Bella Goldstein is a teacher, journalist, and director of the Jerusalem club of young journalists. She immigrated to Israel in 1995 and lives in Jerusalem.
IMGES OF THE LOVED ONES
When I was born the first thing I saw was darkness instead of light, because it happened in the basement. I was born in 1942 in the middle of the war, after my parents had been evacuated from Odessa to the city of Nalchik. The day before my birth, the landlady of our rented apartment in Nalchik said: “The Germans will soon enter the city. If they find that I have you Jews living at my place, I’ll be in big trouble, so you better leave now.”
Father and Mother carried their things down to the basement of an old, half-ruined house next door, and then wheeled our old grandfather Nathan, sick and feeble, down there in his wheelchair. There, in the basement, I was born the next day.
The landlady, hearing my loud cry, ran down to our basement and, dispensing with all customary niceties and congratulations, commanded: “I’m taking your little girl! What’s her name? Bella? Fine. I’m taking her now. It’s filthy down here, and damp, not light, no water. You’re doomed anyway, but I’m going to raise her. But she’ll have a different first name, and she’ll go by my last name, Lysenko.”
My parents were desperate. What should they do? To stay down in this basement was tantamount to giving themselves up to be killed by the Germans. To flee, with a newborn and an old man in a wheelchair, was not any better. My parents had almost decided to stay when Father’s younger sister, Minna Wolf, burst into the basement like a deus ex machina and said she had a horse cart waiting for us upstairs. “Get in right now, we’re going to the train station! The last trains are leaving town! If you stay here, you’re dead!” She grabbed the peacefully sleeping baby (i.e., myself) from my mother’s arms and ran to the horse cart. My parents ran after us, pushing Grandfather in his wheelchair.
At the train station, a pitched battle raged in front of every train car. People were fighting to board, using their fists, elbows, and knees, and cursing terribly. Years later, my father said, recalling that day with bitterness: “They were loading people like cattle into boxcars, and yet for our family there was no room even in a cattle car.” We sat on the edge of an open flatcar, holding tight onto pieces of factory equipment and onto each other, constantly at risk of falling off. Later, when the flatcar was uncoupled during a train stop and we were told to clear out, we climbed onto the roof of a box car, which was much less crowded but much more dangerous. Soon after that, some space opened up inside a train car, and we began to relax but then realized that our luck was due to attrition: a dysentery epidemic had broken out on the train.
The disease claimed the children and old people first. I hovered between life and death for a while but survived in the end, but our grandfather, may his memory be blessed, died. His body was taken off the train with the bodies of other victims at a train station and buried beside the rail bed.
When we reached Orsk, all the evacuees were housed in the nearby village of Kreking in wooden barracks that had been hastily slapped together. People said these barracks had been used to house convicts who had been sent to fight at the front, freeing up room for the refugees. Our family was given a tiny room equipped with a stove and nothing else – no toilet, no running water, no furniture. And it was forty below freezing outside.
A lot of the newcomers were employees of defense factories that had been evacuated to Orsk. Food was predictably scarce. I remember massive bread lines; we took our place in line in the evening, stood all night and fought a pitched battle in the morning to receive our daily ration of bread. No one was in charge of keeping order in the lines, and many people tried to cut in. To prevent this, people started holding onto the person in front of them, forming a human chain. Then some young thugs came up with the idea of crashing into the chain to break it up and push whole families out of the line. They specifically targeted Tatar families, easily visible in their distinctive ethnic dress. In response, the men set up a men’s line alongside the main line, and each man made sure that five women received their rations before he received his own.
The older I got, the more I learned about the people who lived in our barrack. All of them had experienced bitter loss and tragedy during their evacuation. Some mourned their elderly parents who had died on the train. Another person’s eleven-year-od brother had been left behind at a train station and had never been found again. Someone else’s uncle had been pulled under the train and had been crippled for life. A mother grieved the death of her children. And everyone worried about loved ones who were fighting at the frontlines. Mother’s own brother, Yakov Pan, had been declared missing in action…
I spent eight years of my childhood living in that barrack. My younger brother, Yuri, died there. One day, Mother’s former neighbor from back home came to see us there and told us that Mother’s entire family, around seventy people, who lived in the town of Gorodok in the Proskurov region, had died in the Yarmolintsy ghetto. I remember seeing my mother, overcome with grief, run sobbing toward the train station, probably wanting to throw herself under a train; thankfully, some people who happened to be there caught her and saved her life.
After the war, my parents took me and my younger sister, Larissa, and went to Odessa in the hope of finding our relatives and getting back my mother’s apartment. But the apartment had been taken over by the building’s janitor. My mother knocked on the door. The janitor opened, turned pale when she saw my mother, and tried to slam the door shut. But my mother’s foot was already on the doorstep, and she saw her room, her furniture, the astrakhan fur coat that could have been so useful in harsh Ural winters.
“So, you’re alive? You’ve survived?” the janitor lady said, her voice filled with disbelief, fear, and obvious disappointment. “I didn’t think you would… They said that all of you were…” Then she started screaming: “I won’t let you in! Where am I supposed to go? You were off hiding somewhere while we were living under the Germans! I won’t give you anything!”
“There is a photo album over there on the shelf,” my mother said softly. “Bring it to me.” The janitor quickly grabbed it off the shelf and obligingly slipped it through the half-opened door. Mother turned around and walked away, carrying the most important thing to her: the images of her loved ones whose loss she would never fully accept until the day she died.