I was born in 1917, on the 16th of January. I was my mother’s eighth or ninth son. There was one more boy after me. His name was Leonid, Lyonya. I called my son after him.
We were the only Jews in our village. The whole village worked for a local lord.
In 1920, Ukraine was ravaged by various bands, Makhno's, Grigoriev’s, and many others, that all focused their “attention” on the Jews. We were Jews and so we were weary. One day, my parents found out that there’s to be a pogrom on our family. That night my dad somehow found a cart (I wanted to say a car, but there were no cars back then) and a horse. He loaded the entire family into the cart - the whole kindergarten - and we ran from the village and settled in Krivoy Rog, in the city, moved in with a local artist who taught at my school. It was a big house.
There was great famine in Ukraine in the 20s. The people were suffering, literally dying. My father and one of his relatives went to the Kiev province to trade some of our belongings for bread. They gathered up all our riches, in quotes, bedsheets, pillow-shams, other housewares, even found silver spoons somewhere, and went to the Kiev province to trade. My dad never came back. He died somewhere along the way. And so we were left without a father. I was four or three and a half, my older sister was five and a half, our youngest brother was three and a half. We, the three of us, were the youngest in our many-child family.
Mom was only 42, and was left with all of us, the whole kindergarten, on her shoulders, her dependents. All nine of us, little children. Somehow, she had to live, to save us.
My uncle on the dad’s side and the aunts all pitched in and bought us a cow. This alone was salvation. Mom would get up every morning at dawn, before dawn really, and milk the cow. Then she’s break bread into crumbs and throw them into this milk. You’d mix it all up with a spoon and get this porridge. This is what we sustained ourselves with. This is how we survived.
I was 8 years old in ‘25 and went to first grade. I went to school and my sister went before me, she was older by a year. Then, a year later, came my younger brother. We had 2 pairs of shoes between the three of us. School was in two shifts, so whoever would come home after the first shift, maybe it was my older sister, maybe it was me, I don’t remember the details all that well, he’d hand his shoes over to the third member of our team.
Ever since I was a kid, just like my youngest brother, I was really into soccer. We’d play soccer all the time, play till we dropped. Barefoot. We didn’t have a ball. First, we’d play, barefoot, with a tin can, then we figured out how to make soccer balls out of sloth. We’d tie all the cloth together play soccer. We’d go to all the games that were held in our town. We obviously didn’t have money for tickets, none of our peers did, but we’d dig under the fence, crawl under it. We’d watch all the games.
I can tell you about the 20th Party Congress. I could talk about this all day, start in the morning and end at night. There was a local Party meeting on February 29th or 28th of ‘56 at the city theater. I went to all Party activities - I was the local assistant secretary. We met with the OBCOM secretary of Propaganda, who gave us a report on the 20th Party Congress. He spoke and we listened, and at the very end, he told us of Khrushchev's message. He told us all the numbers, the facts, gave examples. We sat there with our mouths open and in fear. We were afraid to move, to talk, to breath even. It felt like a bomb has exploded, that we were clubbed in the head, didn’t know which world we were in. He told us about Stalin’s repressions, how many people were shot, how many people were persecuted. It was terrible, you couldn’t even imagine how terrible.
He told us that Khrushchev's report was already printed as a separate secret brochure that we would get in a few days to read at our local meetings. It was secret, we could read it or tail about it with anyone. We left the meeting, all thousand of us, we looked like wet chickens. We walked home in silence, afraid to say a word, afraid to even discuss this amongst ourselves. All of us were in shock, as if scalded by hot water. Stalin was a killer, his hands were covered in blood.
I come home and I can’t discuss this with anyone. I wander around the house, anxious, can’t seem to find a place for myself. My wife asks me “What’s the matter, why are you so agitated? What happened?” and I ask her to be quiet, to please be quiet and not ask me anything. I didn’t tell her anything, it was all top secret. What if I told her and she’d talk at work? What if someone, her sister, would know ahead of time?
We knew nothing. We knew that enemies of the people were arrested. We couldn't not believe. The propaganda was such that everything Stalin said, everything he sneezed, it was all hammered into our heads. It was all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There was no room for doubt. All of these songs about him, all the movies, they were all true. Not believing was impossible, there was no room for doubt. This was constantly hammered into our heads. And we believed, we were forced to believe, we just couldn’t… We were silent.