I was born on 19 December 1922 in the Ukraine, to an ordinary peasant family in the village Stepanovka in Magdalinovskiy area of Dnepropetrovsk region. From my early childhood I worked at various agricultural jobs. I recall being left alone for a week to watch over a melon field. Even the dog ran away, but I persevered. I had a shirt dyed in elderberry juice and nothing else. They put my first pair of trousers on me when I went to school. We subsisted on watermelons and other forage food, which later on greatly helped me to survive. [His brother, Vladimir Gavrilovich Kolesnik, was a tanker who found himself in the Manchurian campaign in 1945. A sniper wounded him several hours before the first battle, in which both his tank and crew perished. He recalls that Nikolay Tarasovich knew every edible root and blade of grass, and was able to walk barefoot through the swampy bog and find there any kind of tuber, and catch rats and fish with whatever inconceivable means were at hand- Maksim S.]
I managed to complete secondary school, finishing tenth grade in 1941. In August of that year our Novomoskovsk Military Commission evacuated the undrafted young men to prevent them from falling into German hands. They sent us by train to the east, but near Sinelnikov the Germans bombed the train. Those of us who survived and who did not flee the scene were assembled in Zaporozhe. They sent all those who had completed tenth grade, including me, to the 2nd Rostov Artillery Academy near Berdyansk. But several weeks later the front line approached our academy. They drafted us and issued whatever weapons were available to us. We fought our first battle at Sinyavka village. A group of German tanks smashed through our defenses with ease and moved off toward Rostov. After this battle they re-assembled those of us who survived and sent us to the 1st Rostov Artillery Academy, where we walked directly into the beginning of the struggle for Rostov. Once again they threw us into the fight. The Germans pressed in upon us and we made a fighting withdrawal to the east. Then we were pulled from the front and sent to the rear. In November 1941 we turned up at an Artillery Academy in Stalingrad. Our training course ended in early 1942 and we received our rank. I was sent as the commander of a firing platoon to the 21st Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 14th Tank Corps, 57th Army.
Our brigade was formed in Maykop. It had been thrown together, as they say, "from the beginning." Later, from April into June, we withdrew to Voronezh, where we stopped and formed the Stalingrad Front. Marshal Timoshenko commanded this front. We held defensive positions here for some time, but then the Germans again hit us hard and threw us back to Starobelsk. We withdrew in frightful confusion under constant artillery fire and air attacks. All that remained from my platoon was one gun [judging upon description, it was a 45mm antitank gun- Maksim S.] and a crew of four men. By runner they sent us an order to occupy a defensive position near the road and cover the withdrawal of our forces. We picked a spot and dug in. The Germans did not appear that evening, night, and for almost the entire next day.
Toward the end of the following day a German column appeared. We opened fire with our gun and knocked out two armored transporters. In response the Germans returned heavy machine-gun fire and under its cover withdrew into the woods. Then we shifted our gun to a new position. At this time we had several high explosive and only two armor-piercing rounds. We held our fire. Some time later the Germans launched a counter-attack. We opened fire several times on their infantry with high explosive shells and pinned the Germans to the ground. They quickly brought up mortars and covered our position. Everything was in chaos and our gun was destroyed...
Strange as it may seem, the Germans did not stop to finish off those of us who were wounded. They picked us up, gave us a butt stroke to the stomach, packed us into the back of a truck, and hauled us off to Starobelsk, where there was a temporary prisoner-of-war camp. Just imagine: it was the beginning of July, an empty steppe, the heat. They gave us almost no food or water. There were thousands of people in the camp, all crammed in...
Several of us decided to flee while we yet had the strength to do so. We decided to disperse along the perimeter of the camp and simultaneously break out in several directions. We fled. The Germans fired away wildly with their rifles but just the same were able to kill almost everyone. Just one other soldier and I were able to reach a pool of water, which we drank out of and then hid ourselves in a cornfield. We sat there for two days. We heard the police searching for us and quietly moved into the area where they had just passed. But in the end they found us using dogs. Policemen captured us and beat us even harder than the Germans. Then they dragged us away to the same camp from which we had fled. Some time later they took us from this camp to Uman to work in a quarry. They fed us kasha made from burnt wheat. They drove us to work in this quarry.
One time our own aviation flew over and bombed the Germans with no mercy. I managed to flee in the general chaos. With many precautions I was able to reach Dnepropetrovsk by train. From there I traveled on foot to Novomoskovsk. The town was burnt to the ground but my mother was alive. She hid me in the hayloft, because the Germans were shooting all new arrivals. Two weeks later the local partisan-underground members Miroshnik and Zina Belaya came for me. They made an "ausweis" for me. But this effort was for naught. The Germans caught me with this "ausweis" and locked me in a barracks for two days, along with other "unidentified" persons. I was lucky and two days later the Germans let me go.
I became a member of an underground organization. For cover I was employed as a sheet metal worker repairing machines at a steel rolling mill [now the Novomoskovsk Pipe Factory- Maksim S.] My primary activity was sabotage. Several times we organized the escape of Red Army POWs from the local collection (concentration) camp.
Our leader was Nikita Golovko. In general, we had various missions. We hid and distributed radio transmitter/receivers among the trusted citizenry and assisted our POWs, of whom there were many, with foodstuffs. I recall that a red button behind the lapel of our jacket served as our password.
Life went on in this manner into the fall of 1942. By winter the front had reached the village Volnoye and I received the mission to reach a forward unit of the Red Army and lead it under the bridges to the plant where railroad ties were made. I met our troops, but it turned out that this was not quite the front, but the remnants of one of the units of 35th Army, all of 60 men, which had penetrated to this point. We made the decision to attack the town. As an artillery officer, I was given command of the antitank gun. We attacked on the following day and penetrated some two or three kilometers. We occupied the railroad station and dug in at the cemetery. The Germans launched a sluggish counterattack from the town, with no success.
At 15:00 on the same day German tanks descended upon us from Maryanovskiy Hill. I managed to unlimber and roll the gun to a more or less suitable position and destroy one tank, but the remaining tanks literally leveled the railroad station and tie factory with the ground. The surviving Red Army soldiers hid themselves in the cellars of the plant and the Germans were still rooting them out and shooting them, of course, days later. I and three other soldiers managed to escape this cauldron. We somehow washed up in the bend of the river. There we had to decide what to do next. We thought of nothing but how to make our way home.
We went to my house. One of the soldiers stayed with me there and the other two went with the partisan Sadko to the Sova partisan detachment, which operated in the forest on the other side of the Samara River. It was winter and the river was frozen. They went straight across the ice. The Germans spotted them and cut down two of them with a machine-gun. Later we went out and covered their faces with a poncho and then left. None of us went out on the ice that night but by morning the corpses had disappeared. The soldier who had remained at my house recuperated (he had a bad rash) and left for the front in the direction of Pavlograd. I never heard from him again.
Some time later rumors abounded that a wave of arrests of underground members was occurring in and around Pavlograd. We agreed with the partisans from Leshchenko's detachment that they would dress in German uniforms, gather us up out of the town, and lead us into the forest in the guise of having arrested us.
Unfortunately, they did not pull it off in time and this was the cause of even more confusion. The Germans arrested a portion of the underground members and we, who had remained free, did not know that these were not our people dressed up as Germans, but were in fact the Germans. On Wednesday I went to the theater with Kolya Beliy. The Germans grabbed us right off the street. They delivered us to the police station, where we were put in separate cells. The policemen beat us long and hard.
Ten days later they took us out to Dnepropetrovsk police station, where we endured another month of interrogations and beatings. At the end of September 1943, the front had come right up to Novomoskovsk, and the Germans began to shoot the arrested partisans who remained there. This is how Nikita Golovko, Zina Belaya, and Zhenya Shut (secretary of the city's committee of Komsomol) died.
On September 25, they loaded us along with some POWs, into rail cars (95 persons in each car) and sent us westward. I ended up in a car with Kolya Beliy. On 2 or 3 October we arrived in Vienna. What a beautiful city! They led us along the streets where countless fruit trees were planted. Unfortunately, we couldn't gather any fruit: a guard with a dog stood every ten metres.
They brought us to Mauthausen concentration camp. It was surrounded by a four-metre stone wall, a ditch full of water, and barbed wire with three forbidden zones...
They formed us into groups of 10 men and began to beat us with sticks from two sides in such a way that no one was missed...
We were on a piece of flat ground surrounded on all sides by ditches. We had to run from one end of this area to the other. While we were running, we had to remove all our clothing and throw it into the ditches. Then they not shaved but plucked off the hair off our heads and all other parts of our body and doused us with some kind of disinfecting substance...
We were subjected to a conveyor-like medical inspection. They made a pencil mark on everyone's chest. If it was a red cross- you went to the barracks. If it was a blue cross- you went to the hospital. And if it was a black cross- you went to the crematoria. They painted a red cross on my chest. They led us to the "bath", where they poured icy water over us for five minutes, after which they sent us into the quarantine block. This block was set up for 1200 persons, but there were many more than that packed in. So that everyone had a spot, they lined us up "belly button-to-asshole" and savagely beat everyone at once, in order to get 600 men into one row.
I ended up in the same barracks with Zorin, Leshchenko, and Sadko. In the morning they drove us, naked, out into the freezing air and in place of shoes issued us wooden clogs for our feet. I remember how the square was paved with cobble-stone, and how it was almost impossible to stand tight on them in such footgear. We hugged each other from the cold but they beat us in order to break us apart, and forced us to run around in circles on the square. In wooden clogs! Then they poured 250 grams of ersatz coffee into our bowls.
For dinner they gave us soup, but I was "incorrect" in extending my bowl toward the cook. For this he struck me with a backhand blow of his ladle. It knocked out one of my front teeth. I passed out from the blow and general weakness and fell down. Sadko fearlessly dragged me to the formation, saving me from certain death.
They kept us in quarantine for 21 days. During this time they registered all of us. Sadko and I were recorded as auto mechanics. We were divided into two groups: engineers in the workshops and the rest in the quarry. In the quarry, 153 steps below, they hacked out stones of the required dimensions with pickaxes and then dragged them to the top with their hands. If the stone turned out to be damaged or ruined, the unlucky bearer received 25 blows with the staff and was denied supper for a week. This meant almost certain death.
All nationalities were housed in the camp. We had everyone except Japanese and Finns. Spaniards and Poles were the largest groups. As an auto mechanic, I was taken to the Daimler repair shop, where in three days I had to learn how to operate a grinding-polishing machine. A Czech helped me to learn the machine. My counterpart- a German- worked in the day and I worked at night. Time passed...
In the summer of 1944 the Americans bombed our repair shops, and once again I had to work in the quarry. I ate everything I could get my hands on in order to survive. Grass, tree bark, potato peelings. [Not long before his death my grandfather suddenly recalled how greasy and tasty(!) was the clay soil in Austria- Maksim S.]
Various kinds of people were being held in the camp- prisoners of war, civilians, and even criminals and bandits of all nationalities. Among us was an Austrian communist. He introduced me to an interpreter from Odessa. His name was Mark. The three of us hatched a plan to escape. At this time the camp was overflowing with prisoners and the Germans began to drown inmates in the bathhouse. Understand that the crematory's capacity was "too small", and therefore they herded up to 600 men into the bathhouse and filled it with water up to the very ceiling.
The Germans paid close attention to hygiene in the camp! There were no rats, fleas, lice, or other parasites. They monitored to ensure that no epidemics broke out. If someone developed pustules, he got a quick shot of air in his vein [I don't know is there any medic sense to pump vein with air, but my grandad said so the Germans did- Maksim.S] If you fell ill, you was obligated to drown himself in one of the large vats of water that were specially placed around the camp for this purpose!
In March 1945, prisoners being evacuated from Oswiecim (Auschwitz) were brought to Mauthausen. Our camp became so overcrowded that in addition to the crematorium and the bathhouse, they began to drown people in the quarry shafts. In view of this state of affairs, we decided to escape without delay. For two days before our escape we clogged up our toilet so that at the necessary moment none of the guard personnel would be interested in the fact that we were using the toilet in someone else's barracks.
At 23:00 they turned off the lights in the camp and we went out through the drainage pipe. The Austrian communist, Mark, two Yugoslavs, and an additional six Russian POWs fled with me. We moved toward the mountains all night and before daybreak were able to reach them and seek cover in their folds.
We moved through the mountains for three nights. I recall only wetness and cold: there was a lot of precipitation in the mountains in March. Our wounds began to fester. One time we stumbled into the home of some kind of Austrian farmer or landowner. Germans or Austrians, whomever they were, we killed them all.
By this time there were just eight of us left. We changed into civilian clothes and armed ourselves with the weapons that we found in the farmhouse. Soon, we left this place and walked for another 21 days, looking for the French border. Near the border stood some kind of barracks, where 16 Ukrainians from Western Ukraine lived. The Germans had transported them out of the Ukraine early in the war and now they lived here. As we later learned, they earned their living by turning over local partisans to the German authorities. It was these people who turned us in to the SS.
We had nowhere to hide or escape. We lay in the loft and fired our weapons until we ran out of ammo. Then the Germans beat those of us who survived half to death, put us all in chains, and took us by truck back to Mauthausen. They hung us up on the gates in these chains for everyone to see, to teach others not to flee. We hung there for three days! [Sometime later, at one of the celebratory gatherings on the occasion of an anniversary of the Victory, someone gave my grandfather a booklet entitled "Mauthausen Museum". He picked out one photograph and exclaimed, "Look here, they hung me on these gates!"- Maksim S.]
On the third day they took us down from the gates and ordered us all to hung ourselves! The Yugoslavs hung themselves (i.e. killed themselves), but the rest of us refused to do so. Then they put us back into the chains and hung us up again. But now during the day, chained, they led us out to work in the stone quarry, and hung us up again at night. One night the Austrian died on the gates, and just before he died he asked us to pass on to his three children that he had died like a man...
Victory was drawing near. They fed us practically nothing. The SS disappeared somewhere. On the 4th of May a Soviet T-34 arrived at the camp. But it turned out that the camp was in the American occupation zone. So the Russians only opened the gates and those who were able to move under their own power were on their own. We changed into any kind of German uniforms and dress we could find in the camp and departed on foot toward the Danube River. We approached some fishermen and asked them to give us something, anything, to eat. They drove us off. In the end the workers at a nearby farm quietly fed us, but not much, so that we would not die from overeating.
After three days we were more or less able to eat independently. However, there was nothing for us to do and we returned to the camp in order to search for our companions among the survivors there. We had recovered our strength to such a degree that we even commandeered a motorcycle somewhere and drove around in a circle on it with a homemade red banner. Later by an order of the American Army all Russians were assembled in the town Tsvetal for handing over to the Russian zone. There was absolutely nowhere to live in Tsvetal because like the Germans, the Americans fed us practically nothing and, to a large degree, washed their hands of us.
We decided to leave the American zone of control and go to our old camp. And so we did this. Having returned to Mauthausen, we discovered that many people had perished during our absence. Mob law had taken over the camp. Later Soviet representatives arrived, collected up all Soviet officers, me among them, and moved them to Czechoslovakia. There we were subjected to a tortuous interrogation by SMERSH personnel, followed by transfer to a filtration camp at Lvov in western Ukraine. Here we underwent another three days of examination. But I was very lucky. They issued me clothing and documents and returned my rank to me.
They sent me to the Japanese front. But I decided to stop en route at my home and report late to my unit. I caught up to it in Dzhambul, when combat actions had already concluded. The NKVD screened me one more time, in Alma-Ata in 1946. I arrived at home only in 1947, once again at the height of the famine...
Nikolay Terasovich died in his sleep on 14 September, 2001. During his last six months he stopped dreaming about the war and instead dreamed only of the steppe and of horses. Until the end of his life he maintained a scornful attitude toward death. He lived for thirty months with an illness that killed people in six months. Until his last day he forced himself to eat and had hope of recovery.
Conversation written by his grandson
, based upon the stories of his grandfather. Literary revisions: Valeri Potapov Translated by: