New Home

When our train finally reached its destination, we were happy to learn that the government had sent us far away from the war. We had been brought to Bashkiria, a territory in the Ural region of Russia inhabited mainly by a Tatar tribe called the Bashkirs. Like other Tatars, Bashkirs are Muslims.

At the station, a truck awaited us on which we loaded all our belongings. We climbed aboard for our 65-kilometer trip along a rough, unpaved road that made riding most uncomfortable.

When our truck rolled into the village of Ivanovka, all its inhabitants came pouring out of their homes to stare at the new arrivals. A truck coming to their village was a rare event!

On hearing that some of us were Jewish — “Yevrei” (Hebrews) — they actually came over to inspect our foreheads for horns! There was not yet any trace of anti-Semitism in this remote village, although it did not take long for some gentiles in our group to teach the locals how to hate Jews.

Ivanovka was one of the few villages in Bashkiria to be inhabited entirely by Russians. It was a typical Soviet village, boasting even a school, although most villagers had not graduated and were very simple and uneducated.

Originally, life had been good in Ivanovka, and the villagers had lived comfortably. The land was fertile, and their well-fed cattle grazed the pastures.

This had come to an abrupt halt during the middle or late 1930’s, when the Soviet decree of “collectivization” forced peasant farmers to “donate” all their land and cattle to the government. The official aim was to establish Communist ideology in practice, so that all farmers would coexist on equal terms on collective farms. But the true reason was to break the back of the well-to-do peasant class — known as “Kulaki,” Russian for “fists” — to curb any possible threat to the regime.

The peasants resisted, for the decree meant total ruin for them, requiring them to forfeit everything they had. But the regime cracked down on them ruthlessly, arresting tens of thousands, who were often executed or sent to Siberia.

By the time we arrived, this system of collective farms — called “kolkhoz” in Russian — was already in place. The government owned all land, livestock and most produce, giving the farmers just a small percentage for their labors. Now, however, they had little incentive to work on the communal land, and their standard of living declined.

The kolkhoz allotted each family a small plot of land to cultivate on its own, together with a cow or two. The natives eagerly grasped this opportunity to work for themselves, investing their main efforts in growing their own food and raising their own livestock.

The months since the start of the war had already taken their toll on the village. First, all young men aged 18-25 were drafted into the military. Gradually, the maximum age went up until every able-bodied man up to age 55 was drafted. This left few people to tend the fields and care for the animals, so women and older children were now working on the fields.

Life In The Village

We managed to rent half a home from a peasant. It was difficult to heat and was literally freezing in the winter — often our water froze in the buckets. At night, we slept in our coats. Once I tried to be heroic and sleep without a coat; I woke up frozen to the bone!

In retrospect, Moscow now seemed so modern. Our village was 400 kilometers from the nearest city, and everything there was incredibly primitive. Only the Communist Party’s “tractor station” had electricity. It had a single tractor that, as far as I can recall, was never used. It also had a radio that could pick up news-broadcasts from afar, and two ancient telephones. The only other phone was at the post-office.

The tractor station was the headquarters of the commissar, the local Communist Party ideologist, responsible for party propaganda in our own and surrounding villages. He was surrounded there by his cronies. As an important official, he was exempt from the draft.

The village was so primitive that no one even had matches! To produce fire, we had to use two rocks and some cotton. We were fortunate to obtain kerosene for lighting a lamp — and also our Shabbos candles. For cooking we burned bundles of wood that we stacked in the oven. Our water came from a well; we had to draw it ourselves and carry it home in buckets that hung from each end of a special stick resting over our shoulders.

Ivanovka had no doctors, but only a male nurse. Father had a serious stomach ulcer, and had tried to ease his cramps during our trip by taking baking soda. This only made his ulcer worse. Even with the best intentions, all the nurse could do for him was to give painkillers, to which he soon became immune.

Ideally, Father should have been on a special diet. But we had no suitable food for him. We subsisted mainly on potatoes, which were partly rotten or frozen. Our flour, also spoiled and frozen, was polluted with field mouse droppings. All he could do to ease his constant pain was to apply heat with a hot-water bottle.

Yet, despite Father’s suffering, it may have been a blessing in disguise. When the military started drafting even middle-aged men, his sickness saved his life. The draft board doctors found his stomach covered with burns from the hot water bottles, and granted him an absolute release, which was most unusual at the time.

Ivanovka was so remote that we were effectively cut off from civilization. We did not have even the radio receivers available in the cities, which picked up only the Soviet government broadcasts (it was a crime to own any other type of radio for fear that Soviet citizens might listen to Western “propaganda”). Only the tractor station had a radio, and often Sima and I walked over there at night to hear the latest news.

Of course, the government stations could not be trusted to give the full truth, and we had to read, or rather listen, “between the lines.” When the radio broadcast that Soviet populations had “voluntarily” evacuated their cities, we realized that the Germans must be conquering one city after another. When the situation later turned around and the Red Army starting recapturing cities, the radio broadcast 21-gun salutes for the recapture of large cities and 12-gun salutes for smaller ones. But despite these limitations, the radio at least kept us up to date with some of the latest news.

Getting to the tractor station at night was a problem, for it was at the opposite end of the village from us, almost 25 minutes walk away. Since there was no electric lighting, everyone went to bed early. It was scary to walk out alone at night through the intensely cold, dry winter air. There was no sign of human life, nor any sound save the crunch of our boots on the snow. Sometimes the moonlight, reflected brightly from the snow-covered ground, illuminated our way.

There was a district newspaper, but all it contained was propaganda about how well our Kolkhoz was filling its quota of produce, and similar news.

Working On The Land

Our first year in Ivanovka was especially difficult. The men had all been drafted, and the women and children saw no reason to work hard. With few workers in the fields, the produce rotted away, and the fieldmice gorged themselves and multiplied alarmingly.

The next year was even worse. The locals knew from experience that after a year of plentiful grain, when the fieldmice multiplied, the next year’s crop would grow poorly. Indeed, the second year’s crop was so bad that our dough did not rise when we tried to bake bread. Only with great difficulty could we bake challa for Shabbos. We had no choice but to eat the low-quality bread we made, softening it by dunking it in skim milk.

Still, we were happy to enjoy even these meager rations. At least we had food to eat. Elsewhere, in cities such as Samarkand and Tashkent, people were dying of starvation.

To earn our share of bread, we had to work on the fields, helping to harvest and bundle the grain. I was only twelve years old, but all local children of my age already worked and none went to school. As a city boy, I could not hope to compete with them, for they had been brought up to do farmwork. But somehow I managed to earn 400 grams of flour a day.

One Friday, the female leader of our work-group assigned me work using a horse-drawn implement to arrange the harvested grain into rows, telling me how much of the field I had to complete. Misunderstanding her instructions, I completed only a smaller area. Assuming I had finished, I unharnessed the horse and let it go free to graze. The other workers told me off for shirking my duty, warning that I would be punished for letting the horse go free.

They did have a point. Every moment that the horses worked was precious, for all sturdy horses had been drafted for military use and only older, sickly horses were left for fieldwork. The postmaster was the only one who still had a strong horse or two to pick up the mail from the district center 35 kilometers away.

Shrugging off their warnings, I insisted that I had completed my quota and returned home to prepare for Shabbos. On Sunday, the group leader fined me for not completing my work, giving me only 300 grams of flour instead of my usual 400. After that experience, I joined my sisters in their work of harvesting the grain, gathering it with a pitchfork.

The kolkhoz allotted our family a piece of land for use as a vegetable garden, and free time to cultivate it. We planted every vegetable growing in that region — tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, carrots, cabbage, beets, onions and, separately, potatoes.

Before planting the vegetables, we had to first dig up the earth with a shovel to soften it. Each vegetable is planted in a different way; some are planted straight into the ground, while others grow from seeds. The hardest work was keeping the plot well-watered for months on end; we had to drag up heavy buckets of water from the creek at the bottom of the hill. We also had to weed the plot — pulling out unnecessary growth to prevent it from drawing nutrition from our vegetables. Later, each vegetable had to be picked at just the right time, not before ripening nor allowing it to get overripe.

The kolkhoz also allotted us a large field just outside the village for growing potatoes, which need much more space than other vegetables. One problem was our lack of a special implement for slicing the potatoes into pieces for planting, forcing us to cut them laboriously by hand with a knife. After they grew, we had to dig them up carefully to avoid severing their roots, which continue to produce new potatoes. Fortunately, potatoes do not need much water, and the rainfall was sufficient, saving us from bringing water all the way from the creek to irrigate such a large area.

During the summer, we prepared our heating fuel for the long winter — blocks of animal manure, called “kizakes,” which were prepared in an arduous process. First we gathered straw for binding them. Then, with horses provided by the kolkhoz, we collected manure from stables and farmhouses in the region. One of us rode a horse down to the creek to bring up a barrel full of water for pouring over the manure. We rode the horses around in circles many times to tread and “knead” the pile of manure into a dough-like texture. Then the whole family began molding the manure, shaping it on the ground into blocks. These were left out for a week to be baked by the sun, then turned over for another week till they were sub-baked on the other side, too, becoming as hard as bricks.

It took us a while to learn how to use them properly. Before our chimney could be closed to keep heat in the house, the kizakes had to be completely burned up. We sometimes forgot to check, and smoke from small, leftover pieces of kizakes caused dangerous carbon monoxide poisoning.

For cooking, we used firewood, felling trees in the nearby forest. We used a horse provided by the kolkhoz to drag the logs to a dry place for storage.

Local Habits

Despite their poor nourishment, the villagers of Ivanovka enjoyed excellent health — probably due to the fresh, clean air and their hard work.

But the region’s climate is not always pleasant. Often it is wracked by fierce windstorms. In the winter these become blizzards, dumping heavy snow over everything to a depth of several feet, as a result of which no one can leave home for several days at a time.

The snow of these storms is so great that the roads become impassable. Travel is impossible during the storms, and even afterwards, enough snow is left that no vehicles other than horse-drawn sleds can be used all winter. Only the postmaster’s horses were strong enough to brave the deep snows for the first journey after a snowstorm. When he traveled to pick up the mail from the post office at the district center, his sled flattened the snow on the roads, enabling other sleds too to start using them.

Our first storm caught us completely unprepared. All we had stored was potatoes and flour. Other necessities such as water, milk and kerosene were soon used up, but we could not get out of the house for fresh supplies. We had to wait out the storm till the roads became passable again. That experience taught us to keep on hand emergency stocks of all basic supplies.

Refrigerators did not exist, even in the large cities. Instead, every house had a deep cellar where the temperature stayed cool but not freezing, saving vegetables from freezing if the house was left unheated. Thus, we always had potatoes and other staples in stock, regardless of the weather.

Later we learned from the locals the warning signs of an impending storm. It was vital to know these for sheer survival. Dangerous storms could strike suddenly, and no one wanted to be caught out in the fields when one came. If ever someone did get caught outside, he had no choice but to dig himself a nest in a bundle of straw or hay, hiding there for days till the storm passed, otherwise he would be frozen to death.

Summer came, bringing its own problems. There were no more blizzards, but occasional windstorms instead, with great billowing clouds of stinging dust that stopped all work on the fields. Over the years, the villagers had learned how to protect and care for their animals during these storms.

Father’s poor health exempted him from work on the kolkhoz. Whenever anything important had to be done, my older sister was called upon. Due to my young age, I was not expected to join her, although I usually volunteered to help.

Keeping The Torah In Exile

After the winter came Pesach. Our first concern was how to bake matzos. At the Seder, it is best to eat shmura matza, baked of flour guarded from contact with moisture since the wheat was harvested. But such flour was difficult to obtain even before the war, and usually only Father, as head of the family, would get to eat such matzos. The rest of the family ate matzos baked using flour guarded from moisture only since the wheat was milled.

In Ivanovka, Father enlisted my help to carefully clean a small primitive handmill. We used the flour ground in this mill to bake our matzos, and had some left over for other Jewish families to bake theirs. Before sunset the evening before we baked the matzos, we drew water from the well for kneading the flour (this is called “mayim shelanu” — water that has been kept overnight). After koshering our oven, we baked the matzos in our own home, obtaining new rolling pins for rolling the dough. Several Jewish women came to help with the rolling. Our unprofessional baking and poorly milled flour produced matzos that were thick and heavy.

Unfortunately, matzos were the only Pesach food we had at the Seder. No moror, bitter herbs, was available; none of the five vegetables that may be used grew in that region. Nor did grapes, so we could forget about the required four cups of wine. Even eggs were not available, because hens were not raised in the whole region — probably because the extreme cold would have killed them. During wartime, none of these foods could be brought in from elsewhere, either. During the winter months before Pesach, roads into the region were anyway impassable.

About a month before Pesach, while exploring a ruined hovel, I suddenly noticed some pigeons. I hurried to tell Father. He had brought his special slaughtering knife and sharpening stones with him to Ivanovka, but they had hardly been used, for lack of birds. Now he sharpened his knife, we caught the pigeons and he slaughtered them. Mother koshered and cooked them, and we decided to keep the meat for Pesach, storing it in a cool part of the cellar.

Now that we had meat, we gave up our original plan of drinking four cups of milk to serve as a reminder of the required four cups of wine at the Seder (according to the Halacha, of course, milk cannot actually be substituted for wine). As we sat down to our Seder and read the Haggada, we remembered our nation’s original exile and liberation, and recalled our own exile in that remote place and the present bitter exile of our entire people, praying to G‑d to redeem us speedily.

After reading the Haggada, we fulfilled the Mitzva of eating matza with our home-baked matzos. Then Mother served the precious meat to the table. But all our efforts had been in vain. In the weeks since the birds had been slaughtered, the first rays of spring sun had taken the chill out of the air and our meat, to our dismay, had spoiled!

After the summer, the “Awesome Days” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur came closer, when even Jews living far from a Jewish community try to pray with a congregation. Several Lubavitcher Chassidim were staying at farflung localities in our region. They included Reb Zalman Kalmanson and his family, and the well-known Rav and Chassid, Rabbi Avrohom Elya Plotkin (later my Rosh Yeshiva in Samarkand). On Rosh Hashana, they planned to gather for prayers with a minyan of ten or more Jews, and to blow the shofar — the main obligation of the day.

Father made arrangements to join them, even buying train tickets for himself and me. Unfortunately, he became too ill to travel and we had to cancel the trip.

A few weeks before Rosh Hashana, as I walked through the fields, I was amazed to notice a ram’s head lying among the shrubs. Now we could have a shofar for Rosh Hashana! But it was still the middle of summer, so there seemed to be plenty of time. Besides, who needed a ram’s head anyway? Even the wolves snatched only live sheep, devouring them at night when no one was around. So I left it where it was.

But I soon regretted it. By the next day, the ram’s head had disappeared. We could not ask the villagers for another horn, for they had no dead animals during the summer, when food was abundant. Only in the winter, when food was scarce and it was often difficult to feed the animals, did they kill one or two of them at a time, cooking the meat with cabbage and making merry for a few days.

About a week before Rosh Hashana, the head suddenly reappeared. This time I grabbed it and brought it to Berel Gurevitch, who was then staying with us. “Now we can have a shofar for Rosh Hashana,” I announced jubilantly.

Berel — who now heads the large Beth Rivka girls school in Yerres, France — was a younger brother of my late brother-in-law, Reb Nochum Zalman, husband of my sister Basya. Even then, Berel was a special personality who exemplified Chassidic values, and whose self-sacrificing dedication to the Torah and Chassidus could serve as a shining example to all.

In his late teens, he had served as mashpia — teacher of Chassidus and spiritual guide — in an underground Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim at Berditchev, Ukraine. Early in 1938, he and the rosh yeshiva, together with the students, had been arrested. For a year or two he remained in prison, surviving brutal interrogations and beatings.

After his release, he had obtained a false identity card to evade rearrest. Looking younger than his real age, his identity card had a later birthdate than his real one, enabling him to escape the draft for several years. He came to take refuge with us, working with us on the kolkhoz until he was finally drafted.

Berel got to work on the ram’s head right away. He took it to a field where the workers were all sitting around a fire boiling water and baking potatoes. He found a large nail, heated it in their fire till it was red-hot, then used it to bore a hole through one of the horns. To all the spectators crowding around to watch, Berel explained that he was making a special kind of flute. He worked hard on his “flute” until satisfied with the result.

Thanks to Berel’s explanation, we could carry the shofar openly, without arousing suspicion that it might have any religious significance. When asked about it later, Berel told them it had been a failure.

On Rosh Hashana, we gathered several Jews in our home to fulfill the mitzva, listening to Father blowing the shofar. Later, this shofar stayed with us for several years, accompanying us back to Moscow. Only when Father was arrested in 1947 did the NKVD confiscate it together with other articles from our home.

After Rosh Hashana, we began building a suka. During Sukos, we had to sit in the suka in sub-zero temperatures. We were grateful that Sukos is in the middle of the month, when the moon is full, for it was our only light at night.

During our years in Ivanovka, Father continued to spend much time teaching me Torah. When he was too sick to do it, I studied on my own, succeeding in covering much Chassidus and Gemara. For this I am deeply indebted to my mother, who always urged me to study even when Father was not well. Berel Gurevitch encouraged me to learn Tanya by heart, and I did manage to memorize most of it.

During the year after we arrived in Ivanovka, I turned thirteen. My birthday fell on a Shabbos, and we “celebrated” my bar-mitzva at Shalosh Seudos, the third Shabbos meal, drinking milk in honor of the occasion. I repeated a long maamar — discourse of Chabad Chassidic philosophy — that I had studied and memorized on my own. Only Father and Berel were there to listen, but that special Shabbos remains forever engraved in my memory.

Besides studying Torah myself, I also became a Torah tutor. My sister Basya’s two children were several years younger than I, and I taught them to read in the Siddur, and to study Chumash and other Jewish subjects.

Our Private Business

In that primitive region, money was scarce and meant nothing to the local peasants. They had no need for it, for all their trade was conducted by barter.

The locals highly valued clothing. We had brought with us from Moscow our knitting machines and supplies of thread that Father had received from his factory. During our first year, we traded clothing, finished and unfinished, for whatever we needed, especially for staples such as potatoes and flour. After we grew our own food, we could afford to barter clothing for luxury foods such as butter and fine flour.

Soon we had a thriving barter business. Our neighbors had little to barter and often came to watch us trade our wares with others. This aroused the envy of our landlord, who was not well off. Often we noticed him spying on us through holes in the partition between our apartments.

One day, a friendly neighbor burst into our dwelling with alarming news. Among piles of papers at the village’s municipal office, she had noticed a letter from our landlord accusing us of private trade — “speculation,” as it was officially known — which was considered a serious crime. His letter was vague on specifics, for he was uncertain what we sold or how we produced our wares. But he demanded immediate action to halt our business.

We thanked our friend and immediately buried most of our merchandise in a deep hole we dug in our garden. We left out several items so that we could continue doing business.

Sure enough, our village’s policeman, a Bashkir, came one day to investigate. Searching through all our belongings, he listed anything suspicious and took away two sackloads of knitted clothing.

Over the next few days, Mother knitted some nice sweaters on our machines and went to the Bashkir’s home to present the “gift” to his wife. This had its desired effect, and a few days later we received a message that the case was officially dropped and we could come and pick up our sacks. Much of our merchandise was missing from the two retrieved sacks, of course, but for us it was a reasonable “business expense.” Still, with no documenta­tion to explain how we came to own the merchandise, we remained anxious.

After this incident, we moved out of our dwelling into a small hut. Our living conditions there were worse: The roof leaked, and the fierce snowstorms blanketed our new home so heavily that we were effectively sealed inside, forcing us to wait until friends cut through the packed snow and ice to let us out. But at least we were safe from prying eyes.

Incidentally, that landlord’s life became filled with misery. The manager of a grain mill, he was caught stealing grain and sent to Siberia for three years. One of his sons was killed in the war, another was drafted, and his daughter fell off a stove and broke her back. His misfortunes, we felt, resulted from his envious attempt to get us into trouble.

Chava & Her Children

About a year after we reached Ivanovka, we received the shocking news about the fate of my oldest sister Chava and her children. Usually my sister Sima or I went to pick up our mail at the post office, but that day we were unable to go. Only Mother was there when the postcard was delivered directly to our home.

It was a Friday afternoon and Mother was just then placing the cholent into the oven for Shabbos. In shock, she dropped the cholent, which spilled all over the floor, and began sitting shiva.

Apparently, as the Germans had approached the village where Chava’s in-laws lived, the Jews were in no hurry to flee. Some remembered how friendly the German soldiers had been in World War I, so few believed the Soviet radio’s reports of atrocities. Her in-laws also owned a cow — an important commodity they were unwilling to abandon. Since her husband Leib had been drafted into the army, Chava felt dependent on her in-laws and made the fatal decision not to leave until they would.

When the Germans entered the village, they immediately rounded up all Jews. Chava’s older child, aged eight, appealed to their non-Jewish neighbors to save them. But the neighbors, despite their friendly relations with the Jews over many years, not only ignored them but even pointed out where the Jews were hiding. All seventy-five Jews there, including Chava and her two children, were forced into a cellar, where the Germans blew them all up. May G‑d avenge their blood!

When her husband Leib, fighting at the front, later learned of their tragic fate, he burned with a desire for vengeance. Fighting the cursed Germans with all his might, he soon gained a reputation as a fearless warrior. Eventually, the Soviet army, reversed its previous full retreat and made a resolute stand at Stalingrad in 1942. After a long campaign, with huge losses of life on both sides, the Soviets triumphed over the Germans in a spectacular victory. Leib fought there like a lion, for which he was promoted to a high rank.

Determined to avenge the blood of his family and parents, he returned from the battlefront to his village. But he found it deserted! The treacherous villagers, hearing about his coming and his reputation as a fearless fighter, had all fled...

Sima’s Trip To Gorki

During our stay in Ivanovka, my sister Sima studied at home by correspondence course for a diploma. On completing the course, she had to take examinations at the college in Gorki (now called Nizhni Novgorod), many hundreds of miles away. But getting there was not easy. First she had to get a permit to travel there, waiting a long time till the college sent her the necessary documentation. Then she had to get to the train station — 65 kilometers away — with no bus, taxi or anyone with whom to hitch a ride. She had no choice but to walk all the way! Even after reaching the station, she could not get a ticket without first bribing the ticket agent.

In Gorki, Sima stayed with Reb Shlomo Raskin and his family, the only home where she knew it was certainly kosher. Few Jews lived in Gorki, and the Raskins were probably the only Chassidic family there. They helped her in everything she needed. Despite the alien environment, the Raskins had true self-sacrifice to observe Yiddishkeit under such difficult circumstances. All their children remained devoted Chassidim — a worthy testament to the family’s devotion to the Torah.

The Raskins were renowned for their outstanding hospitality. Any Jew passing through Gorki knew that the Raskins’ warm home was always wide open for giving them a meal or a place to sleep.

In 1939, thousands of Polish Jews had fled into the USSR. Many were interned in Siberian labor camps. After Germany attacked the USSR in 1941, the Soviet government joined the Allies against Germany — which included the Polish government-in-exile in London. As a gesture of goodwill, the USSR released all interned Polish Jews, permitting them to settle wherever they pleased. Yet how could these impoverished refugees now start anew in life without money or even food to eat?

Many Chassidic families played an indispensable role in helping large numbers of such refugees and other Jews in need. They welcomed the unfortunates into their homes, often providing them with funds and other needs to make their life easier. The Raskins, in particular, distinguished themselves by generously hosting many such Jews in their home and finding other ways to help Jews staying elsewhere.

Sima had brought to Gorki some fine ladies shawls made of goat hair, a delicate material that makes a light, airy fabric considered a luxury item. She sold them there for a respectable sum, which she used to buy tea. Tea was the Bashkirs’ national drink (as it was of other Muslim peoples in the USSR such as the Uzbeks, as I observed later in Samarkand). Often they came to Ivanovka from surrounding villages in search of it. After Sima returned, we traded the tea she brought for large stocks of butter.

Father In Hospital

Meanwhile, Father’s health was deteriorating. His illness sapped his strength, endangering his very life. By Sukos, 1942, he was so weak that my sister and I decided on our own to bring him to the region’s primitive hospital in the hope that the doctors might cure him or at least alleviate his suffering.

The hospital was 35 kilometers away, at the district center. We borrowed horses from the kolkhoz, harnessing them to a wagon. Father was too weak to resist as we carried him out and lay him down in the wagon for the ride there. He remained confined there until he recovered. Later he told us he had despaired of ever recovering, and his only thought on the way was to be privileged to come to “kever Yisrael,” to be buried in accordance with the Torah.

That Sukos was very difficult for me. All alone I sat in the freezing suka, dreading what might happen if Father would not make it, G‑d forbid. But, even without Father at my side, I knew that the Torah considered me an adult and I had to say Kiddush in the suka — on the challos Mother had baked — and eat bread, at least an olive’s size, to fulfill my obligation to “dwell” in the suka surrounded with snow and ice, illuminated by light of the moon (Sukkos is in the middle of the Jewish month so the moon is in full circle). Eventually father came back from the “hospital” although still suffering from his ulcer, due to the lack of diet, even the bread wasn’t baked through, but felt better.

Returning Home

My sister Basya’s husband, Reb Nochum Zalman Gurevitch, who had been drafted into the army, served as private attendant to a general. Later he often declared that it must have been the merit of his habit of reciting the holy words of Tehillim (Psalms) continuously all day that saved him from being sent to the front. Sometimes his non-Jewish comrades noticed his mumbling and used to remark: “Gurevitch is singing already!”

After we were in Ivanovka for a year and a half, Nochum Zalman was granted a furlough to visit his family. This reunion was cause for great celebration. A few weeks later, he had to return to his position, but soon afterwards he sent Basya the officially required formal invitation to return to live with him in Moscow. First, however, she had to obtain a visa to travel from one point of Soviet Union to the other, during the war, which could be granted only at the district center which was very far and no transportation was available at that time of the year.

Together with another woman, Basya walked all the 35 kilometers, day and night, making it there in just two days. At one point, through the darkness of the night, they were terrified when they caught a glimpse of the fiery eyes of wolves. Fortunately, Basya had a box of matches with her, and she struck them repeatedly until the wolves, scared of fire, slunk silently away.

Basya returned home safely with her visa and, a few weeks later, traveled back to Moscow with her two children. We, however, were still stuck in Ivanovka, awaiting an invitation from a relative in Moscow to allow us to move back.

Finally, in winter 1943, my other sister, Sheindel, who had remained in Moscow, sent us the awaited invitation. After obtaining the required permit to travel, we began packing all our belongings in preparation for the long trip. We had no tickets yet, but decided to go and wait at the train station till a train arrived. In those days, people often patiently awaited a train at the station for days on end. But they had to stay constantly alert to guard their baggage from being stolen.

Our biggest problem was how to get all our baggage over the 65 kilometers distance to the train station. In the middle of winter, an opportunity arose when the kolkhoz organized a convoy of fifteen horse-drawn sleds to deliver their grain to the region’s central silos. The drivers agreed to take us along. We packed our belongings onto a sled and set out on the snowy, poorly defined roads. The peasants walked with their horses to prevent hypothermia, but we sat on our sled, bundled up against the freezing weather. Father, too weak to walk, was also allowed to sit on the sled.

We traveled only by day. At night, the convoy stopped at a roadside inn that served hot water had our food and let us sleep on the floor. Our drivers warned us that the convoy would leave at daybreak.

That presented a problem. In such cold weather, it would be impossible while traveling on the sleds to bare our arms and heads in the open air to don tefilin. Father and I decided to get up before dawn to say our prayers before the convoy left. As soon as we noticed a glimmer of light through the windows, we arose and put on our tefilin. However, after finishing our prayers, we wondered why the room was no brighter than before. Suddenly we realized that the light from the windows was not from the dawn at all but from the full moon’s silvery light reflecting from the white snow that blanketed everything!

We had no choice but to repeat our prayers after daybreak while traveling on our sled, although without our tefilin. When the convoy stopped later to rest the horses, we hurriedly put on our tefilin for a few moments to fulfill the mitzva for that day.

When we arrived at the train station, we parted warmly from the villagers, thanking them for their kindness and generosity to us during our stay in Ivanovka.

Somehow we managed to get tickets, but only till Samara, where we would have to change trains. At Samara, getting tickets for Moscow was even harder. Father’s weak health left him helpless, and Mother was busy caring for him and guarding our belongings. I was too young to be of much help. It was left to Sima to bargain and cajole till she was able to buy tickets at a decent price.

We still had an endless wait for our train. Finally it pulled into the station, and we boarded with all our belongings. During the long trip, we bought bread and dairy products at stops on the way until, exhausted, we reached Moscow.