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Interview with Antonina Serdiukova

Oral History with Antonina Serdiukova
Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future; Photograph Courtesy of the USC Shoah Foundation
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tags: deportations family women's experiences

type: Interview

Antonina Serdiukova was a seventeen-year-old music student in 1942 when German troops occupied her home city of Stalingrad in the Soviet Union. She was rounded up by soldiers with a group of other young people and sent to Germany as a forced laborer. She was eventually assigned to a forced labor camp near an aluminum factory in Lauta in eastern Germany. In this excerpt from an interview, Serdiukova recounts her work in the factory’s laboratory, conditions in the camp, and her escape in 1945.1

The aluminum factory provided separate barracks for laborers according to their nationality. The Nazis hoped to minimize interactions and segregrate workers based on their racist ideology2 Despite the grueling work and the separate barracks, Serdiukova worked with western European laborers in the laboratory and they found ways to spend time with one another and communicate. Serdiukova soon fell in love with a French laborer named Claude Strait and sought to make a life for herself after the war. They fled the camp on foot and finally reached Paris by train. In Paris, she and Claude married and had a son, Michel (Misha).

For Serdiukova, like thousands of others, the end of the war did not end her ordeal. The Soviet government pursued a policy requiring all Soviet citizens who had been displaced by the war in Europe to return to the Soviet Union, regardless of their new circumstances. By early 1946 over 4 million Displaced Persons were sent back to the Soviet Union with the assistance of the Allied powers whether they wanted to return or not.3 Despite her marriage to Claude and the birth of her son, Serdiukova was forcibly returned by Soviet agents when Claude was away on a business trip.4

In the Soviet Union, anyone who spent time in Germany as a forced laborer or a prisoner during the war was regarded with deep suspicion. Many lost access to jobs, were barred from living in major cities like Moscow and Kiev, and were even sent to labor camps. As a result, people kept silent about their wartime experiences and hid their pasts when they could. Serdiukova attempted to conceal her past, but also hid her son’s identity as the child of a foreigner. She explains, “they issued a birth certificate for Mikhail, saying that he was born in Sverdlovsk and that his surname was Serdiukov, and his father—they left it blank. Single mother. And for fifteen years I was counted as a single mother and received fifty rubles for my child every month.” Serdiukova lived for more than a decade knowing that her husband was searching for her and her son. Although they were eventually able to reconnect, the borders of the Soviet Union remained closed and he passed away without seeing his family again.

As Serdiukova’s oral history illustrates,5 the Soviet policy toward forced laborers shaped her, and her son’s, future. Her son did not know about his family's past and neither she nor Claude ever married again. Nonetheless, she was able to seize opportunities for herself and take advantage of the chaotic postwar circumstances.

Serdiukova's interview is just one of many other oral histories of "Eastern workers" (Ostarbeiteren) and prisoners of war in Germany and the Soviet Union collected by the Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future

Russian and Poles were supposed to be segregated from laborers from western countries.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, "The Motherland Calls: 'Soft' Repatriation of Soviet Citizens from Europe, 1945-1953," The Journal of Modern History 90 (June 2018), 323. Displaced persons were reluctant to return for a variety of reasons. There were rumors circulating in the DP camps that anyone who was repatriated would be sent to the Gulag. There was also a very large group, numbering several hundred thousand, of Soviet citizens who were from territories annexed to the Soviet Union in 1939. Others, such as Serdiukova, had simply built new lives for themselves.

It was not uncommon for forced laborers to marry one another or foreign soldiers after the war. The Soviet government did not view marriage to a foreigner as a sufficient reason to exempt people from repatriation and went so far as to abduct people they believed to be Soviet citizens. Their foreign spouses were not allowed to return with them. This was a particular problem for women who married foreign men. Fitzpatrick, "The Motherland Calls," 341–342.

The featured audio clip is edited and combines several segments spliced together. The translation is based on the transcription, not the audio recording. 

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Interviewer, Irina Ostrovskaia, below: IO

Respondent, Antonina Serdiukova, below:  AS

Note: The featured audio clip is edited and combines several segments of the oral history spliced together. Gaps between the segments are indicated by elipses as follows:  [...]

IO: Well, and then what happened?

[...]

АS: This is, uh, I’ll tell you now. In the camp there was a  female politsai, she kept an eye on the women’s barracks. Uh, she was a Russian, not a Ukrainian. She spoke a pure Russian, she was an educated woman. Not a bitch, no, but demanding. What her name is, I don’t even remember.

IO: Well, let it go.

АS: Let it go, yes. You see, they waked us at 4 a.m., and we had to be at work at 6 a.m. And she always came running, knocked on our door, came into our barracks, turned on the light, and yelled: “Get up!”  Uh…

IO: In Russian?

AS: In Russian, she only spoke Russian, in my opinion, she didn’t even speak German.

IO: And were there only Russians there in this barracks?

AS: Only.

IO: Well, in the sense of Soviets.

AS: Soviets, yes, yes, yes. Both Soviet Ukrainians and Soviet Russians, yes, yes.

[...]

Yes, but I haven’t told you yet how we ... they sent us to work. They got us up at 4 a.m., they gave us nothing to eat, and we had to stand outside in any weather, in a column with three in each row and wait until the policeman comes from the plant to get us and lead us to our workshop. We stand there. But at 6 a.m. work is already supposed to begin, that is, we are supposed to already be there at 5:30. Finally our German comes, and the recount begins at the gate. They count, the count is off, they count again, and we stand at the gates and stand, stand, and stand. Finally they’ve worked it out, and now it’s run, run, because at 6 a.m. we won’t … won’t … We raced off to the plant there, barely managed to undress, they’re already shouting — a test. Well, go ahead and test, okay. And so it goes until 2 p.m., like a squirrel, that … like a pendulum: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Talk? Who are we, to talk there! First of all, it was forbidden. So, you exchange glances with the French, the French were young, by the way, from Paris, from this Institute of  Louis Pasteur. Well, they had taken them there as civilians. Also trained personnel. But they did more complicated analyses than I. I did the easiest ones, you see. At 2 p.m. things are looking up again — at 3 p.m., they’ll line us up again, lead us through the plant, again at … at the gates, a recount, someone was missing, someone was lagging behind, someone had run off somewhere. Oh, it was such torment!

Somewhere around 3 p.m., at last, we walk back to the camp, or rather, we run... But the food block was a separate barracks building. We run there, there they fill a bowl with soup for us.

IO: This was the first food of the entire day?

AS: The first ... and the only, there wouldn’t be any more. There wouldn’t be any more.

[...]

in 1944, they had already crossed the border. Well, they had become very frightened and stopped mending the fence. So we, we already had potatoes, we could eat, come … come running out. But there was bombing every day. The bombing starts, you have to get under cover somewhere, we run into the forest. No bombs are dropped on the forest, everything is dropped onto the plant. The forest is nearby there.

IO: Why should the forest be bombed?

AS: Yes. That’s it. Well, just on … so other camps, there was also a Polish camp, the Polish camp also wasn’t bombed, it was just that our camp bordered directly on the plant. So we caught it. Well, and later, in 1945, that is, when the Russians had already gotten quite near, the Soviet troops … our camp... the Lautawerk, well, Dresden, then Berlin, the Soviet troops were there. When they had already entered our… in a tank into our... they broke all the doors — run wherever you want. Well, Claude and I ran. Where should we run to? So we went on foot all the way to Magdeburg. Through Dresden,  Leipzig. Uh … yes. 

[...]

AS: We arrived, Claude, that is, first he went alone to his parents, they hadn’t seen ... But Claude… I was in Germany for three years, but Claude had been there since 1939, how long was that?

IO: Six years.

AS: Six years.

IO: But they corresponded?

AS: They corresponded, sent parcels, all of that. Yes, well … time … such, and I’m already, as they say, expecting a  son. They invited us, everything, we met everyone. But what’s this Soviet government and what’s this revolution, they had a very vague… they had no idea at all. They remember — there in their country they cut  Marat’s  throat in the bath, they don’t know any more than that.

[...]

AS: ...And … abroad ... exactly when the Russians took me away ...

IO: How did that happen?

AS: It was very simple. There was a round-up, it started after Stalin gave an ultimatum to de Gaulle — return all the Russians. Many had run away, they didn’t run away from ... not from Russia, but they ran away from Stalin, ran away from the Communists. And many women had run away with Frenchmen. And began ... and ... and our troops came through Paris, they drove these American Willys Jeeps, but their uniforms were Russian, Red Guard … Soviet Army. And we... at this time I was living in the country house, Mishka was six months old or about that, more or less in June-July ... the month of July. We had rented a country house in uhhh  Combs-la-Ville, it’s half an hour with the suburban train from the center, from Paris...

[...]

AS: In 1947, the month of July, perhaps. I see a Soviet uniform, I can’t understand anything. They … at ... they have conversations with the landlady there, /interviewer coughs/ they come upstairs to my place and say: “Get ready, let’s go.” I couldn’t take anything with me, besides Mishka in my arms, I couldn’t understand anything.

IO: Where did you go, what for?

AS: To a camp.

IO: Why?

AS: Near Paris, the Beauregard camp, where they collected all the Russians. But  Claude was not there. Claude was in Spain. I only managed to tell the  landlady: “Inform Claude when he comes.” But how can she inform him, he’s traveling around Spain? There you are. And ... and that’s all. /Interviewer coughs/ And from there, again, one train after another, and straight to Siberia, to Karaganda.

IO: Well, Karaganda — it’s not Siberia.

AS: Then what is it?

IO: It’s probably Kazakhstan.

AS: Well, Kazakhstan, I’m not on good terms with geography. In any ca…

IO: And whereabouts in Karaganda?

AS: Well, I didn’t get there. And this is why I didn’t get there, because for some reason they took us through  Kiev, and before the war I had an uncle in Kiev, my father’s older brother. And the train stopped near the station. I took Mishka in my arms and started running. And I thought: “Is it possible that Uncle Evdokim is here?” I ran – the house, with... I went around his house, I know he lived on  Lenin Street, I know his apartment, I’ve been in his apartment. My uncle is not there. Well, I decided that anyhow I wouldn’t go back to that cattle car. There’s nothing I can do, I have to make my way somehow.

[...]

IO: ...Excuse me, what is Misha’s surname?

AS: Mikhail Mikhalych Serdiukov. That’s his name. That same  KGB man said to me: You need to change Mikhail’s birth certificate.” And ... and they issued him, for his papers, they issued a birth certificate for Mikhail, saying that he was born in Sverdlovsk and that his surname was Serdiukov, and his father – they left it blank. Single mother. And for fifteen years I was counted as a single mother and received fifty rubles for my child every month. That’s it, that’s Misha’s biography. And only in 1965, in 1960, after the Khrushchev thaw, when I ... I was in  Moscow on a business trip, there was an exhibition there, I was already working at the institute, there was an exhibition of French equipment for boilers, for turbines and so forth, well, my profession. And they sent me there on a business trip. I was working there in the department of thermotechnics. And so I’m walking down the street and I see written: “Intercity and international telephone.” I think: “Why not go in and telephone Claude?” Ah! But when I had visited my grandmother, my auntie  shows me — a postcard. Claude had returned to  Paris and found out everything, and he wrote a terrible postcard: “I beg you, tell me where Antonina and Michel are. They’ve left … quittez-la Paris. They’ve left Paris, I know nothing, I …” So. And … and … and I … but then, the times were such. “Be silent, -- I tell myself – say nothing.”

[...]

...And so fifteen years had passed, I go in and I think – I’ll make the phone call.  I went into this telephone place, I gave the phone number, and right away they connected me with  Paris, with the apartment, and  Claude answered the phone. I howled, I couldn’t say a word, and he was howling at his end. So. We howled and howled, and then I said, “I’ll write you, I’m not able to speak.” Well, I went home, he is really alive and well, he has really heard everything, and I said to Misha, then I told Misha for the first time: “This is your father, these are your documents, this is who you are."

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future
Photograph Courtesy of the USC Shoah Foundation
External Website Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future
Date of Interview
December 24, 2005
Duration 00:10:46
Interviewee
Antonina Serdiukova
Interviewer
Irina Ostrovskaia
Language(s)
Russian
Location
Stalingrad, Soviet Union (historical)
Lauta, Germany
Paris, France
Interview Type Interview
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