Vladimir Efrussi was born in 1935 in Odessa, a scion of a Jewish merchant clan of Efrussi that, before the October revolution, had included prominent exporters of wheat. An engineer by profession who studied the psychology of learning, he has been living in Rishon LeTzion, Israel since 1994. He has a daughter and a granddaughter.
WE COULD HAVE PERISHED DOZENS OF TIMES WITHOUT A TRACE
The war came to Odessa with the sound of air-raid sirens, the bombings, and the unbearable smell of a damp cellar that had once been used for making sauerkraut; that odor would follow me for a long time afterwards. We used that cellar to hide from the bombs, although people said that it would not be much help against a direct hit of a one-ton high-explosive bomb. And while the streets were flooded with sunshine and there were, as I recall, quite a few people out and about, the adults went around discussing rumors and wondering what to do – and we kids picked up on the tension that pervaded them.
In the early days of the war, we had a strange house guest, a man who was not yet very old, who spoke Russian very poorly and who had had his teeth knocked out. He had reportedly been captured by the Germans but had managed to escape. He stayed with us for a few days and then left, and his fate is unknown. Perhaps this incident strengthened our reluctance to stay, and my mother began to make arrangements for leaving.
The municipal transportation agency in charge of the waterways was now in charge of the evacuation. It issued a document that stated that we, meaning my mother, my grandmother, and myself, were being “evacuated from the vicinity of the front” and assigned us to sail on the ship Lenin, which was considered to be the flagship of passenger shipping of that time, as I recall hearing people say.
We and a few other families, with our luggage, were taken by truck to the marine passenger terminal. Soon we heard a siren, and panic broke out. We understood, from bits of conversation, that the boarding was delayed once again. It looked as if this had become a pattern: as soon as the boarding began, right away there was an airstrike, as if someone had given a signal to the Germans.
The Lenin had really tall sides and a narrow gangway that was swarming with passengers. I remember how our women panicked as they realized that they simply could not get on board.
So we came back, this time to stay in the basement laboratory of what was then known as the Institute of Food Preservation. As time went on, our anxiety grew, keeping pace with the dismal news of military defeats and reverses. Rumors abounded. Finally we were given permission to board a small ship Berezina (was it a freight or passenger ship? I cannot remember). The Berezina managed to put out to sea, but the very next day it was attacked from the air. I remember the roar of anti-aircraft guns returning fire from the top deck, as we, children and adults (all women), were herded into a windowless room (perhaps the ship’s hold?) and locked in from the outside. The women became hysterical and started banging on the door, demanding to be released; their terror spread to the children. I remember the heads of rivets holding the walls of the room together, and how big they seemed to me. We passed through the Kerch Strait and then headed for Mariupol, as it turned out later.
 The steamship Lenin was built in 1909 at a shipyard in Danzig and was originally called the Simbirsk. The steamer’s capacity was 472 passengers and 400 tons of cargo. On July 24, 1941 the ship put to sea in Odessa, carrying more than 3,000 passengers (even the ship captain, M. Borisenko, did not know the exact number) and a large amount of cargo. The ship was forced to tow the ferry Voroshilov, which had broken down, to the Sevastopol harbor. In the evening of July 27, the Lenin went out to the sea from Sevastopol, and that same evening, an explosion occurred on board. It remains unknown whether she had been attacked by a German or Romanian submarine or blown up by a Soviet mine. About 500 people were rescued; the remaining passengers and crew were lost.
The identity card confirming that the Efrussi family was evacuated from the vicinity of the frontline. 1941
Many years later I came across the name of the Berezina once again: it was engraved on a marble plaque on the wall of the Odessa Maritime Museum (formerly the English Club on Pushkin Street) commending the crew of the Berezina for its heroism in rescuing the wounded during the Sevastopol debacle.
In Mariupol, we were taken from the quay to an empty school building. There we suddenly heard loud crying: there were other refugees already housed in this school, and they were in despair. It turned out that they had just received the news of the tragic end of the ship Lenin, and a lot of them were refugees from Odessa who had lost loved ones on board the Lenin.
The news of its sinking immediately started to acquire details in the retelling, some more authentic than others. Listening to the conversations around me, I heard that the Lenin had carried around 3,000 people being evacuated (or maybe there were more: I never came across any official count of lives lost, nor any officially confirmed information about the causes of the sinking). They said that among the passengers there had been many senior officials and members of the scientific and cultural elite, besides ordinary people.
Vladimir Efrussi, age five
In the summer of 2009, I visited Odessa, and my former classmate from the Odessa school No. 47 told me that his cousin had been among the two thousand wounded people evacuated from hospitals who were killed during the last voyage of the Lenin. According to my classmate, the ship was sunk in an air attack some time after leaving the port. No one actually knew how many refugees had been on board, and now we probably will never know. Today, one realizes all the cynicism and mendaciousness of the old Soviet slogan “No one has been forgotten; nothing has been forgotten” – as well as those of that whole inhuman regime.
Here is another example. In 1985, during the All-Union Conference on Psychology, Vasily Davydov, a renowned scientist and academician, told me the following story. During the war, but after the siege of Leningrad had been lifted, a large group of Leningrad intellectuals was sent to the North Caucasus to recover from the after-effects of starvation. In that group was the first wife of Davydov’s colleague, also named Efrussi (possibly a namesake, or a distant relative of mine) with their two daughters. The train carrying the group suddenly found itself in a war zone. It was captured by the Germans during one of their counterattacks. A German officer politely asked the commandant of the train for a list of all Jews on the train, supposedly in order to protect them from hostile actions on the part of someone else. The list was handed over to the officer, and the Jews were collected and taken away. But not very far. All of them were shot.
Who knows about this episode today?
Has no one been forgotten? Has nothing been forgotten?
During our odyssey, we, too, might have vanished dozens of times, without a trace. Death dogged our heels, but we somehow learned to live with it …
Grandmother Katya, young Vladimir, and his mother. Odessa, 1948
The front was rapidly approaching, and they put us on an eastbound train, into boxcars. The train, of course, was not following any sort of timetable, and today I shudder to think: how did my mother and grandmother, how did all the other women with young children manage in those ghastly train cars with their doors so high off the ground? How did they manage, running with a kettle at train stations to get boiling water, then climbing back up into the car without any help — given that the boxcars mostly stopped randomly in places where there were no station platforms and were not equipped with either steps or running boards? How did they manage to return in time without knowing when the train would resume moving? How did they get food? How did they deal with the issues of hygiene, of keeping themselves and the children warm during the cold nights?
I remember my grandmother frantically running around on the ground outside the boxcar whose floor was chest-high to her, as the train jerked and started to move. We were unable to pull her up. The horror of being left alone at the station in all that chaos, with the frontlines approaching, not knowing where our train had gone – I do not know how she would have survived this … Then a near-miracle happened: the train slowed down, and someone helped Grandmother to climb up into the car. I must say that throughout all our wanderings, there were almost always people who helped us in a difficult moment or in a dangerous situation. People whose names I certainly do not know and who might have perished … My deepest thanks to them, because without them we would never have survived the whole nightmarish evacuation and the subsequent years. May their memory be blessed!
We ended up in a Cossack village called Krasnaya Yeya, in the Kuban area. The locals treated us with a certain degree of irony, probably due to our ragged appearance; but they were friendly enough. It was the last place, for years to come, where we spent a couple of days not actually starving. There was bread to eat, and once, even a chicken! But the frontlines were breached once again, and once again we fled east, by train, this time riding on open flatcars transporting some equipment that was being evacuated. Some of the cars had a sort of canopy rigged up to protect the equipment. The people who were accompanying the equipment sat under the canopy. They gave us permission (which they could easily have denied!) to sit on the open part of the flatcar. This turned out to be our great good fortune, because we could already hear the roar of German heavy artillery.
I remember a German plane circling over us, and my mother covering me with her body. Fortunately, the train was not attacked, another stroke of luck! Then a heavy rain started, but we had prudently brought a vinyl kitchen tablecloth and used it now to cover ourselves.
We learned that our train, with all that equipment, was headed for Siberia, and we had no warm clothes. So some kind people advised us to change trains and to find one that was going south. Naturally, we saw no other option besides trying to make our way down to warm Central Asia. Except that soon, something happened — it is hard to explain what — but we suddenly found ourselves in front of a military patrol who told us it was illegal for us to be where we were and had us placed, for some reason, on a train going in the opposite direction, i.e., toward the front.
At the next station, Mother appealed to a military official (there were almost no civilians around to be seen), and they quickly transferred us to a train going east. Afterwards, I realized that that area must have been under martial law, where the power of the top military commander had no limits, and we must have broken some regulation. But then the same military commander helped us get out of there, which actually saved our lives.
And so we came to Makhachkala and got to the pier. It turned out that a frighteningly massive number of refugees had gathered there, waiting to embark. And there, a miracle happened: we ran into Grandfather. He was my grandmother’s second husband, not related to me by blood, but that did not affect our warm relations. He had lived with us in the house in Greek Square but had not wanted to leave. However, a few days after our departure, a bomb fragment went through the closed shutters and a double window to fall next to the sofa on which Grandfather was resting, so he decided not to tempt fate any further and joined his daughter’s evacuating family. So now we met at the pier in Makhachkala, which was a great stroke of good fortune, because it was self-evidently impossible to find loved ones in this buzzing swarm of humanity.
We crossed the Caspian Sea to the city of Krasnovodsk, which reeked of fish. And then we took another train, with a diesel engine, riding in passenger cars (no longer in cattle cars!) for a few days, through the desert to the port of Chardzhou on the Amu Darya River in Turkmenistan, whose water looked brown, like chocolate. Then came a long journey on a barge towed by a tug, to some place whose name I have forgotten. And then we rode for two days, in a bullock-cart (an arba) with unusually big wheels, across the desert to a district town in the Tashauz region in the northeast of Turkmenistan.
A few words about our river passage. Our barge had been built for transporting cargo and did not have any cabins or canopy or guardrails around its deck. The refugees were housed in two holds. The barge was towed during daylight hours and tied up near the shore at night. As the barge had no amenities, a single wooden outhouse had been installed on deck, and an endless queue of people lined up outside it in the mornings. The line moved very slowly, and people told each other, understandably, to hurry up. And those who had stomach problems had to come out and go straight to the back of the line again.
In the hold adjacent to ours, I saw two elderly men lying motionless. People whispered that they were dying. Another old man fell off the barge into the water. I became aware of this when a woman, apparently his daughter, began to scream desperately. They managed to pull the old man out alive. There were no medical personnel on the barge, but no one grumbled: everyone understood that all resources were being diverted to the war effort, as the Soviet slogan went: “Everything for the front, everything for victory!”
Grandmother Katya, Odessa, 1936. This picture was taken when she was decorated as a “Stakhanovite” for exceeding her production quota and was intended to be displayed on the “Board of Honor” at her workplace. Grandmother presented it as a wedding gift to Vladimir Efrussi’s parents when they were married.
While we were riding through the desert, our arba driver was a Turkmen man whose eyes were hidden under a huge sheepskin cap. My mother was afraid he would murder us. When we arrived, my mother gave him a few packs of green tea she had brought in case of emergency. And then we saw the Turkmen smile, and his eyes were kind.
Mother stayed in the local district town to work in a nursery and daycare center, and my grandparents and I moved to the country, to the collective farm (kolkhoz) called “The Second Five-Year Plan.” The evacuees were frankly starving there, and the villagers themselves were not much better off. When it became unbearable, my grandfather and I went door to door to beg for food. Some people gave us a few flat cakes made from the local corn. They were very crude and probably not fit for elderly people to eat; other, better kinds of flatbread that were baked in special ovens (where they were tamped down with a special round cushion), were in short supply. Prices were very high. During our four-year evacuation, I was twice invited to eat pilaf, a local meat-and-rice dish that was cooked only on great occasions. Grandfather did not live to eat it. He died in the district hospital, at the age of 60. My mother had major surgery, probably without anesthesia, because I heard her screaming. My grandmother said that Mother “came back from the dead.” It was my grandmother who nursed her back to health, being tormented by guilt all the while, because to save Mother she had to give her some of my food.
I came down with dysentery, could not eat, and became very weak, lying in bed all quiet and almost transparent, as they told me later. I was saved by a neighbor, a Turkmen woman, who brought me some medicinal herbs and some food. She saved my life, and I do not even know her name … I also suffered from severe attacks of malaria and a seasonal eye disease where my eyelids were stuck together so tightly with gunk that I could not open my eyes in the morning.
But the most terrible thing was always the hunger, which haunted us day and night. At school, during lunch recess, they gave us a tiny rectangular hunk of bread, dark, with traces of straw in it, about a hundred grams worth, and I ate it up immediately. But that only made me hungrier. My grandmother cooked some porridge but it was not quite edible, and there was never enough of it anyway.
I think that I was most traumatized by the hunger, because up until 1948, they would find pieces of dried-up bread under my pillow: I hid them because of an eternal fear of being hungry again. During the evacuation, and for a few years afterward, food was rationed. The bread was black and coarse, and bread rations were normally issued in one piece plus one or two smaller, additional pieces to even out the weight. People, mostly the elderly, stood around the grocery store asking for bread. I usually ate the additional piece right away. But once it happened that I got two additional pieces and did not have time to eat them both before one of the old beggar women stretched out her hand. It is very hard to see old people beg, and I have a weak, pliant character. I did not have the strength to say “no.” I gave her my additional piece. Others saw it and stretched out their hands toward me, and I gave away my second additional piece as well. That day, I brought home a mere heel of a piece, no bigger than 200-300 grams.
In places where we were evacuated there were many teenagers. They were probably former inmates of orphanages or juvenile penal colonies who had either fled to warmer climates or been forced out on the street. Their anti-Semitism was amazing. My peers and I, most of us Jewish, were to them “little kikes.” I remember that they used a curious verb “to Jew,” meaning to be greedy, avaricious. They had a favorite song that has remained etched in my memory, in which a prison guard asks a young convict how many people he had murdered. “Eighteen Christian Orthodox,” answers the honest young fellow, blessed with a good memory, “and three hundred twenty-five kikes!” “I forgive you for the kikes,” replies the guard, who is obviously not Jewish, “but for the Russians, never!” And promises to shoot the kid on the morrow — without a trial, naturally.
These boys beat us but not too often and usually without any particular malice, unless we put up a fight, but they were constantly taking away our food and things. They just snatched the food from our hands and gobbled it down right there on the spot.
On April 10, 1944, Odessa was liberated. At the end of 1945, we began our long and complicated journey home. For many months, we wandered around, staying in cellars and other places not fit for human habitation. Then there was a two-year struggle to get back our apartment, which had been taken over during the German occupation by a Russian family by the name of Fomin. The Fomins flatly refused to even talk to us about it and displayed their resolve by keeping an ax by the front door.
At any rate, we had to survive and go on living, which we did as best we could. But this, as they say, is another story.
Vladimir Efrussi as a student at the Odessa Technological Institute. Vladimir’s family: his grandmother, Katya, his mother and stepfather, Yefim Shusterman. 1958