Irina Levikova was born in 1935 in Vitebsk, where she lived and worked as a pediatrician. She immigrated to Israel in 1991 and resides in Haifa. Irina has a son, a daughter, a granddaughter, and a grandson.
THE LIFE OF ENDURANCE I THOUGHT WOULD NEVER END
In early July 1941, my mother went to the draft board. An officer with two bars on his collarsaid, “Our position at the front has improved, don’t evacuate,” and did not give her permission to leave. My father had been drafted (he was 47), Mother was a housewife. Only those who worked in the industry were evacuated with their plants and factories. We stayed put, unsure of what to do.
The Germans entered Vitebsk on July 9. We hid in the basement of a church that stood in front of our house; the children thought no one could find us there. That same morning, local men, armed with axes, began to loot grocery stores. Everyone stopped work. We saw Soviet policemen fleeing along the walls towards the Smolensky Highway. My sister, a member of the Komsomol, told Mother, “You can do what you like but I’m taking the kids and we’re leaving, because the Germans will kill us.” Mother did not want to flee, she said that the Germans were a civilized people; she had witnessed the German occupation of the Ukraine in 1918 and argued that the Germans were favorably disposed toward the Jews. Naturally, Mother did not want to leave our house and the cow. Nevertheless, we ran after the policemen just as we were, in our summer dresses and house slippers. Mother only went back to check that the doors were locked. I was then six years old. I remember it all very well. Our documents, prepared well in advance, were in the pocket of the one coat that Mother took with her.
We walked a long way down Smolensky Highway along with units of our retreating army. We walked only at night, hiding in the woods by the side of the road at night because the highway was continuously being bombed. I was too heavy for Mother to carry; sometimes soldiers helped her by letting me ride on top of a tank or picking me up and carrying me in their arms. Our little group included my grandmother, my aunt with her three children — a girl my age, a boy two years younger than me, and a three-month-old baby – and their nanny, a Russian woman. Outside the city of Smolensk, a passing passenger car, a Soviet model GAZ-M1 (popularly known as “Emka,” i.e., “Emmy”) stopped to give us a ride. My aunt and her whole family got in, and my mother shoved me in there as well. I suddenly realized that my mother did not get in with me and got so frightened that I jumped out of the moving Emka’s window. I landed in the middle of the road, scraped and bleeding, and ran back to my mother – who promptly spanked me for wasting such a precious opportunity, a chance to ride some of the way. We went on together, and the car disappeared from view; we never saw our relatives again.
I remember crossing the town of Rudnya. It was burning on both sides, and we ran through a narrow corridor between two raging walls of fire. I often have nightmares about that fire: I try to run away but the flame draws ever closer to me…
We walked for a couple of weeks. Thousands of people were walking in the same direction: the elderly, women, children… In the afternoon, to avoid bombing raids, we walked through the woods. As it became dark, we went back out on the road and walked quickly, almost running. Both my mother and my grandmother (who was around 70 years old) had badly swollen feet.
Children kept asking for something to drink. Not for food, just for something to drink: it was very hot. I remember I threw a tantrum, and my mother went to look for some moss. She wrung it out and gave me the liquid to drink. But this did not help much; twenty minutes later, I was thirsty again.
Beside us walked a husband and wife with their three daughters, all older than me. They said they could not wait any longer and wanted to get to their destination faster. So they did not wait for darkness and left the forest. We set off later, and when we came to the road, we saw a terrible sight: all three girls had been killed by a bomb. I will never forget how the parents lay their bodies under a birch tree and went on with us. I will remember this forever.
We came to Smolensk thinking that it was safe, deep in the rear. However, as dawn started to break, we saw German planes circling over the city. With great difficulty, we made our way to the train station, where we were able to get on a train.
We decided to go on to the town of Rzhev where my father’s cousin lived. The way there passed through Moscow. While in Moscow, we were caught in an air raid. We were told to get down into the subway station, which we did. When the bombing ended, we went back to our train and saw that the whole train had been gutted by bombs and completely burned, including my mother’s coat with all our documents in it.
When we finally got to Rzhev, we learned that our uncle had been drafted to work at the local hospital, which was due to be evacuated to the city of Yaroslavl the next day. Uncle got us added to the official lists of evacuees as members of his family. Mother was given a job in the hospital laundry.
The Germans dropped leaflets from airplanes that said that they would razeRybinsk (another major city in the region) to the ground and turn Yaroslavl into a sea. The local population of Yaroslavl was mostly ethnic Russians, who called us “these scaremongering Jewish interlopers.” Then a bomb happened to hit the house of one of the women who had called us scaremongers, killing her mother; so she stopped calling us that. We often heard the word “kike” thrown around. My sister, however, was a gutsy girl and stood up to them.
At first we slept on the floor in the landlady’s room. As we had no possessions of any kind, she made us a bed from homemade throw rugs and we lay on these side by side. Then, three weeks later, we were given a room in a shed that had been used as a vegetable stand.
And when winter came, we were taken in by some kind people. They gave us their toilet room, which had been hastily turned into abedroom by nailing some boards down for bunks, and made an outhouse for themselves in the yard. My mother used the heated removable metal plates from the hotplate to warm the boards before bedtime. She used them also to bake matzot for Passover.
We lived in this way for a while, and then my mother met a young girl, an orphan, whose father and brother had been drafted into the army. The girl lived alone. I remember her name to this day: Manya Mayorova. The authorities assigned us to her house because my mother agreed to look after her. Manya was a little older than me but younger than my sister: she was not yet in school. We moved in on the second floor of her two-story, wooden house, and only then did we begin to relax. My mother worked in the evacuated hospital from eight in the morning until eight at night. Bread was rationed; the lines formed at three o’clock in the morning. When my sister Polina turned fourteen, she also went to work.
It was a very severe winter. Mother worked in the hospital laundry washing soldiers’ overcoats and blood-stained clothes. A first-class dressmaker, she sewed me little boots from the felted wool of soldiers’ overcoats. I remember how kids in kindergarten laughed at me when I came in wearing those home-made boots: the locals all wore store-bought felt boots. I felt that this life would go on forever.
I came down with rubella, had a temperature of 40°C, and could not go to kindergarten, but there was no one to leave me with. Mother’s laundry room was in the hospital basement. She made a bed for me on the landing, and I lay there huddled in rags and waited for her. I had sewed dolls for myself and played with them.
Bombing raids were a constant occurrence. Our house was across the street from the chemical plant “Mayak” and not far from the automotive tire plant, which was right by the river Volga. The Germans kept trying to bomb both these plants, and we were constantly under fire, hiding in trenches.
In 1942, as terrible battles raged around Stalingrad, my mother had a dream: she saw my father’s mother, who had died in childbirth when he was only two years old, putting a small packet under my mother’s pillow. In a couple of days, a group of soldiers injured in Stalingrad arrived in the hospital. These groups were coming in one after another. Triage began right at the train station, where the men were sorted and routed to the appropriate department of the hospital. Their overcoats and blood-soaked bandages were removed and washed, and we kids were given the job of rolling up these bandages after they had been washed. My father was in one of these groups! He had been wounded in the leg.
Convalescent soldiers were put to work around the hospital. My father’s job was to deliver bread from the bakery. And then he received a notice summoning him back to active service. The hospital director went with him to the military authorities and implored them: “Don’t take away my last cripples: we need people to help around the hospital!” And so my father was allowed to stay, spared certain death in the slaughter of Stalingrad.
Our hospital moved east, and we moved with it. For a while we were near Leningrad, in Kiskino, fifteen kilometers from the terrible carnage of the frontlines. We constantly heard explosions. Then we were transferred to Krustpils, and then to Jekabpils, in Latvia. All the Jewish homes stood empty. The locals showed us white stripes painted next to the number plate of each Jewish house. It was the Latvians, not the Germans, that had marked and killed the Jews. The Latvians also hated the Russians. I saw them with my own eyes kill a Russian sailor in a bread shop. The forests were full of Latvian gangs killing Soviet soldiers. We knew about it because even after the war was over, a lot of wounded men continued to be brought in to the hospital.
When we arrived in Vitebsk after the victory, we saw that the city had been reduced to rubble. Our own house, which my family and my grandfather’s family had jointly bought from a local priest before the war, had been burned down. We rented a room in the next street and then bought it from the owner. That house was called the “bedbug colony” due to the staggering number of these pests, which infested every crack, from the attic down to the basement.
Our family had been devastated. My maternal grandfather, who lived in Beshenkovichi, had been turned over to the German police and killed. My father’s entire side of the family also had perished. They had lived near the train station but had not had time to get out of the city and had all died in the ghetto. A theater was later built on the site of the ghetto, and by a strange coincidence this theater could not open for the longest time, things kept happening to delay it… We learned that the old people had been taken out of the ghetto, crammed into boats, taken out to the middle of the Dvina and drowned; the river was deep there, with whirlpools and rapids. Others had been herded into gas chamber vans … A few people had escaped from the ghetto, and they told us how it happened. The local non-Jewish residents confirmed these stories.