Ion Shleyfman

I Saw People Being Buried in the Sea

I am Ion Shleyfman, born on October 26, 1937 in Kiev. My father was a professional artist; he was disabled and worked in “Ukrfoto” organization. Since the beginning of the war Kiev was regularly bombed and my mother was hiding with me at a bomb shelter. I was four years old. Once, during the alarm, we were far from home and had to run quickly to the bomb shelter. I stumbled, fell, hit my chin on the ground and my teeth bit through my tongue. Mom took me to the hospital where I had my tongue stitched without anesthesia; after that it was falling out of my mouth for a long time. In August 1941 we were evacuated from Kiev to Kazakhstan. Near the station of Romodan our train was attacked by the German planes. The train stopped, we jumped out of the carriages and ran hiding in the bushes. One of the cars was hit by a bomb, a fire broke out. It was very scary.

Our train arrived in the city of Astrakhan and we went to the seaport. I was afraid of going on the uneven cobblestone road that was descending steeply down. Then we were loaded into some small ships and our sea trip began. There were very big waves on the sea. Many people died from pitching every day and their bodies were thrown into the sea in front of me. I still have the terrible picture before my eyes and can’t forget it even now. We crossed the Caspian Sea and arrived in the city of Guryev. There we were settled in different villages of Guryev region. At first, we lived with a hostess who kindly took us in, and our life was relatively good. But in the spring of 1942 the Ural River began to flood, and since our village was about to be flooded with water, we were urgently transported to another, safer village. On the ferry our camel turned sharply and the cart, I was sitting, turned over. I fell into the icy water. The strong water flows took me away into hundreds of meters where I got into fishing nets. All our things fell into the water and disappeared. After that I got sick, developed a stutter and my eyesight got worse. In the new village our life deteriorated dramatically. However, there we lived in the hut, which was made of mud and straw, but there was no food. We were all starving. We were given a huge barrel of herring – and that was all! There were neither grains nor bread. The village was in the Baksaysky District of Guryev Region, we lived in it since the spring of 1942 until the autumn of 1944.

My mom gathered some roots in summer fields, dried them, and we ate them in the winter. Usually she soaked the herring in water and cooked the soup which I hated because of the permanent herring taste. I went to the kindergarten where I was given a slice of bread and a glass of milk daily. In the village we were robbed. My father’s 6,000 rubles were stolen, although we couldn’t buy anything as there was nothing to buy. My father wanted to work and got the job of a head of a club without salary. On the wall of the assembly hall he painted a huge picture of Lenin with a girl in his arms. It pleased greatly the district management and he was sent to the Guryev experience exchange conference. He left in autumn and went missing... A few months later, he came back from the hospital without his toes. It turned out, after the conference he couldn’t go back as all the roads were covered with snow and the cars stopped moving. He could get back home only on camels. A Kazakh man told him: he would go to our direction in a month and would take him on a camel, if my father gave him a kilo of tobacco. During the whole month my father was picking up cigarette butts on the streets of Guryev, taking out the half-smoked tobacco of them and folding it into a paper bag. A month later, he handed the package to the Kazakh man and, as agreed, they started moving. It was a one-humped camel. The Kazakh man was sitting in front of the camel hump and my father – behind the hump, near the tail. Snow blizzard started during the trip and strong winds overturned my father from the camel. My father called to the Kazakh man but because of the wind the man didn’t hear him, so my dad spent three days in the snowy wilderness. Then he was picked up by the military men who were by chance driving their cross-country vehicle nearby. My father was taken to the hospital where he had his frostbitten toes removed. In the village where we lived, many children died from diseases and starvation, but a few children, including me, survived. In the fall of 1944, my father received a call from Kiev; the city had already been liberated by the Red Army from the German invaders. We went back to Kiev, but our apartment was occupied. It was a woman; she was managing the buildings and her son was working at the police. When father asked to vacate the apartment, he was put into prison. My mother's family – her parents and three sisters – was shot at Babi Yar in Kiev.

My mother and I were alone and lived in the street yard. One of my mother's pre-war neighbors gave us a cot. It was cold, my mother fell ill, and I also caught a cold and was in someone else's yard. Finally, when it was winter, the managing buildings woman pitied us and temporarily placed us in the basement of the nearby street. The “temporary” placement lasted for 11 years. In the basement there was nothing: no electricity, no gas, no water and no toilet. I went to school and did my homework under an oil lamp because the windows were below the ground level and the room was always dark. My mother used to cook food on the “primus” – a kind of small kerosene stove. At that time there was the rationing system. Products and kerosene were given according to coupons. At last, our life in the basement developed, I graduated from school and was drafted into the Soviet Army where I served for almost four years. Then I entered the Kiev Polytechnic Institute and began working at the Central Television of Ukraine. I worked there from 1959 to 1991. In March 1991 we went to Israel via Bucharest. At the age of 54 years I tried to get a job on TV. I graduated training courses for TV employees of Israel and received a diploma after their completion. Despite my rich experience in television, I wasn’t admitted. I hardly got a job as a simple worker at the salt factory. I had worked there for 12 years and retired then. In Israel I underwent a serious oncological surgery. Having worked in Ukraine for 35 years, I don’t have any pension from it.