The fighting ended 75 years ago, but Maria Rokhlina still feels the war in her hands, in every finger. Born in Ukraine, she dreamed of becoming a pilot. But by 1941, when she was 16, the Nazis were advancing deep into her homeland. “I stepped from my school desk into the war,” she says. She became a combat medic and served with the Soviet forces for four years.
One day, as she was helping ferry a wounded soldier across the roiling Dniepr River, her oar broke, so she paddled through the bone-chilling water with her bare hands. The pain in her fingers is still so severe that she takes injections in each joint for relief.
In 1942 Rokhlina became trapped in the besieged city of Stalingrad. The battle raged for more than six months, reducing the city to ruins and decimating its population. Winter temperatures regularly plunged below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Rokhlina holed up with Soviet troops in a tractor factory, but there wasn’t a scrap of paper or wood to burn. “We had to warm each other with our bodies,” she says. “We took an oath there—never to forget Stalingrad, never to forget those who stood hugging each other” in what she calls “warming circles.”
Then there are the memories Rokhlina has tried to forget but can’t: the heat of a dying soldier’s intestines as she tried to push them back into his abdomen. Or her fellow medic, Valentina, raped and killed by the Germans, her breasts sliced off. “I cannot forgive them for what they did and what I saw.”
But like the heating circles, the horrors forged bonds. A Russian soldier, on first sight of her, promised to propose if they survived the war. They were married for 48 years.
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