Dedicated to the Komsomol’s “army of jerks” who served as industrial machine-workers during World War II.
NOBODY ACCUSED ME OF DESERTION
During the evacuation I was one of that “army of jerks” during the war who, between the ages of 12 and 15, were already employed in factories or in other sectors of industrial production.
I lived with my mother in the village of Samarkandsky (renamed Temirtau in 1945), which was a settlement in the Karagandy province . After finishing seventh grade in 1943, I needed to go out to work to help my mother support our family. I had no idea why, but I yearned to be a lathe operator, although I did not know what that really meant − but, alas, my physical build and appearance were inconsistent with my age, so I was not accepted for a traineeship as a turner.
In the end, however, I did achieve my goal − with the help of a relative, Nikolay Semionovich Fyodorov, who was head of the production department at the military construction office. By 1943, some buildings of the plant under construction had already been completed. There was a metalwork shop, located in the basement of the mechanical-repair building, and it had with three windows at ground level. There I became apprentice to a turner; another girl, Nastya, was also taken on as an apprentice turner. We were both the same height, but she was more strongly built than me. In 1930–1932, her family had been dispossessed (they had two horses on their property) and exiled to Samarkandsky village. We made our acquaintance at the lathe, where we were trained up by Nikolai Korzhukhin. On reaching the machine to begin working, we discovered that we needed to raise our foot-stools by some 15–20 cm for normal operation!
Uncle Vasya’s apprentice at the “Komsomolets” machine was a lad named Misha. He was the same age as Nastya and myself, but taller and handsome, with burning black eyes and deep black hair. In early Spring 1944, our instructor’s draft deferral was canceled and he was called up for active service. We replaced him and began working on the DiP-100 lathe in two shifts. I still remember some of the pieces I turned on it − for example, 60 mm long copper studs with a two-sided M8 thread.
The “Komsomolets” operated in one or two shifts, depending on the workload, and was used primarily for turning large machine parts. As a rule, Misha worked on the second shift. We were assigned our task for each shift by the foreman, Grigory Zakharovich Kosovichev, whom we called “Uncle Grisha”: all the men seemed like “uncles” to us, at that time. He was a wonderful man, with kind eyes and the hint of a smile on his face, and he treated us in a fatherly manner. Once, when I thought I had just missed the lunchtime hooter, I shut down the machine and walked out of the shop a couple of minutes early: Grisha, very politely, came up to me and said, “Rosa, the hooter’s still out there, behind the second mound.”
One day, we were working with Misha on the second shift. I was operating my machine and nothing seemed to presage trouble. At eleven o’clock that night, for some reason, I looked around and saw Misha sitting on a wooden block by his machine, head on his shoulder, fast asleep, with white foam bubbling from his mouth. I was scared: Misha’s machine is operating, and he’s asleep! I tried to wake him up, but to no avail. Then I screamed. Fortunately, a duty electrician heard my cry, came into the workshop and asked, “Rosa, what’s happened?” I replied, “Uncle Volodya, the machine is on and Misha’s asleep. I shook him, but he won’t wake up.” Uncle Volodya looked at Misha and said, “Don’t worry, he’ll wake up.” Indeed, less than ten minutes passed and Misha woke up as if nothing had happened. I later found out that Misha had suffered an epileptic attack; and he suffered an additional misfortune: he lost the tip of his index finger.
I also need to tell you about my misdemeanor, which could have ended very badly for me. One summer’s day in 1944, I was working on the second shift, so there was no- one with me in the basement room. The windows were open, and the sun was just beginning to set over the horizon. As I worked quietly by myself, I suddenly felt something hit my left shoulder. I looked around but saw no-one. I carried on working, but after a short while the same thing happened again. I looked around again, but there was no-one there. I cringed in fear; my nerves were on edge. When I felt a third blow, I turned the machine off. On the floor, I could see stones that someone had most likely thrown through the window. I ran out into the street, but could not see the culprit and decided to run home. There, I broke into tears and told my Mom what had happened, declaring, “I’m not going back to work!” I did not understand the significance of the threat this represented to myself. After all, the management might well have viewed my act of unauthorized departure from work as a “defection from the labor front.” I did not realize at the time that, under a decree dated April 7, 1935, all applicable sentences had been extended to children over twelve years of age, including the death penalty. I do not know whether my mother was aware of this, but early next morning she went to the Construction Workers’ Trade Union Committee. Its chairman, Berta Ilyinichna Schmukler, was a very intelligent woman: she listened to my Mom and told her to come back the following day. My mother went back and Bertha Ilyinichna said, “Tell your daughter she should go to work.” I returned to work: no one said anything to me − and nobody accused me of desertion. Moreover, they realized that it was unacceptable to leave a young girl on her own in the workshop: there needed to be someone else on the premises.
“Grandpa Ovsiyenko,” as he presented himself, now appeared on the scene. How old he was I do not know, but to me he seemed like an aged man, with a long white beard and gray hair. He leaned heavily on his cane as he walked and breathed with difficulty, due to his asthma. While my machine was working, there were times when I could set the carriage into automatic mode and supervise the work of the cutting edge: during these pauses, he would talk to me about his earlier life. A pure-hearted, former revolutionary, he related one episode that has remained with me. At some point, he had decided to commit suicide. “I was tired,” as he put it, “and I decided to hang myself.” But fate had apparently decreed otherwise – the rope broke, he survived, and in his ripe old age he had the opportunity to stand guard over a young girl who brought Victory Day closer with every ounce of her labor.