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Stephan Kurylla


Interview by Eric Tobey
 

This interview was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

The following interview is a compilation of numerous conversations which took place between January and June of 1992.  My introduction to this individual occurred in an interesting way: one day, while talking with a number of machinists in the shop where I worked, someone mentioned that I spoke German.  Another machinist beckoned to a small-statured man nearby and told me that this man also spoke the language.  The small man approached wearing the broad grin which I would later automatically associate with him.  He was introduced as Steve (really Stephan) Kurylla, and when I asked him "Sind Sie Deutsch?", he replied "Nein, Ukrainische." (No, Ukranian)  He said this in a sort of comic-opera voice which made everyone laugh.  When I asked him where he learned German, he replied "In Deutschland! Ich wohne im Deutschland!" (In Germany! I live in Germany!)  Again, everyone laughed, and he quickly followed with "Ich arbeite im Deutschland." (I work in Germany.)  Again, laughter.  Then he said in a quieter voice, "Ich kämpfe für Deutschland..." (I fight for Germany).  What followed over the months was a sometimes torturous exchange of information as he spoke five different languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, German, and English) with English being the worst.  I often got the impression that during his wartime experience he was totally overwhelmed with what was going on and sometimes unable to completely understand what was happening at the time.  I suppose this was a common situation for many of the foreign members of the Wehrmacht.  Nevertheless, his story is an interesting document of a "Foreign Volunteer."

Stephan was born in 1926 and raised on a farm not far from the city of Lwow (now L'vov) in what is now the Ukraine but was then Poland.  This area of Eastern Europe was also known as "Galacia".  His childhood was so full of conflict that when asked to relate his "wartime" experiences, he actually began his story when he was a boy!  There were troubles with the Poles, and trouble with the Jewish merchants.  Stephan described how his family and neighbors would walk over 10 kilometers into town to sell their eggs at market and the only offers they would get due to the impoverished economy would be from the Jewish merchants.  The prices offered were usually extremely low.  Without anyone else making purchases, however, the farmers were either forced to sell cheap or throw the eggs into the ditch on the walk home.  Frustration grew into hatred, and after a while it became impossible to sell product to the Jewish merchants at all - if you did, other Ukrainians would beat you up.  In retaliation for what they saw as unfair interference in business affairs, groups of Jews would ambush Ukrainians as they went to the Ukrainian Youth Organization.  Stephan was one of the unfortunates who was ambushed and beat up as he became caught up in this circle of hate.

Another group of people much disliked by Stephan was the Russians.  When talking of Russians he would constantly refer to the deliberate blockade and starvation of millions of Soviet Ukrainians in the 1930s by the Soviet Government.  This was an event of which I had never heard of until meeting Stephan, but which has a lot of meaning for some Ukrainians.

In September of 1939, the Germans invaded Poland.  Stephan's entire family except for himself and his grandmother moved into the forest for safety.  Stephan was left behind to look after the farm and his grandmother was too old to live in the woods.  The sound of battle could be heard in the distance, and one day while Stephan was working in the farmyard an artillery shell whizzed in and landed on one of their farm tools.  The explosion blew off a corner of their stable and sent shrapnel whizzing around his head, and thereby provided a baptism of fire before he actually put on a uniform.  Stephan was actually happy that the Germans were coming - it seems that the Galacian Ukrainians didn't like the Poles either.  Stephan's father, however, was a realist and told Stephan that wars were bad things and little good ever comes from them.  Stephan was young, inexperienced, and remained optimistic.  A little later, Soviet Ukrainian soldiers came to the area as occupation troops; this area of Poland was taken over by the Russians per a German-Soviet pact.  Given the amount of dislike Stephan had for the Russians, this was definitely not what Stephan had hoped for, even if the Soviet troops were Ukrainians.

1940 passed, and in the summer of 1941 war came again.  This time the Germans were attacking the Russians.  During the early part of this campaign, Stephan was watching German and Soviet planes dog fighting in the sky above the farm.  A Soviet plane broke off and dove towards the field from where Stephan watched.  Suddenly, bullets began to strike up puffs of dirt around him, so he jumped behind a nearby railroad embankment for cover.  A short time after this, the Germans arrived.

In 1942, Italian troops occupied his town.  A bunch of them raped and killed a young Ukrainian girl, for which the local men kidnapped and executed a number of Italian soldiers.  They hung them from telephone poles in full equipment, including their rifles slung across their chests.  The local German command did nothing.  The local German officer, named August, was a decent man and was well liked by the locals.  He appeared to agree with the Ukrainians.  He said, "It's not our fault what the Italians did here.  That's between you and them."

By 1943, relations were becoming strained between the Ukrainians and Germans, and Ukrainian partisans began to manifest themselves.  Still, as far as resistance warfare goes, the incidents Stephan describes were surprisingly mild compared with the violence documented in other areas.  The Ukrainians would ambush German convoys and take their vehicles and weapons, but not kill anyone unless they had to.  The Germans would come into the village on foot saying "Ukrainisch Partisanen gut.  Karbiner genommen, Waffen genommen, aber nicht schiessen. Sehr gut!" (Ukrainian partisans good.  Took rifle, took weapons, but did not shoot.  Very good!)

Stephan's father collected all his farm manure in a big pit near one of the farm-roads.  A very lengthy rainy spell not only topped off this pit with water but also made the road very slippery.  Along came a German motorcycle with 3 soldiers on it when the vehicle slid on the road and disappeared into the manure pit with its passengers.  The soldiers came to the farmhouse swearing at the Ukrainian partisans who they were sure built such a trap - "Verdammte Ukrainische Partisanen!!"  The Kurylla family had to help clean off the furious and smelly soldiers but laughed about the incident for months.

Stephan also said that the local Partisans would "beat up" those who would not do certain things for them. It was because of this that one day Stephan and a friend had to steal some weapons from a German truck which was parked in town.  The youths took the stolen items to a house in town and while his friend was playing with a German pistol it went off, and the bullet passed over Stephan's chest.  Although unwounded, Stephan was furious because it ruined his newest suit.  Meanwhile, a German soldier out on the street heard the shot and came to investigate.  The two young men climbed out a rear window and ran into the woods.

During the early part of 1943, the Germans began to recruit Ukrainians for their armed forces.  Gradually, they began to use stronger and stronger means of persuasion to entice volunteers.  To the Ukrainians who did enlist, the Germans promised to use them only on the Eastern Front against the Russians.  Given the dislike some Ukrainians had for the Russians, this proved to be enough motivation for some.  Others were convinced that they were fighting for an independent Ukraine.  Stephan, however, wanted to stay out of the war and when asked to provide some mandatory information on himself in early 1943, he managed to change the birth date on his Polish papers from 1926 to 1928.  For the time being, this made him too young for the recruiters to be interested in him.  One reason he gave for wanting to stay out of the war was the usage which many people felt that the Ukrainian volunteer units would get under the Germans.  It seems that the SS was responsible for raising these units, and since the SS had a somewhat seedy reputation in the eyes of Stephan's family, they felt sure that these SS volunteers would not be employed in the best situations.

Sometime early in 1944, the Germans began recruiting units of young Ukrainian men to serve as Luftwaffe Flakhilfer Freiwillige, or Luftwaffe Flak-Helper Volunteers.  Since he was sure that eventually he would have to go and since this looked like a pretty safe job, he volunteered.

Stephan once described his view of those days as "like a dream", with many things all run together in his memory.  Some details of his service were as follows: In either May or June of 1944 he went to a few weeks of training outside Warsaw.  He remembers Warsaw as a beautiful city.  After this, he was sent to a number of different Flak units where he and the other Flak Helpers performed menial tasks like painting equipment, camouflaging ammunition, and minding the telephone.  The only unit Stephan could remember by name was Flak Batterie 647.  He was with this unit the longest and recalled that the guns were very large.  Part of 1944 was spent as part of a Flak unit engaged in the defense of a Lwow bridge against Soviet aircraft.  According to Stephan, although the Soviets made repeated attempts to bomb this bridge, they never managed to bring it down.  Late that summer he was involved in some anti-tank combat as they retreated from the city.  After this retreat he was sent to Dresden in Germany.  Everything was fairly quiet until one night there was a bomb raid.  Stephan had to help load bodies onto trucks.  His descriptions of this experience were truly depressing for him: limp bodies with heads swinging freely and tongues sticking out; women and children of all ages.  The next day they were on a train when someone yelled "Fliegeralarm!!" (Air-Raid!!) and they leapt from the train.  The train was on a large bridge at the time and a bomb hit part of the superstructure.  The Wachtmeister in charge of the group was killed: Stephan saw his head fly one way and his boots the other.  Stephan was wounded in the back by a rock chip as he dove to the tracks.  15 other men simply disappeared in the blast.

Stephan spent the next month or so in the hospital, where they gave him a medal for being wounded.  When he got out of the hospital, he was sent for infantry training.  He believes this happened around March of 1945, and his major recollection of this training was crawling so much that he wore the skin off his knees and elbows.  Because of a natural mechanical aptitude, he was trained as "MG Schütze Eins", or MG gunner.  Next he was sent to the front and remembers confused period of running, digging, crawling, and being scared.  One incident he remembers which occurred during this time involved a bridge packed with refugees which was overtaken by a Red Army tank unit.  The Soviets did not even slow down: some people jumped off the bridge, and the rest were either machine-gunned or run down.  Finally pulled out of the front at the end of April, he found himself in a piece of woods where the Germans were grouping men to send back to the front to oppose the Russians.  Luckily, Stephan fell in with a wily Wachmeister who got them on the wrong train; the train he got them on was headed west instead of east.  They were all still on the train when the war ended two weeks later and they surrendered to the Americans.

He was sent to a POW camp where on some days the rations were one plate of potatoes and a small can of meat for every 100 men.  Stephan believes that the German civilians were responsible for feeding the prisoners in this camp, and what they were doing was keeping the good U.S. supplied food for themselves and feeding the POWs from their own meager stock.  Eventually, Stephan managed to secure a job with the US Occupation Army and got out of the camp.  He lived for a time in Germany and then Belgium before emigrating to the US.

Some interesting comments on his German service would include the following:

The Nazi Salute:
It seemed that he was always saluting people.  He thinks he saluted so much that this was the cause of problems leading to shoulder surgery in the 1980s.  He says "And if you don't do the Heil Hitler, they kick your ass!"

Attitude towards Ukrainian Soldiers:
It seems that in general, the Germans liked the Ukrainians.  When they noticed the slavic accent, they would ask "Was sind Sie?" (What are you?).  When they were told, they would say something like "Ach so!  Ukrainisch gut!" (I see!  Ukrainian good!).

Soldier Songs:
He remembers two very well: "Der Blaue Dragoner" and "Marianka." (The second song may be Ukrainian)  His most pleasurable memories of the war was the way they would all get cleaned up, go out and sing, drink beer, and chase the Fräuleins.

Tanks:
"The Germans had big ones, but the Russians had even bigger ones!"  He also remembers a Russian tank being shot in the front but it kept going with the crew dead until it fell into the Bug River.

Zeltbahns:
When shown an assortment of Wehrmacht gear, he remembered seeing Zeltbahns, although he stated that he was never issued one.  He said that the German soldiers got most of the good equipment, and the foreign volunteers got either second-best or did without.  Most of the time he was sheltered in barracks or houses, and when he was forced to be outside in the rain he "just got wet".  Once he found a strip of black oilcloth in the linings of a cupboard in an abandoned house and draped it over his shoulders to keep the rain off.  It worked fine until the Wachmeister saw it and made Stephan throw it away.  "Better to get soaked than look like a gypsy!" the NCO said.

Thoughts on Bravery:
In his words: "Everybody going to the front is big talker, talk like hero.  But when you really there and the bullets are going by your head, you scared shitless, I don't care how brave you are."

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