My name is Shifra Yosefvna Gansburg, and I was born in 1921 in the town of Haditch (Gadyach), in the Poltava region of Ukraine, to my parents, Chaya Hirshovna and Yosef Mendeleyevich. My mother died, leaving four small children, when I was just seven and a half. A year later my father married my mother’s sister, Hinda Hirshovna, who mothered us with love and devotion.

Under Soviet rule, working on Saturdays was required, but as my father kept Shabbat and all the other holidays and Jewish traditions, most jobs were out of the question. Instead, he worked as a shochet, ritual slaughterer. But our town was poor, and most Jewish families had chicken only once a week, for Shabbat, so the proceeds were small. We had a garden in the yard, and also kept a goat, and in this way we somehow ate.

Papa belonged to the Lubavitcher Chassidim and was actively engaged in communal religious work, despite the ever-present danger. He built a mill in our house, on which we ground flour for shmurah matzah which he baked and Under Soviet rule, working on Saturdays was requiredsent to Jews in surrounding cities for virtually no profit. Papa was also the one who cared for the grave of the Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, who was buried in Haditch], and he constantly received letters from Jews around the country which he delivered to the gravesite.

For as long as possible, we children were not sent to school because the school week included Saturday studies. When hiding us was no longer feasible, my sister Luba and I were enrolled in a [Communist] Jewish school where we managed to observe Shabbat. But by fifth grade the Jewish classes were closed, and we continued our studies at a regular school, seldom able to stay home on Saturdays.

My brothers were sent away to illegal religious yeshivahs. The younger one, Sholom Ber (Solomon), was seven, while the older, Yitzchak (Isak), was nine. For several years they both studied at the secret Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch yeshivahs in Leningrad, Kutaisi and Kiev, where there was never enough food. They were starving all the time. Each year my grandfather would travel to pick up the boys and bring them home for the summer break.

In 1940 I graduated from school and entered Kiev University. By the summer of 1941, the war had begun. When I traveled home for my summer vacation, I left Kiev on foot since the railway tracks had been bombed. Only once I was closer to Haditch was I able to catch a train.

From his second marriage, my father had another daughter, Chaya (Anya), whom we all loved very much. She was six years old at this time. My father was not liable for military service, and thus, that summer of 1941, our entire family was at home in Haditch.

It was the last time we would all be together.

At the end of August my father was taken by the authorities to do excavation work for the war effort. A month later, on September 27, the Germans invaded our town. They shot Papa on his way home.

It was a terrible time.

Even prior to the Germans’ arrival, I begged everyone to leave the city and head east. My aunt (our second mother) It was the last time we would all be togetherwas not against the idea, but she felt she could not leave her father, who was unlikely to be able to walk in the cold and wet fall that awaited us. She also did not dare walk into the unknown with our little sister. As the eldest, at 19, I felt I could not go alone and leave part of the family behind, so we all stayed in Haditch.

The Germans detained people from each Jewish family. Many did not return. One day my two brothers, the yeshivah students, Yitzchak, 15, and Sholom Ber, 13, did not come home. The same thing happened to my maternal grandfather, Hirsch. Another time the Germans burst into our house, grabbed my paternal grandfather, Mendel Hillel, and violently shaved off half his beard. They also took out all of our sacred books—we had many—and built a bonfire near our house.

Gradually the Germans began to take our other relatives away, until one day my grandfather Mendel Hillel did not return. He was also killed.

Soon all Jews were required to wear a white armband with a black six-pointed star at all times. No one doubted that we would all die a violent death.

Everyone anticipated a quick end. A few days before he was killed, Sholom Ber told me, “I do not want to die.” My 17-year-old sister, on the other hand, wanted everything to happen sooner. I, meanwhile, dreamed and painted mental pictures of our salvation.

Then came that January day when all the Jews were instructed to gather their valuables and documents for resettlement. We all understood what that meant. None of us cried. Instead we tried to decide what to do: Should we go to the gathering place, or shouldn’t we? By this time there were only four people left in our family—my aunt and us three sisters. Together, we decided that we would not go. It was winter; let them shoot us at home. Maybe—we said with a glimmer of hope—those who remain home won’t be shot . . .

Still, we understood that the situation was desperate, and my sister and I decided we should at least attempt to escape. But how to get out of town, to go east, to cross the front lines? I had no idea.

L-R: Luba Pinson, the author Shifra on top right, her sister Luba on bottom left, and next to her is baby Chaya. Older girl in center top and boy at the bottom right are neighbors.
L-R: Luba Pinson, the author Shifra on top right, her sister Luba on bottom left, and next to her is baby Chaya. Older girl in center top and boy at the bottom right are neighbors.

Early one morning I visited my Ukrainian friend, a girl I knew from school, hoping that someone there could explain to me how to bypass the heavily guarded route and leave town on foot. Her parents tried to persuade me that the Germans would not shoot innocent people, but I was convinced that we would all be killed, and sent my friend to tell my sister that we had to leave immediately. But my friend soon returned emptyhanded. She had met my sister, who was already on her way to the gathering place for the Jews. She had decided to go along with everybody into the unknown.

Hearing this, I immediately rushed home to my aunt and little sister, but was stopped on the way by a small group of elderly Ukrainian women. They removed my armband, and insisted that our house was empty and that I must leave town. None of my arguments—that my family was at home, that I needed to tell them that I’m alive—swayed them. They held me down tightly, and told me there was no one home anymore.

[Editor’s note: The Jews of Haditch, sometimes spelled Hadiach or Gadyach, were executed in a ravine by the Nazis on January 9, 1942.]

As we stood there, a peasant farmer woman passed by. She had sold her goods at the market and was now returning to her nearby village. Not realizing what had happened in Haditch, she said, “Come with me.” And in this way I managed to leave town.

We arrived at the first village, Sary, which had not yet been taken over by the Germans. Nevertheless, everyone They insisted no one was home and I must leave townalready knew what had transpired in Haditch, and they were afraid to let me stay the night.

I was sent before the village elder [a Soviet appointee who led the village]. I quickly came up with a story. I told him I had served as a nurse in the Red Army, had somehow fallen into the area, and was now trying to get home to the Donbass (it seemed to me that the Donbass region of east Ukraine was closest to the front). I do not know whether the village elder guessed that I was actually Jewish, but he let me sleep in his home and even shared with me what had taken place in Haditch that morning. He mused that had all the Jews left, even without direction, they might have survived.

I spent a sleepless night in tears, and early the next morning, while it was still dark, I asked my host for directions to Sosnovka, where a former classmate of mine lived. I hoped she would know which villages were not yet occupied by the Germans and would help me plan my route.

It was already quite light when I arrived, and I was seen and detained by the local police (there were no Germans yet in Sosnovka). Also detained were two elderly people from Haditch, and a male stranger who very much looked like a Jew. None of us spoke.

I realized that this was the end. My only hope was that the local police would kill me themselves rather than hand me over to the Nazis. The Ukrainians, I felt, would at least only shoot me and not also make a mockery out of me.

Meanwhile the room filled with more and more people, and although the police brought us food, none of us felt like eating. I cried, mentally bidding farewell to each of my family members, who I knew were not alive anymore. I did not doubt that these were the last hours of my life.

Then a miracle occurred. In the evening the head of Haditch came to Sosnovka and told the policemen, “Release them all, let them go wherever they want to.” A peasant farmer took me to his house for the night.

Learning that I wanted to make my way to the front lines in order to cross over into Soviet-controlled territory, a group of locals told me that I could not go in the direction of the Donbass, for there was a famine there. Instead, they gave me the names of 13 villages which were not yet occupied by the Germans, and advised me to follow this route in the direction of Kursk.

Of course, from that moment on no one was to know that I was Jewish. The cover story I used was that I was fleeing the Nazi advance and trying to head closer to my home in the Kursk region.

In general, local villagers treated those who had managed to escape the German onslaught with decency, and were willing to share information about which villages were still German-free. At times I moved from village to village alone, and at others I walked along the roads with groups of people on foot. Some people pulled sleds filled with inexpensive knickknacks which they hoped to exchange for bread along the way. Traveling in a group always made me feel more protected.

Yet each day I was haunted by a single question: Will I live to see tomorrow, or is today my last day? The sight of a car or a man along the road horrified me. It was impossible to tell who was approaching; it could very well be a German.

By this time Will I live to see tomorrow? everyone in Ukraine, even village peasants, had been issued an identity card by the Germans. I also had one, issued a month or two before the general executions took place. On this paper, if I’m not mistaken, was written your name, patronymic and last name, and your city or village of origin.

(I cannot vouch for the accuracy of exactly what was written, because for many long years I did not speak about these events. Sometimes I told my husband episodes from some of those terrible days, but there were more than 500 such days.)

Often, but not always, the families I stayed with checked my papers. But even though the document used my true name, from which it followed that I was Jewish, no one actually suspected it because virtually nobody knew how to read German, and the mere presence of this document was perceived as proof of rights to travel and spend the night.

In general, travelers passing through villages would ask to warm themselves, and were then usually invited into the peasants’ homes, fed, and given bread for the road. Some even allowed travelers to spend the night without ever asking for documents. By this time the villages were mostly populated by women, children and the elderly, who were sympathetic to wanderers.

When I finally reached the Kursk region, there was a flood, and it became impossible to continue on due to the deep mud it left behind. But I got lucky again. A local woman with a young child took me on as a helper. In exchange for room and board, I helped her with her housework, kneaded clay with dung in ice-cold water, and in the spring and beginning of summer went out to work in the field instead of her. The village, if I’m not mistaken, was called Nadezhovka.

In the summer the front moved further east, and again I followed it. Here the Nazis had not yet provided local residents with identity papers, so I no longer had to show my documents to anyone. But it also became more difficult to avoid meeting Germans. Sometimes I had to walk across the fields and spend the night in a haystack so as not to enter a Nazi-occupied village.

There is no way I can fully describe the events that took place, and I have of course omitted many episodes and experiences. To this day I am haunted in my dreams, imagining being chased, searched for . . .

The clothes I had been wearing since leaving my home were in tatters, and I dreamed of finding some scraps in the forest to patch the holes in my dress. During this time I became infested with lice and covered with boils—but none of that compares with the ever-present fear that followed me for more than a year. I fantasized about getting my hands on some poison, so as to never be caught alive by the Germans. I also dreamed of somehow reaching the partisans in order to avenge the deaths of my dear, innocent, murdered relatives.

The To this day, I am haunted in my dreamsfront soon approached Voronezh, and I, continuing to move along with it, began telling people that prior to the war I had lived in Voronezh and was going home. But then it turned out that the Germans had evicted the inhabitants of many villages along the front lines and built a restricted area, making it impossible to move forward. And so began my second winter since leaving Haditch (I left home on January 10, 1942).

I spent the night with a family in the village of Pershino, where the owner advised me to stay for a while as hired help for his sister who lived alone with two young children. This was already the winter of late 1942 and early 1943, and it was impossible to get to Voronezh at that time. I agreed, and lived with his sister on a farm where there were three houses, each of which was occupied by one family. The hostess gave me lapti [hand-woven bast shoes, made from tree bark] and woolen stockings, sewed from sheep’s wool, and also a sheepskin coat to use temporarily. I was warm there, and could rely on consistent lodging and food.

One day a local arrived at the farm and ordered me to prepare for a journey. Instructions had arrived in the village requiring several girls to be sent to work in Germany, and I was among those selected. He drove me to the collection area on a sleigh. But once again I got lucky: because I was covered in boils, the district commission rejected me. One of the doctors who examined me was an ethnic Russian, and I think that in my frightened glance he realized who I was. He looked at me strangely, and his look further intensified my fear. But, thank G‑d, everything turned out well, and I again returned to my mistress.

Bottom: Grandfather Mendel Hillel Gansburg, his wife Sarah, and his sons Yankel and Yitzchak Gansburg.
Bottom: Grandfather Mendel Hillel Gansburg, his wife Sarah, and his sons Yankel and Yitzchak Gansburg.

As the winter of 1943 dawned, the Soviet army launched their offensive on the nearby front. When I began hearing gunshots and seeing tracer bullets flying high, I felt no fear, only immense joy and hope.

On one of those nights, when the shots had grown louder and more frequent, the residents of all three farmhouses gathered in one of them, while my mistress left me to spend the night alone in her small house.

At 2 o’clock in the morning I heard knocking. The windows, as always, were covered. Fearful it was the Germans, I I still did not reveal my Jewish identitywent to the door hesitantly. Suddenly I heard a choice Russian curse on the other side, and relief washed over me. These were our Russian soldiers, whose positions were very close behind the houses, who had come to warm themselves inside. I ran to the next house, where all the residents of this small hamlet were gathered, with the joyful news that our Soviet army had arrived.

From that moment on I felt safe and protected, secure that I was no longer in danger from imminent, violent death. Nevertheless, I still did not reveal my Jewish identity, and the soldiers took me for a resident of the town.

In the morning the strongest battle ensued, and the Germans were finally driven from the general territory. The snowy highway, which was approximately half a kilometer from this hamlet, was littered with German corpses. I took part in the exploration, and my dreams of scraps to mend my clothing turned unexpectedly into real clothes, which I could now wear.

I decided to make my way deeper into the country. The woman I had been staying with gave me biscuits for the road, and I was able to take my petty possessions and head towards Voronezh. When I arrived I went directly to the station and asked for the first train, which was going to Tambov. I had no money and no ticket, but was allowed to get to Tambov anyway. There I went to the evacuation center, where I received a ticket for lunch and a ticket to Chelyabinsk. In Chelyabinsk I found out that the University of Kiev had merged with the Kharkov University, and was now located in the city of Kzyl-Orda in the Kazakh SSR (today Kazakhstan).

Using the ticket issued to me at the evacuation center in Chelyabinsk, I went to Kzyl-Orda. The first person I met there was a classmate and friend from Kiev University. Using archives and statements of achievement, my student records were restored and I was able to continue my studies.

Now I not only lived without fear, but also regained my name. Although life wasn’t easy, and I had two hunger-fainting spells, I felt neither hunger nor cold, nor the inconveniences associated with the lack of normal clothes and warmth. Anything I now experienced was in no way comparable to the sense of constant danger of violent death. I felt like a living person, and gradually my memory returned. I began to study, remembering all I had forgotten during my difficult trek. I rejoined ordinary life, with all of its worries and doubts, but minus the terrible expectation of brutal murder. This itself was happiness.I now lived without fear

In 1944 the physics and mathematics departments of the United Ukrainian University returned to Kharkov, and I continued my studies there. Two years later, in 1946, I graduated a mathematician. It had been less than six years since I’d started my studies, but it felt like a lifetime. Those years I spent wandering the Ukrainian countryside, always alert, always in danger, always cold, always hungry, had changed me permanently.

As noted, Shifra Gansburg did not speak often of her wartime experiences. It was only much later in life that she recorded her recollections for the benefit of her family. Today she lives in Ashkelon, Israel.