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Memorial Rises Amid Protest

About 500 celebrate the unveiling of West Hollywood's monument to Soviet veterans of World War II. A few people express dismay.

May 09, 2005|Ann Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Krystyna Howard simply cannot understand why West Hollywood, or any American city, would want to erect a memorial to Soviet soldiers who fought in World War II. The Soviet Union's secret police, she said, deported her mother, aunt and grandmother from their home in eastern Poland to a Siberian work camp in 1940.

"It's like putting up a monument to honor the Nazis," Howard, 55, a Camarillo resident, said of the monument dedicated Sunday in Plummer Park. "That's how we equate it."

For his part, West Hollywood Councilman Jeffrey Prang cannot understand why people are unable to separate soldiers from the state they served.

"This is a monument of, for and about American residents," Prang said before Sunday's parade of ex-servicemen along a section of Santa Monica Boulevard. It "pays tribute to those veterans who fought during the war, who then came to the United States and became part of this community.... Remember, these folks were just soldiers."

Such are the conflicting views of the memorial intended to honor Russian-speaking veterans of World War II in a city with a vibrant population hailing from various corners of the former Soviet Union.

After the parade, the veterans, dressed in medal-adorned Soviet military uniforms, joined about 500 residents and local dignitaries who gathered at the park.

A handful of protesters, including a couple wearing black armbands and one carrying a Polish flag, stood by in silence.

Redlands resident Jay "Julek" Plowy, 65, calmly handed out fliers listing Soviet atrocities against the Poles.

"If you dedicate a monument on U.S. soil to a military that caused the death of millions, then you're honoring the wrong people," said Plowy, who was told he was born in a Siberian gulag after the Soviet military forced his family out of Poland. "If you want to honor the people who were oppressed, that's another story."

But the small protest did not diminish the excitement.

A gasp rippled through the crowd as curtains were raised to reveal a slanting 7-ton triangular slab of reddish granite, rising to an 8-foot, 6-inch peak. Adorning the structure are embossed images of three white cranes and four lines from "Cranes," a Soviet poem that became a much-loved song about World War II soldiers who never made it home.

Russia officially commemorates Victory Day, and the end of the war, today.

About 6,000 of West Hollywood's 38,000 residents are Russian speakers, according to city statistics. Most are Jews who began immigrating to Los Angeles in the 1970s as refugees fleeing religious and political persecution. A group of about 500 Russian-speaking veterans, the Los Angeles Assn. of Veterans of World War II, had been lobbying for a memorial for eight years.

The monument cost about $100,000 and was funded through private donations, along with contributions from the city of West Hollywood and Los Angeles County.

When a Times article about the memorial appeared in February, outrage spread quickly. Howard joined Eve Jankowicz of New Jersey, Elzunia Olsson of Sweden and Canadian Krystyna Szypowska to launch an Internet blitz in protest. A petition addressed to state and federal officials garnered more than 1,500 signatures from residents in 32 states and about 12 foreign countries, among them Poland, France and New Zealand.

"There are a lot of people in America, in the world, whose families perished under that regime," said Howard. "If my parents were still alive, they would be vehemently upset, because they would think that the truth is still not being told."

After entering into a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler in 1939, in which the Soviet Union secretly agreed to divide Poland with Nazi Germany, Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of residents from an area known as Kresy -- today parts of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Estimates of the number of deportees sent to labor camps in Siberia and elsewhere range from 320,000 to 1.7 million. Some historians believe that up to 30% of them perished from disease, starvation and overwork in subfreezing temperatures.

In 1940, more than 4,000 Polish Army officers who had been taken prisoner were shot and buried in Katyn Forest in western Russia. After decades of denial, the Kremlin admitted in 1990 that Soviet secret police were responsible.

Prang, the councilman, said he too condemns war crimes and noted that many of the veterans in his community suffered under two tyrannies: Nazism and Stalinism.

"I know Stalin was as big a monster as Hitler, maybe even responsible for more deaths," said Prang, who spearheaded construction of the memorial. He acknowledged receiving correspondence from protesters in Canada, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.

"I'm not a defender of that regime. This monument speaks to a life's journey of [many] of our people of West Hollywood."

The negative reaction to it has shocked and upset the Russian-speaking veterans.

"I don't understand why," said Vladimir Barkon, 80, a former Soviet Army captain and co-vice president of the Russian-speaking veterans group. He went to war at age 16. "We are offended by this. We helped to liberate Poland and many other countries."

He said accusations that members of his organization might be directly implicated in wartime atrocities were nonsense.

"These guys were just kids," said Efim Kutz, a former Soviet Army sergeant and a founding member of the veterans group. He served on the front. "They were fighting Nazism. They had nothing to do with the NKVD," the former Soviet secret police.

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