Victoria Petroff
International journalist and producer

He survived the Holocaust, but died during the shelling in Kharkiv

Boris Romanchenko in Buchenwald (Twitter/Buchenwald_Dora)
Boris Romanchenko in Buchenwald (Twitter/Buchenwald_Dora)

Boris Romanchenko is a real hero of our time. We will always remember him as a victim, a symbol of this war. The war that is happening right here. He was 96. During World War II, he survived in four Nazi concentration camps – Buchenwald, Peenemunde, Dora-Mittelbau and Bergen-Belsen. The Holocaust remained forever in Boris’s memory. He was sure till the last, that the horrors of war would never happen again and people would not die in front of his eyes. But on March 18, a shell hit his apartment in Kharkiv. And yesterday there were his quiet funerals. Romanchenko lived in Severnaya Saltovka, an area that has been under fire from the Russian side since the first days of the war in Ukraine.

Boris Romanchenko’s flat after the shelling (Facebook/Ukrainian News:War)

Not long before his death, Romanchenko went to the German city of Weimar, where celebrations were held on the anniversary of the release of war prisoners. He was one of the few who managed to live up to such an age after the tortures he endured.

They tortured us physically. Was it necessary, was it not necessary, when it was for a reason and when it wasn’t. Really tortured us. Moreover, the Buchenwald is on the mountain – there are very strong blizzards, it is very cold and damp in winter there. And the ‘clothes’ we had… We have woken up in the morning with a feeling of hunger and fallen asleep with it, nothing changed. We wished we had a piece of bread, I wish I had a piece of bread. This was not like we dreamed of it, but we kept thinking about it… I don’t smoke and I’m not much keen on alcohol. Maybe it because of that I’m still alive. And I love to work,” Boris Romanchenko recalled, having survived in one of the most terrible death camps – Buchenwald.

He really wanted to live. But he didn’t make it. And not because of old age. And not because it’s a disease. Just a moment – and the shell hits his apartment. In 2022. Not in 1941. And not from the side of fascist Germany. From Russia.

There were only bones left on the bed netting, just as he was lying. During his lifetime, he told lots, lots of stories. There is his handwritten manuscript, though I don’t know if my father has it or not now. Grandfather did not plan to publish the book, he just wanted some kind of memory to remain after him,” says the veteran’s granddaughter, Yulia Romanchenko.

Boris Romanchenko was born on January 20, 1926 in the village of Bondari near Sumy. He lived there with his parents and two sisters. During the Second World War, the village was occupied by the Germans, and in 1942, 16-year-old Romanchenko was taken to Germany to be used as a labor force.

They made lists of all men from 16 to 60 and gradually took them all to Germany, so that there would be no influx into partisan detachments,” Romanchenko shared his memories.

Firstly, he was brought to Dortmund and sent to work in a mine. A few days later there was an accident and one person died. Romanchenko and several other prisoners tried to escape, but unfortunately, unsuccessfully. In January 1943, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. There he first worked in a quarry, but then, posing himself as a 22-year-old, he was able to be transferred to Peenemunde, where were carried out works on the creation of a V-2 ballistic missile. Boris Romanchenko had worked there as a locksmith for several months. Then his team was taken to the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, where he lived and worked in underground tunnels for several months. In March 1945, he was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

We have big four-axle freight wagon, and they didn’t have such big ones, but they had two-axle wagons. And a hundred people stood very close to each other. And they started relocating us. However, they gave us canned food and half a slice of bread for some reason, I don’t remember what it was. Well, we ate it right away. And they drove us. And drove. That was all – it had already been the 45th year and Germany was almost all broken. Someone died, so we even sat on them. And so they drove us for seven days. I don’t remember if they gave us water already or not, but they didn’t give me anything to eat, and they took us for seven days. And brought to Bergen-Belsen. In the camp itself, in Bergen-Belsen, it was already overcrowded, the people were taken there from all over Germany. After seven days of hunger, there were no longer any living forces. Nevertheless, I still had some of them, climbed onto the second tier of the bed, and thought, “That’s it, I won’t get out of here anyway.” Because they brought us here just to destroy us. I’m lying there, and the guy from below snuck in and brought two rutabagas,” Boris Romanchenko recalled these terrible days.

By the time he arrived in Bergen-Belsen, Romanchenko weighed 39 kilograms only. In April, the camp was freed. After the war, he worked for three months in the Soviet military administration, and then joined the Soviet army and remained in East Germany until 1950. In his interview, Boris Romanchenko recalled how he saw a man on a Berlin train who was a foreman at the Dora-Mittelbau factory. When Romanchenko asked him if he worked there, the man turned pale, but confessed. Romanchenko thanked him, according to his memories, this man secretly left bread or cigarettes to prisoners.

Boris Romanchenko’s memorial service (Facebook/German Consulate General in Chicago)

He returned to Ukraine at the age of 24, and went on to receive an education as a mining engineer — according to his own words, he wanted to become a doctor, but considered that it was too late to get a medical education at his age. After that, he worked in the production of agricultural machinery. He retired in 1997, when he was 71 years old. Boris Romanchenko was the Vice-president from Ukraine of the International Committee of Former Prisoners of Buchenwald-Dora. He went to Buchenwald many times.

It is difficult to be there, but this is practically the only opportunity to meet those with whom I went through that terrible time, and of whom it is becoming fewer every consecutive year,” Boris Romanchenko said in an interview about a trip to Buchenwald.

At the event in 2015, according to the obituary on the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation websites, Boris Romanchenko read the Buchenwald oath, which has the words “The destruction of Nazism and its roots is our main motto. Building a new world of freedom, a world without war is our goal.”

About the Author
Victoria Petroff (Petrova) was born in Moscow, Russia on 27 May 1988 in the diplomatic family. At the age of two, Victoria's family relocated to Czechoslovakia, where she spent her early childhood. She graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv with a Master of Arts in International Journalism. After receiving her education, she studied business-course in London (London City University) and had an internship in the U.S. Embassy. Victoria has over 15 years of experience in the field of media. She worked in different federal (NTV Channel, Channel One Russia, Channel Russia 2) and international media. Her common documentary projects with NBC Sport (USA) were nominated for Emmy Awards. Victoria’s field of work - social and historical topics. In 2015 she joined a film industry. She working in Moscow and in London (UK). The main idea of her projects - to create cultural and social connections between different countries. She wants to tell about historical lessons, which will help to not make mistakes from the past.
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