Alina Rubinstein as a child
My name is Alina Khanina (née Rubinstein); I was born in 1936. I lived in the center of Leningrad at 40, Zagorodny Avenue with my two younger brothers, Lyova and Zhenya; our father, Zalman Rubinstein; and our mother, Sarah Gurevich. At the beginning of the I was almost five years old.
I WAS NOT EVEN FIVE
(The War-Time Orphanage Prepared Us to Cope with Anti-Semitism)
Before the war, my mother worked as an accountant for the new Leningrad metro construction project. When the threat of the city’s blockade became reality, 500 children of employees of the October Railway and the metro construction organization were collected, organized as a children’s home and evacuated together. Since my mother was a teacher by training, and her three small children (I was almost five, Lyova three and a half, and Zhenya one and a half) were part of the group, she was hired as a kindergarten teacher and went with us.
The children’s home was evacuated to the village of Soltanovo, near the small town of Neya in the Neya district of the Yaroslavl region (since 1944, the Kostroma region).
Because of the overcrowding and the stale air, bedbugs appeared in great numbers in our trestle beds and in the wooden walls of our building (made of simple hewn logs with oakum stuffed between them). As they caused us all a great deal of discomfort, periodically – usually in the summer – the children’s home conducted an extermination campaign. The beds were taken outside to air out, the hay stuffing was replaced in the mattresses and pillowcases, and boiling water was poured into every crack in the beds and walls. This helped – for a little while. During these exercises, we all slept together in a heap, either in the entryway on a pile of hay, or even outside.
These unsanitary conditions led to a massive lice infestation among us. The teachers tried to combat it by combing out the children’s hair with fine-toothed combs, treating us with kerosine, or making the girls pick nits out of each other’s hair. Then they gave up and simply shaved everyone’s hair off, girls and boys alike.
One day the children’s home experienced an outbreak of measles. The local hospital was filled with sick children. I got sick too, and they put me in the hospital. After a while, they put a little boy with the same diagnosis in my bed, head to toe. It was my brother Lyova. That was how I learned that I had a brother.
I learned that I had another younger brother, Zhenya, after the following incident. Mother, of course, regularly went to visit her sons in the preschool class, and they knew her. Once, during the winter, Zhenya started to miss his mother and ran off to look for her. He was about three years old. He ran through the village, barefoot and without warm clothes on, from the large building where his class met to the place where Mother and I were. Surprisingly, he did not get sick.
The children’s home was called “kindergarten/boarding school,” so a lot of very young evacuated children were brought there, including babies — some less than a year old, some a little older. Many were not even walking yet, only crawling. I remember a girl named Flora, who looked like a little angel; all the kids loved her. She was tiny and could only crawl. Most of these babies died soon afterwards, as there was no milk or baby food for them. In addition, colds and infectious diseases were rampant, and most drugs were not available.
I do not know why, but all of us, the staff as well as the children, were required — be it in the summer or winter — to attend the funerals of these kids. I remember the beginning of our time in Soltanovo as a continuous succession of funerals: a small coffin, a tiny body in it, wrapped in a sheet, and always with a white kerchief tied tightly around the head. Each time, they said a farewell speech over the coffin, shoveled a small pile of earth over the grave, and set a plywood pyramid with a red star on it on top of the pile. Soon there were enough of these pyramids to make a whole cemetery.
Winters in that area are quite severe, a lot of snow, blizzards, icy winds. Each of us wore the clothes we had brought with us. There was a shortage of mittens; boots quickly became worn out; the children grew out of their clothes.
Life in the children’s home during the war years was tough for both children and adults. The teachers and nurses sawed and chopped the wood themselves, carried it to the house and stoked the stoves that were too small to heat the entire room. They worked day and night, heedless of their own health. They were true heroines. There were thirty or more children in each class. The women had to take them all to the bathhouse and wash them, dress them, comb the girls’ hair, change everyone’s bedding and underwear, and keep the bedrooms warm. Every morning they had to bring water from the well for washing. During the night, they had to wake up the bed-wetters and put them on the potty, and in the morning, they had to take the mattresses outside to air them out and combat the bedbugs and lice; they had to walk the kids to the dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (in freezing temperatures, while many had no warm clothes); they had to care for the sick, maintain discipline in their classes — and oh yes, teach the kids and keep them engaged in educational activities.
The kindergarten teachers and nurses had another very heavy responsibility: stocking up on firewood. Usually this took place in the winter. The collective farm would lend them a horse and sleigh, and two women would go into the forest. Waist-deep in snow, poorly dressed, they cut down trees and sawed them, lopping off branches; then they piled the logs onto the sleigh and drove home. Our teachers risked not only their health, but sometimes even their lives.
One day, several children had toothaches. So my mother was given a horse and sleigh to take them to Neya, to the dentist. The road passed through the thick, snow-covered forest almost the entire way. Somewhere along the way, they heard the distant howling of a wolf, and then the howling began to come closer. Soon, the wolves came into view. In that area, wolves were not uncommon, but in the past, before the war, their numbers had been kept down by hunters. Now that all the hunters were away at the frontlines, the wolves had multiplied. They began to chase the sled. The horse got scared and bolted. By a miracle, my mother was able to get the animal back under control and break away from the wolves.
Food was scarce; we were desperately hungry all the time. We ate mostly peas, both for our first and second course, although sometimes the second course was sour oatmeal. I do not recall seeing sugar, oil, fat, or meat at all. I remember the long rows of simple plank tables in the dining room, with metal bowls of pea soup lined up on top of them, a piece of bread next to each bowl. One day, my class was already seated when the next class came into the dining room. Their teacher, Nadezhda, enthusiastically exclaimed: “Pea soup! How wonderful!” She sounded so sincere that her nickname ever since then was “Pea soup! How wonderful!”
Despite all the hardships experienced byeveryone at the children’s home, our teachers and nurses did not neglect to hold parties to celebrate the holidays and the victories of the Red Army at the front. They really knew how to work with children and loved their job.
I remember one New Year’s Eve party. In the middle of the great hall stood a fir tree — fragrant, fluffy, tall enough to reach to the ceiling – that had been felled in the forest and brought back by the teachers on a horse sleigh. This New Year’s tree was decorated with multi-colored long chains made of painted newspaper sheets, and lots of toys made of cardboard: animals, fruits and flowers, all produced by our own hands. We sat around the tree and watched our classmates perform: among the older children, there were those who, back in Leningrad, had studied dancing, singing, ballet, and the art of reciting poetry. The performers wore costumes made by our teachers and the senior girls. Every performance included both girls and boys, and even many of the younger children.
In addition to the hardships experienced by all children in a children’s home during the war, we, the Jewish kids, also suffered from anti-Semitism, which we started to feel very soon. Even small children knew what the word “kike” meant and were able to distinguish Jewish children from the others. They knew a lot of mean and crude jokes, poems, and counting rhymes about Jews and used them to taunt us. I and my brothers, Lyova and Zhenya, could not pronounce the letter “R” clearly, so they pestered us, telling us to say things like: “Great red grapes grow on Mount Ararat,” or “All the roofs in Leningrad are red.” There were other, obscene ditties that I cannot reproduce here in writing. We could not stand all the teasing, and sometimes fights erupted.
There was a boy in my class, a little older than me. One day he started teasing me, and we got into a fight. Of course, he was stronger, but I defended myself in my own way, biting him, and he left me alone. Throughout our stay at the orphanage, Lyova and Zhenya were also humiliated and beaten and defended themselves as best they could.
In the village of Soltanovo, anti-Semitism was rife among both children and adolescents. The village children also teased and harassed us on occasion. From one of them, a 13- or 14-year-old boy, I first heard those obscene, unprintable lines about Jews.
It always made me wonder afterwards why these people, living in the middle of nowhere, should hate us so much when there were no other Jews at all in their area.
But Soltanovo was only a prelude. After the war, the children’s home was not immediately returned to Leningrad. It was sent to the village of Thaitsy in the Leningrad region, where it became known as Children’s Home No. 3 in the Schools Division of the October Railways. It was housed in the village schoolhouse, which was painted blue and dubbed “The Blue House.” There, many teenagers who had survived the German occupation were enrolled at the children’s home. These were either orphans, or their parents were away or unable to support their children. These teens had witnessed Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. And now real persecution began. They teased us, beat us, stole our food (food shortages continued after the war). My brothers in the younger classes had it especially rough, and I tried to protect them. I often left bread for them from my own breakfast or lunch.
There was one boy in particular, fairly old, 14 or so, from the Ukraine, who treated the Jewish children with elaborate cruelty and incited others to do so. All this lasted until we left the children’s home in October 1946 and went to Leningrad after my father’s demobilization from the army.
Thus, we were already well prepared for the anti-Semitic manifestations that we were to face later in life: at school, in the neighborhood, on the street, in various agencies, universities, workplaces and many other places.