6. A Teenage Heroine Finds Herself Cutoff Behind Nazi Lines
Zinaida Martynovna Portnovna was a Belarusian teenage partisan, who fought the Germans after the Nazi state invaded the USSR during WWII. She became the youngest female recipient of a Hero of the Soviet Union award, the Soviet Union’s highest distinction for heroic service to the country and society. Unfortunately, it was a posthumous award, as Zinaida was captured by the Germans and executed in 1944.
The Nazi invasion came as a rude shock to Zinaida, as it did for most Soviet citizens. Born and raised in Leningrad, Zinaida, fifteen-years-old at the time, was hundreds of miles from home at a summer camp near her grandparents’ home close to the Soviet-German border in Belarus in June, 1941. When the Germans struck, enemy tanks swept past the summer camp, and the teenager found herself cut off behind enemy lines.
5. The Brutality of the Nazi Occupation Radicalized Zinaida Portnova Into Joining the Anti-Fascist Partisans
The Nazi occupation of Belarus was brutal, and Zinaida Portnova became radicalized when a German soldier struck her grandmother while confiscating the family’s cattle. She joined the underground Komsomol – the Communist Party’s youth division – and its resistance group, “The Young Avengers”. Zinaida started by distributing anti-German propaganda leaflets, collecting and hiding weapons for the partisans, reporting on enemy troop movements, and engaging in opportunistic acts of sabotage of enemy vehicles.
After learning the use of weapons and explosives, she participated in raids and sabotage operations against power plants, pumps, and a brick factory near Vitebsk, during which about 100 German soldiers were killed. In 1943, she got a job in a kitchen that served the German garrison of Obol, and poisoned the food. When suspicion fell upon her, she demonstrated her “innocence” by eating the food to prove that it was not poisoned. When she did not exhibit immediate ill effects, she was released. She became violently ill soon thereafter, but survived.
4. When Captured, This Heroine Killed a Nazi Officer During Her Interrogation
Zinaida Portnova fled Obol, then joined another partisan unit and served as its scout. In late 1943, contact was lost with the Obol partisans, so Zinaida was infiltrated back into the city to investigate.
She was captured almost immediately. During questioning, she managed to grab a pistol her German interrogator had carelessly left lying atop his desk. She shot the Nazi official to death, as well as two guards who came rushing in upon hearing the gunfire. Zinaida escaped the building, but was eventually tracked down and captured. She was tortured mercilessly, before her execution on January 15th, 1944, aged seventeen.
3. A Woman Who Fought Against the Nazi Hordes in Her Own Tank
Soviet heroine Aleksandra Leontievna Boyko (1918 – 1996) not only fought in the front lines against the Nazi forces, but did so in her own heavy tank. “Own” in this case being quite literal, as the tank in which she fought was actually owned by her and her husband, Ivan Boyko, who fought in the vehicle alongside his wife.
The Boykos lived in the Siberian town of Magadan, having volunteered to work in that rugged region, where wages were higher and the opportunities for advancement were greater. It was the back of beyond, and with nothing to spend their money on, they saved their wages. When the Germans invaded in 1941, the Boykos learned that Aleksandra’s hometown of Kiev had fallen, and soon thereafter, that Ivan’s home village of Nezhin had been captured. From family and friends they heard of atrocities, burned homes, ravaged cousins, and relatives murdered or dragged off to Germany as slave workers. They decided to do something about it.
2. Aleksandra Boyko and Her Husband Bought a Tank to Fight to Nazi Invaders
Soon after the Nazi onslaught against the USSR, Aleksandra and Ivan Boyko tried to join the Red Army. However, draft officials refused because both had essential jobs. Ivan was a superb heavy truck driver, while Aleksandra performed essential clerical work for her department. It was decided that they were more valuable to the war effort continuing in those jobs, than serving in the military. So the couple figured out another way to get into the fight.
During the war, Soviet citizens could directly pay for specific new tanks and planes, and donate them to the military. In 1943, the couple donated 50,000 rubles from their savings to pay for a new IS-2 heavy tank, and wrote a letter to Stalin, asking for the right to drive it into battle. Stalin agreed, and the Boykos were trained as tankers in Chelyabinsk Tank School. Ivan became a tank driver, while Aleksandra became a tank commander – the only woman to command a heavy tank during WWII. Their technically “private” tank was officially named “Kolyma”, after the Kolyma River near the couple’s home in Siberia.
1. This Heroine Fought the Nazi Forces From the Baltics to Central Europe
After graduating from tank school, Aleksandra Boyko was commissioned as a lieutenant. She arrived at the front with her husband in 1944, in the couple’s brand new IS-2 heavy tank – she as commander, he as driver. The Boykos first saw combat in the Riga Offensive, during which Aleksandra’s tank destroyed five Nazi tanks, including a Panzer VI Tiger, and two guns. For her exploits, she was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, First Class.
A few months later, the Boykos’ tank was hit, and Aleksandra and Ivan were seriously injured. Their tank was repaired, and the couple eventually recovered from their wounds and returned to the front. All in all, Aleksandra and her husband fought from the Baltics, through Belarus, into Poland, and eventually ended up in Czechoslovakia at war’s end. Upon demobilization, Aleksandra returned to Magadan, where she ran a bakery, and was eventually elected to the City Council. Unfortunately, the Boykos did not live together happily ever after. The couple divorced in the 1950s. Ivan died in 1995, and Aleksandra followed him a year later.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading