Max Koifman

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Born on January 1, 1935, in the Jewish village of Oktyabrfeld near the city of Shostka (Zaporozhye) in the Ukraine, Mr. Koifman was a pediatrician and the author of close to two hundred scientific articles and essays on social issues, as well as several books and monographs. He immigrated to Israel in 1991 and lives in Beit Shemesh. Mr. Koifman has two children and six grandchildren.

Our Flight From The War

 

We lived in the city of Shostka in Ukraine. I spent hours out in our big yard playing with neighbor kids. We often played Civil War games where we posed as "reds" and "whites." But suddenly our toy revolvers and rifles fell silent overnight before the thunder, roar, and squeal of real war...


Father went to the draft board office and asked to be sent to the frontlines. But because he knew foreign languages he was given a deferral. He sent a telegram to Marshal Timoshenko but that did not help, either. Later my father was drafted, then dismissed, then called up again.


There was already fighting going on near our city. We fled to the Zaporozhye area, to the village of Oktyabrfeld,[1] near Gulyay Pole, where Mother’s parents lived. We traveled there by horse carts, by hitchhiking, by train, and on foot. We fell to the ground in a panic when German planes circled overhead, terrifying us, dropping their bombs as if in jest. There was screaming, moaning, crying, and fires all around us: a real nightmare!

In Oktyabrfeld we were greeted with open arms by our relatives. Mother and Father left me and my little sister, Fanya, there with our grandparents, while they themselves set out with the two younger children, Lenya and Raya, hoping to find a quiet spot away from the war and then to come get us. But fortunately, within a couple of days they were back.


My mother begged her father to go with us but Grandfather Shimon, oblivious to danger, stubbornly kept saying that he would never leave the village. He was convinced that the Germans would be pushed back any day and tried to persuade my mother to wait out the war in his home. In the end, we were seated in a horse cart, and a lanky, blond boy of sixteen named Vasya agreed to take us to the train station in Gulyay Pole. Grandfather packed us some food for the journey, including a roast lamb, and we set off.

Suddenly the old man remembered something, told Vasya to wait, ran back into the house and brought out a book with a black cover. Barely holding back tears, he touched his lips to the cover of the book and gave it to my mother. Later I learned that it was a Jewish prayer book, which my mother carefully preserved for years (even when she was a diehard atheist) and then donated it to the synagogue in Frunze. When I grew older, I sometimes wondered why my mother kept the book and hid it under the ceiling of our home in Kyrgyzia, the wretched little hut with a thatched roof that had a big hole in the center for the long chimney of our crude metal cookstove. Probably because the book was a memento of her father, our grandfather Shimon, whom his G-d had failed to protect. This book was a great, rare gift for the old religious Jews in Frunze when she gave it to them, and my mother asked them to mention him in their prayers -- Shimon Koifman, whose hands had once so reverently held this old prayer book.


[1] Oktyabrfeld was one of the two dozens of Jewish agricultural settlements that appeared during the 1920s in what was known as Novozlatopol Jewish National Region in Guliay-Polski District, Zaporozhye Region of the Ukrainian SSR. Two-thirds of the Jewish population of the region managed to escape before the Germans occupied the region in October 1941. More than 800 of the remaining Jews of Novozlatopol region were shot by the Nazis, along with many dozens of Jews in several nearby villages.

 

 

 

 

 

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Grandfather Shimon gently hugs Max, his first grandchild. By his side stands a smiling Fanya, who looks very similar to Grandfather

 

The ticked office at the Gulyay Pole train station was so crowded that we could not get through. My mother only managed to telephone the office in our village and ask them to tell my grandfather that we did not get on the train and were heading with Vasya to the next station. But there we failed, too. The trains were crammed full of passengers, and conductors would not open the doors of cars. And so our poor old horse took us farther and farther away down the dusty, rutted roads, and Vasya sang songs to keep us from getting bored, and my sister Fanya sang along with him in her clear voice. Vasya was not only our driver but also our provider: along the way he managed to procure salt, peas, beans, buckwheat and once even brought almost half a sack of flour and a jar of honey.


Four days later, when we were a good distance away from our village, Lenya and Raya fell ill. We turned into some village, where we found an old, half-blind paramedic. After examining the little ones, he told us to waste no time in getting to Stalingrad. The old man gave us some pills for the road and a bottle of clear yellow liquid.


In Stalingrad doctors made my mother leave Lenya with them (for some reason, they were not worried about Raya) and advised us to stay close to the city. So we found ourselves in village of Karpovka, where good people found us a tiny room to stay in and brought us some food. There we said goodbye to Vasya.

 

 

 

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The Koifman family, a year before the war. Lenya, serenely smiling, is lying on Mother’s lap; Father, in a formal, striped suit; Fanya, cheerful, with a big bow on her head; and Max, with a buzz cut, in an embroidered Ukrainian shirt. And Mother, young, beautiful, wearing socks and shoes, as was done then. Raya is not in the picture; she has not been born yet ...

 

 

 


In Karpovka, my younger sister Raya got worse, and two days later she died. No sooner had we buried Raya that we were told, that same day, that Lenya had died in Stalingrad. My mother left me and Fanya with our grief-stricken father and hurried to Stalingrad. At the hospital, they wrapped Lenya in a piece of thick white canvas, and Mother with the dead boy in her arms went out on the road, tearfully begging drivers of passing horse carts and cars to give her a ride to Karpovka. But as soon as they realized that there was a child’s dead body under the cloth, they immediately sped away. Only the next day did she appear on our doorstep with a white bundle in her hands and new white strands in her golden curls. Later, when I myself was a pediatrician and a father, I realized what it was like for my parents to have buried both Raya and Lenya almost on the same day. A terrible, scarcely imaginable scene: a grief-stricken young mother who had just buried one baby, overwhelmed with tears and fear, stumbling between ruts along the side of the road, all night long, carrying the dead body of her other child...


Our family remained in Karpovka until September 1942. The Germans were quickly approaching, and we hurried to the ferry to go to Stalingrad. By some miracle, my parents managed to shove me and Fanya onto the overcrowded ferry, while they themselves were trapped in the crowd and pushed to the side and could not get to the ferry. We looked around in terror, knowing that we were left all alone, and even made a desperate attempt to get back off. But the crowd squeezed us tightly from every side, as though with an iron band. The ferry was pulling out. Holding hands, we cried loudly as our poor parents stood on the shore waving and shouting something. But we could no longer hear them.


On the other side of the Volga River, some women wrote down everyone’s names and had us put in horse carts and taken to the railway station. I do not remember how long it took but we came to Kyrgyzstan. At a train station with a strange name of Osh, they lined us up in ragged ranks and led us to an orphanage.

In the orphanage Fanya was luckier than me. She could sing, and pretty well too, and for this she sometimes received a raw egg or even a glass of milk. When this happened, Fanya would find me, take me aside, share her milk or egg with me, and whisper: “Drink it, maybe you’ll start to sing, too.” And I drank but my voice did not improve: I obviously had no ear for music at all ...


I remember the hazing that went on when “newbies” were initiated into the orphanage. They would put a new boy in the middle of the room, throw a sheet or blanket over his head, and beat him until the “Boss,” a teenage boy of about 14, said to stop. After that we took an oath that once a week we'd give him the piece of bread we got with our dinner. But as soon as the Boss learned that I was the brother of Fanya the orphanage singer, I was immediately exempted from this "tax."


Sometimes, we worked in the canteen, cleaning up, washing dishes, and eating up the remnants of soup and porridge from the bottom of the pan or kettle. We licked the pots so clean they scarcely needed washing afterwards. But perhaps the best and most coveted job was unloading the bread cart on days when the bread was delivered. Before the bread was placed on the shelves in the storage room, we patiently rubbed one loaf against another, collected the crumbs, poured them into a mug with boiled water, and devoured this thin gruel with gusto. This kitchen work detail was for us an unforgettable feast – the day our stomachs were full.

Once, in the winter, they brought us to the bathhouse, which reeked of chlorine. We undressed and stood naked in line, waiting for the next available wash basin. And a boy, with red hair as bright as the sun, came up to me, looked me over intently and asked: “Hey, what’s that between your legs? Why is it trimmed like that? Are you an invalid, or what? Did you get injured in the war?” From that day on, my "invalid" became the subject of ridicule. Even the girls nagged me: “Come on, show it to us, don’t be shy, we’re all friends here, aren’t we?” But the Boss intervened: “Where I used to live, all Jews had their penises cut, to keep them from getting out of their pants.” This explanation was accepted, and I was left alone.

The Boss protected me in this way because he had learned that I could play chess. He cut a piece of plywood out of the back panel of someone’s nightstand, neatly divided it into cells, made the chess pieces out of clay and -- in order not to mix them up -- got a piece of yellow ribbon from some girl, cut it into thin strips, and tied them around the necks of the “black” pieces. At first, we played lying on the floor under the table: the Boss was afraid that one of our "fans" might break the chessmen. However, once we saw that everyone was showing due respect and caution, we started playing like normal people – sitting at the table ...


We loitered around in the market, collecting cigarette butts. We took the tobacco out of them and rolled our own home-made cigarettes and smoked ourselves silly. But we did not go to the market only to pick up cigarette butts. We went there in pairs, armed with a long stick with a rusty nail at the end. One of us would quietly slip it between someone's legs, hook a potato or a plum, or even a cucumber, out of the piles on the ground, and immediately handed the booty over to his partner. Of course, we were caught and had our ears boxed, and even got beaten, but we soon figured out how to avoid punishment: by hollering at the top of our voice. The vendors, not wanting to scare off buyers, began to bribe us with a cucumber or an apple – anything to get "these hoodlooms" to leave as quickly as possible. And all these "hoodlooms" really wanted was something to eat, to quiet the hungry rumble in their stomachs.


My parents found Fanya and me in the orphanage, and my mother immediately took both of us to live with her. Father, who worked as a translator, was once again summoned to the front, leaving me the only man of the house. I would take Fanya and we would go to the market, where we made money selling spring water. I called out at the top of my voice in Uzbek, Kyrghyz, and Russian: “Who wants some water, cold water, clear as a teardrop, sweet as a melon, tasty as milk! Drink spring water, cold and fresh, selling cheap!”


Fanya brought buckets of water from a nearby spring. At that time, the only beverages sold in the market were fruit punch, kvass, sour wine mixed with water from an irrigation ditch, and beer of questionable color and flavor. But we had spring water, cold and clear, and so people gladly bought it by the cup, even though we only had a single aluminum mug for everyone to share. With the money we earned, we bought in the market potatoes, onions, flat cakes, and raw eggs for our singer, Fanya...


In May 1944, my mother came into our miserable little box of a room, bringing a tiny bundle containing a blond, gray-eyed angel: my new baby brother, Fima. He lightened her grief for her dead children, Lenya and Raya.


I fed my brother semolina pap from Father’s army officer’s rations. While I was waiting for this precious gruel to cool, I would lick the spoon with each spoonful, "accidentally" eating almost half of it, since my mother had no time to supervise me in my new nursing duties. This little angel, Fima, is now in his sixties, but only recently did I tell him that he had shared half of his delicious meals with me like a true brother.


Our neighbors were Polish Jews, among whom I especially remember a thin, kindly old man. As I recall, he had something to do with medicine. Once, when my mother was not home and Fanya and I were taking care of our younger brother, the old man came into our miserable abode and said, pointing at my brother: “A real Jew must be circumcised. Look, you are all black-haired in your family and this boy is blond and doesn’t look like a Jew, but now he will.” And the bearded old man, smiling triumphantly, performed the circumcision and even drafted me and Fanya to assist him.


Later, when Mother came back, we both, Fanya and I, got a tongue-lashing, but most of her wrath, of course, was reserved for our neighbor. “What have you done?! What have you done?! This is terrible! This is terrible!” -- my mother yelled, sobbing. “And the death of your children wasn’t terrible? Your deceased boy wasn’t circumcised, so the Lord didn’t save him!” -- the old man argued.


But soon the long-awaited Victory Day came and reconciled us all, and Fima remained a "real" Jew and, as they say here in Israel, was admitted to the "bosom of Abraham."