Michael Ziv was born in 1937 in Kiev. He holds a Ph.D. in building materials and structures. He immigrated to Israel in 1990 and lives in Haifa. He has a son and a grandson.
A Harsh Winter In A Warm Land
I was barely four years old and my older brother Yan was eight and a half when both of us, along with my mother and her father, my grandfather Buna (70), found ourselves swept up by the terrible maelstrom of mass evacuation. One can only imagine what this did to our mother, who for the past fifteen years had not had to worry about much more than the everyday needs of her children and the house. Now, alone with two kids and an old man, she was suddenly faced with enormous challenges and the need for quick and bold decisions to ensure our actual survival.
When the bombing started somewhere in the fields near Stalingrad, where we had fled from Kiev, Mother covered me and my brother with her body, trying to protect us. Nevertheless, a bomb fragment somehow found my head. Bleeding profusely, I was taken to a field hospital in a state of clinical death. An elderly surgeon with the melodious name Zhuravsky performed what my mother said was a brilliant operation under the toughest conditions and removed the fragment, which had fortuitously missed all my vital centers. But during the post-operative recovery, the wound became infected, and an abscess formed around the stitches. The lack of basic sanitation, nursing personnel, medical supplies, food and clean water made my survival at the hospital all but impossible, and my mother was allowed to remove me and nurse me herself in one of the trailers belonging to the hospital. When, a week later, my mother asked the surgeon to examine me and give me some medicine, he was quite surprised that I was still alive, and strongly recommended that I do everyting possible to avoid cathing a cold.
To escape from the harsh winter, we moved to warmer climes and reached Samarkand, the ancient capital of Uzbekistan. But that winter was bad even there. My grandfather, trying to save me from the cold, wrapped me up as best he could, taking off his warm clothes when Mother could not see it. As a result, he himself caught a cold, developed pneumonia, and died shortly afterwards to my poor mother’s eternal, everlasting grief.
But she had to go on living and had to save her children from starvation — which was a real, ever-looming threat because of the complete mess and confusion that pervaded the government’s attempts to provide for the families of soldiers. Food and everything else that was supposed to be distributed to these families for their upkeep was stolen along the way by local officials in the rear who were in charge of the distribution; the meager crumbs that reached us in the guise of rations were too scant to even take the edge off our perpetual hunger.
The house we lived in was located right next to the train depot, and northbound trains often passed through. Sometimes my mother was able to buy a few pieces of sugar beets from the homeless kids who hung around the depot. They stole the beets from the open flatcars when the trains slowed down on their way through and sold them for pennies. For us, the beets were a supplement to our meager rations, but for Mother – thought it is hard to believe today – the beets were almost her only sustenance for nearly a year, as she divided all her rations between me and my brother. Mother gradually sold off all her extra clothing to buy some tea, or sunflower oil, or some other food, and tried — unsuccessfully — to find a job.
The harsh winter and the famine decimated the people. At the depot, homeless boys trying to keep warm at night slept on the vent covers that covered the exhaust pipes carrying the hot air up from the boiler house, and every morning people found the bodies of these unfortunates.
Mother was obsessive about guarding me from the cold. But somehow I still managed to catch one at the very end of the winter, and even contracted whooping cough, plunging my mother into indescribable panic. Thankfully, she soon got over it and, convinced that only good food could strengthen my health, parted with the last valuable object we had brought with us from home – my father’s gold Swiss watch, which she sold for a tenth, if not a hundredth of its true value.
Realizing that this money was our last and that we had no other resources, my mother decided to spend it as follows. She bought flour, raisins, vanilla and vegetable oil and made doughnuts. She did it at night so as not to tempt us with delicious smells. In the morning, overcoming her city girl’s prejudices, she went to sell them in the marketplace. The doughnuts were snapped up quickly, and my mother, inspired by her success and by her decent profits, decided to make a treat for my brother and me by buying and frying potatoes which we had not tasted since Kiev.
And that was the first moment of which I have an independent memory.
Michael at 18 months of age, bottom row, first from the left. The village of Novoselki, summer 1939.
It was the end of winter; the sun quickly warmed the Central Asian air. It was dark and damp in our poorly ventilated room, and I was having trouble recovering from my illness. Mother opened the window and began to fry the potatoes on a primus stove. To help us endure the wait, and to keep us away from the tempting smell, she sat me and my brother at the window. Finally, the frying pan with delicious-smelling potatoes appeared on the window sill in all its glory, and my brother and I, trembling with anticipation, trying to prolong the pleasure, began to pick out one piece after another and carry them to our mouths, melting in this great gluttonous bliss.
Michael Ziv in 2nd grade of school #17 in Kiev, third from the right in the top row, 1945
Suddenly, an unwashed, disheveled face appeared in the window. A dirty hand darted out of what used to be a sleeve, quickly scooped up the fried potatoes from the pan — and the vision disappeared as suddenly as it had arisen. I was jolted out of my stupor by my brother’s quiet wailing. I collapsed in a fit of hysterics, and my mother, hearing our cries, came running.
Once she understood what had happened from my brother’s confused story, she quickly found a solution. She led us to her saucepan, opened the lid, plunged her spoon in and produced, one after the other, two beautiful, golden-brown doughnuts, redolent of fried dough and vanilla. Satisfied, we quickly calmed down and then were happy to discover that the suffocating, unrelenting whooping cough that had tormented me for so long had disappeared from the shock.
Every day my mother made the rounds of the military recruiting office and other organizations engaged in finding front-line soldiers or their families. She went there without fail, as though she were going to work. She sought audiences, obtained information and battled the bureaucracy to extract for us all the things to which we, as a soldier’s family, were entitled. Often, those things were withheld from those for whom they were intended and were plundered instead by the numerous crooks staffing these organizations.
It goes without saying that a woman as beautiful as my mother could not help attracting the attention of these crooks. These were men who had somehow managed to safely ensconce themselves in the rear and were growing sleek and fat, taking advantage of the prevailing chaos and lack of enforcement from local authorities (whom they bribed with some of the supplies intended for the front). These were the crooks who bought up for next to nothing the valuables and antiques brought there by the evacuated families who had been left without money and without shelter — by women whose husbands were fighting at the front while the women were selflessly trying to save their children and old people from starvation.
These “jackals,” as the local Uzbeks called them, were not averse to taking advantage of the beautiful soldiers’ wives who had fallen upon the hard times. These poor women were then scorned by everyone and viewed as traitors. But most soldiers’ wives indignantly rejected the “jackals’” advances, and some did it loudly and aggressively, putting into it the full force of their grief and anger.
Once, when my mother came to the military recruiting office, I witnessed a scene that has become etched deeply into my memory. Standing in the hallway with a group of soldiers’ wives, I noticed a dapper, European-looking man who was staring at my mother. Meanwhile, my mother went into one of the rooms, leaving me in the care of the women. And when we came out into the street, we were immediately approached by the dandy from the hallway, who began thrusting a paper bag at me while staring at my mother and saying something to her – I did not catch the words. My mother stopped, took my hand, and squeezed it so hard that my fingers hurt. The bag floated away from under my nose, and I looked up at the dandy. He was standing frozen in place, with bulging eyes and an outstretched hand still holding the bag. I looked at my mother and did not recognize her. Her usually soft, round face with big, beautiful eyes was pale and drawn; her eyes were narrowed. A menacing stranger stood before me, ready, like a she-wolf, to attack the enemy. Apparently, this sudden and dramatic change made the desired impression on the dandy, and he, confused, backed away and melted into the crowd.
After she had calmed down, my mother smiled at me and said: “The enemy beats a cowardly retreat before the onslaught of the Soviet forces!” These were the words we often heard on the radio in news bulletins from the front. We both laughed and I, swelling with pride for my mother, happily walked beside her.
…Meanwhile the war had reached a turning point: the Soviet troops began to push back on the Germans, who were retreating on almost all the fronts. At the military recruiting office, my mother was finally handed several letters from my father, which he had sent to us through every organization involved in finding evacuated families of soldiers. In one letter, Father reported that while passing with our troops through liberated Kiev, he had stopped by our former apartment and found it taken over by people from a nearby village that had burned down, and that he had enlisted the help of a district military office representative to reserve a room for us – only one room, but the largest one and with a balcony.
We moved back in late February 1944, when spring was already in full swing in Samarkand. When we arrived in Kiev in early March, there was still snow on the ground. We got from the station to our house with our big old suitcase and knapsacks and stood in the middle of the yard while Mother went up to our former apartment to check on the availability of the room that Father had written about in his letter.
A few minutes later she ran back down the stairs, pursued by a man and two women, one young, one old, who were screaming at the top of their voices for us to go back to where we had come from. They were swearing and cursing my mother and the rest of us and everyone who had left at the beginning of the war. Their screams brought the rest of their fellow squatters from that village that had burned down, who now joined in the attack. We stood there, surrounded by a hostile crowd, clinging to our mother and trembling with fear and cold.
It felt like an eternity had passed before a small, bow-legged woman with a pronounced limp made her way to us through the crowd. It was Auntie Dasha, our pre-war neighbor. She grabbed some of our belongings and took us down to her basement. Her husband was missing, and Auntie Dasha was considered a war veteran’s widow. She fed us and allowed us to stay with her for now.
The next day, early in the morning, my mother went to look for the military recruiting office and try to see the military commissar. We waited for her, afraid to stir from the basement where we had spent the night. My mother had not yet returned when a lean man in a military jacket without shoulder boards rode into the yard on a bicycle. He had on green breeches and chrome-tanned officers’ boots and had a field bag over his shoulder. He was steering the bicycle by holding on to the handlebar in the middle with one hand. The other sleeve of his jacket was empty and pinned up at the bottom. The one-armed man (he was the military commissar) jumped off the bike and quickly began to climb the stairs to our old apartment. A pistol holder bulged beneath his jacket in the back. A few minutes later he came down, pursued by the same two women, one young, one old, who were screaming and cursing.
Michael in fifth grade. This picture was taken for the school’s honor roll. 1949.
Just then, my mother arrived, all out of breath. The military commissar, ignoring the raging women, explained to my mother that tomorrow the large room with the balcony would be vacated, and all our possessions that had been stolen by the neighbors would be returned. As he was speaking, the young woman’s husband, Mishka, rushed into the yard and attacked the one-armed man with insults and threats. Our other tormentors from the day before began to gather round.
Suddenly, the commissar knocked Mishka off his feet with a short, hard punch to the face, drew his pistol, and fired into the air. It happened so fast that everyone froze in place, and Mishka cowered on the ground, covering his head with his hands. The next moment, everyone scattered, running each for their door, and Mishka, still lying on the ground, looked up in terror at the one-handed man’s gun. Mishka’s wife and mother-in-law fell to their knees and set up a keening wail: “Please don’t kill him, sir!”
The one-armed commissar, knowing that all the neighbors could hear him from behind their window curtains, loudly announced: “Tomorrow by eight in the morning you will vacate the room belonging to this family – the family of an officer who is fighting at the front to protect our Motherland. You will return each and every piece of their property that you stole! If this is not done, I will personally shoot you with this gun, you son of a bitch. Anyone who mistreats the officer’s wife or children will have to deal with me and with a military tribunal.”
The commissar put away his weapon and rode out of the yard accompanied by the whimpering of the two women: “We’ll do everything, sir, we swear we’ll do everything!”
That evening, we moved into the vacated room.