At the age of 97, Nellie Brundelina is possibly one of the last Ukrainian survivors of World War Two in the UK. She has survived the Russian Communist Revolution, a famine, a war, being a slave, and more recently, Covid-19.
Nellie was brought up in Odessa, Ukraine, with her father who was a doctor and her mother, whose family members were farmers in Poltava, Ukraine. Unfortunately, Nellie’s family lost their land and property during the Russian Communist Revolution in 1917.
She survived the Holodomor famine in Soviet Ukraine which saw millions of the population die from starvation in what is seen as an unprecedented peacetime catastrophe in the Ukrainian history. It is estimated that 10 million people died as a result of the famine, but Nellie was part of the lucky few to survive the 1932-1933 catastrophe.
Nellie’s traumatising early life continued when her parents were killed during the Odessa massacre in 1941 when the Germans invaded Ukraine.
As part of the holocaust in Ukraine, Nellie was taken forcibly at gunpoint to a Nazi slave camp in the same year at the age of just 15. She was taken to a Nazi slave camp with her uncle, Fyodor, where she was kept as a slave by the Nazis for three years.
Sadly, it is believed Nellie’s uncle died in the camp as the family lost contact with him, but against all odds, Nellie survived the entire three years there until the Americans bombed the camp in 1944.
Unimaginably, at the age of just 18, Nellie, who was at this point a ‘four stone skeleton’, escaped with her friend and trekked hundreds of miles through wartime Europe, living off the land with her friend who had family in Belgium.
Unable to return to her own country, Nellie, who could speak fluent Ukrainian, German and Russian, ended up becoming a refugee and came to Sheffield.
This already unthinkable and dreadful experience for such a young lady was made further difficult by the fact she did not speak any English and was all alone in a completely new country.
She arrived in Sheffield in 1946 at the age of 20 having seen a deadly famine, an invasion of her own country, a world war, and spending three years as a slave in a Nazi slave camp.
Now living in Sheffield alone, Nellie was unable to contact her own family in the Ukraine as her letters were blocked by the Soviet Union, something that occurred there until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Her grandson, Simon Dawson, who is sharing her story, describes how difficult it must have been for his grandmother being unable to contact her own family when she was completely alone and isolated.
“Until the Soviet Union fell, they stopped her letters getting through, it was the iron curtain basically, you could not get communication into the countries, but she tried for many years to communicate with her Ukrainian family but it was blocked,” he said.
“It was only in 1991 I think when the Soviet Union fell that you could start to communicate again, by which time of course, so many years had passed, people change, move around, died, so that was pretty much – she had got nothing.
“She was very affected by it, she never really recovered from it.”
On people she did have contact with, Simon says, “She only really had her UK family, but she never got contact with anyone.
“She knew, obviously after World War Two, I think there was one Russian person she spoke to but very very few and far between. There just wasn’t really a presence in Sheffield of anyone from her community at all.”
When she came to England as a refugee, she came to straight to Sheffield and has not lived anywhere else since, meaning she has now lived in Sheffield for almost 76 years.
On Sheffield and how Nellie has enjoyed her time here, Simon says the city has been really good to her and supported her at a really difficult time.
“She has been here long enough, I mean all her family were brought up here,” he said.
“There’s my mum and her sister brought up here, I have got a business in Sheffield, and then my mum’s sister has moved to Scotland with her two daughters now and she has got great grandchildren.
"So yes, she has enjoyed Sheffield, the city has been good to her, been good to us, we have all got on in life, and the next generation have all managed to get on.
"Sheffield has supported her ever since she has arrived, and it still is now. Obviously she is in a nursing home now, but it has been good to her and her generations as well, we have all been looked after and educated here, so if it wasn’t for Sheffield, she couldn’t really go back home.”
Nellie, who is now 96, lives in a nursing home in Sheffield but isn’t without the great support of her family and friends who visit her on regular occasions.