Born in 1938 in Voznesensk, Odessa region, Mrs. Rabinovich lived in Voroshilovgrad and worked as an engineer. She immigrated to Israel in 1976 and lives in Tel Aviv. She has a son and a grandson.
A Tiny, Godforsaken Station of Lepsy
When the war began, local Communist party officials in the city of Voznesensk started going door to door to assess morale. Anyone seen with their suitcases packed, preparing to flee, was punished severely for defeatism and (rumor had it) even shot. All personal short-wave radios were confiscated, and the “official” radio speakers, those familiar black wall-mounted plates, became our only source of information about the situation at the front. There were rumors, of course, from the very beginning, but no one really knew what the true situation at the front was.
One day in late July 1941, Father happened to go to work earlier than usual. Walking past the buildings of the District Party Committee and the NKVD, he saw that the windows were wide open, there was no one around, fluttering flakes of ashes from burnt paper were swirling around in the street, and trucks were pulling away from the entrance. He understood everything and went straight home; by noon my parents had hired a cart, loaded a single suitcase on to it, along with Grandmother and me (age 3), and left the city.
At four o’clock in the afternoon the Germans entered the city.
At six o’clock in the evening Father’s deputy from work led the Germans to our apartment. Father was told about it after the war.
Father wanted to pick up his parents, who lived at the other end of the region, and take them with us, but it was no longer possible to get over there. Father would torment himself to the end of his life for failing to save them, but it was too late, the Germans had blocked all the roads. Mother told me that as we were going down the narrow trail to the Dniester river, the German tanks were already rolling down the main road two or three kilometers away from us.
Father panicked; we already knew what they were doing to the Jews who remained in the towns—we had heard it from people who had fled from the Germans. As Jews, we must not fall into their clutches. Father tore up all his documents, including his diploma, and after the war he had to re-take all his exams.
Along the way, retreating Red Army fighters took our cart and horse. But then, as Mother later told me, we found some horses abandoned by another retreating military unit. Mother, who was from a wealthy merchant family and had learned to ride a horse as a child, got up on one, they found an abandoned cart, and so we drove on. Then the cart fell apart, and we continued on foot and reached the river crossing – but we were too late. Our retreating troops had already crossed over, and no one was in the mood to ferry anyone else across. This was terrible. We felt that this was the end. But then another retreating military unit approached the ferry, and the commander demanded to be taken across. The ferry people told him that they could not do so, that the Germans were close behind and might seize the ferry for crossing. Then the commander said that he would shoot them if the ferry was not immediately made available. The ferry arrived, and we crossed over to the other bank of the Dniester together with that army unit.
Then we boarded a train and traveled for many days on top of a flatcar, out in the open. It was a hot summer. Mother told me that one day they woke up and saw a beautiful sight: sand, sun, silence. And Mother decided: why go farther? The train had stopped at a tiny, G-dforsaken station of Lepsy in Kazakhstan, some eight hundred kilometers from the capital city of Alma-Ata. We jumped down off the flatcar.
We settled in Lepsy, where we were given a dugout on the outskirts of the village to live in.
Father went away to the frontlines; Mother, a trained medical nurse, went to work at a small local hospital. The head physician, named Minna, was a pediatrician who had never before held a scalpel in her hand — and here she had to operate. Many patients had infectious diseases, and I remember how Mother would come home from her shift and take off her clothes in the small anteroom; Grandmother would then disinfect the clothes by heating them over the fire and steam.
The floor of our dugout was made of clay, and Grandmother used to refresh it by smearing it with wet clay. The main room had one small window set approximately at my own height. Why do I remember this? Because one time Mother was away at work, and Grandmother and I were at home, as usual. It was a bright, moonlit night; I looked out of that little window – and saw a wolf standing there. I remember its ears shimmering in the moonlight, all silvery and magical. It was not uncommon for wolves to attack and kill people walking from the train station. I still remember the howling of the wolves.
We lived this way for three years. Father was discharged from the army: he had developed a strong pulmonary hemorrhage due to the rupture of a pulmonary artery. He spent a long time in hospitals before being shipped home to die.
I was already five years old, so I remember the day when he returned. Grandmother and I were working in the vegetable garden. Grandmother turned around and saw a man staggering toward the house. She said: “That’s your dad!” and I ran to him. He was thin as a rail and could not even lift me up. A 37-year-old man, he weighed a mere 43 kilos. Nobody thought he would survive; there was nothing to treat him with.
At the medical commission in Alma-Ata, Father had met a man who became his friend. It was Dr. Evgeny Kremensky from Odessa, of noble Russian descent; he had fled to this area from the NKVD persecution. In Alma Ata, Kremensky saw Father’s papers and noted that Father was also from Odessa, and that was how they met.
The island at the mouth of the Karachegan River where Uncle Evgeny lived was remote and wild: he did not even have a radio, so he did not learn about the war until a year into it, when the brief navigation season on the river (only a few weeks long) began.
And now this man came to Lepsy to celebrate the New Year with us.
At that time Father was lying unconscious on a makeshift bed made of planks, with a temperature above 40° C (over 104° F). I remember Mother, in tears, sitting on a chair next to him; Dr. Minna sitting helplessly opposite; and Grandmother, who occasionally scraped up some ice from the threshold and gave it to Father to swallow. Blood was gushing from his mouth. I huddled in the corner in utter terror.
When Uncle Evgeny saw all this, he ran straight to Mother and asked, “Are you his wife?”
Then he asked if there was a doctor around and how could he be summoned. Dr. Minna replied, “I am the doctor!”
“What have you got to stop the bleeding?”
“We’ve got no drugs at all, only horse serum.”
“Let’s give him that!”
She was frightened: “That’s a serum for horses, for tetanus. We’ll kill him!”
Uncle Evgeny — who up until 1937 had been a ship’s doctor and had a great deal of experience — replied, “If he dies, he’ll die quickly, without suffering. But if we don’t give him the serum, he’ll suffer all night long and then die anyway.”
They injected him with the serum, and I remember how terribly Father’s hands swelled up, so strong was his body’s reaction. He jerked and tossed around so violently that the four of us could not hold him down. Then we all sat down and waited. Father was lying unconscious, a basin filled with blood by his bed. But at dawn he fell asleep, and the bleeding ceased.
I was then only five and a half years old. There was never enough food, and on top of that, our primitive cookstove broke, making cooking impossible, and we went all day without eating. Mother came home, called some guy in to fix it. And when he did, Grandmother baked pancakes out of potato peelings mixed with oats on the top iron sheet. I never ate anything that tasted better in my life, before or after this!
I remember how Grandmother made soup from nettles, and I got angry with her for something and threw sand in the pot. She did not even scold me but sat on the doorstep and wept bitterly. And I felt like such a pig!
I remember the sky around there was low, and there was almost no vegetation, only sand dunes and miserable little shrubs called the saxaul. Since there were no toys, I drew rug designs on the sand. When people would ask me, a little girl, when the war would end, I stubbornly kept saying the same thing: “In May.” And it really did end in May, although a few years later. As Grandmother used to say, “Out of the mouths of babes comes the truth.” She promised me, “After the war, we will go back to Odessa and I’ll buy you a silk dress.” “Grandma, what is a silk dress?” I asked.
I did get an actual silk dress after the war, in one of those American aid packages, but Grandmother was already gone by then. I remember clearly how she lay dying of intestinal tuberculosis. She was laying in the main room of our dugout when she suddenly lost consciousness. Mother rushed to her and screamed, and Grandmother opened her eyes and said, “You stopped me dying, you mustn’t do that.” Grandmother died two or three weeks later. Mother was pregnant with my younger sister at the time and was very weak. We had to fetch our water from a well that was located a hundred meters from the house. She could make it to the well but could not walk back with a full bucket of water. I remember her terribly swollen feet.
Father started to sit up in the spring. At first he was too weak even to walk around the room. There was no food; Mother was the only one working. But Father was a remarkably gifted man. He began making calendars. He drew calendars on pieces of plywood, wrote in dates, marked holidays with red ink, decorated it all with ornaments and vignettes. The calendars sold well enough, so he earned some money.
There were no books, and my father recited poetry to me by heart, including Poltava by Pushkin and poems by Lermontov. I especially remember this one: “A lonely sail is flashing white/ Amid the blue mist of the sea…” I would ask: “Daddy, what is the sea? And what color is it? And what is it like to see a lot of water?” Father drew a sail and explained how the wind pushes it. I knew what the wind was like but not the sea: I could not imagine what “a lot of water” looked like, especially as water was worth its weight in gold in our desert environment. And so, these two things, a silk dress and the sea, became my dream when I was five or six years old.
In 1944, Russian Germans, deported by Stalin from the Volga area where they had settled as an ethnic minority centuries earlier, began trickling into our area. And so did the Chechens, deported from the Caucasus. And then life became very dangerous indeed because the Chechens went around armed with knives and were very, very angry. And with good reason, given their long history of suffering. Some of them settled on Uncle Evgeny’s island. He had a patient in his little hospital, a 14-year-old girl, who died after being brutally raped and infected with all kinds of terrible things. The authorities were very tough on the Chechens, and the Chechens reciprocated straight out of Lermontov: “An angry Chechen crawls ashore, sharpening his dagger.” They saw the whole local government as their blood enemy, they hated everyone who worked for the state and did not try to hide it.
I remember Father had to go out to walk Mother home after a night shift.
With time, things began to improve: Father got a job in the finance department, as he was a top-notch specialist with a specialized degree. Father sent letters and inquiries about his family to everyone he knew. And then came a letter from Aunt Vera where she wrote that all our relatives who had remained in the Ukraine had died in the ghetto…