Born 1932 in Nevel, Pskov region, Mr. Mintz lived and worked in Ivanovo as an electrical engineer. He immigrated to Israel in 1994 and lives in Haifa. Mr. Mintz has a son, a daughter, and five grandchildren.
THE WHISTLE OF BOMBS STILL RINGS IN MY EARS
When the war started and the refugees from Belarus started passing through Nevel, I remember my mother bringing milk and bread out to them. Father was drafted into the Labor Army. He dug trenches near Nevel. I brought him food.
We decided to leave. On July 8, Father and Uncle Chaim-Gershon went to the blacksmith to have our horse shod. And that was when the bombing started. I can still hear the whistling sound of falling bombs — a distinctive, whining, terrible sound. One bomb fell in our yard. The shockwave pushed the entire hallway that ran along the side of the house out of alignment. Everyone started jumping out of the windows. My mother, who was standing by the stove when the bomb fell, was injured by falling bricks. After the bombing, Uncle Chaim-Gershon returned but my father did not. Uncle told us that when the bombing started, the two of them ran in different directions; afterward, Uncle returned to the horse but my father did not come back. That was how I was left fatherless. He had loved me and had been proud of me, and I had loved him very much.
That same day, our three families — Uncle Chaim-Gershon’s, Aunt Tsipporah’s and mine — packed some things, put them in the horse cart and headed north. We reached the first village and stopped. For three days in a row, my mother and my older brother, Boris, went back to town to look for my father but no one had seen him …
We traveled day and night. The road was constantly being strafed by German airplanes; each time, we would grab my little sister, Dora, and scatter in all directions, but sometimes she remained in the cart. One time, a bullet went through my brother Boris’ clothes and grazed his skin. One night, the Germans dropped a flare. I was standing in the woods, at the edge of a clearing. The light was so bright that I felt as thought I were standing naked in public.
In Velikiye Luky, when we drove into the square and stopped outside a three-story building, two German planes suddenly dived and opened fire. Foolishly (I guess), I was not afraid and kept staring at the pilot: it looked as though he was going to fly directly into us. I saw his goggles and his helmet. Just before the building he pulled out of the dive, and his bullets did not hit us.
With G-d’s help, we reached the city of Kalinin. All along the way we had waited and hoped that my father would catch up with us. Kalinin was our last hope of seeing him: my older sister, Mira, was supposed to be here, studying German at a teachers’ college. But Mira was not at home; she was digging trenches somewhere near Sebezh. The Germans dropped leaflets on the trench diggers, calling on them – in crude, mocking verse – to give it up. We left a note with Mira’s landlady, telling her that we were going to the town of Kalyazin. Mira later joined us there but my father never turned up.
The feast of Sukkot came. My grandfather bought a chicken to perform the ceremony of absolution, kapporoys, but there was no Jewish ritual butcher (shoykhet) in Kalyazin, so he took me to the nearby town of Kashin on the Volga. We traveled by train. This Russian town was a surprise to me: there was a squat little church virtually on every corner; I later saw more such churches in Pskov …
We did not stay long in Kalyazin. The front was approaching, and we continued east. Autumn had already arrived; we were loaded onto a barge and sailed down the Volga. The cold wind pierced us through to the bone. The people were crammed together like sardines … Aunt Riva’s one-year-old son died on the barge. He was buried somewhere along the way.
We got to Kineshma and stayed there for three days. They fed us at some factory. I think I was the hungriest of all. The factory was far away, and my brother Boris teased me, saying that we would never get there. But I was ready to walk any distance if that meant food.
Then we were put on a train, in a boxcar with a metal cookstove in the middle of the floor, and rode east. The journey was long; the train stood for days at a time in dead-end sidings; no one knew when it would leave, and people went to the station master to find out. Military trains were sent through first. At each station, we went looking for food, hot water, coal, and a toilet. We clustered around the stove to keep warm, but the moment we stepped away we were shivering again. My grandfather fell ill and was taken off the train in Arzamas, and Uncle Miron got off with him. There my grandfather died … But we rode on and on. A young woman died in our car. I remember that her relatives had trouble removing a ring from her finger …
It was December before we finally reached Tashkent in Uzbekistan. We sat in the station square, our belongings in the center and all of us in a circle around them. The whole square was crammed with refugees. Where should we go next? Boris joked that we must go to Africa because there we could get by without any clothes at all. My mother bought two cans of apricot compote — it was sweet and tasty but gave me diarrhea. I stood in a long line to the toilet, only to come out and go back to the end of the line again. The place was swarming with thieves. A thief grabbed our sewing machine but the cover came off in his hands; my mother saw this and chased him. He threw the cover down, and my mother tied it to the sewing machine with a towel. The next time, thieves stole both the cover and the machine.
In the square we ran into Aunt Gisya, wife of Chaim-Gershon, who had just seen her son, Ruvim, off to the army. She told us that they were staying in the village of Grodikovo in the Jambul region of Kazakhstan, and we also decided to go there. We traveled by train to the Arys station, where we changed trains for Jambul. In Arys, an elderly woman sat at the train station, with deep wrinkles on her forehead that were full of lice. It is a disgusting thing to write about it but this was our reality. I am writing this down as I saw it then, through the eyes of an eight-year-old.
We were placed, all five of us, with one Russian family. Actually, what the locals called “Russians” were, basically, the dispossessed and exiled Ukrainian farmers, the kulaks. Their house had two rooms; we were given a corner by the stove near the front door. We slept on straw on the floor, and little Dora slept on the stove, which was never lit. The owner’s name was Lukerya. She had four children of her own, three boys and a younger girl, and lived in abject poverty. We were immediately robbed. The boys had a lot of friends who were all eager to see us — city people, and Jews into the bargain.
The winter of 1941 was terrible: first, because of the cold — they said it was unprecedented in Kazakhstan — and secondly, because of the hunger. The refugees were issued one and a half kilos of flour per month while the locals received nothing at all. So they were very hostile toward us, saying that we had brought the cold upon them and taken their bread from them. We ate mostly corn porridge without salt or butter. Little Dora could not eat it. She lay on the stove all winter without coming down.
My mother went to work in Jambul, where she developed starvation diarrhea and was admitted to the hospital. She was in critical condition. It so happened that her cousin from Rostov was also in Jambul: she and her husband came to the hospital and brought my mother some chicken soup, which saved her life.
When spring came, we took Dora down from the stove. She was terribly skinny, and she had to learn to walk again. Only G-d knows how she survived. Mother said that what saved her were her fat deposits from Nevel: Dora had loved cream and butter and had been as plump as a little roly-poly bun. Our landlady’s boys liked to kick us both out of the house to “air out” in the street. It was still cold, we both shivered, and I tried to protect Dora as best I could.
Boris was drafted into the army and sent to boot camp in Turkmenistan. There, all food was cooked in cottonseed oil; he could not eat it and so stayed away from the dining room. Boris had stomach problems and was declared medically unfit, but eventually he was called up again. The medical board had rejected him but the draft board gave him a green light. This was in 1942. We rarely received letters from him (Boris was not much of a letter writer) and were very worried. In his last letter, he wrote that he had been wounded above his left eye and in his shoulder. It was not until almost three years later that we received a notice that he had been missing since April 1945. After the war I went to Podolsk, to visit the archives of the Defense Ministry, and was told that they had no information on the enlisted men.
Meanwhile, in Grodikovo, our battle for survival continued. The adults worked in the fields, and I stayed home all day alone with Dora. I cooked our food over an open fire out in the yard. There was no firewood, so I collected thick, dry stalks of grass. These were hard to ignite; I would blow and blow on them until I had tears in my eyes. There were no matches, and I did my best with a flint and steel or borrowed a lighted stick from the neighbors. In the evening, Mira and Mother would bring home some of the beet soup they received at work, scrounging and saving portions for us from their own meager lunches …
We spent our second winter staying with a Kazakh family where we occupied part of a room near the front door. The living conditions were terrible but the hosts treated us fairly well. Dora and I caught a bad cold; our heads were covered with sores that were teeming with lice. Dora was even admitted to the hospital in Jambul. She stayed there a long time, and I really missed her.
It was now 1944. We began to prepare to go back. Uncle Gershon returned to Nevel with his family. We could not do the same because our house had burned down. Aunt Riva and Anya lived in Saratov, so we went to join them. We traveled, once again, in a cattle car, although this time we went fairly fast. As the train had no toilet facilities, I managed by climbing down onto the footboard, holding on with one hand and lowering my pants … I do not know what other people did.
The train raced toward Saratov at full speed. At last, it crossed the bridge over the Volga River and pulled into a freight station. My mother had enough money to buy a loaf of half-baked bread. But now Mira developed a high fever: she had contracted typhus. She was immediately taken to the hospital and returned a month later with her head shaved, skinny as a twig. Somehow we found our relatives and went on foot to join them. I carried our belongings on my back until my hands were ready to fall off …
The following members of our family perished in the war: my father and my brother, Boris; Uncle Mulya, my mother’s brother from Leningrad (he was a soldier during the war, and his dugout was hit by a bomb). Aunt Etka and her husband did not manage to leave Vitebsk in time and were killed in the ghetto, along with their four sons. Leib, the son of Chaim-Gershon, died, as did Lenya Mintz, the son of my father’s brother Dovid. Lenya had graduated from the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute right before the war and had came to Nevel on leave, tall, handsome, in a long black overcoat, the pride and joy of the family. His brother, Grisha, was also killed. Chaim Beilinson died. His unit was passing not far from Nevel as it retreated, and he requested permission to stop by and visit his parents. Then the Germans took Nevel, and he was shot in the village of Golubaya Dacha, along with all the other Jews who were still in town …