IamA 94 year old WWII Veteran who was conscripted by the Soviets, captured by the Germans, and emigrated to the United States, AMA.
Okay guys, Opa is done for the day! He is quite tired. I live far from Opa, but he is happy to continue answering questions in a couple weeks, when we are together again. We thank you so much for interacting with us! Opa had a blast!
My name is Mouna, and I’m here today with my Azerbaijani grandfather, Michael Mirson (born in Armenia as Mikhail Mirsayef). Opa (German for grandfather) not only has multifaceted perspective on the war, but with communist life in the USSR, post-war life in Germany, and American immigrant life. His experiences are unimaginable to someone like me, who has has lead a markedly different young adult life, from the man who raised me. His story has been featured on Azerbaijani television, and he did an IAMA post 2 years ago. These experiences were extremely emotional and rewarding for him, and he couldn’t be happier to go at it again. So please, ask away! I will be helping Opa answer all of your questions for the next two days. He goes to bed quite early (7 or 8PM eastern time), and will need some rests during the day, but is eager to interact with you all!
Here are some of his key life events:
- Born in 1920 (1922 on paper) on a prosperous Armenian family farm
- Experienced the communist takeover of his farm at 10 years
- Fled to Yerevan, Armenia for veterinary school
- Was conscripted to the Soviet Army in 1941
- Was injured by shrapnel and lost his finger in an explosion
- Was captured by the Germans in 1942
- Spent 3 months in a prison camp
- Was kept alive by his German captors to tend their wounded horses
- Marched to the American lines when the war ended (he was in Austria)
- Worked in a UNRA refugee camp
- Married and had two children in Germany
- Emigrated to the United States and had one more child
- Worked various jobs incuding a farmer, factory worker, and diner owner
- Finally was able to reunite with Azerbaijani family in the 70’s (they presumed him dead)
- Raised 2 of his 3 grandchildren (who lost their own father), and now has 3 great grandchildren!
- In his old age he has had a few health issues like a stroke, prostate cancer, and multiple joint replacement surgeries, but still walks 1 hour/day!
This is a photo of Opa in the Army:
Here is some identity proof:
Here is Opa on Azerbaijani TV:
Time for some lunch! We'll be back in a bit! Thanks everyone!
We're back in action, until Opa needs a rest!
Opa needs a rest. We'll do another quick segment after dinner, and we can come back tomorrow!
Tuesday morning, and we're back!
In the Soviet army, they were very poor. Very little food, the boots were poor, and the discipline was not good. For example, we walked in the Caucasus Mountains with blisters on your feet. You could barely walk, and had to go so slow. Officers on horseback would come by with a whip and say "comrade, you're walking too slow, you must walk fast. You must walk fast for this country and for Stalin." Once someone fought back against an officer, and was shot. This scared us into keep walking, no matter what.
When we fought in the mountains, the food was very poor. After walking many miles, there would be barely anything in the kitchens. We had cabbage soup and special dried bread. That's all. We had no shelter in the Mountains, sleeping in open fields, in the cold and snow even. A lot of people died in the cold.
I was captured in these mountains. I was wounded in an explosion (shrapnel in my head). I lost my conscious (and a finger), and when I woke up a German was beating my back. I did not think I would be rescued by the Soviets. In the Russian army, you were never supposed to fall to prisoner, you were supposed to shoot yourself, instead. When I was in prison camp in Maykop (in southern Russia) the Russians advanced on the Germans. Fearing for my life, I marched on with the Germans.
You said the conditions and good were very poor. Recently I've been seeing posts on reddit and reading about cannibalism in the Soviet Army during WWII and find it interesting I haven't heard more about it (I'm studying to be a WWII historian). Did you experience anything like this, or hear about it elsewhere along the lines you were fighting on?
I didn't see or hear about it. We ate horse meat, every part of it. I ate tongue, bone marrow, lung.
What shocked you most about America?
I couldn't believe how friendly the people were, and the freedom that we had. We were not afraid of the government! I really appreciated this American freedom. When I wanted a new job, I could change it. When I wanted to talk, I could talk! I am very glad that I am in America. I am a good citizen. I am very lucky to be here.
What are your thoughts on Vladimir Putin?
Well, he's a little bit of a dictator, but not like Stalin. He didn't put people in jail or kill them for nothing. Stalin sent millions of innocent to Siberia to die, including my father. At least Putin didn't do this.
You always hear about the soviet army being pushed into battle by force. Did you experience direct threats to your life if you didn't push forward in battle? How was your health during your time under German capture?
Yes, the Soviets forced us. The officers were well dressed and fed, and sat back while we fought. If we didn't fight well or if we turned back, they threatened to shoot. Before battles, commissar said "comrade soldiers, you fight the Germans. If you don't have a weapon, use your fist. Kill the Germans! March, forward."
When you come up from a ditch, you didn't see the Germans, because they were hiding. But then, they started shooting us. In 15-20 minutes, half of the several thousand men were gone. Some dead, some heavily wounded, some lightly wounded. I don't think I killed anyone. My mother hugged me and cried before I left for the war, and asked me not to kill anyone.
When you came back from a battle, you were asked how many Germans you killed. The first time, I said that I didn't see the Germans, which upset my commissar. He called me a coward. The man next to me told him that he killed 4 and injured 6 (although it was a lie), and the commissar called him a hero. This was an ongoing lie in the Russian Army.
In the German prison camp, it was terrible. When I got there I was so skinny. A lot of people got dysentery, luckily not me. The soup was like sawdust, but I tried to pick out only the good parts of the soup, like the horse meat. We had an Armenian doctor who made me a head senator. I helped sicker people, and was able to eat some bread everyday, and got a little stronger.
When I marched with the Germans, I was more healthy. The conditions were bad to march in, and the skinny horses had trouble pulling the wagons. We had to walk everyday to the frontline to bring ammunition and bring back dead bodies. It was tiring and we did struggle, but they gave more food than the Russians, 3 meals a day. They gave me better boots. They had so many left over from dead soldiers.
After a few weeks struggling at the front line, I noticed an old man taking care of the horses. I was scared of him, but I went up to him and told him that I am a veterinarian, too. He told my officer that he needed my help. I believe that this man saved my life. He kept me away from the frontline. This work was a lot less tiring, and I was able to gain more strength.
That is an incredible story. Thank your opa for us and tell him a stranger in Texas says hello!
Hello to you!
When I finally went back to Azerbaijan for the first time in 1972. It had been 32 years! On of my friends traveled to Azerbaijan, and was ale to find my family for me. I couldn't believe it, my mother was still alive! And they couldn't believe that I was alive! They thought I was dead. It was a tradition to make a shrine of my photo, and they did that with my soldier picture.
Over 300 people were waiting for me at the airport! Some of my family traveled 400 miles to Baku, to greet me. We were so excited, and crying. I saw so many of my young relatives that I had never met before. At that time, it was still a communist country, and I only had a tourist visa, meaning I had to stay in only certain tourist hotels.
I can only imagine how happy you and your mother must have been to reunite after so long, and after she and everyone else thought you were dead for so long. I'm truly happy for you and her.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Turkish, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian, and some German (and English!).
Do you see any sort of "History repeating itself" patterns happening in modern times?
It just always seems to be the same story, the fighting story. When people lived in caves, they fought with stones. Now they fight with planes and drones.
What is one important thing that you learned from your experiences in the war?
I really learned how to survive. I truly learned how to take care of myself and others. I always tried to help my friends. I learned how to come together to help people, and how other people can help you.
(Mouna here! I can truly attest to this. Opa goes above and beyond to help his friends and family in times of need. To this day, it's one of his most admirable traits.)
Is the story of one soldier getting a rifle and the other one the bullets, when soviet union was first attacked, fact or fiction?
Also I would guess that you were capture by german Wehrmacht (regular army)? How were they treating you? From what I read they were pretty honorable unlike SS and Gestapo...
Thanks for doing the AMA!
I didn't hear that story. They gave us both a rifle and bullets, but no food!
Yes, by the Wermacht. At first when I was a prisoner, they didn't treat us too well. They captured us in the Mountains in November, late in the afternoon. There was snow on the ground, and it was cold. Even though we were wounded, they took our overcoats, and covered their own soldiers. A lot of people froze to death at night.
When I marched with them, they treated us pretty well. They were more gentle than the Soviets. They didn't beat us, and fed us 3 meals a day. They were pretty nice people.
What is your hope for the future of Azerbaijan?
I hope that Azerbaijan's future is bright. The people now have more freedom now, thankfully. I do think that it's far behind the United States. I hope for better healthcare and living conditions.
One big hope is that the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan is settled. I want a good future for both countries.
Was Order 227 enforced by the officers in the Army? Or was it propaganda created by Stalin to "encourage" soldiers to not give up the fight?
They did say this in the Army. It was an actual order by the commissars!
How different was life in the USSR in comparison to the US when you first arrived? Also were you treated badly, or just differently by the people in the US because you came from the USSR?
The comparison is hell to heaven. It's very simple.
We were not given a hard time, people were very friendly. We were in Upstate New York on a farm (Saratoga Springs). Even in the cities, we were treated okay.
How was medical care in the Soviet Army? Was getting wounded a death sentence?
In the hospital, it was not too bed. I was wounded in Sochi, and went to the hospital. On the frontline, there were many heavily wounded men. No body cared for them. There was no doctor on the frontline. If you could manage to walk back a little, there was a horse and wagon to bring you to the doctors. Still then, the care was very poor because there wasn't proper supplies. It was very primitive.
What an obstacle course!
You've lived through bad leadership and have seen people suffer with you from it, so my question to you is this: what were the strongest emotions you've felt while caught in the turmoil of war?
I've always liked stories - so I'll be greedy and ask one more question: can you recall a particular moment of your life that remains intact in your memory, as if you lived it just yesterday? Could you share it with us?
When I was marching for the Germans, we came upon a village that had been through a big fight. There was one little boy. His face was all wet from crying, and he messed himself, and there was nobody to take care of him. He calling for his mother over and over. All of us, we were so sad for this little boy (Opa is now crying). I thought 'why do we have this war? Now this little boy is alone, his family killed.' This was so sad to see. I also had hatred towards the war, Hitler, and Stalin. Why are they fighting? Why are they killing?
This memory and this little boy is really the thing that I will never forget, even with all of the sad things I saw in my war life, with all the burning and killing.
How did the Germans find out that you were a vet?
When marching with the Germans, I noticed an old man taking care of the horses. I was scared of him, but I went up to him and told him that I am a veterinarian, too. He told my officer that he needed my help. I believe that this man saved my life. He kept me away from the frontline.
The Jolly Chef! I was working as window washer, and I thought to start my own business. In the paper, I saw it for sale for $4,000.
I liked being my own boss, working for myself. BUT, it was hard work all day and night. We were in charge of everything, so there was a lot of work involved.
How did the Soviet army feel about Benito Mussolini?
They called him a fascist. They didn't like Mussolini or Hitler.
Is there anything (if at all) you miss from your time in the Soviet Union that you now cannot easily get in the USA (material or otherwise)?
I have everything that I need here. I can make Aerbaijani food that I like.
(Opa is a very simple man. A minimalist).
What do you think about the state of the world right now? How do you feel about the future?
I don't know what to say about the future. I think that people are getting a little crazy. There is too much fighting everywhere, for nothing. There is a lot of trouble.
What weapon did you carry as a Soviet soldier, and did you ever use it in battle?
We carried a rifle that held 5 bullets (he doesn't recall the name). When we battled at the frontline, I shot it, but tried to aim it in the air, because I didn't want to kill anybody.
What was post ww2 Germany like ?
At first I was in a camp for displaced people in a little city called Amberg. This city was not destroyed by any bombs. We lived in barracks. It was not too bad there. We worked a little bit in the black market, making vodka, schnapps or cigarettes. A lot of people needed work, the Germans too. There was a lot of rebuilding work to be done, in general.
Some Germans were fanatics. A lot of Germans, even these fanatics realized that Hitler was wrong, after the war.
Some Germans were fanatics. A lot of Germans, even these fanatics realized that Hitler was wrong, after the war.
When you were young, what were your dreams and aspirations?
Before the war, I was crying a lot because they took my father away to Siberia. They took over our farm, as part of a the collective farm. We worked many hours in the day, and didn't have a lot of food, we were starving.
I dreamed to escape to the city, to learn something in school. In the middle of the night, I escaped to the city (a 50 mile walk). I was accepted into veterinary school.
When I came to the United States, I dreamed to buy a house. I wanted to make an honest living. I wanted to work independently, for myself. Not like on the collective farm. I wanted to help my family here, and in Azerbaijan. I wanted to send my daughters and granddaughters to college.
What's the most amazing thing you've ever seen?
I'll never forget watching the man walk on the moon!
what were conditions like for you in the red army?
Alot of western portrayals make out that soviet soldiers were just cattle that their leaders didn't care about. did you feel this way?
I did feel this way. A million people could die, and they didn't care. They sent us like a heard of sheep to the frontline to die. Thousands were killed.
In the Soviet army, they were very poor. Very little food, the boots were poor, and the discipline was not good. For example, we walked in the Caucasus Mountains with blisters on your feet. You could barely walk, and had to go so slow. Officers on horseback would come by with a whip and say "comrade, you're walking too slow, you must walk fast. You must walk fast for this country and for Stalin." Once someone fought back against an officer, and was shot. This scared us into keep walking, no matter what. When we fought in the mountains, the food was very poor. After walking many miles, there would be barely anything in the kitchens. We had cabbage soup and special dried bread. That's all. We had no shelter in the Mountains, sleeping in open fields, in the cold and snow even. A lot of people died in the cold.
Of late, many stories are appearing in the press tarnishing Russia's/Putin's image. So, it's hard for us, as unbiased people to know any similarities between Stalin, and Putin's time in office.
Do you see any similarities between both Putin and Stalin?
They both wanted power to themselves. They didn't want democracy.
Thank you very much for what your generation has done for this world.
My question is this: What is your favorite food?
Lamb Shish kabob and rice pilaf!
Did he get taken "prisoner" by the Americans? If yes, why didn't they return him back to the Russians? I only ask this because I know some German units fled west, wanting to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians.
Also, does he have any words of advice, on any subject, that he'd like to share with younger generations?
I wish him good health and all the best! :)
I surrendered to Americans, like a lot of Germans. In an open field, they processed who we were. They were really only looking for Nazi Officers. When we told them we were Russians, they let us go.
My advise is to be honest. Moderate your vices like tobacco use, drugs, and alcohol, that will shorten your life if you get hooked. Don't eat junk food! Try to live a clean life, and work hard!
(He takes a nightly shot of schnapps!)
What perspective or philosophy helped you get through a life as harsh and eventful as yours?
I am not a religious person. I believe in working hard and honesty.
What was it like / the general attitude towards you being in Germany (presumably west) after the war's end.
Was this attitude anything to do with your eventual emigration to america?
Very interesting story, looking forward to hearing more of it!
Generally, there was no attitude, but there were some fanatics. When we were waiting in a line in a German office, I became very short on time, and asked if I could move ahead in the line. I made my way up to the top of the line. I man pulled me back, and pushed me to the floor, claiming that he had a right to the be first, because he was German.
Otherwise, I made a lot of German friends. My wife's family had no problem with me. They were very good people. They were not racist. They did not believe in Hitler. Her mother was almost sent to a concentration camp because she hid some food for Jewish people in her trash barrel, and was caught by the Gestapo. She was arrested, but luckily let her back home.
We came to America because finding a job was hard in Germany. There was danger of war between the Soviet Union and America in Europe. We actually first wanted to go to Australia, but we were denied because I was Muslim. We found an American sponsor instead, and went to work on their farm.
So, you lived in Germany and met your wife while the War was still going on?
Did you get married during the war? If so, was it an issue to marry a German woman as an Azerbaijani Muslim under the Nazis? Were you allowed to take a normal job or was it more like forced labor?
Thanks for doing this AMA, your story is very interesting and quite unusual!
The war was over when I was in Germany, we married after the war in 1946. We would not have been able to marry in a church, but we had no problem doing it outside of the church. I was able to have my choice in jobs, there was a lot of labor work.
At any point did you fear being repatriated back to the USSR? Nikolai Tolstoy wrote a book called The Secret Betrayal that chronicles:
the fate of Soviet people who had been under German control during World War II and at its end fallen into the hands of the Western Allies. According to the secret Moscow agreement from 1944 that was confirmed at the 1945 Yalta conference, all Soviet citizens were to be repatriated without choice—a death sentence for many by execution or work in a forced-labor camp.
How did you escape this fate?
Because I escaped far enough West. At first I was in an area of Austria where I was at risk for being repatriated. With four other men, we traveled to a safer area by horse and carriage. I'm lucky that I made it there.
What was his opinion of the equipment he was issued?
"The rifle was a rifle." It was simple, but it worked right. (Mind you, he purposely aimed away from the enemy, as he didn't want to kill anyone).
Your story is truly incredible. It saddens me how the number of survivors of this terrible time are slowly deteriorating, and I appreciate the IAMA's you do greatly. I have heard stories of life in the prison camps, but how was your personal experience?
We were not treated too poorly, however the conditions were terrible. We were not fed a lot, and many people had dysentery. There were big ditches for us to toilet. We slept on terrible beds. They were 3 bunks. We always wanted the top bunk, because the sick people might urinate over you. We all had lice, always trying to squish them. Some people had hundreds of them on their body!
What do you think about the current tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
I hope they can make a peaceful settlement. I don't have many opinions on the matter, I just don't want there to be a dispute. It's a shame.
What was your reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union?
I was so happy, I was laughing and dancing! It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
In the beginning, what was the overall sentiment regarding the Germans and the war ? Did you feel confident about the ability of Soviet army to withstand the German attack?
Thank you for this AMA! I appreciate WW2 related AMA's as it is impossible for younger people to really grasp what happened on the world stage back then.
When the war started, the people were so happy because they thought communism might dissipate. It was hard because the people did not necessarily want to fight with the regime. They did not have a lot of confidence in the Red Army. They did not have discipline or fighting spirit.
But, we felt like the Germans were harsh. The Nazis thought they were the best, and they treated people so badly. The Russians did feel like they needed to fight them.
How were you treated by your german captors?
In the German prison camp, it was terrible. When I got there I was so skinny. A lot of people got dysentery, luckily not me. The soup was like sawdust, but I tried to pick out only the good parts of the soup, like the horse meat. We had an Armenian doctor who made me a head senator. I helped sicker people, and was able to eat some bread everyday, and got a little stronger. When I marched with the Germans, I was more healthy. The conditions were bad to march in, and the skinny horses had trouble pulling the wagons. We had to walk everyday to the frontline to bring ammunition and bring back dead bodies. It was tiring and we did struggle, but they gave more food than the Russians, 3 meals a day. They gave me better boots. They had so many left over from dead soldiers. After a few weeks struggling at the front line, I noticed an old man taking care of the horses. I was scared of him, but I went up to him and told him that I am a veterinarian, too. He told my officer that he needed my help. I believe that this man saved my life. He kept me away from the frontline. This work was a lot less tiring, and I was able to gain more strength.
What is your favorite food to eat in the US, Germany, and Azerbaijan?
Steak for America. In Germany, it was too hard to find food. We had no choice. In Azerbaijan, shish kabob and rice pilaf!
A question for both Opa and Mouna, what language do you use to communicate with each other?
English! I (Mouna) attempted to learn conversational Azerbaijani when I went there to visit family, but did not do so well!
What were the circumstances of your capture? Was German imprisonment worse than conditions in the Red Army?
You've lead an amazing life. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions and giving is a glimpse of your experiences.
I went unconscious during a battle in the Caucauses Mountains, and woke up to a German soldier kicking me in the back. Really the conditions were almost the same in the Red Army and the prison camps. The food was bad, and people were sick and dying. When I actually marched with the Germans, we were better fed.
My grandfather was German Ukrainian. They were messonites i believe so they had a few hundred years of family history in the area. He was an electrician and taken back to Germany to work for them until the end of the war.
How do you identify? Are you German at all? Or Azerbaijani? Armenian? Did you speak German? What language did you speak most of the time? Sorry it's a very broad question..
Do you get a German pension for service during ww2?
I am Azerbaijani, 100%. I did learn to speak German. I mostly speak English, since I've been living in the United States since the 50's. I did not receive a German pension.
Why did you decide to stay in Germany, the nation you used to fight against?
I myself had nothing against the Germans. I didn't want to be in the war to begin with. I was not willing to go, but I had to.
I just came here to say thank you. I don't have a question really. My grandfather was an American in WWII taken POW by the Germans around the same time as you. His B-27 was shot down over Austria somewhere and he had to parachute out and was taken captive as well. He had so many interesting stories that I'm sure were hard to speak about.
I believe he was a POW for about 6 months until the Russians freed him. So far that, I salute you!
I suppose I do have a question. My grandfather said when he was taken captive that the Germans treated him quite well (as well as a POW could be treated I guess). Did you have a similar experience or did you find this to be completely untrue? You said you were kept alive to tend their wounded horses...was that the ONLY reason you were kept alive?
Yes, the Germans were known to take care of the American soldiers well. Those of us who marched with the Germans were treated well. It's not the only reason I stayed alive, but if I didn't stay behind to take care of the horses, I would have struggled at the front line, where a lot of people died. Maybe I would have died.
Bir Türk olarak Almanya'dan selamlarımı yollarım, cesur Azerbaycanlı kahraman! What kind of a relationship do you have to Germany now?
I have no problems with Germany now. Our countries have good relations. A lot of Germans work in Azerbaijan, and some Azerbaijani people can speak German!
What happened at the farm when the Communists took over? Was it consolidated into a Collective farm? You mention your family was prosperous. Was your family denounced as Kulaks? Was anyone deported?
Yes, they made it into a collective farm. Before this, we lived very good. My farmer was good. We had livestock (sheep and cows) and honeybees. They arrested my father along with many other good farmers and sent them to Siberia. When the collective farm started, no one was able to properly take care of the animals. They were so skinny, but the government had a quota they needed to fill of milk and honey. We and the animals were starving.
I will never forget about our honeybees. We had 10-15 boxes, and always had so much honey! We could share it with neighbors and sell it in the market. All of the bees became part of the collective farm. The first summer, all of the other people got to eat our honey. It was supposed to be my father's honey! People did not want to share this honey. I even asked a woman for some honey one day, and would only give me a dip of my finger. I was upset, so I cried and declined. The next year, not one single bee survived. The people had not known to leave enough honey in the boxes, for the bees to survive the winter.
As a young 10 year old boy, I worked from early morning until late at night. For nothing.
Did you ever meet any compassionate german soldiers while in the prison camp?
No, we did not. We really did not see too many Germans. Guards were usually Ukraine or Russian, wearing German uniforms.
Did you hold any racist views prior to coming to the United States? I ask because America had to be a huge multicultural shift for you being born in the 20s and living a great period of your life when diversity was not a norm or accepted.
I felt no racism towards anybody. I think it was because of my mother, she was such a gentle woman. I was excited to come to America because I heard that there was a freedom.
Do you bear any grudges after the war?
And the opposite; anyone/anything in particular you are thankful to after the war?
Yes, against the communist regime. I am thankful for the German veterinarian I worked with, who treated me like a son.
After 94 years of life, what is the one thing that you've learned that you wish every person knew when they were young?
Be honest. Don't lie or cheat your way. Educate yourself! Make a good job and family! Learn from your parents. Don't get hooked on smoking or drugs. It does not good for your health or money. Drink only once in a while. Schnapps is okay! I never did these things, and I made it 94 years.
Seeing both right- and leftwing extremism in action, which side do you think is the most horrible?
Both are worst, because they are extreme. I believe in democracies, when people can have a choice, not the 'tough guy.'
Wow, that's quite an amazing story!
What were conditions like in the Soviet army?
How did you get captured?
A week ago, we had an AMA from an American POW in Vietnam who said he fully trusted the US to rescue him eventually. Did you have any faith that the Soviets would get you out of prison?
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