Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter

I commend to your attention the Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter, from the Battle for Moscow to Hitler’s Bunker, by Yelena Rzhevskaya.

Rzhevskaya is the pen name of Yelena Kagan, who took her name from the titanic battles that occurred in and around the city of Rzhev, west of Moscow, in the years 1942-1943. In that first winter of desperate struggles between the Soviet red army and the Nazis, Rzhevskaya was assigned to be a translator for a Soviet army brigade. Her job was translate captured German documents for her military bosses, and to assist in the interrogation of German prisoners captured in snatch and grab operations.

Rzhevskaya is a skilled writer. Most important, she never lost her humanity. Her attitudes were those of a young patriot whose country had been invaded by a people bent on the enslavement of her countrymen and in her case, being Jewish, her extermination. She evinces curiosity towards German prisoners, even at times human sympathy, but nothing is out of place, no emotion is false, nothing is disproportionate. It is strange to be sharing a cabin with a peasant woman still trying to feed her kids in the midst of absolute devastation in a -30C winter, the colonel in the next room and a German prisoner sitting in despair, not knowing whether he would be shot or not. (He was not).

Rzhevskaya was in Berlin in 1945 and was among the very first to explore Hitler’s bunker and to capture documents detailing the thinking of the high command and senior nazis, such as Goebbels, the propaganda chief. Extracts from Goebbels diaries reveal him to be a complete swine. More importantly, the diaries reveal what I had read elsewhere but never was sure was true, namely that Hitler took the risk of attacking Russia because he thought that this was the best way to knock England out of the war. After Stalin had slaughtered the heads of his own army in the purges of 1936-37, and after the Red Army performed so dismally in the war against Finland in 1940, Hitler thought he could knock out Russia in six months. He might well have done so had his invasion not been delayed by his drive through Greece in early 1941, which threw the Brits out of that country. Churchill’s much-disputed diversion of tanks and material to Greece from North Africa may have had huge long term consequences for Russia’s survival and hence the war.

Rzhevskaya’s book deals extensively with the search for Hitler’s remains and the absurd cover up by Stalin of the fact that Hitler’s jawbone had been found and identified, largely through the work of the young Miss Rzhevskaya, some cooperation from Hitler’s dentist’s assistant, and a great deal of good luck, in the shattered wreck of Berlin in the days immediately after it had been conquered.

Why Stalin thought it important to keep Hitler’s certain death a mystery, and then deceive his chief military commander Georgiy Zhukov about it, remains unanswered. Rzhevskaya infers from Stalin’s behaviour that, aside from what uses reality had for Stalin, it had no independent validity or even existence. That seems a likely explanation for why he could slaughter 20 million of his own citizens and still sleep well at night.

The depiction of the behaviour of Hitler in his last days given by Rzhevskaya is like that of that scene in The Downfall where Hitler rants at his generals for the missing division of General Steiner which was supposed to save the Reich. Only the actual behaviour of Hitler and his entourage was even worse, according to the records Rzhevskaya unearths. The air of fantasy, the corrosion of all human feeling save desperation and sycophancy, and the booming echo of Soviet artillery landing on the bunker, are well captured. Excerpts from Goebbels’ diaries in the days before the Soviet invasion reveal him to be a repulsive creep, who worked for an even more repulsive creep.

Throughout the book, Rzhevskaya reveals her humane and decent nature. For students of war, for armchair generals, for the curious, this book is a profound experience.

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