Then we reached the top of the hill. The sun was high and it shone down whitely on what had once been Vyazma. Nothing I had ever seen in Coventry, Plymouth or London had prepared me for this. When Vyazma first broke upon your consciousness you could only draw an involuntary breath of horror. The sight below was so horrible as to be unreal. Had this shapeless jagged mass of rubble, out of which rose only a few chimneys, ever been a thriving, living city? It was hard to believe that it had once lived. None of us said anything. In silence we drove into the dead city.
The smell of destruction hung heavily in the still, clear air. There is no smell to compare with the sickening smell of a city that has been destroyed. The unwholesome smell of the killer lingers after he is gone. We drove through the heavily rutted streets with difficulty. An effort had been made to clear them, but rubble of all kind covered what had once been paved streets, and the dust and debris thrown over the road where the Germans dynamited the houses were in some places three to four feet deep.
It was seldom that we passed a house which had still more than one wall standing. Chimneys resist the pressure of dynamite better than do walls or roofs, but very few chimneys stood above the ruins. An unearthly silence hung over the city, as though the Red Army men who passed felt that to speak loudly here would be as undecorous as to sing ribald songs in the presence of the dead. We drove through the city and reached a small wooden shack on the other side of it – on the outskirts. Major Peter Smolin was in charge of Vyazma now. He had marched into the city just two weeks before at the head of the Red Army. He and several companies had remained behind to bring some sort of order out of the chaos. The rest of the army went on and was now holding a position some fifteen miles beyond. Major Smolin was very young, handsome and likable. On his breast there gleamed the Order of the Red Star. Only twenty-six, he was a veteran of two years of fighting.
"I don’t have to tell you what happened to Vyazma," he said. "Walk around and see for yourself. There were 716 civilians left when we entered. Talk to any of them. Hear their stories and doubt them if you can. Go where you wish – alone, if you wish. There are no secrets in Vyazma. There were three buildings standing when we entered the city," he explained. "The Germans had left them. But they destroyed the rest of the city."
Vyazma was not killed because it was a military center. It's true that a railroad from Moscow had its terminus here, and one expected that the Germans would blow up some fifteen miles of railroad track. That is accepted military procedure. One expected that they would slaughter livestock, strip the city of scrap metal and grain, and use all the household furniture for fuel. These, too, are stringent, but accepted military practices.
But the Germans went far beyond that. When they finally knew they would have to leave, German sappers began with the railroad station on the outskirts, blew that up, and systematically worked toward the center of the city, destroying every building. From the center, they worked through side streets of the old city. Some of the buildings died hard. The Germans worked on the power plant for two days before it was reduced to debris. They worked thoroughly. All but the cathedral and two other large buildings were absolutely destroyed; they had a purpose in leaving those nearly intact.
"There was a fine brick building," Major Smolin went on, "which we thought we would fix up as a hospital. There were seven hundred and sixteen men, women and children here, most of whom had either typhus or were starved almost to death. Many were weak from beatings and others from wounds. Twenty-six doctors and nurses went into this brick building to convert it into a hospital, and then too late we realized why the Germans had left the building intact.
"A large delayed-action mine exploded. It killed them all. Two days later a second intact building blew up. Sixteen men were killed. Those who had remained in the city were anxious to hold church services. Before I allowed them to enter the cathedral, I had my sappers inspect it. They found a thousand-pound time bomb there. Like all the mines and bombs left, it was a chemical-action bomb. We got it out into the fields and exploded it. Then the people held their services. Only the cathedral is intact, you see.
"The Germans buried mines everywhere. They still explode. They buried them under the debris in ruined houses. They buried them under the street mud. We have dug up hundreds of them. We still search for them."
The city was deathly silent as I walked around. Old women sat apathetically in the ruins that had been their homes. Their children, unconscious of disaster, played happily in the debris, occasionally crying out when they unearthed some remembered household article – a dish, a broken chair, the remains of a stove. Already seven thousand people had returned from their hiding places in neighboring forests and villages.
A few days after the Red Army recaptured the place, the government appointed a committee to investigate stories told by the 716 who had remained. The stories were checked, one against the other, and printed in Moscow newspapers. Ever since our own government admitted that fantastic stories of German atrocities in the last war were manufactured in Washington, we as a nation have been rightfully skeptical of such hand-outs.
It was so with the Soviet report. I read stories of incredible torture, rape and murder with some skepticism. After two days in Vyazma, talking to dozens of survivors picked at random, I now believe every word of that report and could support it with twenty additional stories of horror – a few of which could be printed.
Come along with me into the ruins of Vyazma and talk to men, women and children. We are under no supervision. We will talk to those we find huddled around fires, to those searching amid the ruins for something to salvage, to those we wish. Here is a very old man trying to repair a chair with only two of its legs left. He sits beside what was once his house, and talks in a matter-of-fact tone.
"When they came in," he says, "I escaped to a village not far away. But they came there so quickly that no one could leave. They gathered people from other villages near by and said they were going to send them to Germany to work. One hundred and forty refused to go. The Germans put them into a house and then set fire to it. I saw this happen. They all burned to death."
"Is this true? Will you swear that it’s true?"
The old man looked at me, a bit puzzled. Why should he invent such a tale? He didn’t answer, just shrugged his shoulders and looked past me. It was nothing to him whether I believed his story. He got on with his job of repairing the chair.
I went on and there was a sad-faced woman with heavy lines of suffering etched on her face. Her name was Alexandra Ivanovna Khokhlova. She, her husband and her son had remained behind. She talked of those eighteen months as though they were something out of another world.
"When they first came," she said tonelessly, "they went from house to house, taking everything they could use and killing all our hens and dogs. They broke all our glasses – I don’t know why. It got worse later. There is a bridge just outside the city; you can see it from the cathedral. There were two sentries there. Often men from neighboring villages or from the woods would come in starving and ask the two sentries for food. The sentries told them that they could have food if they would chop wood. They would chop wood, and the sentries would actually give them food.
"Then the sentries would tell them to leave the city and go back across the bridge. When they would get halfway across the bridge, the sentries would shoot them and laugh as their bodies fell into the snow. When the snow began to melt, they made us go there and clear the stream and the banks under the bridge. We found more than fifty bodies."
The woman told her story unemotionally, as though recounting a tale seen in a motion picture. Doctor Goebbels always labels such stories as lies and says they are inspired by Soviet propaganda bureaus. This woman wasn't handpicked by Soviet officials. No Soviet officials were with me. The old woman raised her hand and brushed it across the scar on her cheek. I asked her what had caused the scar.
"I was home one night when a very young and drunken officer cam into the house," she said. "He told me that he was going to sleep with me. I said that I was an old woman and had sons older than he was. It didn’t matter. He grabbed me. When I resisted, he picked up a glass from the table and smashed it into my face. He pulled the tablecloth from the table and smashed my plates and glasses. I ran away and he followed me, but he was so drunk that he fell down. I hid in the barn for three days and he never came back.
"They made all the young girls sleep with them, and if they wouldn’t, they would beat them. As soon as a girl would get pregnant, the soldiers would tell her to go away. A lot of them had babies," she added thoughtfully.
I walked another hundred yards and stopped Anna Yakovievna Sorokina, a middle-aged, placid-looking woman. She, her husband and her twenty-nine-year-old daughter were caught when the Germans came in. They hid for a time in their cellar, but eventually the Germans found them and put them to work. One day the enemy soldiers came into the house and, while she watched, killed her daughter.
"They said she was a guerrilla," Anna told us in a flat voice. "My daughter was not a guerrilla."
Do you want more stories? Could you stomach the story of Natalia Osipovna Kiriushina, who carried a three-months-old child in her arms, or the story of Nina Petrovna Ospova, who lay for weeks on filthy straw in a room with sixty others who also had typhus? Most of the others died.
Story followed story, all of the same pattern. A dozen repeated the story of the two sentries who laughed when the bodies fell from the bridge into the icy stream below. You can hear a thousand stories – no, several thousand – of how the Germans treated the citizens of Vyazma and of the surrounding villages. They vary only in detail.
Late that afternoon, I ate with some Russian officers. They were incredulous when I told them that a good part of America thought that Japan was our principal enemy. I told them that sometimes I worried because my countrymen did not have a healthy capacity for hating Nazi Germany, which is needed for waging a total war.
"Perhaps," one of the officers said gently, "if your countrymen could see this city and talk to its survivors, they might realize what manner of men the Germans are. The other day one of our generals visited us. We passed a sentry, and the sentry neglected to salute the general. 'What are you dreaming about that you forgot your discipline?' the general said to him. 'I was daydreaming', the sentry admitted. 'I was thinking what a great idea it would be to leave this ruined city exactly as it is. Then we could build a high wall around it, so nothing would be disturbed. Future generations would come to see the city, and then they would realize the kind of beasts that invaded their country during this war. That’s what I was dreaming of, Tovarisch General.'"
With one of the officers, I walked to the outskirts of the city near the destroyed railroad station. There was a large cross there.
"We were looking for unexploded mines and bombs," the officer explained, when I asked him about it. "Here there was a patch of soft earth, and we though[t] perhaps it covered a time bomb. We dug into the earth, and before we were finished, we had found the bodies of six hundred men, women and children. Many had been shot or hanged. Many had obviously died either of typhus or starvation."
He paused, then said quietly, "You don’t blame us, I trust, for hating the Germans?"
Napoleon’s army had spent two months here before hurrying on in panic to Smolensk. General Kutuzov, very old and feeble, had ridden into Vyazma at the head of his army. Kutuzov had cried out, "There can be no peace, for such is the people’s will." That was so much truer today than it was even in 1812-13. And yet I knew that even as I talked to survivors in Vyazma, thousands of my own countrymen were asking themselves, "Will the Russians make a separate peace? Can we trust the Russians? Will they keep fighting?"
German mine-laying tactics are mentioned as follows in Dr. Nick Terry's thesis The German Army Group Centre and the Soviet Civilian Population, 1942-1944, p. 204f:
As in 1917, the retreating Germans left a trail of destruction behind them, using 132 tons of explosives and a plethora of other booby-traps to mine the Vyazma-Smolensk highway. Another 48 tons of explosives and over 5,000 aerial bombs were emplaced in the town of Vyazma itself; nothing of value was left behind, save “two car cemeteries of destroyed Russian vehicles originating from the Vyazma battles of autumn. The ‘devil’s gardens’ planted by the engineers caused significant casualties among the Soviet forces who advanced into the collapsing salient, while German losses were few.
The source given for the Vyazma information is AOK 4 Ia, Bericht über Zerstörung Wjasma, 11.3.43, gez. Heinrici, T312/207/77588086 - a German army report about the destruction of Vyazma.