Michael Bass

Never Forget

War ... It burned the hearts and souls of millions of people. Perhaps adults understood that it brings sorrow, tears, and countless victims, but children did not understand and could not comprehend the complete tragedy of this terrible word. I was three years and five months old when the war began. I remember its beginning as the Red Army retreated through our town.

On the main street of the village, there was an endless string of dusty, tired soldiers drenched with sweat from the intense July heat. The wounded were lying and sitting on carts painted in green. The window of our house was open, and my mom gave soldiers cold water from the well to drink. Local authorities assigned my father to the Partisan detachment, but due to advancing German troops, the decision was made for all potential partisans (especially Jews) to come to the meeting area with their families. Father was given a horse and wagon, on which our family of five young children went to the meeting area (this was in fact the beginning of our evacuation). The area was located in the woods 25 kilometers from our district center. Upon arrival, the area’s leadership sent my father and another man to the local village council to call and find out what was happening back at the district center. When they called they heard German conversation. When the people in the forest found out they started to panic. We could hear loud, frightened voices. The area’s leadership quickly put their families into cars and drove off in an unknown direction. Father quickly harnessed his horse and having put the smallest children, who were crying, on the cart, headed down a narrow forest road. For many days and nights our lone carriage rolled slowly along the forest roads, not knowing when and where we would stop wandering.

Bass_Michael

Fearing bombing raids, we traveled mostly at night, and by day we hid in the woods. I remember this "journey" with a burning desire to sleep, a feeling of hunger, the stinking smell of hay, horse sweat, mixed with tar, which we used to lubricate the wheel axle of the wagon. This smell I remember forever as a reminder of a dangerous and troubled childhood. I remember the mountainside where our wagon drove down with a stubborn horse to the long bridge across the broad river. When we were crossing the bridge my father put me on the cart, and other adults and older children ran after it. As we were still crossing, German planes swooped down and began bombing the bridge, but we managed to make it to the other side. And just then, several bombs fell right in the middle of the bridge. Everyone ran to hide in the riverside forest, and my father grabbed me from the cart and rolled me down a steep embankment and hid in a dense bush. Terrified, I clung to my father’s chest and through tears said: “Daddy, hide me under your shirt, I'm afraid.”

Even after he did that it still took me a long time to calm down. Having completed the bombing raid the planes flew away. Father found the cart with the horse in the woods caught on a stump and we rode on. Many days and nights passed until we came to the train station of the city of Voronezh. The station was full of evacuees waiting to be sent further behind frontlines. We took a spot on the floor near the front door. No food was left. We drank boiled water from the station. We slept right there on the floor. When it was announced that another train was arriving at the platform, the mass of people eager to leave stormed the train cars. Our repeated attempts to get on the train did not yield any results for a long time. Finally, after long, painful days we barely managed to do it. Nobody thought about where and to what city we are going. How many days we rode I do not remember, but on one of the stops my parents decided to leave the train. And once again we found ourselves at a train station, but now in the city of Chelyabinsk. We stayed at the station for about two weeks until my parents made sure that we could stay in the city and be provided housing. The place was located at the very edge of town – it was a barracks built before the revolution with furnace heating. The room was small; there was an iron bed, with no bedding and a table with several stools. Father and my older brother were soon drafted into the army. Mother found a job as a general laborer in the city’s improvement organization, an older brother also went to work, and I and another brother stayed at home. We did not have much clothing, so we did not go outside from autumn until late spring. After a long stay at home, when we went outside we felt dizzy. Each person was issued three hundred grams of bread per day through vouchers. Mother after work, under the children’s close scrutiny weighed the portion for each on a scale, divided it into three pieces, and said: “Eat this in the morning, this for lunch, and for dinner I will come feed you myself.”

I remember I once told my mother: “Give me my bread, and then I’ll think for myself.”
“You give me grief,” she replied. “When you grow up you’ll think, but for now listen to your mother.”

Starving, in the summer my brother and I were often outside in search of food – digging in trashcans. Several times in the trash we found potato peels, a little dried in the sun. We would take them, wipe them on our shirts and eat them. Once, on the eve of weekend, at work they gave my elder brother meat from an old, dead horse. At home while the meat cooked all day, all were in high spirits in anticipation of finally eating a normal meal. The meat was very tough and difficult to chew. One day mother fell seriously ill and was admitted to a hospital. We were left alone. I should add that my mother became pregnant before the war, and during the evacuation she gave birth to our baby brother. He got dysentery, and I did too. In the hospital mother wrote a letter to the commander of my father’s unit that the family of his soldier is on the verge of extinction. And they gave my father leave. On the day he arrived, my baby brother died.

The time came when the Germans were expelled from the Belarus territories, and we returned home. There we learned that all our relatives who were not evacuated were killed by Nazi torturers. The difficult and disturbing wartime childhood left its mark on my fate, forever engendered in the soul intransigence to violence, injustice, cruelty, and human hatred.