They feared death like this the most. Stories of women who survived World War II but not the War with Russia

Nadia Bubliy from the village of Kam`yanka, Kharkiv Region, and Olha Trofymenko from Mariupol, Donetsk Region, never met each other. Yet their lives were similar. Both were 90 years old, both had survived World War II and the post-war famine. Both died in 2022 in Russia`s war on Ukraine.

Bedridden Nadia and Olha couldn`t be evacuated. The women died inside their homes. Nadia was crushed by the walls that collapsed from the enemy airstrike. Olha starved to death.

The granddaughters of Nadia Bubliy and Olha Trofymenko told us about their Grannys – touching stories of survival, toil, love, and tragic death.

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"They boiled acorns, plant shoots, and potato peels to avoid starvation. Scavenged the fields for spikes"

Nadia Bubliy was born on the 19th of January in 1932 in the village of Kam`yanka, Kharkiv. During World War II, the front line went through these territories. Germans had stood there from 1941 to 1943.

Nadia told her children, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter about the war. She never mentioned the fighting but she often talked about famine.

"She talked about the war with tears in her eyes. She told us it was scary and there was nothing to eat. They boiled acorns, plant shoots, and potato peels to avoid starvation. Scavenged the fields for spikes. They ground the grain into flour and made pancakes with it, – reminisces the 42-year-old granddaughter Olena Bubliy. – The family hid a cow in their backyard so the Germans wouldn`t take it away. They didn`t touch children. Sometimes they (Germans) saw them – hungry, barefoot, freezing – and gave them something to eat".

[BANNER1]Nadia Bubliy had a sister named Niura and two brothers - Mykola and Oleksiy. Her father Terentiy and mother Tetyana struggled to feed and dress them all. The children wore clothes in rotation. Girls and boys wore the same things.

Because of World War II Nadia only finished the third grade at school, she could read and write. After the war. she married a man called Mykola from her village. They had been saving money for a long time for their first home – counted every penny. Before the young woman had lived in a clay hut with a straw roof but together with her husband they managed to build a brick house. There they spent all of their lives. Until the house was destroyed in the march of 2022 by the Russian army.

"My grandfather Mykola was 9 or 10 years older than Granny. She was a young girl during the war when he had already been fighting in it. He told us the killed and the wounded used to be so many that the ground ran red from blood", – says Olena Bubliy

Difficult childhood reflected in the habits of Nadia who often told her granddaughter: "Lena, everything needs to be in reserve – sugar, salt, toilet paper, and matches".

Nadia Bubliy herself always kept a stock.

"She made rusks from bread. Made preserves. Grandpa butchered pigs in the village so there was plenty of salted lard at home. Dried sausages were hanging by the thread. I wondered why do they need so much", – the granddaughter recalls.

Granny always had snacks in her pantry. "Ba, do you have candy?" – Olenka asked. "None", – said Nadia. "Ba, I know you have some…" – the girl insisted. Only then Granny retrieved some candy from her stash. Sometimes she kept it there for so long that it perished.

Olenka also recalls that when she started the first grade, her grandparents bought her a fur coat. It was too big – to grow into. She only started wearing it in high school. They bought her another one when she graduated from medical school. Again – a few sizes up. She joked: "Ba, do you want me to wear until I`m old?"

"In her youth, my Granny couldn`t buy herself new clothes. She wore hand-me-downs hence it was important to her that the same didn`t happen to me", – says granddaughter.

"Grandpa loved her a lot, cherished her, protected her from heavy labor"

Nadia Bubliy worked as a master at the Izyum Instrument-Making Plant, and later – as a janitor at the village school

She often got invited to cook for weddings and soldiers` send-offs, the woman had a culinary talent and could make anything: from first courses to pastry.

"I loved her borsch and hand pies. I remember myself as a small child being wrapped in a downy shawl, sat on the sleighs, and taken to the Granny`s where she took hot pies out of the oven – it was amazing", – says Olena.

Nadia Bubliy loved to sing and had a clear voice. As Olena recalls, she loved the songs Oy Na Hori Dva Dubky ("Oh on the Hill Are Two Oak Trees") and Rospriahayte, Khloptsi, Koney ("Unhitch the Horses, Boy") the most.

Nadia`s husband, Mykola, also loved to sing. He worked on the collective farm, and later – at a brick-making plant. The war left him with a disability status.

Nadia and Mykola had two sons together. The eldest, Serhiy, died 21 years ago from pneumonia. The younger, Oleksandr, after his marriage, built a house next to his parents`. They all lived happily side by side.

"People remember Granny kindly because she was good, gentle, calm, and thoughtful. She had incredible patience. Grandpa loved her a lot, cherished her, protected her from heavy labor. Even in old age, he did all the work in the garden and in the yard alone. Granny only cooked in the kitchen. She was a bigger woman, busty, while Grandpa was small and scrawny. He used to hug her, put his head to her chest, said: "Oh, my granny, my darling granny… ", – recalls Olena

As far as she remembers she had never heard from her grandparents a harsh word. There were no arguments in their house. Only peace and quiet.

When Nadia was 74, her husband Mykola died from a stroke. The loss was too hard to bear for the woman, she developed a high blood pressure problem, two months after the funeral she was hospitalized.

"After that, we didn`t allow Granny to do practically anything to keep her from overextending herself. She would come out into the street, take a stroll, sit in her chair, boss us around, tell us what to do and how to do it, and that`s it", – shares granddaughter.

When Grandpa Mykola was alive, the couple kept cows, pigs, chickens. After his death, they got rid of the livestock.

To ease the pain of her loss, Olenka moved in with her grandmother, they spent a lot of time together

"She often said that her life was hard. She talked about the hardships, the deficit, how hard it was to bury both a son and a husband…She also survived all of her siblings", – recalls Olena Bubliy

[BANNER2]Nadia Bubliy often told her granddaughter: "God save us from the war like the one we had survived".

She feared that hunger and ruin would come into her life once again

When in 2014 Russia has started the war on Ukraine, the family tried not to mention it too much in front of Granny. She immediately recalled the World War, the worrying made her blood pressure increase.

At the start of the invasion, Nadia was 90 years old. For the last seven months of her life she couldn`t walk. With each passing day, her health was declining. Granny stopped recognizing her loved ones, refused food and water in the last five days before her demise.


The village of Kam`yanka after the Russian bombing

source – Ukrinform

They didn`t tell Nadia about the break-out of the full-scale war. "When the shellings started my mother told her: "Don`t worry, it`s just a plane". But she no longer understood what was happening anyway", – recalls the granddaughter.

Airstrikes happened every hour. The dog warned them. 10-15 minutes prior to bombings he was barking and trying to get off the chain.

Heating, electricity. and the internet had gone out in Kam`yanka on the 24th of February. The family cooked food on the firewood. They picked meals that could be prepared quickly. They boiled potatoes, eggs, ate salo.

On the 11th of March, the bombardments got very frequent. They couldn`t get even a few minutes of quiet. That day Olena left the village together with her 9-years old daughter and some people she knew. Her parents stayed as they could not leave the granny behind. They didn`t know how to get a bedridden person out. They didn`t see any evacuation notices.

On March 16th during the shellings the son and daughter-in-law, as usual, went to sleep in the basement but a 65-years-old man and a 64-years-old woman couldn`t carry Granny Nadia down with them.

"Because of the airstrikes in the middle of the night, Granny was crashed by the debris of her own house. Dad counted six bomb holes in the house…Yes, Granny was close to death. We prepared ourselves that soon we would have to bury her, still, the Russsians didn`t let her die a natural death," – says Olena.


The remains of the Bubliy family home, photo from the archive of Olena Bubliy

At half past three in the morning Olena`s parents headed out of the village towards Slovyansk on foot. They only had their passports on them.

At the time Olena Bubliy was in Poland. When her parents got in touch, she mourned her grandmother`s death and rejoyced at her parents` survival.

"It hurt to hear about her death. I loved her and she loved me. Since childhood,  we had always been together. And she treated my daughter, her great-grandchild, Alina, with special tenderness. She taught her how to pray, read fairy tales to her, – recalls Olena. – We only have one photo of Granny left. The rest is under the rubble, alongside Grandpa`s medals from the war".

Due to continuous shellings, Nadia Bubliy could only be buried in October - after the liberation of the village from the occupiers that had been there since the 23rd of March. Her relatives called the rescuers to retrieve her remains. Her son Oleksandr with a friend dug out a grave right in the yard since the cemetery was still mined. Later at their own risk, they reburied her there, next to her husband`s grave.


"Child, do you think that peace is forever? That war is an exception? In reality, it`s the other way around"

Olha Trofymenko was born on the 4th of June 1931 in the village of Makedonivka, Donetsk Oblast. Her parents Yevdokym and Fedora Malay were Greek. Olha spoke Greek but she could not write or read it. She could barely spell Russian since due to World War Two she had only finished the first grade.

"Granny`s father and elder brother died during the Holodomor in 1933. She, her mother, and two brothers only survived thanks to her mom`s brother who brought them with him to Mariupol. It was better in the city, while in the countryside the last was being taken away," – says the 39-years old granddaughter Natalia Fitkevych.

It was the first famine in Olha`s life. Although, she was too young to remember it. Later they starved again during World War II. In order to survive they boiled oilcake. There was no other food.

When Germans occupied the village, Olha was 10 years old, at that time her family lived in a dugout her mother built herself with her children.

"Granny often told a story from that period of her life. She told us: "One time, when mom was not at home, Germans came to the dugout. One of them peeked inside. We were frightened, thought he would kill us, but he gave us a bundle of paper and left. It had a sausage in it". – reminisces granddaughter.


Olha Trofymenko, photo from the archive of the granddaughter Natalia Fitkevych

From the words of Natalia Fitkevych, her grandmother never talked about explosions or shooting – only hunger she had feared all her life.

"One time she said: "Child, do you think that peace is forever? That war is an exception? In reality, it`s the other way around. You have to appreciate peace and thank God for it". I remembered those words well", – says granddaughter.

Olha Trofymenko, recalls Natalia, never threw away food. She finished every last piece of bread. And often lectured her family: "One day there would be war. You need to always have flour and salt at home because that`s how you can survive".

Since childhood Olha knew the hard work. During WWII she carried buckets of water for the soldiers in the trenches. From the liberation of Mariupol to the end of the war, she worked with her mother and one of the brothers on the collective farm in Makedonivka. Because of that, she couldn`t finish school.

Until she turned 18 the girl had toiled at the "Zelenobud" collective company in Mariupol where she planted trees.

"Granny went into labor as she was crossing a river on a boat by herself"

At the family gatherings, Olha Trofymenko often told a story of how she met her husband Dmytro. He was a Kuban Cossack. After serving in Sakhalin he came to Mariupol to see a friend who was dating Granny`s friend. One time all three paid a visit to Olha`s house. There Dmytro accidentally fell down the cellar. Granny`s mom took it as a good sign, and said to her daughter "He`s a good lad, he`ll be ours". She half-jokingly hinted to Olha who at the time was 25 that she needed to make him "fall in love with her".

Soon after the initial meeting Dmytro and Olha began seeing each other and later married and went to work in Siberia.

"Grandpa was often away on business. One time he was gone for too long, and Granny went looking for him 9 months pregnant. She went into labor as she was crossing a river on a boat by herself. She started screaming. Local women heard her and brought her to the nearest village. There a girl named Nadia was born. The locals helped her find Grandpa. After that he never left granny alone for long", – says Natalia Fitkevych.

With a baby, the couple moved to the Kuban – the husband`s fatherland. There year later a daughter named Vira was born. In another year or so Olha got pregnant again. The family settled in Makedonivka where a son named Volodymyr was born. A few years later they received a flat in Mariupol and moved there.

When the children grew up, Olha started working at the Zhdanov Heavy Machinery Building Plant (now – "Azovmash" Machinery Building Concern). It had remained her place of work until her retirement.

In old age she felt the aftermath of that job: she was plagued by a cough caused by the constant inhaling of the vapors at the solution hall that atrophied a part of her lungs.


"She regretted deeply that she couldn`t get an education"

Her granddaughter recalls Olha Trofymenko was affable, she liked going to the market and church.

"Granny could go to the marketplace 10 times in one day just because she was bored at home. She liked looking for bargains and haggling", - says Natalia.

Olha knew all of her neighbors and loved to chat with them about everything sitting on the bench near her apartment block. In the summer she grew flowers, bragged about it to her friends, and when there was nothing else for her to do she used to sell her flowers at the marketplace.

"Whenever the watermelon season started Granny used to bring them home one by one and hid them under her bed. Having collected 20-30 watermelons, she treated her grandchildren. She liked eating watermelons with bread and garlic. It seemed very strange to me. Granny was funny like that," – says Natalia with a smile.


Olha Trofymenko

Olha Trofymenko could not sit still for long. When at 85 she broke her leg she took up walkers to roam her apartment – going from room to room. She loved to bake – bread especially and the greek meat and pumpkin pie called Shumush. On Easter, she used to bake thirty Paskas (Ukrainian Easter bread) and gave them out to her relatives.

Granny Olha was religious. In the corner of her home she put up icons that she prayed to. She reread the Gospel syllable by syllable. Later her granddaughter gifted her one in large print to make the reading easier.

"On Easter Granny brought me with her to the night vigil. I was dying out there! I couldn`t stand straight at the end of the service, I was crying. And after you still had to walk several kilometers since the public transport wouldn`t work at 4 in the morning, – recalls Natalia. – I thought then that I would never go to church again. But for six years now I`ve been singing in a church choir in Bucha and I`m enjoying it".

Olha Trofymenko also enjoyed singing. She had an ear for music and a lovely voice. She often sang Greek songs while doing something in the kitchen.


Olha Trofymenko with granddaughter Natalia Fitkevych, 2017, photo from the family archive

Olha`s husband Dmytro also was an extraordinary man. He didn`t have any formal education, so he made furniture, sewed clothes and shoes, fixed plumbs. He could make a radio with his own hands. He cooked. He liked singing and watching sci-fi movies. He had asthma and heart problems, and died at the age of 65.

Without her husband Olha lived another 25 years. In retirement, the woman looked after her grandchildren.

"Granny told me many times that her life was hard. She regretted deeply that she could not get an education and so she had to do hard physical labor", – says granddaughter.


"It`s terrible –  to finish your life in despair and fear"

The break-out of the Russian-Ukrainian War in 2014 disturbed Olha. She used to cry watching the news and ask: "Why won`t Russians leave us alone? What`s the world coming to?" At the time the family considered evacuation from Mariupol but with the beginning of the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) they decided to stay.

At the start of the full-scale invasion, Olha Trofymenko was 90 years old. She had already been bedridden for months – her broken leg hadn`t healed properly. The woman lived on the fourth floor of a five-story building in the 17th neighborhood in Mariupol. With her in the apartment were her daughter Vira, her son-in-law (Natalia Fitkevych`s parents) and her son Volodymyr.

"My parents didn`t evacuate because she couldn`t leave her behind. They couldn`t sit her in the car due to the trauma that was causing her pain. Besides, no one could think that there would be such horror in Mariupol", – says Natalia.

Granny Olha was lucid yet her loved ones didn`t tell her about the war at first. Thanks to a hearing problem she didn`t hear the bombing so for a time being she didn`t suspect anything. Still, she wondered why did her daughter stop bringing pies for her tea. Finally, her family told her about the war. They explained that because of the occupiers` advance on Mariupol the stores couldn`t re-stock, and their own pantry ran out, among other things – of flour.

Soon an air bomb fell in their yard. The explosion wave threw Olha Trofymenko up in her bed. Their building didn`t have a shelter, so the family hid in the apartment where there wasn`t any heating, electricity, or water supply. No window survived, the temperature dropped to the outside level – -10 C

Everyone was laying in beds, swaddled in blankets. They had to crawl to the kitchen and the bathroom to avoid loose shrapnel flying inside through the windows. The shellings made it impossible to go outside and boil water on the open fire. They gnawed on ice. Ate preserved tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers – small portions to make it last longer. Everything they ate was frozen. Olha Trofymenko didn`t survive such conditions – she died on March 13th from starvation and cold. At first, they buried her in the yard, later – at the cemetery in Mariupol.

Her granddaughter Natalia Fitkevych didn`t find about these events right away as he has been living near Kyiv since 2002. With the start of the war she lost contact with her family.

"Mom told me about Granny`s death at the end of March after my family had managed to flee Mariupol with the help of volunteers. At that time I had already managed to evacuate to Lviv, – said Natalia Fitkevych. – I feel so sorry for Granny. She died from what she had feared since childhood – hunger and war. It`s terrible –  to finish your life in despair and fear".

Natalia Khvesyk