Aleksandra Gelfand immigrated from Petrozavodsk, Russia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (and eventually New York City, NY) in October of 1992. This part of the story only includes memories from before 1945. The remainder, including her experience immigrating to the United States, will be posted in Part Two.
I was born in a small town in central Ukraine called Chernyakhiv a little more than three years before the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the war for my family. Our town had a large Jewish community, comprising around thirty to forty percent of the total population. My parents both came from very large families; my father was one of ten children and my mother was one of twelve. They, however, only had three children, of which I was the youngest.
I don’t have any particularly vivid memories of life before the war, but I do remember some things, and the remainder was explained to me by my older brother and sister.
The 22nd of June, 1941 would prove to be a fateful day for my family and for the millions of Jews living in the Soviet Union who up until that point had not yet been affected directly by the war and the extermination program which came with it. Initially we did not believe that the war would last as long as we did, and therefore we did not depart our home until the afternoon of July 4th. We were given a pair of horses at the local kolkhoz (communal farm) and were supposed to use them until we arrived in Russia, in Voronezh to be specific, and drop them off there at the main railway station. A small wagon was hitched to the horses, and it held only the children as there were no elderly people with us, and all the reasonably aged adults were determined to walk the entire way.
My father’s mother lived in the same house as we did, however she was determined not to leave with us. As with almost all the other Jews who chose not to leave, she was murdered by the Nazis not long after they occupied the town, and our understanding from our Gentile friends and neighbors who stayed behind is that her death was particularly unpleasant. My father would regret what he saw as his failure to bring her along for the rest of his life, as the two of them had been very close. There were three additional families who were evacuating with us; my father’s brother uncle Gershan and my mother’s sister Rachel as well as my cousin Michael.
That first night travelling has been infamous in our family’s history. My father began having second thoughts half of the way to Kiev; having decided that the war would soon be finished rather quickly, he came to the conclusion that the best decision would be to turn back. However, other-worldly forces seemed to of have intervened. The horses simply refused to turn back and head westward. That entire night was spent circling around, and by morning everyone understood the symbolism of their actions and thus it was decided to continue east as originally intended. We also met a local policeman from our town who was also evacuating. He told us that the invading German soldiers were given orders to “murder any Jews or Bolsheviks on sight.”
As we were fleeing, bombing from German Air Force planes proved to be a regular, terrifying occurrence. The epitome of this was an episode which took place a few days before we arrived in Voronezh, in western Russia. During one of the nastier bombing raids, we were forced to hide in a large field along the road. Unfortunately, my older brother, who was only three years older then I, was overcome by exhaustion and fell asleep in the field. After the bombing was finished, our group proceeded back to the horses and wagon to continue on the march. About two kilometers down the road, my mother noticed that my brother was missing, and ran back in a panic to search for him. Luckily, he was found running along the road towards us, and we happily reunited.
A few days before we reached the city of Voronezh, which was the first destination for us and many other refugees from the Ukraine, we were forced to surrender the horses to local authorities. However, knowing our dire situation, my mother made the decision to steal back the horses, which she did successfully. Once we arrived in Voronezh, we headed straight for the railway terminal, where we boarded a train for Central Asia, where we arrived sometime in early August. Unfortunately, the climate of Uzbekistan posed significant problems for us. My brother and cousin both soon ended up with serious eye problems, and we made the decision to leave the region. The five of us went to live with my uncle Schmilik in a village called Sekretarka near Buguruslan.
In February of 1942, my father was drafted into the army, where he underwent much punishment because of his fear of warfare. We lived in the kitchen of Shchmilik’s house, along with my mom’s sister Tatyana and her daughter Rachel. We found out that two cousins had enlisted in the army, one of whom had vanished en-route to the front. His mother entered a terrible depression, and died shortly thereafter from the heartache.
Throughout 1942 we experienced terrible food and supply shortages. Early on, our only form of sustenance were frozen potatoes, which I remember had a slightly sweet taste. My brother was an extremely excitable and energetic child and was constantly engaged in some form of mischief, particularly escaping from the house, for which he was regularly punished. I, on the other hand, was always very sickly.
My mother worked as a night guard in a bakery, and she was paid daily with a large loaf of bread. The three of us worried about her constantly, as we knew that these were desperate, dangerous times. Thus, in order to calm our fears, she decided to attach some cans to her clothing so that they wound jingle whenever she walked. A few months after getting the job at the bakery, the head baker got fired and my mother assumed her responsibilities. As a result of this, we were soon able to move out of uncle Schmilik’s house and into our own home along with Aunt Tanya. My mother barely came home at all and was working constantly, and we received virtually no news about my father for almost a year after he left for the front. My cousin, brother, and sister all went to school daily, while I did not attend as I was too young and sickly.
In January or February of 1944 my mother’s youngest sister, Anna, arrived at our home. She spent the entire war as an army doctor, and had been wounded. She also brought news that my father was in the hospital in Bugususlan, some eighty kilometers away. Determined to meet with him after two years apart, my mother and older sister set out on the three day journey on foot. A few weeks later, my brother and I went with Anna to Buguruslan to see my father in the hospital. However, we were almost lost at the post office when she went in to mail a letter. In fact, they were about to send us off to the orphanage, thinking that we had been abandoned before aunt Anna rushed out of the post office and intervened, taking us home.
Soon, we had been made aware that Ukraine was practically liberated and that we could return home. Thus, we made the decision that the time had come to return home. Aunt Anna got off the train in Voronezh, and the six of us arrived in Chernyakhiv in June of 1944. The street we lived on, in the Jewish section of the town, had been absolutely decimated by the war. In some ways however, we were luckier than many because our house was only half destroyed. The half which was left standing was actually in rather decent shape, and my mother set about rebuilding the stove and windows entirely on her own.
Slowly but surely, we started adjusting to our new lifestyle and slowly, but surely rebuilding. Soon, a slow trickle of our town’s Jewish population began returning home. But it was clear that around half of our community had been exterminated, including large swaths of our own family. We also began hearing the tales of what had occurred during the war from gentiles who had stayed during the war. Many of the things they told us were shocking beyond the sense of the word, and yet, they were completely true.
To be continued…