My mom died in 1926 and my dad died in 1933. My older brother served in the armed forces for Ministry of Internal Affairs, damaged his lung, developed tuberculosis and died in 1938. My sisters left the village early. One went to Kirovgrad, the other to Dnepropetrovsk. My brother went to a factory apprentice school. I had a stepmother, she was a very good person, and I didn't even know that she wasn't my mom. My dad remarried right away - he had five children after all. She had three children, but they were grown. But for a long time I didn't know [she wasn't my mother]. I asked why is it that when her daughter comes to visit, I know she’s not my sister by blood, but she calls her “Mom”, but my brothers and sisters call her “Aunt”. And I constantly tried to find out, but no one would tell me. I was at the neighbors’ and said - I don’t get it, why does Fenya call her “Mama” but Fira and Mira call her “Aunt”? - “She’s not your biological mother.” For me this was a heavy blow. I ran and put my face in her lap “Mama, you’re not my real mother, why did you hide it from me?”
I lived through the famine of 1933. We survived because we didn't slaughter our cow. When papa passed in 1933, stepmother said that if I go to my sister Mira’s, she will go to Fenya, her daughter. So that’s what we decided to do.
I came to Dneprodzerzhinsk. There was a pass-through room and one bed. There was no place for me to sleep, so I slept on two chairs, didn't even have a pillow. We’d roll up an old coat and put that under my head. I’d fall through the chairs some nights.
I finished 4th grade and moved on to 5th. It was decided to send me to an orphanage in Novomoskovsk. It was in the woods outside the town, where the monastery used to be. It had just opened, and all the orphans, all the little thieves were gathered there. That kind of crowd. And so I was brought there. The director and teachers treated me well, but the kids hated me. It was all “kike, kike, kike”. When I went outside from the cafeteria, these big guys would surround me and punt me around like a ball. Threw me to each other. When an adult showed up they’d scramble and show me a knife - just try to complain, and we’ll cut you.
I was put in a room with older girls, and these girls agreed that each of them, when going to the bathroom at night, would rip the sheets off me and throw them under the bed. They wouldn’t let me sleep. There were 6 of us in one room. And so I started asking to be transferred to another room. This one kind girl said that I could go to their room. And so I went there but still kept thinking that I should run away.
And I decided to run away. I walked 3 km to town, to the train station. Except I have no money, and I’m thinking - how am I going to get a ticket? And suddenly I see our classroom teacher from Jewish school. “Fridochka, what are you doing here?” I told her I’m in the orphanage and that they let me go to town and I want some ice cream but don’t have any money. She was so surprised. So she gave me a ruble, and a ticket cost 95 kopeeks. I was so glad! I went to the train station, the train was in 4 hours and so I sat down on a couch to wait. Couches were tall back then. I’m sitting and waiting and suddenly I hear Ukrainian. I peeked and saw people from the orphanage, so I squeezed into the wall and waited. They kept walking and they passed me. The last one passed me too, but then she turned and saw me. They grabbed me. I screamed and cried.
The director said - if you really don’t want to [live here] that much, write your sister. I can’t just let you go. So I wrote to my sister “if you don’t come, I’ll die”.
My brother said he’d come get me. “You’ll live with me.” I thought he was joking. His unit - 725th rifle regiment 113 rifle division was stationed in Belarus at the old border, and you needed a permit to even go there. He sent me a permit and money for the road. I was in the 8th grade.
I get there, he has a little room with two beds. We went to the officer’s cafeteria to eat, but I didn't like the food and said that I would cook myself. My sister taught me. I went to the market, bought stuff, did the washing. It was a 3-room apartment with 3 families living there. The kitchen was shared by three families too. We were missing this and short of that but people were kinder back then maybe, they would say - take mine… I’d do the washing and hang it up in the yard, everything would freeze.
In May of 1941 my brother decided to get married - because of me - it was really hard for me to study and keep the house. I really wanted things to be homey. I hung up embroidered curtains. I managed to make these soldier beds nice. My brother and I loved each other a lot.
He got married and she immediately got pregnant. I had exams, so I would go to the woods to study under a tree. My brother kept wanting to play with me - he would creep up behind me and throw something at me. “Don’t bother me, go! I haven’t had time to study.”
Then the draft started. We were working there, drawing up papers for the soldiers. Then there were trenches around the town. She (brother’s wife) says - let’s go to Slutsk, all the relatives are there. We started packing - a suitcase for her, a suitcase for me, and a suitcase for him. The two of us can’t carry that. She said - I’ll go alone and we’ll come back with my brother and pick you up. That was the last I saw of her. If she hadn't left, she’d have lived. Don’t know what happened to her…
The squadron commander showed up at daybreak. Frida, he said, evacuation is starting, don’t take anything, just the most necessary things, only a little bit. I left everything. Took a little suitcase, put in my coat, underthings and papers. He said to come and stand next to him. A carriage shows up, sort of like a woven crib with some hay on the bottom on 4 wheels - so we sat in it and put our things there. The commander told the soldier: “keep going as far as possible, don’t stop anywhere, just keep going, in a big city go to a train station and put on some train, an echelon. If you don’t do it, I’ll find you.”
We go and go and everywhere there’s Germans - in front of us, behind us. As soon as the Germans are in front of us, he turns into the woods. Once we decide to stop at night to sleep, found a house and lay down right on the floor to sleep. I was nervous, afraid, and I woke up to hear loud talking in the yard. I woke up the soldier, he came outside, then came running back in - “hurry, get up, the Germans!” And we ran out right under their noses.
It was like this the whole way: people walking with kids on their shoulders, saying “take us, come on, take us.” He says - I can’t, I have my orders, I have no right - and the horse won’t be able to pull them. One Jewish woman kept asking - take my child, let at least him survive. How could I? I will never forget this. Thousands and thousands were walking on the sides.
He got us to town, saw a freight train with open platforms and loaded us on those platforms - and the train took off. As soon as the train started moving, the bombing began. We crawled under our train car, didn't run, and they are shooting and throwing bombs. Loud booming and we burrow our heads into the ground. When we lift our heads we see a woman running, barefoot, in a light dress, with a baby, a little nursing baby. And then boom, and the next time I lifted my head that spot where she was running was already a crater…
We got to the Ural. 70 people in the dugout: it’s half in the ground and then covered by tarp and each “room,” is separated by sheets: two single soldier beds and a bedstand. That’s how we lived.
I was desperate to go to the front. The chief enlistment officer wouldn't let me go. He’d say “Babygirl, what’s your hurry?! They’ll kill you there”. So I wrote a complaint about him to the military commissariat and they took me. I was an aviation locator. I would detect airplanes, give the team a plane’s coordinates, and the gunners would shoot them down. All the calculations were done by girls.
Translation from Russian by Anya Kanevsky