At the height of WWII, Hitler set a goal to capture Leningrad, Russia's most beautiful city, replete with magnificent historic palaces and monuments. In response, the Soviet Union gathered all the children in the bustling city and moved them out. By July of 1942, every child in Leningrad had been evacuated.

The children evacuated the city in a panic, separated from their parents in haste, sometimes with only a few words of goodbye exchanged. Fania, 13, Rochel, 9, and Zalman, 8 – the Kleinman children – were no exception when they were torn away from their parents, Yaakov and Rivkah. Rochel was sent alone to Omsk in Siberia. Fania and Zalman remained together. Just before they left, Yaakov hurriedly told Fania, "Keep an eye out for your younger brother, Zalman."

Just before the siege, Yaakov met his sister, Ita Sosonkin at the outskirts of Leningrad. With tears in their eyes, they promised each other that whoever stays alive will take care of the other sibling's children. After an emotional goodbye, Yaakov returned to Leningrad and Ita found her way to a small town in the Molotovsk region of Russia.

Two short months later, Leningrad was under siege as Russia suffered the most severe winter in decades. There was no heat or electricity, and food was scarce. The Nazi air force destroyed stored food stocks and many besieged Leningraders ate cats, dogs, birds, cosmetics made into jelly, and a soup of sorts made of boiled leather wallets.

After nearly 900 days under siege, forty percent of Leningrad's population had died from hunger and disease. The Kleinman parents were not spared and tragically died that year.

The Children's Institution

Fania Kleinman after WWII
Fania Kleinman after WWII

For a year, the brother and sister were together in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia. Following that, 14-year-old Fania was transferred elsewhere to complete a course in machinery. Shortly after the war, she returned to work in Leningrad, where she learned about the unfortunate passing of her parents.

Zalman was not so lucky. He stayed in the institution, where he lived a hellish life. Burnikah, the bully of the institution, was cruel, sadistic and controlled the lives of the kids in his class. The young children shuddered from his words, and complied with his orders entirely, lest they be harshly punished. Zalman wasn't spared, and was beaten and abused by Burnikah on many a night.

Zalman would escape to the weedy courtyard to spend time away from the threatening atmosphere of the classroom. He would contemplate the falling leaves and the metal fence, and forget his dire situation. He would pull out the old gum that he had in his pocket for these special occasions to lessen the sharp pangs of hunger in his gut.

You see, Burnikah would collect the bread from all the kids' supper and eat it himself. Sometimes, young Zalman would refuse to give up his bread, despite full knowledge that he'd be beaten.

"Where is my bread, you dirty Jew?" Burnikah asked Zalman one day.

With tears in their eyes, they promised each other that whoever stays alive will take care of the other sibling's children "I do not have to give you my bread. I eat the bread myself and there is no way I will give you my portion," Zalman bravely responded.

Burnikah, furious, lifted his hand to hit Zalman, when one of his close cohorts requested that he receive the "honor" of hitting "the Jew."

Burnikah gave him the go ahead. His hand hit Zalman, and Zalman's head hit the wall. Blood spurted from a small wound as Zalman cried out in pain. From down the hall came the footsteps of the superintendent, so Burnikah and his friends quickly cleaned the bloody floor, and escaped quietly from the room.

The kids knew to keep quiet and not tell any of the staff about Burnikah. Perhaps he would have gotten into trouble, but the reality was that he'd still stay in the dorm, and Burnikah would make sure the kid who squealed suffered adequately. So, little Zalman did not tell anyone what happened.

The Envious Teacher

Chassidic Artist Zalman Kleinman, by Zalman Kleinman 1956
Chassidic Artist Zalman Kleinman, by Zalman Kleinman 1956

A year or so later, Zalman moved to another institution. There, a teacher from another class began to take a liking towards him. Zalman, a talented artist from an early age, started to draw the teacher's classroom charts, signs or anything else she needed. However, Zalman's teacher was upset that a teacher from another class would utilize the talents of her student. This, amongst other reasons, caused a stormy relationship between the two.

Once the war ended in 1945, and Leningrad was no longer in danger, the government began returning the children from the institutions to their parents. Those whose parents died during the war were officially transferred to government orphanages.

The teacher who liked Zalman, knowing he was orphaned, requested to adopt Zalman, and he eventually moved into her home. She saw much potential in Zalman, and appreciated his artistic talents and sharp intelligence.

Shortly after, Zalman sent a letter to his sisters, Fania and Rochel, telling them that he was going to be officially adopted by the teacher and, in her name, requested that they not write to him anymore. His Jewish family ties were to be broken.

The Envious Teacher's Telegram

By the end of war, Ita Sosonkin, now widowed from her husband, was living with her in-laws, Nachum and Malkah Sosonkin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. There, she was relatively safe to practice Judaism since the authorities in Samarkand were more lax about persecuting religious individuals.

However, Ita could not rest, for she remembered the tearful promise she made to her brother, Yaakov. It was her responsibility to take care of his children. She had kept in touch with the kids and had their addresses, but, practically, how would she be able to keep her promise? She had no home; she was living with her in-laws. Could she really invite three more people to live in their small house?

But the nagging thoughts did not leave her. She felt her brother's presence hovering over her, reminding her about the children. One night, after waking up in a heavy sweat, she knew she had to take care of her nephew and nieces. She paced back and forth in her bedroom, trying to devise a plan of what to do. Her father-in-law, Nochum, was up learning Talmud, and heard the violent pacing emanating from Ita's room. Gently, he knocked and asked Ita if there was something he could be of assistance with.

Ita Sosonkin with her two children
Ita Sosonkin with her two children

With sadness, she told him about the children and the promise to her brother. "Why did you not tell me beforehand?" he told her. "You must go and bring them here immediately."

Elated and grateful, she planned to pick up Rochel in Siberia and later, Zalman. As she made plans, obtained visas and train tickets for the long journey, she received a telegram from Zalman's teacher, the one who wasn't fond, to say the least, of his soon to be adoptive mother. She could think of nothing more vengeful than tearing Zalman away from her arch-enemy. So she had obtained the location of Zalman's aunt and wrote, "If you want to meet the child, come here immediately! He will be adopted soon."

Ita realized that she had only a short time to swoop in and take Zalman back to his rightful family, and left immediately. After much begging, Ita managed to free Zalman. He was reunited with his siblings in Samarkand. Together, the two sisters and brother later moved to Israel, where Zalman became a famous Chassidic artist.