Mikhail Ilyin


Born in 1929, Mr. Ilyin was in evacuation in Kazakhstan in 1941-1945. From 1959 on, he lived in the city of Chernigov (now Chernihiv) in Ukraine, working in construction management. Since 2002 he has been living in Rostock, Germany. He has two sons.


My childhood before the war was spent in the village of Komarin[1] in the Belorussian part of Polesia. It was a small shtetl on the bank of the River Dnieper, surrounded on all sides by forests and lakes. Jews had lived there for generations.

Our extended family was large. It was headed by my paternal grandfather, who had ten children. We lived in Grandfather’s big wooden house, together with two of his other sons and their families. On major Soviet and Jewish holidays everyone gathered in our large home; 20–30 people sat down at the table. We, his numerous grandchildren, loved Grandfather and often stood in line outside his door to spend time with him. In his room there was a big heating stove, called “grube” in Yiddish. In winter it was nice to stand next to Grandfather and warm up by the stove. Once, when I was standing too close to the stove door, my clothes caught fire. Luckily, the adults quickly ripped the clothes off of me and put out the fire.

I remember the beginning of the war especially well. I was hanging around the lake with other children, as I usually did in the summer. Some of us were swimming, others were fishing, and some were paddling around in boats. Suddenly, airplanes appeared in the sky. This was a new thing to us: we had never seen planes before. We looked up at them, surprised and excited. Suddenly, things started to drop out of the planes and explode in the water. We were still not scared – in fact, we were excited because the stunned fish started to floate up to the surface, and we collected them. The planes flew on, obviously to bomb Kiev. Only when people in the village began to shout "It’s the war, it’s the war!" did we realize that, indeed, the war had begun.

Father went straight to the draft board office and volunteered for the front. Mother was left alone with three children. I was the oldest, at 11; my sister was 8, and my brother was 1½ . Soon the issue of the evacuation came up. Grandmother and almost all of her side of the family refused to leave. And all of them were killed.

We decided to leave but we could not get a horse. We were given a cart and two oxen, which brought us to the bridge over the Dnieper. At that time, the German planes came and dropped bombs, but missed the bridge. As soon as we had crossed the bridge, it was blown up by our soldiers to delay the German advance.

I had the care of the oxen, driving them during the day and turning them out to pasture at night. They moved very slowly, so we had to look for another solution. Many animals were driven eastwards alongside us, including cows, sheep, and horses. We bought a big, strong horse, not knowing that it was poorly broken. Besides, I was too young to be much of a master for it. One day it stopped obeying me and bolted, dragging our cart behind it. It is hard to imagine what would have happened to us, and to our cart, if it were not for two soldiers who managed to stop the horse and calm it down. Eventually we got to the city of Stary Oskol, in the Kursk region. We immediately got on a train and headed to Central Asia.

We rode for a long time in a boxcar. Along the way, we were bombed several times. Each time, we jumped out, found a hiding place, got back up into the car and rode on. When the train stopped at a station, Mother ran to get water and food.

Finally, we reached the Yanykurgan station in Kazakhstan. We were sent to a collective farm that straddled two small villages. As the eldest male in the family, I became the "breadwinner". I went to work digging irrigation ditches – and earned 36 kg of wheat! We ground the grain by hand, between two millstones. The coarsely ground mass was then cooked in boiling water to make a gruel. There was no other food at all. Mother had to sell our remaining things and valuables to buy something to feed the children.

I also found an additional opportunity to get food. Our neighbor, an old Kazakh man, invited me to go "hunting" with him. He put me with him on his donkey and rode to a place where there had once been a village, which had been completely destroyed (as the locals said) by the General Semyon Budenny’s cavalry during the Russian civil war. There were a lot of hares that got into the dried-up wells and could not get out. The old man lowered me on a rope into a well, where I killed hares with a stick he had given me, and then he pulled them out. There were vipers hissing all around me, so it was a very dangerous operation. But I went down many times because I knew that we would get some of that hare meat.

We were basically starving. So, at the beginning of 1943, we had one of Mother's sisters send us an official invitation and moved to the city of Akmolinsk. We settled in a barn where dried manure was stored to be used for fuel. I was 13 years old and I was immediately employed as a lathe operator at the local munitions factory, originally a combine manufacturing plant that had been evacuated from Melitopol and retooled to produce artillery shells. Workshop buildings were made of wooden planks and were not insulated, but the running machines, red-hot metal, and flying hot metal shavings made it hot inside in any weather. We worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. There were day and night shifts.

While I was learning to operate the lathe, the following incident occurred. My mentor wanted to get married. To do this, he needed to get at least one day off, but he could not get permission to take it. So then he decided to cheat. He asked me to suddenly switch the machine on and slightly injure his arm. He thought he would receive sick leave and get married during that time. But he did not get the leave, and other machinists blamed me for my supposed negligence, and I could not tell them the truth. As for my mentor, he was not able to get married until after the war had ended.

After three months of apprenticeship, I successfully passed the exam held by the chief engineer of the plant. So I became a lathe operator. Now I was entitled to a full worker’s ration card, but only bread was issued under these cards. My family members received the much smaller dependents’ rations. Besides the bread, I also was entitled to eat at the workers’ canteen. The bread that we got there was soaked in alcohol -- ostensibly to counter scurvy, but in fact, the alcohol-soaked bread gave us a boost of energy during work hours, especially during the night shift. As a worker, I was also entitled to half a liter of alcohol per month. My mother bartered it for bread: for one bottle one could get two loaves of bread. This was a considerable help to the family.

Factory workers were not given any uniforms, and our own clothes were completely worn out. Mother sewed clothes for us kids from overcoats of soldiers killed in action. She made me pants and a jacket out of from scraps pieced together, and I wore these to work as well as to my first dates.

There were a lot of young people at the factory just below conscription age. Many of them were eager to go to the frontlines, so harsh were our working and living conditions. After finishing a 12-hour night shift, they would run over to the draft board office to enlist. The lucky ones were drafted into the army. The others were caught by the plant administration and put on trial. The trials took place during the lunch break and were conducted by a troika, a three-man panel headed by the director of the plant. The sentence was usually the same: a term of imprisonment. This meant that the prisoner had to work a normal 12-hour shift and then did not return home but went to prison. As for those who had “deserted to the frontlines”, their work fell to us, the younger workers: 6 hours was added to our regular 12-hour shifts.

After the liberation of Komarin I was not able to go back home with my family: the factory did not want to released me, since the war was still ongoing.

After a while - it was in the beginning of 1945 – I and my friend, a countryman of mine from Komarin, decided to escape. Not really knowing where to go, without any money, we hopped from train to train trying to head toward Kiev. Finally, we did get to Komarin. I went back to school to continue my studies that had been interrupted by the war. But one day, a man in civilian clothes entered the classroom and took me to the local state security department. There I was offered a choice: go back to the factory, voluntarily, or to stand trial for desertion under martial law and serve my sentence in prison. At that time I was 15 years old. My friend, who got same offer, went back and was immediately put in prison. I decided to flee. I hid on trains during the day; I went to see relatives in Kiev and Chernigov, or just rode the train to and fro. And at night, I secretly came home to eat, sleep, and wash. This went on for many months. Only the deserters’ amnesty announced by the government put an end to my wanderings.

[1] A village in the Gomel region of what is now Belarus. In early 1941, over 500 Jews lived in Komarin. The village was occupied by the Germans on August 28, 1941. In the fall of 1941, all Jews who had not been evacuated (229 persons) were killed in two consecutive executions.