Vladimir Drobnis, professor, holds a PhD in engineering. Born 1930 in Ukraine in the village of Dashev, the Vinnitsa region.
Metallurgical engineer for non-ferrous, rare, and noble metals. Immigrated from Volgograd in 2000, resides in Haifa. Has three children and four grandchildren.
WHEN CHILDREN GROW UP FAST
At first I didn’t really understand what was so terrible that had happened, why the grownups were so overwrought. Just a war, nothing special. After all, we boys always liked to play war! Before my eyes swept my favorite Soviet movie, If the War Is Tomorrow, in which we bravely dealt with our enemy…
Besides, this war was not the first one conducted by our valiant Red Army in recent years. There was a war at Lake Hassan on the Khalkhin Gol. There was a war against the “White Finns.” All these wars quickly ended with our victory, and here we were going to also crush the enemy in no time! After all, we had been taught by the Communist Party and Comrade Stalin that “our cause is just, we shall fight in enemy territory and gain victory.” And the song “If tomorrow’s the war …” was sung every day from morning till night!
This, approximately, was the perception of the first alarming news by a 10-year-old kid. It soon became clear, however, that this war had nothing to do with what my childish imagination had drawn. The first refugees from Ukraine and Belarus came to Stalingrad. At the “Dynamo” stadium, tents were pitched for evacuees and an evacuation center was established. Sirens started to howl in the city, and high in the sky the enemy reconnaissance planes were flying with impunity. Slit trenches were dug in the yards to shelter people.
My father kept coming to the Dynamos stadium, where he sought out among the evacuees his friends or compatriots from the Jewish villages, where he once lived, and he took their families to our house. Soon it was crammed with refugee families. Neighbors and relatives called our house “evacuation center number two.”
My father was in fact an amazing person. Throughout his life, as I remember it, he sought to live by the laws of the Torah and tried to do good to people. He often explained to me that when a person comes to the court of G-d and stands before the gates of heaven, nothing has weight and value: neither your position in the world, nor the amount of gold and riches that you owned earlier: only the good deeds you have ever done to people.
In November 1941 the city could see the aerial battles of our fighter planes with German intelligence aircraft, but for some reason our fighters could not keep up with enemy planes. Not only refugees from the western regions, but many residents of Stalingrad started to leave the city.
My parents were worried about us children: for me, a ten-year-old boy, and for my three-year-old sister. My mother kept telling my father every day that staying in the city was dangerous; we needed to leave before the Germans arrived and the battle for Stalingrad would begin. The refugees told frightening stories: how they hardly escaped from being surrounded, how people on the roads were bombed and shot by enemy aircraft, and so on. For a long time, my father could not make up his mind and leave all the belongings behind, and above all, our house in which he had invested so much effort and money and which he did not have time to enjoy. But my mother insisted, and father was finally forced to concede. The house he lent for free, temporary use by some organization, and the furniture was carried for almost nothing to a commission shop. Until this day, I can clearly see his tearful face at the moment he said goodbye to the house and went down the steps to take his place in the body of a truck taking us to the river port…
At this time I had already studied for two months in fourth grade but had to interrupt my studies and go to some destination, unknown to my parents, let alone to me.
Leaving Stalingrad, as it turned out, was very difficult. First, the railway to the north, to Saratov, did not yet exist; it had to be built quickly already during the war by an emergency method: they dismantled the rails at the unfinished pre-war BAM railway and transported them to the Volga. Secondly, the navigation was about to be stopped because slush was already moving along the river, and the water was becoming covered with thin ice. We spent three days with our luggage at the river station: all the ships that went up the Volga were overloaded and despite the availability of the tickets no one wanted to take us on board.
On the fourth day, my father was able to arrange something else and for a certain bribe we with our things were moved in a cart to another berth in the northern part of town. At this mooring, boats were only refueled but we paid again and with great difficulty got on a decrepit paddle steamer, Tchaikovsky. I remember this day well, only one day before celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution, that is, November 7, 1941.
The vessel was overloaded; a place was found only in the hold. The cold metal walls of the hold were covered with a layer of frost, which was formed as a result of vapor condensation of moisture exhaled by the crowd.
One morning we arrived in Kuibyshev (now Samara). The steamer was at the pier and did not go any farther. The people began to get nervous, there were rumors that it could not go because the Volga had eventually frozen. Panic started on the boat, but at the end of the day it was announced that we would still continue to sail, but must all move from the paddle steamer to another ship, a screw vessel called Anastas Mikoyan. It was easy to give the command, “Change ships,” but much more difficult to implement it. Everyone had their miserable belongings that people could not part with, many had small children.
As I remember, Anastas Mikoyan moored near our steamer in the evening, and we started the passage when it was dark. As people were walking over a wooden footbridge without rails from one vessel to another, a terrible crush began. Old men, women, and children, fearing that there wouldn’t be place tried by all means to get through, shouting, pushing, and crushing each other. The crush ended with an old woman falling into the water in the space between the two ships. I do not remember whether she was pulled out, or sandwiched between the metal boards of the ships.
During any disaster children grow up very quickly. So my evacuation made speedily turned me into an adult, independent person. My mother always hand my little sister in her hands: Mom was afraid of losing her in the constant turmoil and bustle, and my father and I had to work hard. I remember I was pulling an enameled kettle with boiled water and a blanket along the swinging footbridge, and was very scared of falling into the water.
Late at night our new ship moved on, her boards creaking against the ice. Deadly tired people immediately fell asleep. And next morning everyone learned that the ship turned had around and once again stood at the pier in Kuibyshev: the Volga was covered with solid ice and navigation ended.
Eventually we were removed from the ship, transported by trucks to some school and placed in large classrooms. A new life began on the floor of the school, with bales of things instead of beds. We lived in the school for about two months. In the terrible crowding and poor sanitation, a variety of diseases developed among the evacuees, culminating in an epidemic of measles. In many children measles quickly turned into pneumonia, and since there were no antibiotics yet, there was virtually nothing with which to treat children. As I remember, literally every day small children were dying in the hands of their parents.
Our stay in Kuibyshev created a nuisance for local residents. I remember one time I went out for some fresh air and stood near the school. A local boy came up to me and attacked me with reproaches and fists: “Why did you take our school!”
In late December, the Soviet government started to arrive in Kuibyshev from Moscow and all of us quickly, in one day, were loaded onto trains and sent to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. I do not remember how many days we traveled by train, but recall that during the journey we were robbed of the same kettle which I once had so carefully carried on the swinging bridge. The kettle was being warmed up on the stove in the lobby and someone swiped it.
One day we were unloaded at the station named Arys. This little station I remember because contrary to Kuibyshev the sun was shining brightly; it was very warm and some women—with unusual for me—oval faces and narrow eyes stood directly on the platform and sold popcorn, which I saw for the first time and which seemed to me delicious. We got off the train at a junction. Here we had to transfer to another train, as my parents had decided to go on to Alma-Ata. The Arys station was linked to Tashkent by the railway line “Turksib,” which included Alma-Ata. Parents had an address of some very distant relative or fellow townsmen from Ukraine, who resided in Alma-Ata and they intended to stay with her temporarily.
We arrived in Alma-Ata early in the morning of December 30, 1941. Outside was also sunny, but, unlike Arys, bitterly cold. This seriously complicated our life. First, we were not let into the station building with luggage, and my father faced a problem of finding accommodation. Secondly, I had to take turns with my father to guard the things on the street, as mother could not wait in the cold with my sick sister in her hands. Thirdly, there was rationing and all our food purchased in Kuibyshev had been eaten on the train, so there was a problem of obtaining food, especially bread.
My poor father, whom as I recall was all his life an exemplary family man, was bustling from morning to night trying to settle our affairs.
We welcomed the new year of 1942 in the frosty street near the station. But very soon my beloved dad found a cart, delivering bread from bakery to shops, and managed to buy a couple of black bread loaves from the Kazakh carrier, even without food stamps. In addition, Dad agreed with the Kazakh man about a temporary stay in his house for payment. Of course, living conditions at the carrier’s house were awful: a tiny cabin with two communicating rooms and dirty earth floors. But the worst was yet to come. Mom unpacked, took bedding and in some odd way erected kind of a bed on the floor covering it with white sheets. We slept after nearly two months of ordeals and tribulations like the dead sleep, but when we woke up in the morning we discovered that our white sheets were literally covered with gray and black moving dots that were lice. I saw them first time in my life!
We did not live with the Kazakhs for a long time, because we were not registered, and soon father, who found a pretty good way to obtain bread, took us to the apartment of another carrier, this time a Russian. But from there we soon had to leave too: the police came and gave us 24 hours to get out of the flat.
Dad finally managed to locate the cousin-compatriot by the address and took us to her. But there too, we were not able to gain a foothold. Maltza, as the woman was named, was an unhappy woman with three young daughters and husband, a bad egg, who was almost never home. He migrated from one prison to another and at the end of each term found a new girlfriend and settled down with her. Maltza was raising her children alone as best she could and lived constantly in great poverty renting a flat of two rooms, one of them a side-room. And here, we had to stay with this poor woman. It turned out that apart from us she sheltered two or three other evacuee families.
Now I cannot even remember who or where and on what all slept. The only thing that remained impressed in my mind was that one or two nights I had to sleep in one room with a dead old woman laid on the table before her funeral.