Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Friedman Yaakov

Born in 1933 in Bobruysk (Belarus), Mr. Friedman graduated from medical school and worked as a doctor for many years. Since 1999 he has lived in Rostock, Germany.


For me, the war began on June 22, 1941, in the Belorussian city of Bobruysk where I lived with my parents. My father was a military man. I rarely saw him, as he was always away. His military unit was located in a part of the city called “The Fortress.” My mother was a medical nurse. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us. She seemed very old to me – she was 65. We lived in a rented two-room apartment. The city was green and cozy, with boardwalks lining the unpaved streets outside the houses. Automobiles were a rare occurrence; horse drawn cabs were a more usual sight on the street. In the center of town was a market.

On the night of June 22, the roar of aircraft was heard in the sky. Father said these were German airplanes. Later we learned that they had been on their way to bomb Kiev and other major cities.

But that morning, more German planes swooped down on our town and bombed the train station. I was standing next to the horse cart parked beside the porch of our house when it happened. Suddenly, there was a deafening explosion from the vicinity of the train station. The horse got spooked and bolted. I felt a strong blow on the right side of my head. Mother tried to ease my pain as quickly as she could, applying compresses. I could not see out of my right eye, and in fact this loss of vision proved permanent. This injury, received on June 22, marked the beginning of the war for me.

Panic broke out in the city. Many people ran to the train station, hoping to leave as soon as possible. Fortunately for us, my father was on leave just then. Grabbing our documents and a bare minimum of other things, the four of us also ran to the train station where there was a tremendous crush of people trying to get onto trains. We barely managed to squeeze into the car of a train bound for Moscow. On the way there, our train was bombed but we made it safely to the capital. There, Father put us on another train that was going to the Far East and himself returned to Bobruysk, to his military unit.

We rode for a very long time and finally got to Nerchinsk, a city in eastern Siberia located east of Lake Baikal, near the Mongolian and Chinese borders. We had friends who lived there.

Life in Nerchinsk was hard. Day and night, we heard the buzz of Russian airplanes being tested nearby. The food was scarce. Mother could not work, she had tuberculosis, and my grandmother was too old to work; therefore, our bread rations were meager. But the adults tried above all to keep me fed.

There, I barely survived a severe bout of dysentery.

After a while we moved to the Far East, to the village of Boda. There I went to first grade. I learned to write, not in notebooks, but on pages of used newspapers. I was a good student and got a prize for it: I was presented with a checkers set. I was very proud when this was mentioned in our school newspaper.

However, after a short time in the village, we decided to move to Semipalatinsk (Northeast Kazakhstan), since my aunt — my mother’s sister and the daughter of my grandmother — had been evacuated there. We traveled in a terribly overcrowded cattle car. This was during a cold Siberian winter. Several people died on the way of hunger, cold, and disease.

On the way we experienced a fearful thing. A group of people in sailors’ uniforms flagged our train down in the middle of the steppe. They turned out to be bandits. They walked through the train looking for Jews. When they found Jews, they robbed them of their belongings and threw them out of the cars. Several Jewish families ended up stranded in the middle of the empty, snow-covered steppe, without a single village around. We were saved by the family of a Russian invalid. He told my mother and grandmother to put on headscarves, tying them so that only their eyes were visible. And he said they were his relatives and I was his son Vitya. This man saved our lives.

In Semipalatinsk, we moved in with our relatives, five of us sharing one small room in a little private wooden house. I remember how the landlord killed a swan to eat it. I was amazed by the huge, outspread wings of the great bird.

In Semipalatinsk I nearly died. I went with my buddies one day to bathe in the Irtysh River and got pulled into a whirlpool and went under. I did not know how to swim. The other boys thought I had drowned and left. But I was miraculously able to struggle back up to the surface and climb out of the water. Another time, I climbed into a dry well, and there were poisonous tarantulas there. This time, again, I was spared.

We suffered horrifically from hunger, and bread was very scarce. What got us through was cattle cake – rock-hard bars of pressed rapeseed or linseed from which the oil had been removed, leaving protein behind. I remember these came in two colors: gray and yellow.

Only once did I have a chance to eat my fill. A friend of mine, a local Kazakh boy, was the son of the commandant of the nearby Soviet concentration camp. He invited me along to visit the camp. There we ate more than I had eaten, or would eat, throughout the whole war.

Then we moved into the barracks that had many rooms, a kind of dormitory. In one of the rooms lived a Kazakh man. We were starving but he often had meat. He procured horse meat somewhere, but he never shared it with us. In another room lived a single woman. One day people noticed that she had not come out of her room for a long time, and there was a bad smell coming from it. Someone came and opened the door, and found her body; she had been lying dead for many days.

News came from Father. He had retreated to Moscow with his army unit and had been seriously wounded in the winter battle for Moscow; he had lain unconscious in the snow for a long time. He developed a double-sided pleural effusion, and later epilepsy.

In 1944, we moved to Kirovograd in the Ukraine where Father came to join us after he had completed medical treatment. We were in Kirovograd when the war ended.