Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Volflionok Boris


Born in 1937 in Kirovograd (now Kropyvnytskyi) in the Ukraine, Boris Volflionok lived and worked in Smolensk as an engineer. He immigrated to Israel in 1990 and lives in Kiryat Gat. He has two children and four grandchildren.


I do not remember how many days it lasted. I vaguely remember lying on wooden bunks in a cattle car – one of those train cars that had been used before the war to transport livestock. Grandmother gave us hot water in a glass jar (miraculously preserved), with soaked bread in it. Once, when the train stopped for a short while, I went along with my older brother in search of hot water. The precious liquid was carried in teakettles. Occasionally, some women went around selling soup in buckets, a great but rare joy.

Only after the war did the adults tell us that in the beginning, Fascist airplanes had often tried to bomb our train. I only remember one episode: we were lying flat on the ground in a row, hearing a rattle of guns — our own anti-aircraft guns or the guns mounted in those aircrafts with crosses on their wings — and my sister kept repeating: “Let it rain, oh please, let it rain!” I probably remember this because I could not understand why we needed rain so much.

Another thing I remember is how we walked along the wide but empty streets of a town in Saratov region, carrying our belongings. We had spent a long time getting to those places, because we had left Kirovograd in July but we arrived on the Volga river after the deportation of the Volga Germans, in the middle of September. A large, vacant house had been reserved for us. On the kitchen shelves there were lots of cereals in jars and bags, but we were afraid to cook them: What if the Germans had poisoned them before they left? Then my brother Sasha found a solution: he rolled a ball out of wet flour and tossed it to a dog that was running around us with trusting innocence. It swallowed the food immediately and wagged its tail, waiting for more.

Mother went to work as a field laborer for a government farm (a sovkhoz), my brother was a shepherd, my sister went to school, and I stayed at home with Grandmother. But our productive and relatively peaceful life did not last long. More and more often, German planes with crosses on their wings appeared in the sky, dropping incendiary bombs. We were brought in horse carts to the dock in Dobrinka, to be loaded onto steamboats and barges. Mother was only 30 years old at that time, and the man overseeing the boarding would not believe that the twelve-year-old Sasha was her son. It took a long time, and our documents (which Mother, thankfully, had brought with her), to convince him, and in the meantime they had pulled up the gangplank, leaving Grandmother Mania on shore without any documents. Mother immediately ran to the captain, crying, and the captain promised that Grandmother would be brought to us later.

Again the bombing began. Our family was spared, but other people on the ship started getting wounded and even killed, and it was very frightening. We were dropped off a long way down the river on the left shore; there we were waited about 24 hours until our grandmother arrived. Elated to be together again, we boarded another eastbound freight train. The nights became cooler, and that is why there was a metal wood stove inside the boxcar. The train went on for a long time, it was crowded and we were hungry, but at least there were no more air-raid alerts. After about a week, the train stopped in Tashkent. Most of the refugees decided to stay there. But it was cold and rainy, and my brother’s shoes were already worn out and falling apart. He said: “Mom, we can stay here — if you want me to get sick and die!” Then Mother decided: “Let’s get off where it’s not raining!” And we tossed our bags back into the boxcar.

In Kokand it was not raining. When we reported to the local refugee processing center, they sent us right away to a bathhouse. I remember that everyone — women, men (most of them elderly) and us children – all washed themselves together in the small, crowded bathhouse. At first, they housed us in a neighborhood called Akhtipasay, but in the spring, they moved us to number 10, Engels Street. Given the street’s prestigious name, it was not far from the city center. The landlord was an old Uzbek man of about 60 who had four wives. The youngest of them was about fifteen years old, younger than many of the neighborhood kids that played out in the courtyard. One of the kids, Shamil, was of the same age as me, and we became friends very quickly. The adults stretched a rope between two trees, a quince and a mulberry, which we turned into a swing. Mother found work quickly, first at a hospital, then at a military retail shop. My brother was enrolled in a military music school, my sister went to regular school, and I went to kindergarten. I remember a big statue of Stalin standing in front of it.

Not all evacuees had it as easy as we did. Once Mother was walking not far from the marketplace and saw a group of dirty people, with bellies bloated from hunger, lying on the ground. When she looked more closely, she saw among them a family of our countrymen, whose family name was Prokopets. There were four of them: the parents, Abram and Ida, both born in 1889; their daughter, Lyuba, born in 1922; and their son, Fima, born in 1925. Mother immediately hired an Uzbek man that was loitering around; he helped her lift these exhausted people and put them on a cart pulled by oxen. She had them brought to our place, helped them to wash, cut their hair, and change their clothes, then fed them a little, gently and carefully. After that, Mother immediately ran over to the refugee processing center and got help for the rest of the exhausted people laying on the ground outside the marketplace. When they had revived a little, Mother’s countrymen told us how they had walked from Kirovograd to Nikopol under German bombing attacks, then took a freight train to Makhachkala, then crossed the Caspian Sea on a steamboat to Krasnovodsk, then again on foot to Kokand. There was no one in charge of them, no one looking out for these refugees along the way; they were on their own, hungry and often without water. A group of about 700 people had left Kirovograd, but only about forty or fifty people arrived in Kokand! Bombings, hunger, thirst, sickness, and lice had destroyed the rest.

Mother, with the resourcefulness and moral authority of a wife of a political comissar who was fighting on the frontlines, was able to get ration cards for the rescued family. A few days later, she found work for Lyuba (who was almost twenty) and her parents. Fima, who was almost seventeen, went to school. We began to live as one big family. Later Abram Prokopets was struck down by diphtheria, for which at that time there was no cure, and died. When Fima finished ninth grade, he enrolled at the artillery school and later, as a young lieutenant, was wounded while fighting off a Fascist tank offensive in Austria. Lyuba finished university in Kokand. Today both Fima (who cannot bend his elbow after being wounded) and Lyuba are living in Haifa with their families, remembering my mother with gratitude.

In April 1942 we received a death notice for our father. And at the end of the summer of 1942, my sister, Tamara, came down with typhoid fever. She stayed in the hospital for a few weeks, but when they brought her home, I began to hide from her, because I could not recognize this skeletal girl with a shaven head as my sister.

Grandmother started having sharp pains in her stomach. The X-ray showed an ulcer, and the doctor said she needed surgery right away. But there was no one to do it, as all the surgeons were either away at the front or in military hospitals. Then a friend of ours recommended a popular home remedy: drink about 30 grams of medical alcohol before every meal and eat some butter with it. Somehow we managed to get those rare substances, and after about two weeks, her pains abated. Grandmother liked this remedy so much that she would repeat it as needed until she was 97 years old, and she never complained about any other ailments.

But trouble continued to follow her: after the liberation of Kirovograd, we learned that her eldest daughter, Lyuba, had not been able to flee and had been killed by the Fascists on September 30, 1941, together with her mother-in-law and four children, among thousands of other Jews. We were told that my twelve-year-old sister Fenya had managed to slip into the bushes behind a burdock leaf, but then a neighbor screamed: “There’s a Jew girl!” She grabbed her by her braids and pushed her back into the crowd.

It was hot in Kokand in the summer, and we slept outside on big beds. One morning, when Lyuba Prokopets was making the beds and put her hand under a pillow, a scorpion stung her. It took her a long time to recover!

In the fall of 1943, Mother came home with a handicapped man on crutches. It was Lev Reyzin, who had received a medical discharge from the army after his twelfth (!) battle injury. When he had left for the frontlines, his wife, also named Tsilya, had stayed in Slutzk with their five children. All of them had been burned by the Fascists in the Slutzk ghetto. Lev Reyzin now became our stepfather.

After the liberation of Kirovograd we went back to our home town. All our property had been stolen. Our landlady, Aunt Frosya, had barely managed to hide an ancient silver sugar bowl, with tongs for lump sugar, and some silver spoons, from the raiders. She had buried them in her vegetable garden…