A PIECE OF BREAD
Life seemed to be a river running along the banks and winding to the right and to the left. Filled with water from rains, tears and sweat, the depth of it increased all the time until it passed through the dam with a mark of seventy years. Somewhere ahead loomed a new frontier with an even higher mark of eighty years. Will the river run so far to the dam, will it exceed the height or stop halfway and harden on the gauge as a constant dash few years from the flood level? Nobody knows. In the meantime, pausing at the seventy years mark, I looked back and saw the river of my life. And, having seen it, I thought much and remembered much, too.
I was born in February 1938 in the village of Tarbagatai in Buryatia. It was later, that my parents, whispering among themselves, spoke about that period of the country life and characterized it to be nothing but bloody. It was a long time later that I learned about the tragedy of the years of 1937-39. I remember myself since May 22, 1941. It was a month before the war. On that day my mother gave birth to my little sister at home, and in my memory I always kept the arrival of the medical assistant on the black “Emka” car, the steel bed with the iron-clad grid on the top of which there were two layers of cardboard from some package and a cotton mattress with sheets, on which my mother was lying, with my tiny little sister called Liuba. In 1939 my elder brother joined the Red Army, and this important event for our family is not stored nowhere in my memory. Solomon was gone forever. Only later, in 1960, when on my own initiative I went to Ukraine, I found my brother’s family in Kirovograd region and learned about his fate. In the year of 1941, in the chaos of the German army rapid advance, the military unit of my brother was parachuted on the heads of the Germans. Out of three hundred sixty paratroopers only twelve people survived – those who were able to break away from the pursuit on the territory occupied by the enemy.
A few days later, after losing seven more people, five young and inexperienced guys were stuck for a while in a village. It was there that Solomon met a Ukrainian girl called Frosia Filonenko. Hiding from every raid, my brother met the birth of their daughter, who was named Hanna, in honor of our mother. Our parents, Paul and Hanna, found out about that in the late fifties from Frosia’s letter, which was sent to the old address of the village where our family previously lived.
During one of the raids, Solomon was captured and sent to the camp near Karlovy Vary, together with Frosia’s brother. Three days before the camp was liberated, my brother was beaten and shot for violation of the camp regime. By then the Germans stopped performing frightening and demonstration actions. Frosia’s brother returned home from the camp and told me personally about Solomon’s last days.
I remember very well, when in 1942 my second brother, Jacob went to war. I also remember his return in 1945. Dressed in a faded military shirt, on two crutches, he came into the yard of our little house. Each of the first steps after returning from the hell was painful. Later my brother told me how during the storming of the Carpathians he was shot with a machine-gun. The injury was severe. The nurses put him on a stretcher. Meanwhile, there happened to be a German «Junkers» attack. The medical staff rushed to the shelter at once, and, with his legs wounded, my brother was already saying goodbye to his life, and helplessly watching the bombs falling to the ground with a howling sound. But, fortunately, it passed. Then he was rushed to the hospital, and after that – home. Somehow mom pulled his incised boots off him and soaked with warm water his dried-up bloody bandages. When, finally, the bandages were removed, I saw on my brother’s legs tightened young and thin skin on the bullet wounds, cyanotic after surgeries. But a fragment of the grenade still remained in his leg and doctors could not remove it. It caused him unbearable pain and later was removed, at last. There were no bandages at home, and many other things were missing. Mom cut off the bottom of my father’s underwear shirt to make bandages and treated the wounds. Dad wore the truncated shirt for a long time after. But most of all I remember how my brother removed the almost empty sack from his shoulders and took some gifts out of it. They were a piece of dry black bread and a lump of sugar in the size of my little fist. Those were all his trophies.
We lived from hand to mouth. In early spring mom planted red beets seeds in the garden and, if we managed to buy somewhere seeds of turnips or radishes, mom did her best to plant them very early. The tops of the vegetables could hardly grow more than ten or fifteen centimeters, as mom immediately cut them and cooked something like borsch. Atriplex and young nettles were also used. My elder sister Faina, who was 17 at that time, got a job in some kind of an office where employees were allowed to take on account of salaries the old salted fish in barrels. Our people immediately called the fish “kassatka”. It was very salty and rusty, about six inches in length, half of which was unsuitable for eating because of its big head. Mom did something wise with it and cooked us a fish soup. The “kassatka” was all our diet.
I still remember the constant feeling of hunger. As soon as the wounds on Jacob’s legs began to heal and he was able to walk with the support of a homemade cane, he got a job at the railway station – unloading the wagons with rice and lentil. He was not paid, but by the end of the day, a few kilos of rice or lentils were given to the workers. When he used to come home, he was taking off his shoes and showing us his bleeding feet. Shortly after that our town saw the military convoys going from the West to the East. Me and my sister were hanging on the fence and watched the moving troops. Long afterwards, I learned that this was the Soviet Union preparing for the war with Japan. Once a soldier came into our house. Jacob and father kissed him. It was Vladimir, a cousin, whom I saw for the first time. He gave us a can of corned beef. But I did not see him again. Vladimir went to the war with Japan and died there.
In 1945 I went to school. There were only two ABC books in our class. But, struggling with the constant feeling of hunger, we studied. At school we were given a small piece of bread, which, overcoming the temptation, we carried home to give our parents. One day, on my way home, me and my classmates found ourselves at the Bira river. On the island there was a camp for German prisoners of war and sometimes they were taken out for a swim. We were standing on the shore and watching our enemies, who were to blame for turning our childhood into a constant torture by hunger. Suddenly, a little girl unwrapped a paper, took a piece of bread and handed it to the German swimming towards us. We were speechless. It shouldn’t have happened! The German, apparently suspecting a trick, twenty feet from the shore grabbed a stick and threw it in our direction. We recovered from the gunfire of the guards, the German turned back and swam to the island. The girl was crying bitterly because of the condemning comrades’ glances as well as because of the resentment. Then we didn’t understand her impulse. We lived too far from the theater of war operations in the West and did not know anything about the atrocities of the Nazis against the peaceful people. If the girl knew about the ghettos and concentration camps, about hundreds of thousands of starving compatriots, she wouldn’t have been able to do that.
The sobbing girl wrapped the piece of black bread in paper again and carried it home.
From Joseph Skarbovsky’s book “The Children of the War Remember the Taste of Bread”, Vol.2, Israel: Studio Fresco, 2016.