Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Former Russian soldier, 96, recalls a harrowing tale of Second World War survival
Captured by the Germans, Ilja Buz lived thanks to bravery and luck.
To explain his life's philosophy, 96-year-old Ilja Buz tells the story of when, as a young Russian soldier in the Second World War, he was almost hit by a machine gun fired by a German plane.
He'd been so nervous about being killed, he couldn't eat or drink.
But after escaping death so narrowly, Buz realized the truth of what a schoolteacher uncle had tried to tell him as a teenager — your destiny is written, and you don't die until your appointed time.
“I got up on my feet, and said 'Boy, that was close. My uncle told me so and so. If that is true, what is the difference I will be killed today, tomorrow or day after?'” he said.
“I figure that where it comes, thy will be done. I can do nothing myself. That's my life's philosophy, all my life. There's a old Russian saying 'Trust in God and paddle to the shore.'”
Ahead of Remembrance Day, Buz sat down with Sudbury.com to tell us his experiences as a soldier conscripted into the Soviet army, how his unit was cornered by the Germans, he was captured as a POW and survived the war.
When Stalin's Soviet Union entered the Second World War in 1941, Buz was 20 years old and was already in the army — he was drafted the year before, soon after he graduated from school.
“I couldn't say no, because everybody end up in Siberian labour camps,” he said.
“If you say even one sentence, you'd be locked up there for free labour.”
His unit was sent to Latvia, and then the German border with Lithuania. The Russian soldiers were pushed back and eventually cornered by the Germans in Estonia.
Buz still vividly recalls the terrible things he saw as his unit was pummelled by the Germans — the decomposing bodies of soldiers, and a comrade whose head had been blown off.
He lost his boots trying to escape the Germans by wading in a freezing-cold creek, and at one point, he remembers eating nothing but clover in six days.
Eventually he could no longer evade the Germans.
“A German soldier, in Russian, asked me 'Where are your comrades?'” Buz said.
“I said 'There is no more comrades. I am alone.' He grabs my helmet, throws it in the bushes and said 'Your war is over. You don't need that thing anymore.'”
The Germans showed him some kindness immediately after his capture, including one who gave him some sweet tea laced with alcohol. But still not wearing any boots, he was marched down the highway day after day with the other prisoners. Those who weren't able walk anymore were shot by the German soldiers.
The Russian prisoners were eventually put on a train and brought to a prison camp in Latvia.
One night, he was ordered to unload sugar beets and turnips from a train. He figured this was his shot to escape. When a commotion occurred up ahead in the line of prisoners, distracting a guard near to him, Buz used the cover of darkness to duck into a doorway, managing to escape the Germans.
He headed for the bush and started walking, without knowing where he was going.
He became so lonely he decided to speak to a farm labourer in a field. It turned out to be a lucky break, as Buz was able to stay on that farm as a labourer for six months.
It also turns out, he was very lucky that he did.
“Meanwhile, that camp I was in, 12,000 prisoners perished from starvation and typhus,” Buz said.
Six months into his stay on the farm, the Germans returned, scooping up any Russian they found working as farm labourers in the area, including Buz. He was sent to Germany to work in farms in that country — he ended up doing this until the war was almost over.
“We were lucky enough,” he said. “The main staple was potatoes three times a day.”
Fear of Mother Russia
The approaching end of the war brought another dilemma for Buz — he didn't want to be repatriated to Russia, as Russian soldiers were not supposed to have been taken prisoner.
If he went back to Russia, he feared he would be sent to prison or even executed.
“Our propaganda keep telling, keep your last shell for yourself,” he said. “Never surrender. That didn't work out that way.”
He asked to be sent back to a prison camp, as he figured it would be safer for him than the farm.
In the camp, Russian prisoners were being recruited to a military unit to fight with Germany against the Stalinist regime, and Buz jumped on a train with the unit to get away from the area.
He ended up near the Swiss border, and spent the end of the war washing dishes for the American army.
When the Americans told him he could no longer work for them, Buz was briefly sent to a local jail by the U.S. military police after a bogus complaint by a local hotel owner.
He was afraid he'd end up being repatriated to Russia, but was eventually freed. Farm labour sustained Buz until he made his his way hundreds of kilometres south to a refugee camp in Munich, before finally being able to rent a room in the Bavarian city.
After a time, he headed for Belgium where there was work in the coal mines. It was there that he met his wife, Tamara, a Polish-Russian widow, who'd lost her first husband in a mine accident and had a young daughter.
The couple married in 1948 and spent six years in Belgium before immigrating to Canada in 1953. Their family now numbers four daughters and a son, 11 grandchildren and five-great grandchildren.
Buz worked at the Falconbridge smelter in Sudbury for 31 years, and did television repair and electrician work on the side.
In a strange twist of fate, a fellow smelter worker with whom Buz became friends was German, a former Wehrmarcht soldier who had been stationed in the same area as Buz during the war. For Buz, it highlighted how good people get caught up in war for reasons outside their control.
Tamara, known for her great cooking and love of gardening, passed away last year at the age of 87.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the couple were able to visit Russia again in 1993.
Lest we forget
While they led a happy life in Canada, Buz said he becomes depressed around this time every year as Remembrance Day approaches. His thoughts stray to the long-ago horrors and struggle he experienced in wartime.
For years, he had recurring nightmares about being chased by German soldiers, the Russian KGB and the American military police.
“I suppose now I am thinking that must be what they call post-traumatic stress,” Buz said. “I get over it. We got over it without any medical interference. That thing was unknown at that time.”