She was born in 1931 and lived with her parents in the city of Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine.
Photo taken 1948. Sarah, 17 years old
MOM COVERED ME WITH HER BODY
In the early days of the war, my father, Naum Aronovich Pergamenshchikov, went to the front, not even waiting for the call-up note from the recruitment office. In my childhood memory (and I was then 10 years old), he always remained the most powerful, intelligent, kind, and beautiful person. Before leaving, he asked us to keep in constant touch with his factory (he worked at a metallurgical plant, and my mother worked at a garment factory). If need be, we can be helped with the evacuation, he said. But everything turned out differently. A few days after the start of the war, very close relatives from Kiev came to us. They came to join us to be evacuated, as the Nazis had bombed Kiev on the first day of the war. And those of our relatives who did not have time to escape from Kiev and stayed there were all killed at Babi Yar in late September 1941. They numbered 11 people. But about their terrible fate we learned much later.
In July 1941, German planes bombed the city day and night. Sirens wailed several times a day, local radio announced the “air-raid alarm”, and the roar of German aircraft and falling bombs silenced these announcements. We used to flee to the shelter, which was located in the basement of the house next door (once an old underground printing press had been there), but sometimes we did not have time to reach it and lay prostrate on the ground, but the ground was burning, too …
One night when we did not have time to get to the shelter and remained at home, a tragedy happened in that basement, where coal and firewood were stored. In the morning we saw a horrifying sight. The house, under which the shelter was located and where we were usually waited out the bombing, was hit by a bomb, and all the people who had taken refuge there were buried under the debris. They were neighbors from our yard whom we had seen the day before and with whom we discussed what to do in this critical situation. All of them were killed …
When the German army was already on the outskirts of the city, we realized that we should not trust anyone and must flee. I, with Mom, her sister Esther with two children, and our close relatives, who had just fled from the Nazis in Kiev, tried to get out of Dnepropetrovsk. It was mid-August 1941. All night we sat by the station waiting for the train. Finally, it arrived. We thought it was our salvation. Boarding was difficult; people stormed the cars since it was their last hope. But along the way, near the station of Krasnopalovka, German planes bombed our train, killing many people. My mother, Ida, was mortally wounded and died. She was 32 years old. I survived by miracle: the miracle was my mother, she covered me with her body …
Only Aunt Esther and her two children remained alive, all the relatives from Kiev were killed … The picture was terrible, burning cars, screams, cries, groans of the wounded, a lot of blood, death, and the dead were everywhere … Many years have passed, and I still cannot forget it …
According to Aunt Esther’s stories, it was she who found me and pulled me out of this mess of dying people. I was 10; I could not realize and accept the death of my mother and kept pestering Aunt Esther with questions.
Thus, at 10, I became an orphan. And then, my Aunt Esther, along with her children and a few other survivors were picked up by local villagers. They put us up in a cellar, where we hid for several days. Simple peasants, they treated us kindly, washed away the dirt and blood, fed us and gave us clothes. This was very risky, because in the village there were different people, and accepting local denouncer’s information, the Germans shot people for harboring Jews.
With the advent of the Nazis in the village, mass round-ups began. I and Aunt Esther with the children managed to escape during the night together with a group of people who had been in the encirclement and made their way out through the forest, hungry and ragged. We managed to get to the railway station and board one of the last trains. It was so crowded with refugees, it seemed nobody could squeeze into it any more.
In this difficult situation we were helped by an assistant engineer; he ordered all the people already in the cars to throw away everything except for the bare necessities, only water, bread and crackers were to remain. People threw out everything they had left from their previous life; we already had nothing.
The only one hope was to get onto the train, and we all fit into this one, which was intended to carry livestock. It was possible to stand or sit cross-legged. We slept by turns, the air was insufficient, the engineer stopped occasionally for 5–10 minutes for us to get water, and whoever did not climb back into the wagons on time stayed behind, and who knows what fate befell them.
We were told that the train headed for the Central Asia and that it would take several days, if nothing wrong happened on the way.
The way took about 9–10 days; people got used to each other and became like a family, despite the fact that they were exhausted by thirst, hunger and disease. They shared their dry bread and the last remnants of food and water, and helped each other however they could. Even a good word of hope mattered. We learned that due to the unbearable conditions three elderly men had died in our car. The train was stopped for a few minutes, and we gave tribute to them; and two days later a boy was born in our car. The women helped the woman giving birth so selflessly and so lovingly that it was as if their son or grandson were born. Everybody even moved aside and freed a separate corner so the young mother so she could feed the baby.
Finally, a few days later we arrived at an unknown spot in Central Asia. It was the city of Andizhan in the Uzbek republic. It was a small hick town, inhabited by Uzbeks and a few Russian families exiled to the place many years ago. Upon arrival, we lived for a week just in the open, because we were not wanted there and no housing was available. Local Uzbeks gave us old mats and blankets, which we put on the ground at night, and fetched us some flat bread and water.
We must pay tribute to these people. In those early years it was an almost illiterate, poor population, living in very primitive houses; families had 6 to 8 children and lived penned up together, but still they tried to give us some help.
A week later, I was put in an orphanage with other children who also had been orphaned. It was an old dilapidated barn in which animals had been kept; local residents and our people arranged it as best they could. They built this provisory house of clay and adobe, which seemed to us not so wretched: at any rate you had a roof over your head.
Aunt Esther, with the children, lived with an Uzbek family in a former barn or storage room, so small that it could contain only a cot made from up old boards slapped together – a family of 3 people slept there. The rest of life was in the yard.
It was the autumn of 1941. For the first time in 20 years, as the locals said, there was snow in Andijan; it was wet and immediately melted. The children’s home was wet; water leaked through the roof. No better was also the situation with food. We ate dark bran brewed in water and pomace. Bread was rationed, 300 grams a day; it contained a lot of water. The water Uzbeks drank was from the ditch where they washed their feet. We did the same. Hunger, overcrowding, filth, lice – all these sad companions of a war led to an epidemic of typhus. Kids in our orphanage started to get sick. There were no drugs, since all drugs went foremost to the front and to military field hospitals. Hospitals, too, were non-existent. Barracks were built to house the contagious people, children and adults together, 15 persons in each barrack. People were dying by the hundreds … I stayed as strong as I could, but the tragic death of my mother, the completely unknown fate of my father, who was at the front, and all the endured ordeals did their job. In early December, I fell ill with typhus, in severe form: my temperature went up to 40°–41°C, my whole body was covered with a red rash, which then evolved into ulcers. When Aunt Esther came, the doctor told her that the girl (me) was developing sepsis, and that it was hopeless.
Every day the dead people from our hut were carried away and buried on the outskirts of the city; the entire place was covered with small hillocks of graves, sprinkled with lime, and the names of the dead written on planks, all our evacuees, refugees, women, children, old people … I was doomed, I lost consciousness and did not understand anything.
According to the Aunt Esther’s account, she ran and took me out of these deadly barracks, brought me to her yard, found an old Uzbek, a traditional healer, who prepared a potion of many components. My aunt just remembered that there was a large amount of grated onion, the roots of certain herbs, and a plenty of some concoctions to drink. It seems to have cleansed my blood and destroyed the infection. So for a second time I stayed alive, and always with love and gratitude, I remember my dear Aunt Esther. For a month she nursed me and healed the ulcers that covered my whole body.
After recovery, I again returned to the orphanage; I was in fourth grade at school. We did not have textbooks, notebooks were sewn from old posters, homework was done by the kerosene lamp – and kerosene was not always available. We were hungry all the time. This feeling did not leave me even at night, I dreamed to live till the morning and eat my ration of bread (and to this day, bread is a holy thing to me). But with all this, I was inquisitive. I studied well, with enthusiasm, for the four war years; I received four letters of commendation for excellent performance.
There was a war, and the main slogan at that hard time was: “Everything for the front, everything for the victory over the Fascist invaders. Victory in the rear is a victory at the front.” For us, the children of war, it was not just a slogan; it was hope that this cruel war would end someday, and there would also be our modest contribution and our drop of blood in it.
And we kept pace with the adults. We studied from 8 am to 12 noon, and then after noon we were taken on carts, pulled by oxen, to the cotton fields to pick cotton. We labored under 50°C heat, no water, cotton bushes high above us, which had to be carefully tilted so as not to break, and then the cotton had to be collected from the boxes, and then the full bags carried through the entire field. I was 11 years old, my comrades were 12–13, but we were going to work with a clear understanding of why we did it. After all, cotton was “white gold,” a very important raw material for our country.
At the end of five hours of work in the cotton field, we got a flat black cake and a cup of water. Tired and exhausted, we returned to the orphanage but still had to do homework. My heart was heavy, as there was no news from Dad. After all, he did not know where we were. I already thought that I would never see him again, but somewhere in the depths of my soul, a little hope flickered. In that year (1942), a military hospital was set up in the city where the wounded were brought from the front.
On May 2, 1942, the May Day celebration was organized, and we went with our teacher to the hospital to congratulate the wounded soldiers on the holiday. The spectacle was depressing – very young men, 19–20 years old, without legs or arms, shell-shocked; there were no wheelchairs then, a prosthesis was out of question, only a pair of crutches. They were mostly recumbent and sedentary, and there were some blind fellows. It was hard and bitter to look at it. We wanted to make them happy with our performances. For the, we children were a breath of living air.
The concert was a success; we sang songs, Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish (Yiddish), read poems and stories. We gave each soldier woolen socks, which we had knit ourselves, tobacco pouches, and books. All of them (those who could) applauded and thanked us. As a result, we were rewarded – each of us was given three pieces of black cake with apricot jam and two flat cakes. For us it was a royal gift.
When we were about to leave, my friend noticed that a wounded man lay on a cot in the farthest corner of the house. He could not stand and near him was a nurse. I went closer and saw a man with a bandaged head. His eyes were visible only through the slits in the bandages; they were sad and detached. I felt very sorry for this wounded person; I wanted to tell him something warm and good. And I, just in my infant innocence told him, “Uncle, please recover, when we come next time you’ll be sitting on the bed.” And suddenly I saw those eyes wide open, the bandages were wet with tears, and in an instant I realized that it was my dad Naum, He is alive, he did not die!
I screamed and cried for joy, the entire hospital ran together. Truly, G-d had turned His face to me … I will never forget this moment, this meeting. Six–eight years have passed, and I still remember this unique state of happiness. My father is alive!
My father was very upset with this terrible news about the tragic death of my mother. A month later he was discharged from the hospital and went back to the front. Letters, small triangles, came very rarely, and then stopped coming altogether …
It was 1944, when everyone hoped that our victory over the Nazis was close, because our troops were successful on the offensive.
Unfortunately, my dad did not live to see victory, that bright happy day. In May 1944 I received a bitter death notice about my father at the front.
It said: “In the battle for the Socialist motherland, loyal to his military oath, showing heroism and courage during the front actions, your soldier Pergamenshchikov Naum Aronovich … died in January 1944.” He was only 39 years old. Around the same time, his brother Abram and Sam’s cousin were killed.
It was a deadly blow to all my childish hopes. For a long time I could not believe that this disaster had happened. Afterwards, a year after the war ended, I, then 14, was running to the station to meet trains. Soldiers who survived the war returned home wounded, maimed but still alive. And I was still hoping, what if my dad came back. But alas … the miracle did not happen.
So he stayed in my heart, in my mind, a young, strong, and handsome man. The death of our parents is the most terrible and irreplaceable loss.
My parents do not have graves; they were burned in the flames of the great disaster. And all my life was aggravated by the idea that I could not pray at the graves of my parents. After the war we lived in Kiev, and when we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, my children, the twins, knew that we remembered their grandparents Naum and Ida, who died in the war.
In Israel, I am very grateful to the staff of the Yad Vashem museum, who at my 1999 request sent me the pages of testimony. I filled them out and sent them to Jerusalem, and thus was given the opportunity to perpetuate the memory of my parents in the walls of Yad Vashem.
In August 1945, Aunt Esther took me out of the orphanage, and I, along with her and her children returned to her home in Odessa. It was a joyous but sad return, the house was completely destroyed, there was no place to live, as almost the entire city lay in ruins.
I had to start living from scratch, without a roof over my head, without any material or moral support. Again, I faced a difficult struggle for survival, in order to find a worthy place in life.
Once we had a big family. My grandmother Sarah, after whom I was named, had seven children, five of them sons. My other grandmother, on dad’s side, had six children, three of them sons; and they also had children over the age of 18, who also went to war. Out of 14 men from our family who went to war, only three returned: Michael Liss, a military surgeon in charge of an evacuation hospital, later, a professor; Israel Liss, who fought in two wars from 1939 to 1945, returned as an invalid; and Jacob Lomazov, Aunt Esther’s eldest son, who was a senior lieutenant and went through the war of 1941–45, reached Berlin and returned at the age of 24 disabled; in peacetime worked as a doctor.
So there were very few relatives who survived. Many died in the evacuation, in Kurgan in the Urals from cold and hunger, and many were killed at Babi Yar in Kiev, in Uman, and en route on the refugee trains at which the Germans fired and dropped bombs without mercy. Such a sad fate befell not only our family, millions perished. We should not divide people, who survived this war into certain categories; it is necessary to understand that in this terrible war against German fascism everyone drank the bitter cup of suffering of the war years including poverty, misery, and loss of dearest friends and loved ones.
We Jews who lived in the countries of exodus, in the Soviet Union (in Diaspora) and especially in Ukraine, where anti-Semitism had always been strong, were envied that we were a united people, otherwise we would not have survived. Let us now in our state, the Land of Promise, be merciful to the survivors of the Holocaust, those who are still alive and can tell the truth about the war and the suffering of our people, so that this disaster never happens again, so that our children and grandchildren learn about everything from our mouthes, and keep the memory of those killed in the war for the sake of life on earth. All experiences in this terrible war left a heavy mark on my future life. I’ve gone through six major operations and became a seriousn invalid, while still in Kiev, but that’s another, post-war story …
Here, as I could, I outlined the events that happened to me and our family during the war. I wrote only a very little of what I went through as a child, as these memories are very painful and difficult to pass through my heart, and nothing and nobody will be able to recover my lost, stolen childhood, my health, undermined by the war, and the worst, the death of my parents and my closest people.