror they willfully inflicted on opponents.
"There's a mindset," said Vassily Leshko, a Cossack my father and I shared breakfast with one morning. "Where we're from, if someone comes to your village, there aren't forests and mountains to hide in. You fight. You and I would be good fighters together because we are from the same tribe, we have the same mindset."
Through history, the Cossacks alternated between fighting for the Tsars and against them. The Cossack nation, such as it was, split during the 1917 revolution and subsequent Civil War. Many left Russia during this time, taking up residence elsewhere in Europe.
Those who stayed faced brutal oppression under Stalin. The terror famine and seemingly endless purges swallowed up a great many Russians. Cossacks may not have a greater claim to suffering than any other group, but there was more than enough suffering to go around.
My grandfather, Peter Dritschilo, was sent to a Siberian gulag at the age of 19, shortly after an incident involving a horse whose Party-allotted grain had been eaten by peasants. A jury-rigged harness failed to convince an inspector the horse was healthy enough to stand on its own rather than starving to death.
While the Communists managed to kill his father, a small farmer shot for the crime of having owned land, Peter Dritschilo survived Siberia. When World War II began, he found himself fighting in the Red Army.
While many Cossacks fought to defend "Holy Mother Russia" against the invasion — some were even volunteers — others were fighting for the Germans. Some saw the chance to regain their ancestral lands, while others simply hoped to bring an end to the nightmare that was Stalinism.
It is hard to sympathize with people who cast their lot with the Nazis, who have, for good reason, become synonymous with "ultimate evil." A little perspective is required.
An argument that Hitler and Stalin were not morally equivalent would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to defend. For a great many Russians, Stalin and the Communist Party weren't just the devil they knew, but the devil who had been actively murdering them for almost a quarter of a century.
There had been descriptions of Hitler's depravity in the Soviet media, but nobody considered these to be credible sources of information. It was just as natural for the Cossacks, along with many other oppressed Soviet peoples, to see Hitler as a potential savior as it was for England and America, who never had a full and accurate picture of Stalin's atrocities against his own nation, to see Stalin as a key and valued ally.
The Cossacks who fought in the Wehrmacht never fired a shot at American or British forces, whom they did not consider their enemies. Their fight was with Stalin, and their activities were confined to battling the Red Army and partisans in places like Yugoslavia.
At the end of the war in Europe, my grandparents were among the more than 30,000 Cossacks who found themselves in British custody in Lienz, Austria, and the surrounding Drau River Valley. Some were those who had fought under the German flag, others, like my grandparents, were refugees. Still others were of that group that had left Russia decades ago.
Many of the Cossacks had an affection for the British, either remembering their attempt to intervene on behalf of the Whites during the Civil War or buying into the notion that Britain was "the most civilized nation on Earth." They got along well with the British soldiers stationed in the area and they thought their struggle was over.
Unfortunately for them, their fate had already been decided at the Yalta Conference, where Churchill and Roosevelt promised Stalin all Soviet Nationals would be returned to him, whether they wanted to go or not.
The British kept this from the Cossacks, disarming them and spiriting away their officers before notifying them of their imminent return. There were protests and petitions addressed to Churchill, the King of England and even the Pope saying they would sooner die than return to the Soviet Union.
On June 1, 1945, many got their wish. As the group's priests led them all in prayer, a massive crowd of Cossacks faced down armed soldiers who had been ordered to round them up, using deadly force if necessary. Some fought, some ran. According to various accounts, they were clubbed, bayoneted and shot.
Those who the soldiers managed to subdue were first put on trucks and then in train cars and taken to the Soviet occupation sector. British soldiers who turned over the Cossacks reported hearing machine gun fire as they departed. Many of those who were not promptly executed would be sent to Siberia.
What outraged survivors the most was that many of those at Lienz had never been Soviet citizens and thus were not subject to repatriation under the Yalta agreement. The British officers at Lienz, though, made no such distinction and ordered all the Cossacks returned during the first few days of repatriation.
The roundups went on for days, but the British soldiers quickly lost their taste for it, and were increasingly willing to look the other way.
My grandparents were among a group that hid in a ravine. My grandfather, according to the story, was then picked up and taken away in a military vehicle, my grandmother fearing she would never see him again.
Some time later, he returned with a note signed by a British officer saying he could bring some animals to a nearby hotel called The Golden Fish. With this note he moved about 30 of his comrades to safety.
Reports of the dead at Lienz, those killed by the British and those who took their own lives, vary widely.
"I don't think you can ever know the numbers," my father said. "The army always inflates the number of enemy killed, but this was something they'd want to minimize. The highest estimate is 600 to 700. That's just people who were killed that day, not taken away and then killed by the Soviets."
My grandparents made their way from Lienz to Villach, where my father was born Vassily Dritschilo. While he never legally changed the name, he had not gone by it since childhood.
"I never wanted to be a Russian," he said. "I wanted to be an American. When I was an age, there were all these Russian women my parents presented me with — I wanted nothing to do with them."
As he grew older, my father began rediscovering his heritage, a process that ultimately brought us to the grounds where our family narrowly escaped destruction 60 years earlier.
My father and I stood in Italy, staring up at the Alps. My grandparents crossed these mountains, going from Tolmezzo to Austria as the war came to an end. They are very different from what we as Vermonters think of as mountains — they seem to shoot straight up and tower over you.
"Picture this," he says. "Your grandmother asks your grandfather where they are going. He points and says 'across those mountains.' She has a baby and they are on foot."
It does, at face value, seem like a foolish idea. It seems even more foolish when the Plockenpass is seen close up. The pass consists of tight, narrow switchbacks up sheer cliffs. The thought of moving 30,000 people through here, including children and the elderly, in one night with almost nothing in the way of modern transportation, is awe-inspiring.
The Drau Valley is a green and pleasant land surrounded by such mountains on all sides. The fighting never made it here, and it is easy to see how many of the Cossacks might have thought they were in paradise, delivered from the war into such a beautiful countryside.
"They had to like it," my father said. "There was what someone called a feeling of giddiness. Here they were, they'd survived the war and the British were behaving so nicely to them."
On our way back to Lienz from Italy, we stumbled across the Cossack cemetery.
A small lot between a housing development and an industrial park, the cemetery is on what was once Camp Peggetz, where the group that included my grandparents made their final stand. Twenty-eight white crosses with Russian inscriptions mark the spot where an unknown number of the victims were buried.
"It's funny to think that you could go your whole life without ever knowing that a place like this or the events that happened here existed," my father said. "There's things like that all over the world."
Galena Tkacenko led us along the Drau River. She moved swiftly, every now and then pausing to gaze into a gap in the brush.
"No," she said. "No, no, no, no, no."
We were looking for a bridge that wasn't there anymore. When the violence began, many Cossacks raced across the small wooden footbridge before British soldiers blocked it off.
Others flung themselves over the side, drowning themselves in the swiftly running green waters of the Drau.
"I was 13-1/2 years old," she said. "We crossed the bridge and we went into the woods, into the mountains."
Many people hid in the mountains for days, some eventually giving up, some eventually getting help from others who found a way out. Others didn't make it — many accounts tell of gunfire in the hills.
Finally, she found the spot. It is marked with a cross bearing the words "Cossack massacre" in German.
We were a short walk from the Cossack cemetery, where a service commemorating the 60th anniversary of the massacre would be held in a few minutes. Survivors, their descendents and other Cossacks from Russia, the U.S., and other countries were there, along with German and Russian media. The crowd numbered more than 100.
People began arriving early in the morning, many in the colorful uniforms of the various Cossack nations.
One was Alexander Pewnew a survivor who was 16 years old at the time of the massacre. He now lives in New Jersey and is the Ataman — an elected Cossack leader — of the eastern United States. He opened the service by giving a speech describing the events of that day.
"Cossackdom was not destroyed," he concluded in Russian. "It came back to life and is going to live forever. We're going to pass on this memory to the next generation. Glory to the Cossacks."
The next speaker was Father Michael Protopopov, a Russian Orthodox priest from Australia.
"I want to call your attention to brothers and sisters back in the homeland who are not here," he said in Russian. "They know of Lienz very little. They know there are Cossacks here who fought for the freedom of Russia. Cossacks should not be shy. Cossacks in the homeland and in foreign lands for 80 years have been protecting Cossack freedom."
Protopopov presided over the religious service, leading the group in traditional sing-song Russian prayers and walking about the now-crowded cemetery swinging a smoking censer. Protopopov's father was one of the priests performing Mass during the massacre.
In Villach, tension grew between me and my father until we finally found something in which we were both interested — the local brewery. As we took refuge in the shade of a beer garden, I asked him if he could at least say something poignant about visiting his birthplace.
"I'll say something all right," he said with an all-too-familiar smile. "But I doubt you'll be able to print it."
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at email@example.com.
Galena Tkacenko shows William Dritschilo where a wooden footbridge once crossed the River Drau. Tkacenko was 13 years old when her family escaped the massacre at Lienz by crossing the bridge and hiding in the woods. Others, who were not so lucky, jumped off the bridge and drowned.
“The Golden Fish” looks much as it did in 1945, when a note signed by a British major allowing him to bring some cows and horses here helped Peter Dritschilo and dozens of others escape being returned to the Soviet Union.Dritschilo poses with Vassily Leshko, who is wearing the traditional uniform of the Kuban Cossacks — the “tribe” of Dritschilo’s family.