Born in 1928 in Minsk, Mrs. Zaretser has taught the Russian language and literature. She immigrated to Israel in May 1995 and lives in Nahariya. During WWII, Mrs. Zaretser was evacuated to Kazakhstan.
EVERYONE RAN FOR THEIR LIVES
I was born in 1928 and was no longer a little girl when the war began, so I remember it all very well.
We lived in Minsk. This was in June, 1941, during the summer vacation. I had completed six grades of the Minsk elementary school No. 9 with excellent grades. My little brother, age 8, was away at a Young Pioneers’ summer camp in Gorodische, and on Sunday, June 22, my parents went to visit him while I stayed home with my grandmother. At noon, we heard Comrade Molotov, the Foreign Minister, give a speech on the radio. He said that the German army had attacked and invaded the Soviet Union. How could this be? After all, we knew with certainty, from Soviet propaganda, that if war ever broke out, we would take the fight to the enemy’s territory and never cede even an inch of our Soviet land …
My parents came back. They were very concerned but they had not pulled my brother out of camp. And so the days of worry began. Bombing raids started in the first days of the war, and by June 24, the whole city was on fire. We hid in some bomb shelters and in a little chapel near the Nemiga River. When we came home the next day, our home was no longer there. Everything we had was turned to ashes; all we had left were the clothes on our backs. Thankfully, Father had taken my grandmother to stay with her sister, who lived near Liberty Square. Now all we could think about was how to get my brother Izya back from camp. There was panic in the city. I do not remember any organized evacuation efforts; everyone ran for their lives. And so, on June 26, my parents decided to get to that summer camp no matter what it took.
We had no idea that in two days’ time the Germans would enter Minsk, and most of the Jews who had not fled would be annihilated.
Luckily, we found a military truck, with a wounded soldier in it, near the draft board office in Liberty Square. The officer in charge allowed people to climb up onto the truck bed so they could leave town. We were among them.
The truck took us to the Smolevichi train station near Minsk. A train, evidently transporting retreating Red Army forces, stood on the tracks. They loaded us into boxcars, and the train started out, but only a few minutes later, it came under fire. We heard a loud clanging of metal, the whistling sound of bullets. The commander came running and ordered everyone to leave the cars and run into the woods that could be seen in the distance. We ran; my parents held my hands and would not let go. We ran, sinking into squelching muck, tracer bullets whizzing all around us. Finally we reached the woods; exhausted, we fell to the ground and slowly began to revive. We spent the night in the forest. At dawn we were told to get out of the forest and go east, towards Borisov, while the Red Army fighters who were with us stayed behind to fight the German paratroopers who had fired upon us.
We walked a long time through the forest and finally came out on the main road. A stream of refugees flowed along both sides of the road, some carrying small suitcases, some with backpacks on their backs, others pushing carts with their belongings before them; as for us, all we had was my father’s briefcase. German planes swooped down frequently to fire upon the slowly walking people. Each time, we would throw ourselves down on the ground, and when the planes flew away, we would rise again and keep walking. This went on and on; the road seemed endless. Finally, we came to the town of Borisov and the train station, where wewere quickly loaded into freight cars and headed east. The train moved very slowly, and the German planes returned again and again to drop their bombs, and again we froze in terror …
Eventually we reached the town of Serdobsk, in the Penza region. They took us to a school building, took down everyone’s names and sent everyone to different villages. We ended up in a poor village somewhere, where my parents went to work at a collective farm, a new, hard kind of work for the city folk that they were. We ate very poorly and had no clothes but at least my parents were paid for their work – in potatoes and flour.
We sent out all kinds of inquiries about my little brother but heard nothing. Then, one day, my father decided to go to Penza to sell my mother’s gold watch and at least buy us some clothes, since we had nothing except the clothes on our backs. And – miracle of miracles! In Penza, Father ran into a former coworker whose children had gone to the same summer camp as our Izya. The man told him that all the children had been taken to Mordovia. This made it easier to look for our eight-year-old boy, and eventually we did find him — in an orphanage in Saransk. This was in November, 1941. When my father came to the orphanage, Izya came out to meet him in the same summer sandals he had worn to camp, over bare feet, thin, dejected, his hair uncut and full of lice. Father immediately took him to a barber shop and had all his hair shaved off.
Finally, our whole family was back together.
Later on, we located our friends who lived in Kazakhstan, in the Alma-Ata region. We decided to travel there, where the climate was warmer, to join them. Mother baked some bread from the remaining flour, and we set out again. It took a long time, but eventually we got there. My parents got jobs, and I and my brother went to school.
We lived in poverty, receiving the smallest rations of bread – and no other food at all besides that, because of the food shortages. We went out to the fields and gathered frozen potatoes and frozen beets. We divided our bread rations into small portions; my brother would eat his share at once, and my mother would give him hers.
In 1943, Father was drafted into the Labor Army, notwithstanding his poor eyesight that had kept him out of the actual army. A sophisticated urban intellectual, he was sent to Karaganda to work as a miner. Life without him was even more difficult, and my mother decided to join him in Karaganda. We were marooned in Novosibirsk for ten days, sitting at the station waiting for the train. But then in Karaganda, Father met us off the train – not with flowers but with a loaf of bread: as a miner, he received a kilo of bread per day. I will never forget this meeting.
In Karaganda our life became a little bit easier. My brother and I attended school, and Mothe worked. We lived there until November 1945.
When we returned home to Minsk, we learned terrible things: all the Jews who had remained in the city had been shot in the Minsk ghetto. Almost all our relatives were dead. Only my mother’s cousin, who had become a partisan and fought in the woods until the end of the war, survived. He told us everything. If it were not for my brother and going to retrieve him from summer camp, the same fate would have befallen us: Minsk was captured by the Germans a week after the war began, and most people simply did not have time to leave the city.