This essay is written as a homework assignment at the Memoir Writing Workshop for Senior Citizens (Tenafly, New Jersey). I am the author of a FREE on-line book, entitled:
“Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality,” at
It is an autobiography illustrating my evolution from one extreme to another–from a devoted Stalinist to an active anti-communist. This testimony is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA). The assignment consists of describing a single fragment of my life in a short self-standing essay. I decided to focus on the the first year of the World War II.
Remembering the First Year of the War
In 1941, my mother and I were living in Dedenievo, a small settlement (30 miles north of Moscow) on the bank of the famous Moscow-Volga canal. The major railroad connecting Moscow with Leningrad, and a highway, passed through that settlement. The place was surrounded by numerous collective farm villages; I still remember their names, such as Medviedki, Tselkovo, Shukolovo, etc. The settlement had a school, a sanatorium (where my mother worked as a nurse), a hospital, two stores, a nursing home, a library, and a post office. It also had a large, partially ruined church. The tower of that church, dominating the area, could be seen from miles away. The northern wall of the church was destroyed and a person passing by could see a huge icon of Christ, painted on the inner wall. I was always fascinated by the fact that his eyes followed me as I was passing by.
I was ten years old when the war started, on June 22. That morning, in a store, I heard that our country was invaded by Germans. I immediately ran to the sanatorium, about half a mile away, to tell people what I heard. They turned the speakers on while Molotov was still speaking. An official order was distributed next day. Every tunable radio receiver–and we had one–had to be brought to the post office. The local authorities said that parts were needed by the army. Was this the main reason? Probably not; they wanted to protect us from German propaganda. From that day on we had to rely on speakers connected to the central station by wires.
Eleven days later I heard Stalin’s first WWII speech. “Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Men of our army and navy! I am addressing you, my friends! . . .” After telling us that Hitler’s finest divisions had already “met their doom on the field of the battle,” he reported that the enemy continued to push forward. I was very surprised to discover that our dear leader had a very strong Georgian accent. Posters “all for the front, all for victory,” and “motherhood calls you” were to be seen everywhere. But each day we heard depressing radio announcements, such as “today, as planned, our units units left Minsk,” or Kiev, etc. People had no idea what was really happening. The Soviet Union was totally unprepared for the war and losses were enormous, as we now know. The school was still functioning but about one half of our time was devoted to military matters. We learned how to deal with small incendiary bombs, how to use rifles (without live ammunition), and how to throw disarmed grenades.
One day a trainload of miserable looking and poorly dressed people was brought to Dedenievo. They were said to be a labor-front division. All of them were Uzbeks, non-Russian speaking. Each morning, escorted by armed soldiers, they were led to dig trenches and build fortifications. At night they slept on the floors of a tall building, next to the one in which we had a little room. Only much later did I realize that this division was a mobile gulag camp unit.
Herds of cows, sheep and horses, taken from surrounding collective farms, were led along the highway in the direction of Moscow. The policy was not to leave anything for Germans. During that time my mother and a neighbor bought a pig from a peasant in a near-by village. It was killed with a long knife and then divided into two parts, one for us and another for the neighbor. I will never forget the fear I experienced watching the killing and hearing the powerful squeals of the dying animal.
Several weeks later I experienced similar fear under very different circumstances. A Red Army soldier approached me and asked about the best way to get to the other side of the canal. He was probably wounded; his bandaged arm was in a rope sling. I knew the canal was already frozen and that it could be crossed nearly anywhere. But I also knew that it was forbidden to give any information to strangers–anyone could be a German spy, we were told. So instead of answering, I said, “I know who to ask; come with me.” And we walked toward a building guarded by two armed soldiers. I said that this man asked me a question that you might be able to answer. Then I left them and started going toward our home. A minute later I heard the familiar sound of a gun click. I turned my head back and saw that the guard’s rifle was aimed at the wounded soldier.
Thinking that he was going to be killed I ran home, jumped on the bed, and covered my head with a large pillow. The fear experienced during the killing of the pig was the same as the fear I felt during this episode. The man was not killed, the guard told me later. They took him away because he was a deserter. Several days later, looking for wood in an abandoned shed, I discovered bodies of two Soviet soldiers. Were they also deserters? Perhaps they were hiding in this place and froze to death while sleeping. This kind of death, I was told later, is painless.
Two weeks later, Germans were only several miles away from our settlement. One evening, probably at the end of October, the railroad bridge over the canal was blown up by Soviet sappers. Then the Red Army retreated from Dedenievo and we were between two armies, for about a week. The settlement was heavily bombed by German airplanes. The building next to the school was destroyed by a large bomb, leaving a crater about 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep. That bomb was probably designed for the church tower, suspected to be an observation point.
Most of the nursing home residents died from cold after windows were shattered by numerous explosions. My mother carried some patients to the nearby hospital, on her back. Then she worked in that hospital, just across the street from the shelter where I was hiding, the basement of the church. About 100 people sat there, on tons of carrots and potatoes; the place had been used to store vegetables delivered to the government from surrounding collective farms. It is here that I heard, for the first time, about special German military units killing Jews and communists. I dreamed of joining partisans.
At a quiet time between bombings my mother came to the church basement and said I would be better off in the hospital with her. As we prepared to leave, bombs started falling again. One hit the wooden hospital building, burying about one hundred people. We heard calls for help but nothing could be done. Then the fire started; those who survived the bomb were burned alive. The first Soviet WWII victory, pushing Germans away from Moscow, took place where we lived. A week later I walked to Jachroma, the nearest settlement from which Germans were pushed away. Here I saw two abandoned German tanks. I climbed on one of them, opened the hatch, and went inside–not a wise thing to do. Only later did I learn there might have been a mine in that tank.
The constant roar of cannons became weaker and weaker. That was the beginning of a very difficult two or three years for us, due to the limited food supply. Like most people, we started growing our own potatoes, anywhere we could. We lived in a barrack, each family in a single room. Half of our space was used to store those potatoes, which we rationed to last until the next summer. In springtime we depended on small eggs from birds’ nests, and on fresh nettle. A little later in the season we ate crows, schav, and berries. Fortunately, I was able to help by bringing home mushrooms and fish. We were hungry most of the time. Winters were very cold. My ability to gather wood, sometimes stealing rejects from a local sawmill, was essential.
Meat from the pig we bought in the fall was an important part of our diet. By spring, only a large bone remained, hanging on the wall of our room. My mother decided to preserve it for as long as possible. It was eventually used to make a very tasty soup. I was so excited to see fat circles floating on the surface of this aromatic liquid. A year later I was even more excited by the aroma escaping from an open can of American SPAM. The label on that can was “swinaja tushonka.” The taste of my first American meat was the most memorable sensation in my entire life.