Renia: A Holocaust Memoir

Table of Contents

We spent almost a year and a half on the sofhoz. Then, on June 22, 1941, Germany turned on Russia and opened an Eastern Front. The Germans were advancing rapidly and things weren’t looking good, so my parents decided it was time for us to move farther east. But we needed permission to leave.

My father had a document stating that he was a craftsman in lacemaking. He knew that the town of Kalinin, north of Moscow, was the one place in Russia where they made lace. He wrote to the authorities there to inquire and they responded right away saying they badly needed people like himself who knew about those things; they sent him the necessary papers allowing him to travel. As we had done before, we went to a train station. And as before, we didn’t care where we went as long as it was as far away from the advancing Germans as possible.

When we passed through Stalingrad, there was already fighting going on. We saw fires and bombs exploding. We didn’t know where the train was going. We ended up in Kuybeshov, which is now called Samara, the same place where my parents had met during the First World War. I’m not sure if we were told to get off the train or if we did so on our own. It seemed as if there were millions of people in the station. By coincidence, we met my Uncle Abram (my mother’s brother), my Aunt Sonia and their daughter Gita there. My uncle was in uniform.

Now we decided to travel to Asia, as far away from the front as possible and Sonia and Gita decided to join us. Abram had to remain behind because he was in the army. We all slept on the floor in the station, waiting for a train. I can remember standing in line with Uncle Abram to get some hot water to make tea, kipiatok as it was called. I don’t have a good sense of how long the trip took; time moves so slowly when you’re a child. All I know is that it took a long time. We ended up in Semipalatinsk, a big city in Kazakhstan, which was then in the southeast USSR.

At first we rented a small room from a Russian woman. We had to pass through her kitchen to get in and out of our room. One day while passing through the kitchen, I smelled something cooking on the stove — maybe just some potatoes and onions. But to me it smelled delicious. I was hungry. I bent over the pot and was inhaling the wonderful smell when the woman walked into the kitchen. I felt embarrassed and started to cry, telling the woman I hadn’t touched anything; I’d just wanted to savour the smell. The woman patted me on the shoulder, asked me to sit down and gave me a big bowl of soup. At that time the Russian people themselves didn’t have all that much to eat. The soup tasted wonderful, and for a little while, I wasn’t hungry.

Next we rented a shack from a man who worked at the railroad station. Its roof was leaking and people had begun tearing the house apart for firewood. When it rained, we had to open an umbrella in the house to stay dry. When it was cold, icicles would form on the walls and ceiling. The shack became home to the four of us as well as Sonia and Gita.

My father got a job in a technical school as a purchasing agent. My mother worked in a stocking factory on quality control. My sister found work in a leather factory as a bookkeeper. She hadn’t finished university when we’d been forced to leave the sofhoz. My cousin Gita and I worked in a factory that made army uniforms. My Aunt Sonia worked in a mental institution; dealing with violent patients made it hard and dangerous work.

Life was now totally different from anything I had known. There was just hunger, hunger, hunger. Hunger and work. Only now can I understand what it must have been like for my parents, still trying to protect me from what was happening to us. They had a little jewellery left from the old days, and there was a store in town where you could exchange valuables for tea or cookies or flour. My mother traded for cookies — just for Gitta and me. She would give us one a day, keeping the others in a pillowcase in a suitcase under the bed. I have to admit that when I was home alone — we didn’t always work the same shift — I would sneak an extra cookie. I was so hungry, I just couldn’t resist.

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