A small Jewish community forms1

[Following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany,] a steady stream of Jewish evacuees started arriving from towns in the war-zone. Among them were some of our acquaintances. People everywhere knew about us.

On the one hand, we were pleased that a small Jewish community was forming. On the other hand, we felt an overall deterioration; our material situation, in particular, was most unpleasant. People wanted to help us. But the very fact that we had to rely on such help was not at all gratifying.

We were treated with great respect. People would visit us just to spend time in conversation; we had already become unaccustomed to this. As entire families arrived in our region, husbands and wives came to pay us visits, sometimes in order to seek advice.

Life was assuming a normal pattern. But the time that had passed had a deep effect, and our thoughts were preoccupied with what the future held for us.

The great heat of summer was already upon us, and our health deteriorated. The conflagration of the war2 had cut us off totally from any news from home. Occasional letters got through, however, conveyed by refugees who had fled from their towns to regions as distant as possible. These letters reminded us of our life among good friends, when we weren’t as lonely as we were now.

What will we eat?

Still urgent was the question of “What will we eat?”3 It’s unpleasant to dwell on this. But when one doesn’t eat enough and sometimes literally starves, it becomes the central thought of one’s existence. It compels one to exert great efforts to survive, and there is a constant looming fear of what the next day will bring.

We were always searching for new sources of flour, for baking lepyoshkes—a kind of flat-bread leavened by yeast or baking soda.

To bake these, we needed to find fuel for a fire. Usually it was I who went out searching for these fire-burning materials, for I wanted to spare my husband this work. We gathered small shrubs dried out by the burning sun, or thick grass so dried out that it burned like straw. After burning for a moment, however, it burned up, so we needed to stock up on it.

We couldn’t venture out by day because of the burning sun, and at night, when it was cooler, we had to contend with the biting mosquitoes. So we worked in a hurry, gathering the dried out twigs, then rushing back to our room, which we had sealed off so that mosquitoes couldn’t penetrate.

A remedy for getting rid of the flying insects was to create a thick smoke. After the difficult daytime hours, when we wanted to sit outside for some fresh air, we had to burn a type of fuel that made no fire or light, only a dark smoke. There were often strong winds in that region, and when such a smoky fire was burning, the wind blew the smoke of the muddy, burning straw straight into our faces—not a very pleasant sensation.

However, the smoke did help to rid us of the flying insects. Gradually one gets benumbed and accustomed to the situation. Then we would just laugh and seek other ways to avoid these loathsome “guests.”

That’s how the summer months passed. Our constant preoccupation was to ensure that we would not suffer from hunger. At all times, in some way or another, we managed to obtain food. Sometimes it was grits for cooking porridge of ground cereal grains, or kukuruza—ground chickpeas. When our financial situation was better, we prepared the porridge with milk and butter, which made it very filling and tasty.

I recall visiting the home of a certain family to arrange some matter. On the table were cheese latkes and a cocoa drink. They were wealthy Jews, employed by the local government center to supply everyone with food products.

They kept kosher, and invited me to partake of those foods. I had already forgotten the taste of such delicacies, but I controlled myself and didn’t touch any of it. I did this out of a sense of self-esteem; I didn’t want them to think they had fed a starving person.

When I left, I was pleased to have resisted the temptation. No one should ever have to live through such an experience, which requires great fortitude. In such situations, people become like beasts, and the instinct to enjoy food is very intense. Some were unable to withstand this, and others sank so low that, without consideration for their dignity, they went begging for bread and other food, just to have something to eat.

Chopping wood

Among our evacuated acquaintances was a Jew from Kharkov. He was well-to-do and had purchased a horse and wagon. Taking them deep into the forest, he would chop halyoxylon wood, which burned well, and he drew his livelihood from selling it. He brought us a wagon load of this wood, which we kept in the sukkah we had constructed ourselves. As far as heating was concerned, our situation now improved somewhat.

Having the wood brought a new problem—getting it chopped up, which wasn’t our specialty. But the Romanian refugee,4 the one-time landowner, recalled how his workers used to do this for him, and he quickly learned to chop the wood himself.

With difficulty, we were able to take care of our needs. But we were exhausted. When one is devoid of physical strength, everything gets harder.

The month of Tishrei5

The Yomim Tovim [High Holidays of 5704 (1943)] approached. The previous year [5703 (1942)] we had prayed on the High Holidays6 locked inside our room, hidden away so that no one should see us.

This year, however, the evacuated Jews had rented a room located far from the village center, to hold a minyan there. A Torah scroll had been sent to us from Kzyl-Orda, the regional capital, and a considerable crowd assembled—men and women, young and old, all kinds of Jews.

My husband gave instructions on how everything should be conducted, and was regularly consulted on various details. He could not oversee all this openly, lest it jeopardize the entire project and place him in particular danger. But he paid no heed to this risk, and it all proceeded without mishap.

Yom Kippur’s unexpected guest

I recall how, on the previous Yom Kippur [5703 (1942)], only three of us had prayed at our home, the third being the Jewish deportee who stayed with us every Yom Tov. I had brought a single machzor from home. I cannot possibly describe our feelings during those prayers.

In the middle of our prayers, we noticed a young man trying to look through our window (although it was so well draped by a curtain that nothing was visible outside). We were frightened he might be a spy, and our guest was afraid to let him in. But my husband, of blessed memory, unlocked the door and invited him in.

It was a young Jewish deportee from Lithuania.7 He had no idea what had happened to his parents. He had been drafted here by the authorities for forced labor. A week earlier, while riding with his horse and wagon, he had noticed my husband, and “saw something special on his face.” He immediately decided to find out where he lived, so that he could “weep next to him on Yom Kippur.” Over the past week, he had found out our address.

The young man knew many of the Yom Kippur prayers by heart. He had been afraid to request the whole day off, so he worked until 11:00 a.m., riding around with his horse and wagon, and by 12:00 noon arrived at our address, after changing out of his workday clothes.

Half an hour later, a frightened Jewish woman showed up. She had fled from Nikolayev with her husband, and living now just four kilometers from our village, had learned that we were living there.

Her husband had declared that if G‑d can so mistreat Jews, he had no desire to pray. But his wife insisted she now wanted to pray more than ever before in her life. She was fasting and had walked the four-kilometer distance, but was afraid to ask for our address, because visiting a rabbi, especially a deportee, required utmost caution.

Observing this gathering of Jews praying under such circumstances, each with a bitterly broken heart, I don’t know what else could evoke similar anguish.