The terror and devastation faced by millions during World War II is essentially unimaginable. Perhaps the closest we can come is through the eyewitness accounts of the ordinary people caught up in history’s deadliest conflict.
10 – Michihiko Hachiya, Hiroshima Resident
August 6, 1945
We started out, but after 20 or 30 steps I had to stop. My breath became short, my heart pounded, and my legs gave way under me. An overpowering thirst seized me and I begged Yaeko-san to find me some water. But there was no water to be found. After a little my strength somewhat returned and we were able to go on.
I was still naked, and although I did not feel the least bit of shame, I was disturbed to realize that modesty had deserted me . . . Our progress towards the hospital was interminably slow, until finally, my legs, stiff from drying blood, refused to carry me farther. The strength, even the will, to go on deserted me, so I told my wife, who was almost as badly hurt as I, to go on alone. This she objected to, but there was no choice. She had to go ahead and try to find someone to come back for me.
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb detonated directly over central Hiroshima, immediately killing around a quarter of the city’s population and exposing the remainder to dangerous levels of radiation. When the bomb hit, a hospital worker named Michihiko Hachiya was lying down in his home, around 1.5 kilometers (1 mi) from the center of the explosion. His incredible diary, published in 1955, recounts his experiences that day. The above passage describes Michihiko’s short journey to the hospital just minutes after the detonation. The sheer force of the blast had ripped the clothes from his body and his entire right side was badly cut and burned. The “overpowering thirst” that Michihiko describes is a direct effect of losing body fluid from severe burns.
Both Michihiko and his wife were lucky to survive. The area of the city they inhabited saw a fatality rate of 27 percent. Just 0.8 kilometers (0.5 mi) closer to the center of the explosion the fatality rate was 86 percent. While most historians agree that the atomic bombings of Japan were necessary to accelerate the Japanese surrender, eyewitness accounts like Michihiko’s give a clear image as to why nuclear weapons have never been used again.
9 – Zygmunt Klukowski, Polish Doctor
October 21, 1942
From early morning until late at night we witnessed indescribable events. Armed SS soldiers, gendarmes, and “blue police” ran through the city looking for Jews. Jews were assembled in the marketplace. The Jews were taken from their houses, barns, cellars, attics, and other hiding places. Pistol and gun shots were heard throughout the entire day. Sometimes hand grenades were thrown into the cellars. Jews were beaten and kicked; it made no difference whether they were men, women, or small children.
All Jews will be shot. Between 400 and 500 have been killed. Poles were forced to begin digging graves in the Jewish cemetery. From information I received approximately 2,000 people are in hiding. The arrested Jews were loaded into a train at the railroad station to be moved to an unknown location.
It was a terrifying day, I cannot describe everything that took place. You cannot imagine the barbarism of the Germans. I am completely broken and cannot seem to find myself.
On January 20, 1942, 15 senior Nazi officials held a conference to discuss the implementation of a “Final Solution” to obliterate the Jewish people. It took another nine months for the genocide to reach the sleepy town of Szczebrzeszyn in southeast Poland. The above diary entry was written by Zygmunt Klukowski, the chief physician of Szczebrzeszyn’s small hospital. Klukowski was an enthusiastic diarist and noted everything that occurred in his village during the Nazi occupation. He took a great risk in doing so, knowing that the discovery of his chronicle would have marked him for death.
This particularly harrowing entry documents the speed and ferocity with which Jews were rounded up in thousands of villages and towns throughout Eastern Europe. The following day, Klukowski noted that the German SS had already left the village, leaving the Polish military police in charge of locating any remaining Jews. Klukowski, who was devastated by his inability to do anything to help the injured, expressed disgust at how many of his fellow townsfolk took part in the violence against the Jews.
8 – Lena Mukhina, Leningrad Resident
January 3, 1942
We are dying like flies here because of the hunger, but yesterday Stalin gave another dinner in Moscow in honor of [the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony] Eden. This is outrageous. They fill their bellies there, while we don’t even get a piece of bread. They play host at all sorts of brilliant receptions, while we live like cavemen, like blind moles.
To say that the Russian people had it rough during World War II would be a monumental understatement. Depending on the source, it’s estimated that between 7–20 million Russian civilians died as a direct result of the conflict. In Leningrad alone, as many as 750,000 civilians starved to death as the Germans placed the city under siege for over two years, from September 1941 to January 1944. The above diary entry was written by 17-year-old resident Lena Mukhina just a few months into the siege.
As the blockade wore on, residents were reduced to eating rats, cats, earth, and glue. There were widespread reports of cannibalism. At the time the entry above was written, Lena was living with her aunt, who tragically died from hunger a month later. Lena managed to survive by concealing the death from the authorities, allowing her to continue using her aunt’s food card. In later entries, she begins to plot an escape to Moscow. Her diary ends suddenly on May 25, 1942, when she made a dangerous journey to safety across Lake Ladoga. Lena died in 1991, a few short months before the Soviet Union finally collapsed.
7 – Felix Landau, SS Officer
July 12, 1941
At 6:00 in the morning I was suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. Report for an execution. Fine, so I’ll just play executioner and then gravedigger, why not. Isn’t it strange, you love battle and then have to shoot defenseless people. Twenty-three had to be shot, amongst them the two above-mentioned women. They are unbelievable. They even refused to accept a glass of water from us.
I was detailed as marksman and had to shoot any runaways. We drove one kilometer along the road out of town and then turned right into a wood. There were only six of us at that point and we had to find a suitable spot to shoot and bury them. After a few minutes we found a place. The death candidates assembled with shovels to dig their own graves. Two of them were weeping.
The others certainly have incredible courage. What on earth is running through their minds during these moments? I think that each of them harbors a small hope that somehow he won’t be shot. The death candidates are organized into three shifts as there are not many shovels.
Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing. That’s the way it is and then it’s all over. My heart beats just a little faster when involuntarily I recall the feelings and thoughts I had when I was in a similar situation.
Felix Landau was a member of the feared German SS. For much of the war he belonged to an Einsatzkommando, a mobile death squad charged with exterminating Jews, Romani gypsies, Polish intellectuals, and a number of other groups within Nazi-occupied territory. Landau operated throughout Poland and Ukraine, slaughtering his way from town to town.
His remarkable diary details his appalling crimes, often in graphic detail. This entry, from July 1941, records his actions in the city of Drohobych in western Ukraine. The lack of emotion he feels during the killings is typical of SS officers who took part in mass executions. Landau was documented as being particularly brazen in his ill-treatment of Jews, randomly shooting at them from his window as they walked down the street. Following the war, Landau managed to evade capture until 1959, when he was put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released for “good behavior” in 1971 and died in 1983.
6 – Leslie Skinner, British Army Chaplain
August 4, 1944
On foot located brewed up tanks. Only ash and burnt metal in Birkett’s tank. Searched ash and found remains pelvic bones. At other tanks three bodies still inside. Unable to remove bodies after long struggle—nasty business—sick.
The diary of Captain Leslie Skinner documents his experiences of the brutal conflict immediately following the D-Day landings. Skinner was not a combat soldier, but a priest, assigned as an army chaplain to the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry tank regiment. The first chaplain to land on D-Day, he was badly wounded by a mortar shell but quickly returned to the front and stayed with the regiment throughout its campaign in northwest Europe. Known as “Padre Skinner,” his job was to provide spiritual comfort and perform last rites. A more harrowing part of the job involved recovering the bodies of the dead to give them a proper burial:
Fearful job picking up bits and pieces and reassembling for identification and putting in blankets for burial. No infantry to help. Squadron Leader offered to lend me some men to help. Refused. Less men who live and fight in tanks have to do with this side of things the better. My job. This was more than normally sick making. Really ill—vomiting.
Padre Skinner donated his diary to the Imperial War Museum in 1991. He died 10 years later at the age of 89.