Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Sharnopolsky Abraham


Born in 1931 in the shtetl of Ilyintsy, Vinnitsa region, Mr. Sharnopolsky immigrated to Israel in 1995. He has served as director of the Jerusalem Home of Technologies and deputy chairman of the organization “For A Worthy Future.”


(Excerpt from a published memoir)

It was that very evening that the preparations for our departure began. Father went into our storage room and brought out the bags we had used when we traveled to Kiev, and Mother sat down at the sewing machine to sew several duffel bags from some heavy fabric. All the next day our parents packed these bags. As we kids were always trying to secretly slip some of our toys and books into the bags, we were strictly forbidden to come near them, especially since our parents were already bickering over what to pack. Father furiously threw things aside, repeating, like a broken record, that in two or three weeks, a month at the latest, the war would be over and we would return home.

The next day, before noon, Meir, our local jokester and all-around funny guy, drove up to the house in his horse cart. Easily, as though playing, he loaded and tied down our luggage and handed Mother up into the cart with an elegant flourish, to sit in the back seat beside my sister and brother. Father walked around our house one last time, making sure that all the shutters and doors were closed, before joining us in the cart. We left Ilyintsy, unaware that we were leaving it for good. We could hardly imagine that our house, which we thought we were leaving only for a few weeks, would be looted by local residents even before the Germans arrived, and then a direct bomb hit would destroy it completely. Father would later find this out in 1945, while visiting the place after his discharge from the army …

The railway station was stifling and dirty, but there was almost no one around. Mother suggested that we sit on a bench in the square outside the station, in the shade of the trees. Father went to look for the station master. When he returned, he said that it would be a long wait, as the train was not expected until late in the evening. “We’ll be lucky if it comes at all, and if it stops here to fill the engine with water,” he added. The station master promised to find us seats in that case, provided that seats could be found before the engine was filled.

Dusk came. My little sister was sleeping quietly in Mother’s arms, and Mother herself had started to nod: the tension of the last days was beginning to tell. Looking at them made me sleepy, too. Father put a few of our bags together, and my brother and I lay down on this improvised bed.

I was awakened by a distant rumble that sounded like thunder.

“Do you hear that, Yossi,” Mother said worriedly, “we need to get back to the station house so we are not caught in the rain.”

“What rain?” Father said. “What are you talking about, look at the sky: no clouds at all.”

“Yes,” Mother agreed, looking up, “but what was that noise, then?”

Father did not answer, listening to the night. Again the thunder pealed, much louder and much closer. Almost immediately, there was a roar of approaching engines.

“Oh Lord,” cried my mother, “it’s airplanes!”

As if to confirm this, the silence was pierced by the howling noise of a falling bomb.

“Get down!” Father yelled and dropped down on top of the bags, covering me and my brother with his body. There was a deafening explosion. It seemed as though the earth had opened up beneath us, and I felt as though I were falling into an abyss together with my father and brother and the bags. The sensation of falling went on for some time; my ears were clogged. The fear left me when it was all over, when I saw myself and my brother still lying on top of the bags and my father embracing my weeping mother and sister. I saw all these things but I heard no sound, like in a silent movie; my ears were ringing, and there was a bitter taste in my mouth. Then I swallowed, and heard a woman crying and the fading noise of the airplanes flying away. The bomb had apparently fallen outside the railway station and had done no damage. The station was dark, nothing was on fire, but the taste of dust was heavy in the air. Fortunately, the Germans had only dropped one bomb, obviously saving the rest for a more worthy target.

The train arrived in the morning. I do not remember how we boarded, who helped load things into the train car; my memory has only retained the ominous dimness of the boxcar, the smell of the freshly cut wooden flooring and the kerosene lamp suspended from the ceiling of the car like a bat, swinging when the train was in motion. Father covered the floor with a blanket from one of our bags, and we, fully clothed, settled in for the night. The floor was hard, but fatigue prevailed, and we fell asleep. We did not sleep long, however: the bombing started again, and the train driver began evasive maneuvers, now braking abruptly, now sharply accelerating. Explosions could be heard from all sides; bright flashes and gusts of air penetrated into the car through the small window and chinks in the walls. Inside our car no one slept, of course, but everyone spoke in a whisper as though loud speech could give away our location. There was no panic, but when the bombs went off too close, muffled women’s gasps could be heard. Someone tried to open the door of the car to see what was happening, but everyone started hissing at him and he subsided. It seemed like an eternity before the train was running smoothly again, picking up speed, as though in a hurry to leave that place where a few minutes ago the earth had heaved, and rocks and clods of dirt, wrenched out by explosions, had rained against the walls and roofs of the cars. For a while, all was silent. Dawn was coming, and someone opened the door. The wide opening, like a movie screen, framed an expanse of fields stretching all the way to the horizon under an improbably bright blue sky. The morning chill and the smell of grass pervaded the car.

Suddenly, the train stopped at the edge of a vast wheat field. Father jumped down onto the rail bed; people poured also from other cars. Some of them headed toward the engine. After a while Father returned with the message that the rails had been destroyed by a bomb but that the repair team was already working and that the repairs would take at least an hour. Once the repairs were completed, the train slowly traversed the repaired area and began to pick up speed. Once again, light poles and trees went flashing by, the inhabitants of the car sat or lay on the floor, and my father and I stayed by the car door. The locomotive belched out a thick column of smoke, and I felt the sharp sting of flying cinders on my face. We got up and moved deeper inside the car. Less than half an hour later, the brakes screeched, the bumpers clanged, and frightened cries rang out: another emergency stop. We heard a rumble of approaching aircraft and short, staccato whistles from the engine.

“Everyone off the train, into the field!” someone commanded.

We rushed to the door. There was sudden panic, people shouted and children cried. The men were the first to jump off onto the rail bed: they began to catch women and children tumbling out of the train and guide them into the thick, high wheat. In the commotion, I lost sight of my family and was slow getting out of the car.

When I reached the door, I stopped, struck by the sight of men, women and children stumbling and falling, running at full speed away from the train, toward the safety of the field. Some of them covered their heads with their hands, as if that could protect them from the low-flying airplanes with black crosses on their wings and fuselage. The roar of the planes drowned out the chatter of their machine guns, but I clearly saw the bullets raise small fountains of earth. I was amazed at the precision with which the bullets struck along the railroad tracks: it was as if their path had been laid out with a ruler. The planes flew away but soon turned around and came back. They passed over the train, strafing, shooting up the cars. I stood as if hypnotized, watching them. I felt no fear, only curiosity and a sense of irreality, as though all this were not happening in real life but on a cinema screen. The pilots, whom I could see in minute detail, did not look like the monsters that we had been told about. They were ordinary people, just like us; they wore the same helmets as our own pilots, and this discovery stunned me. Again and again I looked at the airplanes, wondering how they did not fly into the ground, since their wheels almost touched the stunted bushes by the side of the dirt road. Just when a collision with land seemed imminent, the airplane soared upward, carrying along the strained roar of its engines.

Strangely, they did not try to bomb us — they only kept strafing the train as if trying to flatten it; it gave them obvious pleasure to display their power and impunity. When the planes flew off to make another turn, I saw my father running to our car. When he saw me standing at the door of the car, he shouted, “Jump, quickly, don’t be afraid!” But I was too scared to jump down to the rail bed from such a height. I waited until Father approached and jumped down into his arms, and we both ran into the field together.

The airplanes flew away as suddenly as they had appeared, and the people, still scared, began drifting back to the railroad track. All of our fellow passengers returned to our car alive; they were dirty, bruised and a little dazed, but safe and sound. Later we learned that in other cars some persons had been lightly injured and had received the necessary medical treatment. The train went on, but the people in our car spent a long time discussing the German air raid. Fate was kind to us: we were not bombed or shelled on this day or on those that followed. We crossed the Dnieper successfully. At one railroad station, we were able to buy food and wash up at a water pump while the locomotive was being changed. Occasionally, our train would stop for a long time at a station, waiting for military or hospital trains to pass, to the dismay of our adults who feared new attacks and bombings. While German planes did not bother us anymore, the war reminded us of its existence by the destruction and fires we saw on our way, by the railroad platforms filled with refugees sitting on suitcases and trunks, waiting for a train, and by official news reports blaring from huge loudspeakers that were installed on station roofs.