Our last bite of bread

The severe weather, the food shortages and poor living conditions mentioned above contributed to the continued spread of the typhus epidemic; the results for those stricken with the illness were more often negative than positive.

We became close with a certain Jewish deportee who would visit us. Although his wife and daughter joined him, it didn’t improve his situation, and he remained unemployed.

On one of his visits, I noticed that his face was swollen and jaundiced from starvation (may we never see this). When he noticed a few morsels of bread on our table, he stared at them with eyes so moist that although this bread was all that we had—we had no more for the next day—nevertheless I told him to help himself and eat them.

I didn’t do that out of the goodness of my heart. Seeing his face meant you just couldn’t think of acting any differently, and felt compelled to give away your last bite of bread.

A while later, he found employment as a watchman for the production of dried pumpkin; an important industry in that region. The work required him to stand in the fields in the cold air and fierce winds. Without taking into consideration his weak health, he went off to work, because it would enable him to receive a generous food ration that would satisfy his hunger.

He was due to return home early in the evening. But he never arrived. The next morning, his wife came to us looking for him. Without going into greater detail, he was found frozen to death on the way home from the field where he worked. His weak constitution had been unable to bear the severe cold.

Giving a Jewish burial

We were faced once again with the problem of how to provide a Jewish burial. My husband was indescribably anguished by this. Together with a Jew from Kharkov who had become very devoted to him, he went to the home of the departed Jew, which was quite far from our own home. They arranged to have the corpse carried from the fields to the home where he had lived. Despite the general shortage of water, they performed a taharah1 of the body.

The body was then brought to the non-Jewish cemetery, which already included an entire row of departed Jews (may G‑d protect us). The row had already been fenced off somewhat to separate the Jewish graves from the others.

Our friend from Kharkov dug the grave by himself, although he had been wealthy and was unaccustomed to such work. But, as he later told me, when he saw how deeply this affected my husband, it aroused a desire within him to accomplish this task. It was difficult for him to allow my husband to help him with this grueling work, but because of the extreme cold they had to hurry in order not to be exposed for too long to the freezing temperatures. They accomplished everything in accordance with Torah law, and concluded by reciting the Kaddish prayer.

When my husband arrived home, he wept. He was so frozen that it took him some time, and through various means, to warm up and recover.

Self-sacrifice and heroism

Three weeks later the same thing happened to the Romanian ex-landowner2 who was among our frequent visitors. There were many similarly tragic cases, but I would prefer not to describe such dark episodes.

My husband invested great effort in getting the Romanian Jew’s body released from the hospital and getting a doctor to diagnose his cause of death as a heart attack. This was necessary because victims of typhus, regardless of their religion, were buried in mass graves near the hospital.

With what self-sacrifice and courage my husband did all this! I would describe his efforts as “a tenacity born of holiness.” I couldn’t comprehend it. His running from place to place and arranging everything, despite the unimaginable difficulties; his utter disregard for the fact that everything he did was clearly perilous for him—something he was well aware of and frightened about. Nevertheless, in those moments he gave no consideration for himself.

Perhaps that is why my husband had the merit, as one might call it—despite his exile and great suffering—to live the final months of his life in a state of great honor.

If not for the great efforts of two brothers,3 ordinary young men—I don’t know in whom else one could find such a high level of self-sacrifice—my husband would have met the same fate as the above-mentioned departed Jews.

A telegram from our older son

Time passed, each day succeeded by the next with little change. The4 end of my husband’s five-year sentence of exile approached. Although the war wasn’t yet over, the government was already making the decision not to permit those who had been sentenced to exile to live in large cities after their release.

From our own city [Dnepropetrovsk], we had no one with whom we could even correspond. Thank G‑d, none of our close friends had remained there,5 although until today6 I am unaware of their subsequent fate. My husband’s sole surviving brother7 was interned in a labor camp.

We just didn’t have enough strength to remain where we were. So, “from where would come my help?”8

If only we could move to a different location. We were sick and tired of our place of exile, and could hardly bear to continue looking at the primitive homes and the alien faces.

The evacuees began to consider returning to the cities from which Hitler’s forces had retreated, with the result that our region became more tranquil.

For us, on the other hand, every step we would take would be carefully investigated.

In one respect, however, our situation became easier. We received a telegram from Tashkent [Uzbekistan] (where the official Jewish community of Moscow had evacuated and settled temporarily and was available to answer all questions addressed to it9). It stated that a telegram had been received from our older son10 inquiring about the whereabouts of his parents and his father’s brother.

(His uncle had, in fact, already passed away, but only I was aware of this; I had concealed this news from my husband.)

We immediately directed them to telegram our address to our son. A few weeks later, we received a telegram. Seeing the signature “Mendel, Moussia” restored a lot of sparkle to our eyes.

Nobody can read the telegram

We could read only the signatures, however, and didn’t understand the English to know what was written in the telegram. Although some people living locally had taken courses in foreign languages, none had studied English.

It took a week and trekking four kilometers before I located a schoolteacher who, with great effort, barely managed to read through the cable. We finally felt a close family voice speaking to us, which we had sorely missed.

Some time later, we received from them two food parcels. In this respect, our situation became easier. But our main problem remained, which depressed us greatly. The question of what we should do was as intense as ever.