David P. Boder Interviews Valerius Michelson; September 26, 1946; München, Germany



David Boder's interview with Valerius Michelson was part of a series he conducted at the UNRRA University in Munich in September 1946. The first half of the interview focuses on Estonia during the Soviet and Nazi occupations, the second half on Michelson's end-of-war and post-war experiences in Austria and Germany. The most detailed testimony concerns the material and psychological state of "displaced persons" in post-war Germany and Michelson's work in helping to establish the UNRRA University. Importantly, much of what Michelson tells Boder about his pre-war and war time experiences is half-true at best. This explains why his testimony is often halting in style, and broad and imprecise in substance.

Michelson was born in St. Petersburg in 1916. He spent his early years in Estonia, where he was part of the substantial Russian émigré community that developed there after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1926, Michelson returned to the Soviet Union with his father. However, in the interview, he suggests that he remained in Estonia until the early 1940s. In fact, he studied architecture at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts in Leningrad from 1935 to 1941. Drafted into the Red Army after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he was eventually captured by the Germans. Due to his good knowledge of German, he avoided being sent to a Soviet POW camp. Instead, he worked as an interpreter and as a contractor, helping to build field hospitals on the Eastern front. By his own admission, he served in the German army. As the Red Army began its long westward advance, Michelson retreated with the Germans, eventually ending up in Vienna. Then, as the Soviets advanced on Vienna, he moved west again, eventually crossing into Germany and finding his way to Munich.1

Although many specific incidents that Michelson relates may be true (e.g., the arrest of his father, his train trip to Vienna), they must be understood as part of a different story that Michelson deliberately obscures from Boder. The biography that Michelson provides Boder can in turn be seen as part of a "cover" Michelson developed to protect himself from forcible repatriation to the Soviet Union and punishment as a deserter and traitor. He offered similar biographical details on the U.S. Military Government Questionnaire ("Fragebogen") he filled out in January 1946 in order to gain admittance to the UNRRA University.2 His interview with Boder is thus most useful for its detailed discussion of the life of displaced persons in postwar Germany and as a fascinating example of the diversionary tactics DPs developed to avoid unwelcome inquiries into their war time biographies.

—Anna Holian

1. Kris Johnson, interview with Valerius Michelson, 18 March 1991; Anna Holian, interview with Valerius Michelson, 23 September 2001. I am grateful to the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota for making Johnson's interview with Michelson available to me.
2. Valerius Michelson personal file, Bayerisches Hauptstaatsachiv, Bestand UNRRA-Universität, 3674. For example, Michelson states that he studied architecture from 1935 to 1941, but changes the scene of his studies from Leningrad to Tartu, Estonia.