My grandfather had six daughters and one son. The oldest daughter was married to my father but she died of consumption. My mother worked in Minsk then. And so she was sent for, my mother, though she had a fiance՛there. They told her that Roza died and her little girl Raya was only one year old. It wasn’t right to abandon Raya, so they told my mother to marry Raya’s father. No matter how hard my mother tried to refuse this proposition, no matter how much she cried (because she was already engaged to someone), she did marry my father. And it was a good family. You could feel that he loved her and she loved him too. My mother took good care of this girl, my half-sister.
My father grew up in a family with four boys and three girls. Before WWI, one brother who was married immigrated to the US, and one sister left too, who was also married. In 1929 she returned [to make a family photo]. At that time, you could still come back for a visit. I don’t know how long she stayed - a month or more - but she had a family photo made and then went back to the US. She came, gathered all family members together, all the mishpuha. And how many were there, let’s see, three brothers and two sisters. They all got together, and even I was in that photo. I was one year old but a little boy already, and my mother was there, holding my hand, and my older siblings - my sister and my brother. And they were all there, on that photo, and a nice well-made photo it was. But the Germans destroyed all that. The Germans, polizei, they picked up everything. They shot everyone, only one of the sisters survived. She didn’t have anything, she evacuated and didn’t take any pictures with her. So there is nothing, no photos left to show.
There was a boy in our school, Vanya Polyakov. I often went to his place after school and spent time with him. His father Leon was the chief. At one time we were all gathered to be shot at and killed. They lined us up and took us to the outskirts of our village. And then, either there was not enough room for everyone or for some other reason, they decided to let go half of the people, including my mother, my sister, my younger brother... But I was left with the other half. Well, my mother realized that everyone in my group would be shot to death, including me. She went down on her knees: “Leon, Leon, Honya spent time with Vanya, don’t you remember, he helped Vanya, let Honya go, please!”. And he pulled me out, so I stayed, but the rest of them were taken to the edge of the woods, about 400 meters away, and shot to death. I was really quite accidental that I happened to help Vanya [during school] and that Leon remembered it. So that’s a story for you.
I lived in the ghetto from June of 1941 to June of 1942. How I escaped was nothing short of a miracle. You see, I hid in the basement. My mother urged me to. She thought since I was the oldest, they would surely take me. She could not imagine that they would all soon be shot to death. There were many other little villages next to ours in Belarus. And in all of them I was the only one who survived. Actually, there was one other village, a bigger one, with one more surviving boy. There used to be 2000 people there. [This boy] ran away, we then met in a partisan squad, and he later crossed the front line.
I had no one left, I was alone. Everyone in my family killed. So I went to the front lines. I was wounded when we were near Warsaw. I was sent to the hospital to Syzran, near Samara. I discovered my older brother there, who was a kind of field engineer at the war plant. I did not know about it. I hadn’t seen him for three years. His clothes were ragged and he looked terrible.
But when everyone realized that his brother was a soldier from the front, a former partisan, he got a new set of clothes. He was wearing clean clothes when we saw each other again. When I got better - I was 16 years old - I was sent to the Internal Affairs Bureau. I was given a uniform and taken to see the person in charge. He said: “What kind of job can I give you - you are under age?” I said: “You trusted me to capture Germans, you trusted me with a rifle for two years, you trusted me at the front, so why wouldn’t you trust me here?”. So he wrote down his directive: “To appoint as inspector of community service and hard labor at NKVD [The Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs]”. I had not even heard about this before but it turned out that there was a law before the war that outlined a penalty for being late to work - three, four or six months of community service and labor. That is to say that you must work and 25% of your wages goes to the government. There were about 900 such verdicts in Syzran’. They were not enforced, people did not serve out their sentences... He said: “You should find these people, find them a job, and make sure the money goes to the government...” And so I started looking around the Syzran’ area, searching. I found this one woman, Kascheeva. She had stolen some grain from the field, a small amount. Her sentence was one year of labor. “Look”- she told me - ”Do you think I can work? My husband lost both legs, he can’t work, and I have to look after him. He has a very small pension, almost nothing...”. I got her a job at a dairy plant. After work she was allowed to take home leftover skim milk. She fed it to her pigs, fattened them up, then sold them, got some money out of it, and little by little improved her life. And there were many like that.
Translation from Russian by Ella Yulis