Push and hold

The Son of a Commissar

The war continued. Every day, every hour, it was giving birth to heroes. Their names were published in newspapers. Writers dedicated books to them, poets and composers — songs.

But not all sons and daughters, worthy of fame, could be publicly honored by Motherland and crowned with well-deserved laurels. Because those people were heroes of an invisible war that was fought between our and Hitler’s Intelligence Services.

One of such warriors of the invisible front was Mykola Arturovych Heft.

The future intelligence officer was born in 1911 in Odessa. His father Arthur Hotlibovych was a typesetter at a local printing house. He participated in the revolutionary events of 1905. During the Civil War he was a Commissar in one of the units of Bessarabia Division. Then was at a party-economy work. Before the Second World War, working at the Odessa railway, he did not suit the punitive organs and was put behind bars. Before the war he was released to freedom. When the Soviet troops left Odessa, Arthur Hotlibovych found himself on the occupied territory.

The life of his two sons was not sweet, let alone that of his wife Vira Yosypivna. A fourth- generation citizen of Odessa, a good housewife, loving mother and faithful friend of life she suffered a lot of grief, poverty, deprivation.

Mykola Heft’s childhood and youth also passed in the coastal city. He studied at the machine building technical school, while working as tractor assembler. Later he graduated from Odessa Institute of Maritime Transport. Then he worked in the North, in Arkhangelsk, in the Caucasus. In Tuapse he rose from a mechanic to the deputy chief engineer of the port. Heft was fond of his occupational work. The normal career of a qualified engineer with its joys and sorrows, and family comfort, created by his wife Hanna Mykytivna, could have made his life, if it had not been for the war. Heft was mobilized and sent to the Black Sea Fleet. There he was assigned to install weapons on warships. But the obstacle at the plant was his origin — German. Mykola was looked at as a potential Nazis’ servant. So his family and he were exiled into Kazakhstan. It was safer and quieter.

Of course, Heft took this painfully, as a groundless offense. But was trying to silence the pain of the soul, because he knew far too well what Nazi plague was bringing to the mankind and to him personally. And he remained a patriot of his homeland.

Twentieth January 1942 Heft was mobilized again, this time into the so-called labor army. He was sent to the construction of Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Plant. But Mykola Arturovych was haunted by the idea that he was out of the armed struggle against the fascist invaders. In a letter to his brother Oleksandr M. Heft wrote: “I cannot even imagine how I will turn up before the eyes of my friends after the war. I will be asked, where I had been. And I will have to answer that I had been in the rear. And I will be very ashamed that I could not as part of the Red Army participate in the destruction of Hitler’s bandits and saved my life on the cost of others’”.

Here, he drew attention of the state security agencies. Though in reality it was not quite so. Heft had been constantly had been in the attention of special services. But in 1942 they decided to involve him in the intelligence work. In June, employees of the First (Intelligence) Department of the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR met Heft and soon he became a student of the Intelligence School in Engels, Saratov region.

Mykola Arturovych studied willingly and industriously. He had been thoroughly developing versions of his probable appearance behind enemy lines, refining the details of his behavior. He devoted a lot of time to studying special subjects, reading of political literature and fiction.

Teachers were satisfied with Cadet Heft. Lieutenant Kukes wrote about Mykola Arturovych’s training: “During the study he confirmed his talent for intelligence work and availability of appropriate skills for that. He studies excellently, the attitude to classes is extremely conscientious and serious. This gives confidence in his working capacity and shows his desire to acquire certain knowledge and skills for successful work in the occupied territories”.

A legend-biography was made in parallel. There were no significant differences between the actual biography and the legend, as for his turning up in the occupied territory, he had to explain that being at the front, he switched to the side of the Germans.

At night, June 13, 1943, “Duglas” with one and only passenger on board took off from the airport of Rostov. With a backpack and parachute equipment, he was sitting at the window looking into the darkness. In three hours or so a command sounded: “To the exit”! The second pilot came up, opened the door, raised the thumb, then put his hand on the shoulder of the passenger and gently pushed him to the exit. Heft closed his eyes for a short moment and stepped into the dark abyss.

He landed on a sunflower field. Buried the parachute and, after moving to another place, lay down to rest. When the sun rose, he went to the village that could be seen nearby. There he asked how to get to Odessa and hit the road. He was often checked by policemen, Romanian patrols. But his “ausvays” was of high quality and did not cause suspicion. Only once the Romanian officer, studying his documents, noticed that the permit was valid until May 25, while it was already June 14. He invited Heft to the commandant’s office. The group of the detained was advised to give a bribe to the Romanians. That was enough for the incident to be exhausted and the intelligence officer avoided unnecessary explanations about the term of the permit.

And soon Heft found himself at the famous Peresyp. As usual, the citizens of Odessa were bargaining, arguing, offering under-the-counter scarce goods.

According to the instructions, Heft had to visit his mother-in-law-Anastasia Mykhaylivna Semashko. But Lazareva Street where she lived was far away, he had to cross the entire city. So Heft decided to first visit his old friend Yulia Pokalyukhina who lived next to Peresyp. He was lucky Yulia had not changed her address. She was happy to see Mykola Arturovych. She told him everything was all right with his parents.

The next morning Heft visited the relatives. His mother let her tears flow. His father met his son with more reserve, he was also happy. Mykola Arturovych’s relationship with his father had always been somewhat complicated. But doubts about his father’s attitude to his turning up in Odessa were vain. The father promised Mykola to help him get a job. First, he had to somehow get legalized in Odessa. And he offered his son to go together to the city administration. There they turned to his father’s friend — the Chief of a department Mr. Nold. Mykola Arturovych told Nold about his hardships, and finally added that he was an engineer and had considerable practical experience.

- That’s good, said Nold. I can see you are young and perhaps not poisoned by Bolshevism so much as your father. By the way, yesterday Zahner complained he was seeking for a talented engineer for the shipyard. Would such a job suit you?

- It would be great. Just by my specialty, answered Heft-Junior.

Four days later, Mykola Arturovych was holding a new license, which gave him the right to consider himself a legal citizen of Odessa. And soon he was working as a senior engineer at “Budnahlyad”. That organization was looking after the repair and construction of ships for the German navy at the former A. Marti plant. Now it was a Plant Number One of Odessa port. Heft received a pass into all shops of the plant and the port area.

It gave a tremendous opportunity for performance of intelligence tasks. Odessa port was a base of the Nazi guard fleet, guarding the Black Sea coast. Here were moored destroyers, submarines, fighters, torpedo boats and armored boats, different types of guard ships and boats that carried a supporting service: carrying troops, ammunition and food.

In a word, the experienced intelligence officer and also qualified marine engineer had where to turn. He concluded that the post, to which he was appointed, made it possible not only to collect valuable intelligence, but to arrange diversions on ships. It remained to gain credibility and win the trust of the entire administration. Heft’s immediate superior was Hitler’s Army’s Major Karl Zahner. Apart from the military rank, he also had a civil job of a marine construction adviser — baurat, that extremely widened his powers and turned him into a true master of the plant and shipyard.

Karl Zahner first treated the new engineer with suspicion. But this time the intelligence officer was lucky. A German guard ship had been repaired for a long time on the stocks of the shipyard. It was towed to Odessa. After its meeting with Soviet aircrafts it was like a sieve. The hull was patched, and the engine had to be changed. They put a “Renold.”

It had been regulated for three weeks, but to no success. It was either the repairmen’s low qualification or lack of desire.

-          Let the new engineer try, we’ll see what he can do — Karl Zahner ordered.

Heft understood that they were testing not so much his skills as his loyalty to the occupiers. He passionately took up the case. He had worked up a sweat for three days. On the fourth day, the “Renold” finally “came to life”. Zahner was the first to shake Heft’s hand. Mykola Arturovych was now talked about on all ships of the patrol fleet and in the headquarters of the Port. His authority with the administration of the plant had not just increased, but we can say it had flown up. That was Mykola Arturovych’s first success. Now he needed reliable assistants, without whom he could not carry out diversions. Heft was looking for first of all, patriotically minded people. He was seeking like-minded people who, knowing their job could subtly carry out acts of sabotage and subversion.

Heft often dropped in to the office of the Chief of the mechanical workshop Ivan Olexandrovych Ryaboshapchenko. The latter had been working at that post since the Soviet times. He stayed in Odessa accidentally: did not have time to evacuate. Ivan Olexandrovych’s authority of an expert was peremptory at the plant. Heft decided to use this fact. Every morning he would visit Ryaboshapchenko with a newspaper in hand to exchange views on developments on the fronts. The conversation began with official reports published in German newspapers. Then Mykola Arturovych, among other things, talked about the successes of Soviet troops, certainly adding that he had learned about them from Zahner, or from conversations at the plant.

First Ryaboshapchenko only sniffed in disapproval not keeping up the conversation. But little by little, he began to learn details, sometimes even to comment on some events in the unfavorable for the occupiers light. Heft gradually managed to persuade Ryaboshapchenko that they needed to lead an active anti-fascist activity at the plant.

Subsequently, the Chief of the mechanical workshop attracted to this case a locksmith Vasyl Lukyanovych Tyhonin, who genuinely hated the Nazis and was eager to actively combat them. Vasyl Tyhonin advised to invite into the group Ivan Jakovych Myndra who already on his own, as much as he could was sabotaging the work for the invaders, while very cleverly demonstrating intense activity. Then they were joined by Mykola Stepanovych Bereshchuk, Dmytro Oleksandrovych Vasylyev, Dmytro Murovanyi, A. Persianov, Valentyna Sushylova and others. These were people ready to go to torment and to death for the sake of the victory over fascism.

Thanks to the painstaking, hard work, the underground caused significant damages to the enemy. They started with elementary: slowdown in work. The main burden fell on the mechanical and pipeline workshops controlled by Heft. Using this, he instructed I. Ryaboshapchenko and A. Persianov to send eight-nine workers to do the job where two-three workers were needed. They would not so much work as be in one another’s way.

The real test of strength of the organized by Heft and Ryaboshapchenko group happened during the repair of patrol boats D-6, D-8, D-9, D-10 and the high-speed destroyer R-204. Bearings on these ships were not filled with the new high-grade metal, but with old smelts with a share of babbit up to 7-9 percent. The result-early disabling of this so much needed by the Germans navy equipment.

In December 1943 an event occurred which positively affected the future of Heft’s group. The aid from the Center arrived: Valerian Erihovych Burzi came to Odessa (in the city he was known as Burlachenko Valeriy Ivanovych).

Burzi Valerian Erihovych was born in 1917 in Kherson. In early 1941, he graduated from the Leningrad Electro-Technical Institute. He worked at a shipyard in Mykolaiv. In August of that year, he was evacuated to Grozny. From there he, being a German, was exiled to Kazakhstan. Then the fate brought him to Heft at the construction of a metallurgical plant. And then everything was like in Mykola Arturovych’s case. Only Heft after studying at the special school was sent to Odessa while Burzi had been working in Kherson. After completing the task, he returned to the Soviet territory, from where in December 1943 he again was thrown across the front line, where he had to contact Heft.

The plane having taken off from Poltava airfield dropped him near the village of Mostove. From there he walked to Odessa, carefully bypassing gendarmerie posts. Good people would let him stay overnight and fed him. One of them was Matrona Moyseyenko from the isolated farmstead of Halupiv. When he entered the house, she just asked,

- Are you, young man, and the Soviet paratrooper, who is wanted by the gendarmerie?

- No, I myself am searching for my aunt, my only relative with whom I was separated by the war — calmly, looking into her eyes, said Valerian.

The woman did not ask anything more, and in the morning said:

- Write down one address in Odessa: 41, Kanatna Street. There you will ask for Vira Pylypivna Likhtar. She is my daughter. If you have some difficulty — visit her. She will always help a Soviet person.

Burzi-Burlachenko did as he had been told. Vira Pylypivna helped him to get settled at her acquaintance — Valentyna Mykhaylivna Pustoutova’s. With the help of a bribe the police issued a residence permit. To get rid of the suspicion, Valerian became a profiteer. He would buy stolen tires from military drivers and sell them to civilians. It justified his hanging about the city.

Valerian had been watching Heft’s flat for hours until he made sure that Gestapo was not watching it and that Mykola Arturovych’s parents really were living there, then he visited them and gave the password.

They met on a frosty January morning in Yulia Pokalyukina’s flat in Velyka Arnautska Street. Yulia was now involved in fulfilling some intelligence tasks in the city.

They agreed as follows: Heft would continue the underground work at the plant and Burzi would work among residents — gathering military, political and economic intelligence, finding out agents of Gestapo and Siguranta.

The mass fascist terror against the Soviet people with which the invaders “marked” the first days of their temporal rule in Odessa, was getting stronger. But the Nazis failed to intimidate the population. Odessa remained unconquered. In the endless maze of catacombs, on the outskirts of the city, on the streets between the Nazis and Soviet patriots there waged a constant struggle. Day and night, just from the streets, courtyards disappeared enemy soldiers and officers, their weapons, vehicles. Leaflets were distributed in the city nearly daily. Burzi, like Heft in his time, quickly “became overgrown” with assistants. Sometimes he was looking for them, sometimes they accidentally stumbled upon him or his associates.

Once Valerian learned that the Nazis were going to evacuate Odessa superphosphate plant. After consulting with Heft, Burzi decided to prevent this. The intelligence officers knew that accidentally remained in Industrial Institute Professor Edward Savelyevich Lopatto. Faithful people were instructed to determine its mood views. It turned out that the highly specialist chemist returned to work at the school only when the Nazis took him there almost under escort. In conversations with people whom he trusted implicitly, professor repeatedly expressed the opinion that sit and wait for the return of the arrival of the Red Army — a crime. We must act. But he did not know how and what to do.

One evening Valerian was visited by the Professor’s close friend who said:

- I appeal to you as a representative of Soviet power. You have to prevent the evacuation of the superphosphate plant. Think of a good excuse. When our help is needed to neutralize those who will interfere, you can count on it.

The next day the Professor visited the plant, within the following two days he sent a letter to the occupation authorities in which he warned that the equipment of the plant could not be taken to pieces without breaking, and it could not be put together again.

The invaders were glad that such a serious scholar finally revealed some activity and willingness to cooperate with them. They invited him, agreed that it was perhaps pointless to evacuate the whole plant. But still it was decided to take off the lead from the equipment and to evacuate the reserves of boiler iron.

Then Lopatto drew their attention to the fact that the tower workshop would die anyway because it was flooded with water. Having made the analysis of the water, the Professor found out that it contained up to 20 percent of sulfuric acid. If the water is not pumped out, the soil is not drained — the foundation of the whole structure will collapse and fall apart. Would it not be more reasonable to make the plant work, and from the liquid to get at least a small amount of sulfuric acid to produce copper sulphate.

Professor knew how to make the invaders interested. The most influential of them had vineyards and they urgently need copper sulfate — at that time a very deficit.

Instead of destroying the plant they began to rebuild it. And by the liberation of Odessa by the Red Army they have done a lot.

Lopatto became Burzi-Burlachenko’s most active assistant. On his behalf, he even went to Bucharest “on an excursion” and brought from there important intelligence about Hitler’s relationship with Antonescu, the location of German troops in Romania and so on.

When the underground movement needed explosives, Lopatto helped to solve the problem. At the laboratory of the Institute, where he had been working, the ammunition could not be made, because there was many extra eyes there. So he brought home the necessary ingredients and worked in the evenings. Valerian gave the mines in the shape of lumps of coal to Heft, and the latter passed them over to Ryaboshapchenko.

It was decided to test these products on the fighter of submarines KT-39, which was then being repaired. The explosives got into the coal tip of the vessel with the help of Vasyl Tykhonin. During the lunch break, he went to the steam room. There were two workers in there. One of them washing, and the other was reading a book. Vasyl picked up a couple of embers onto the shovel and began to light a cigarette. The workers did not pay attention to him. Vasyl went away, quietly pulled out the black “stone” and threw it on a heap of coal.

The accident on KT-39 occurred when the fighter was away at sea. The boat drowned. That is how the mine made by Professor Lopatto helped the undergrounders.

Soon a worse fate befell the fighter RV-204, self-propelled barge “Spree”, transport ship “Wessel”. Heft’s group’s activity cost Nazis millions of marks and thousands of hours of downtime. It was 1943-1944, when the Red Army was developing offensive operations and fascists were sitting on the defensive. The Black Sea Fleet’s combat capability meant a lot to them and losses of vessels acutely affected the front-line affairs.

By the end of January 1944 everything went as it should, without a failure. And suddenly Heft’s father visited him and anxiously said that Mykola Arturovych was wanted by the political police. Comprehensively assessing the situation, Heft decided to wait for developments.

The next few days passed quietly. No one visited or asked for Mykola Arturovych. On the fifth day or so he received a call and was invited to come to 1, Marazliivska Street. That meant that it was not the Gestapo, but Siguranta that was looking for him.

Heft purposely arrived a bit late, to emphasize his independence. Two noncommissioned officers were waiting for him. One of them introduced himself:

- Krause.

Heft was asked to sit down, and then they specified his personal details, asked how he ended up in Odessa. Heft very emotionally told about his wanderings in the Soviet Union, so Krause even stopped to record and shook his head sympathetically. Gradually the interrogation turned into almost a friendly conversation about the fate of Germans living in the Soviet Union. Suddenly Krause asked if Heft Knew Demskyi — an engineer from Tuapse, and Mykola Arturovych replied in the affirmative.

- We have become aware — Krause finally pulled out his trump card — that in Tuapse you gave away to the state security authorities a German agent. He was shot dead and now you have to answer for it.

- Do not say stupid things — Mykola Arturovych became angry. — I did not give away anybody. He was caught red-handed. I could not help him, otherwise today I would be not here but there.

Krause showed Heft a statement written by Demska Nina Ivanivna, which was about the event.

- It is an ordinary hysterical woman’s envy to me, as a person who works for Germany more successfully than her husband did, said Mykola Arturovych. — And you take it at face value. Ask the Gestapo about me and they will tell you what I’m worth. There is a whole plant on my shoulders, which works for the front day and night.

Krause widely opened his eyes. None of those whom he questioned had dared to talk to him like this.

Mykola Arturovych followed the principle: “best defense is offence”. And he won.

Krause had to let Heft go.

Mykola Arturovych was not slow to inform about the adventure his boss — baurat Zahner. He expressed satisfaction that all ended so well, but warned that they had to be very careful.

Meanwhile, with the approach of Soviet troops to Odessa, the situation in the city had deteriorated. Preparations began for the evacuation of the plant. Heft knew the time had come of new challenges, new clashes in the dark, on which defended the fate of the plant and its workers.

He discussed it with Burzi. They decided: to sabotage the evacuation of the plant, to rescue workers and professionals from forced removal to Nazi Germany, not to let blow up at least the main workshops.

Mykola Arturovych reported to Zahner that Romanians want all the equipment of the plant, raw materials, and unrepaired ships. This angered the baurat. There was a scandal. German and Romanian occupation authorities quarreled. The question of who could rob what moved on to the higher court.

Meanwhile, the troops of the 3rd Ukrainian Front were coming up to Odessa.

March 20, 1944, Admiral Tsyyb ordered to evacuate. A real concentration camp was created at the plant. People were placed in empty rooms without beds and chairs, only with straw on the floors. They were convoyed to work.

In this difficult time, Heft applied to Zahner with a proposal to complete the repair of the vessels, which were at the plant, so they could go away on their own. And for this purpose the necessary equipment had to be left. He gave Zahner a list of the most valuable equipment of the construction, copper, mechanical, boiler and some other shops.

- Well done, Heft. I will command not to touch anything without you, — was his answer.

For appearance’s sake they did have to pack something. Heft ordered Ryaboshapchenko to commission this work. Ryaboshapchenko transferred all his subversive group into the night shift. On the outside, the packaging looked okay. But had a Nazi decided to check at least one such box, Ryaboshapchenko and others would have met their death. Even low-value machines they had been turning into a real scrap before packing. In the rush and panic, no one noticed it. The Nazis, busy with evacuation of families and their own property, almost never were at the plant at night. They fully relied on Heft.

Finally, the Germans mined the plant’s shops: when the Soviet troops enter the city, they had to fly into the air. Heft now faced the task to get the mining scheme.

The plant was guarded by the Navy. There were patrols near the entrances and exits. It was necessary to decide how at the right time to evacuate the workers kept at the plant.

Burzi was also up-and-doing. Through his assistants, he tried to find out what objects in the city the invaders were mining, which agents they were leaving in Odessa for subversive activities in the Red Army’s rear.

Yuliya Pokalyukhina barely managed to provide communication between Heft and Burzi. In addition, she was tasked to create supply of food and water in shelters, where intelligence officers were planning to hide members of their groups, when the Nazis start to retreat.

Mykola Arturovych took the advantage of the right given to him by Zahner — to sign permits to exit the plant. He had to do it before the evacuation, when he was sending the workers to the city in various business affairs. Ryaboshapchenko made a list of people who needed to be helped to escape. The plant was a complete mess so the operation was carried out without unnecessary complications. Within one day alone 60 people were taken away, almost the whole subversive group included.

There were other ways to escape: through the grain harbor, the office of the construction shop, the steam room and the kitchen. The occupants forgot to put the guard there. When the administration was ready to order the placement of workers on the barge, the majority of them used these ways. Eventually out of 815 prisoners of the camp, there remained several dozens. Those were mainly old or sick people who did not dare or did not have the physical strength to escape.

The night of April 9, the last vessel — the swimming dock – had to leave the port. It had to evacuate the plant’s management. Zahner was appointed commander of the dock, Heft – his deputy. On the eve of evacuation, Mykola Arturovych spent the night at the plant in Zahner’s office. But that night Heft did not sleep. With the key made from casts, he opened the safe, took out the scheme of mining of the plant and made a copy of it.

The morning of the last day of the invaders’ staying in Odessa has come. The panic fuss at the plant continued. The rest of the property from the workshop of the military airfield was being loaded. The ships of the convoy have lined up next to the dock. Among them was an anti-submarine destroyer, in the coal pit of which there was a bag of explosives thrown by the members of the subversive group. The repair of the ship was completed literally on the eve. It did not even have time for a trial trip.

When it became dark, an explosion thundered in the port. The destroyer was on fire. Other ships of the convoy rushed to its rescue. Taking advantage of the general panic, Mykola Arturovych left the dock and ran to the plant. In the boiler, diesel and other shops, he cut the wires that led to the mines. Through the familiar passage he left the plant and disappeared in the darkness.

He stayed overnight at Pokalyuhina’s. At dawn, he went to the port. The dock was gone. Black remains of the anti-submarine destroyer were seen in the roads. The workshops of the plant were intact.

The guns were roaring in the suburbs, while in the streets of Odessa there were tanks with five-pointed stars on the towers.

After the liberation of Odessa Hef found the NKVD representatives and with them went to the plant. There he personally participated in mine clearance.

Odessa Military Commandant appointed Heft the Director of the Marti plant. But his staying in the post was not long. April 14, 1944 Mykola Arturovych signed the Certificate of Acceptance and Transfer of the Plant to the new Director.

And August 6, Heft at the head of a special group “Vanguard” landed near the village Hraby (Poland). The group, which had to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage tasks in the Germans’ rear, consisted of 10 people, the members of the Odessa underground V.E. Burzi and V.L. Tykhonin included.

During the march towards Breslau, the group ran into the German garrison. Some fighters were lucky to disengage from the enemy, but Heft with three members of the group was surrounded. All the four died as heroes. It happened August 25, 1944.

Mykola Arturovych Heft was posthumously awarded the medal “Partisan of the Patriotic War” and in 1965 — the Order of the Patriotic War 1st class. After the war his remains were reburied on the Alley of Glory in Odessa.

Oleksandr Voloshyn, Oleksandr Bilohorov

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