Childhood Interrupted by Mikhail Zlotin (Synopsis)
This book is dedicated to Genocide Survivors from the town of Mstislav, Belarus.
I am going to remember the night of July 11-12, 1941 till the end of my days. I was nine years old.
We, four children and our mother, were waiting for our dad, who left the house early in the morning searching for ways to get out of town.
There were at least 15 other people (including small children) waiting together with us. Even though occupants and their henchmen were actively promoting the idea of not leaving the town and staying put at home, every grown up had just one thought- how to get around the police posts and escape the city. In the end of June - beginning of July, agitators, usually in groups of three, were arriving on motorcycles to the front yards of our neighbors and very persuasively, without a slightest hurry, explaining new rules regarding the change of the local government. The residents were urged not to panic and to stay in their houses, temporary difficulties are going to resolve soon and life will get better. The propaganda meetings were carried out repeatedly. Little boys like me were eager to attend the meetings. It was fascinating to check out the motorcycles with sidecars and give it a touch. The propaganda meetings were held in Russian language. Agitators were not always wearing army uniforms.
....Around midnight a giant, one drawbar carriage (mazhara) drawn by two white horses appeared from the night darkness. The horses were covered with dark material to match the darkness of the night. Bags with clothes were thrown on the carriage, small children and elders also boarded and we started our trip to the unknown. I, like all other older children, did not get a seating spot in the carriage. There were seven families in the carriage and around it. It was forbidden to talk loudly and to smoke. This caution was not in vain. We were more scared of the neighbors than of the occupants. Further events justified these measures. In the darkness, I could hear the sobbing of my mother. It was difficult to describe her feelings. On the other side of the city, known as Fershtat, lived her parents. Grandmother and Grandfather had fourteen children. Aunts and uncles had their own houses there. I, a nine year old boy, last saw my relatives at my giant grandmother’s house in the beginning of July, before the police posts were set in the city. There, at my grandmother’s garden, we were playing a game imitating “red” and “white” troops.
It is painful to remember one more house belonging to relatives from my father’s side, Lev and Dvojra Schneider. The family consisted of eight people. When Victory Day came, only Boris Lvovich was among the living; wounded, shell shocked senior lieutenant- scout of the Battle of Stalingrad, and a German interpreter. He was one of the first to visit the Reichstag and the fuhrer’s office ( he told me about it in whisper). Many literate soviet people may remember Boris Schneider as a journalist, commentator, screenwriter, and “advocate” of scientific breakthroughs. A separate article may be devoted to him as a member of the pre war Soviet League, a member of the Commission that was investigating Nazi’s crimes. He was thrown out on the street in 1949 due to another government anti semitism campaign.
In the difficult autumn of 1945, he found me in Moscow and became my main life mentor.
...In small Mstislav, just like in the other cities of Mogilevshina, ghettos did not exist. It was impossible to get lost or hide anywhere. The city was divided into squares and it was forbidden to leave your territory. That’s why it was impossible to get any news about relatives’ fate. To drive to visit them at night, trying to go around the police posts, was very dangerous.
Finally, riding farther and farther away from our house, using some bypass roads along Korichev highway, we were able to leave the cordon behind us. The highway leading to Korichev was closed. There were police posts at the city borders.
At the time the city was not bombed, however we could smell the acrid smoke from the Fershtat side, and the glow of the fire was following us all night long.
Early in the morning we hid in a small gully, the edges of which were covered with trees and bushes. People and horses finally could rest. Grown-ups and me among them, situated themselves under the carriage. Here, on the first day of our escape, I witnessed the first tragedy of genocide. The plane with black crosses, bombed the gypsy camp visible in the distance. As soon as the noise of the plane carried away, the grown ups started running toward the scene. The children were forbidden to get close to the location of the tragedy. After the grown ups returned, I could hear from their conversation fragments that it was a horrible sight not for childhood imagination. The bodies of the dead people were lying mixed with the bodies of horses, cows and sheep. There was not one wagon left intact. Even though afterwards I witnessed a lot of bombings on the roads of Bryansk, Orlovsk and other territories, this horrible scene was the one that I saw in nightmares. Fate eventually brought me to Irkutsk, far in Siberia. During the summer months there was a constant buzzing of the bees, however I was haunted by “buzzing” of the planes, carrying the death cargos…
...Here, in the gully, we spend the first day outside of the house. Next night, our small “camp” started to make its way to the highway. To get rid of unpleasant noises made by the wheels and other squeaking made by the carriage, two grown ups went to the village and returned with a bucket of tar and the brush.
Towards the morning we joined a giant convoy of people on foot and some luckier horse riders, that were moving towards east, where Bryansk was located. We were given a place in the convoy, and were given a position number.
Without any information, the people on the move could not imagine, even in the worst nightmares, the fate that was awaiting everybody, especially the Jewish people, should they not be prepared to save themselves from death perils.
There were some sort of headquarters that were organized in this column of people. Its main responsibility was to keep the list of the names that were joining in and leaving. One of the important tasks was also contacting the representatives of the government of the lands that were being crossed over, filling out the forms to receive the foodstuffs and domestic inventory. It was necessary to install the roofs on all the horse carriages. The final stop was announced - the city of Tambov. Here we were regarded to as evacuated people. The great merit of the headquarters members was receiving tarp raincoats from some warehouse. These raincoats were indispensable. They served as cover up from the rain and bedding at the same time.
Delays forced by considering safety of crossing certain territories could last 4-6 days. At certain point, between Bryansk and Orlovsk, the troops prohibited moving further east. Everybody was forced to spend couple of days in the forest. The dearest members of our family, grandmother Fruma and grandfather,exhausted by travelling and bombings, died during this forest “vacation”. This honored couple, used to live in our house free of charge as a decision of authoritative Jewish activists. I think they also took part in helping to build our giant five wall house, that was completed by autumn, 1939. This wonderful tradition was kept alive in the small Jewish settlements since the time before recorded history.
The scenes from the air raids come up in my memory. We were endangered by these raids all the way to Tambov. During one of these raids, scared horses jerked to the side, resisting the reins. The explosion wave threw away and turned over the carriage. All the contents fell out all over the place. Sometimes the carriage took the splinters from the bomb, that were going through wood and metal objects. I remember during one of these occasions a cooking pot was flattened to the piece of metal.
It is rather difficult to describe everything that my memory saved, everything that my mother told me, things I found out after the war. Maybe if I was older in 1941, I could describe the horrible life on the road in more details. Maybe I could describe the inseverable bond with the people that became like relatives and family for me. These people helped me to see the beauty of the world around us even though our life on the road was very difficult. Highways were replaced by village roads, we were making shortcuts through forests, sparsely wooded areas, flat and hilly terrains.
We were passing bleak swamps. Spent hours looking around river banks covered by mist searching for a ford to pass through. I will always remember vast fields with maturing rye, wheat and oat ears. Nobody could predict who is going to take advantage of the amazingly rich harvest of the summer, 1941. Walking through the dusty roads, we could see big piles of hay, feel the aroma of fresh-cut grass mixed with wormwood bitterness. Very often this aroma was replaced with the smell of burning houses. It was following us throughout the whole journey.
However let's return to our bleeding territories- to my relatives. Local residents were telling that all Jewish people were herded to the ravine in the town proximity. They were shot from riffles. Many of them were falling because of the rifle wounds, some due to the fear. This campaign was carried out for several days. The ravine was guarded by policemen. The communal grave continued breathing for three days. According to some printed sources, there were three thousand people killed in Mstislav ravine.
Though fate did not prepare this ending for everyone. One of my relatives was not lucky enough to die together with everybody. She was my aunt Raya, my mother’s youngest sister. Raya was a nineteen year old beauty, the secretary of Mstislav committee. She was arrested and sent to the local prison. It is rather easy to imagine how she died there just in the beginning of her blossoming.
Nazis and their henchmen wiped out nineteen people just from my relatives and family.
© 2017 Nataly Dmitrieva