I was born in 1923 in Odessa, and my Odessa childhood was a childhood of famine-ridden 1930’s, when the streets were strewn with swollen corpses of people who died of hunger. We also went hungry. My father, a professional economist, was hired by a factory to audit their accounting. For a month he worked every night at that factory, after his normal work hours. For the work he did, he wasn't paid money, but instead a half-sack of bran. Using that bran, my grandmother would make zatirukha (a soup made of boiled water into which one would pour a weak mixture of water and flour).
We had a potbelly stove in the middle of the room, with its pipe going out the window. Using that stove, my grandmother would make zatirukha, then she would sit all the neighbors around the stove, and would pour a bit of zatirukha in their bowls, and this would save them. In school we would get a bowl of pearl barley mix once a day, and that was hugely fortunate.
In Odessa, we lived in one room. We had a five person family. The room was eight meters square, no kitchen, no hallway -- nothing -- only a long corridor with one room after another. All the utilities consisted of a stool in the corridor with a portable kerosene stove, a bucket of clean water underneath, and a bucket for rubbish next to it. The clean water would be brought from the outside yard. That’s all we had going.
I didn't have any dolls. My grandmother once made me a doll, I drew her a face, and that was my game, my doll. [I also played] kremushki, a game of sea pebbles. One takes five pebbles, and scatters them around, then one pebble is tossed in the air, and the other ones are picked up. So we played this on the stairs, this kremushka. I also had jumping ropes, and skates: a small block of wood that my dad would sharpen and tie to my valenki [Russian felt winter boots], and those were my skates. There were no toys in this childhood of mine, everything was made of rags, rocks. I was a schoolgirl in Odessa, and when I was a studying there, there were no textbooks, no notebooks, we wrote in-between newsprint lines. We would make notebooks from newspapers, and would write in-between printed lines.
I remember my ninth birthday very well. My mom gave me a ruble and said, “On your way from school stop by the store and buy 200 g [½ lb.] of candy, and you can also invite your friends to your birthday.” I invited five of my friends and we ate that candy. Montpensier [small, hard, lolly-type candy]. That was it for my birthday.
The day the war was declared, my dad was on a business trip to Kharkov, and went to the army registrar directly from the train station to sign up as a volunteer for the front. On the seventh of July we were evacuated. We used drapes to make two sacks for our stuff. My father said, “The war will be over in three months. You’ll be taken somewhere, I will find out where you are and will come there in three months.” So we put my father’s things in one sack, and in the other the stuff that belonged to the rest of the family. Father asked and was given leave to see us off. He saw that we have two huge bags of things with us, and said, “What do you mean? The war’s on, people are dying, and you’re lugging about stuff!” He took one bag and threw it in the garbage. When we reached our destination in Kustanai, we’ve unsewn the bag that was left. It turned out we brought a bag with dad’s stuff, and our belongings dad tossed away. I then spent the entire war in my dad’s autumn coat.
They said on the radio, that the Kiev medical institute moved to Chelyabinsk. As it happens, Chelyabinsk is 300 km away from Kustanai, one night of travelling. It was announced that they’re accepting new students. I was taking my language exam in the middle of a bombardment. So I am sitting across from the teacher, and she is asking me a question, and at the same time BAM-BAM-BAM! -- bombardment, and we both duck under the desk. We’re crouching under the desk, and in the meantime I am thinking about the answer. Then we hear the all-clear. We get out, and I give her the answer. Next question. Again we hear the alarm. Again we get under the desk. And this is how I passed the language exam.
There were three exams. I passed two of them, came to sit the third, history of the [communist] party, and saw a note saying the exam is canceled, because the professor left for the front lines.
Then we returned to Kiev. The ground was covered with half meter thick layer of sunflower seed shells, because that was the only accessible food that kept people alive. My father was left crippled after a war injury. My mother found work as an accountant. She was hired only on a condition that she would bring her own chair.
The Stalinist times were the most difficult of times, when every day someone was arrested in our building. Absolutely innocent people. Of course, we were very afraid for dad. He was in a prominent job and would stay until 3 am there, because there was a directive that Joseph Vissarionovitch [Stalin] could call at night, and someone should be there. And so he would be at work until 3 am, and mom and I stayed by the window and waited to see whether he would come back or not…
My father, despite being an intelligent person, for some reason decided to write Stalin a letter: “Joseph Vissarionovitch, you’re being lied to, it’s all a lie. In general, the country is going to …” At that time he suffered a heart attack, so he asked mom to send it for him, but we read it, tore it up and didn't mail anywhere. The times very extremely difficult.
My husband didn't believe this, he thought that Stalin was as pure as snow. When Stalin died, he wouldn't take his mourning sleeve crepe off for three weeks and wouldn't let anyone throw away newspapers with obituaries.
I remember listening to his [Stalin’s] radio addresses in school. There was one time he was supposed to speak on the radio, and all the activists [heads of various school organizations] gathered in the Pioneer room and waited for the address to start. In the meanwhile, the secretary of the school’s Komsomol organization calls me into his office and says, “Shura, write down your impressions from comrade Stalin’s address that you heard.” I told him, “How can I do that? I haven’t heard it yet, we’re still waiting for the address!” -- “Don’t you know what your impression would be? Write it down in the best possible light.” I was so shocked, I bolted outside and ran because of this obvious lie. I couldn’t come to terms with it. I was running out on the streets in terror. How is it possible? I haven’t heard it, and they’re demanding I write down my impressions!
I finished Medical Institute and went to work at a hospital for war veterans, in the department of restorative surgery. When the Doctor-poisoners’ plot [a witch hunt on “cosmopolitan” Jewish doctors] started, my scientific adviser, Dr. Babitch, was fired and stripped of his professorship. A commission came to our hospital and worked for a month. They summoned all the non-Jews and asked them all the same question, “Whom can you name who was in Babitch’s cohort?” I was one of the seventeen doctors who were fired. I was jobless for half a year. [Then] the head of the hospital called me and said, “I can’t accept you back to work, as you’re culpable by court’s orders, but we have a doctor who is on a maternity leave. Come in on temporary basis.” I came as a temp and stayed there, worked there until my retirement.
Translation from Russian by Betty Abelev