Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Taleysnik Semyon


Semyon Taleysnik was born in 1929 in Vinnitsa and has lived and worked in Donetsk as a neurosurgeon. During WWII he was evacuated to Kazakhstan. He immigrated to Israel in 1994 and lives in Ganei Aviv, Lod.


I clearly remember how our neighborhood kids, who spent all their time playing at war, reacted to the news that the Germans had bombed Kiev and war had broken out. They momentarily froze, restraining their stick horses, but then shouted: “Hurrah, it’s the war!” and ran on. A fat, elderly Jewish woman, our neighbor from the basement flat in the house on the Kotovsky street in the center of Vinnitsa, cussed them out, yelling that they were behaving like “meschugayim,” i.e., crazy, for they knew not what they were saying, what they were doing …

My father sent Mother and me away in a hastily converted bread van, together with families of his fellow employees, in the direction of Dniepropetrovsk and the Donbass: our relatives lived there. Chaos reigned already on the Ukrainian roads on which our van made its way: men and women in the towns and villages along the way, drunk and sober, looted their local shops and stores, grabbing everything they could, either for profit or to add something to their own modest households. Some made no secret of their joyous anticipation of the Germans’ arrival. In Cherkassy, our driver ran off, and we had to go to Dniepropetrovsk in the hold of a cargo barge, where we were attacked by hordes of bedbugs. The barge was also abandoned, and its crew ran off to parts unknown. We learned about this as we were floating under the railway bridge across the Dnieper, which was periodically bombed at night. But we were lucky, and in the morning we were able to get off and go into the city.

Ahead of our retreating troops, with a great deal of trouble, we got to Mariupol, where our relatives – and many other people in the city — for some reason did not seem to be in a hurry to evacuate. But we left in time and got to Stalino (now Donetsk) where we also had relatives. They were preparing to leave, together with their factory, to go to some place out behind the Urals.

Having no official basis for joining the factory contingent in their evacuation behind the Urals, my mother and I changed trains at the Yasinovataya station. Then we traveled around in random trains that were operating practically without any set timetable at all, riding on open flatcars.

Finally, we arrived in the city of Uralsk in Western Kazakhstan, where we would spend the years of our evacuation. During our flight, we did not know anything about Father and were only able to contact him through the Uralsk draft board once we got there. The news that he was alive brought us much joy, but otherwise the sorrows of our travels and the meager life in evacuation killed all notion of joy in us for many years to come.

During the war, a dependent person’s ration card was allocated 400 grams of bread a day. This was not enough, as bread was the mainstay of our diet. It was my job to buy our daily bread in a certain shop, which required standing in a long line. There was only one day’s allowance of bread issued each day, and the bread was all the same kind, all the same price, and was sold strictly by weight. Naturally, the scales were not electronic, and the weight of the bread portions varied depending on how quickly it was put on the scale, how hard the salesperson pressed down on the scale, the state of the scale itself, and the speed of service – and, of course, on the mood and honesty of the salesperson. The scales were the usual type: two metal pans with a set of weights. The buyer had no way of monitoring the process as is the case now, in our technologically advanced century. Any errors in the operation of the scale, and the salesperson, were corrected by means of the extra piece. It was not always possible to cut off precisely 400 grams from a loaf of bread, so an extra piece was added to cover any shortfall, showing the salesperson’s thoroughness and accuracy in weighing out the bread. I learned to read the salesperson’s face to see if he was weighing out the bread honestly or cheating. How I yearned to see only the former on his face! If I saw it, then even the extra piece meant more and was more desirable.

Besides, the unspoken rule was that I was allowed to eat the extra piece on my way home. It was delicious! What a pleasure it was to bite and chew the bread, abundantly moistened with my saliva, even though it was not very good! And the unspoken rule came not so much, or not only, from my mother, but from myself. I myself decided, based on the size of the extra piece, whether I should eat the whole thing or only part of it: a half, a quarter. These moments made up for the absence of joy in our lives and improved my mood.

Bless you, the extra piece of bread, which has long since receded into the dim fog of legends and bad memories — memories of the years of severe malnutrition, years of war! Since then, I can never leave a slice of bread uneaten, and have never in my long life thrown away a crust of bread – because it invariably reminded me of that coveted, that delicious extra piece of bread that had always been too small…