PHOENIX, Ariz.—On July 5, George Ilinsky of Phoenix, Arizona, turns 92—fate willing.
And with that milestone birthday comes the sad realization that most people he’s known and loved are gone.
Few people live to be Ilinsky’s age with their minds as sharp and with names, dates, places, joys, and heartaches still intact. They’re all etched in his memory, like scrimshaw on an old sailor’s timepiece.
“I have no excuse about my memory,” says Ilinsky, bright-eyed and with silver hair kept boyishly long for a man his age. “But somehow, my peer group at this moment is gone. Most of them are not around anymore.”
“I feel I did something the others didn’t do.”
Something right, perhaps. Or something wrong. Or something in between.
Indeed, Ilinsky feels someone was looking after him through all the hardship and upheaval in his life, and the many brushes with death he had growing up in Ukraine.
He sees in his native land today the same turmoil and tragic departure of millions during World War II.
Born July 5, 1932, Ilinsky was due early in May of that year, but there were complications, and his mother gave birth by a dangerous cesarean section two months later.
“I was scheduled May 6, but the birth didn’t occur until July 5. Can you imagine? A baby 11 months?” Ilinsky said, astonished by the memory.
Hard Times From the Start
Ilinsky grew up in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine after the man-made genocide known as Holodomor between 1932 and 1933.
An estimated 3.5 million to 7 million Ukrainians died during the famine and farm collectivization program of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
“Stalin tried to eliminate all the opposition—regardless. It was Ukrainian lifestyle, separate homes, gardens,” Ilinsky told The Epoch Times.
“If you practiced your religion, you’d go to Siberia. Does the name [Leon] Trotsky mean anything to you? He was born in Ukraine and was one of the top commies.”
Ilinsky said a free Ukraine ran counter to the communist program to destroy religion and independence in the Soviet Union.
If you were a prosperous farmer, you became a “kulak”—a peasant who owned more than eight acres of land before the communist takeover of Russia in 1917.
The kulaks were among Stalin’s primary targets in Ukraine and chief victims of the Holodomor.
“So what happens is collectivization preceded Holodomor,” Ilinsky said, “and it happened when I was old enough” to remember.
Ilinsky said he was fortunate to escape the worst of the great famine growing up on a state farm.
“My mother was working for the soil survey—agronomy. They treated her differently from the rest because she was working for the government,” Ilinsky said.
“Not only that. My mother came from a poor family of 12 children. Most of them didn’t survive (the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1918).”
“My dad was a musician. He was a choir conductor at the most important church wiped out by the Russians.”
His father, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, also worked at a state farm in charge of 11,000 pigs on land the size of Washington, D.C.
Growing up in the Kharkiv region was always a challenge, said Ilinsky, who made a few costly mistakes as a young boy.
In 1939, Ilinsky, just 7 years old, climbed a smokestack in a sugar refining plant against his better judgment.
He even remembers the exact height of the tower.
“The height was 64 meters (210 feet). I got to the height of about 40 meters (131 feet), equal to a 10-story building,” Ilinsky said.
“I looked, let it go, and went down.”
Ilinsky fell into a pile of ash and sand, rupturing his stomach. When they took him to the hospital, the doctor said, ‘No. I wouldn’t even touch him. He’s finished.’”
“So they took me to the regional hospital,” Ilinsky said. “The doctors came all together, and they said, ‘No. We cannot do it. It’s too much.’”
Just out of medical school, a young woman said, ‘Let me try it.’ She did. And I lived.”
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two years later, on June 22, 1941, Hitler made a decisive move against the Soviet Union. The invasion was called Operation Barbarossa.
“People were saying—the workers were saying, ‘Oh, Germans against us? One week and we’re going to celebrate victory in Berlin,” Ilinsky recalled.
At least, that was the idea—the Soviet Union would “take Germany apart.”
“Just like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was assuming he was going to take Kyiv in maybe three days and Ukraine surrenders,” Ilinsky said.
“And, well, you know what happened. The Germans wound up in Stalingrad, and we went through that whole thing.”
Pain and Suffering
Ilinsky witnessed unimaginable suffering and death in Ukraine as a young boy.
“I’ve seen frozen German soldiers in the snow as if they were alive—young men in uniforms. And the snow was waist deep,” he said. “They froze when the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero.
“And those Germans didn’t have winter uniforms. It was a big surprise. The snow would average three, four feet deep.”
Ilinsky remembers yet another close call with death when a German Messerschmitt pilot strafed him with bullets tearing up the ground around him.
The pilot was relentless in trying to kill the boy. But once again, it seemed someone was looking out for Ilinsky.
“I was running on the dirt street, and a cloud of dust and bullets went past my ears. That was in Ukraine in 1942,” Ilinsky said. “He wasted so much ammunition. I would punish him. He would have to pay for all the bullets he spent on me, and not one even touched me.”
“Call it a miracle.”
Life in Germany
Ilinsky’s family left Ukraine in 1943 and moved to Krakow, Poland, then under German occupation.
But there was an underlying reason for the move, he said.
One day, a Soviet Red Army unit rolled up at the state farm where his father worked and confiscated all the pigs that were government property and his responsibility. Ilinsky’s father decided the end for him had come in Ukraine.
He was now an enemy of the state.
“My father decided there was no return,” Ilinsky said.
Fortunately, Ilinsky’s mother was a skilled manual typist who could do 160 words per minute. “She was fast. And we wound up in Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland.”
Because his mother was so good with a typewriter, the Ukrainian newspaper Telepress in Krakow hired her. The family eventually moved away to Germany through Slovakia and remained there until the end of the war.
As with the Holodomor, food was scarce in Germany.
“You could get food, but you had to have something like food stamps—extreme rationing. Shortages, especially meat products,” Ilinsky said.
“During our stay in Berlin, we were in one of the local restaurants. There was this sour cream, and I noticed something—it was a snail. They prepared snails. That time, for me, it was a first-time experience.”
Another date that remains fixed in Ilinsky’s memory is Feb. 3, 1945.
It was the day he counted 1,500 Allied bombers over Berlin.
Ilinsky stood transfixed at seeing so many aircraft filling the sky until he had to return to the bomb shelter.
Near the Alexanderplatz in the center of Berlin, “it was a sea of fire,” Ilinsky said.
“Everything around me, you couldn’t see any buildings. It was just thick smoke from the burning structures.”
On Jan. 1, 1945, Ilinsky wrote in his diary, “Alarm. Alarm. Alarm. Sirens. Again. Again.”
With Soviet troops quickly advancing on Berlin, Ilinsky’s first experience with an American soldier at age 12 was at the point of a submachine gun.
“There was a woman with a baby, my mother, and myself. Of course, I was about that tall, I think. The door was unlocked. I saw a guy in a camouflage uniform—American. The first American with a submachine gun. It was pointed right between my eyes because I was standing like this,” said Ilinsky, demonstrating the posture.
“I nearly passed out.”
After the war, Ilinsky’s family emigrated to the United States and settled in Baltimore.
Ilinsky graduated from a city high school, was drafted into the U.S. Army, and served in an armored division patrolling the East German border in the early years of the Cold War.
Ilinsky became a US citizen on Nov. 17, 1954, and worked for many years at the Library of Congress in Arizona as a specialist, acquiring dozens of rejected military maps used by the German Wehrmacht stationed along the Eastern Front during World War II.
With his old Contessa camera, he shot more than 1,000 frames in post-war Germany and had them developed. He keeps the black-and-white negatives tucked away in an old cardboard box but has yet to have them made into photographs.
Several negatives depict Berlin in ruins after the war.
On the subject of war, Ilinsky yearns for peace and stability in Ukraine and sees ominous parallels with the Russian invasion that began on Feb. 24, 2022.
“It’s repetition now. The weapons are so much different,” Ilinsky said.
When he was a young army recruit in basic training, Ilinsky thought he knew about war when he could do 50 pushups, 12 pull-ups, and walk for miles.
But when the drill instructor told him to fix his bayonet, “at first, it seemed like a joke.”
“Then I saw their eyes—recruits, you know? They went wild. They became serious. I could see the sparks fly off their bayonets.
“This is what war can do to you,” Ilinsky said. “So be careful.”