Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Friedman (Katz) Clara


Clara Friedman (née Katz) was born 1934 in Zhitomir. During the war, she was evacuated to Tashkent. She and her husband, Vladimir Friedman, immigrated to Israel in 1990 and now live in a hostel in Herzliya.


In Zhitomir, our grandfather, Motl-Shames Katz, was a prominent man. He had a big house on Castle Street, in the center of the city. His family was large, and everyone lived together in that house: he with our grandmother, Brandl; their grown sons: Boris, Lev, Itzik (Isaak) and Yakov; their 16-year-old son Sasha; and two married daughters, Sonya and Basya. In the first days of the war all their sons except Sasha were drafted into the army. And all four were killed in the war.

Among them was my father Itzik. He was drafted right off the street, not via the draft board, and because of that, my mother did not have any documents confirming that he had been drafted and sent to the front. Consequently, during the worst and hungriest years, during the war and right afterwards, our family did not receive financial assistance that was given to other soldiers’ families. And yet my mother was left alone with three small daughters: the eldest, Lisa, was born in 1932; the middle one – myself, Clara – in 1934; and the youngest, Bronya, in 1941. And all of us were hungry. For many years, day and night, my poor mother heard our cry: “We want bread, give us some bread” … And after the war, in response to Mother’s inquiry, there came a letter saying that her husband, Private Isaac-Avrum Katz, DOB 1906, had died in battle in 1944.

There was no organized evacuation effort in the city. The Russians and the Ukrainians had no plans to leave Zhitomir, while the Jews, hearing rumors about German atrocities, rushed en masse to leave the city – as best they could … Grandfather got a horse-drawn cart and loaded up Grandmother, his son Sasha, his daughters, Sonya and Basya, and his four young granddaughters. My mother, Basya, had three daughters, and Aunt Sonya (mother’s sister) had one. There was also Aunt Sonya’s husband Velvl. The horse could barely pull all of us. We did not take any luggage: people said that in two weeks we would be able to return. I think that was in the beginning of July 1941. Zhitomir was occupied by the Germans on July 12.

So we went, the children in the cart and the adults on foot. During one of the bombings, a big shell fragment hit my mother’s leg, and after that she also rode in the cart. Her wounded leg troubled her for a long time afterward. When we reached Belaya Tserkov, Aunt Sonya’s family decided to return to Zhitomir, because her husband Velvl’s blind parents had remained there, and he was very worried about their fate. So they went back — to certain death.

As for the rest of us, we went ahead, headed by Grandfather, who drove the cart. At one point, we lost our way and were heading, as it turned out, towards the Germans. A group of Red Army fighters stopped us. The commander yelled at us: “You Jews are all traitors, that’s why you’re going towards the Germans.” They took our horse and made us get into the trenches. Fortunately, the soldiers shared their rations with us. Then they gave us a lift to the railway station, where we got on a train, into a boxcar, and a few days later reached the North Caucasus.

We stopped in the village of Pokoynoye in the Ordzhonikidze region (near Vladikavkaz), and stayed there for about 5–6 months. We lived in a barn where there was a pile of wheat. Grandpa ground up the kernels on a stone and cooked porridge for us. It was nourishing and delicious. There, in the village of Pokoynoye, 16-year-old Sasha Katz, the youngest son of my grandparents, was drafted and sent to the frontlines. He fought in Germany and in 1947 returned in Tashkent to his mother, our grandmother. His whole chest was covered with medals and military decorations — but he was permanently disabled due to a leg wound. He was the only one of my grandparents’ five sons who had remained alive …

We had to leave Pokoynoye because the Germans began to advance on the North Caucasus. Grandfather was asked to drive a herd of cattle to Makhachkala. We rode in a big cart, my grandfather shouting at the cattle, urging them on. In Makhachkala he turned in the cattle, but what were we to do next? So we headed toward Baku along the coast of the Caspian Sea. (I do not remember anything about that journey.)

In Baku we found ourselves without shelter, without food, even without water. Everyone was given 100 ml fresh water a day. We lived on the beach, right on the sand. There was scarcely one square meter of ground along the Baku pier that was free of people and their luggage. There was no way to wash, everyone was dirty and crawling with lice. It got so bad that Mother not only shaved our heads but also trimmed our eyebrows and eyelashes, which were full of nits.

At night, ships carrying the new recruits from the Central Asian republics docked at the pier. On their way back, these ships carried refugees across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk. The ships were terribly overloaded. Many people jumped into the water and swam up to gangplank to climb up on the deck. The people who were injured in the crush were simply thrown off the ship. By a miracle, our family ended up on deck, and the ship sailed …

I remember well the splashing sounds of objects falling from the ship into the water: the bodies of those who had died from hunger and thirst were just tossed overboard. So the ship came to Krasnovodsk half empty. From Krasnovodsk, we took a freight train to Tashkent and saw a great multitude of people massed in the square in front of the train station.

In Tashkent, we lived literally on the street for almost a year. Then, on orders from above, all the city clubs and cinemas were given to the refugees. We were allowed to sleep at a club, a large empty building with straw spread on the floor and no other amenities at all. There was no water and no lavatories. We took water from irrigation ditches and used it both for drinking and washing.

But then the weather turned cold. We, three kids, had no warm clothes. Mother stole doormats and wrapped our feet up in them. Then she got a job as a cleaner at the First Shoe Factory. Its director was Prokhorov, a true saint of a man; he did a lot of good for our family, both then and after the war. The factory made boots and shoes for the frontlines out of artificial leather (kirza), and kept its workers abundantly fed on soup. He allowed Mother to collect leftover food from the tables in the factory canteen, and she poured it from soup bowls into a kettle. The factory guards let us, starvelings, into the dining room, where we licked the spilled soup from the tables and from the plates. Mother worked 12 hours a day. As I remember, she would come home very late to find us still awake, and we would immediately attack her with our cries of: “Give us some bread!”

In 1944 our family (Mother and three children) moved into the barracks. In the barracks there were eight families. We still slept on the floor but we were happy all the same. I went to school and did my homework lying on the floor. After school, from 2 to 5 p.m., I begged alms in the marketplace. My older sister flatly refused to “be a beggar”; she was too proud. For my part, I really wanted to help Mother and my younger sister, who had caught polio on the way to Tashkent. People would give me now a potato, now a piece of bread, and these gifts were for us kids like manna from heaven.

So we were getting settled in the barracks, and our grandparents lived elsewhere. In 1945, Grandfather started preparations for their return to Zhitomir. He argued that he did not want to die in a foreign land. Mother did not want to go, sensing that nothing good awaited us back home. She protested but could not go against Grandfather’s will, especially when he threatened to take the children: “After all, they bear my name – Katz!” And back we went, on another freight train, westbound this time. When we arrived in Zhitomir, we learned that Grandfather’s big house was no longer there: there was only a bomb crater in its place.

Oh, woe! Where were we to live? We went over to Shchors Street, where Aunt Sonya had had a flat before the war. Zhitomir was all in ruins but her building still stood. We knocked on the door, entered – and saw someone else living there! We saw the furniture that Grandfather had made with his own hands. All her things, all of the familiar plates and dishes and rugs were still there … “This is my daughter’s apartment,” said Grandfather. But the Ukrainians who had taken over of the flat back in 1941 drove us away, threatening to “finish us off” like the rest of the murdered Jews. They yelled at Grandfather: “If you don’t get out of here, you’ll end up where your daughter is. We’ll kill you! Do you want to end up in Bohunia?”

“Bohunia”, or the “Bohun Forest,”was Zhitomir’s answer to Babi Yar, where Jews had been massacred during the war. It is known that before their retreat from Zhitomir, the Germans burned the corpses in a mass grave, trying to hide their crime. Only recently, ten years ago, was a monument to Jews finally erected there – paid for by some kind people…

But back then, in 1944, the Ukrainians would openly say (even to me, a little girl begging at the market) things like: “You’re still not in Bohunia?” Many of them had been policemen under the Nazis, during the war. Not one of them was punished after the war. We had something with which to compare their behavior: the Ukrainians treated us, Jewish refugees, much worse than the Uzbeks in Tashkent had done.

So where were we to live, a family of six people — grandparents, Mother, and three girls? At first, one family let us share their two-room apartment. But they themselves had many children, so we went to Vladimir Street, where there was a wooden house, next to a Catholic church. We had to huddle under the stairs.

Something had to be done: we were swollen from hunger. In desperation, Mother sent us to an orphanage. But we were not destined to stay there, because the orphanage declined to take our youngest sister, Bronya, who had polio, so we all went back to our “home” under the stairs.

Lisa and I even started to attend school No. 7 on Vil’skaya Street. We had no textbooks, no exercise books. After school I went to beg at the Hay Market. On March 30, 1947, Grandfather died after a severe asthma attack, and we had no money and no coffin to bury him in. We took him to the cemetery in a horse cart. My grandfather was 71. Before his death, he bitterly blamed himself for moving us back from Tashkent.

What were we to do next? Finally, my mother decided to return to Tashkent. She spent several months exchanging letters with Prokhorov, director of the same shoe factory where she had worked as a janitor during the war. Prokhorov wrote to my mother that he would hire her again if we came to Tashkent. He even sent us some money to buy food.

And so five of us – my grandmother, Mother, and three of us girls – boarded yet another freight train, eastbound, like in 1941. But very soon we had to stop. We got off the train at the Rtishchevo station in the Saratov region. It was because our youngest sister, Bronya, was barely alive — she looked like a shadow. In Rtishchevo she was admitted to a hospital. And we spent our nights at the train station and ate from garbage dumps. Mother would wrap a piece of bread in a cloth and Bronya would suck on the rag all day, whining incessantly: “Bread, give me some bread…” Two weeks later, we resumed our eastward journey. All in all, it took us about two months to get to Tashkent.

But even in Tashkent our life remained really hard. It was as if we were going through a second evacuation. Mother went to work at Prokhorov’s factory. Her wages barely covered food, but what about housing? The city clubs had resumed operations and were no longer available for housing evacuees.

We found Aunt Bayka, a kind soul, our distant relative from Zhitomir. She lived with her son in the barracks owned by Tashkent’s water utility in a room of just six square meters, with two beds in it. After the two of them went to bed at night, the five of us would enter the room and lie down to sleep on the clay floor covered with rags. Luckily, very soon my grandmother was taken in by her father’s cousin Manya, so only four of us remained at Aunt Bayka’s.

Lisa and I went to school. In my class there was a girl named Nelly, who I helped with homework. Nelly’s father, Alexander Litvinenko, director of the water utility, promised our family a room in the barracks, so when a small room of 4 or 5 square meters became available, he gave it to us. It was really tiny … But the kind Aunt Bayka helped us again: she moved into this little room with her son, leaving us her 6-square-meter room. In that room, we grew up, studied, graduated from high school; from that room, all three of us went to get married when the time came. But that was later …

I took tram No. 2 to school, which was pretty far away. In winter, I had no warm clothes, not even stockings. And one day, a miracle happened. The tram conductor came up to me and looked at my exposed legs, blackened from the cold. She picked up the edge of my light summer dress and saw that I did not even have panties on … That day I ended up in the house of Auntie Nina, the conductor, who got hold of me and did not let me go until she had washed me and given me warm woolen tights to protect my knees from the cold. She fed me, and when I said I had two sisters who were also hungry, Auntie Nina gave me food for them too.

This miraculous meeting became a life-long friendship: I became like a daughter to Nina Mamedova. For many months, I would come after school to our appointed meeting place at the Tobacco Factory tram stop and wait No. 2. When it arrived, I received a parcel from Auntie Nina, with a big sandwich inside it. I did not take a single bite but I carried it home and shared it with my sisters. Nina, an ethnic Russian, had been married to an Uzbek man. But they did not have any children, and so her husband left her (even though he still loved her) and married an Uzbek woman who bore him children. Auntie Nina had remained alone. When I grew up, I repaid her kindness to a little girl with blackened knees: I nursed Auntie Nina and took care of her when she became ill. And she was only one of the many kind people we met along the way…

In March 1948, the food rationing system in the Soviet Union was abolished. It became possible to buy bread freely. We would take a whole loaf of bread and soak it in water, but instead of eating it, we sucked it. As a result, our stomachs became big but the feeling of hunger did not abate. I remember we enjoyed sucking zhmykh, but I do not remember what it was, or rather what this delicacy was made from. But the biggest treat was turtle meat. Our acquaintances, older fellows, caught turtles in the Chimgan mountains. They brought them to Tashkent, cooked them in large kettles and gave us soup and pieces of meat. It tasted better than chicken! Also, some Uzbeks let us come into their yards when the mulberries ripened and the fallen fruit littered the ground. We gathered the fallen mulberries and ate them with relish – and for our hosts it was yard maintenance.

And so we scoured the neighborhood in search of food. We also rummaged through the huge pile of trash that was behind the shoe factory fence. Into this pile went the waste products of shoemaking, including defective kirza boots and shoes. We crawled around on top of the pile with a magnet in our hand to extract small nails and sell them by weight to the local independent shoemakers. I was producing up to 100 grams of nails a day! These nails were called taksa, “fixed price”. Mother, for her part, found boots for us in that same pile. The boots were huge but Mother stuffed rags inside them and sent us to school in them. I cried bitterly and did not want to wear them.

When I turned 14, Alexander Litvinenko hired me to work at the water utility. I was supposed to test the water every half an hour. I worked night shifts and was alone and scared, but I began to bring a salary, small though it was, home to my mother. And my mother began to think of buying dresses for us. After all, we had only one dress for the three of us, made of “staple” (a linen viscose blend). By that time I was already a student at the Industrial College. Sometimes I crept to the back of the classroom so I could sleep. The teachers felt sorry for me and did not wake me up – they knew that I worked at night.

After college, I graduated from the Tashkent Institute of National Economy. In 1957, I met my future husband, Vladimir Friedman, and we have been together ever since. We have two sons and five grandchildren. My husband’s family was also evacuated to Tashkent; it, too, faced a lot of grief and loss. His mother, Gitya, worked at a parachute factory and could barely support her three sons, born in 1926, 1928, and 1940. She received a death notice about her husband … One day, in March 1944, she went to the Kashgarka river to wash clothes and slipped under the ice. How her three sons managed to survive without her is a separate story. One thing I will say: the youngest, Misha, had to spend three years in a hospital with a big belly swollen from hunger.

My older sister, Lisa, winner of school competitions, graduated from high school with honors and entered the Pedagogical Institute. She married a fellow from our barracks; her husband, Roman Sapozhnikov, became a PhD researcher in geophysics. My younger sister, Bronya, also graduated from high school and married a nice man, Misha. All her life she was tormented by the late effects of polio, and one of her legs was shorter than the other.

The following episode happened many years later, when I became the chairwoman of the labor union at my knitting factory. I worked on the first floor of a building which had once housed a social club owned by the shoe factory club and had been converted to accommodate refugees, including myself with my mother and two sisters. One day the conversation in my office turned to the wartime, and I told my colleague, Fayna, who worked as chief accountant of the regional labor union committee, that during the war I had lived in the ground floor of the building and slept on the floor among other refugees. “And did you go to school?” Fayna asked. “Yes, I went to school number 73,” I replied. “I attended that school, too. What was the name of your homeroom teacher?” asked Fayna. I answered: “Anna Ivanovna.” “My teacher’s name was also Anna Ivanovna,” Fayna said. “So I assume we were in the same class. By the way, do you remember a girl, what was her name, she was always hungry, extremely thin, she must have died…” At first, I kept silent, and then I said: “You know, Fayna, she is alive, that girl! It’s me, Clara Katz.” Fayna became hysterical when she heard that I was that girl. She sobbed when she learned that I was alive.

Recorded by Inna Berman and Eugenia Sokolov