ONE FAMILY’S STORY
The Waxman Brothers
Leonid Waxman was born in 1927 in Gorodetz in the Gomel region. A design engineer by profession, he lives in Rybinsk (Russia). He has a daughter, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.
Part 2. Leonid Waxman
… at the beginning of the war we lost our parents and our younger brother.
After a trying journey, Semyon and I ended up in the orphanage in Dubrovka, near Stalingrad. I was immediately shipped off to a vocational school in Stalingrad, attached to a factory called “The Barricades”. My brother Semyon was left behind at the orphanage. When the Germans reached Stalingrad, the orphanage was disbanded, and the children were all sent to different parts of the country. Semyon ended up somewhere near the town of Jambul, living with a shepherd in his yurt (tent).
The artisans and some of the factory workers (including me) were sent to strengthen Stalingrad’s defenses by digging trenches, antitank ditches, etc. When the Germans landed some paratrooper units, our diggers were organized into labor battalions; each of us was issued a rifle and ten rounds of ammunition. We shot at the Germans, holding them off until the regular Red Army units could reach us.
I received a concussion when a mine exploded near me. They took me away, along with three other wounded fighters, in a horse cart down to the Volga river and ferried us across in a barge. Even though it was night, the burning oil on the water and the glow of fires in Stalingrad lit up the Volga. German planes bombed and strafed anything that was floating down the Volga, but we managed to cross the river safely in our barge, and then they drove us in horse carts across the steppe into the unknown. I was then 14 years old. At the end of a long and arduous journey, I came to the city of Omsk, to another vocational school, this one attached to the factory called “Sibselmash”, which during the war years produced mortars and mines. The year I worked there was pure hell, worse than in the trenches of Stalingrad. I was constantly beaten because I stuttered after my concussion. When I would ask: “Why are you beating me?” they answered: “For being a dirty Jew.” I remember one of those jerks, named Fedorov, even better than I remember the cold and hunger. Many years later I ran into him after the war in Smolensk, but that is another story.
In Omsk, in 1943, I ran into the sister of my first teacher from Velizh, Maria Moiseeva. Through her I found Father’s mailing address in the army and Mother’s address in Tetvel.
Since I was completely exhausted, barely able to stand on my feet and was of no further use to the factory, I was released to go to my mother. I traveled to her for almost two months, from January to March 15. I walked more than two hundred kilometers cross-country in deep snow, with my feet wrapped in old newspapers inside my shoes. How I got to Tetvel is a separate story.
As for my parents, here is what happened to them during those years:
Mother’s baby daughter who had been born in Orsha died there, and they (my mother, father, and Victor) were evacuated to the Tatar Republic. Father, despite his disability from a prior war injury, was immediately drafted in 1942, technically as a non-combatant, although they put him on combat duty for two years. They gave him a rifle and sent him into the trenches and said: “Fight, Red Army soldier: even the wounded must fight now; even if you’re hopping on one leg you must fight.” He fought until mid-1944, when he was wounded yet again; then he was discharged and was able to get to Tetvel, where my mother worked as a teacher in the village school. Everything that Father carried for Mother and us boys in his backpack was stolen along the way. I remember how one of the older villagers received a loaf of bread from his son, from the hospital. He ate it all by himself almost immediately, and died.
As the harvest had been really poor the year before, people ate tree bark and saltbush, and suffered from stomach pains. Many died of starvation. In the spring we collected morels. In the fields we dug out old rotten potatoes and made potato pancakes. Mother found some castor oil for some holiday and used it to fry these potato pancakes, and we all got the trots. When the ice melted I went fishing. Once I managed to catch a wild rabbit; that was a feast. I wove baskets and shoes from tree bark that we took to the nearby Tartar village of Tavel and bartered for salma, a species of dumplings made from pressed rapeseed (oilcake). Since Tetvel only had a primary school, I walked the five miles to the village of Yamash to attend seventh grade.
Soon afterwards, Father found Semyon and brought him home from Kazakhstan.