Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Lebedev Lev


Professor Lebedev, a Ph.D. in History and a member of the International Academy of Informatization, was born in 1929 in Nevel (the Pskov region). He has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel since 1996 and has three daughters and six grandchildren.


The town of Nevel, where we lived, came under German bombing attacks in early July 1941. On July 8, thirty German bombers attacked our small town. People were stricken by confusion and fear. No one had told us that the Jewish people were especially at risk from the Germans, nor that Nevel was in danger of being occupied by German troops. On the contrary, the pre-war Soviet propaganda had insisted that if the enemy were to attack the Soviet Union, it would immediately be destroyed, and the war would be fought on its own territory. The fact that Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany was actually known, from the movie Professor Mamlock[1] as well as from rumors, but the official press, after the signing of the 1939 pact with Germany, reported nothing of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against the Jewish population.

Each family solved the evacuation dilemma separately. And since the young people had been drafted into the Red Army in the early days of the war, it fell to the older people to grapple with it. There was no organized evacuation effort in place, at least not in our area. The older people found it difficult to leave their homes and property and start on a journey to nowhere. And many of them stayed.

[1] Professor Mamlock is a feature film based on a play by the German Jewish playwright Friedrich Wolf exposing the monstrous racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime. After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, Wolf and his family immigrated to the Soviet Union. The movie Professor Mamlock, based on the play and directed by Soviet filmmakers Herbert Rappaport and Adolf Minkin, was shot in Moscow in 1938.222


Mother, Hannah Lebedeva, with children, Lyova and Manya, 1938.

Some families, including ours, went out to the villages. Our parents decided that we would go for a few days to the village of Spichino, where Father had good friends among the peasants, wait out the bombing there, and then act according to circumstances. Father himself did not go: he could not leave work. His colleague Zalman Dvirtz took charge of the evacuation of both his and our families.

This turned into a journey of a thousand kilometers.

In Spichino we were treated well: the people there knew and respected my father and Dvirtz. But a few days later we learned that the Germans were approaching Nevel and decided to proceed east immediately. On July 16 the Germans took Nevel. German tanks passed us on the road. Our horse strained to pull the cart loaded with our belongings. Dvirtz’s sick wife sat in the cart, too, and Dvirtz himself held the reins and whip. The three Dvirtz children walked behind the cart, together with our family, comprised of my pregnant mother, my grandmother, my six-year-old sister Manya, and myself.

We barely made it past the town of Toropets, all aflame after the German air raid, when we had to stop because our horse was tired. People could no longer afford to be tired: there was a war on. Herds of cattle were being driven along the road, away from the Fascists. I recognized my father among the drovers. Overjoyed, we said a fond farewell to the Dvirtz family and joined the group of drovers headed by Father. Now, our fear of getting into the hands of the advancing Nazis was compounded by the bombing and gunfire from German planes. They hunted us like rabbits, chasing us and shooting at us while we scattered and dropped to the ground. Bodies of men and cows lay on the field after each such raid. The herds scattered and had to be rounded up again. In the town of Selizharovo, we saw the first signs of an organized evacuation effort. We were issued our evacuation papers.


Grade 7, Uglich high school, 1944. Lev Lebedev is first from left in the third row.

At Lake Peno we saw a terrible sight when a German bomb hit the ferry. The lake was red with blood. Pieces of human and animal bodies floated in the water …

We were driving milk cows. How were we supposed to milk hundreds of cows? The cows were suffering, they cried, big tears flowed from their eyes. They mooed piteously. We asked women in the villages we passed to milk them, but other herds had already passed through there before us, and the women were tired and no longer needed milk. If they agreed to do it, they sat down and milked the cows right there in the road.

Harassed by gunfire and bombing from German airplanes, spurred on by the advancing German troops, we moved east. It was a hot summer, and we were thirsty. In one village, we asked for a bucket to scoop up water from the well. The woman offered us some kvass, which we drank happily. She offered us another glass, and a boy who stood beside her said: “Go ahead and drink. We don’t drink it ourselves anyway. There’s a dead rat in it.”

In another village, an old man agreed to sell us a chicken. He said: “I’ll sell it to you, dear people, but I would never sell it to Jews.” “Have you ever seen a Jew?” Mother asked. “No, I haven’t, there aren’t any Jews around here, but I’ve heard they are bad people.”

The Soviet soldiers retreating along with us were as hungry as we were. The commander of a military unit commandeered Father’s herd and gave him a receipt for it. When we reached the village of Mednoye, 25 km from the city of Kalinin, our regional center, Father went there to account for the animals while we stayed behind waiting for him. He was drafted into the Labor Army, given a week to evacuate his family, and assigned to the town of Vysokoye, the district center, which was — again — close to the front zone. Mother said that she did not want to be evacuated and was not going anywhere but was staying right there with him. Whatever would be, would be, but we should all stay together. So we went to Vysokoye. Father started working, and I went to school, to fifth grade. But our peaceful life was short-lived; soon, the German bombing raids started again. Our school was near the railway station, and trains carrying ammunition passed through it. One day a bomb fell on a train carrying shells, and fragments rained down in the schoolyard and flew in through the windows. We ran out of the school and ran to the bridge over the river but it had been destroyed. We ran to another bridge, which was pretty far away. In the town, meanwhile, a rumor had spread that a bomb had hit the school and all the children had been killed. No one could approach the school: the bridge was destroyed, there were shells exploding all over the place, flames were everywhere. What a joy it was for everyone when I got home safe and sound!

The frontline was approaching our city. The second phase of the evacuation began. Father was once again ordered to evacuate the livestock. In the village of Kunganovo of the Vysokovsky district we were encircled; there were German troops on all sides, only a few kilometers away. All we could do was wait for a counter-offensive by our army. Now, at the worst possible moment, my shoes fell apart from all the walking. Mother and I went to the village shop to see if there was any chance of shoes in my size. We did not find shoes; what we found was looting. Peasants were taking away sacks of flour, salt and grain in carts and wheelbarrows, or simply on their backs. Women, shoving each other out of the way, were grabbing everything that came to hand, swearing and fighting. The village shop was not rich in goods. When only one comb was left, two women grabbed it, the comb broke, and they seized each other by the hair. It was both scary and comical to watch.

Near the village, in the woods, a Kazakh cavalry unit was caught in the encirclement. They had learned that there was cattle in the village that was being evacuated. The commissar of the unit came to Father together with the chairman of the local collective farm and asked him to hand the cattle over to their unit, because otherwise the Germans would get it: they were going to enter the village today or tomorrow, and meanwhile, Soviet soldiers were starving. Father agreed. Again he was given an official receipt for the seizure of the cattle. In this way, the Kazakh horsemen were saved from starvation, and Father was relieved of responsibility for the livestock.

A young lady named Masha escaped from the German-occupied Kalinin and came to see our hosts. She was their niece and used to live in this village, and now she was afraid that local residents might tell the Germans that she was a member of the Communist youth organization, the Komsomol. Mother suggested that Masha should try to get out of the village with us. Masha agreed, and we set out. Right as we were leaving the village, the people of Kunganovo, headed by the chairman of the collective farm, were welcoming the Germans at the other end of the village in the Russian tradition, with icons in their hands. Everything was on fire, caught between the Soviet artillery on one side and the German one on the other.

We walked a little way down a forest road, which ended in a clearing. We had to find another road, and Father and Masha went off in different directions to explore. Father gave me the reins and said to move slowly along the clearing toward the left side. A few minutes later, I saw six Germans with machine guns walking toward us. I became frightened and dropped the reins, staring at the Germans. No one but me had seen them as yet. Just then, Father walked up; the Germans also came closer. Father was upset that he could not find the road, and he saw that the cart had gotten stuck in the mud when I dropped the reins, so he hit me on the back with his whip. Very likely, this saved our lives: the Germans laughed and walked on. It must have been a comical sight, indeed: an old woman, a pregnant woman, a young girl, a cart bogged down in a muddy puddle — and a man whipping the boy instead of the horse.

Now the Germans were gone. But what were we to do next? Mother said we should return to the village and take our chances. Grandmother agreed with her, saying that she would pray for G-d to help us. But I begged them to go on. I had seen something fall out of a Soviet airplane on our way from Vysokoye to Kunganovo, which turned out to be a pile of newspapers – my first time holding the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. There was an article in it by Ilya Ehrenburg which talked about the Nazi atrocities towards the Jews. Ehrenburg’s words had sunk deep into my young soul. So now I begged them not to return to the village.

After much wandering, we reached the town of Torzhok and then walked along a major road to the town of Kashin, which was then the regional seat of the Government agency in charge of livestock, the Livestock Office. Father made his report about the cattle he had handed over to a military unit and was, once again, given a week to evacuate his family, whereupon he was to report to the draft board.

We walked on foot to the town of Uglich, in the Yaroslavl region, but could not go on because Mother was about to give birth. The Uglich City Council gave us an apartment, formerly owned by the management of the Uglich hydroelectric power station (the one that had been built on the blood and bones of labor camp inmates). Father started working for the Livestock Office. On December 28, Mother gave birth to a boy. We were cold and hungry. Father, as the only worker in the family, had the only ration card, which did not cover the rest of us. A few months later, Father was appointed director of a Government farm located 30 kilometers from Uglich, and we went with him. He was soon recalled to his former place of work in Uglich, but we stayed at the farm.

There, at the age of twelve, I entered the workforce and greatly enriched my vocabulary, working with a farmer named Uncle Vasya, who was a veritable artist of profanity and unleashed it freely at his poor plowhorse who, half-starved during the winter, was apt to stop mid-row. The farm also owned oxen for transporting heavy loads. These were as impervious to profanity as they were to the regular ox drivers’ commands and even to the whip: when one decided to lie down in the road, nothing could move it until it felt like getting up again.

Father managed to get a house owned by the Livestock Office. It was located in a village three kilometers from Uglich. We were registered there and received our ration cards.

A few days before the end of August I took that month’s cards and went to get our ration of bread. I got the bread but came home without the cards: they had been stolen. We got to the end of the month somehow, and my parents did not even scold me, but I was deeply ashamed that I had let the family down; it still hurts to remember this.

On September 1, I started fifth grade.

Life was not easy for anyone during the war, but for us it became even more complicated when Father was sent to the frontlines. At thirteen, I became an adult and realized that it was my duty to help my mother to support the family.

After completing fifth grade, during the school vacation, I got a temporary job at a munitions plant. I was formally apprenticed to a milling machine operator but the very next day was sent to work at a logging operation. There, I learned the right side to notch a tree for felling, how to use a saw to saw through trees, how to chop off the branches, how to roll the trunks away and store them. I also got eaten alive by mosquitoes and fetched and carried for the grownups, who cussed heartily and automatically as they gave me their orders. We worked in the woods for a month, and as soon as we returned, all of us apprentices were fired: we were not needed at the plant. I spent the rest of the summer vacation working as a shepherd for the Livestock Office, which got me my own worker’s ration card during the summer.

In September, I went to sixth grade. At school it was very cold, the ink froze, there were no exercise books; we wrote on newspapers, between the printed lines. My class met in the evenings. In the morning Mother and I would go out with our sledge, axe, and saw to get firewood. Of course, this should have been done in the summer, but back then, before the snowfall, we had had no way of getting the wood home. Homework had to be done after school, in the late evening, by the dim light of an oil lamp, as kerosene was scarce. This lamp smoked heavily and got soot all over us, and we spent a long time washing it off.

I did well enough in school – no bad grades but no top marks, either. The local kids teased us, and sometimes we got into fights, but I did not usually get beat up: I was tough as nails from all our wandering and dangerous when roused. I wore my father’s clothes to school. They were the wrong style and the wrong size, but I had no other clothes. No one commented but I still felt uncomfortable.

In the village, besides our home, there was also a house owned by a Government agency in charge of collecting tree bark – the Tree Bark Collection Office. My mother and another woman worked there, using an ancient machine to press the tree bark into bales for shipment to customers, mostly to factories that manufactured gunpowder. The bark was used as a tanning agent in the production of gunpowder and was classified as strategic raw material. After I finished sixth grade, this organization hired me to manage supplier relations. The director was a rather old but very energetic woman, Varvara Zack, who had been evacuated from the besieged city of Leningrad where her husband and two children had died of starvation. My duties included writing letters to chairmen of collective farms, exhorting them to supply tree bark to meet the needs of the war effort and attaching a directive from the District Executive Committee of the Communist Party specifying the amount of bark each farm had to prepare. The letters were signed by Mrs. Zack and sent by mail.

As the letters tended to be somewhat less than effective, the director decided to visit some of the collective farm chairmen in person. In order to stimulate the implementation of the defense orders, we were issued quantities of scarce goods, primarily vodka and soap. We took these coveted items and went, on foot, to visit the chairmen of the collective farms and to sign the contracts. Walking down forest roads, the director would occasionally get concerned: “Lyova, what if we are attacked by wolves?” And I, a thirteen-year-old hero, bravely assured her: “Don’t be afraid, Varvara Kirillovna, I’ll chase them away with a stick.”

But the hardest part of these expeditions, for me, was what happened during the conversations with the chairmen. After putting our bottle of vodka hospitably out on the table, a chairman would pour a full glass for himself and another for me. Mrs. Zack declined to drink; I tried to sip my drink slowly but the chairman insisted that I drain my glass: “Bottoms up!” Gradually I learned to drink spirits. Although I could not drink equally with a grown Russian man, I tried very hard to keep up. I still do not know how my body endured this and why I never became an alcoholic.

Finally, the war was over. Our joy was great but bittersweet: two of Mother’s brothers had perished on the frontlines; the Nazis had shot Father’s sister and her three children. In October 1945, Father was discharged from the army. He had fought on the First Belorussian Front, was awarded nine medals, was injured in the Battle of Berlin, and came home deaf.

And so our evacuation ended. We returned to Nevel [1] — but it was a different town. Some 1,200 Jews had been shot by the Nazis in a suburban park known as the Blue Dacha. Most of the industrial enterprises were destroyed, along with most of the cultural institutions and many residential areas. Our house survived but required major repairs; our property had been looted. Still, the main thing was that the war was over and we were alive. Everything else was just details.


[1] A town in the Kalinin region (now the Pskov region) of Russia. 3,178 Jews lived in Nevel in 1939. On July 8, 1941, a German bombing raid destroyed almost all the houses in the town center. Nevel was occupied from July 15, 1941 until October 6, 1943. About 2,000 Jews were killed during the occupation.