This story was collected by Julia Rabkin,a Brandeis-Genesis Institute fellow, as part of a joint project with the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, MA.The Brandeis-Genesis Institute (BGI) is an initiative that prepares Russian-speaking students from around the world to become effective community leaders fortified by Jewish knowledge, a systematic understanding of Russian Jewry, and a commitment to the future of the Jewish people.
Childhood and Youth
Aleksandra Fedotova was born in 1923 in Moscow. She was the last of eight children in her family of four brothers and three sisters. Her father had left his native village on the outskirts of Moscow at the age of 13 in order to study in the city. At first he worked on construction sites, but after a few years he was admitted to a technical college from which he soon graduated. It was he, this self-made man, who inspired Aleksandra’s life-long love for learning and reading. Throughout her youth, Aleksandra collected books and amassed a library of 1,500 volumes most of which she would later bring to the U.S.
At the outbreak of the Second World War (Great Patriotic War for USSR ) in 1941, Aleksandra had just finished school, having turned 18. She was not able to apply to universities because she was evacuated to city of Ufa in Bashkiria and because the universities were not admitting students that year. Displacement was not the only obstacle to Aleksandra’s education. Her father had died before the start of the war, her mother was seriously ill, and two of her brothers were drafted to fight at the front. The third brother who before the war lived in Leningrad was evacuated with the factory where he worked to Bashkiria. Aleksandra had to support herself and her mother so she got a job as an administrator at a blood donation clinic. At the same time Aleksandra started attending nursing classes. She completed the year-long nursing class in just six months and was sent to the famous Burdenko military hospital for an internship. During the internship, her nursing qualities were noticed by the hospital doctors who saw in the young girl a promising surgical nurse. The war demanded that parts of this well-equipped hospital be converted to fit a mobile platform so that it could follow the movements of the Soviet troops to battles. There, the reasoning went, where the casualties were the heaviest, the hospital would be most useful. The hospital’s equipment was moved to train cars, and sent to the front. Aleksandra remembers that the medical train was very well equipped; it had everything necessary to perform surgeries and provide primary medical care of the wounds. In this moving hospital Aleksandra worked as a surgical nurse. The first stop of the hospital train that Aleksandra mentions was in Tula where at that time there was heavy fighting. The main German forces were attempting to reach the Moscow-Volga railroad and the city of Moscow. Soon after the hospital’s arrival the Soviet forces began to fall back and the hospital followed the retreat. The hospital train made its second stop in the city of Naro-Fominsk where a stationary evacuation hospital was opened and some of the personnel stayed until the end of the war. The city had been almost completely destroyed by German bombing, but the city hospital had miraculously survived. The blooming canopies of the near-by trees had served as camouflage keeping it from the German aerial bombardment. The staff of the mobile hospital began to use the building for its needs. Aleksandra recalls that there were a lot of young surgeons who were sent to the front line hospitals for an accelerated residency. Surgeons were always in the highest demand; there was never enough of them to keep up with all the surgeries needed. Another one of Aleksandra’s recollections is that there was a constant shortage of blood. In addition to treating the wounded, doctors and nurses often became blood donors for their patients. Alexander herself donated 6 liters (1.5 gallons) of blood throughout the war.Eventually, the course of the war has changed. The Soviet forces started advancing westward and liberating the Soviet territories occupied by the Nazis. Aleksandra recalls that everyone was in high patriotic spirits despite the astronomical number of casualties and the difficult work.
Personal Life During the War
Even during wartime, the passion for life and the desire for human warmth do not fade. While the hospital was in Naro-Fominsk, its main surgeon was replaced by a younger man who came from the Military Medical Academy. At 19, Aleksandra married the mobile hospital’s chief surgeon, a forty-year-old widower. Because of the war, Naro-Fominsk did not have an operational government registry of civic acts (where people would normally be married), so the couple’s marriage was registered in the hospital’s records. The surgeon had to propose to Aleksandra several times before she accepted. The nurse was shy around the mature surgeon many years her senior who had the rank of a Major, but eventually she agreed. The couple never had romantic dates in the moonlight; they met and dated in a tough working atmosphere created by the war.The couple did not think that a lavish wedding was appropriate for wartime, so instead they gathered with their closest friends and celebrated with potatoes and makeshift rye bread cupcakes. Aleksandra wore a blue military uniform instead of bridal whites and refused to dance, as did the rest of the guests, out of respect for the wounded soldiers, lying in beds in the next room. Also, everybody was exhausted from not sleeping for several days in a row (everybody worked despite a terrible lack of sleep), and the next group of wounded soldiers was already waiting to be treated.
After the war, most of the hospital personnel returned to their homes. Aleksandra and her husband moved back to Moscow, where she was able to continue her education. Since her childhood, Aleksandra wanted to either teach or heal. She was always a good student, finishing school with honors. During the war, she was a nurse; now that the war was over, she decided to change her profession.Aleksandra completed a three-year English language course to become an interpreter, after which she was admitted to the prestigious Lenin Pedagogical Institute. She then worked with foreign students who had come to the USSR from European socialist countries to study Russian. Aleksandra was easily able to find work as a teacher because the government was opening many specialized orphanages to accommodate the large number of children left parentless by the war. She first worked in an orphanage, but soon transferred to school #249 which became Aleksandra’s home for 33 years. Here she worked first as a teacher and then became the principal.
Second Marriage and Emigration
Aleksandra spent 18 years with her first husband, Afanasiy Fedotov, but the couple grew apart as they struggled with their inability to have children. She met her second husband, Zinovij Berger, at the orphanage where they both taught history. Aleksandra and Zinovij lived together for 50 years. Aleksandra was 37 when she gave birth to their only son, Efim.Efim graduated from high school and received his degree in communications from a prestigious university in Moscow, Russia. His best friend moved to the United States and in 1991 convinced Efim to follow him. In the US, Efim quickly found work as a programmer and married a girl whom he had known in his school in Moscow. Soon after Aleksandra became a grandmother: Efim and his wife had a boy whom they named Kirill. In 1996, Aleksandra and her husband emigrated from Russia to join their son in America. Unfortunately, Zinovij died soon after the move, and Aleksandra was left alone. Today she is proud of her son and grandson who visit her frequently, but still feels lonely often. As a medical professional and at teacher, she is used to being involved in people’s lives, and she just doesn’t have the same level of involvement at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center where she now lives. She entertains herself by reading and translating, activities she enjoys greatly.