Born 1931 in Mstislavl, Mogilev region, Byelorussia, Samuel Minkin lived and worked as a mechanical engineer in Bryansk, the Russian Federation. He immigrated to Israel in 1990 and now resides in Kiryat Ata (Haifa). During WWII, he was evacuated to the village of Budennovka in the Jambul region of Kazakhstan.
THE TORTUOUS ROAD HOME
At the end of 1943 newspapers reported that the city of Mstislavl and the Hodosy train station had been liberated. Germans were being driven westward. Some of the evacuees began to return to the liberated areas, mostly those in the Ukraine, and we started going to see them off, feeling envious, to be honest. Then it began to look as though it might be possible for us to go back to our own hometown. Mother wrote a letter to the Mstislavl City Council, and they informed her that the Germans had burned our house down during their retreat. But although we had no home to return to, we were drawn to our homeland with incredible force.
We received a letter from Aunt Sorka, in which she wrote that her house in the village of Monastyrshchina was intact; she was going home with her daughters, and if we wanted to come to stay with them, they would be very glad. We decided that if, G-d willing, all went well, we would go back to our homeland in the spring.
The boots my father had sewed for me here in Budennovka had ripped, and I had no shoes to wear to school. So I cut out two soles from a board, nailed straps to them and put them on over the torn boots. Walking became difficult: the wooden soles were rigid, making me walk straight-legged, and the straps kept snapping. Then Mother splurged on a pair of Chechen boots named chunis. The Chechen man who sold them said that instead of the insoles I could put in some straw, and that would make it softer and warmer to walk. Now, every day before putting the chunis on, I changed my straw “insoles.” Soon the chunis’ heels rubbed through and the straw started to come out when I walked. In addition, that winter we were even hungrier than the year before, and my mother strictly rationed our food, trying to make it last until the first spring greens appeared. There were rumors that some people swelled up and died of starvation.
I did not have the patience to wait any longer and kept nagging Mother to go back. Our hosts, Polina and Alexei Shamsheev, advised us not to travel in winter, saying that it was better to wait for warm weather when everything would be much easier. We heard that passenger trains had resumed picking people up at train stations and taking them to the liberated areas. Polina had a relative in Jambul; she wrote a letter to her, and the woman replied that she could put us up for a couple of days. Our departure was scheduled for March.
Polina’s relative was named Eugenia; she lived with her three-year-old son. Her husband was away at the front. Eugenia asked about the Shamsheevs, about Budennovka; she had been born there but had moved to Jambul long ago. She told us to rest, and that tomorrow we would go to the train station.
At the train station, we found out that only those who had passed a sanitary inspection were allowed in. There were large numbers of people waiting around the train station and in the little park outside, all of them traveling west. People spent weeks standing in line for tickets, while the trains — mostly loaded with soldiers and military equipment — went speeding by.
The weather was bad: it was cold and raining. Eugenia advised Mother to appeal to the district executive Communist Party committee to secure our right to receive ration cards: as the family of a soldier, we were entitled to three hundred grams of bread a day per person. Every day, at six in the morning, I went to the store and stood in line for bread. When it was my turn, a saleswoman took her scissors and cut out a small square stamped with the date from each card. Then she put a metal one-kilogram weight on one pan of the scale and a hundred-gram weight on the other, cut off a third of a loaf and weighed out our 900 grams of bread. If our chunk weighed less than that, she added more bread, in small additional pieces; if the main chunk was more than that, she cut some off. Sometimes she gave us our whole serving – nine hundred grams – in these small pieces, and it was pointless to argue with her, as she would immediately start yelling: “What am I supposed to do with all these leftover pieces?”
My walk to the store and back home took me past a large corner house with a beautiful front porch on which sat a plump, rosy-cheeked boy, always chewing something. One day he called out to me, “Hey, you dirty Jew, what are you doing walking down our street all the time! Don’t show your face here again! If you come back again, I’ll give you what for!”
I was always sensitive to anti-Semitic attacks but this time I was taken by surprise, so I said nothing and walked past; and also, to tell the truth, I did not want to get mixed up with him. The next day, when I was coming back from the store, the boy came down from the porch. He blocked my way and asked: “Don’t you understand what I said?” “Let me pass,” I said. He grabbed me by the lapels of my old coat, which I had long since outgrown, and began to shake me. I punched him in the eye. He jerked my coat once more and ripped it. We started to fight; he gave me a bloody nose, but I felt that he was trying to get rid of me, because he began pulling my hands off him and shouting, “Let me go!”
I grabbed him in a stranglehold, insensitive to his blows. I would have ripped him to pieces if I had had the strength. His mother ran out of the house; she broke us apart, shoved me aside and took her son home, all the while threatening me and cursing me in the vilest language.
That was one of those days when I had received my bread ration in little pieces, and during the fight all the pieces fell on the ground. I picked them up and went home. When my mother learned what had happened, she first scolded me for all I was worth, saying how I could not seem to be able to walk quietly down the street, and how I was a magnet for trouble, be it from kids or dogs… Sewing up my ripped coat, she said, “Well, this coat is too small for you anyway, next winter we’ll have to get a new one,” and then added, “But you were right, you should always stand up for yourself.”
We ate up all the bread, the sand crunching on our teeth. I wore that coat all through the next winter. I continued to walk down the same street to get bread but never saw that boy on the porch again.
The express trains Alma-Ata–Moscow and Frunze–Moscow passed the Jambul station every day. They stopped, but no one got on or off. Respectable people traveled in sleeping cars, and I felt jealous that we could not travel in the same way.
We lived at Eugenia’s for over a week and still could not leave. Eugenia recommended to my mother that she should go to the stationmaster and demand that he put her, as the wife of a man serving at the front, and her small children on a train. My mother started going to the stationmaster’s office every day, until he got so tired of her that he offered to get her the tickets for the Alma-Ata–Tashkent train with a transfer at the Arys station. The stationmaster said that Arys was the biggest rail hub in Central Asia, and trains were assembled there.
The Arys Train Station
It was dark when the train arrived at the Arys station. We were not allowed into the station building. A woman standing at the entrance told us first to go get a sanitary inspection and pointed with her hand, showing the direction of the bathhouse. We got lost; it was utterly dark, the streets were empty, and we walked around for about an hour and barely found our way back to the station. The woman on duty took pity on us and let us in without a certificate from the sanitary inspection room — which turned out to be right around the corner …
Mother got us ration cards for bread and other food. To get bread in the morning, one had to take one’s place in line the night before and go check in periodically throughout the night. A few people stayed up all night to watch outside the shop, and in the morning, when the bread was brought in from the bakery, a tremendous line would form, and people would start arguing about whose place in line was where, shouting and shoving each other; sometimes, actual fights broke out. There was never enough bread for everyone standing in line, and those who did not receive their ration before the bread ran out had to come back the next day and get in line earlier.
The ration cards were good for any item that was offered in the shop. We had to take whatever was available that day: cereals, peas, canned fish, herring, soap … The rule was that any one person could get no more than one unit of each item, whether it be one kilogram, one tin, or one piece. As soon as the distribution began, large families would rush to the store with their children, leaving someone to guard their luggage. There were never enough goods or groceries to redeem every ration card, but people were happy whenever they managed to snap up at least something.
Many of the evacuees who were waiting for a train to be assembled lived in the city, while we had our own interesting life at the train station. The days were warm, and we ran around without outer clothing. At night, however, it was so cold that the puddles would freeze over. We slept inside the station building, on the concrete floor, all huddled together, and if someone opened the door the passengers would begin to curse. The worst place to sleep was near the door or in the aisles.
In the daytime, the passengers moved over to the little park outside the train station and sat there with their families, cooking their meals. One family that had two teenage sons, fourteen or fifteen years old, went out into the steppe every day and returned carrying a sack of turtles, each the size of a small plate. They lit a fire and threw the turtles into the fire one by one. The animals tried to get out, but the boys pushed them back in with sticks until the poor things stopped twitching. Having roasted a dozen turtles, the boys broke their shells with rocks, and the mother cut the meat out and put it in a zinc-plated bucket. Then she poured water over it and cooked turtle soup. When it was ready, the entire family of six sat around the bucket full of rich yellow broth with a pleasant smell and circles of fat floating in it. They began to eat it, fishing the meat out with spoons.
An intellectual-looking old man in a short woolen coat and wire-rim glasses stood and watched them eat for a long time; then he made up his mind, approached them, and asked them to sell him some of their soup for ten rubles. The woman poured him almost a full soldier’s kettle. The man instantly devoured it, said that it was very tasty and, in order to hide his desperate, indiscriminate hunger, started telling them that turtle soup was sold as an expensive delicacy in fashionable restaurants of Paris and London.
Twice a day I made a fire, and Mother cooked our own soup. We had a Polish oval-shaped, enameled, three-liter cast iron pot with a handle; we had brought it with us to Budennovka and used it all the time. How it came to us I do not remember. When we were leaving, Mom did not want to part with it and took it with her. It proved very handy on the road. I wrapped it around with wire and hung it over the fire. This pot served us during the evacuation and came with us back to Mstislavl. Mother used it for many years afterwards, and it reminded us of our war experiences.
Mother’s money was dwindling fast. The prices at the Arys market were terribly high: a loaf of bread cost one hundred rubles, a kilo of potatoes cost ten rubles. Once we got two kilos of rye rusks with our ration cards. Mother immediately set them aside and said these were for our journey home, as we would not be able to cook soup on the train. Then she saw our hungry eyes and gave us one rusk each; they were as hard as bones.
In all, we spent ten days at the Arys train station, and then suddenly there were rumors that a train was being formed in Tashkent and was due to arrive the next day.
…We spent all week being rattled and jostled about in that train. Mother’s food was running out, and she was afraid that we would soon begin to starve. The night was the most difficult time. We had to sleep all curled up, it was impossible to stretch out our legs because someone would always step on them or trip over them. We tossed and turned all night, got up and lay down again, all while being desperately sleepy.
The Pochinok Train Station
The Pochinok station had been destroyed, and we were sent to the evacuation center that was located in a large Jewish house near the railway. The owners of the house had been shot by the Germans. We left our luggage there, passed the sanitary inspection, and went in search of transportation to Monastyrshchina. At the post office, we were told that a car was coming from there in the morning to carry the mail back.
We went back to the evacuation center and settled down in a corner on the floor. People were coming and going, most of them Jewish survivors who were returning from evacuation. We heard a lot of stories about the tragedy that had befallen the Jewish people. We learned how the Germans and their local police had carried out mass executions; how a Russian wife had saved her Jewish husband and their children, or vice versa; how another wife had betrayed her husband, and then their children were shot and she lost her mind. By talking about their grief, people unburdened their souls and found new strength to go on living. Some were happy to be alive, confident in our victory, and said that they now knew how to live. Others had broken under the shock of their war experiences and were indifferent and apathetic. Neither the newspapers nor the radio reported anything about the Jewish tragedy. People spoke about it in a low voice, looking over their shoulder. They were afraid that someone, G-d forbid, might overhear and denounce them to the authorities.
 A district center in Smolensk Oblast 62 kilometers south-east of Smolensk.
 Pochinok – district center in Smolensk Oblast 62 kilometers south-east of Smolensk.