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Wartime Memories

by Leyoba Asfis / Translated by Sara Mages

Note: This article originally appeared in the Akkerman Yizkor Book, published in Tel Aviv in 1983

The light of the sun of the month of June flooded the city. The linden bloomed, the acacia blossomed, the city sparkled in its cleanliness and the bustle of people's voices mingled with the noise of cars and carriages. That Sunday, nothing heralded the impending disaster.

Indeed, the disaster came abruptly. It burst from all directions like a mighty sandstorm, through wide open windows and doors, top to bottom. At night, the Germans bombed Brest and Kiev, and in the morning, of the same day, everyone already knew that the war broke out. The brilliance of the sun faded in an instant, people's faces wore gloom, grief burst to their eyes and to their life.

To my life, and I was then an eight year old girl, sorrow burst three days later, on 25 June 1941, when my father, Viktor, and his three brothers, Avraham Michael and Lyoska, were recruited to the war. The four of them were brave, fearless, and all the notorious thugs were afraid of them and their receiving end. At that time the recruitment hasn't yet started in Bessarabia, but the four brothers, who've “lost” their documents, registered at the Military Registration Committee as natives of Russia and for that reason they were sent to the front. They defended Odessa and Kerch, Sevastopol and Stalingrad, and pushed the Nazis westward.

The evacuation began in Akkerman. The Jews turned to those who advised them to flee from the city with an argument: Where do we escape? Where is the safest place of refuge? Can we leave the few possessions that we've accumulated after many years of toil? And what would the Germans do to us? Who knew what is known? As opposed to them, there were those who packed their belongings in large bundles, as they were weeping and wailing, crossed to Ovidiopol by ferry, and from there - to Odessa.

My parents, who were also among those leaving, hated the Romanians and didn't wait for the Germans. For three weeks we wandered in wagons. The Germans bombed us more than once and heavy rain fell down on us. We traveled together with people from Akkerman, the elderly, women and children. After an arduous journey and many tribulations we arrived to Rostov, and there, we were scattered to different villages. The Don Cossacks, who aren't considered to be very good people, received the Jews with kindness, they fed us and hosted us in their homes. At the same time, our Akkerman was already in the hands of the Germans. Odessa was in flames but still defended itself. My father fought there and was even wounded in his leg. There were eight men from Akkerman in his battalion: Issac Lublinsky, Sonya Yelin, Avrasha Katz and others whose names I don't remember. Six men were killed by grenade thrown to the place where my father was.

Odessa fell. The Germans bombed Ukraine while we were in Stalingrad. The first reports of the Germans' massacre of the Jews of Odessa began to arrive. Among those killed were my mother's nieces and nephews, the Talmazan family, the Kosoy family, and my father's relatives.

We lived in a Jewish kolkhoz in the vicinity of Stalingrad. All the duties, starting from the chairman of the kolkhoz and ending with the cleaning personnel and the stables, were in the hands of the Jews. Each and every one was subjected to his sorrow and grief but the small village, in which only a Jews lived, served as half consolation. Jewish women, who were used to life in the city, worked hard from dawn to late at night: they harnessed horses and oxen, plowed the fields, drove combines and tractors, and took care of the children and all the housework. At night, they cried as they remembered their husbands and their sons who weren't with them. Indeed, they were real heroes who didn't get a citation, but, of course, they deserved it.

It may seem strange, but the fact is, that pain and sorrow is also expressed in singing. On summer nights, after a hard day's work, when Stalingrad served as an arena for bloody battles, and also on cold winter nights - the women gathered in one of the homes and poured their bitter heart in Russian and Ukrainian songs. However, the sad songs in Yiddish especially fascinated me. It was a soft singing, in very low tones, so as, God forbid, not to wake the sleeping children.

Anxieties and hopes serve interchangeably

1942. The High Holidays and the Jewish holidays arrived. I remember well the first day of Rosh Hashanah. There were no bombings on that day. The small houses dipped in the morning dew and the sun painted the trees in a shade of golden-emerald. That morning all the residents of the village walked to the house where the Rabbi of Kharkov and his wife, the Rebbetzin, lived. They went to the prayer dressed in holiday attire and the rabbi's house, which contained mahzorim and tallitot for the worshipers, turned into a synagogue. Everyone prayed for the welfare of their loved ones and their relatives, and for the end of the war. The same thing was repeated on Yom Kippur. Before Yom Kippur, a delegation from the district administration arrived with a demand that everyone, without exception, must go to work on the sacred day. However, all the Jews in the village refused to desecrate the sanctity of the holiday and went to pray. The arrests began the next day. The chairman of the kolkhoz was sent to the front, the activists were deported and the foremen were punished.

Odessa was liberated in 1944. We, the children, ran every morning to the district administration building to hear the official announcements on the progress of the army, and accordingly moved the pins on the map of the Soviet Union. People waited with tension and anxiety for the postman. Who can guess what he might bring in his satchel? Just not that - many thought - just not the official statement with the bitter news - “Fell as a hero defending the homeland”… Small joys accompanied the great anxiety with the liberation of well-known cities: Kharkov, Kiev, Vinnytsia, Poltava, etc. People's faces lit up each time we received a word about the liberation of a city, and it seemed, that mountains of grief disappeared from over their heads for a brief moment.

On 23 August came the news that rocked our hearts: Akkerman was liberated! We started to make arrangements to return home and also started to search for our relatives. The search was drastic because, as we were looking for them - they were looking for us. We knew that when we return to Akkerman we would only find the ruins of our homes.


The great change

On 25 June 1945, we finally approached the shores of the Lemen River. We sailed in a ferry between empty wine barrels,, barrels of herring and wagons loaded with straw. We felt the unique smell of the water of the Lemen River, and saw, with our own eyes, the famous fortress. However, the city greeted us with “thundering” silence and the wilderness of the destroyed houses. We felt as we were treading on a “cemetery.” Mounds and ruins and ashes of fires. It's impossible to describe what took place in our hearts when we saw the images before us.

We were lucky. My father and all my uncles returned from the war, but there were many families who lost their loved ones. Hundreds of families were shot in the suburbs of Akkerman, and hundreds of Jews from Akkerman, who sought refuge in Odessa, perished there. We were happy with every Jew who survived and returned, and cried bitterly when we remembered the many who did not return.

Life continued to flow its course despite everything. People worked, ate, when there was something to eat, cleared the rubble, rebuilt the city and renewed its face. A new generation grew. We, the children of the 50s, were far from Judaism. No one told us about the Maccabim and Bar Kokhba, the name Herzl didn't say anything to us, and the same was for names like Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Weitzman and others. We had no interest in Zionism and Judaism because we weren't educated in that direction. We weren't even excited by the name Israel. And yet - we were Jews. We searched for Jewish friends, sang songs in Yiddish, even though we didn't speak in this language, we ran to concerts of the actress Sidital and performances of actors from the Jewish theater in Moscow. We were excited by the singers Ana Guzik and Nechama Lifshitz, and enjoyed the records of Emil Gurevich and Appelbaum even though only a few understood their Yiddish. So were things.

Years have passed. The Six Day War in Israel removed the cataract from our eyes, pulled the curtain, and the world behind the Iron Curtain was unfolded before our eyes. We started to think about ourselves, about our essence and our Judaism. At that time we also started to correspond with our relatives who left the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel in 1957. We started to take interest in everything that was said and written about Israel in the newspapers, and also tried to read between the lines. We discovered ourselves. We discovered that the Jews have their own country, a homeland with all that involved in it and arising from that. We told that it to our ten year old son. At first, he didn't show much interest in our stories. He had his own world. The Soviet regime left its mark on the course of his life and his thoughts. He was a young Russian in everything. The turning point came six years later, when he was sixteen, after the death of his beloved grandfather and the Yom Kippur war in Israel. This turning point was helped by his clash with a police officer who threw in face “Here isn't Golda Meir's government.” He became interested in the State of Israel and read the letters of our relatives who lived Israel. We understood that his eyes opened, that the seed of Judaism was sown in the furrows of his heart.


Farewell forever

1975. The sun of the month of June is warming our old city, and the linden and acacia are blooming again. There's peace and quiet around. The four of us are walking around the city: I, my husband my son and daughter. We're passing the same roads that we've passed in our childhood and nourish our eyes in everything around us.

The city's park is clean and well maintained. The birds greet us with their lovely singing and the goldfish swim around the pool and shake their heads and tails. The fountain's water jets spray fresh water on us, an orchestra is playing a new-old waltz on a small stage, and for some reason I feel that they play the song in our honor:

Many years have passed
and our weeks ran away.
I'm no longer young
and you're not a little girl
in a white dress.
White sneaks to my temples
and also your hair is graying slowly---
So it was. Indeed, our hair hasn't yet turn white, but we didn't stay as we were in the distant past

When we left the city's park we passed by the school on Mikhailovskaya Street, which is now called Lenin Street. I once started to study there and now my husband works there. The friendship between my husband and I was tied at that school. Our love was born here and now our children go to this school. We pass by the institute (previously a school for boys) and remember our student's days. Our ears attuned to the quiet waters of the Lemen River and our eyes are raised in the direction of the ancient fortress. It seems that the sailboats separate from us like pure seagulls. We walk in familiar streets and we have no power to part from them and the many buildings who tell of our childhood. We arrive to the cemetery - the last stop of every person on earth. Above the stones we see the pictures of our relatives. We part from them forever. We feel as if they accompany us with a blessing for our new path. Yes, we are traveling to Israel. They, our loved ones, weren't awarded to do that, but, they accompany us with a silent blessing.

On 27 July 1975, we left Akkerman, our birthplace, forever, but wherever we would be, they'll also be with us. We'll carry their memory everywhere. To this day the name Akkerman is ringing in our ears, echoes, like the first cry of a newborn baby, like the first word, “mother,” of a little child, like the first kiss, like the first waltz. Echoes, and reminiscent of what has been forgotten.

Translated from Russian: N. Amitai


I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
{Psalms 121:1)

(Drawing of the artist Ben)
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