It’s very difficult to remember the pain, but I know how important it is to share these stories.

I grew up near Odessa in a small town called Vradeevka. We were a happy family. I had two older sisters, Gittel and Chaya, and a brother named Yosef. My birth name was Rivka, but no one has called me by that name since the war.

I was 8 years old when the war began.

One day, I was simply playing outside with a friend when we heardI didn’t understand the meaning of the word “war” thunder. As I started running inside the house, I kept stepping on glass. I was so scared. I soon realized that what we heard was not thunder but the first bombing by the Nazis. I was an innocent child and didn’t understand the meaning of the word “war.”

My father was a tailor, so he was shipped off to Odessa at the beginning of the war to work in a factory. My other family members were taken to work the fields.

Mama knew the Nazis were looking for us, so she told us we needed to run and hide. It’s hard to describe what Mama and I felt as we spent our days searching for refuge in barns to sleep at night. We didn’t know where the rest of our family was. Then one day, we heard from the locals that all Jews could return home as long as they were able to work in the fields.

We were so joyous! Mama and I reported to the office for work registration. But Mama was very intuitive, and as soon as we arrived, she became suspicious. She rushed me outside, found a haystack and hid me inside. Soon after it became dark, we heard the shots. I was just a child, but I understood that the people who came to be registered for work were being killed. Mama saved our lives.

We walked from village to village, begging for bread and water. It has been almost seven decades, but to this day, when I eat bread, I think back to the time when someone offered us a stale piece for the taking. Mama handed me the entire slice despite her own hunger. I decided to tuck it away for later, yet I was so hungry that I couldn’t restrain myself and ate the entire piece in seconds. I teach my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to appreciate all that they have and to be grateful even for the simplest things. Even in the most difficult and dark times, people can choose kindness and compassion. I remember that amongst the terror, hunger and pain, there were kind people who tred to help.

Mama learned that Ukrainians could take in Jewish children if they were baptized, so she devised a plan to return me to Vradeevka to a family she knew from before the war. The woman of the house, Elena, knew me well because I was close friends with her daughter. I remember begging Mama not to leave me. My 8-year-old heart was breaking, as if I knew that I was saying goodbye to Mama for the very last time. Today, when I look at my family around our Shabbat table, I realize that by leaving, Mama sacrificed her own life to save mine and all those generations that came later.

My host family followed the rules and baptized me, giving me a new name, Lida. Yet even at my young age, it was clear to me that the conversion ceremony didn’t change the fact that I was a Jew. Soon a new edict came from the Nazis ordering all Jewish children to be taken to a barn in nearby Bogdanovka.

I don’t want to describe what we saw when we arrived ... hundreds of bodies inside the barn. The soldiers screamed orders at us, and we were put against the wall. As we were waiting to be shot, a Romanian soldier suddenly gave an order to halt fire and told us all to run—just run. It was a miracle.

Eventually, I found my way back to Elena and her family in Vradeevka. Unfortunately, I was soon taken out of my safety zone yet again and driven to a nearby ghetto. I remember that there was a woman lying on the ground, giving birth and screaming. I wanted my Mama to come and save me from this horror. We were little children, hungry and scared, and we needed our parents. Children should never face such agony.

There were local people who brought us bread and water. I was standing next to a boy who was a few years older than me, and we heard a Ukrainian woman asking the guard if she could take the two of us in for a night. Miraculously, the guard agreed to let us leave with her. We arrived at her home, and she gestured for us to go to the barn outside of the house. As night fell, the boy told me that we needed to run away; otherwise, we would be returned to our captors in the morning.

We opened the door of the barn and ran out. It was the winter and an unbearably cold night. We ran until we saw a pile of hay. The boy gestured for me to climb inside and instructed me to stay awake. He explained that if I were to fall asleep in such cold weather, I would freeze to death. Overwhelmed by exhaustion, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. All night long, he woke me up every few minutes and ultimately saved my life.

When the morning finally came, my savior explained that it was unsafe for us to stay together and instructed me to run as far away from our hideout as possible. He made sure to explain that only after I was far enough from this place was I to knock on doors and ask locals to take me in.

I was wearing flimsy shoes that were completely inadequate for the cold snow on the ground. Very soon, my feet were numb from the frostbite, and my heels were literally bonded to the shoes. Just then, when I no longer had any strength left in me, I was saved. I knocked at a door and was invited inside by a Ukranian lady who was a natural healer. She spent weeks putting ointments and remedies on my heels, nurturing me back to health. After I was finally able to walk again, I asked my rescuer to take me back to Elena in Vradeevka.

After my arrival there, I learned that my brother escaped death and ran to Odessa to reunite with our father, who was alive and working at a factory. This news filled me with hope. We sent word to my father, who arranged for me to travel to Odessa. You can only imagine our reunion after a two-year separation! I was given a job to knit gloves and socks at the factory. Although we were overjoyed to be reunited, we agonized over the whereabouts of our other family members. I often dreamt about Mama and the last time I saw her.

Unexpectedly, together with the other factory workers, we were moved to a barn in the middle of a field with nothing and no one around for miles. My older brother walked for hours with a shovel, hoping to dig up any remains of vegetables from the ground. The days were long and exhausting, with hunger constantly torturing us from within. Then one day, we woke up and realized that the guards were gone. We didn’t know what was happening in the world because we were completely isolated.

We walked to the nearest village and hid in an empty house. We heard rumors that the Nazis were retreating, but we were too scared to leave our refuge. I remember that in the middle of the night, someone knocked on our window. We were frightened until we heard Russian soldiers scream to us that “the war has ended.” I will never forget that moment. Barefoot, exhausted and hungry, we began our journey back home. We had nothing but the torn clothes on our backs, but we had survived. We walked in silence, overwhelmed by emotions. I prayed that we would find my Mama and my sisters waiting for us at home. But our home had been destroyed, and so we moved into an empty house nearby waiting for the news. As time went by, I understood that Mama and my sisters would not be returning home.

Life went on. We felt that it was our responsibility to rebuild and to continue our family legacy. We had to live in order to honor those who perished.

I met my future husband, Isaac, right after the war, when we were bothWe focused on the future 13 years old. We kept in touch, and when we turned 19, we married and started a family. We focused on the future, trying to give our children all we could despite the unimaginable losses we had experienced.

In 1973, when my daughter was getting married in Odessa, we invited the groom’s immediate family for a pre-wedding dinner. Somehow, we started talking about the difficulties of the war years. One of the guests, the groom’s uncle, Betzalel Golder, shared some of his memories, and then he said, “I was hiding in a haystack with a little girl. Her name was Lida. I was so worried that she would fall asleep and freeze to death, so I kept her up all night. In the morning, I told her to run far away from that place and I don’t know what happened to her. I often wonder if she survived.”

I remember gasping for air at that moment. I couldn’t breathe. Can you imagine what it was like to meet my savior all those decades later? I shed tears of gratitude, and then we all cried together for those of us who survived and those who didn’t.

In April of 1977, my family immigrated to the United States. Having lived in the Soviet Union, we were unfamiliar with our Jewish heritage. We were invited to our first Shabbat dinner at the home of a Russian Jewish family who followed the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This was our first encounter with the beauty of our Jewish traditions. Sitting at the Shabbat table, it felt as if I had found a missing puzzle piece of my identity.

I am grateful to G‑d. I believe that G‑d saved me for a reason. I built a big, beautiful Jewish family—two children, four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Baruch Hashem. Thank G‑d.

The whole family, after the chuppah.
The whole family, after the chuppah.

Postscript by Sofya:

I watched an interview with Rabbi Motti and Rebbetzin Rochel Flikshtein, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Delaware, who shared their incredible journey of commitment to Jewish values. I was moved because my own path towards Judaism has been influenced by the kindness of Motti’s family.

Twenty years ago, when my husband and I were newly married, we started learning and observing Jewish customs and traditions. We felt lost, as we didn’t know many people who were living according to Torah values. But then we met an incredible Russian Jewish family who welcomed us into their home. Week after week, we enjoyed delicious Shabbat meals prepared by the matriarch of the family, Bubby Lida, Motti’s grandmother. Lida and her husband, Isaac, sat at the head of the table, surrounded by their children and grandchildren, offering smiles and love to everyone around them. Perhaps it was this weekly experience that pulled us into the world of Shabbat candles, ancient texts and Shabbat songs, and that made Judaism both heartwarming and relevant.

There was something deep and mysterious about Lida’s presence. Finally, I gathered up the courage and asked about her life story. It took her some time, 20 years to be exact, but eventually, she agreed to allow me to write about her experience during the Holocaust.

On Dec. 5, 2009, Lida and Isaac, together with their daughter Mila, her husband Fima and two other Soviet-born Jewish couples stood under the chuppah, reaffirming their marriage according to Torah traditions. Despite her childhood phobia of being under water, Lida went to the mikvah the night before the ceremony. Perhaps this act of courage is her most powerful answer to her oppressors.

Today, Lida is gratified that her grandson Motti and his wife Rochel are Chabad emissaries in Delaware. Their mission to help every Jew to find his or her personal link in the chain of Jewish destiny is very dear to Lida’s heart. Lida is proud of all her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. She considers herself a lucky woman

As I wrapped up our interview, I asked Lida for her final thoughts. Without any hesitation, she said, “I pray for peace in the world so that future generations will never experience the pain of hunger, despair and war. Be proud of your heritage. So many people have died because they were Jews. We must live for them all, celebrating and embracing our Torah and our identity.”

Lida's son Gregory, and her three grandsons, Eric, Nathan and Motti, with Rabbi Weinstein.
Lida's son Gregory, and her three grandsons, Eric, Nathan and Motti, with Rabbi Weinstein.