Michael Wilms submission An old stone bridge is decaying. Long grass weaves itself through the crumbling rock. The river bed below that once was ten feet deep with fast moving water is now dry. The Dnieper River that flows alongside the city of Nikopol in Ukraine has since been diverted. Harry Giesbrecht, 85, as a child with his friends used to use the bridge as a diving board to escape the summer heat. “Our summer days were spent around that bridge swimming,” says Giesbrecht displaying a picture of the crumbling bridge. “That’s where my girlfriend Tamara was captured by the Germans for helping the Russian Partisans.” Giesbrecht grew up in Ukraine under German occupation. The Nazi invasion known as Operation Barbarossa was the beginning of the Second World War for the Russians and began in June of 1941. The city of Nikopol became occupied in July of 1941. “I remember Tamara and I had been swimming by the bridge and heard the announcement of war from Stalin over the city centre loud speaker. It seemed like overnight that the Germans arrived. They marched in perfect formation wearing their black polished leather knee high boots.” Giesbrecht remembers his childhood relationship with Tamara beginning at the outbreak of war. “She was a year older then I, maybe 15 and went to school in the afternoon, when I went in the morning,” says Giesbrecht. Just before the announcement of war Giesbrecht and his friends were sitting on the school steps when one of Tamara’s friends approached Giesbrecht. “‘Harry,’ she said, ‘Tamara would like to date you.’ I stood up right there and said, ‘you can tell her I accept.’
Giesbrecht says she became one of the gang. “She dressed like us boys, but she was such a beauty. Sometimes she would wear a dress that her mother got for her; absolutely beautiful. She had blonde hair and deep blue eyes, eyes so deep that when they looked at you they looked right through you.” The occupation of Nikopol continued and in 1943 Tamara’s father began fighting with the Russian Partisans. “They ambushed German soldiers, blew up train tracks and stole weapons,” says Giesbrecht. The Partisans hid on an island across the river known as Neider-Chortiza. Tamara’s mother routinely brought food and supplies across the river to her husband. “One night her mother found out that the Germans were on to her. So she stayed with her husband on the other side,” says Giesbrecht. This left Tamara to take up her mother’s cause. She began taking food to the Partisans. “It wasn’t long until they caught her,” says Giesbrecht. “They beat her up very badly. Her face was all black and blue.” After Tamara was interrogated, the German soldiers put her to work on the river barges. “She was unloading watermelons. So I went up to the Germans guarding the prisoners, and I spoke German so I asked them if I could talk to my girlfriend.” Giesbrecht took Tamara by the hand and led her to their bridge where he had hid a rowboat. “We didn’t speak a word. I just rowed her across. I knew what lay in store for her. She was either going to be shot or worse sent to the camps.”
Giesbrecht remembers getting to the other side and just standing there. “Still we didn’t speak a word. We didn’t even hug or kiss. We just shook hands and I headed back across the river. I never saw her again.” The Germans were waiting for Giesbrecht when he arrived back on the other side. “Oh boy did they beat me up good. It was awful.” Giesbrecht was knocked unconscious and taken home from the police station by his father. “When I awoke in my bed, my mother and father were sitting next to me and my father asked me, ‘Harry, if you had to, would you do what you did, again?’ I told him, ‘absolutely. She was my friend.’” Giesbrecht now lives in Winnipeg. He fought in the war and immigrated to Canada in May of 1948. On Remembrance Day, Giesbrecht thinks of Tamara.
Published on Nov 13, 2013