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Anastasia Gulej makes no attempt to veil her hatred for Vladimir Putin: the Russian leader, she says, is “evil” and no different to Stalin and Hitler.
It’s a bold statement, but she is one of the few people left alive in the world personally qualified to make such a judgement.
The 96-year-old is currently living as a refugee in Germany having fled her home in Kyiv shortly after Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine in late February.
After sheltering in her cellar for a few days, she was eventually persuaded by friends to ignore her “heart and legs” and leave. Packing her life into two suitcases, she moved with her cat to Lviv and later to Bad Kosen, where she now lives with her daughter.
But she has already survived much worse.
As a young child she lived through the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine that claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians. A few years later the dictator’s Great Terror swept through the Soviet Union, a wave of repression and purges that killed hundreds of thousands more people including the director of her school. Her father, she recalls, always had a bag packed in case they came for him.
Then the Second World War broke out and Hitler’s forces brought new horror. She was sent to the Auschwitz death camp as a forced labourer and sent on a death march. The end of the war saw her trapped in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she was barely alive when it was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945.
So she is clear-eyed about the significance of the atrocities being committed in Ukraine today.
“What is the difference between Hitler, Stalin and Putin? There isn’t one because all three of them are evil,” she told The Telegraph from her temporary home, a two-room flat in Bad Kosen, a small town in central Germany.
“Putin said a long time ago that he likes to read about Goebbels and Hitler and now he acts like Hitler,” she added. “Hitler wanted to destroy the people and nationalities he didn’t like, such as the Jews and Roma, and he wanted to destroy them all. Now Putin does not like Ukrainians and he wants to exterminate us all. He wants to commit genocide.”
Mrs Gulej also fears that Putin, just as Hitler and Stalin once did, has set his eyes on further expansion, perhaps targeting Poland and the Baltic states.
She also rails against what she considers to be the “Goebbels-like” lies that flow from Putin’s mouth. “For years he was lying about Ukraine and how we threatened Russia and discriminated against Russian speakers,” she said. “We were living in peace. There was no discrimination.
“And I was once asked if there were Nazis in Ukraine, and I told them that this was not true. Or I can joke with them and say ‘Yes, we have a Nazis in Ukraine. I’m one of them, and I have a number on my arm from Auschwitz to prove it.’ I then show them my number and they are quiet. We were condemned to death by the Nazis in Ukraine, so do they really think we are Nazis?
Her anger with Putin is compounded by the fact that having survived both Stalin and Hitler, she never expected to experience war, death and expulsion again.
“I’m an old person and now I’m a refugee and I thank the people who helped me and care for us,” she said. “But what is happening in my soul? It is suffering because I fear for the future for my children, my grandchildren, about my country, about everything we made in our lives but we had to leave.
“I never expected this. I don’t understand what is happening. My generation experienced so much suffering. I don’t eat because of my sadness, because I always think about Bucha, Mariupol and Kharkiv and my country.”
Mrs Gulej said she is now determined to “outlive Putin”.
“I’m not very religious but I hope that God will help us. I pray every evening that the thousands of refugees will be able to go home and live their lives again and fulfil their future and dreams.”