My father was a military man, he was assistant to the Soviet Army’s chief prosecutor. But he had also worked as editor of a literary newspaper from 1935 to 1937. His name was Lev Subbotsky. He was arrested in 1937 and spent 2.5 years in prison.
I remember we had a good looking dog, a collie. When they came to arrest my dad, the dog seemed overjoyed to see those people. My mom was so shocked by this afterwards that she gave the dog up right away.
My father got 8 years instead of the usual 10 years without the right to correspondence. 8 years was considered a great outcome; it meant a chance to survive. My mom was allowed to send him packages. She sent little piece of soap in shape of an elephant in one of those packages. She didn't intend it as a souvenir; she put it in so that he could use it. But he used it as a keepsake and brought it back with him. So we kept it and later I brought it here with me.
When my father received his sentence, he was being sent off from the Lefortovo Prison and into deportation. While in a prison train-car, he managed to write down Mom’s address and a note for her. He wrote with a piece of coal. He pushed the note through the cracks and it fell onto the train tracks. He wrote that they were sending him to a camp in the Far East. It was a very short note, and it got preserved. It is still in Moscow. The most surprising thing was that it had reached us. Someone found it, picked it up and mailed it, but without leaving their own address, making them impossible to find.
One of the people who testified against my father later retracted his testimony, for which he then got executed. The horrible thing was that, since he knew my dad well, his wife called us several times after dad got released, and he did not know what to say to her. As though he were an unwitting culprit in her husband’s death.
I once saw a picture of my dad with two rather strange-looking individuals. I asked him, Dad, who are they? He said, this one is a prison gang boss. I didn't know what these were at the time. He said, to some extent, I survived these harsh conditions because I told them interesting stories, retelling interesting novels, like Dumas for example. I told a short piece every day, always stopping at the most interesting point. And when they demanded that I tell what happened next, I would always say, now it’s time for bed, but tomorrow I’ll tell what happened next. I enlightened them with literature and they educated me about life in prison.
My mom was arrested too and spent 1 year in prison. She spent it in a huge prison cell at Lefortovo, where she met the wife of Vasily Grossman, and our families became very close. In 1939 Beria came to power and issued an order to release all the wives who didn't have their own conviction but were in prison for the husbands only. And my mom got released. She came back in such a bad state, she didn't have a single tooth left.
I was placed in an orphanage at the time. I don’t remember practically anything about it. I only remember one scene, when I was being punished for something and they dragged me to an outhouse and told me that if didn't behave they’d put me down the toilet. I must have been so frightened that I remembered it. As soon as mom was released, she took me away from there.
I have no idea what my mom lived on. Now, after all these years, I understand that the situation was horrible. After she got out nobody would hire her for any a job. She had to say in all the application forms that her husband was in a prison camp. She could not get any job. It’s a complete mystery how she supported herself with a child. The relatives weren't too eager to help.
I do remember dad’s homecoming, but by then I was 6. This was in the winter, it was really cold. The train was several hours late and we were freezing. Of course I did not recognize my dad, because by then I didn't remembered him anymore. I had been only 3 when he got taken away. When he came back he looked horribly gaunt and thin.
We were at our country house when the war began. My parents had rented a country house and when the war began I started shouting in delight “Hooray to war!” My father was so mad at me, I thought he’d kill me. When the war began my father was among the first to go to the front. He came back in 1944. He was transferred to the reserve for health reasons, but on the other hand a decision had been made around the same time that Jews wouldn't be allowed to work for punitive (security) agencies.
Dad’s friends took us to Kuybyshev (Samara). From there we moved to Almaty, and then in 1944 we came back to Moscow. On the way into evacuation our train got bombed by the Germans; they hit the steam engine. When the bombing of the train started, we were in open field. Mom noticed a dugout, ran towards it and asked, would you please take a child, and they replied to her, it wasn't dug for you. They didn't take me. We ran towards a ditch, she buried me in straw and covered me with her own body.
We came to Kuybyshev and mom started working. My mom was worried that when they started to bomb Kuybyshev, she wasn't allowed to leave work and come home to me, and no one else took me with them. I am sitting alone, the sirens howl, and I am scared. She would manage to reach me and we went down into the bomb shelter together.
The victory day – that was something fantastic. What joy there was. My parents were going to bed late at night, and all of a sudden mom saw that all Moscow was covered in lights There had been camouflage all over the place. It was a beautiful summer day, it was very warm, and there were crowds. Dad was wearing his uniform and people tossed candy and cookies to him.
Translation from Russian by Max Abelev