Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Lukovsky Arkady


Mr. Lukovsky was born in 1932, in Radomyshl, Zhytomyr region, the Ukraine, and has lived and worked in Leningrad. Ph.D., specialist in the field of anti-corrosive protection of metals. He immigrated to Israel in 1990 and lives in Jerusalem. In Israel, he has worked on quality control processes for the surface treatment of materials. For the past 10 years, he has worked as a tour guide in Israel. He has a son, a daughter, and granddaughter.


As the Germans advanced deep into the Ukraine, arguments broke out in our town of Radomysl: to evacuate or to stay put. For our family, however, there was no question. Father was a Communist; staying in place with the Germans in town was unthinkable.

Sometime in July 1941, my mother picked me up from my Aunt Zlata’s house, loaded all the children, Grandmother Chaya, and my father’s niece, Lelya, into the horse cart, and our flight began. We headed for Kiev, where we had many relatives. Aunt Zlata accompanied us for a few kilometers, riding in our cart. I wept bitterly and would not be comforted. Perhaps I had a premonition that I was seeing her for the last time. Father still had things to do in Radomysl, and he set out a few days later.

Aunt Zlata and Uncle Zalman stayed in town. Uncle Zalman had in his possession the cash receipts from the state shop and felt that he must hand them over to someone in authority. The family of Uncle Arshe Leyb also stayed. Apparently, they planned to leave later. Or maybe they did not believe the terrible rumors that the Germans were coming. But the Germans did come. The last journey in the lives of my family members was the forced march to their execution in the forest outside the village of Rudnya …

It took a few days for us to get to Kiev (it was about a hundred kilometers away). At night, flashes from cannon lit up the road; we heard gunfire. Along the way, my mother took another woman with a child into our cart. I recently learned this from by Fanya Kotovskaya, the widow of my cousin Abram who died in the war, the son of my uncle Michael. That woman now lives in Israel and considers my mother her savior.

We arrived in Kiev just ahead of the advancing Germans. Here we stayed — until the end of July or early August — with relatives who lived on Lutheran Street, which rose steeply from the Kreschatik street up to the neighborhood of Pechersk. Steel anti-tank barriers known as “hedgehogs,” made from steel beams welded together, bristled everywhere. The ground floors of buildings were surrounded with sandbags. Window panes were criss-crossed with paper tape. Blue beams of searchlights converged and separated in the night sky. I once saw a German plane, caught in the crossed beams and illuminated, crawl across the sky for a long time trying to break away from the anti-aircraft shells.


Arkady Lukovsky, age two. Radomyshl, 1934.

During the day my mother went out to run errands, leaving us at home. Four-year-old Yinakh (Gena) hated being left behind, so he ran and threw himself against the locked door; we had a hard time restraining him.

My father came on foot from Radomyshl, bearded and haggard. There were no other means of transportation going from there. The next day he went to the draft board office and then on to the frontlines as a senior political officer. We never saw him again, although someone later told us that they had seen Father, wounded, around Boryspol, after the Germans had surrounded the area and captured a large number of Soviet troops.


Michael Lukovsky, Arkady’s father. Radomysl, mid-1930s.

Trains with evacuees were leaving Kiev. The trains were filled with family members of military personnel and employees of the enterprises working in support of the war effort. Gradually, our relatives and friends also began leaving. Then the time came for us to go, too.

In August 1941, we boarded a huge barge headed down the Dnieper to Kremenchug. It was packed with people, mostly women and children. The barge was towed by a slow-moving paddle steamer. The German planes circled above us. They dropped bombs but for some reason did not hit us, even though the barge slowly creeping down the river was an excellent target. Perhaps they just wanted to scare us, or felt sorry for the civilians. Aunt Mira and her husband, Izya, with their two young children, Willy and Maya, left the next day on another barge, also bound for Kremenchug. From there they went to the Kuban and then to Stalinabad in Tajikistan.

When we arrived in Kremenchug, we were sent to live in a village whose name I have forgotten. We were well received. The collective farm gave us a house made of rammed earth (pise), with a thatched roof. The floor of the hut was made of clay; to keep it clean, we swept it, and then refreshed it by smearing it with clay mortar. I made friends with local children and borrowed books from the village club library.

September 1, 1941, the first day of school, was approaching. I was getting ready to go to second grade. But then there was a rumor that the Germans had broken through the frontlines and were advancing toward Kremenchug. Everyone advised us to leave; we left and went to Poltava. The railway station and the square outside the station were packed with refugees. We spent a few days in that square until Mother somehow managed to get tickets (or rather, special, high-priority travel documents) for the train going east to Kharkov. The train was made up of dozens of red wooden boxcars; it looked endless. The front cars were designated for the elderly. We literally pushed Grandmother Chaya into one of these cars, and ran to our own boxcar, which was at the other end of the long train. But we did not make it. The train started, and my grandmother went to Kharkov with all our money and documents while we stayed behind in Poltava for another three days. Finally, G-d knows how, we came to Kharkov and found Grandmother, who had been waiting for us on a park bench all this time and was now very ill. She returned the money and documents to Mother and was immediately sent to the hospital. There she died in the fall of 1941, may her memory be blessed.

The Germans continued to draw ever closer, and we fled further east. “We”, meaning my mother who was then five or six months pregnant, four kids, and my father’s niece, Lelya. I, the eldest, was nine years old; Max, the youngest, was two. I do not think my mother had a particular destination in mind: she picked a train at random, so long as it was bound east, away from the war. We rode a long time, about two months – in crowded boxcars, sometimes on open flatcars between the cannons … One time we were lucky: we were given a whole boxcar in a military train all to ourselves, with a metal cookstove in the middle of the floor. Kind soldiers gave us milk.

There were sanitation teams operating at some of the train stations. They collected all of the evacuees’ clothes and treated them with hot steam to kill lice. The clothes came back misshapen, stiff, sometimes with holes burned in them, and almost unwearable. Occasionally, we got the rare treat of taking a bath, usually rigged up in some barracks next to the train station. I was already quite a big boy, but pretty short, and my mother would take me with her into the bath. I would stand there, in a room chock-full of women, crowded all around by their thighs and backsides.

Lelya got bored of traveling to nowhere with our noisy group. One day she disappeared, forever, leaving us to our own fate. She joined the Polish army of General Anders, which in the fall of 1941 was recruiting people from among (mostly Polish) prisoners of war and civilians that were in the USSR.

Finally, sometime in November 1941, we reached Chelyabinsk and stayed there. My mother’s due date approached. She got a job as a cashier in a canteen. At first, we all slept there at night, right on the tables. Then we got a room on Kirov Street. It was a narrow, long room in a semi-basement, with one window. The windowsill was flush with the ground. The room was furnished with only a bed, a table, and a stove. But after months of flight, we were happy to be in a real house. Gradually, life returned to a semblance of normality. Max was enrolled in a 24-hour nursery, Lenya and Gena in a 24-hour kindergarten. I went to second grade at school.

In December, my mother’s labor began, and she was taken to the hospital. Max, Lenya, and Gena stayed at their nursery and kindergarten around the clock. And I was cared for by a kind woman, a member of the school parents’ committee. My mother gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Six days later, the babies died; the hardships of the previous months took their toll. The tiny corpses, wrapped in my mother’s checkered kerchief, were put on a children’s sled and taken to the cemetery. I walked behind them …


Shifra Lukovskaya, Arkady’s mother. Radomyshl, beginning of the 1930s.

The winter of 1941–1942 was a time of hunger and cold. All food and most consumer goods were rationed, requiring ration cards or special coupons. The ration cards were divided into several categories: for workers, dependent persons, children, and others. A worker’s card was allocated 400, or sometimes 600, grams of bread a day; a dependent’s card (non-working), up to half, or three or four times less than that. We had to stand in line for hours in the freezing streets. Government-controlled prices in stores were low but at the farmers’ market, a bucket of potatoes, for example, cost 100 rubles. As a result, such staples as additional bread, grains, or vegetables, not to mention meat, were too expensive, so that people living on a regular salary or Government benefits could not afford them.

Once we were miraculously saved from death. The stove in our room was a coal-burning stove. Normally, after the coal had burned down, we closed the flue – otherwise the heat dissipated too quickly. Once, the flue was closed too soon, and we all got such a severe case of poisoning from carbon monoxide and other coal gas fumes that we could not get up. Fortunately, Lenya was less affected than the rest of us. He found the strength to limp up to the window and open it. But it could have ended very badly …

In winter of 1941, my mother received our first (and last) letter from Father. I do not know what it said, although I did see my mother holding its pages (written in pencil) in her hands. Only after the war were we officially notified that Father had already been classified as MIA (missing in action) back in 1942.

We spent about a year in Chelyabinsk. Mother had a very hard time managing alone with four children, and in the summer of 1942, when an invitation came from our relatives, we moved to Central Asia, to the city of Stalinabad, the capital of Tajikistan.

Stalinabad had been founded in the 1920s on the site of the small village of Dushanbe, a few dozen kilometers from the Afghan border. After Stalin’s death, the city was again returned to the name Dushanbe. It is located in the mountains, on the banks of the swift river Dushanbinka. In the spring, tulips bloom on the mountain slopes. There are so many of them that the earth looks like an endless colored carpet. The summer is very hot and the winter is rainy. Irrigation ditches, called aryks, run along the sidewalks. Here and there on the streets there are big deep cement-lined pools (called hawzes), filled to the brim with water.

One hot day, I decided to take a dip in one of those hawzes, to wash off some stray hairs that were stuck to my back after a haircut. I could barely swim and was used just to walking on the bottom. Suddenly I could not feel the bottom, and my leg started cramping. I would have drowned if some people had not seen this and pulled me out.

Soon after our move to Dushanbe my mother contracted severe malaria and then developed meningitis. On October 22, 1942, she died in the hospital. She was buried in the cemetery located on a hill outside the city. When the coffin was lowered into the grave, I tried to jump in. I do not know what came over me. It was as if I was seeing myself from the outside.

We had become orphans. But trouble did not come alone. Over the next month, Maya and Max contracted typhus and died. Aunt Mira and Uncle Izya decided to take us into their family. Aunt Mira became our official guardian, appointed by the City Council. Another two or three weeks later, Uncle Izya was drafted and sent to the frontlines. I remember the train station, a crowd of mobilized soldiers and their loved ones seeing them off, the noise, the crying, the screaming …

We lived on Frunze Street in a small, one-story rammed-earth house. Hard, flat-bodied scorpions ran up and down the walls, threateningly brandishing their claws. A scorpion was difficult to kill, even by hitting it with an ax — it simply fell to the floor and quickly scurried away into some crevice. Earthquakes were frequent. We knew that when the ground started shaking, we must immediately run out into the street, into the open. Once an earthquake occurred at night while we slept. One of the walls of our hut fell out entirely. We woke up, sat up in bed and looked out through the huge, suddenly formed window where our wall had been.

Malaria was rampant in Stalinabad. We all suffered attacks of this disease. Lenya, especially, was very often troubled by malarial fever. It came with the chills that shook the whole body, so that it was impossible to keep warm even under a pile of blankets and clothing. When the attack passed, one was left feeling terribly weak. Treatment required taking very bitter quinine pills that turned one’s face yellow. Aunt Mira worked at the local saddle factory, which produced things for the war effort. She spent day and night there and was even appointed a director after a while. We children were left to ourselves and spent all our spare time playing with the neighborhood kids.

Around Stalinabad there were large cotton fields. When cotton was ripe, everyone went out to pick it, including schoolchildren. We walked across the field and gathered the open bolls with thin, white fibers sticking out of them. We put the bolls in bags hanging around our necks. Then the contents of the bags were dumped out in a heap on the ground next to the thresher. White fluff was flying in the air, making our eyes water and turning them red.

Food was scarce. I remember two or three occasions when Aunt Mira bought us Tajik flatbreads at the market: that was a feast. The bread was round, made of gray flour, hot, fresh from the oven, served with a piece of butter on top. I never ate anything more delicious either before or after this – even though, if I were to taste this simple, coarse bread today, I would likely not find it to be all that special.

When mulberries ripened, we stuffed ourselves with the sweet black berries until our stomachs ached. Mulberry trees grew all around in large numbers. In the mountains we caught turtles and tried to make soup out of them. We had read in books about the delicacy that was turtle soup; in fact, it was not an easy thing to make. It involved removing the shell, and the only way we knew how to do so was to break it by bashing the turtle against the rocks. After all these difficulties, we would end up with some scraps of turtle meat, which we would then boil over the fire. In the end, however, all we ever got was a kind of gray sludge with a vague taste.

I have never eaten turtles again in my life.

This was our life for more than two years.