Nahum Raiskin was born in 1930 in Sumy, the Ukraine. He lived and worked as a math teacher and computer programmer in Smolensk and Pavlodar. He immigrated to Israel in 1994 and resides in Ariel.
NOT QUITE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE
On July 9, we (my mother, my younger brother, Yakov, and I) left Smolensk in a train composed almost entirely of open flatcars. On the way, we were repeatedly bombed by German planes. During these raids, the train stopped, and everyone who could move scattered and took cover. If there was a forest or a bush nearby, people took refuge there, and sometimes they hid right under the rail bed. In one of these raids, a bomb hit the last two cars. Most of the people who were riding in them — mainly the elderly and the sick who could not jump down from the tall flatcars — were killed, and the survivors moved to the other cars. And the train went on.
In Morshansk, we got on a train made up entirely of boxcars; these had a roof and a sliding door. After Morshansk the train’s progress slowed dramatically, to give way to the westbound trains carrying soldiers and military equipment to the front. Food was not provided on the train, so during these enforced stops Mother had to go a long way from the train in order to buy or barter for food. And since no one knew when the train would depart, she was always at risk of being left behind.
And that was in fact what happened. We stopped in Syzran and had been there for about two days when Mother and another woman who was traveling with her old mother and two young children went out into the city in the morning in search of some food. Before they got back, the train started off and went on without stopping. Imagine what I felt, a ten-year-old kid left in charge, not only of himself but also of his little brother! And what did our mother feel, being left without her children? All that day my heart ached with thoughts of my mother, as though a fragment from a Nazi bomb had gotten stuck somewhere in my chest and was pressing relentlessly down on my heart.
In the evening we arrived at the Kinel station. We were told that the train was being disbanded and all passengers must move to the other two trains, one of which went to Tashkent and the other to the Chelyabinsk region in the Ural. Everyone took their belongings and left, leaving only our two families. There was our luggage to be unloaded and the children and the sick old woman to be taken down off the flatcar. The flatcar was not equipped with any steps, and I do not remember how I managed to do all this. There was another freight train standing on a nearby track. I put all our bundles between the tracks, seated the old woman and the children down on them, and myself took our kettle and went to the station for hot water, the way Mother had always done during stopovers.
Having filled my kettle, I went back and, as I was approaching the place where the children and the old woman were waiting for me, I suddenly saw two dark figures off in the distance, between the trains. They were coming closer. I stopped. I could not go any further: a faint glimmer of hope had been kindled, and I was afraid to scare it off. Suddenly one of these figures began to run towards me: it was Mother. We sat on a rail hugging for a long time, away from everyone, and wept, and the heavy burden that had weighed on me the whole day was beginning to lift, washed away by my tears.
And then there was Chelyabinsk from where we were sent to the village of Zabrodino of Shumikha district. There my mother began working as a bookkeeper on a collective farm. The family that had traveled with us decided to stay in the Shumikha district center. In 1944, on our way back from the evacuation, we met the woman from that family. Her little daughter looked like an old woman because of starvation. Her mother and son had died in the first year of the evacuation. But we survived; it is easier to survive in a village. We were given a small piece of land where we started a garden, growing mostly potatoes, and that garden, and the food we received from the collective farm, saved our family from starvation.
It was especially difficult in the spring when supplies laid in during the summer ran out and the next harvest was still far away. People cooked fresh nettles, dug out and ate some roots. The collective farm had very little left over to pay the workers, even when paying in kind: the government took everything for the war effort. A lot of people swelled up from hunger and died.
In Zabrodino I finished fourth grade at the local four-year school and spent the following winter at home, on top of the stove: I did not have the warm clothes for the walk over to the next village where there was a seven-year school.
I quickly became integrated in village life. We worked in the fields, because they were short-handed, since most farming men had gone to the front. We planted potatoes; I also learned how to bind wheat stalks into sheaves and even how to walk behind a plow. I especially liked to take care of the horses. I often went with my friends from the village to watch the horses in the pasture overnight. What a wonderful experience! We sat around the fire, telling stories and tall tales. On these nights I felt as though there was no one closer to me in the whole world than these boys.
But one day when we were returning in the morning from our night-watch, a farmer Ivan Belousov, who for some reason had not been called up to the front, caught up with us on horseback. He called me a little Jew-boy and said that it was because of us Jews that Hitler had attacked our country, and started inciting the other boys against me. I got a bad beating then, at the hands of those very boys whom I considered my closest friends.
Then I realized that I was not quite like everyone else. Earlier, back in Smolensk, I had known I was Jewish – my parents spoke Yiddish – but now it occurred to me that to be a Jew was viewed as something disgraceful and was, in fact, dangerous. I do not remember how I got home. In the evening, as we were going to bed, I asked my mother why we had become Jewish. Mother gave me a hug and kept a long silence, and then began to quietly explain: “It is not in our power to decide what we are when we are born, for this is the will of G-d. But it is in our power to decide what we will become. You should be strong, smart, and honest, so that, despite your origin, people will respect you and even fear you sometimes.”
These words of my mother’s have stayed with me all my life.
We soon left Zabrodino and moved to another village, Kamennoye, where there was a seven-year school and where I went to fifth grade. It was the fall of 1943. And in March 1944, we took another freight train to Smolensk. The city was a terrible sight. You could see straight through from one end of it to the other. There was not a single intact building, only empty windows glaring like eye-sockets, and caved-in walls. Our home was no exception. And there, in this crippled city, my mother would rebuild our life – alone this time, because, as we learned later, our father had gone missing on the front back in August 1941.
Smolensk is a regional center in the Russian Federation. In 1939, 14,812 Jews (9% of the population) lived there; it was occupied by the Wehrmacht on July 16, 1941. Part of the Jewish population managed to evacuate or were drafted. The slaughter of the remaining Jews took place between August 1941 and July 1942. In the first weeks of the occupation, the mass execution of the local Jews was carried out by a special Einsatzkommando “Moskau.” On Aug. 15, 1941, the Smolensk ghetto was established. It was liquidated on July 15, 1942. On this day 1,860 Jews were murdered by units of the German gendarmerie and the city police.
The distance between Syzran and Kinel is about 180 kilometers.