Sarah Moyredin was born on April 12, 1926, in the town of Bershad, Vinnitsa region. Shortly before WWII, she was orphaned, with a younger sister in her care, as her mother died in childbirth in 1937, when Sarah was 11, and her father passed away in 1940. She and her sister were evacuated with their relatives to Siberia, where she worked in a munitions factory. After the war she moved to Moldavia. Sarah graduated from the Economic College in Odessa and worked as a chief economist. She married in 1949 and has two daughters, two granddaughters, and two great-grandchildren. She immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1991 and lives in Ashdod.
MY WARTIME YOUTH
I was fifteen, and my sister, seven and a half years old when the war began. We lived in the small town of Bershad, in the Vinnitsa region in the Ukraine. At the time of the evacuation, our parents were no longer living, so my sister and I were evacuated together with our aunt and uncle (who were no longer young then), their 13-year-old son, and our old grandmother. Of course, we could not take too much with us. We took only some clothes and a couple of summer blankets.
Our aunt was a character, straight out of the stories of Sholom Aleichem. She was sure that we would come back in a month or so. She locked the door of our house, hid the key (so as not to lose it, heaven forbid), and we walked the three kilometers to the train station, carrying our bags.
A few days later, Romanian forces brought tens of thousands of Jews from Bukovina into our village and set up the infamous Bershad ghetto. They crammed over 30 people into our three-room house. All the empty houses were commandeered in this way. In winter, people ripped up the floor boards, interior doors, broke up the furniture, chopped it all up and burned it, to keep warm.
Our family had lived well before the war. Father worked as a chief accountant; mother was a teacher. We had nice furniture, even a wonderful German piano, which the Romanians immediately took and sent to Romania. They burned everything else and demolished the house. Only the place where it had stood remained.
So, at the Bershad train station, we were put in narrow gauge railway cars, and two hours later, transferred to open flatcars, to sit in between some pieces of equipment. That was how we came to the Pomoshnaya train station. We rode for 8–10 kilometers, and then there was an air-raid alarm. The train stopped, people jumped down from the flatcars – they could not see anything or anyone and just scattered in all directions. The German bombs destroyed the locomotive and two open flatcars. When the all-clear was announced, a terrible cry went up as people began to call out to their relatives and friends. I cannot forget a man who was searching for his wife and two sons. He found all three of them, dead in a bomb crater. Dear God, how he screamed! We, too, lost track of our grandmother, but soon found her lying on the ground in shock. An ambulance came and took way those who were too badly wounded to walk, leaving the walking wounded behind, leaving the dead, as well. Grandmother went with the ambulance.
So we went, on foot, carrying our bags, without food or water in the July heat. We finally got to the next railway station, some 8-10 km away, and found it overrun with people. We began to look for Grandmother. Nobody knew anything. After a long search, we found her sobbing on a bench in a little park: the ambulance had brought her to the bench and left her there.
A few hours later we were loaded back onto the open flatcars, and off we went, only to face three more bombing raids along the way — more jumping off the train, screaming, crying, looking for each other. My grandmother refused to get off our flatcar: “If they kill me, so they kill me,” she said.
While we were desperately trying to save ourselves from death, we were robbed three times. We did not even know where we were going.
Finally we came to Krasnodar Krai, to a village called Krasnoarmeyskaya. There we spent six months working on a collective farm. And there Grandmother died. We could barely find people to bury her. And when the Germans came close to Krasnodar, we were evacuated once more, again not knowing our destination. On the way there, my sister contracted scarlet fever, and we were taken off the train. She was admitted to a hospital in Borisoglebsk, in the Voronezh region, and we were told to look for a place to stay. We found a room out in the country. We had no money and almost no clothes. I went to work for the Borisoglebsk rail car repair factory.
I was assigned to a shop that had been retooled to make mines for the front, first as an apprentice to a lathe operator, and then qualified as a lathe operator myself. I was not yet 16. If the shop failed to meet its production quota, we were forced to work 18–20 hours a day. It got really rough at night, especially as it got closer to the morning. I wanted nothing so much as to get some sleep. I remember, once there was a delay in delivering the parts to be machined. I noticed a pile of straw in a corner of the shop, made a quick dash over there so no one would see, and lay down. I just wanted a five-minute nap! But no such luck. The foreman saw me and yelled: “Look at her, sprawled out like a princess. Back to the machine!” Just like in a Sholom Aleichem story… Half-asleep, I trudged back to the machine. It is a miracle that I did not get my fingers caught in the drill.
When the Germans were approaching Voronezh, our factory was evacuated to Rubtsovsk in Altai Krai. While the factory was being set up there, the locals took pity on me, so thin and puny, and assigned me to work in the accounting department.
But it was not to last. The government put out a decree: “No ration cards shall be issued to able-bodied dependants.” So all the bosses rushed to find cushy jobs for their wives. So they kicked me out on the street – literally: my job was to sweep the factory grounds and do other kinds of manual labor. I worked in 36°–40°C below freezing, in galoshes and a light overcoat, a chintz headscarf and a pair of tarpaulin work mittens issued by the factory. The backs of my hands were so swollen from the cold, they looked like pillows. Blood and pus seeped from them, and the mittens were as stiff as wood because of the cold. So I would come home from work, rip off the mittens, and then put them on again in the morning. And after work I, together with my cousin, under cover of night, would run to the train station, where there were open flatcars loaded with sugar beets. We stole the beets and baked them on the stove. Had we been caught, we would have gone to prison. But we could think of no better delicacy than roasted beets.
It was especially bad when they came banging on our door at night, shouting: “Get up, get up to unload coal.” It meant that several carloads of coal had arrived. Finally, some Siberian women could no longer bear to look at my torments and told me to go see Mazurenko, the head of the factory. When I complained to him and showed him my hands, he yelled at me: “People are being killed on the frontlines, and she is wanting comfort!” and kicked me out. I burst into tears and walked home.
Without saying anything to me, these women then wrote a letter to the state prosecutor. I do not know what they wrote, but one evening a young fellow came to our house and asked for Sarah Moyredin. I identified myself. He asked me if I had written a letter to the prosecutor. I knew nothing about a letter. My aunt began to lament, saying that we did not know anything and so on. He told me to get dressed and come with him. We were all scared, but he reassured us, saying that everything would be okay. He was the secretary of the Rubtsovsk railway station chapter of the Communist youth organization (the Komsomol). He took me to see the secretary of the local Communist Party Committee, Comrade Smirnov.
I entered a spacious office. At the table sat a distinguished-looking man of about 50, with a shaven head, looking just like the Civil War hero, Kotovsky. He greeted me kindly and told me to sit down and tell him about myself. Then he asked me to show him my hands. On seeing my terrible hands, he turned away and closed his eyes in horror.
After listening to me, he said, “Don’t go to work tomorrow, I’ll find you another job.” I was scared: I could not miss work, I would be prosecuted. The railroad was under martial law. He reassured me and said that he would take full responsibility for my absence. He wrote out coupons for two pairs of felt boots for me and my sister, a quilted jacket, two warm hats and a pair of woolen mittens. He gave me a job as an assistant bookkeeper at the local department of consumer services for railroad workers. The job paid only a pittance for a salary, but at least the work was indoors where it was warm.
I remember once, during the October holidays, they set up a duty roster for all branches of the department. I was assigned to answer the telephone at the bakery. My joy knew no bounds. I might get an extra slice of bread without having to use my ration card! My shift was from 8 pm to 8 am. Just in case, I took with me a piece of my own 400-gram bread ration and arrived there at the appointed time.
At the bakery, I sat in the office by the phone, and the smell of fresh bread permeated my entire being. I finally broke down and started to eat my own piece of bread. At this time a bakery employee came into the office and asked what I was doing there and what I was eating. I replied that I had been sent to answer the phone, and that I was eating my own bread from home. And she said: “You silly thing, coming to a bakery with your own bread! Come with me, I will give you some fresh bread.” But I immediately refused: “I can’t leave the phone, I’ll get in trouble!” And she laughed and said: “Who needs you, the bosses are drinking and celebrating right now!”
The temptation was so great that I could not resist and went with her. They had just pulled a new batch of hot, white bread out of the oven. The woman took a loaf, tore off a large piece, drizzled some sunflower oil over it and gave it to me. I eagerly grabbed the bread and ate it with great pleasure. To be honest, I was sick for a whole week afterwards, as it is not good to eat hot bread on an empty stomach … But during my illness I saved a whole ration of bread!
That was at the end of 1942. Three more hard years of war lay ahead, then a return journey home — to nowhere … But that is another story.
Sarah Moyredin after the war, in 1949.