Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Levina Musya

Born in Shatsk, Pukhovichi district, Minsk region. She was the youngest of eight children. Her father was a blacksmith; her mother was a housewife, like most women of the time, whose lot was hard, with heavy household chores and worries.


In Shatsk lived an amazing man, whose name was Mikhail Tarasevich. He was not Jewish but, as a sign of special respect for his fellow countrymen, donated money to build a memorial to the Jews of Shatsk executed by the Germans and their henchmen during the war, on the site where they were killed. He erected a large stone monument with an inscription. He then called the local Orthodox priest to consecrate the site: in order to satisfy him, he set an Orthodox cross on top. The priest came and blessed the last resting place of the Shatsk Jews and the monument itself… Some time later, Mikhail Tarasevich added a star of David at the base of the monument. So now there is a memorial to the dead, bearing both a Star of David and a cross.

This amazing Shatsk resident created yet another memorial: this time, to the teachers of Shatsk killed during the war. Top of the list of names appearing on this monument is the name of my sister, who, like the other victims, was killed by the Germans and officers from the Belarussian national police.

During the war, all my four brothers served on the frontline. One of them earned particular distinction: on August 8, 1941, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and later, the medal for “the Defense of Moscow.” I still have a photo of the All-Union Elder, Mikhail Kalinin, bestowing the award upon him in Moscow. My other three brothers also fought and received commendations: only one of them survived.

In 1934, after completing seventh grade, I went to study at the College of Telecommunications from which I graduated in 1938. I was then sent to the Amur region in the Soviet Far East. At the time, there was a great need for professional communication specialists to help build the telephone and telegraph Moscow-Khabarovsk line and all the telecommunication colleges in the Soviet Union sent their new graduates to the Far East for a year. After working there for a year, I returned home to Minsk and was given a job at the Radio Committee Studio of the Belorussian SSR. I was working there as a technician at the outbreak of the Second World War.

All our lives have been closely linked with the radio, which continued to be our main source of information: television and internet came much later. Before the war, the radio brought all the major news from around the world and in the field. However, information in Belorussia was entirely dependent on Communist party ideologues in Moscow, who dictated what the people should know and what they should not. The news that appeared in our newspapers and magazines was dispatched from Moscow to local outlets via radio and tele-communication lines and the radio announcers would read out the texts to the central and regional newspapers. All news items were relayed first direct to the entire Republic and then supplemented by local radio broadcasts in both languages, Belorussian and Russian, in the form of news broadcasts, and including the speeches by public figures. We thus provided the basic news for the local press, but the print version always appeared after being aired on Radio Moscow, and in some instances it also needed to be vetted by the Party censor. As employees of the Republic’s radio, we were well aware of importance and significance of our endeavors and were proud of it.

On June 22, 1941, the day the war broke out, I went to work early in the morning: our broadcast started at 6 a.m. I lived on Ostrovsky Street, not far from the Radio studio and my route to work was short and straight: I only needed to cross a couple of courtyards. After crossing Nemiga Street, I walked along Komsomolskaya Street to Revolution Street No. 3, where our Radio Committee studio was located. Next door was the air defense headquarters, where I noticed a lot of people…

I had no idea what was going on, I always took the same route to work but had never seen so many people there before. There were a large number of soldiers in the group, but most of them were in civilian clothes, although some had a distinct military bearing. They were almost all smoking nervously and talking excitedly to one another. When the occasional passerby came along, they would fall silent. In those days, everything was so top secret that even their fear of ignoring the real state of affairs did not exceed their fear for their own lives, so people would preserve excessive secrecy right to the last minute, when they were given the order of “Lights out!”

So I went to work past these sullen-looking men who stood there, watching me suspiciously. Once inside, I received an unusual directive − to get everything ready for transmission and stand by for further orders. “We are holding for some important communications and a transmission direct from Moscow. Our own programs will not be on air for a while.” So we waited without understanding what it all meant. Thus began the first day of the war for me. We were all on the job but did not comprehend, nor did we know what was happening, or the cause of all this uncertainty. This time, even for ourselves as radio staff, who were always the first to know about events, the information remained classified. Only much later, at 12 p.m., was the retransmission from Radio Moscow switched on.

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov was making a speech. This was the first announcement about Nazi Germany’s perfidious, underhand attack on the Soviet Union, without declaration of war. Then Yuri Levitan, the Moscow announcer, read other tragic news. And so the war began: the front was rapidly approaching Minsk. We went down to the basement of our Radio studio building, where we had back-up equipment and spent the first night of the war there, awaiting special instructions. To go on air without permission was prohibited.

I unwound the long telephone cord stored in the overhead hardware and connected the telephone in order to have a line to the chairman of the Radio Committee studio and the Communist party bosses, but no instructions were forthcoming. My own immediate superiors, whose responsibility involved the communication and signal output from the studio to the radio transmitters, were located in Kolodishchi, where the most powerful radio station was situated, together with our transmitters and antennas broadcasting Belorussian Radio.

On the second day of the war, when the massive bombardment of Minsk began, I managed to contact a shift supervisor and technicians at the central radio station by phone and asked, “What should we do?” The shift manager replied, “Musya, you must leave Minsk urgently. Our army is retreating and it’s likely the Germans will enter the city very soon.”

I owe our salvation, the salvation of my little sisters and nieces, to this man, whose name I cannot remember, and to my colleagues. Who could have known then for how long our troops would be in retreat, powerless to halt the Wehrmacht’s forceful advance? Could we have imagined then that we were leaving Minsk for the long years of occupation, to lose our loved ones forever?

We were all betrayed by those criminals who had classified the true dangers as top secret and left us exposed as prey for the enemy. After sacrificing us in this way, they made their own cowardly escape from danger.

There was no one left to issue instructions about what we should do with the National Radio Station. We had to leave everything behind: the hardware, radio studio, and all the equipment, because it was out of the question to blow it up without proper authorization and, besides, there was no one left to do it. Later, when the Nazis occupied the ruined and burning city of Minsk, our Belorussian radio, silent since the second day of war, immediately found its voice again − but this time, in German, as the Germans, together with “our” local collaborators, went on air from our microphonesm in our Radio Committee studio at 3 Revolution Street.

I informed my colleagues and Vladimir Yurevich, the announcer, still awaiting the broadcast, about my telephone conversation with the radio communications’ center in Kolodishchi. I spoke openly about the situation, the absence of our superiors, and the advice I had received from the connection hardware team at the Kolodishchi radio center. Vladimir Yurevich took it all in immediately and ran home to make his preparations, while I went to my sister Riva and convinced her to leave town with me. She was pregnant with Bella, and her older daughter Jeanne was then only three years old. Her husband joined us. We set off on foot on the long road eastwards to Mogilev, via the small towns of Smilovichi and Cherven. We were attacked by low-flying German planes, which shot and bombed the refugees. It was a nightmare: all around us lay the dead and dying; we were surrounded by a sea of tears and grief.

All the Communist party leaders, led by Panteleimon Ponomarenko, first secretary of the Central Committee of Belorussian Communist Party fled shamefully, without organizing any evacuation of civilians, or mobilizing the male population to replace men serving in military units which had suffered such a crushing defeat in the first battles with the enemy. Before his cowardly escape, Ponomarenko made a belated inspection tour of the District defense facilities: he then shifted the entire blame for the situation on the innocent commander of the Western Special Military District, despite the fact that the latter had repeatedly reported to him of the real and imminent threats presented by inadequate border security and the absence of the requisite strategic military infrastructure… Moreover, and significantly, as Ponomarenko’s subordinate, the commander did not have recourse to submitting a report about the situation in the Region directly to Stalin.

All information about the rapid German advance remained classified in terms of the general public, on the pretext of preventing a potential outbreak of mass panic − with devastating consequences for a major population of abandoned, defenseless civilians. Civilian inhabitants of the big cities received no advance warning and thus did not have time to disperse to rural areas, where there was a greater chance of survival. Indeed, many fleeing people wandered around in circles with no real idea of where they could find safe haven.

The local population was also totally duped by pre-war propaganda which promised them that the war either would not happen, or that victory would be won on foreign soil. Many therefore hoped naively that the war would be over in a day or two and that they would be able to return home soon: only a small number of refugees made their way to their relatives in the countryside.

Some Jewish residents of Minsk, who were originally from my hometown of Shatsk, even returned to the big city, believing that there was really nothing worthwhile bombing there: no military installations, industrial or strategic targets, just some small workshops – nothing special. As distinct from Minsk, there was no ghetto in Shatsk: the Jews were just told they were being sent to work, and were then taken out and shot. My father, two of my sisters, one of whom was married with three children – were all killed…

We fled in the direction of Mogilev, via Smilovichi and Cherven, as our colleagues from the radio center had advised.

Meanwhile, many people did not even know which way to leave burning Minsk, and precious time was lost at the expense of many lives. Thousands more fled spontaneously and died on the roads from bombs or gunfire from aircraft overhead. Many dead and wounded lay along the roadside and on the forest floor.

We were fortunate to manage to leave in the wake of the first wave of refugees, because German paratroopers soon cut off the route to the east and later refugees were forced at gunpoint to return to the war-torn, blazing city of Minsk, which had already been captured by the Germans.

Earlier, a large number of civilians had stormed the railway station in any way they could to get onto the last, accidentally-delayed trains, comprising cars and goods wagons. Those who managed to climb on had a chance of escape and survival. Once under way, however, many of them were killed during the air bombardment – from gunfire and bombs.

We were walking on the highway and became hungry. When we reached the next village, we asked a local woman if she would cook us some potatoes. And she said, “What will you pay?”

We replied that we really had nothing – nothing at all. What could we do? Should we pawn our pants? Our hostess gestured angrily but began to cook some potatoes, then put the pot in front of us. But just as we were putting our hands in to take a hot potato, bombing broke out … And so we took to our heels there and then, crazed, our hunger forgotten.

I, my sister, her husband and three-year-old daughter Jeanne, somehow managed to reach Mogilev. My sister’s husband went to the military recruitment office and was immediately drafted into the army, while we went to the station and, after numerous attempts, finally climbed into the jam-packed wagon. The train began moving, to the hysterical shrieking of its whistle and the honk of its horn; it would slow down only in the Tambov region and then pick up speed anew, heading eastward.

And there, on the crowded train, my sister began having contractions: it was the wrong time and place for a delivery. All our cries and entreaties fell flat on unhearing ears. The car was so crammed that it was impossible to clear the way to the door at train stops: people would not get off to allow anyone to pass, for fear of being left on the platform.

The situation seemed hopeless, but, fortunately for us, a very nervous, but equally resolute, army officer chanced to be in our car. Wounded in one of the early battles somewhere on the border, he was also blinded by the explosion that had maimed his face, and had been sent back to the rear. While he had lost his sight, his hearing remained unimpaired and he fully understood our difficulties: he drew his service pistol from the holster and began hollering and shooting at the ceiling of the car. Suddenly, there was complete silence. And then he announced in a firm voice that he would shoot anyone who blocked passage to the door. Grumbling and cursing, people reluctantly made way for us to get off. The train moved on eastward, while we began to look for the nearest hospital for Riva to give birth.

We were already in Russia, in the small town of Rtishchev. The hospital was not hard to find, being located almost next to the station, and our Bella was duly born there. The birth went well and we were handed a tiny bundle wrapped in a diaper. Were it not for that army officer, my sister would have been unable to give birth in those circumstances, and I’d have lost both her and my niece.

My sister, her two children and I lived out most of the war years in Penza, the nearest sizable town, until the liberation of our native Minsk.