Mr. Bekman was born in 1934 in the Jewish commune “Vojo Novo” in the Crimea. A musician by training and a graduate of the Lviv Conservatory, he lived and worked in Simferopol. Mr. Bekman immigrated to Israel in 1996 and lives in Beersheba, where he plays in the mandolin orchestra of the Beersheba Conservatory. Mr. Bekman has a daughter, a son, and a grandson who is a student at the Haifa Technion.
The Day We Said Goodbye to Our Childhood
First, a little background. In 1928, Jewish immigrants repatriating from Palestine, members of the Zionist organization “Gdud Ha-Avodah”, founded a Jewish agricultural commune “Vojo Novo” (Esperanto for “New Way”) in the small village of Ozgul (now Listovoye) in the Saki district of the Crimea, 25 km from the city of Yevpatoria. The relocation to the USSR of 75 people headed by the prominent leader of the Socialist workers’ movement, Mendel Elkind, was facilitated by a recommendation of the Comintern, accepted by the Soviet government.
Among those who arrived from Palestine was my future father, Pesach Beckman. Later, Jewish settlers from the Ukraine began to join the commune. Among them were my mother, Manya Berezovsky; her parents, Abraham and Rosalie Berezovsky; and my mother’s younger sister, Lyuba. Within a short time, the commune “Vojo Novo” – basically, a kibbutz — achieved significant success in the production of milk, meat, grain, and vegetables. But by the end of 1934, the commune “Vojo Novo” was forcibly reorganized into a collective farm of the same name. The former commune members faced severe hardships in Stalin’s camps.
Twenty-seven people, including my father, were convicted under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment in special purpose prison camps. By a verdict of the Supreme Court of the USSR of 02/19/1938, Mendel Elkind, chairman of the commune, was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out the same day …
After the liquidation of the commune and my father’s arrest, our family continued to live on the “Vojo Novo” collective farm. My mother worked in the farm’s accounting deparment, and my grandfather, Abram Berezovsky, was a regionally recognized horse breeder and was awarded the title of Distinguished Groom of the Crimea. In 1940, he showed horses at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow.
I was born in 1934 and was supposed to enter first grade in September 1941. But the war postponed the beginning of my schooling by exactly three years.
When the threat of the occupation of Crimea became imminent, the evacuation of the Jews began.
Soon there came an order of the Defense Committee mandating the evacuation of livestock from collective farms. At our farm, this task was entrusted to Jewish families, consisting at that time mainly of women and children. My grandfather understood cartage better than anyone, so his role in this important and complex enterprise became vital. In addition, he was, at 64, still a fairly strong, sturdy man, so the care of horses, harnesses, and carts fell to him.
On the eve of departure, when all the families were ready to go, the former commune member Mina Segal, whose husband had been arrested and was serving time in Stalin’s camps, suddenly refused to evacuate. She had two sons, Ilya (10) and Alex (4), and had three other children living with her that were not hers — Dina Kleiman (13), Yulik Tabachnik (10), and Max Roizman (11) — whose parents were also victims of repression. Mina was convinced that the Germans would not touch the wife and children of “enemies of the people.” The entreaties of the departing villagers had no effect on her.
We lived nearby, and I remember how on the day of departure my grandmother Rose, crying, begged Mina to at least let the foster children go. Mina remained adamant. “You are making a horrible mistake!” said Rose. Her words were prophetic.
At the end of September 1941, on an early autumn morning, a convoy of carts, followed by a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, and a smaller herd of horses, left our native village.
Many years have passed, but I distinctly remember the dejected faces of the villagers seeing us off and the bitter tears and sobs of the departing people … Women and teenagers drove the horse carts, and children and the elderly rode in the carts. The cattle drovers also took turns riding in the carts. Our destination was Kerch, about 300 km away. We could only use country roads, which allowed for the grazing and watering of our animals. When we stopped, the milkmaids milked the cows. We used part of the milk and gave the rest to collective farms along the way. Every day, the nights grew cooler; the rains slowed our progress. Our cattle drovers were exhausted. But we children did not realize the tragedy of what was happening. On the contrary, to us, this long and unusual journey was interesting and exciting.
Exactly one month later, in late October, we arrived in Kerch. From there we were to cross the Strait of Kerch to the Taman Peninsula, together with our cattle. I distinctly remember how we were loaded on enormous barges: people, carts, horses, and cattle. A single tugboat towed this caravan of barges. Our objective was to successfully traverse the four-kilometer Strait. The crossing was very busy, with other barge caravans and small military boats carrying anti-aircraft crews going both in the same and opposite direction to the right and left of us. The crossing was often bombed. It was the first sea voyage of my life, so it has remained in my memory down to the smallest detail. First of all, the sea itself, its color, the fathomless depth of the water, the cries of seagulls and the outline of the Caucasian coast that was slowly drawing closer, like a mirage …
When we were about a kilometer away from that coast, a hysterical howling of sirens broke out on the military ships and tugboats. Airplanes appeared in the sky; on their wings I saw the swastikas. A split second later, my grandfather fell down onto the deck, dragging me down with him and covering me with his body. The howling of the sirens mingled with the ominous whistling of falling bombs and the roar of the enemy airplanes; anti-aircraft guns’ salvos were heard.
Several times the barge abruptly rocked, and all of us were doused with cool salt water. As if taking their cue from the sirens, our cows began to moo, our horses to neigh, and the sheep to bleat. A few sheep were knocked overboard by the shockwave; the others, following their herd instinct, began jumping into the sea, and soon less than half of the herd remained …
After the bombing, the terrified people slowly began to recover. The Lord must have saved us! And right next to us there were people killed by a direct bomb hit. Our barges landed on a sandy spit nicknamed Chushka; it was flat and suitable for livestock disembarkation. Grandfather Abram helped the drivers drive their carts down a ramp to the shore. The cattle drovers herded their animals from the barges to the shore and grouped them in herds. We wanted to get away from this sinister place as quickly as possible. The horses had trouble pulling the wagons along the sandy road. But very soon the sirens sounded again. Panic started. There was no place to hide on the sandy spit. People fell down on the sand, covering their heads with their hands; the animals began to bolt. A German plane appeared and strafed us with machine guns. I was saved by a miracle: a cow fell next to me, covering me with its bullet-riddled corpse. Again, no one in our convoy was injured.
That was the day we said goodbye to our childhood, struck by the horror and tragedy of war …
The surviving animals were handed over to the authorities of the Temryuk district in the Krasnodar region. The people were housed in nearby villages. Our family was sent to the village of Staraya Titorovka and billeted with a local woman who lived in a large stone house with a glassed-in verandah and a porch with steps.
In Staraya Titorovka I made friends with our landlady’s son and his friends, my peers. It was from them that I first learned that I was a “dirty kike,” although I did not understand the meaning of this expression and was not even offended. Once, in a garden, they felt all over my head trying to find horns, then looked for a tail and asked me to pull down my pants; I saw, from the expression on their faces, that they were disappointed with what they saw. Someone had maliciously told them all kinds of outlandish nonsense about the alien and inimical “kikes.” One thing that hanging around them did was help me to quickly learn conversational Russian, which I did not know before the evacuation, since in “Vojo Novo” everyone spoke Yiddish.
A military unit was quartered in the village. Its commander, whom I called Uncle Kolya, lived in the same house with us. All his soldiers spoiled me, feeding me tasty rice porridge with raisins and calling me “the son of the regiment.” They advised me to stick with military folks, who would never let me down in a pinch. If they only knew what their advice would later do to my poor mother!
We spent eight months in Staraya Titorovka …
The German occupation of the Crimean peninsula placed the North Caucasus in danger of occupation. A mass retreat of the Red Army began. Jewish families were again offered an opportunity to be evacuated. We were taken in horse carts to the city of Anapa, where we had to take a ferry across to Sochi and then take a train to the Azerbaijan SSR. However, in Anapa we came under a massive bombing of the city and harbor. That was when I remembered Uncle Kolya’s advice. While everyone ran to a trench, I jumped out of it and ran — under the falling bombs — to look for military folks. I so wanted to be a “son of the regiment”! My mother ran after me screaming but I did not stop until I fell directly into a trench on top of some soldiers. It was they who brought me back to my mother, who was breathless and frightened to death.
When we arrived to the Novorossiysk port, we learned that a German plane had broken through into the port last night and had dropped bombs on a train carrying ammunition, before being shot down … Standing at the ruined marine passenger terminal, we saw the last steamboat heading out to sea from the bay, pursued by enemy aircraft.
We had to get out of town immediately, since it was constantly subjected to air attacks. And, indeed, an attack was not long in coming. All at the same time, we heard the roar of approaching planes, the howling of sirens, and the sound of anti-aircraft fire. In the square outside the passenger terminal where we had stopped, we could see trenches and cracks in the ground — most people hastened to take refuge in these. On the other side of the square lay a great circular tank with the bottom torn out, probably by a bomb blast. Our family ran and took refuge in the tank, and all hell broke loose. Next to us something exploded and cracked; shell fragments, stones and clods of earth rained down on the tank’s surface. Each impact rang inside the tank like the peal of an enormous bell that threatened to make us go deaf. In the dim light, I saw that Grandmother Rose was not with us. With a cry of “Grandma!” I ran toward the opening of the tank but Grandfather Abram caught me and pressed me to himself. I kept crying and calling my grandmother. Mother Manya and her sister Lyuba sobbed bitterly …
Then the bombing was over, it became quiet inside the tank, and from the outside came the shouting of people, the neighing of horses, and the crackle and pop of burning objects. When we ran out of the tank, we saw that a bomb had hit a trench, turning it into a large crater. All around us were dead and maimed people and horses, overturned and wrecked carts and fresh, steaming ruins of neighboring houses.
And over on the side, under a miraculously preserved tree, sat our grandmother. She squatted under the poles of our cart, laden with all our belongings, holding our two horses firmly by the bridle. She was so dazed that Grandfather was barely able to pry her hands off the harness. When she recovered, she explained her behavior: “If I hadn’t done it, the horses would have been frightened by the bombing and would have bolted with all our things and our food. And then what would we have done?” Grandmother Rosa’s act of heroism did indeed protect us from unnecessary hardships and may even have saved us from death.
Within an hour, we joined a column of retreating troops and hurriedly left Novorossiysk, going south in the direction of Tuapse. The civilian population was told to keep to the right side of the road, because on the left side there was a continuous stream of military equipment and transports. There was almost no oncoming traffic. I remember that the left edge of the road was up against the mountain slopes, while on the right side there were mainly steep rocky cliffs, with the sea splashing below.
On the third or fourth day, near Gelendzhik, a military supply wagon started to pass us and took the curve wrong; it caught our cart and overturned it. It all happened in an instant. The horses panicked, snapped their traces and bolted, leaving the reins in Grandfather’s hands. I was sitting in the cart, together with another young girl. When the cart overturned, the girl ended up underneath all the luggage, and I started to fall off the cliff but my clothes got caught on a shrub. Seeing a deep abyss below, I froze, afraid to move. I came to my senses when I heard my name called, and responded. A military man lowered down some reins and told me how to wrap them around my chest, tie them securecly, and hold onto them firmly with both hands. Then he and my grandfather dragged me up. I was covered with bruises and scratches. Grandmother became hysterical, Mother was crying, and I was shaking all over …
Some other military men passing by helped lift our cart, but it was completely broken. Then their commander, apparently the one who had dragged me out of the abyss, gave orders to unload one of the military wagons (green, as I remember), saying to Grandfather that they were giving us a cart but could not, unfortunately, give us horses. But he was confident that our horses could not have gotten far away and were grazing somewhere nearby. He was right: my grandfather found them in a clearing nearby. Soon we were on our way.
I remember one episode: we were ordered to stop and let a column of cars with red crosses on their sides pass, apparently an evacuated hospital. A few hours later, we heard the noise of explosions up ahead, and shortly afterward, a terrible sight opened up before our eyes: the road broken up by deep craters; charred skeletons of cars with remnants of red crosses on them; smoldering trees — and dismembered human bodies with fragments of white coats and hospital pajamas still on them. People were burying the dead beside the road, clearing the rubble away. Soon the movement of convoys resumed …
Tuapse was left behind. We rode our wagon into Sochi … A few days later we took the train to Azerbaijan. And then, every six months, there were the train whistles again. We spent long weeks traveling in boxcars and passenger cars. We stayed at a malaria-infested village of Sharkapse in the Khanlar district, in the middle of the steppe; a mountain settlement of Merzik near the city of Kirovabad; a Khachmaz fishing farm north of Baku; then a forest hamlet near the Khudat station. We had our fill of the trials and tribulations of relocation, we lay exhausted after attacks of malaria. Grandfather Abram’s legs became paralyzed, and he developed night-blindness …
In December 1944, we were given permission to return to the Crimea.
In early January 1945, at the Khudat station, we tried to board a passing train that was only going to stop for 5–10 minutes. Our fellow passengers, who had lived through the war and the evacuation, knew firsthand what it was like to board a passing train in those terrible times, especially since the station did not even have a platform. Grandfather Abram could not climb up into the train car by himself, but the frantic mass of passengers surged past him, sweeping away everything and everyone that stood in its way. Finally some military men pushed the crowd aside and lifted Grandfather bodily into the car’s vestibule, where he collapsed and lay on the floor, covering his head with his hands while passengers with suitcases and trunks were stepping over him.
When the boarding was over and the train started moving, Grandfather could not to get up; he lay in the vestibule until the same military men helped him get up and walk into the car. I still cannot imagine how he escaped being trampled to death…
Within hours of our return, we learned from the villagers who had survived the occupation about the terrible fate of Mina Segal and her children. The Nazis took them to a neighboring village, threw them alive into an abandoned well, and tossed grenades in on top of them. And some time time later, more tragic news came: Grandfather’s sister, Surka, and her eldest son, David, had been killed at Babi Yar in Kiev …
The war was still raging, death notices kept coming to family members of those killed in the war, and for a long time we knew nothing about the fate of my father Pesach Beckman, who was serving an undeserved sentence in the camps of the Gulag.