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Poor economy turns neighbors into killers


OTINIYA, Ukraine - In the awful days of the war, the Germans took Maria Kolybabjuk away, but they didn't kill her. They made her work. It was her neighbors who did the murder, just last winter.

Yet a thread leads from one to the other, across the decades. Half a century after more than 7 million people were forced to leave their homes in Eastern and Central Europe and labor without pay in the factories and fields of the Third Reich, the Germans have begun making reparations to those still alive.

Kolybabjuk, living at the age of 71 on a pension of $12 a month, had received a first installment - 650 German marks, or about $325. She spent a little but put the rest away, stuffed into a purse in her wardrobe.

Three neighbors, drunk and broke, knew it was there because there are no secrets in a little village such as Otiniya, and they went in to get it. Before they were done, they had stomped her to death.

The crime reverberated through the town. People were angry that young men of their village had fallen so low, that the factories had closed and the money had dried up. They were scared, too, and they were angry because they were scared.

"This is an indescribable shock and pain in the soul," said the Rev. Ivan Moroz, the Orthodox priest here.

People in Otiniya - survivors of war, Stalinism, Communist mismanagement and then economic collapse - are wondering where it will end.

Kolybabjuk hadn't talked about her deportation very much, and maybe people knew why without asking. Fifty years in Soviet, and then post-Soviet, Ukraine could have been enough to make her reflect that her life as a forced worker in Germany was not, as it should have been, a distant nightmare, but a tolerable prelude to a lifetime of unhappiness.

She had worked as a so-called "ausarbeiter" on a farm there, taking care of the farmer's children. She once told an acquaintance, wistfully, that the farmer had given her a bicycle and asked her to stay on after the war.

Several years ago neighbors thought they saw her across the fields in the cemetery where German war dead are buried; she was with some elderly German tourists, and they were hugging.

"Her house was small," Moroz said, "but it had the kind of order you'd find only in the house of an ausarbeiter. Neat. Well-ordered. The people who survived Germany and the work there have a different view of everything. Good manners, and love and respect."

Mikhailo Bogachenko, a few years older than Kolybabjuk, talked to her just once about the war, a few years ago. "She said if she'd been in the American sector when the war ended and not the Soviet one, she'd have run away to America and been happy."

Kolybabjuk lived alone in a tiny whitewashed house out past the fields. She never married and had no close relatives. She used to stop and chat sometimes with the farm families along Doroshenko Street, which leads into town, and with Father Ivan, who lives on the way to the sausage store, and with the women down at the train station, where she once worked as a janitor in the shop, until it closed down.

She was born in 1929, in a nearby village in what was then southeastern Poland. When she was 10, the Soviet Union and Germany divided Poland between themselves; this whole region, once the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, became Soviet.

In 1941 it was overrun by the invading Nazis. A year later, Maria and her mother, Nastya, were deported together to Germany, after Hitler ordered the removal of a half-million Ukrainian young women to work in the Reich. What became of her father, Adolf, is unknown.

At the time of her death, Kolybabjuk had been preparing an application for further reparations, to a $5 billion fund set up in July by the German government called "Memory, Responsibility and Future." Neighbors had been helping her with the writing, because she was illiterate. In it she said that she had been deported to a farm in a town called Bad Polsen - though no place by that name appears to exist in Germany today.

Altogether, about 2.5 million people were forced to leave the Soviet Union to work in Germany - that amounts to about 20,000 a week during the war.

Of the 7 million ausarbeiters who came from all countries, millions died, but an estimated 1.5 million to 2.3 million are alive today, according to statistics collected in Germany.(While this mostly Slavic population was being rounded up for work, Eastern Europe's Jews were being killed on the spot or sent off to death camps in even greater numbers.)

When the war ended, 16-year-old Maria returned with her mother to her native village, now again part of the Soviet Union. Galicia had been spared the artificial famines that Josef Stalin unleashed in the 1930s on the rest of Ukraine, but life took a grim turn nonetheless.

"In the 1950s they started the collective farm," said Anelje Guk, who lives on Doroshenko Street. "They took away our cows and horses and tools. Of course it was a disaster."

Farm production fell drastically, and little investment was made in a borderland region that Moscow never trusted.

In the 1960s, Nastya and Maria Kolybabjuk moved to Otiniya, to the little white cottage that measures about 12 feet by 16 feet. It sits far from the nearest road, in a windbreak of birch trees, with an unpainted picket fence out front. A row of little plum trees and an old twisted pear tree grow white with blossoms in the springtime.

Maria took a job in the butter factory, but it closed. She worked as an assistant in the tuberculosis clinic and part-time at the train station. Her mother died, and after that she lived alone with a shifting array of cats and dogs.

"Just a plump, nice woman," Guk said.

In 1991 came Ukrainian independence, and with that the already bad economy collapsed. Most of the small factories and enterprises closed in Otiniya, a village of 8,000. A Canadian was going to buy the furniture factory, villagers said, but after a while it shut down and no one ever saw him again.

The biggest employer, the electronics factory, is officially still open, but it only works one or two days a month, and it is months behind in pay.

Nearly every family here keeps some chickens and maybe a cow, and they all work private vegetable plots - without them, no one would survive. Kolybabjuk let others work her small field in return for some of the food they grew.

Otiniya is like any small farm town, a place where there never used to be trouble because families knew each other, because they were linked in their burdens, because there was no way out.

But in the last year things began to get worse in the little neighborhood around Doroshenko Street. Someone was stealing hens. It was an economic blow to the victims, but also a sign that in their hard lives something was going wrong.

People complained to the police and became all the more upset when they got no reaction. "Everyone was afraid," Lesja Lesiv said.

"The work stopped," Guk said, "and the banditry started."

The priest, Ivan Moroz, was concerned about Kolybabjuk, living alone across the cornfields from everyone else but a single neighbor. She was a good woman, he knew, uncomplicated. She used to give a little money now and then to the church so that a prayer would be said for her mother.

He invited her to come live with him and his family.

"We have small children," he said. "We wanted her to be part of our family. Sort of a grandmother."

"But somehow she was delaying it," said his wife, Miroslava. "She liked the field. She liked being alone. She promised us she'd come live with us someday."

"She was just poor and poor," Ivan said.

Investigators say she was murdered on the night of Dec. 29. She was found battered and bloody two days later by her lone neighbor. Police said they found a footprint in the blood that they later matched with a shoe belonging to one of three suspects who have been arrested.

Villagers describe a general roundup of all the young men on New Year's Day, when most were still drunk. Each was questioned and released. Two weeks later, the police arrested three men and charged them with the crime. Two have reportedly confessed and named the third as the ringleader.

Jaroslav Stefak, chief investigator in the regional prosecutor's office in the town of Kolomiya, said the three men had been drinking homemade vodka on the night of the 29th, but the supply ran out. One of them suggested they cross the fields and steal the German marks from Kolybabjuk.

Stefak says he is barred by law from releasing the suspects' names. The people on Doroshenko Street know who has been arrested, but they wouldn't identify them, either. "You want us to be killed?" asked Guk.

The ringleader supposedly has a job at the electronics plant, but he wouldn't have been paid for many months. His brother is said to be active trading electronic parts, chemicals and grain alcohol in nearby Poland, and a few days after the murder the ringleader went over to Poland for about a week. When he returned, Kolybabjuk's money was long gone.

The two who confessed went out with the police to the house, showed how they had broken in, how they had kicked and stomped the old lady when she started shouting, and kept at it, perhaps because she recognized them. They showed the police the spot over near the railroad tracks where the ringleader had burned all his clothes. Now all three are in jail awaiting trial, facing up to 15 years in prison. Convictions, in the Ukrainian justice system, are almost guaranteed.

Maria Kolybabjuk was buried right after New Year's. The police had asked Bogachenko to use his horse cart to take her body across the fields to the morgue. Moroz conducted the funeral. More people would have come, but the neighbors on Doroshenko Street had thought a procession would be starting at her house, and she was in the ground by the time they realized their mistake.

Her half-completed application for relief from the German government is filed away in the prosecutor's office, but one of her dogs still stays out at the boarded-up house, whimpering in its lean-to, fed scraps by passers-by.

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