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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Refugees and Soldiers On the Eve of the Battle

I have a friend named Yury Bogdanov, who is a retired captain of the Red Army. He was one of the valiant defenders of Moscow who, on Dec. 5, 1941, during the very darkest days of the war, managed to turn back Hitler’s army from the outskirts of Moscow — marking the first serious German defeat of the war.

Yury doesn’t talk much about those times, 59 years ago this week, but he did tell me one story that struck me vividly.

That year, 1941, the first snows came in late October and by the middle of November the ground was covered with snowdrifts as high as 2 meters. The roads to Moscow from the west were filled with refugees from the Baltics, Ukraine and Belarus. From the east, the roads were full of young men, rushing to defend the capital.

Yury was going on foot one day to the front together with a comrade of his. They were both already exhausted and frozen. A stream of refugees was coming toward them from the other direction. Near one bombed-out village close to the fighting, they came upon a woman who particularly attracted their attention.

She was dressed in a man’s sheepskin coat and oversized felt boots that she could barely drag through the snow. Nonetheless, she carried two heavy bundles. Every few steps she would set them down on the roadside and rest a moment. Then she would again gather up her load and walk on.

"Leave that stuff and save yourself!" Yury wanted to shout at her as they passed one another. Only then did he see that each bundle was a baby, wrapped in layer after layer of rags. Yury immediately took one of the babies from the woman and his friend took the other. The woman smiled at them with gratitude and said, "They’re twins … 2 years old."

Although Yury and his comrade had to get to the front immediately, they couldn’t just abandon this woman. It was obvious she wouldn’t make it to Moscow alone. So they turned around and the five of them began trudging on to the capital.

After a while they came upon a Gypsy with a horse going in the same direction. When they approached him, he was certain that they wanted to take his horse. "You can’t have it!" he shouted, bracing for a fight. "We don’t want your horse," Yury told him. "We want you to take this woman and her kids to Moscow. We have to get to the front."

The Gypsy looked at the woman carefully. "You a Jew?" he asked. "Yes," she answered. "A Jew."

The Gypsy took the baby from Yury and said, "Whatever happens to me, will happen to her too." And they headed off, a Gypsy and Jew — representatives of the two peoples most despised by Hitler and condemned to destruction by the Nazis.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a pensioner and a freelance journalist living in Moscow.