Born 1935 in Leningrad, an engineer electrophysicist, Ph.D., he lived and worked in Leningrad from where immigrated to Israel in 1990. He worked in his specialty at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and Weizmann Institute (Rehovot). He lives in Jerusalem and has two children and four grandchildren.
Alex and Inna Berman (center) and his eldest son Denis (sitting behind), daughter-in-law Katya, and grandchildren, from left to right: Daniel, Jacob, and Mitya, 2005
MEMORY OF THE HEART
For me and my family the tragic events connected with the Holocaust began eleven days before the war.
On June 10, 1941, my parents, Lev Zakharovich and Tatyana Alexandrovna, were supposed to send me and my older sister, Lilechka, from Leningrad to Bialystok on summer vacation to our grandmother and mother’s sister, whose husband Izya Boym served there in the NKVD. A convenient opportunity sprang up: some Leningrad friends were going to that area and agreed to take us to our relatives. Mom and Dad were to join later, when their leaves began on June 25.
A few minutes before the train departure, Dad suddenly took me off: at the last moment he decided I was still too young for such a trip (I was six years old and Lilechka was thirteen). So I stayed and was not eventually killed along with my sister, grandmother Frieda Ratnovskaya, aunt Esther and her son, my cousin Sasha Boym, and with so many of our other relatives from both sides: those who lived in Kartuz Bereza, Antopol, and Ivatsevichy. Their family names are Berman, Ratnovsky, Greenberg, Unterman, Yaglom, and Feinstein. May their memory be blessed…
Bialystok was captured by the Nazis on the second day of the war. Later we learned that on June 22, our friends, those who had brought Lilechka to Bialystok from Leningrad, came to the house of grandmother Frieda in a car and asked Lilechka to return with them to Leningrad, but Lilechka said she could not leave her grandmother. And grandmother Frieda could not leave her daughter Esther. And my aunt Esther had to wait for her husband Izya to return from a business trip …
Many years later I became friends with my colleague Vladimir Chernoenko. As a baby, he was also caught by the war in Bialystok. On the very first day his mother picked him up in her arms and walked away from Bialystok, and so they escaped.
Throughout my life I keep going back to those events, and I can not come to terms with the death of my loved ones, especially with the loss of my older sister Lilechka (Elizaveta Berman, born 1927). When already living in Israel, I found in the telephone directory the name Elizaveta Lvovna Berman. The year of birth coincided. I immediately called the number. But the miracle didn’t happen: I spoke with a namesake of my sister.
Before leaving for Israel I visited Kartuz Bereza and a place a few kilometers away, near the Bronnaya mountain, where the Nazis shot the Jewish residents of Kartuz Bereza and about fifty thousand Jews from the neighboring villages and from different European countries. In Israel, former Kartuz Bereza residents held regular meetings for 60 years. Some of them came to Eretz Yisrael as children before the war, others were participants of the uprising in the Kartuz Bereza ghetto, made their way with weapons to the partisans, or fought in the Red Army. But there were also those whom the Soviet regime, after the partition of Poland between Germany and the USSR in 1939, had exiled from Kartuz Bereza to Siberia and thus saved their lives.
They all got together once a year to commemorate the villagers who died in the Holocaust. They kept that tradition until 2006. At the cemetery in Tel Aviv is a monument to Holocaust victims from Kartuz Bereza, where about two and a half thousand Jews lived before the war. Only one Jew from Kartuz Bereza stayed after the war in the village of Ivatsevichy. Adam Epelbaum, then a boy, escaped from the ghetto and fought in a partisan unit. Today his three grandchildren, Adam, Edward and Elvira Epelbaum live in Israel.
From Leningrad I was evacuated with my mom to Ufa. Dad stayed in Leningrad. He was not of draft age but he did not want to leave as he hoped Lilechka would return to the city. In Ufa, Mom got a job as a dispatcher at the military aircraft plant. For a long time I lived in a boarding school. As I grew up and could stay home alone my mother she took me out of the boarding school. We lived in wooden barracks, together with many evacuated Jewish families. Our tiny six-meter room housed only a single bed and a desk, I slept on a trunk.
I grew up a neglected street child. My mother spent much time at the plant; her job was very responsible and dangerous, associated with the delivery of military cargo. One winter a truck in which my mother rode lost control on an icy downhill drive (the brakes failed). Mom felt in time that something was wrong and jumped out of the car; when she got to her feet she saw that the truck had turned upside down and the female driver was killed. On another occasion, the cargo was unloaded by mistake at the wrong train station. In wartime, the delay of arms’ delivery meant a military tribunal to those responsible. Mom then spent a lot of effort to deliver the cargo on time to its destination.
I was left to myself and hanged about Ufa with the gang of street children. Despite the difficult war times, we boys did not feel unhappy, we were inquisitive and had fun. Only later, when I myself became a father of two sons I realized what the lack of kids’ communication with parents means …
We lived from hand to mouth. Mom was given worker’s ration cards at the defense plant, but food was always a problem. I dreamed of a piece of bread and often asked my mother to give me something to eat. Fortunately, we didn’t have such terrible famine, as so many others did at that time. I knew from the stories of my mother that the factory workers often died of malnutrition. Once the food stamps for 10 days were stolen from me and it was a real disaster.
At night my mother would cry as she knew nothing about Dad’s fate in besieged Leningrad and about the fate of Lilechka and other relatives in Bialystok. Dad was evacuated from Leningrad in winter 1942 with strong dystrophy; he was brought to the rear via Lake Ladoga. Upon recovery, Daddy went to war.
The war time left me with some bright memories. I learned to read. I was not taught, only shown the letters. I remember carrying around in the kindergarten’s common room Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale and the Emperor.” To my delight, the letters in the book started to perk up and shape into words, and so I read the first story in my life. Reading became my favorite pastime. One of the first books I read was Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf. I still wonder how I, an eight-year-old boy, could understand this very serious adult book. And I remember a happy moment: Dad taught me how to play checkers. Before leaving for the front he came to see us in Ufa …
In the summer of 1944 my mother and I returned to the deserted Leningrad. It turned out that our room was occupied by the neighbors in our communal apartment, and we were able to regain it only through a court trial after the war when Dad returned home.
In the fall of 1945 my mother went to Lvov to pick up Dad from the hospital. I remember all my life that in September 1945 I was running barefoot in the cold rain on Zverinskaya street, a pot in hand, to take lunch in the school canteen. I was barefoot because my shoes had sprung a leak. I was ten years old and had lived alone for almost one month, without mother. Suddenly I saw my dad walking on crutches and Mom with him. What a happiness it was!
I encountered anti-Semitism for the first time in 1944, when we returned to Leningrad from the evacuation and I went to first grade in school. There were many children who arrived in Leningrad from the countryside. Classmates started calling me “Sarah,” according to a song, then in vogue: “Sarah slowly crossed the road and was stopped by a policeman …” I was one of the strongest in the class, the leader, but nevertheless this nickname stuck to me for many years of school life. Perhaps my classmates took revenge on me for my being stronger and studying better than they did. The school had a lot of overgrown kids who for various reasons could not or would not study, some had criminal records, some later were sent to prison.
When we returned from evacuation, our neighbors in the communal apartment told us what horrors the besieged Leningraders went through. It appeared that in our house, and even in our communal apartment, there were cases of cannibalism: people were killed and their flesh was sold under the guise of animal’s. When these “cannibals” were identified, they were immediately shot.
Even after the victory, when we were vacationing in a summer pioneer camp near Leningrad, the war more than once reminded us of itself. There were cases when my peers perished right before my very eyes: they were blown up trying to get the tolite from the unexploded shells scattered around the camp. I will never forget those terrible pictures and understand so well what severe, life-lasting traumas refugee and blockade children received having faced deaths. The horrors of war experienced by a child do not disappear from memory, they are hiding somewhere in the darkest corners of your mind so that later, after many years they are recalled to mind at the most unexpected moment …
At the beginning of the war, my wife, Inna Abramovna Berman, was two years old. Inna’s mother, a military doctor, Galina Ulyanovna Ostapenko (Schwartzman through her husband), who worked at the Military Medical Academy, decided to send her daughter with her husband’s sister, Dina Genkin, to the evacuation, since she was leaving Leningrad with her son, Ziva. Inna’s dad, army surgeon Abram Schwartzman, served on the Hanko peninsula, was captured early in the war, and died in a Nazi concentration camp for prisoners of war. Little Inna became very ill on the road and everybody tried to persuade Dina to throw the sick little girl out of the cattle car in which they traveled: she would not survive anyway. But Dina did not obey; she nursed Inna back to health and brought out alive both Inna and her own son, Ziva.
In the photo taken on the day of little Inna’s departure to the evacuation, July 7, 1941, the tragedy of a small girl parting with her mother forever is etched in the eyes of the child. And how many such tragedies were happening …
How much our mothers had to endure during the war! My mother had lost her daughter, sister, and mother. Her younger brother, Chaim Ratnovsky, died in a Gulag camp. Shortly before the war my mother received a note from him: “Save me!” and the address of a prison camp. She left us, two children in the care of Dad, borrowed money for the trip from her aunt Raya Feinstein (née Ratnovskaya) and managed to get illegally, without the required permission, into a transit camp near Irkutsk where Chaim was at that time. She was smuggled there in a barrel of the fish omul, for which she had to pay a fee: a few packs of “Belomor” cigarettes.
Mom stayed in the camp for three days. No one initially suspected that she did not have permission to visit the so carefully guarded place. And as it turned out that the camp commandant offered her to stay as a free-lancer and thus save the life of her brother. But my mother could not decide to do so, she could not abandon her children and husband. What did it cost her to make the decision to return … Haim Ratnovsky later died in the Kolyma …
In 1972, after Dad’s death, my mother went to Israel believing that my family and I would come there some time. I saw my mother after 17 years, when I came to visit her in Jerusalem in 1989. The first thing I asked was, “How have you lived these 17 years?” “They were the happiest years of my life,” she replied.
In Israel, mother at the age of 68 married Moshe, also 68, who came to Palestine in 1936. She lived happily with him for over 20 years. I was witness to how Moshe talked to my mom (and both of them at that time were 86 years old): “Tanya, you’re the most beautiful woman in the world!” My mother died on January 25, 1994, the day she turned eighty-nine.
All public projects initiated and carried out during my life in Israel over the past 15 years, including the establishment of a public movement “For a Worthy Future” (“Hazit ha-Kavod”); projects that contributed to the successful professional integration of thousands of CIS immigrants – scientists and engineers – into the Israeli economy (the projects of the Union of Immigrant Scientists in Israel); projects that contributed to the successful integration of children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (projects of NPO “Shiluv-Integration”), and finally, the project “The Scorched Childhood,” part of which is the publication of these memoirs, were for me a sacred duty to the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust, among them my sister, Lilechka, Grandma Frieda, aunt Esther, and other relatives and friends.