Lev Saksonov, a painter, graphic artist and book designer and a member of the Union of Russian Artists, was born in 1929 in Kamyshin on the Volga River. His paintings are in the Alexander Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and in several private collections. He lives in Moscow.
LIFE UNDER THE COLORLESS PALL
In November 1941, my mother ran into a relative of my father’s on a Voronezh street. He was a teacher at a vocational school. I do not know what would have happened to us – my mother, my grandfather, my sister, and myself – if not for this meeting; we might not be alive at all. The man arranged for us to be evacuated with his school. So that evening, or maybe the next day (I no longer remember), we found ourselves settled on the wooden floor in the corner of a boxcar crammed with the families of vocational school staffers.
The train was very slow, and no one knew where it was going. These two months in the boxcar came to seem like a lifetime – one of many I have lived through. When I think of them, I vividly remember the squealing brakes, the high-pitched whistle of switcher engines and the deep, urgent blasts of freight engines. I remember the jolting and jostling that announced that the train was beginning to move. For some reason, our train switched tracks several times a night. I remember what it felt like to be asleep when the car would jerk suddenly, making sleeping people roll around on the floor, bumping into others, and their belongings would tumble down, and men would curse — until the car stopped abruptly and everyone rolled back the other way.
It was a lifetime of soot and steam; of stations crammed with trains going west, to the frontlines, and others heading east; of station halls overflowing with people and bundles and crying children and reeking of urine and trouble. The snow alongside the train was riddled with yellow holes left by urinating people.
It was a lifetime of semaphores raised and lowered, of railroad switches, of railroad tracks without end. It was a lifetime of standing in line for hot water. I sometimes had to crawl under a dozen trains in a row to get to that line. Crawling back under the train cars with a full kettle was awkward and scary: at any moment, the train might jerk suddenly, trapping me beneath its wheels.
I caught a cold. Mother lay her coat down on the wooden floor for me. I lay on it and thought back to all the things of the past that now seemed so remote, so unreal: the city of Voronezh, and Grafskaya Street, and my lovely classmate Lelya Goncharova, and all my friends, and our school, and all the books and games, and the art studio with its divine smell of paints — not to mention things like a clean bed with a sheet and a blanket, and potatoes fried in butter, and enough bread to eat until you were full. It seemed unreal that we had once lived in a two-room apartment…
The train jerked so suddenly that I rolled off my mother’s coat, rudely jolted out of my reverie. Five minutes ago, my mother had gone for boiling water with her kettle. We had spent a whole week at this junction, and now the train had started, leaving my mother behind – alone, in winter, without her coat or any documents or money. For several minutes we clung to a hope that the train was merely being switched over to another track, but the wheels were pounding faster and faster, and we – my septuagenarian grandfather, my fifteen-year-old sister and myself, twelve years old – were being driven away from our life.
I think we rode this train without her for about a week. She came back into our boxcar at a small station, and I saw her. And my sister Lily saw her. And Grandfather Israel, her father, saw her too. And at that moment none of it – not the cold car, not the train headed who knew where, not our food that had run out – none of it mattered one bit.
As for my mother, Sophia Khasina — what hardships did she not endure in her life! Not only then, in winter of 1941, when she ran along the track in her house dress, refusing to believe that we had left for parts unknown – but even before the war, when she had had to support three dependents all by herself. And later, during our evacuation to Bashkiria, when she lugged a few pounds of potatoes to me at school in Kushnarenkovo every two weeks. Those potatoes came at a high cost, not only in money but also in effort required to get them to me. The distance from Sharypovo, where we lived, to Kushnarenkovo was 22 kilometers. She went on foot, in winter, there and back in one day. In all my life that I remember, she never spent any time on herself. She never even let us celebrate her birthday. How I wish my sister and I had talked her into it …
…The day before we left Voronezh, not knowing yet that tomorrow we would be leaving, I went to the art studio. The teacher, Vera Ivanovna, was standing at the window. None of the children were there except me. A plume of smoke rising from a downed aircraft cut diagonally across the window. Dejected, we waited for an hour. No one came.
From the studio, I went to Revolution Avenue. Night was falling. There was almost no one on the street. The sky over the Voronezh River was ablaze: the synthetic rubber plant was on fire. I knew that my mother was worried and I ought to run home, and yet I went to my school, drawn there like iron filings to a magnet. The school doors were open but no one was inside. The silence was emphasized by the roar of hungry beasts: the school was next to the zoo. A trench had been dug on zoo grounds, covered with logs and earth. Students would hide in it during air raids.
I went up to the second floor and entered my fifth grade classroom. A bitter joy filled me when I saw my beloved Lelya Goncharova in the empty classroom, sitting in her place, on the third bench in the right aisle. I do not remember what we spoke about, probably some trifles. Then: “Look, there is a drunk lying on the stairs,” said Lelya. I opened the door to the back staircase. “It’s the janitor, he is a Jew. I hate Jews.”
Maybe it was my last name, or maybe I did not really look Jewish at that age, but Lelya clearly did not know that I, too, was Jewish. I quickly said goodbye, not looking at her, and ran out, choking on my bitter grief and disappointment…
I had a friend once, Kolya Boyev. I loved him more than a brother. He lived in my apartment building, and we had been friends since we were both four years old. One day when I was nine, we were standing together in an alleyway arguing about something, and he called me a “kike.” Had he hit me with a rock, it would have hurt less. I was not sure what that word meant but I knew that it was worse than an insult. “And you can call him a jerk,” suggested an older boy standing beside us. “And you’re a jerk,” said I, feeling even worse. We made up the next day but from then on there was an abyss between us, not of my making, that I was never able to cross.
Now, stepping off the train every morning to add to the number of yellow funnels in the snow (the station toilets were always far away, and they were so clogged with frozen urine and feces that no one used them anyway), I would run across boys from a factory-operated vocational school that were riding in other boxcars. They were there to make their own funnels (or mounds). Sometimes they taunted me, and one of them would grab me by the collar and call me a “kike,” drawing it out with such exquisite hatred that it gave me goose bumps. I could not understand it: it made no sense to me that the Germans hated the Jews — and yet our own side, the Russians, who were fighting a bloody battle against the Germans, hated the Jews too.
For two years, in 1943–1944, I went to high school in Kushnarenkovo, in Bashkiria, in the Urals. My mother rented a bed for me in a house that was on the main street, close to the school. I walked past the marketplace, where two or three women sold meager quantities of individually priced potatoes laid out on trays. The cold air smelled of peat smoke – stoves were stoked with peat. It has remained with me as the smell of war and to a lesser extent, of hell. Oftentimes, a boy, a year older than me, would be waiting for me outside the market. He, unlike Lelya Goncharova, had guessed my ethnicity at once. He never bothered me at school but always attacked me in the street outside the market. Every morning, my knees would tremble from hunger and fear. He was taller and stronger than me.
I could have avoided him by walking down another street to get to school, but I never permitted myself to take that easy way out, and was therefore often late for class. After each fight, I had to hold the cold snow to my nose to stop the bleeding, and wash my face with snow. Then I would dry my face on the collar of my shirt and swallow the blood in my mouth. The smell of blood and peat smoke made me nauseous and so dizzy that I had to stand still for a while to recover, and only then would walk on to school.
I remember the sunny morning when the famous radio voice of Yuri Levitan announced the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. That was joy, but somehow it felt kind of low-key and self-contained. For many years after Kushnarenkovo, I would occasionally experience a state of such great happiness that it would overwhelm me. I would think: oh, Lord, this is too much for me; if I could spread it out over my entire life, I would always be moderately happy. But time went on, and this feeling faded, as if it had never been there. And yet, that quiet happiness from the victory at Stalingrad is alive in me to this day.
But in general, life was bleak. I remember a medical examination at school, where the doctor shook her head and said to the nurse, “What a shame, he’s crawling with lice, even though he is from an educated family.” I ran home, went into the barn, and stripped: my undershirt was all dotted with black spots. It is hard for me to understand now, but back then I was so terribly upset and ashamed that I felt as though I did not want to go on living. From that day on, every morning and evening, I examined my underwear, crushing every louse I found. But they did not decrease: it was as if they were coming out of my own little body.
My first landlady had many boarders crammed into her house. I slept on a shelf on top of the big Russian stove, which was also used to dry chopped firewood. There was a piece of sackcloth thrown over the firewood, and that was my bedding. It was probably ten days before I needed to defecate. There was an outhouse in the yard but it was boarded up. I asked the landlady where I should go, and she pointed to a place near the doghouse. I sat down, hearing the huge black beast growl impatiently, and before I could even pull my pants up, the snow was clean again. They never fed this dog anything else.
When my mother came from Sharypovo to see me, I was weak from hunger. The landlady had stolen the good potatoes my mother had left me and replaced them with rotten ones. I could not eat the black, foul-smelling sludge she cooked from them, and soon my appetite was gone anyway. My mother then rented another corner for me, from another woman who had no other renters beside me except for a foul-smelling mentally impaired woman that the villagers took turns hosting for the night.
But before then, in winter of 1942, I went to fifth grade in the village of Sharypovo. The big school house was not heated. We sat bundled up and wrote with pencils, since ink would freeze in the cold classroom. This was a Tatar school, and most of the instruction was conducted in the Tatar language. There were some Russian language lessons, but somehow none of the boys spoke Russian. The math was easier, I learned to count in Tatar and still remember the numbers: ber, ike, esh, dourt, bish, olte, gide, sigez, tugez, un — and so on. But in all other subjects I just sat there feeling like a fool.
Many of the old people of Sharypovo were blind. And almost all the others, including the kids in my class, had trachoma; their eyes were red and constantly watering. At that time, there was no cure available for trachoma, which often caused blindness.
One day after school, the boys from our class surrounded me, then attacked and knocked me down to the floor. I struggled violently – at that time, before Kushnarenkovo, I was still strong. But several boys held my right arm, several others held my left one, a whole bunch of them sat on my legs, and two of them held my head. One of them who had the worst case of trachoma – he had very sick eyes, with eyelids that were almost stuck together – spat on his fingers, rubbed his festering eyes, then dropped to his knees and rubbed my eyes with these fingers. The fifth grade girls stood around in a semicircle, witnessing this scene and chattering quickly about something, probably condemning the boys.
That was in the spring; I finished fifth grade somehow and told my mother that I was not going back to that school. That was why, in the fall, my mother took me to Kushnarenkovo, the district center where there was a Russian-language school.
Life went on as if in a dream – or rather, it shuffled in place with no sense of forward progress, as if a colorless blanket had been thrown over us. I had no corner to call my own, nor any furniture or bed linen, but that was not the worst part. I had no friends, no books, no paper, but even that was not the worst. The worst thing was the apathy: my lifelong desire to read, to draw, to go to school and do my homework had simply disappeared. There was nothing left but the growling black beast in the yard threatening to bite off my ass, the never-ending watery trachoma on all sides, the poverty and scarcity everywhere (such that even the farmer’s market ran short of potatoes), and the stalks of rye we picked in the fields in late autumn. I did that in Sharypovo, pulling the frozen stalks from the ground. Then this gleaning was forbidden; a “throat disease” (plague) started, carrying people off in 2–3 days. And the hunger, always there, like a hump on one’s back. I was so grateful to Lelya Goncharova when she appeared in my dream, only once in four years. I walked around happy for days afterwards. Forgotten were my puppy love and my disappointment; I was simply grateful to her for reminding me that there was another, better world out there, a world of higher things, a world that was not shuffling around under a colorless blanket.
Voronezh is a regional center of the Russian Federation. In 1939, 8,258 Jews lived in Voronezh (2.6% of the population). Voronezh was partially occupied by the Nazis on July 6, 1942. Those Jews who had not evacuated or crossed over to the Soviet-controlled left bank of the Voronezh river (a thousand people) were shot by the Nazis on August 10, 1942 in the ravine of Peschany Log.
Trachoma (from Greek for “roughness”) is an infectious disease of the eye. The infection causes a roughening of the inner surface of the eyelids. This roughening can lead to an inversion of the eyelid, pain in the eyes, the scarring and breakdown of the outer surface of the cornea of the eyes, and if left untreated, to permanent blindness. The disease is spread by direct or indirect contact with an infected person’s eyes or nose. Its spread is facilitated by poor sanitation, crowded living conditions, and not enough clean water and toilets.