I was born in 1934 in Yampol, Kamianets-Podilskyi region, Ukraine. I lived and worked as a journalist in Tashkent and made aliya in 1994. I live in Beersheba, have two sons and four granddaughters. For them I wish to leave a book of memories, A Heavy Burden of Memory, a fragment of which I offer.
THIS WAS THE JEWISH FEAR, FEAR OF BEING A JEW…
On November 22, 2004, Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem, opened Internet access to the first list of names registering three million of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust of European Jewry. A virtually endless list of those whose lives were abruptly cut short …
About one hundred names in this list belong to my extended family, relatives of my parents Moishe and Inda Steinberg. Mother’s maiden name was Lusis. Her parents were Yosl-Echil and Shprintsa Lusis. They were, respectively, 65 and 64 when World War II broke out. They had four married sons and three married daughters. All of them had children. The wives and husbands had their parents, brothers, sisters, nephews: a big family living in several villages in the Ukraine….
My memory keeps returning to the time when a small Jewish village seemed a city, and lullabies were sung only in Yiddish.
Before the war our family lived in Yampol. A military unit was quartered there and both Ukrainians and Jews lived there, with the Jews being the majority. Yampol was close to the border and groups of Jewish refugees from occupied Poland passed through it.
Our own family consisted of father, mother, and three little girls, ages seven and three years and eight months. Mom and Dad had just moved to Yampol from another village, Lyachovtsy, when I was born. Here Dad had more work. He was a watchmaker, and each military man had a watch that sometimes stopped working. We had a nice big house with anteroom, several rooms, and beautiful furniture. In the sitting room there was a large potted plant (a tree with large green leaves in a barrel). Here, in this room, my father’s work bench stood at the window facing the main road. The front door also led into this room, right to Daddy’s workplace, so his customers could enter straight from the street. Daddy earned a good living and we were quite comfortable.
The war broke into our cozy, regular life like a hurricane; it drove us from our homes, deprived us of our property, and pushed us across the whole vast country in search of salvation from impending death.
It is not true that the evacuation was well organized, as was written in Soviet newspapers. Maybe for army commanders, Communist leaders, and their families the evacuation had been planned and then somehow hastily organized, but not for us, Jewish commoners. Together with us, along endless countryside roads, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were fleeing, uprooted by the same storm of death and fear of extermination.
That initial fear remained deeply engrained in our memory – probably owing to the feeling of despair, helplessness, and lack of knowledge about what to do and where to seek help. A few days before the war broke out Dad had been mobilized to some unloading work at the railway station, and Mom was left alone with us, three young children. Like a crazy woman, she was running from room to room, wringing her hands, and loudly calling out to my Dad, “Moishe, where are you, I’m lost, what shall I do?”
Suddenly she snatched a pillowcase from the wardrobe, stuffed some children’s clothes into it, took the youngest, Manya, in her arms, took three-year-old Feiga by the hand, and shouted to me, “Hold on to me.” As we ran out, a cart with a driver was already waiting for us. When did my mother manage to arrange this? Mom threw the pillowcase onto the cart, put me and Feiga in, sat herself down with Manya, and off we went to Lyachovtsy. It was a neighboring village, about twelve km from ours. My mother’s parents lived there as did her brothers with their families. Apparently my mother thought there we would find salvation.
When we reached this “salvation place,” it turned to be worse than our Yampol. The thunder of exploding bombs and the screams of terror-stricken people filled the air … Despite all this we, the kids, were put to bed, but the adults sat all night talking, arguing, crying, and praying…
Anxiously they looked at the road clogged by crowds of refugees. People were fleeing from the rapidly approaching danger, not knowing actually where to go: southward? eastward?
Suddenly Mother yelled on the top of her voice: “Moishe-e-e!” And we saw Dad! He was walking amid the human avalanche, tall, handsome, smiling, with a package held to his chest. He left from the crowd and walked straight to our porch. Still smiling, he said that the Germans had approached the Yampol railway station, and under threat of being captured, everybody was released to their homes to take care about their families. Not finding us home, he realized that we had gone to Lyachovtsy. As there was no transport, he came on foot. And in his bosom he had a boiled chicken hastily wrapped in a cloth. We hugged, cried and laughed both because of happiness and because of that chicken. Mom had hoped, however, that clasped to Dad’s chest was that precious box …
A box with valuable watches was buried under the threshold of our Yampol house “for a rainy day.” But when that day came, my mother forgot about the box, and father, convinced that she had taken it away and being in a hurry, did not look for it. So we remained without any possessions, money, or valuables – but with our dad.
Dad, who was originally from Lyachovtsy, had connections in the town hall. By Mom’s suggestion, he ran there to ask for a cart and soon returned in a car, actually a small bus. He opened the door and called out: “Get in now, there’s room for everybody!” But grandfather kept stubbornly repeating: “Go! You go, we can’t, we’ve to treat Sima.” There was no time to wait and we drove off. Never again did we see our loved ones. We learned about their fate only much later, at the end of the war and after it.
Half an hour after our departure from Lyachovtsy, some Party boss took the car from us. Apparently, it belonged to one of the apparatchiks who were entitled to “organized evacuation,” and the car was given to my Dad either by mistake, or maybe because he was so pushy. We were transferred to a peasant cart where already sat a blind, white-bearded old man with his elderly daughter at the reins. There lay several bags with their belongings, and our pillowcase was added to them. Dad sat down at the reins, and we drove on, joining a long line of similar vehicles full of trunks, bags, suitcases, children and the elderly. Younger ones walked so as not to overload the horses.
Where were we going? Where did we have to go? This was unknown not only to our parents, but to all huge crowd of refugees. No one had any experience or ideas about what to expect and what to do. One thing was clear: we had to run from the Germans … And no guidance, no help, no explanation from the government or from the command of the rear – but did this exist at all at that time in the country? A shapeless, fleeing mass of millions of people, abandoned to their fate at the very beginning of the war disaster … We drove along, leaving behind us the sun, the rumble of planes, the bomb explosions whose dense sound waves we sensed, and thick black clouds of smoke creeping from the earth to the sky.
We dragged along through the dusty country roads and woods, often coming to where we’d been already. Caught in the bombing, we hid under trees, in ravines, in unharvested fields, in hay stacks. After each bombing, the number of people diminished, and once our old man and his daughter didn’t come back. We waited and looked for them but they did not appear. Sometimes we found ourselves in villages already occupied by the Germans, where some sympathetic Ukrainian women handed us a piece of bread and a couple of cucumbers and chased us away: “Run, Germans are here!”
It was very scary. It was a Jewish fear, the fear of being Jewish. This fear pushed us along the paths of suffering.
A few yards in front of our cart, a truck was slowly moving. In its body there was a woman with two sons, aged eleven and thirteen. Bomb shrapnel killed one of the boys. Horrible screams, crying, neighing of terrified horses, panic of fear-stricken people … When the bombing ceased, the boy was buried in the woods. Exhausted mother and brother were dragged from the grave and led to their car. The second son had already raised his foot to throw himself over into the body of the vehicle, when at that moment there was another bomb, and shrapnel came and killed him too … In the next break between the bombardments he was buried in the same forest, in the same grave … Insane, petrified, benumbed mother was again dragged from the grave to the truck. Soldiers kept walking on the road in the same direction, to the east. And suddenly an inhuman cry halted the general rumble, and reached everyone’s ears: “Yash-ah!” The woman saw her husband, father of the killed children. He was retreating with his army … They said afterwards that she went with him to the front. But then the soldiers were going in the opposite direction, away from the front. Maybe – to eternity?
Months passed in wanderings. Hungry, ragged, frightened, and lice infested, we were running along pursued by death, and three months later arrived in our cart in the town of Cherkassy (this name I’ll remember all my life). Here we found ourselves in real hell. In this town we had to cross to the eastern bank of the Dnieper. But the last bridge had just been bombed away, and the bombardment continued. The iron hurricane of death swept from the skies, and hiding from it was impossible. When we could raise our heads, the only thing we could see above the crests of surviving houses were just bombs raining down. We were hiding wherever and as best we could. We ran from house to house, from tree to tree. I was holding Feiga by the hand, Mom held little Mania, Dad as always was busy guarding the horses. To this day, I cannot imagine how we didn’t get lost, how we did manage to keep together, and how could Dad locate us.
We had to run by dashes to reach the forest. There was this salvational bridge across the Dnieper, which the soldiers had repaired. It rested on empty barrels and was very narrow, shaky, and rocky. A slight tilt to the left or right, and a cart or a car full of people dived into the cold waters of the river. Several times the bridge sank, and the soldiers repaired it again and again. But there was no other way to salvation. A huge line of carts, cars, and people was strung out before the bridge, which became a live target for German bombers. Daddy, however, managed to bring our cart through, and we found ourselves on the other side …
It was a four-month flight, fraught with circling and dodging on dangerous roads and getting out of villages occupied by the Germans. We were saved by sheer miracle and my father’s resourcefulness. Finally the tiresome travel in our cart, broken and repaired dozens of times, came to an end, and we arrived in Voronezh. Here, for the first time ever, we were taken care of by the authorities: the refugees were distributed among trains going north – and southward. We were half-naked, barefoot, and cold, so our parents chose the southern direction of Central Asia which had the warmer climate.
And so our “organized” evacuation began. The train from Voronezh became for us a temporary relief from cold and dirt. Our family was given a separate compartment with four sleeping places. Although they were just wooden bunks, after our previous experiences the compartment was gorgeous.
We could, however, only briefly luxuriate in this comfortable train, as it was not for us. It was needed for much more important people, and we were transferred to a cattle car in a freight train. It had no beds, so at night one had to settle oneself on the floor, wherever one could find a place. But this freight train did not deliver us to civilian life just yet, our way to a place free of exploding bombs was still long and dangerous. Quite a few times we were thrown from one freight train to another until, finally, we were brought to warm places.
However just before our arrival in Tashkent, rumors spread through the train: the city is filled to its capacity, it doesn’t take any more refugees. It was scary: Tashkent, a long-awaited and desired oasis of sunshine and warmth, couldn’t accept us. Many were crying, people were puzzled about what to do, to stay on the train or to go further?
In our case, fate intervened: Feiga became seriously ill; she had rash and high fever, and we were forced to get off.
The station square was flooded with people: they were lying, standing, sitting on blankets, rags, or just on the earth, dusty and cracked from heat. Children were screaming, crying, running about, getting lost, begging for bread or water.
Feiga was taken to the hospital and left there with Mom, and we, Dad, Manya and myself returned to the station square. Local Uzbeks, Jews, and Russians were wandering among the refugees, asking for news and choosing their tenants. We were picked up by an old, red-haired Jew. He had a long conversation with Dad, then took us to his home. He had a long yard and a house with terrace, onto which a number of doors opened out, each from a separate room. Almost all rooms were already occupied. We spent the night in a room with a bed. The bed was prepared for us by the owner’s wife, a kindhearted woman. While giving us food she kept staring at us with pity, wiping away tears.
In the morning we again went to the hospital to see our mother and Feiga. We walked there every day, to tell each other how our day was, to consult about what to do next. Our redheaded boss recommended to leave Tashkent, because the city was crowded with refugees and it would be difficult for Dad to get a job. But his real reason was perhaps his fear that we, insolvent paupers, would stay in his house.
At last, Feiga was discharged from the hospital. Dad carried her in his arms all the way home and she, a three-years-old sufferer, asked: “Daddy, where are you taking me? Where is our home?” Instead of answering, my mother just cried and Dad tightly clasped to himself his cowed, inquisitive daughter …