I COULD NOT RECOGNIZE MY CITY
In the spring of 1941, I was 13 years old and graduated from the fifth grade of Russian school.
I was born in the small but very beautiful city of Kremenchug. I remember the city in detail. Even now, closing my eyes, I see the wonderful and famous for its acoustics pre-revolutionary theater, the stationary circus, the stadium and the “Bolshevik” theater is remembered forever. The two atlantes were holding the balcony with the signboard and it created the arched doorway to the main entrance. In the vast foyer there was a statue of a goddess, it was standing on the cliff and had a wreath with lights above its head, and the cliff was surrounded by the huge aquarium with exotic fish. Orchestra music was heard from the balcony before each performance, and during school holidays the entertainer helped us to have fun without disturbing others.
The theater was visited by famous Soviet people, every time it was a citywide event, all prepared in advance, they cared much about it and then had long discussions about the smallest details. Leonid Utesov came here with his jazz band several times, Durov with his pets gave performances in the circus; there were acrobats, jugglers and clowns, but the highlight for us, the boys, was the performance of the wrestlers – our countryman Poddubny and the famous Moshe Slutsky. And there was a historical museum in the old synagogue; there were a lot of interesting things in it. I used to come there whenever it was possible. I was standing long at the showcase with old guns. They were decorated with pearls and precious stones. It excited my imagination.
But the real joy for boys who grew up on the Dnieper river, of course, was fishing. Sometimes I went fishing with elder guys. At the age of thirteen I could already make a fishing line of the horse tail hair (I was getting the whip from the horse owner more than once), my floats were made of goose feathers.
Goods were rafted on the Dnieper at that time, and in the backwater, there were always some big rafts. Usually we arranged our homemade fishing nets among the logs for night and in the morning, we used to take home a good catch. At the fairground, between Pervomayskaya and Lenin streets, there was a park with paths and flower beds, with fountains and benches; poplars and lindens were planted there. The park quickly became one of the favorite rest places for the city people. On summer weekends a special boat shuttled between the city and the islands of Zelenyi, Fantasiya, Shalomay and Dynka; families went on vacation there.
In newspapers and on the radio, there was an active propaganda and we had a strong confidence in the invincibility of our valiant Red Army, that in case of war the fighting would be held only on the foreign land. The feature films and the documentary chronicles strengthened our confidence in the bright future. The film “Chapayev” was known by heart. Another film, “Seekers of Happiness”, gave us hope for the Jewish small homeland creation, though Jews were sent to drain swamps to be devoured by mosquitoes and midges. Many famous people were praised at that time: Mamlakat, with her innovative proposal of two hands cotton picking and the basket on her neck, the famous bard Jambul – for his praising the greatness of Stalin as the father of all nations, the country’s main border guard Karatsupa that had arrested all the trespassers, etc..
The summer holidays of 1941 began, as always, happily and carefree. But my father was drafted to strengthen the state border at Lvov for three months and it made me very upset.
On June 22 only one word was heard everywhere –war! In the early days of the war we, the boys, were in a kind of euphoria – the war meant courage, bravery, feats and the rapid Red Army victory over the enemy. But less than a month after the bombing and siren began, we saw the bomb craters, the destroyed houses and the dead bodies of our peaceful citizens. In the yards the cracks were made that became trenches, and the windows were sealed crosswise with the tape paper.
In the second half of July a small group of German paratroopers landed on the right bank of the Dnieper. The fighter battalions of pre-military age boys were created immediately. They were given a few rifles, five cartridges and spade handles. It wasn’t known what the commanders hoped on, but the boys were never seen alive again. My two uncles – Motya and Fuca the Bruskins – left lying out there somewhere. Eternal memory!
From the very beginning of the war, when the bridge over the Dnieper wasn’t destroyed, the flow of refugees from Poland and western Ukraine was plodding through Kremenchug. They were the only source of information, because the radios were confiscated from people almost immediately and the official media did not report anything. From the refugees we learned not only about the state of war affairs, but also about the fate that was being prepared for Jews by the Nazis. We also received a letter from dad from Lvov and he warned us to flee into the country rear, as the front of the war was approaching our city.
On August 7, 1941, just six weeks after the war started, the German troops reached the right bank of the Dnieper and began their intensive shelling of Kremenchug. The city panicked, people fled as fast as they could while carrying their belongings in suitcases, but quickly they lost their strength and got rid of the heavy load, that was immediately picked up by looters. Since my uncle, my mother’s brother, worked in the city transport organization before the war, we were allowed to join their convoy and put our things on their carts. We locked the apartment, left everything we had and departed. We were a big family – my grandparents, two aunts, my mother and four children. I was the eldest; I was 13 and the youngest of us was just three years old.
The bridge over the Psel river was constantly bombed and the road to Poltava was strafed, so the transport organization management decided to take the village roads and the ford that were well known to the teamsters. At first, I rode on my father’s bike, but it was impossible to drive it on the sandy road and there was no place on the carts, so I had to leave the bike. The stocks of food ended very quickly, and we did not always get the chance even to drink water at villages. Although, sometimes good people gave us a loaf of bread for the kids, but there were too many of us and were hungry throughout almost all the way. We had to sleep on «bare» land, in a heap. Our train was attacked by fighters several times, although it was clear those were civil carts. We were fired at from a machine gun at low altitude, and I saw the smiling face of a German pilot. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but we lost a few horses. The road of 150 kilometers to Poltava took more than three days. My aunt Betya at that time was already in the last stage of her pregnancy, she also went all the way on foot and on the way to Poltava the contractions began. She was rushed to the city hospital by the cart and we were waiting for her in the courtyard of the Poltava transport department; the train started without us.
Fortunately, Uncle Boris, aunt Betya’s husband found us in Poltava. Because of his disability he was mobilized in Kremenchug and was left to destroy the industrial facilities. After the young mother with her little Abrasha was discharged from the hospital, we managed to get to Kharkov by train, which was a miracle. Kharkov had already been bombed at that time; its people fled as well as from Kremenchug. We took the evacuation document there and settled on the floor of the station to wait for the southbound train. The Kharkov station seemed to be a terrible sight – a real ant hill, overcrowded with people, full of bales and of lice, but mainly – with rumors. Rumors were spread at the sound speed, and they were constantly changing. The lists of the train passengers were constantly made, corrected, supplemented, copied, torn and written again. Finally, the train came. It consisted of unequipped cars and Polish holiday cabins. The train was stormed. The cries, crowding and jostling were unimaginable. We got a compartment with two benches among the bales in the suburban train. There were eleven persons of our family and three neighbors of another family. There wasn’t enough room for sitting, not to mention lying down or sleeping. Our train was moving very slowly, with constant stops, as it gave the passage for the trains going to the West and to the East of the country. There was no food; it was difficult to obtain drinking water. When the train stopped at the stations, it was possible to get something, but most of the stops were in deserted places. The dead were buried right along the railroad tracks, the graves were dug with the help of sticks and hands.
We were travelling for almost a month to the city of Engels first, but then the route was changed, and we were brought to the city of Kustanai in Kazakhstan. There each family took a place on the floor in some club. The floor was a wooden one and it was possible to lie down and to stretch out in full length. We were visited by the representatives of different companies, evacuation offices and settlements – the buyers, as we called them. We weren’t taken by anybody – nobody needed a «crowd» of five children, four women, elderly man and a disabled fitter. An evacuation office clerk took pity on us. He gave the option to go to the Balkhash. In Kustanai the winters were cold, and we had no warm clothes, only tatters. There was no winter at the Balkhash; in general, it was warm and dry, with four crops a year. We agreed without hesitating. Having obtained the travel documents, by the Almaty railway we got to the Byurlyu Tyube pier. We waited for the steamboat to the Balkhash for two days, as always – on the floor, and for another three days we were on the boat. Finally, at the dawn of the third day, we saw the three pipes of the Balkhash copper plant on the horizon. We docked at night and couldn’t see anything; we lodged at the Balkhash, but also on the floor. Only in the morning we saw the place we came to – just the rubble around and nothing of the vegetation. And the climate there, as it turned out, was also “wonderful” – the winter temperatures happened to be of minus 40 degrees and in summer – plus 40 degrees Celsius. But we had nowhere to go. On the third day, with the help of the recruitment office, my mother and Aunt Raya achieved a room in the barracks. Our neighbors helped us – they gave a washtub to wash the children and all the adults visited a bathhouse. It was almost happiness! At first, the shop counters were pleasing to the eyes, but we had no money. Winter was approaching, we had no warm clothes. Having spent the last savings, we bought the canvas shoes – one pair for both of us – for me and for my mother. It was for me to go to school and for my mother to look for work. Finally, she was asked to sort out potatoes on the vegetable warehouse. The payment was several kilograms of potatoes. There was no choice; we had to survive somehow and to eat something. She agreed, but I had to give up going to school. In winter, the younger children – three months Abrasha and three years old Fimochka – fell ill and were hospitalized. Aunt Raya started her work at the hospital to take care of them, but both of them were buried soon; she continued to work at the hospital. Soon, the Tairov Moscow Chamber Theatre was evacuated to the Balkhash. My grandfather was taken there as a stagehand, a theater always needs a good carpenter. The military plant from Kolchugino, in the Ivanovo region, was also transferred to the Balkhash. My aunt Betya and Uncle Boris got some jobs there. Then, my mother got a job as a hairdresser, which was her profession. I managed to get some planks during the arrived factory unloading, and it was a real treasure. With my grandfather we made a trough, a laundry grater, a bench and a small table out of them.
A year after the war started, in June 1942, I started working as a postman. The worst thing of the job was to deliver the funeral yellow paper sheets; they came to the town more and more often. The letters were brought to the post in the evening, they were checked by the military censorship, only then they were sorted and handed for delivery. Next to the delivery department there was a broadcasting center. I often happened to be in the doorway, staring at all sorts of interesting instruments. One day, the broadcasting center chief noticed me and offered me a job at their department. Without hesitation I filled in the application as he dictated, and it was brought to the authorities by him personally. The next day I became a fitter of the broadcasting center. I didn’t know how to do anything. The last lineman was drafted into the army. There were only the chief and the 15-year-old boy, Ivan Fomennyh, at the broadcasting center and it was he who quickly taught me the ropes. Soon I was able to fix any damage on the radio lines; I could quickly climb to the poles with the help of climbing-irons. I listened on the headphones to the latest news reports while standing on a pole. The mournful voice of Levitan reported about the bloody and brutal battles of our troops that had left our cities and towns. But after a while, he had a solemn voice while reporting about the liberated by the Red Army settlements.
On September 29, 1943, after the liberation of Kremenchug by the troops of the 5th Guards Army of the Stepnoi Front, we decided to try to get home. We were told the city was badly damaged, but we had no idea about the scope of the damage, and we tried to get tickets through thick and thin. We quitted our jobs, received the documents and took the train to Novosibirsk. For three days we were expecting the train to Ukraine, and then we repeated our entire way from two years ago – the car of the train, five persons on one place and stoppings in wilderness. But we were prepared for that– we weren’t fleeing, we were going home! Sure, the way home is always shorter and easier. Finally, we arrived and found ourselves at the station. On the board there was the inscription: Kremenchug, but we didn’t find the city. I knew the entire town very well, all its streets and alleys, but I couldn’t make out the way among the ruins where we found ourselves. All the houses we and our relatives lived in former times were destroyed, as well as the remaining 95% of the city housing stock and 100% of the industrial buildings. Broken bricks, glass and weeds were everywhere. At first, we found the survived entrance gates of the stamping plant – now it is the shoe factory entrance – and blocked the corner with an old piece of tin-plate, so we got a resemblance of a roof over our heads. Later we found a littered basement in a house on Gorky street; we cleaned it and settled there. Only during the winter, with the help of the recruitment office and the city council, my mother got a communicating room in a communal flat for the whole family. There were fewer of us when we came back– as we had buried two children; also, Aunt Betya and Uncle Boris stayed at the Balkhash military plant.
My father went to the war on June 22, 1941 near the city of Lvov. He was captured in Orsha, and then he escaped. He walked through Kremenchug and Kharkov, at Kursk he joined a partisan unit and sent us letters from there across the front line. After they rejoined the regular forces, he died a heroic death in the Kursk battles. His younger brother, a tankman, was killed during the liberation of Kiev.
Finally, after 1,418 days and nights, an anticipated word – VICTORY – was heard! The joy, tears and laughter, and the tears again… Our family survived, not all of us, but many. We must not grumble, because the Jews that were unable to escape from Kremenchug, during the first days of the occupation were sent by the Germans and their collaborators to the sandy ditches outside the city where they were shot on the banks of the overflowing Dnieper river.
From Joseph Skarbovsky’s book “The Children of the War Remember the Taste of Bread”, Vol.2, Israel: Studio Fresco, 2016.