Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Gekhtin Vitaly (Vil)


Mr. Gekhtin was born in Kherson (the Ukraine) in 1934. A biologist by training, he worked as Vice-Director of Science at the Institute of Biology and Parasitology of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. Mr. Gekhtin immigrated to Israel from Tashkent in 1995 and lives in Netanya. He has two children and four grandchildren.


We lived in the “pearl of the Dnieper”—the city of Kherson in the Ukraine. My father, Isaac Gekhtin, was head of the city’s public education system, a member of the City Committee of the Communist Party and a City Council deputy, and my mother, Fanny Shmulevich, was the director of the Children’s Home (orphanage) No. 1 located at 27, Krasnoarmeyskaya Street. They were very busy with work and had no other childcare (our grandmothers lived in the town of Myastkovka of the Vinnytsa region), so I and my sister, Emma, spent our time with the inmates of the Children’s Home, following their daily routine: morning procedures, physical exercise, breakfast and so on.

In 1941 the war broke out. Everyone assumed that it would end in a few months, so our evacuation was delayed. Let them first evacuate the factories, people thought, we have time enough … But the Germans were approaching very quickly. There were massive bombings, the railway tracks were destroyed; there were fires and panic in the city …

We, the kids at the orphanage, were children of the war, and we passed through many ordeals. In August 1941, together with other refugees, we rode in trucks and horse carts, then walked along dusty roads, dodging shells exploding all around us. The children were accompanied by three Jewish women: my mother Fanny, the director; her sister Katherine “Katya” Shmulevich, a teacher; and my father’s sister, Fenya Gekhtin, also a teacher.

With great difficulty, we reached the North Caucasus and stopped to rest in the village of Belaya Glina in the Krasnodar region. Everywhere people said that the war would soon get there, too, and we must keep fleeing. A few local state agencies were still functioning. It was already late autumn and cold, and we were given a few ox carts, some warm clothes and a little food.


The Ferghana Children’s Home No. 1 that took in the Kherson orphanage. Uzbekistan, Ferghana city. Photo taken May 1, 1947.

Unexpectedly for us, my mother received a postcard from the frontline (stamped “checked by the military censor”) from my father, Isaac, who had somehow found out where we were. He wished us a happy New Year and wrote: “This year, 1942, will be the year the Nazi bastards are defeated for good, and we will once again live a happy life, like before.” It was his first and last letter from the frontline. Isaac Gekhtin, a political officer in an infantry company, was killed in the North Caucasus in July 1942.

At that time we were actually not too far from him, desperately trying to get out from a German encirclement. Starving and exhausted, we hid from the bombing in the fields, among the crops, where we found things that were edible, while Nazi tanks were rolling down the road in the same area. Sometimes their planes appeared in the sky. The German pilots would see us kids running away to hide in a haystack and would fly low and shoot. After these attacks, we found dead children by the haystacks and buried them right there in the steppe. Among them was a ten-year-old girl, Nina Babich, much loved by all of us for her pictures (her parents had been executed during Stalin’s purges). Nina used pebbles to draw pictures of Nazis and their tanks and airplanes on the ground, and we children trampled upon all those vermin, and it gave us the strength to keep walking, keep walking east …

The Caspian Sea. A boat carrying wounded Red Army fighters was pulling away from the shore. All around us were stretchers, soldiers on crutches or wrapped around with bandages. No one was allowed to approach them. But my mother somehow made her way over to the captain; she was saying something pointing at us, ragged and exhausted, clinging to each other. And then he ordered each wounded man to take two kids along. With us were children from occupied Poland — Lyuba, Chaim, and Zvi Weinberg — who had joined us along the way. (I later met Zvi Weinberg, then serving as a member of the Knesset, in Israel. His brother Chaim, a military pilot, took part in the Six-Day War.)


 The Gekhtin Family. From left to right: Isaac Gekhtin, Fanya Shmulevich, Vil Gekhtin, grandmother Chaya Gekhtin, Isaac’s mother, Vil’s sister Emma Gekhtin, grandmother Sheva Vurgaft, Fanya’s mother. Kherson, 1939.


Vil’s mother’s sister, Katya Shmulevich, with her four-year-old son, Vova (Vladimir Rubin), Fergana


Finally we made landfall in the city of Krasnovodsk. A train bound for the rear stood on the railroad tracks. A mob of people with rifles, bags, and knapsacks were pushing each other and trying to climb into the train cars. We climbed up on the flatcars and rode for a very long time. And always, more famine, more hiding from German bombs. At stops and along the way, we begged for alms — for anything to eat.

The cars’ wheels clattered, the engine rumbled and we rode on and on, and suddenly we saw strange white fields. Someone said that this was cotton. Central Asia, Uzbekistan … We were refugees that whole year, trying to get out of the territory occupied by the Fascist barbarians.

There were 119 of us. Of these, six were killed; nine were wounded and stayed behind in the hospital in Krasnovodsk; and of the older boys and girls (fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds), over twenty were enrolled as “sons and daughters of the regiment” in various military units of the Red Army in the North Caucasus.

…And finally we came to the railway station of Tashkent. Police officers led us to the children’s evacuation center, where we were fed, given food rations for two days, and sent on to the Ferghana region.