ONE FAMILY’S STORY
The Waxman Brothers
Victor Waxman was born in 1939 in Velizh in the Smolensk region. He lived and worked as an artist in Smolensk. He immigrated to Israel in 1998 and lives in Jerusalem. He has two children and four grandchildren.
Part 1. Viktor Waxman
Before the war our family lived in Velizh, in the Smolensk region. At the time, this Russian town was part of the Pale of Settlement, and before the war there were many Jews still living there. My father, Max Waxman, taught the Yiddish language and literature in the Velizh Jewish school up until 1938, when all Jewish schools in USSR were disbanded under the pretext of serving “no further purpose.” He then became a teacher at a Russian school; a true polymath, he was able to teach both the German language and geography. His melodious Yiddish accent would remain with him for the rest of his life, although in pre-war Velizh this certainly did not bother anyone. My mother, Anna (Hannah) Waxman, also was a teacher; she taught primary school.
When the war started, I was only two years old, so my memories of the early days of the war and of our precipitous flight are very vague – it is sometimes difficult to separate the things I remember from those my parents and my brother have told me. Still, the most vivid memories have been burned into my memory like bright flashes of light, and our life after the flight and during the evacuation is much clearer in my mind.
I had two older brothers: Lenya, who was 14 years old, and Semyon, who was ten. Also, in June 1941 my mother was in her last month of pregnancy.
When the war broke out my father was not drafted – he was 47 at the time and disabled, with a noticeable limp left from World War I. Later, when we were already in the evacuation, the army did draft him. Though he was not assigned to combat duty due to his age and disability, he served on the Stalingrad front, was wounded more than once, and finally discharged due to injury in 1944.
Our parents told us that the family debated at first whether to flee from the Germans; Father, who had fought in World War I, insisted that the Germans would not molest civilians. But in July, as the frontlines drew ever closer, we finally decided to flee. There was no organized evacuation effort that anyone can remember. We simply went on foot from Velizh to the nearest railway station, Father carrying me (then two years old) in his arms, my pregnant mother, and Lenya with Semyon. We brought almost nothing with us, and much of what we had brought we later discarded along the way, as we had no strength left to carry it. Mother told me that the whole roadside was littered with abandoned packages and suitcases. Somehow we made it to the nearest station, but my mother went into labor on the train. They dropped us off somewhere in the vicinity of Rzhev. Father carried my mother to the hospital. I was allowed to stay with my parents but my older brothers were not permitted in the hospital. Just as my mother was giving birth, the train station came under a bombing attack, and my brothers got lost in all the horror and confusion and could not explain clearly where their parents were, so both of them were taken to an orphanage. Skipping ahead, I will say that they both survived, but we found them only two years later. My mother gave birth to a girl, and that is one of my vivid memories: they showed my newborn sister to me, and I stretched out my finger to her, and she clutched it tightly with her tiny fingers. The baby girl was named Asya, and my mother insisted that she was born strong and healthy, but that my mother herself was very weak and had lost a lot of blood, and her milk never really came in. And so my baby sister died when she was two weeks old.
By fall, we had reached our designated place of evacuation – we were housed in the village of Tetvel, in the Novosheshminsk Village Council of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. This village was ethnically Russian, although it was located in the Tatar Republic. We rented a corner in someone’s village house. At first we were treated well, especially me. The hosts had a daughter named Raika; she was my age, and we quickly became friends. I even learned to speak the local dialect. I still remember the silly song that Raika and I sang as we danced around a stool:
Knife and fork – two shots,
One hen – a rooster!
One day, during the Russian Orthodox Christmas, carolers came into the house to sing. They sang Christmas carols for the hostess, and then for Raika, but they ignored me and soon left. I was so upset that I burst into tears. My mother ran out into the freezing cold and got the carolers to come back and sing Christmas carols personally for me.
Being the smallest, I was certainly pampered and fed better than others, and yet I was constantly hungry. We ate what was available in the village – leaves of a local shrub called “saltbush”, as well as pancakes made from rotten potatoes. Whether it was from the saltbush or those pancakes, but Mother fell ill with typhoid fever. And that must have been the last straw, with her husband away at the front, her baby daughter dead, her sons presumably killed in a bombing raid … and so one day my mother grabbed me in her arms and ran to the well – to drown both of us. It was only when she reached the well that she came to her senses …
Once, a soldier on furlough came to visit someone in the village. All the neighbors gathered to hear his tales of life on the frontlines, and my mother also went. The soldier brought food for his relatives, as well as some gifts for the neighbors. The soldier cut off a tiny piece of white bread for my mother, and that night she woke me up, even though it was after midnight when she returned home, but she could not wait for the morning – she woke me up in the middle of the night to feed me this unprecedented delicacy – white bread! Probably about a year later, in 1943, my father came home on leave to recover from his wounds. He, too, brought home two loaves of bread, black bread this time, but also very tasty. Yet nothing could compare to that small piece of white bread I had received in the middle of the night; I have not eaten anything tastier in my life.
All this time Father and Mother kept looking for my lost brothers. They finally found Lenya in 1943, in a vocational school in Omsk. He had been forced to dig trenches in the Stalingrad area, not far from where Father was fighting. He came home, and our joy was great, but for me this was the beginning of a rough patch. That was because I was blond and blue-eyed, no different from the local children, so no one had ever given any thought to my and my mother’s ethnicity. But Lenya, he was a real Jew – big-eyed, dark-haired, with an expressive nose, a real Jewish nose – and the villagers instantly knew he was not one of them. I did not notice precise moment when the attitude towards our entire family changed, but suddenly former friends were no longer accepting me into their games, were driving me away from everywhere, and suddenly I knew that I was not like the others, and for the first time I heard “little Jew brat” from an adult.
As for Lenya, he had had a rough time at the dreadful vocational school because of his looks! The boys there were a bunch of real low-brow thugs. Oh, how they bullied him for being the only Jew, especially one from a family of intellectuals and teachers! My brother told me that they competed to see who could better hit him on the nose with their spoon to draw blood. They said it was “for being a dirty Jew!”
As in any family, my brother and I had our fights and arguments and conflicts during our long life together. But as soon as I remembered what he had endured during the war, all my resentment was forgotten.
Lenya turned out to be resilient, he did not break or become embittered; but the fate of our middle brother, Semyon, turned out tragically different. Semyon ended up in an orphanage, where he quickly learned to live by the law of the jungle. He learned that being weak was a shameful thing, and so was being Jewish. By the time Father found him and brought him back home from Central Asia (this was in 1944), our poor brother was a real little thug… and a consummate anti-Semite. He openly despised his parents and mocked his father’s Jewish accent. Even when we went back to liberated Smolensk, it changed nothing in his heart.
(We did not return to Velizh: other people were living in our apartment; the Germans had killed all the Jews who had not managed to escape; how could we go on living there with this memory? So we went to Smolensk.)
Semyon dropped out of school early on, fell in with a bad (but non-Jewish!) crowd, and soon ended up in court for taking part in a brawl. Since the victim in the fight was an officer of the Soviet army, the perpetrators received excessively severe sentences, even by the standards of those harsh times. Semyon was given 20 years hard labor. He died in prison before serving out his first year. He was only 20 years old.