Part 6 (Continued from last week)
Train to Kazakhstan
Meantime, we had written to my mother’s brothers in Moscow and finally got a reply from one of them, the doctor. He was being evacuated to Kazakhstan and suggested that we should write to him Post Restante (General Delivery) in Alma-Ata (now called Almaty). Our hopes of getting to Moscow were now shattered. From reading announcements we found out that the Germans were moving towards Moscow, which the Russians had vowed never to give up. The front was also moving rapidly towards the South with Voronezh being the next German target. Borisoglebsk was not safe anymore. When a general evacuation was announced, we decided to move again. Presenting our uncle’s card to the authorities, we received permission to go to Kazakhstan.
Once again we were waiting at the railroad station for the train. The crowds were immense, everybody pushing to try to get to the front of the platforms. Most were women and children, with the men in the army and the old people remaining at home.
When the train arrived, we seemed to be thrown into a freight car with everyone else and thus the long journey to Kazakhstan began. Four weeks of it. We were moving at a very slow pace, stopping at every little station on the way. At the stops we got up from the freight car floor and tried to stretch our limbs and relieve ourselves in the nearby fields. At the train’s signal, everybody would rush back to the cars.
Our meals consisted of hard bread dunked in boiling water—“kerpuatok”—which we were able to get at the railroad stations after a long wait in a queue. This was not enough nourishment for Mother, who was becoming very weak. Her face was ashen and her hands were shaking.
At Kuybyshev, after finding out that the train was to be a long time in the station, Father and Herzl decided to go to town to get some more food. And then it happened. Sooner than expected the signal for departure was given. The train moved. Father and Herzl did not return. We looked out, and they were not in sight. I knew, without them, we would never make it. Mother will die on the way. And we would be left to perish. “Children, they will be back,” Mother spoke up. “God will not forget us!”
Sure enough, a few minutes after the train stopped at the next station, Father and Herzl appeared. They had just missed the train and had followed the track at a brisk walk to catch up with us. We cried and laughed at the same time. They brought some cheese, smoked fish and bread with them. We had a feast.
It was twilight when we crossed the Ural Mountains. I remembered the teacher in elementary school explaining that the Urals divide Europe from Asia. The mountains took on a different meaning for me now. They cut us off from Europe forever. Asia seemed to be a frightening place despite the promise of safety. It spelled Siberia and the suffering of so many people sent there to prison, hard work and exile.
The train now moved faster. There were fewer stations, just vast uninhabited land and telegraph poles. The air was cold and crisp. Then the train turned south. Here the view changed, the fields were green, we could see some villages in the distance and the train made quite frequent stops. Women in long dresses were selling dried fruits and sometimes round soft bread. The women looked Oriental, their language was strange.
Kazakhstan—Alma-Ata and Malabay
Finally, we arrived. “Alma-Ata,” announced the train’s engineer, going from wagon to wagon. We hurried to the station building and made inquiries about the post office. I went there with Father hoping that a letter from our Moscow uncle with his latest address awaited us there. We asked him to write us Port Restante. Unfortunately, there was no mail for us and after pleading with him, a postal clerk disclosed that our letters to him were unclaimed.
Terribly disappointed, we returned to the train station, where we heard that it had been announced that all the passengers who had been on our train were now scheduled to leave the next morning on a boat to the countryside. Nobody was to be allowed to stay in Alma-Ata. That night we slept on the dirty floor of the station. Our hopes that our journey was ended were shattered again.
Early in the morning we were taken to the boat. It was a big freight boat, old and rusty. We were shown a place on the deck, next to a family from Ukraine: an old woman, her daughter with four young children. The children were crying, their mother trying to comfort them in Ukrainian.
After a few hours, the boat moved. The sun was beating down on us and a dry, hot wind was blowing. I felt hot and thirsty and the rocking of the boat was making me feel nauseated. Night fell. It was getting very cold now, but the boat ride became smoother and it felt more peaceful.
After three days of journeying on the freighter that brought us down the river from the city of Alma-Ata, we arrived in Malabay. It was a village close to the Chinese border in the south of Kazakhstan and our designated place to live. Unbelievable, I kept thinking, reliving our long journey, which started on June 24, 1941. Was I only 19 that summer when we left home? Was I the same girl who in June of 1939 stood in the auditorium of Neswizh Gymnasium in Poland and listened to the speech of the director of the gymnasium saying: “Look. Feel deep. Keep high your young soul and go after your aim.”
The blue sky, snow-capped mountains and glistening sun were a beautiful welcome to our new city. Despite the beauty, I felt utterly forsaken, thousands of miles away from home and anything familiar.
Off the boat, I followed my family into the office with refugees. A woman in a floral cotton shift and soft slippers motioned for us to follow her. She had dark hair hanging down her back in one thick braid. Her eyes were almond-shaped and slanted. She smiled shyly at us and we followed her. She led us to her square, clay hut with two windows and a door. A small stream ran in front of the building. A donkey was drinking from the stream.
“Shimshi-han” called the woman loudly, and I heard her voice echo in the distance.
A young girl about 10 years old came running from the street. She was a replica of her mother, the same slanted eyes and the same dark hair tied and hanging down her back. She wore a long, flowered dress made from the same material as her mother’s. She entered the room barefoot, looked up at us and smiled. There was so much goodness and gentleness in the child’s smile that I felt truly welcome in their house.
(To be continued next week)
By Norbert Strauss,
Dr. Ida (Melcer) Zeitchik, Dorothy Strauss
Norbert and Dorothy Strauss are Teaneck residents. Norbert was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Dorothy worked as a senior systems analyst at CNA Insurance Company. Dr. Ida (Melcer) Zeitchik was Dorothy’s mother.