MY MOM SAVED MY LIFE
In 1940, my father graduated with honors from the Mining Institute in Stalino and was sent to work in Shakhty in the Kamensk (now Rostov) region. My parents married and moved there together. I was born in 1941, and six weeks later the war began. Father was medically unfit for army service and was therefore assigned to blow up the mines, since the Nazis were about to capture Rostov. He put us on a train, into a boxcar: his young wife, suffering from tuberculosis, and myself, his baby. My mother had brought only one suitcase: half of it was filled with diapers, half with books. My parents did not own much more than that anyway, and they had packed in a hurry, as my father was anxious to send us away from the front.
My poor mother, bless her memory, had a very hard time. The train crawled slowly, letting westbound trains pass. There was the constant cold, the hunger and the bombings, as well as the rain and the mud. When bombs went off around her, Mother would run to a bomb crater filled with water and drop down into it, holding my head up above the water with her hand so I would not drown. As she told me later, she screamed with fear but could not hear her own screams for all the noise. Then all the passengers would crawl out of hiding and get back on the train. Mother would wash my diapers in rain puddles but had no way of drying them — and so she would wring them out, strip to the waist and wrap the diapers around her body to warm them up for me. A tin served her as a drinking cup. My head was covered with scabs, and when I moved my eyebrows, the scabs would break and bloody pus would ooze out. There was no medical treatment available, and besides, no one wanted to touch me – everyone had children of their own and was afraid of infection… So my mother, a sickly city girl, had to do everything herself, always holding me in her arms. Mother said that the train crawled along for months in this way.
Finally we arrived in Kuzbass, or Chernogorka (to this day, I do not know which is correct). They put us a in mud hut with a small window, plugged with a rag. Those who were able, glazed these windows with sheets of mica or glass. But that was far out of our reach. We did not even own a key for the front door.
Impelled by hunger, my quiet, law-abiding mother stole into someone’s well-kept vegetable garden at night to dig up some potatoes. She was caught, beaten and handed over to the police. As she told me later, she cried and begged them to let her go, telling them she had a baby waiting at home. But they kept her overnight. In the morning someone in authority came and saw her, so thin, almost transparent, hungry, and trembling; he felt pity for her and let her go. She ran home and found me all stiff, hoarse from crying, and so entangled in the wet diapers that I had almost suffocated. My mother saved my life.
A military unit of new recruits from Kazakh villages was stationed nearby. The recruits did not speak Russian, and their eyes were damaged by trachoma. They received medical treatment and were sent to the front. Their leader was a schoolteacher who spoke some Russian. One day Mother came into our hut and found him there, making fire in our fireplace. Sometimes he brought her food. Usually he just sat silently. My mother told me that the local women shamed her: “You’re a whore, what are you doing while your man’s away at the front…” But what was she supposed to do, all alone? She would come into the hut, sit down in the corner to nurse me, and cry. And the teacher would tell her: “Do not cry, they are all fools!” My mother said that he seemed so old to her; he must have been about 45, and she was only 23. So there it was.
When I was 15–16 years old, a show came on television — a solo performance of a Kazakh singer. Mother watched it, leaning against the door jamb, and there were tears in her eyes as she remembered her Kazakh “old man,” the teacher who had supported her during that terrible time…
Then Father found us. As a mining and mechanical engineer, he was sent to Kuzbass, where new mines were being opened. We moved to Leninsk-Kuznetsk and life became easier. But I remember well the patches on the seat of Father’s trousers; I remember also my coat, which my mother had made out of her own coat, and so it had no buttons but had those big buttonholes in front.
I remember the hungry children from the orphanage – that was in Anzhero-Sudzhensk, another town where Father was transferred. They often went into the forest to gather pine cones. They carried coils of rope on their shoulders; they would throw it and knock the cones down from tall trees. The ever-hungry kids begged me, then four years old, to trade them my half-bitten cookie that Mother had baked, for pine cones. I loved pine nuts.
And then, in 1946, my father, talented, hard-working, with a brilliant reputation, was transferred to Moscow to the Coal Ministry to head a department. This was remarkable, given that he was all of 29 years old, and especially given his very Jewish name of Michael (Moses, of course) Rabinovich. And yet the patches contiued to shine on the Ministry official’s bottom. Instead of money he often brought his sick wife and child … Government bonds. And my poor, hard-working mother, nearly transparent from her disease, would cry as she scrubbed, and washed, and patched; she would cry, at her wits’ end about what to cook for us, when all we had was bread.
In 1952, Father’s Russian colleagues told him: “Michael, all Jews will be deported to Siberia, the trains are already there – you should go away somewhere, but not to Stalino, your city is too big: go out deep into the heartland.” So we moved to Makeyevka (now in the Donetsk region).
Father did not want to move to Israel, he said that he could not survive a second evacuation. He died in February 1993. The ambulance never got to him: there was no fuel. Soon after that, my family and I took my mother and immigrated to Israel.
All that is written above, my mother told me many times. She died in Israel in 1995, two years after we made aliyah. And I am immensely grateful for the two good years that this country, Israel, gave my mother.
Shakhty (“The Mines”) is a city in the Rostov Region of the Russian Federation. In 1939, according to the All-Union census, 303 Jews (0.22% of the population) lived in Schakhty. Although most Jews had been evacuated from the city or drafted into the Red Army, by July 21, 1942, when German forces captured the city, the number of Jews in Schakhty had grown due to the influx of refugees from the western regions of the USSR. In early August 1942, the Einsatzkommando C6 killed about one hundred Jewish families in a sand pit in the countryside. Altogether during the occupation about 400–500 Jews were exterminated.
There is some evidence that in 1948-53 an anti-Semitic campaign was being planned in the Soviet Union that would have resulted in a mass deportation of the entire Jewish population to remote areas. This plan never came to fruition because of Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953.