Born in Moscow in 1937.
In the evacuation she was in the Chkalov region, where she lived with her mother.
Immigrated with her family in 1988. She lives in Jerusalem.
She has two daughters and three grandchildren.
Picture taken in 1991.
In June 1941 I was 4 years old, and I remember a lot of the subsequent four years of my life spent in a village near Chkalov (Orenburg), to where we were evacuated from Moscow, and in Chkalov.
My father Meyer Isaakovich Schenker (1901–1973) after serious injury during the Civil War, for which he volunteered, was not fit for the military service. In 1941 he was drafted (in barracks) into the railway construction battalion. The first two, most difficult years of the evacuation we lived together with my mother Haya Tsalevna Shenkerova (Naroditsky, 1906–1994).
The war is on, early autumn of the 1941. In the thick of dark night, we stand with my mom at the railway station square of the Ural city. And suddenly I find myself under the car, on the rails. On the one side there is darkness, on the other, some huge feet are flashing in the dim light. The landing of the recruited to the front on the freight train was under way, and thieves acting in the crowd had thrown me under the train, onto the rails. I leaned as close as possible to the flashing feet, but did not get out, feeling that these huge boots would trample me, and I just kept screaming, “Mom! Mom!” Amazingly, through the noise and roar of the station my mother heard my squeak, made her way through the swearing men, and pulled me out from under the car. Meanwhile, the thieves took all our stuff and we were left without anything.
In the harsh winter of 1942 we were in the Chkalov region. Simonov, the chairman of the collective farm, one-handed since the Civil War, wanted us, the downtrodden, the good, and he assigned us to live in the richest house in the village, where there were even painted floors. He could not have come up with anything worse. The mistress of the house, Mrs. Maslova, a dispossessed kulak [Kulaks were a category of relatively affluent farmers in Russia/USSR. The Soviet regime declared them “class enemies”; consequently they were resettled, usually to the Urals and Siberia. – Translator’s Note] exiled from the Ukraine, hated both the Soviet regime and the Jews.
For a day of work in the hard frost, my Mom got three hundred grams of flour, from which we cooked a kind of soup called zatirukha. The hostess did not allow us to put our pot on the stove to cook. “Go to the forest and bring me firewood!” Maslova shouted, while she had the whole barn up to the roof packed with firewood. “Am I the sun, to warm all evacuees up?” Heat! That was what Maslova was unable to take out from us, and that infuriated her.
My refuge was our bed that stood at the window. When the wolves howled at night and it seemed to me that they would climb in through the window, I pressed in fear against mom. And when our hosts went to eat, I dived under cover, so as not to see the abundance of their food and not feel the narcotic smell of borscht and potatoes with fried bacon.
Once I was left alone with Maslova and again hid from her evil eye under a blanket. She must have forgotten about me, and I followed her through a slit. Kneeing before the icon, she tearfully and fervently prayed, and suddenly with a low, uterine voice she gasped, “Hitler, Hitler, come, sweet.” In the evening, lying beside my mom, I told her in a whisper what I saw in the afternoon, and finally asked the question which had tormented me half a day, “Why is Auntie Maslova calling bad Hitler for a visit?”
Maslova raged more and more viciously and we had to complain to the chairman. Simonov broke into the house, as if into an enemy camp. With one hand, he extremely swiftly tied knots with a few things and threw them out of the door. “You, bitch, get out from here to your f…d mother, and they will live here.” Maslova fell to her knees: “Oh, my god, Comrade Simonov, I won’t do it again! Okay, let them live, it’ll be all right.” Simonov poured out his heart and cursed Maslova for some time, then left. It was my first lesson on the subject: the enemy cannot be trusted.
The distance between the farms was three kilometers and my mother passed it four times daily. Every day at lunchtime she ran from the village of Volny where she worked, to the village Losevka where we lived, to see how I was, and give me a few spoonfuls of zatiruha.
So she was running once, about two weeks after the Simonov’s wigging. On the road she met Maslova in a sleigh, where mom noticed our wretched bed stuffed with hay.
“You go to the chairman and live there!” Maslova yelled. “Where is Lina?” “There she is!” the woman waved her whip over her shoulder. I was not there, neither in the sleigh, nor beside it. Mom looked around with horror. At quite a distance from the sled, on a snowy, sparkling plain she saw two little black cabbage stumps protruding from the snow: my legs. The snow was old and packed, and because of that, having been asleep and fallen from the sled with my head forward, I did not get entirely into the snowdrift, my legs remained outside….
I was standing on a solid sleigh road, and my mother shook the snow out of my shabby coat. She said something, but I did not hear: hearing returned later than eyesight. “I’ll kill you,” my mother cried, “I’ll kill you bastard!” My frail mother was shouting at Maslova, and she, robust, red-faced, in a big sheepskin coat, sat silent and motionless in the sleigh. Normally unruly, she was now meekly submissive. Then Mom took the bridle of the horse and turned it around, saying to the hostess: “Go home!” And she, silently and obediently, went in the opposite direction.
Maslova, however, did not suffer from remorse. Not a crumb of bread did she give me after the return. From hunger, cold air, and mainly from the sleep in the snow I became quite weak; I lay half-fainted with my eyes closed and mouth open. And my mother ran to a neighbor. Stammering, she told her what Maslova did to me and asked for me a little bit of bread. The old woman turned to the icon and, crossing herself, wailed, begging God for mercy for her two sons who were fighting somewhere on the front. Let God help her sons as she is now helping the hungry. With trembling hands, in a hurry, fearing to be caught by her mean, stingy daughter, she poured a full canvass bag of rye rusks.
The first rusk mom soaked in water and fed it to me with a spoon. The second one she dipped into the water, and I bit it off myself. And the third, I already crunched almost merrily in a sitting position. Those generous rye rusks saved me. Well, Maslova, we’ll survive to spite you.
The wolves did not show up at once; at first my mother took the stories about them as fiction.
Fighting for our, mostly, for my life, she took a desperate risk. A bucket of sunflower seeds was a pay for nine buckets threshed for the collective farm. My mother earned that bucket standing waist-deep in snow. Maslova, of course, did not allow us to fry the seeds on the stove, so we chewed them raw.
And then my mother guessed: the seeds could probably be sold on the market. She would travel with a wagon train that left our place early, before dawn, with grain heading for the city elevator. By the opening of the market Mom was on the spot. Under the obscenities and hollering of the local market-women, apologizing and making excuses to them, she would quickly and cheaply sell her good. Having bought a loaf of bread, some butter and sugar, she briskly set out on her way back, to get home before dark. Thirty kilometers she walked alone in the winter Orenburg steppe. In the steppe, where blinding snowstorms begin in an instant, from which even sturdy men do not always come out alive.
The village looked at my mother as crazy. “Don’t go!” urged the local women. “Either you’ll get into a blizzard, or a wolf will eat you up.” She did not listen to anyone. She worked furiously, like a possessed woman, hurrying to earn the coveted bucket of sunflower seeds and quickly turn it into bread and butter for me. Well, she was not hit by the storm, but a wolf once set off in pursuit of her on the virgin snow. Fortunately, it happened near the village. My mother ran away, but soon, utterly exhausted, fell and rolled down the hill at the edge of the farm. At her cry, an old groom jumped out with a pitchfork, “Well, girl, lucky you, there it is, it has turned to the wood.”
The journeys to the city had to be stopped, and my feeding deteriorated dramatically. And then mom started (I think it happened five times) to secretly take bread from Maslova. She cut off a thin slice from the started loaf and strangely triumphant handed it to me: “Here, eat.” As a little critter runs with prey into its burrow, so I momentarily hid with bread under the blanket. The bread was incredibly tasty, sweet. But revenge was even sweeter: since Maslova had nearly killed me, we stole her bread. She deserved it for everything.
But Maslova obviously made notches on the loaf. “Brea-a-a-d! They to-o-ok my brea-a-a-d!” She howled, drawling as a she-wolf. I glanced at my mother: she had a calm face, and I tried to do the same. We were at daggers drawn with her.
“Don’t give a damn about Maslova! Come down to live with us,” Pauline from the neighboring village of Volny said to my mom. In her poor house with a dirt floor, I came back to life. We lived there as a horde. The senior girl Valya, eleven, and seven-year-old Kolya were engaged in hunting, they set traps for gophers. “Oh, rat!” – my mother shuddered. “It is not a rat, it’s a gopher,” Pauline corrected her strictly. “Don’t want to eat it – up to you, but don’t ward the girl off,” and she gave me a piece of roasted meat.
In the evening Pauline put my mother’s “urban” coat on, and went to an outdoor party, “to beat rhythms.” There were no men left in the village, only some old and crippled ones. The only harmonica player, a lame man, bashed out tunes with ardor for the women dancers.
Pauline forced my mother to “take” collective farm wheat. “I cannot do it, if they catch me – they’ll put me on trial. And you are an evacuee, you’ll not be punished. Well, my milk, your wheat, okay? No other way to survive.”
Pieces of fabric were sewn inside the “urban” coat, forming pockets. Covered by Pauline, her heart always stopping from fear, my mother poured wheat into them. In the evening, seven people, two women and five children were sitting around the cast-iron pot with milk porridge. All windows and doors were shut, no living soul knew about this incredibly delicious criminal porridge.
In early summer it became easier, we moved into the city, and an occasional friend, a Russian woman, head of the dining room at the brick factory, took my mother out of the industry shop to work for her.
Our happiness lasted a month. For a month we had a plenty of oatmeal, and sometimes a little meat. Brought to the dining room for lunch were units of old Kirghiz and Kazakh men mobilized into the “labor front.” They had thin gray beards, did not know Russian, were gaunt and full of lice. These old people cried to my young mother, “Mom, mom!” From all sides their iron bowls were stretched to her. They knew that this distributor, the only one of all, will pour the soup for them as long as it is in the boiler. “What the hell are you doing?” my mother was surrounded by several indignant local women. “You’re giving the squint ones over-rations!” These robust peasant women dragged the soup back home in cans and buckets to feed their pigs. They gave my mom an ultimatum: either you pour to the “squints” only one bowl, or a pot of boiling soup will be “accidentally” poured on you.
From the canteen she had to go back to the factory. At night, Mom unloaded cars with bricks, and got her hands frostbitten. The fingers became yellow, the doctors said, it was gangrene, offered an amputation. She managed to prevail over this and exhausting malaria with exorbitant temperature as well as and all other misfortunes.
When I was six years old, my mother took my national education in her hands. I remember how we sat in a room of the brick factory; we sat near the window and I saw the sun setting. “Long ago, far away in Palestine, we Jews had our own country,” she began the story in a sing-song voice, and I believed every word. “We had gardens and fields and houses, and fish in the sea. But then we were attacked by the Romans. We fought bravely, but they were much more numerous. They beat, captured and sold us into slavery. Since then, for two thousand years, we have been scattered all over the world, and we do not have our own country. But we are no worse than anyone else.” From this first acquaintance with Jewish history from the mouth of my mother, I always remembered that we are, and therefore I am, no worse. And I behaved accordingly.
Then my mother began to sing me songs in Yiddish, explain proverbs, acquaint me with the family and Jewish history. She told me in general about the Beylis trial and her childhood memories related to it. “Do you know, Rukhl,” my grandma’s washerwoman Marusya told her in Yiddish in 1913, “Do you know what’s going on in Kiev? Di ganze stut zydt ot azei o! (The whole city is boiling),” and she angrily clenched her fists. “And if they discover that you are drinking our blood, oh, what will be to you Rukhl, oh, what will be!” “Shem zych (be ashamed) Maruske,” my grandmother cut short. “You’re often in a Jewish home, you can see how I cook. What are you talking about the blood?”
About the pogroms, self-defense, and the murder of Petlyura I learned in my childhood from my mother. Since that time I know a ditty that once Ukrainians in Zhytomyr sang: “Zhids, zhids, zhids’ kids, where is your commune? What you’ll do, what you’ll do when here comes Petlyura?”…
It was the third war summer, and I, a six-year-old girl, was walking home from kindergarten. My mother and I lived on the outskirts of Chkalov in a brick factory house, barely a quarter inhabited. The road was quite deserted. Passers-by were rare; I was wary. If I came across a woman with a child, there was nothing to fear, if a man, I shrank. The main talk in the garden was about theft and murder of children whose meat was used for pies and rissoles.
On that memorable day, I had successfully passed all the way through and was already close to the highway. There’s our house and the brick plant on the other side of the road. I will not go home but to my mother, she works at a vegetable farm behind the territory of the plant.
Suddenly I heard a strange noise coming and lay down in the tall grass in a ditch. The roar grew louder and louder, there were clatters of horses’ hooves, screaming people. Gypsies traveling on two or three carts appeared on the road. They were also told to be bad, and I hid deeper in the grass, happy when they had passed. All right, they’re gone. My little mind did not want to wait until they disappeared completely from view. When they drove away about 100 – 150 meters, I jumped out of the bushes and ran. What a racket the gypsy kids raised! I was black-curled, an exact match in color to them. They looked out of the tent, pointing at me and screaming hysterically. A gypsy woman jumped out of the wagon and began to run toward me. I dashed from her as quick I could. I ran into the factory yard – it was quite empty, not a living soul. Crossed the yard – and ran forward! To mom, on the farming plot, which was quite close at the foot of the mountain.
The gypsy caught up with me; I could hear her breathing. I ran to the step, I saw a lot of white spots, kerchiefs on working women’s heads, I cried out as loud I could “Mama!” – and jumped down. Quick, quick … down to my mother … They all raised their bowed heads, and instead of white kerchiefs their faces became pink in the setting sun. “What do you want?” a woman cried, and I realized that she was addressing the gypsy. I was already quite a distance from her, and I turned around. “My kid!” she said, pointing at me.
Wow, what a lie! Here’s my mother, all these aunties know whose daughter I am. Everybody made a fuss, promised to come up this very minute and lather up the gypsy’s neck. “Get out while you are still in one piece!”
They were swearing, and she stood on the edge of the cliff, one arm akimbo, in silence, looking at them with contempt. Young, fair-haired, the person did not look like a gypsy at all, except for her clothes. She looked down, despising both these women swarming in the earth, and their threats. Yes, as long as they went upstairs, she had no trouble to withdraw at a leisurely pace. Which she, the witch, did. In everyone’s eyes she slowly, arrogantly walked away on the edge of the cliff …
From 1948 our family lived in Reutov, Moscow region, where I graduated from high school. Then I graduated from the Moscow State Institute of Culture and worked in libraries in Moscow.
To Israel my mom, daughters, husband, and I immigrated in January 1988.