IOSIF ISAAKOVICH PROTAS
Iosif Isaakovich Protas was born on October 17, 1925 in Minsk, Belarus. Having witnessed first-hand Germany’s invasion and its merciless bombardment of the civilian population, he evacuated with his mother to a village in Kazakhstan near the border with China. His father died during the Defense of Moscow in October 1941. He was drafted in February 1943, completed mortar training and fought in battles in Ukraine, Romania, and Hungary. Surviving three injuries and earning two Orders of the Red Star, he celebrated German capitulation in Austria. Protas returned to Minsk and in 1947 was accepted as a student at the medical institute. Interview was recorded in Minsk, Belarus in 2009.
Dec. 31, 1940 – Jan. 1, 1941. It is the first hour of 41. Mama and papa went out. I’m by myself. Boring. I’m not going out anywhere tonight. After ice skating I got sick and have been in bed until today. What were the good things that happened to me in 1940? I’m going to compare today’s diary entry with the one I will make a year from now. After all, I grew this year, physically and mentally. I learned a lot. There were some difficult moments, but I think I didn’t cave in. One thing worries me most. That I might have to repeat a grade. I feel confused about everything. Can’t just sit around and hope things work out, have to push. But if I do have to repeat [the year], I’m not going to just kill myself either, not going to quit everything. There are disappointments in life .… I will turn 16 this year.
June 23, 1941. I passed my physics exam with a B-. I began my field studies in land surveying, was schedule to take the exam [June] 28-29. I think everything is going well. Yesterday, someone said to me, go listen [to the radio], Molotov is going to speak. So there I was. War with Germany. As though it fell from the sky. Everything is clear from here on. The future, the immediate future, is not smiling at us. I don’t know what’s going to happen with my studies. Our state of mind is understandable. The Germans already launched six air attacks on Minsk, but they were beaten back each time. Who knows what will happen next. Pretty bad. This was the first night when I couldn’t sleep, but how many such nights are to come? That’s all. No desire to write. Going to bed. I should get some sleep now, before the sirens go off again. Goodbye. Don’t know when I’ll write again. Who knows what’ll become of me.
July 21, 1941. Even though I write in my diary without proper grammar, its destiny is to witness the unfolding of different events. These are “wise” words, the possible future reader will say. et it be so, but I think that reading this diary will not be boring. Actually, it will be up to the reader to decide, if there ever is one .... It’s such a shame that I wasn’t able to write anything down on the 24th [of June] .… The day itself was clear and calm. I came out of the bomb shelter, where mama, Fanya and papa stayed, and sat down in the courtyard. One guy had binoculars and we looked at the airplanes that flew above us ceaselessly. Suddenly we heard some sort of a monotone buzzing sound. We turned around. Not far behind us, an extended bomber formation was heading our way. I looked into the binoculars and saw a cross on the side, and a swastika on the tail. We rushed for the bomb shelter. A few minutes later we heard the distant rumble. A bomb fell somewhere. And then, everything above us trembled, the lights went out.
It is beyond my ability to describe the scene inside the bomb shelter. Everyone started pushing towards the exit. Shrieking voices: I’m suffocating, Mama! I don’t even want to write about it, won’t be able to anyway. Finally, the sirens stopped. I came out on the street. The sun was high above and fairly warm. The bomb hit near the bomb shelter. Part of the wall on the neighboring building was torn off and you could see inside all the apartments. All the windows shattered. A few people lay on the ground in the courtyard. They were killed by bomb fragments; two looked like they were 10-12 years old. One’s head was split in two. One woman was on the ground without anything visibly wrong with her. Just a stream of blood running from the back of her head. Her eyes were open, looking somewhere into the distance. A vague expression. Once I saw the corpses I understood the horror and misery that war brings. Really understood it!
Protas and his mother first evacuated to the city of Tambov, approximately 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow, and then to Kazakhstan, near the border with China. Letters from his father, whose army unit was encircled by the Germans during the defense of Moscow battles in October 1941, ceased forever. Their living conditions in evacuation worsened as the war went on.
December 12, 1941. No letters from father, we live in someone else’s home, without any prospects. Things are pretty bad at the front, and I have to endure it all by myself. That’s why it’s twice as hard for me. I remember Minsk. Childhood. My [childhood now] ended. It left behind only memories of wonderful sweetness, of wonderful years among friends, friends close in spirit and intellect. And I don’t want to believe – yes, yes – don’t want to believe that it is gone forever. Youth came. Harsh youth, in strange territory, far from father, without friends. It’s very hard. But hope is in my heart.
January 5, 1942. First entry in ’42. I read what I wrote in ’40 and I laughed. I was just a boy then. How different my situation is now. July 28, 1942. Our situation keeps getting worse. We’ll go hungry soon. In the winter we’re going to freeze our butts off .… You live like an animal and the longer it lasts, the less hope there is for something better.
August 28, 1942. My clothes are all torn up. I walk around in ink-stained pants, i.e. colored in ink. I have no shoes. Mom has no money, literally not a penny. We eat bread and sometimes we have apples. No need to explain [my] mood. Things keep getting worse at the front. The Germans are close to Baku and getting closer to the Volga [River]. No sign of the second front. Those born in 1924 have been drafted to military schools. I think I have no more than 6 months of waiting left.
December 12, 1942. I don’t even hope for the best. If they accept me into the army, that’s good. If I get killed, even better. I’m not afraid of death, I’m so sick of this damned life, full of humiliation, insult and mockery. The devil with it! I need to get into the army as quickly as possible, at least mentally it would make things easier.
Post by Julie Chervinsky