Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Mordel (Niselovich) Gaby


Gaby Mordel (Niselovich) was born in 1935 in Liepaja, Latvia. Her native languages are Latvian and German. In October 1972 she and her family came to Israel. Her husband is the journalist Georg Mordel. For the past 20 years she has been working at the Center for Clearance of Jewish Compensations from Germany. Evacuated from Riga. (In the evacuation she resided in Kyrgyzstan.)


On June 3, 1941 I woke up and saw a garland of inflatable balloons over my bed. In front of the sofa stood a toy store with shelves, drawers, counters. Behind the counter sat my favorite teddy bear in a white apron. Each drawer was full of toys, candy, ribbons. My proud parents hugged me, whirled around the room, kissed and sang. I was 6 years old.

Three weeks later the war began.

On the day of the evacuation I woke up as usual and saw a packed suitcase in the living room. Mom was leaving, perhaps to her office. I remember that she told my father, “I’ll be right back, come down to the entrance and wait for me.”

We waited for her in the yard from early morning until dark. I sat on the suitcase, and my father kept running to the gate and looking out into the street. The city was unusually noisy. Vehicle sirens, people screaming, and the distant rumble created a sense of danger. Mom did not come. I saw my father all wrought up. I also looked out of the yard and saw big green cars moving in our street; the sidewalks were cordoned off and people in uniform did not allow anyone to cross the street.

At one point, my father said, “Let’s go.” He lifted the suitcase with things he did not want to leave, took my hand, and we headed out of town. We walked first on the pavement, then on the dusty road. We were overtaken by cars, motorcycles, carts, bicycles. Walking families merged into a huge crowd. Everybody had bags and bundles. Some carried things on their shoulders, some in baby carriages. We were already in the country. For some time I walked myself then dad carried me; I lay on his shoulder and looked back at the silhouette of Riga crowned with a purple glow.

It was getting dark. Dad was deadly tired, exhausted. The road was empty, everyone had gone ahead. In the dark we were lit by headlights. A red fire truck loomed behind. Its body was full of people. The driver hooted trying to drive my father out of the way, but dad did not give in; he raised me so that the driver saw the child.

The truck stopped. I was picked up, dragged inside. They did not want to let my dad in with the suitcase: “There is no place. Drop it!”

When father was inside the truck moved on. And I was sitting on my father’s hands and looking, as long as I could, at the lone suitcase standing in the moonlight in the middle of the road: the last thing my father and I had left from our previous life.

The fire truck took us to a train station. Pushing and jostling people besieged the freight train cars. We somehow got in and then for a long, long time, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly we drove farther and farther away from Riga. All three tiers of the car were packed. Someone had a kerosene stove and they gave me a cup of hot broth.

At stations, soldier canteens were working, so dad brought some food. He got a soldier’s pot and a copper spoon. With the lavatory it was worse: it was not in the cars, so people jumped at the station and took a leak under the cars right in front of everybody. Now and then air raids were announced over the loudspeakers; then we all jumped out of the cars and ran into the woods. People kept losing each other and their kids. The people killed and wounded in the bombings were left behind and the train picked up speed again and took us away.

So we traveled in trains, carts, and ships, and eventually landed in Central Asia. Mom found us a year later in Kyrgyzstan where she soon got sick and died and Dad – then 33 – was left with me in his arms, without family and without means of existence.


I still remember the names of the cities on our way to evacuation, such as Kuibyshev, Saratov, and Engels. Finally it was Kyrgyzstan. Central Asia adopted the European refugees with oriental hospitality. I remember my dad and I sitting near a huge cauldron where a whole lamb with rice was cooked on the fire. Around the fire sat people looking very strange to me: they were dark, full-faced, with narrow eyes and big hats on their heads. The men had black mustaches and the women had kerchiefs tied on their heads. When the pilaf was ready, everyone was given a ladle and the hosts began to eat directly from the cauldron. What struck me – they ate with hands! I had never seen anyone in Latvia eating from dishes with bare hands. The Kyrgyzs put together three fingers, scraped food and carried it to their mouth. Then they licked their fingers. I refused to eat like this as I remembered that at home my father had taught me to eat nicely and with no sound. At this moment, the copper spoon hidden in dad’s sock became handy.


I do not know how my mother found us in Kyrgyzstan. First, we were given a family room in the barracks, in front of which was a horrible pit, or rather a ditch turned by the refugees into a lavatory. Then we moved to a house, probably the former club of the village, where we were given a room with a table, a bed, and a stove with an oven. They built a stove-bench for me along the wall heated by the hot smoke from the stove.

I enrolled in kindergarten. It was in another village, and my mother had to take me there across the steppe. When the rains came my mother carried me, a big girl, in her arms through the mud, and we sang a Latvian song together: “Pati mate dublos brida, mani nesa rocinas.” (“My mother wandered through the mud, carried me in her arms.”)

I did not know Russian and felt lonely, often escaping from the kindergarten and trudging home alone across the steppe.

Once in the steppe, away from the road, I saw a herd of grazing cows with calves. And suddenly a bull headed in my direction. I ran away as fast as I could but soon heard the clatter of the hooves behind. With a desperate push, I jumped over the fence and flew into the inner porch of the first house in the village. The bull stopped at the fence, and I saw his red, bloodshot eyes and prominent horns.

How I returned to my parents I do not remember. After that I did not attend kindergarten, but probably it was because my mother had fallen ill and could not carry me. She worked in the village as an accountant.


I remember how my mother died. My mom had been sick since autumn 1942. The summer in Kyrgyzstan is hot and the winter is very harsh. We had neither warm clothes nor food or drugs. When my mother had long coughing fits I was sent to sleep at the neighbors. I remember that once my father was absent for two days, and that when he returned, he brought 10 fresh eggs. I asked for an egg but I was told that this was just for Mom. She did not get up out of bed. She just sat up, drank a raw egg and coughed without end. After such attacks blood began to appear on the handkerchief, and then I was not allowed to approach her at all.

After the funeral the house was crowded with people. A neighbor baked pies with cabbage and gave me some. I ate and cried. And when there were no tears I pretended to cry and she gave me another piece of pie.

When Mom died I again lived with my dad in our room. Dad could not find work, his Latin and Greek were not needed by anyone in Kyrgyzstan. After the war I was told that my father had volunteered for the army, ready for any service, but was not taken because of th back problems.

The whole day long I would wait for Dad at home. Then I developed lice.

Dad came in the evening, fed me something, and began to examine my head. When he found a louse he pulled it out together with hair. I screamed wildly begging him not to hurt so much. But my poor father was not at all adapted to practical life; he did not know what to do in such a case.

Finally, before Dad himself became swollen from hunger and went to the hospital, he managed to put me in the Panfilov orphanage.


I crossed the threshold of this institution on March 23, 1943. I went there with my father by train, then we walked a long way on foot. I had a bundle in my hands: some linen, a couple of dresses, a belt, and shoes. Dad signed the papers, kissed me goodbye, and said he would take me out as soon as he could; then he left. First I was sent to the isolation ward; they said that I should be quarantined.

There were other children there. I put my bundle near the pillow and went with everybody to the dining room. When I returned, the bundle was not there. It had disappeared. Thus my life in a government institution began.

After a month of quarantine I was transferred to the “building” and assigned to a “squad,” where there were counselors and a teacher. At the end of April, I started studying in first grade not knowing a single Russian letter. I was immediately nicknamed “Latka.” At home I was addressed in Latvian, while parents had spoken German with each other (both had graduated from the German Gymnasium in Liepaja). My first dictation in the Russian language was rated: “one, dirty!” I remember sitting next to another girl and drawing the letters which she wrote on a piece of paper.

But already in the second (or third) grade I literally saved my teacher. It was at a meeting in the dining room devoted to the November 7.[1] The whole orphanage was assembled in a large dining hall. Above the stage hung a newly made banner: LONG LIVE OUR LEADER AND TEACHER YOSIF VISSARIOVICH STALIN.

I read and re-read the difficult word, something was missing! I even got up and read while standing, and still something was not right. Tamara Anatolyevna strongly poked me in the shoulder, so I sat down. And then I said stubbornly, “There’s a mistake. It should be VISSARIONOVICH!”

Tamara Anatolyevna turned around quickly, read the banner, blushed, patted me on the back, and sped off to behind the stage. Then workers appeared who removed the banner and put up another: LONG LIVE THE BLOC OF COMMUNISTS AND NON-PARTY PEOPLE.

After the meeting Tamara Anatolyevna hugged and kissed me, “Clever girl!”


On ordinary days tables lined the walls in the large dining room. A teacher on duty stood at the entrance and admitted children by four to avoid jams. In the middle of each table there was a plate with four slices of bread. Even before s/he could sit down the first of four kids coming to the table grabbed the top crust which seemed bigger. The other three also rushed for the top crust, which often led to fighting. I remember that there was a special meeting at which they strictly forbade grabbing the top crust like this and urged us to take the pieces one after another. Each piece was called a “ration.” At the table I ate only half of my ration and put the other half in my pocket and then secretly pinched off bread crumbs in my pocket, sucking and swallowing every crumb.

This sweet torment continued until the receipt of American aid. Then the orphanage’s supplies became better. There appeared “exemplary students’ tables.” Two tables for eight places were set up in the middle of the dining room, and these lucky kids ate at them. I found studying easy: I had already learned three languages, made calculations in an instant, and in addition, due to my excellent memory – probably inherited from my dad – memorized immediately everything that I read. I was praised and set an example. On Sundays, at the “exemplary” tables a hard-boiled egg was given for breakfast, and near one’s mug of tea there was a sugar cube. All the children in the dining room sat half-turned to those tables and eagerly looked at how the “exemplary students” ate.

We were never bullied or beaten by other kids; we were an untouchable caste. The teachers showed us to visiting commissions.


Upon getting up we grabbed the towels and ran into the yard to the washstands. There was an inclined chute fixed between two poles, through which water flowed into a pit. Ten washstands hung on steel ropes. The kids on duty filled them with water. In winter the water was icy. Soap was absent.

Once a month everybody was lined up in the square in front of the dining room (it was the so-called “ruler”). Our heads were checked for lice, and ears, nails and clothes were examined for cleanliness. Since any violation entailed deprivation of breakfast, lunch or dinner, we took urgent measures: while standing in rows, we bit off our black nails, looked into each other’s ears, disguised holes in socks (those who had socks). Many children had unspeakable shoes and rags on, some even wore galoshes stuffed with straw. But in the square everyone stood at attention!

When a commission approached, the most decent-looking kids were selected in the same “rulers,” and after breakfast they were lined up in a long row for the “show.” That day adults, singles and couples, came from neighboring places to pick up kids as “their” children. I was chosen every time and I always said no: I had a dad. This was allowed. In my four and a half years of my orphanage life, I received three detailed letters from my father, one even had a passport photo inside; the other kids were jealous of me because most of them were orphans.


On Sunday, before dinner, since the teachers had left, fights flared up here and there. Shouts and hoots echoed throughout the district. But some kids found another way to have fun. Among the residents there was a girl with red curls whose name was Zosya Nudel. Everyone knew that she was Jewish and they knew it was something bad.

One day, someone shouted, “Zos’ka-zhidovka!” The girl jumped up and ran out of the crowd. The next time the same voice called out: “Zos’ka! She’s here again!” Several boys ran after her but didn’t catch up with here. Gradually at the call “Zos’ka-zhidovka” more and more boys began pursuing the girl. Also we girls chased her and I, “Latka,” too.

First she was driven around in a circle and the crowd shouted, “Zos’ka, run!” But Zosya tried to reach the dining room, the only place where she could be safe. One day the boys chased her along the fence across the area and almost caught up with her but got tired, so one of them spat at her back. From then on the game changed. Now the aim was not just to catch up with her but spit on her back, and now not just a few but the whole crowd was driving the poor girl in front of it, and she finally reached the dining room without breath, with spit all over, hunted down like a wild beast.

I do not remember who intervened to stop these races. In the orphanage were 500 children aged 7 to 18 and there were plenty of other entertainments.

There was a tall, stooped girl in our squad, shy and quiet like a fish. Her name was Nina Dengard. I remember that she was very orderly: every night she polished her tattered shoes and very neatly put the blanket on her bed in the morning. I had no contact with her. They said she was German. I think she herself was scared that she was German. When at the general meetings in the dining room they reported on the situation at the front, Nina sat hunching her shoulders. I felt very sorry for her that she was German. Once the word “Germans” was uttered everyone turned and looked at Nina. But nobody touched or persecuted her. How did she come to Kyrgyzstan? Perhaps she was from the Volga Germans and had nothing to do with the Germans that attacked us. Unlike Zosya, she did not evoke the children’s hate.


The children’s home had a camp in the Tien Shan mountains where the younger orphans were sent in summer. There were huts with earth floors.

Since we were fed very poorly and were always hungry, we learned to find in the mountains and glens all kinds of berries, roots, and the like. All the kids, from breakfast to dinner, grazed like sheep; everyone found something, ate it, stuffing his or her stomach. I was crammed with vitamins for my entire life.

The beauty around was amazing! One would assume that we lived in paradise – if not for the hunger. As we raised our heads we saw mountains covered with pine forests, alpine pastures, and shepherds in turbans, a sea of flowers, streams and lakes in the glens, and above all this – snow and ice. In fall we came back.

In winter, the only extra food was kernels from the huge wild apricot tree which grew at the orphanage fence. When hunger became unbearable, we went to the tree and with sticks or bare hands dug out of the snow and frozen ground the stones of the fallen fruit. Inside the shells, there were bitter kernels but the starving stomach took them greedily. We shoveled into our mouths everything that could be chewed. One day someone tried the “cow pomace,” a green stuff similar to peat. The reward was green diarrhea.

In general, diarrheas were the scourge of the orphanage. There were no toilets in far-away Kyrgyzstan; you did everything in front of everyone. After civilized and prosperous Latvia, it was surprising that one could squat down to pee just on the street. In summer camp, everyone went “behind the mountain” and in the children’s home we entered booths with three walls without a door and a hole in the floor.

I remember a scene before my being in children’s home, when we were still living in the village with a huge ditch in the middle. Several boys took off their pants, squatted at the edge of the pit and “shot” their diarrhea away. The elected “judge,” also a boy, measured by steps whose diarrhea flew farther and awarded places.

I am sorry that I lost all contact with the children’s home. After Dad took me from there, I never corresponded with anyone, just as I have never been to the grave of my mother, and even do not know now where she was buried.

[1] The anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. [Translator’s Note.]