Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Heifetz Michael


Born in 1934 in Leningrad, Michael Heifetz is a historian, journalist, and writer who spent his career living and working in Leningrad. He immigrated to Israel in 1980 and lives in Jerusalem. He has two daughters, three granddaughters and a grandson.


When the war started I was seven. I attended the senior class at kindergarten (in the Vosstaniya street in Leningrad). The kindergartners usually spent summers at a summer house in the village of Siverskoye, and did so also in 1941. I already knew how to read, was familiar with the geographical map of Europe, and knew that we were at peace with Germany (I had seen my older relatives rejoice in that fact). Therefore, that summer I was proud to show off my superior knowledge of the world, including the peace with Germany, before the village boys. It was one of them who broke the news to me: we were at war, and had been for a while! No one in our kindergarten group had heard about that…

Then, all of a sudden, they gathered all the children in the evening and took us back to Leningrad. They put us in a school building next to our kindergarten; I recall being very uncomfortable, because there were no beds or bedding in the school building. They had not even told our parents (my mother later told me that they had planned to evacuate the children to another town, Malaya Vishera). Finally, my mother came to school and took me home. I never saw anyone from my kindergarten again, so I do not know whether any of them ever got out of Malaya Vishera alive (it was soon occupied by the Germans).

My mother and I began to prepare for our evacuation from the city. I cannot now say exactly when this happened: I was seven years old and probably did not yet know the names of all the months all that well. Apparently, it had to have happened no later than August 1941, because on August 29 the last railway line was cut by the Germans. But when we left, we went by train, albeit following a roundabout, bypass route, so that the way from Leningrad to Sverdlovsk lasted nine days.

We rode in a boxcar, which somehow seemed normal (by the way, when we returned to Leningrad four years later, we also rode in a freight train). I found it all fascinating – new places, new names. For instance, the station names were often doubled: in Kirov, the station was named Vyatka; in Perm, it was Molotov… I remember the constant anxiety of the adults, who worried over whether there would be a bombing attack (I believe we were actually spared, even though the rail line passed through areas of frequent bombing over a thousand kilometers long), or whether we would have enough time to get water at the next stop…

Of course, it was hard and difficult for the adults, but to me, a boy, it was was all fascinating. I did not understand the gravity of the situation and was convinced that the Red Army — as we had been taught in kindergarten — would soon deal the enemy a mortal blow…


Michael Heifetz (right) with Galina and Misha Ashmarin, children of the director of the pharmacy where Michael’s mother worked. Znamenka village in the Yelansky district of the Sverdlovsk region, 1942.

Finally, the train set almost all the passengers down in the Ural city of Irbit. It was a fairly large town by local standards, with a movie theater, several schools, and a museum of local history. The first night we spent in the city theater, sleeing in boxes. I also slept in a box, and that was how I first learned what a theater box was. Then Mother went to the city, to look for accommodations and work… I remember she came back sobbing and scared me; she had heard the locals saying that Hitler was coming soon and would show everyone what for! Now I understand: the Ural region was the place of exile, a place where many convicts were sent, and there were probably many people there who could not wait for Hitler to come.

The job issue was soon settled: my mother had worked as a chemist at a research lab in Leningrad but was trained as both a chemist and a pharmacist – and pharmacists were always needed in rural areas. We got in a horse cart and drove across the mountains to mother’s new place of work – in the village of Znamenka in the Yelansky district. There was a drugstore there serving many local villages. Another evacuee from Leningrad, a woman named Milya, was already working there, but she needed an assistant. The pharmacy was located, I believe, in the house the village priest used to live in (the village church had been shut down and turned into a threshing barn).

So we began our life in the countryside. Gradually, I learned the rural ways of life: how to work a potato patch, how to care for cucumbers and tomatoes, how to heat a Russian bath, what a loft bed was, how to carry water from a well and dip it out of the barrel with a dipper. When I think back to that time, I feel most amazed at how quickly the two city women, my mother and Auntie Milya, adapted to rural life. They started keeping pigs, chickens, and some other livestock (I remember the two women sighing over the prohibitive cost of a cow); they dug a vegetable garden and planted all that was necessary; they weeded and harvested; they pickled things and stacked them in the cellar; they stoked the Russian brick oven and wielded the long oven fork.

And we, city children, behaved just like village kids: we learned how to fish and pick berries in the woods; we got ourselves a dog and a cat and played with them.

I went to school with Galya, Aunt Milya’s daughter. I had actually gained a year of life in the evacuation, because at that time first grade started at the age of eight, but I was a city boy and could read and knew a lot of poetry by heart, so I was admitted at the age of seven…

Mother was basically always concerned about keeping her little son fed, and she was successful. She bartered some dresses and blouses, which she had brought from Leningrad, for flour in remote villages. In the villages people lived better than in town because they ate food from their own gardens, but there were absolutely no consumer goods available, so throughout the four years of the war every piece of clothing from the city was in high demand. Money had lost all value but clothes could be bartered for necessities…

Two years later, my mother and I left Znamenka for Irbit. I suspect that Mother and Aunt Milya could no longer get along: both families living in the same room, cooking in the same kitchen, always on top of one another – with all the squabbles and irritation that went with these cramped, shared living arrangements, just like in infamous Soviet communal apartments…

I had liked it in Znamenka: I had learned a new way life, going out into the fields, baking potatoes at night in the open fire with the village shepherds, sleeping up in the loft – everything was new! Plus I usually had enough to eat, even though the food was terribly monotonous, but what more could one ask during a war, especially in the countryside! But it must have been hard on my mother…

In Irbit she began working in the evacuation hospital № 1715 and also at the pharmacy (the hospital was located in a former school building). We rented a corner from some people who kept stealing from us. Of course, it is hard to condemn these old people who had taken us in to make a little money but could not withstand the temptation of pinching a bit of flour from the tenants’ trunk. By the way, it was then that I was once again exposed to the “Jewish question”: when my mother chided the landlady for stealing, the woman retorted, “You should talk… you who are a Jew anyway!” At last, I knew what we were!

As a matter of fact, unlike many of my peers, I had first learned about the Jewish problem before the war by getting beaten up by boys in the street for being a Jew; they were quite overt about it. At school, during gym classes, kids made a point of treading on my toes during exercises on the wall bars, and for the same reason. I do not know why adults later liked to say that there had been no anti-Semitism before the war. Perhaps the adults had been protected from it by the police or other authorities, I do not know, but we, children living in apartment buildings, were clearly shown by our peers that, if the worst thing in the world was to be a tattletale, the second worst was to be a Jew.

But in the evacuation it was really blatant! I will never forget the day I was walking to see my mother at the hospital. A group of boys caught me on the bridge, twisted my arms behind my back, tied a noose around my neck and started to lead me away, telling any adult passer-by who cared to know that “We’re going to hang the yid.” And the adults grunted sympathetically… I was not too scared, seeing it as mere rough play and not taking it seriously, but I did retain a great grudge against those adults. And I did manage to get away in the end. But basically it was during the evacuation that it became apparent to me that it was a bad thing to be a Jew in the Soviet Union: it made one a second-class citizen. Everywhere there were offensive ditties about Abram and Sarah, dirty jokes, obscene insinuations…

On the other hand, in the Urals I took to reading and found a wealth of interesting things to read: there were a lot of old books around, both in people’s homes and in libraries. I found many books by authors who had suffered political repressions: here, in this remote province, no one knew that these authors were “enemies of the people.” So from that standpoint, the evacuation did me some good by making me well-read and mature.

So my four years in the Urals went relatively well. I was fairly well fed, and as regards clothes and shoes, these were such a luxury at that time that no one really cared about them, so long as we had something to put on. In fact, when we came back to Leningrad, I wore the same green ski suit to class for the last three years of high school, as I simply owned no other outfit until I was seventeen.

We returned to Leningrad exactly four years after our departure, in August of 1945.