Boris Schneider graduated from the Odessa Communications College. After the war, he worked for 50 years as an engineer in Moldova. He lives in Ashdod.
DOWN THE RIVER (THE BARGE OF DEATH)
October 1942. We had been transported by barge from Baku, across the Caspian Sea, to the vicinity of Krasnovodsk in Turkmenistan. From there we were sent to Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan and continued our journey down the Amu Darya River in another barge. There were at least 350 of us on that barge, all evacuated women and children. I was twelve years old at that time.
We were given a three-day ration of bread. But the journey took three weeks, since our barge was not equipped with a motor and just floated down the river like a log. And so a human tragedy began: every day during that three-week period, people died from starvation and exposure. I slept on the metal deck from dawn to dusk, unconscious from hunger. Grandmother Riva saved my eight-month-old brother Semyon, keeping him warm day and night with her breath and the warmth of her body.
One night, a few days before the end of our journey downriver, another barge – laden with grain and onions – was tied up behind ours. My grandmother told me about it in the morning. I decided to get over to the grain-laden barge. But my legs, weakened by hunger and cold, would not support me. I crawled on my elbows, pulling my body behind me. In this way, I reached the side of our barge and saw that the distance to the other barge was about thirty centimeters. I clutched the side of our barge with my hands and somehow contrived to throw my body over to the other barge, falling on top of the grain.
The first thing I did was to begin greedily to chew the grain. Then I tied my pant legs with string and poured the wheat into them. Returning to my barge, I crawled over to the place where my mother, her sister Khasya, my sisters Rose, Anya and Lida, my little brother Semyon, and Grandmother Riva all lay. Mother spread her shawl out on the deck, untied the string on my pants and poured the wheat out onto the shawl. Everyone started to chew the grain. Grandmother chewed up some wheat, took a piece of cloth, put the softened mass into it and rolled it up to make a sort of baby bottle for my brother. Semyon chewed and sucked on this improvised feeder day and night. In this way, she saved his life.
That entire stretch of the Amu Darya’s river bank, from Chardzhou to Urgench, is filled with unmarked graves of women and children. They died during the day, and at night the crew would push the barge over to the shore to bury them.
On the barge, I met a kid my age. His name was Sasha. Since the nights were very cold, and we had to sleep out in the open, on the metal deck of the barge, we clung to each other, trying somehow to keep warm…
One day, when the sun had come up, I opened my eyes and saw that Sasha was not there. The barge captain came up to me and said: “Your friend passed away. He died during the night. We landed on the shore and the crew buried him, together with several women who had died in the night…”
Yes, it was a real “barge of death.” Of the three hundred and fifty women and children that had embarked upon the journey down the Amu Darya, no more than a hundred and fifty people reached dry land.
When we got there, I was left behind on the barge. When I woke up, there was no one around – no people, no sailors, no captain. I crawled over to the gangplank but it was too steep for me to crawl down. After a while, I saw two Turkmen coming up on deck. They came up to me, crossed their hands, forming a seat, and gestured to me to sit down. In this way, they carried me down to the ground. And there was my mother, ready to receive me. While I lay unconscious, she had found some local people and led them to the barge. The men sat me down in an arba (a two-wheeled cart with big wheels), and we left the dock.
Recorded by Anna Kipnis.
Published in the book “The Adult Childhood of the War”
Ashdod, Israel, 2013.