Victor Kleiman

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Born in 1927 in Lisichansk in the Donets Basin, Ukraine, Mr. Kleiman spent most of his career as a Government planner. He immigrated to Israel in 1994 and now resides in Rishon LeTzion. Mr. Kleiman has four grandchildren.


That Was The End Of My Childhood

 

Our flight during those terrible days – should it really be called an evacuation? That word was unknown at the time; people simply called us "refugees." We fled on foot for about five hundred kilometers, according to the map, although if you count all the detours it was closer to six hundred. Our march did not have an auspicious beginning, and yet the worst lay ahead ...

The first day of the war, June 22, 1941, is seared into my memory. The day before, on Saturday, June 21, 1941, Uncle Donya, my mother’s brother, had brought me home to Lisichansk from Kharkov, where I had gone to visit him. These were uncertain times; I overheard Donya whispering to my parents that in Kharkov he had heard the rumbling of tanks at night. He also told them, in confidence, that he had learned about a secret speech given by Stalin to graduating military cadets, and Stalin had supposedly said that a war was coming soon. My father, a dedicated reader of the newspaper Izvestia, asked: “A war with England?” “No,” Donya said, “with Germany!” Many years later, I read about this speech in Viktor Suvorov’s book Icebreaker. It did, in fact, take place on May 5, 1941, presumably a deliberate information leak.

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The next day, on Sunday, June 22, Donya and I went to visit my Aunt Lisa. There, he turned on a shortwave radio, and we heard barking German speech; I saw Donya grow pale, his red, crew-cut hair stood on end, and he said: "That’s Hitler speaking. This is war." Donya left that day, and we never saw each other again.

That was the beginning of the war and the end of my childhood.

The frontline was fast approaching the Donets Basin. Odessa had already been cut off. Father's cousin, Uncle Leka, came from there with his wife and daughter. They were being evacuated to the city of Kuybyshev (now Samara) on the Volga River and made a short stop on their way.

I have been struggling with a question that has no answer: why did Father not send me and my mother along with them, deeper into the interior of the country? I believe that this required getting us onto an official evacuation list, but there was no organized Government evacuation effort from Lisichansk at that time — and Father had never been good at making unofficial, “back door” arrangements. He also may have refused to believe that the Government could ever let the Donets Basin fall to the Germans, because, after all, we had all constantly been told that coal was “the bread for our industry."


On September 1, 1941, I started seventh grade, but school ended abruptly when it emerged that Lisichansk’s railway link with the outside world had been cut, and the Germans were already on the outskirts of the city. The authorities at my father’s plant announced: all staff must evacuate … on foot! The nearest operating railway station was about fifty kilometers away. There was no official effort whatsoever made to evacuate the families.


So my Dad was evacuated as part of the “first wave” while my mother and I stayed home.

I realized instinctively that my mother and I might have to flee across the river Donets with the last of the Red Army fighters (they were not called "soldiers" then). Two things troubled me: how would we cross the river if the bridge were blown up (as I could not swim), and what would we eat? I could do little about the crossing except hope for the best but I did lay in some provisions: unbeknownst to my mother, I got out our homemade carrying sack and put in it a few crackers and a smoked duck. My mother found my "cache" and laughed – before bursting into tears ...

Right around the time the Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow started, the new Katyusha rocket launchers appeared in Lisichansk; one may say that both cities were defended by this new weapon. The Katyushas saved my life, too, because after taking their fire the Germans fell back from Lisichansk, digging in about 25 kilometers away, behind the railway embankment.


Father returned from his first “evacuation” and went back to work: the mines were being restored, some parts of the
mining equipment repair plant resumed operations. I took my final exams; we planted a vegetable garden; life was coming back to normal. Then one day Father was told that his workplace, the coal mining trust "Lisichanskugol," had received an urgent order to form a "special works brigade" to build fortifications (i.e., trenches), and that Father was appointed head of the finance department (in other words, an accountant). They were told to proceed immediately toward the area of ​​the New Astrakhan village, away from the front -- across the Donets River, 50 kilometers northeast from Lisichansk! I had already passed my exams, receiving a certificate of completion of junior high school, and was about to go on a mandatory work detail to a collective farm. But Father signed me up as a volunteer to dig trenches, and so I went with him. Mother stayed home alone.


And here is another question I struggle with: could not my father have also taken my mother along to those "special works"? Apparently not. Perhaps he did not want to leave our house unattended, after so much effort had been invested in it. And no one really knew whether it was safer at home or in the trenches: things seemed stable enough, even to the point that the previously flooded coal mines were being pumped out ...


The "trenches" in question consisted of a great long anti-tank ditch that was dug by hand, with shovels, the dirt carried out on makeshift stretchers. No attempt was made to build serious field fortifications: no reinforced concrete bunkers, no timber-framed earthworks, no infantry dugouts. If there was a master plan, it never became apparent. For all the multitudes that were conscripted to dig that ditch, I do not even know what its intended purpose was: it did nothing to stop the Germans, who simply went around it, although it did slow down our own tanks and supply wagons in their hasty retreat toward the rear – they had a really hard time getting across it ...


Father talked the management into letting me go home to change my clothes and see my mother. And so on May 30, 1942, I went to Lisichansk. I only got to spend a couple of hours at home before going with my mother to the little park opposite the Lisichanskugol building where I was to wait for a bus that would take me back. The bus pulled up; I said goodbye to my mother and got on, barely squeezing my way in. I looked back and saw my mother crying ... I never saw her again: Lisichansk was occupied by the Germans on the 10th of June ...


Meanwhile, Father was working hard, doing payroll for the Labor Army workers (as we were called). Tanks, guns, and wagon trains were already flowing east through the village. One time I heard him mutter: "This is how we fight, huh: pulling the weaponry out first."


Then we were told that we would receive dry rations and our pay and directed to retreat on foot. Our destination: Morozov, a train station (or was it a village) in the Rostov region, two hundred kilometers from Stalingrad ...

We saw a ragged crowd of people moving along the road. Among them were wounded Red Army fighters as well as civilians, and even herds of cattle. Military commanders raced along in horse-driven cabs and chaises, some with women in them. It was then that I first heard the term “TFW” which meant "Temporary Field Wife."

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Our column joined the crowd on the road and quickly melted into it. It got dark. I was very tired after the day’s long march, literally falling asleep on my feet. Father asked the driver of a passing cart to give me a little ride, to help me out, but they refused, saying that there was no room in the cart. They did, however, generously allow us to walk holding on to the cart.


Evidently, the Germans had bombed the road before we got there: dead bodies of people (mostly in uniform) and dead horses lay on the sides of the road ... The driver of the cart we were holding on to dropped the whip he was using to prod his tired horses. Our benefactor asked my father to retrieve the whip; my father stayed back ... and disappeared in the dark. What was I supposed to do? Leave the safety of the cart to go look for my father, or keep trudging forward like a sleepwalker? Besides, I could not see a thing: it was a very dark night. I squeaked uncertainly a couple of times: “Daddy!” My mouth was dry and I could hardly breathe from fear, and my voice was drowned out by the stomping of feet and squeaking of wheels. I was afraid to call him by name: my father’s very Jewish last name, Kleiman, might attract the wrong kind of attention, and even a beating ... Finally, after what felt like a very long time, Father appeared with the damn whip in his hands. I could hardly see but my father's brave face appeared to glisten— with sweat, or perhaps with tears ...


We were shown the way toward Morozov (now the city of Morozovsk) near Stalingrad but the Germans, as it turned out, got there first.

The next day we saw that our organized column no longer existed. We could see neither our managers nor any of our fellow employees; I think most people had left and headed home. We only saw a couple of people we knew during that entire long journey ...


In terms of the places we passed through, I remember only Novo-Aidar and Millerovo, a railroad junction in the Rostov region. And our journey had started back in the Voroshilovgrad region, later renamed the Lugansk region.


We approached Novo-Aidar towards the evening. We had to cross the Aidar River, a tributary of the Donets. No sooner had we reached the bridge that we heard the oscillating rumble of aircraft engines. These were German twin-engine Junkers bombers, flying without a fighter escort (they already had air superiority) to bomb the bridge and other targets. We were on the tall right bank of the Aidar. Everyone dropped to the ground, face down, but I lay on my back and counted 49 planes! I do not know how many of the planes stayed to bomb the bridge, how many flew on to Millerovo, and perhaps on to Stalingrad ... Apparently, the Germans thought that particular crossing very important, even though it was undefended: no fighter planes or anti-aircraft guns, only some small arms’ fire was heard ... After the hard bombing the bridge no longer existed, and we had no choice but to seek a ford, which we did.


The river was fairly deep even at the ford; we put our bags on our heads and plunged into the water. That was not an easy thing for me, as the water was up to my neck, I could not swim, and the current was quite strong ... Nevertheless, we crossed over safely. I remember being struck by the milky white water. It turned out that the banks and bed of the river around this place were solid chalk, as is the case in parts of the river Donets. The German bombs had stirred up the water ...

Father and I in February 1949. Lisichansk.

 


Father wrote down all the names of the towns and villages we passed through but his notes have been lost. I have only a vague memory of the village of Petrovka through which we passed after the Novo-Aidar crossing, but the next village, the Verkhne-Teploye, has remained in my memory ...

We stopped there, hoping to get some rest, some sleep, but heard shooting from the north and had to keep walking south. We were passing through some orchards when we saw a Red Army commander who, pistol in hand, ran from tree to tree yelling orders to a group of armed fighters. All of a sudden there was a burst of machine-gun fire, and a cloud of dust rose not two steps from my toes ... The commander saw us and shouted, "It's the Germans, run, you all!" We set off running through the village. Apparently, a German air raid had just taken place, as some houses were still smoking, and there were no people around. I did see a shallow pit in a vegetable garden, with a gray-bearded old man laying in it, face up. Mechanically I asked him, "Grandpa, what are you doing here?" The old man just groaned, eyes closed.

We heard the battle still going on behind us, but we had no strength left to keep running. My father was running behind me. He saw me slowing down and yelled: "Drop the bag!" There was nothing else to do: I dropped my burden and was able to pick up the pace. When I heard Father’s bag hit the ground, too, I knew, with sickening finality, that we were now left without food or clothes.


We made it out of the village and realized that the noise of battle had died down. The silence rang in our ears. We walked on in a random direction. Other people were walking across the field, in ones and twos, not in a solid mass as had been the case on the main roads. There was no one who could point us in the right direction. We caught up with a military officer with two bars on his lapels (we would later refer to him between ourselves as the "major "). When we asked him where we should go, he replied: "We are encircled, must get out!" -- and we trudged along after him...


We could not see any troops. The major went on ahead, but then we saw him at the edge of the forest having an animated conversation with someone. We came closer and saw a number of armed fighters sitting in the woods, under the trees. Some of them were ripping up papers and burying them in the ground. The major was telling them that they were young and healthy and had a good chance of getting out of the encirclement but no one was listening to the major. When we approached, they yelled: "Hey, you’ll give us away, get out of here!" We heard a gun being cocked. The major turned around and walked off briskly, and we followed him.


I do not know how long we trudged behind the major: fatigue and hunger were taking their toll. I only remember that he picked out a winding path, keeping to the copses and ravines; we were on the left, flat bank of the Donets. We saw the major’s cap up ahead, appearing then disappearing again. We tried to catch up with him but we were soon out of breath. At dusk we lost the major for good. The next morning we discovered that he had brought us out of the encirclement somewhere in the vicinity of Stanichno-Luganskoye. We crossed the Donets river again and went on along the right bank of the Donets, across the steppe. The only place I remember there, in what is now the Lugansk region, was the city of Krasnodon, which we passed through shortly before the arrival of the Germans. Many years later I happened to be there on business, and the chief engineer of the electrical plant (a former graduate student of mine) took me to the mines and showed me the pit into which the Nazis and their accomplices had thrown Jews -- alive ... They said that one of the victims had grabbed onto a German officer and dragged him down with him ...


In all the cities we went through Father tried to find someone in authority who could help us with food and give us further directions. But every place looked just like Lisichansk had looked the previous autumn, when the entire leadership had suddenly disappeared. Whenever we did manage to find someone in charge, all they would ever tell us was: "Proceed to your destination." And that was it!


I do not remember how my father got us food. I think that basically, many good people helped us along the way, but I only remember the one time, passing through the mining town of Novoshakhtinsk (if you look at the map it is to the south-west of Krasnyi Sulin – we had wandered all over the map!), when a woman who lived with her two children gave us what little she could spare. Recalling this incident, Father would later say that only poor people were able to empathize with the hungry and to share their last crumbs with them ... In contrast, when we later walked through a Cossack area, the local population was much meaner towards refugees: they would not even let us drink from their well ...


After that we walked along the railroad track for a while but could not get on a train until we reached the junction of Salsk. We passed stations with grand Soviet names of Zernograd, Tselina, Gigant, where giant silos full of grain towered over the towns. Neither the townspeople nor the refugees got any of this wealth: apparently, the local authorities were waiting for orders from higher up. We were later told that they ran out of time to evacuate the bread and ended up leaving it behind for the Germans ...


We ate what we could get our hands on. Someone told Father about representatives of the fuel industry that were stationed in large cities in the North Caucasus and were in charge of providing assistance to evacuee miners. Eventually we found one of these officials, who turned out to be our former neighbor from back home, a fellow accountant and a longtime friend of Father’s. He had fled from the Germans just like us and ended up in the Caucasus, while his family had stayed behind in Lisichansk (and, as it later turned out, was miraculously spared). At his suggestion, Father took an assignment in Central Asia, because that was a warm place, and we had no winter clothes. We were issued travel documents, the coveted special ration cards, and money, and went to buy our train tickets to Baku.


For that, one needed -- besides special travel documents – documentary proof of what was called “sanitary clearance.” Getting one entailed standing in a long line to the station bathhouse. A processing room was attached to this, where the omnipresent lice that infested everyone’s clothing were killed by means of hot steam. Or mostly killed: the delousing method did not always work perfectly; on the other hand, this was the first time in a long time while we were able to have an actual bath ... After receiving the coveted clearance and standing in a tremendously long line, first for bread and then for the tickets, we finally squeezed into the crowded train.


And so we came to Krasnovodsk. The first thing we saw there was a giant steamship docked at the pier and soldiers in strange green uniforms boarding it. We would later learn that these were Poles from General Anders’ army on their way to Iran (or Persia, as it was then known). There were a lot of Polish Jews among them. These Poles and Jews looked exhausted and emaciated; many of them had been gathered into Anders’ army from Soviet concentration camps and exile. That army eventually passed through Palestine and went on to fight in Italy, but some Jews (including Menachem Begin) were able to stay in Palestine and fight for the establishment of the state of Israel. I conceived a secret fantasy of getting on one of the Persia-bound ships, disguised as a Pole or a Polish Jew, and going to Palestine. I told no one of this, not even Father, out of a subconscious fear of punishment for the seditious thought of leaving the Soviet Fatherland ...


Little did I know that 52 years later I would arrive in Israel in a perfectly lawful way, flying in a comfortable modern airplane!