Born in Vapnyarka in the Vinnitsa region of the Ukraine in 1930, Tatyana Bolkunova graduated from the University of Czernowitz and worked as an accountant. She lives in Kiryat Gat and has a son, a daughter, two grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
WE HAD FROSTBITTEN HANDS AND NOSES…
I was born on May 11, 1930, in the Ukraine, in the township of Vapnyarka in the Vinnitsa region. Our family were Orthodox Jews. Grandfather Vaks Kolmyn had graduated from a yeshiva in Warsaw before the Soviet revolution and worked as a cantor. After the revolution, he returned to his homeland in Tulchin in the Ukraine and was hired as the rabbi of Vapnyarka. We had a beautiful estate: a big house with a mikveh belonged to my grandparents, a smaller house, to my parents. In the yard stood a permanent sukkah; there was also a small garden with very beautiful flower beds.
In 1936, the authorities closed the synagogue and the Hebrew school, and my grandfather became a Jewish ritual butcher, but not only that: he still performed Jewish rites, such as circumcisions and wedding ceremonies, at his home. In 1938, my father, Zisya Prilutsky, was arrested as a Zionist. He was a member of the Township Council and son-in-law of the rabbi beloved by everybody. So my sister’s, and my own, happy childhood ended: we became children of an “enemy of the people.” Mother was fired from her job, and we lived only on our grandfather’s financial support.
At the end of 1940, my mother decided to go to seek justice with Stalin in Moscow. The Kremlin staff greeted her politely; they took her statement, promised to sort things out, and gave her a free train ticket home. After handing over the ticket, they immediately called the local branch of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and gave them instructions to meet her at the Vapnyarka train station, take the children and send us all to Siberia. A friend of our family who served on the Township Council found a Ukrainian in another nearby village who was willing to give us shelter. The man went to Zhmerinka, the railway station before Vapnyarka, took my mother off the train and brought her to his place. We hid in that village until the start of the war.
In August 1941 Vapnyarka was subjected to terrible bombings – it was a large railway junction through which the trains were passing round the clock heading to the frontlines. We were evacuated from Vapnyarka on the last train. The road through Odessa and Kiev was already occupied by the Germans, and we went to the Urals via Vladikavkaz.
We saw so many deaths! After the bombing, heads, legs, arms, children’s corpses were scattered all along the railway. It is impossible to forget! Two months later, we arrived in Abdulino in the Chkalov region of the Urals. We were housed with local residents. We could not go outside: out in the street, the locals taunted us, called us names, threw rocks at us, and poured water over us.
My mother started to work as a guard at the local mill and always brought home a cup of ground semolina and a baked flatbread. But suddenly she fell ill and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance with a diagnosis of typhus. We – my grandfather (83), my eight-year old sister and I – were left without any livelihood at all. They wanted to take us, the children, to an orphanage, but my grandfather did not allow it. We did not go to school. We went to the market to beg. I was hired at the hospital to wash bandages, and the soup that I received there for my lunch, I carried home in a jar. Among others, I went door to door collecting warm mittens and socks for the front; in the hospital, I sang songs to the wounded, but I could not write letters for them – before the war I had finished only four grades.
Tatyana Prilutsky with her kindergarten class, seated next to her mother. Vapnyarka, 1936.
It was very cold at home; there was no fuel for the fire, so we went to gather coal. We put a bucket on the sled and walked several kilometers to the railway station. The temperatures reached 50°C below freezing, and there was no one to clear the snow; Grandfather would pray until we came back: there was never a guarantee that we would return, because we gathered leftover coal lying around by the steam locomotives – even though it was waste material, we could still be arrested for it. We had frostbite on our hands and noses …
A month before Grandfather’s death, Mother was discharged from the hospital; she had become permanently disabled. On February 6, 1942, Grandfather died; they buried him in the Tatar cemetery, and later we could not find his grave.
My mother could not work, so my sister and I became the workers in the family. We herded goats for one liter of milk per day, helped harvest vegetables and dig up potatoes, and gleaned leftover stalks of wheat in the fields at the collective farm. Our main source of nourishment in the summer was black nightshade (its black berries grew along the roads). I do not remember how much bread we received in our rations, but we divided it into small pieces; we had only a mug of hot water to go with it. Sugar was something that was not even dreamed of.
In Abdulino, I finished fifth and sixth grades, and my sister did not go to school at all: weak from hunger, she spent most of her time laying down. No one at school wanted to sit beside me; they said I stank of lice. We lived in one room, which was like a closet; in it, there was only one bed, in which my mother and sister slept, and I had my mattress on the floor. If we had a dream, it was to eat a hot meal until we were full, and that the house would be warm.
Tatyana Prilutsky in ninth grade, wearing a donated soldier’s blouse. Vapnyarka, 1946.
In the summer of 1944 we returned home. Grandfather’s house had been completely looted and destroyed, and in our hous, one room was left intact, but things had been looted. We stayed in that room, and our former neighbors moved in with us.
I went to eighth grade in school, and my sister to first grade. Anti-Semitism was rampant. It was scary to walk in the streets. The man who had hidden us from the NKVD before the war, once again came to our rescue. He bought live pigs and butchered them; we received the bones and a little meat. My mother cooked borsht and pork cutlets, and my sister and I went to the train station to sell food to passengers of passing trains. Demobilized soldiers, especially girls, felt very sorry for us; they gave us bread, sometimes their entire dry rations; they gave me a soldier’s blouse, skirt, and boots. I finished tenth grade in 1948 wearing this outfit.
The years 1946–1947 were a time of famine in the Ukraine. Corpses lay around in the streets. It was a terrible time.
I put on my first pair of pumps the night of the seniors prom, and my dress was lent by a neighbor whose demobilized soldier-daughter had come home.
My father was from Vinnitsa. All his side of the family, including his mother, his brother, his sister with her husband and two children, had been killed in the Vinnitsa ghetto. I decided to go to study at the Vinnitsa Pedagogical Institute, and while there, to find out something about their deaths. I passed my entrance exams but received a letter from the Institute, saying that a daughter of an enemy of the people could not be accepted to the Pedagogical Institute, let alone to the history department. It was yet another slap in the face.
In 1956 we received an official notice that Father had been declared rehabilitated.