On my way home
by Miriam Zamir / Translated by Sara Mages
Note: This article originally appeared in the Akkerman Yizkor Book, published in Tel Aviv in 1983
On July 1941, the war between Germany and Russia broke out and the Jews of Akkerman were forced to leave their homes. Our Christian neighbors mocked us: “You're running away together with the Communists, but we have no reason to flee, we're in our home.”
At the same time my brother returned from the prison in Odessa. He lost a lot of weight and aged beyond recognitions. The only way to escape was - through Odessa, but my brother insisted and claimed: “Death is better than to return to Odessa.” Since he lived for some time in the German colonies in Bessarabia, it never occurred to him that they could be so cruel. However, after he realized that everyone was fleeing, he had no other choice and joined us together with his family. When we got to Odessa he didn't want to move from there, and ultimately, his fate was the fate of 135 thousand Jews of Odessa - annihilation.
My family decided to continue our flight. We looked for a way to get on a ship and sail from Odessa. On 10 September, a ship sailed with 3500 passengers, most of them were wounded in the war, but on the following morning it was bombed by the Germans and sank. On 18 September, we managed to get on a ship and sailed under the cover of a smoke screen but, sometime later, a squadron of German planes spotted us and started to bomb us. When the anti-aircraft guns didn't let them to sink us, they aimed their fire against Odessa and saw the city go up in flames from the ship's deck.
Our ship, whose name was “Krim,” turned in the direction of the Crimean Peninsula, not for from Novorossiysk. In the morning of the third day of our sailing, the ship was hit by a naval mine. Fortunately, the damage was on the side of the food storeroom and not in the ship's bow. About one hundred people, who were standing on the deck, were thrown into the sea from the intensity of the blast. Sailors lowered lifeboats and started to save women and children. It's difficult to describe the nightmare that we had gone through. The boats, which dried in the sun, filled with water and began to sink. The captain called for help by radio. Motor boats sailed towards us from the Crimean Peninsula and their sailors somehow managed to plug the gap that opened on the ship. When the boats arrived, people started to jump into them and the cries of children and mothers were heart-rending. Due to overcrowding on one side of the ship, the ship tilted on its side and miraculously didn't roll over. Sometime later, a towboat arrived and towed us to the shores of Novorossiysk. Thousands of people gathered on the beach to see the survivors. We were taken off the ship exhausted, shaken and soaked to the marrow of our bones.
The residents of Novorossiysk, most of them Russians, tried to help the refugees. They served us food, a hot drink, etc. I became friendly with a woman, and when I told her that I know how to sew and want to earn a living from this craft, she took me to her home. I mended old clothes, sewed new ones, and in exchange for my work I received cooked food that I brought to my family.
One day, it became known to me that a train, with wounded from the front, is getting closer to the city. I, my husband, my son and my elderly mother (our daughter died on the way to Odessa), climbed on one of the cars without permission. The train, which stopped frequently, was bombed by planes and young and old jumped out of the car in panic to save their lives. From time to time, this train suddenly began to move and left many people in the middle of the field. There is no way to describe the terrible tragedies that took place. I remember that one of the mothers took three of her children off the train, and when she went to get the fourth - the train suddenly moved and separated the mother from her three children. Shouts and cries accompanied us until we arrived to Stalingrad. We didn't get an enthusiastic reception when we arrived to Stalingrad. Many lived in the streets, the hospitals and the public buildings were filled to capacity. The city was in a state of chaos. Thefts and robberies were daily occurrence. Government officials came quickly from Kamyshin and from the kolkhozy in the vicinity and started to recruit professionals. We were also recruited. We were told that they would take us to a village in Upper Volga and give us the homes of the Germans who were exiled to Siberia. We saw ourselves lucky and hoped for the best. In the morning, after an overnight stay in the village of Gamlenky, they took us to various kolkhozy in the surrounding area.
The “houses” that were given to us were nothing but clay huts. The windowpanes were removed from the windows and the doors were pulled off their hinges after the previous occupants left. The floor was also made of clay. We were told: you may choose any apartment you want. Before we managed to get organized we saw a notice in this wording: “Those who do not go to work - will not get bread!” The bread that was given to us was inferior and many became ill with gastric diseases. Sugar, salt, onion etc. - were nowhere to be found. Red beets served as sugar, and also the babies didn't get sugar. We held on for the entire winter despite the unbearable conditions When the Germans got closer to Stalingrad, entire kolkhozy and villages were evacuated and their residents started to arrive to Gamlenki and to the neighboring villages.
The kolkhoz's officials liked the huts that we worked so hard to renovate, and after we were evicted from them, we moved to a grain warehouse which served as a place of residence for four families.
In late autumn of 1942, my 52 year old husband and my 19 year old son were drafted to military service and I was left alone with my elderly mother. In the winter of 1943, we received an evacuation order. One night, we were loaded onto a truck and taken to the train station in Gamlenky. At the same time, a silo full with grain went up in flames and the smoke, which rose from there, chocked us. We couldn't even eat.
Several days later, a freight train, which was loaded with tanks and spare parts for damaged planes, arrived from the front. Some of its cars were used to transport coal. We climbed on it and traveled without knowing where. Several cars were disconnected at different stations and people got stuck in places like: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc. Our fate was to be thrown in Uzbekistan, a godforsaken region where backwardness and poverty were really desperate. We were thrown together with forty people and were told to wait for a ship that would carry us forward. I ran to the nearest village to get some food and during my absence my elderly mother took off her shoes and fell asleep. During her na,p her shoes and her suitcase, in which she kept the shroud that she prepared for a time of need, were stolen.
Finally a ship arrived and took us to the city of Przheval'sk in Kyrgyzstan. From there, we were transported to all kinds of remote places. I, my mother, and an elderly couple from Odessa (Ziglis), arrived to a place, which wasn't a village or a city, and its name is Tyon. The local residents were prisoners who were sentenced to 20-30 years imprisonment because they were - bourgeoisie. We were given shelter with a family of four children who lived in one room. The father of the family was in the battlefront.
I noticed that there was a manual sewing machine in the apartment and offered to sew all kinds of clothes so we'll sell and buy food with the money. When the landlady heard this proposal she responded: “God Forbid! I cannot allow a Jewish woman to make a living from my sewing machine. After all, it's the Jews' fault that we were brought to this remote location.”
It's difficult to describe the suffering and our hard work. Our job was - transporting wheat from place to place. We barely held on. I started to make attempts to locate my family members who were scattered in different locations.
Translated from Russian: Nisan Amitai