Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Kantor Leah


Born in Klintsy (now in the Bryansk region) in 1937, Mrs. Kantor has taught mathematics and physics. She immigrated from Klintsy to Israel in 1992 and lived in Nazrat-Illit. Mrs. Kantor has a son and a granddaughter.


When the war began, we lived in Klintsy; I was four and a half years old. When Smolensk fell to the Germans, our local authorities ordered an evacuation. Then Smolensk was recaptured by the Red Army, and they canceled the evacuation order. There were rumors in the city about the Nazis’ atrocities towards Jews but many did not believe them, because back in 1918 the Germans in our city had behaved decently …

I remember how we, children and adults, stood by the roadside as the retreating Red Army was passing by. I remember how terrible, how despondent the soldiers looked; the haunted eyes of one soldier have been seared into my memory. All this caused great anxiety and concern. When an air-raid alert was sounded, we hid in bomb shelters set up in root cellars dug in the yards of houses. Men wore gas masks and patrolled the streets. My mother sewed a little pouch to keep all our important documents. During air raids, she put it around her neck, grabbed me in one hand, a bundle with our things in the other, and ran to the shelter, while Father put on his gas mask and went out into the street.

A little digression. When the second war in Iraq started in 2003, I, too, sewed a little pouch for myself and put my documents in it. I live in Nazrat-Illit, in Israel. I am a widow and live alone. It so happened that during Israel’s second Lebanon war I was on crutches and could not run out to a bomb shelter. During the air raids, I sat in my apartment and remembered the summer of 1941. So did these times run together in my memory …

But let us return to Klintsy, to 1941. A military unit was quartered in our town. Of course, the Germans knew about it. In early August, an evacuation was announced. Many left — by train, in horse carts, or on foot. Those Jews who were unwilling, or unable, to leave the city and stayed behind, later died in the ghetto. Among them were our relatives.

Relatives of my grandmother Gita, who was evacuated with her youngest son’s family, died in the ghetto, all 35 of them. My father’s brother’s family also died there. My father’s other, elder brother had been evacuated, but his wife died during the evacuation, and his son returned from the war disabled. My father’s sister, with her baby, died during the siege of Leningrad. The youngest of my father’s siblings had fought on the frontlines and came back. On my mother’s side, her younger sister’s husband went missing at the front and never came back. My mother’s brother fought in the war and survived.

The night before the evacuation, the Germans sent up flares, and night turned into day. We hid in a ditch. And the next day my family – Mother, Father (who had been found medically unfit for military service), and I, a child of their later years — left town. In fact, it was I, a child, who got my family out. My kindergarten was urgently ordered to evacuate and loaded into a boxcar — I think that was the last evacuation train — and my parents got in with me. We rode for a long time, following circuitous routes; the train cars were densely packed. Sometimes we were escorted by Soviet planes. When the air-raid warning was declared, the train would stop and we would jump out of the car and hide in the ditches. When the train stopped at a station, people went to get hot water and food. Sometimes, they had to crawl under the train cars. But as no one ever knew which train would start moving and when, people were often caught under the train cars when it did. Some managed to crawl out in time but some did not; these things happened.

Finally, after months of wandering, we arrived at night in the city of Shadrinsk in the Kurgan region. From there, we were sent to the village of Maslyanka, twenty kilometers from Shadrinsk. Naturally, the local population, mostly ethnic Russians (they called themselves chaldons, a word indicating their descent from the original settlers of the region), did not want to take the evacuees into their homes but they did not dare refuse. Most of the locals loathed the Soviet regime: their village lay near the infamous Siberian route, the road used by armed convoys escorting groups of convicts on their forced marches to hard labor in Siberia.

When we finally arrived at our destination, I fell asleep and slept for almost two days straight. My parents told me later that no one could awaken me and that they had been terribly worried about me.

My parents immediately began working at the local collective farm. They were paid in grain and potatoes. Soon, my father was drafted into the Labor Army and sent to work building a pipe manufacturing plant No. 705, located five kilometers from the city of Kamensk-Uralsk, in the Sverdlovsk region. The workers were housed in barracks. In the beginning, all the foremen were Russian Germans but then, one night, they were all arrested. The food was poor, and the work was brutally hard: breaking up the frozen ground with hand tools. Even some of the native Siberians could not bear it.

One night my father was awakened by hunger; he could not stand it any longer and went into the canteen to ask for a bowl of soup. They set him to clean a cauldron and then gave him something to eat. He was always very conscientious about his work, and after a few such trips he was given a permanent job in the canteen. This saved his life.

Meanwhile, my mother and myself stayed in Maslyanka. Mother continued to work for the collective farm. Every worker was closely watched. Any evacuee seen by a local foreman pinching a carrot, or something else, was prosecuted.

The family with whom we lived did not want us, and there were many nasty incidents. One time, the landlady heated her wood-fired bath, sent us in to bathe first, and intentionally shut the flue too early so as to choke us with fumes. I was the first to begin to suffocate. My mother saw it, quickly wrapped me in a blanket and rushed out of the door, naked, straight into the snow; but we lived.

Another time, Mother went with the landlady’s older daughter into the forest to gather hawthorn berries. The girl led her deep into the woods and left her there, alone. Mother did not know which way to go and quickly got lost. Fortunately, she met an old man riding in a horse cart, who turned out to be a good man. He told my mother she was headed straight to a wolves’ den, and put her in his cart and brought her back to the village, to the great disappointment of our hosts. I was terribly frightened and cried unconsolably for a long time.

Eventually, we moved to another house, but that was not much of an improvement, either. Our new landlady was named Aganya. We stayed with her until the spring of 1942. Aganya’s husband was in prison, and she often said to us, “When my Ivansha comes home, he’ll kill you right away.”

There was no firewood, and the winter was truly Siberian. My mother went out into the taiga to gather brushwood. We were cold and hungry. I had no hat, just my own mop of hair, full of lice. I was given the children’s ration: 300 grams of bread a day. In the summer, the best thing we had to eat was nettle soup. Mother periodically bartered some of the things we had brought with us for food, and that is how we lived.

There were nasty incidents in Aganya’s house, as well. Once, they pushed me off the high wooden platform on top of the stove, under the ceiling, that served us as a bed. I was so frightened that I stopped talking for several days. Another time, I somehow got in the way of Aganya’s mother-in-law, and she dropped a heavy cast iron frying pan on my head. I started bleeding profusely, in fact, I do not know how I stayed alive. I still have the scar today.

Father occasionally received special rations at work. He decided to send us a present: he put a chocolate bar (instead of sugar) into a parcel and asked a person from Maslyanka to bring it to us. This honest man walked twenty kilometers and gave us all of it. When I ate the chocolate, my whole body, including the soles of my feet, broke out in blisters. My mother carried me on her back for two weeks because I could not walk. I developed an incurable eye disease (blepharitis) that has remained with me all my life, causing a great deal of inconvenience.

The pipe manufacturing plant No. 705 was built quickly. It now included a side line of business — a shoemaking workshop. My father, a mold maker by trade, went to work there. The workers were allowed to work after hours building barracks where they were then given a room. When Father got his room, he moved Mother and me in there. We moved to Shadrinsk in a horse cart, in the spring; there was a bad flood, and we nearly drowned, but apparently G-d saved us. We settled in this new, separate room of our own. Next to the plant, there was a village of adobe huts where dispossessed and exiled Ukrainian farmers (the kulaks) lived. And further away, two kilometers from the plant, there was one of those planned factory towns, a Sotzgorod (“socialist town”), a rather modern neighborhood for the time. Each family received a six-hundred-square-meter plot of land for a vegetable garden. People planted potatoes, starting them from sprouted cuttings, or eyes, rather than whole seed potatoes. Life was slowly settling into a semblance of normality …

Klintsy was liberated in September 1943 but for some reason, we did not leave right away. We were going through a long spell of trouble. First, I fell gravely ill and was twice on the verge of death, and then, in 1944, Mother fell very seriously ill. There was no medicine, no food, and her illness lingered, but in the end she survived.

There were some parcels of clothing from the U.S. that were distributed among the residents of the Sotzgorod. These were aid packages sent by American Jews, but no one mentioned the Jewish connection, and the clothing was distributed equally to everyone.

Our room was equipped with the wall-mounted black radio speaker. I figured out when the official news was broadcast and was the first to hear about the Soviet victory. The joy that broke out cannot be described. Father and I walked to the Sotzgorod, where everyone was singing and dancing. Father was awarded the medal “For Valiant Labor in the Great Patriotic War.”

It was May 1947 before we returned to Klintsy. There, we learned that our neighbors, Jews who had returned back in 1943, had gotten our part of the house reassigned to them through the court, having heard from someone that my mother was about to die. So now, we made use of the documents my mother had preserved, to get our apartment restored to us. Justice triumphed.

Such was my wartime childhood, from age four to ten years old. Perhaps not as tragic as some …