My mother’s family, her parents and all of her siblings moved to the United states in 1921 and my mother was left on her own. She was 19. She stayed because she was already engaged to my dad and he was the sole bread-winner for a large family. He was a cobbler and was very well-respected in his shtetl. Those were difficult times for Jews - there were bands that went after Jews and killed them. My family lost a lot of people to the pogroms. Everyone did what they could to get away. We moved to Moscow in ‘28. My sister and I - I was 7 then and she was 10 - we would get in line for bread every morning. Everyone in line would take a number and we called them life-numbers.
When the registration process began and we got passports, line 5 [the now-infamous “nationality” clause] was right there, and our passports said “Jew”. You had to show your passport to get work and no-one would hire Jews.
In 1933, we were given 48 hours to leave Moscow (because my grandfather lived in America). We had to leave our apartment behind. There were three of us kids - I was 9, my older sister was 11 and the youngest - 5. An army truck pulled up - I remember this well - an army truck pulled up and I tried to get as close to my parents as possible. They grabbed me and threw me in the trunk, they also grabbed and threw my 5-year-old sister. My father lunged at them, but they restrained him. Then they took us to the train station and we were deported back to where my parents were born.
Three days later a friend of my father’s friend came and told him that unless we disappear, we’ll all be arrested. We wandered around without a place to live for more than a year. I remember how hard it was to go from place to place in carts. Over and over again, we’d get evicted. It took us two years to find a flat on the outskirts of Kiev and that’s where we stayed.
Despite all of this, how we were treated, when the war started, my father volunteered, went to the front lines, and died. When the letter came, my mother said nothing. We've never in our life seen her cry. She just took the letter, said nothing, and put it in her pocket. Then she read it and fainted. My mom and my dad, they were really, truly in love. When they went out, I would often take a few steps back and watch them the way everyone watched them. They were kind - my father would always carry treats to give our when he went out. It’s sad that he passed so early and my mother was left alone at 39. She could have remarried, but she said “Never. I had one soul-mate, and he’s mine till the end of my life”.
Every Saturday, my father would have visitors. He kept the Shabbat and I remember how he’d done the Talit. They did that in secret. No-one went to the Synagogue - that was too dangerous. On Friday evenings his friends would always come and mother would cook dinner. My parents were real Jews, they kept kosher, kept all the Holidays. They even managed to find matzoh somehow. We don’t do that now. I remember the conversations - my parents were always very anxious. The word “Jew” was a dangerous word. It was banned.
In 1943, when I turned 18, I was conscripted into the army. I wound up in an infantry training camp in Fergana [Uzbekistan]. I spent 8 months there and then we, all 4000 of us, got shipped to war as privates. We got dropped off 300 kilometers away from Kursk, and we then proceeded to march to the front line. We had just barely gotten to the trenches when the Germans attacked Kursk, their tanks overran the trenches, and out of the 4000, only 360 of us survived. We then got regrouped and sent back to the front. I was in the infantry and I went through a lot. In 1943, I was there for the liberation of Kiev, then in Zhitomir.
In 1944, on February 23rd, I was a radio operator for the battalion commander then, and I was delivering him a report. I went into his bunker just as it was hit by a shell. He died on the spot, and I got thrown and I just lay there for two or three days before they found me, bandaged me up and sent me to the hospital. I was totally mute, couldn't talk, couldn't hear anything, and just lay there for 8 months. I couldn't talk.
One day, a doctor wrote to me on paper “You want to live? You have to drink bull’s blood”. There were 10 of us there who could have easily died, and they gave us bull’s blood. I swallowed one gulp and my throat seized up, I couldn't possibly describe that feeling, I thought there was no way I could have more, but I did my best to drink it all down. Maybe that’s what pulled me through. It took me a long time to start talking or hearing, but I now understood what was going on around me. Then they sent me to Moscow to my uncle.
I arrived at night, knocked on the door, and they asked “who’s there”, but I still couldn't talk. When they finally let me in, they took me in and surrounded me with great care. For two years, I was a complete invalid. When Victory Day came, I couldn't understand anything - everything was in a fog. I still can’t believe that I managed to survive.
I try not to remember, I never talk about it. I did tell my kids - they were playing with my medals. I survived through really terrible times, first the war, and then my recovery. When we were ready to leave [to the United States] we were told that they wouldn't let us out, that I’d have to turn in all of my medals. I went and handed them all in. They took away everything, the medals and the documents, all I have left is a piece of paper that says that I had fought.
Translation from Russian by Alex Furman