Grigory Gozman

WE CAME BACK TO RUINED ZHITOMIR


I remember the war because of bombings, when we were hiding in the garden or in the ditches. Then there was the evacuation, or more like fleeing from the advancing Germans. Ominous rumors filled the town: the Germans gathered all the Jewish population and placed it in the closed areas of the city. We didn’t know anything about mass genocide at that time. Jewish families gathered in groups and together bought horse carts. They seated their children and laid some essential things there. In one of the carts I also traveled with a few children from other families. Our parents walked, following the carts. It was the beginning of July. It was hot. The parents’ faces were covered with dust, and people seemed to be even more gloomy and anxious. When we came to the crossroads, they began to argue as to where to go? My father said we had to go towards the railway station and pointed to that direction. Some of the people disagreed with him. They said the station was in the other direction. At that time, a crowd of curious locals gathered at the crossroads, some of them were sympathetic, some were looking at the arguing Jews with malicious smiles. The latter were in the majority. Many of the them supported the opponents of my father and pointed to the right direction with their hands. The crowd was divided in opinions. Some of the people followed my father and the rest took the other direction. After some time, our group came to the station and, with great difficulty, after persuading the military authorities we were taken into one of the nearest military trains. The group that has gone in the opposite direction was killed by German troops.

The train was often bombed and shelled. When an aircraft bearing Nazi crosses was noticed, the train stopped. People ran out of carriages and hid in ditches and pits. The cries of people were drowned by the howling planes. There were many dead and wounded.

We survived. Without any doubt, God took care over my destiny, so I avoided mortal danger. At some station we were moved from the military train into the train with evacuees. We arrived at the city of Ulyanovsk where we were registered as evacuees and sent to the village of Bolshie Kliuchischi. This fact is confirmed by the certificate I received from the Investigation and Information of the Russian Red Cross Society Center. In 1942, my father was called to the front and I moved to Ulyanovsk with my mother. We were settled in an apartment which had a large room and a small kitchen in it. Some local people were living there – a married couple with their ten-years-old daughter. We were given a corner behind the furnace, there was a bed for us to sleep. My mother got a job as an accountant at the meat processing plant. It was a difficult time. I was hungry the whole day and waited for my mother to come home from work and to bring me a piece of bread and a portion of her lunch that she received at work. Sometimes my mom was given bones at work. It was like a celebration – my mother cooked the bones and scraped off some pieces of meat for me, and the broth was also very tasty. Sometimes I was fed by the apartment owners, who lived in poverty, too. They had a small garden around the house, and sometimes I was allowed to take a carrot or a radish from there.

My father wrote us letters from the front, sent photos with verses on the back side. Sometimes in his envelopes, there was some sugar and it was also a special occasion for me. September 1944 was coming. I was to go to school. My mother bought me a folder, two notebooks, a pencil, a pen and some ink. On the first day of school the folder with all its contents was stolen, I was teased and beaten. I came home crying and told my mom I wouldn’t go to school. Mom agreed and allowed me not to go to school. One day I felt that my eyes were sore. In the morning they were filled with pus, I could not open them. My mom got currant bushes out of snow, broke some branches and cooked them. She washed out my eyes with the decoction and cured me. In autumn and in winter I usually was taken to the day- and-night kindergarten, like children's home.

On the weekends my mom used to take me home. We lived on the banks of the Sviyaga river. In winter it was covered with ice, people walked on it, reducing the way to their homes by half an hour. One day my mother took me out of the kindergarten, our path was across the river through the ice. It was already dark. It was snowing, the wind was howling. I was very scared. We were afraid to get into the hole in the ice which had been cut in the places where the large cubes of ice for refrigerators were taken. We walked very slowly, because it was dark. Before we made any move, my mother tried the ice with her foot to make sure the ice was hard of the ice. We walked the path of a hundred meters probably for an hour. I believe, in this case the God saved me and my mother again from an inevitable disaster. Now I understand what a stressful moment my mom experienced then.

The year of 1945 came. My father’s leg was wounded, he was at a hospital. We learned about it after the war – the father did not want my mother to worry. One day my mother came home from work, put her arms around me and said we should prepare for returning to our native Zhitomir. In Ulyanovsk there were several families from Zhitomir, all together we decided to return home. We picked up our poor «household goods» into two packages and took a train. This trip was a nightmare for me.

We traveled for a long time. We changed trains. We had climb under the carriages. I was afraid at that moment the train would move and crush us. At the stations where we waited for another train, it was very dirty and crowded. There were many people on the floor. On the stations there were many gypsies. The light was switched off often, and sometimes things disappeared, and even small children. When there was no light, a lot of noise and hysterical screams were heard. Mom held me with one hand and with the other – the package with our things. Our package with food was also stolen.

Finally, we got to the city of Zhitomir. The city center, which consisted of high-rise buildings had been completely destroyed. My childhood was bleak, hungry and unhappy. The postwar life was hard. In order to buy some bread, milk and sugar we usually had to stand in long queues. Rolls and candies were a distant dream for me, and I often dreamed about it at night. I enjoyed reading for as long as I can remember. Books took me to another world, distracting from severe living conditions. After school I used to get to the reading room of the children's library and sat there until five or six o'clock in the evening. Because of the difficult conditions at home, I spent all the time on the street. It taught me to vandalize, to play games for money, to speak jargon, obscene words and jokes. Thanks to God, the detrimental effect of the street did not become a part of my soul, after several years it disappeared...

As a child, I was often sick with tuberculosis, bronchitis and pneumonia. I believe it was the effect of the severe life conditions during the evacuation. I was often treated at the sanatoriums and resorts for children.

From Joseph Skarbovsky’s book “The Children of the War Remember the Taste of Bread”, Vol.2, Israel: Studio Fresco, 2016.