Проект «Голоса еврейских местечек. Могилевская область».
פיתוח קשרי התרבות בין העמים של ישראל ובלרוס
Поиск по сайту
LIFE JOURNEY OF VASYA IVANOV
We, the members of the Borisov Jewish community, have known this young-looking and cheerful man for a long time. No single event of our organization “Light of Menorah” can go without him. He’s a regular vocal group participant. Sociable and benevolent, he is a talented singer and dancer. Everyone calls him Vasya. I’ve never speculated why we call him just that way, but thought to myself that during the war he was taken to the children’s home, as he had lost his parents in early childhood, and there he was given that name. But I was not right.
We got interested in his story. So, he is sitting in front of me, energetic, strong, with sparkling brown eyes, talking in a slow and calm manner. The first surprising for me fact about him is that he is not as young as I’ve expected. He is 83! It appears that at the outbreak of war he turned eleven, was almost in his teens! What is more important is that this boy lived alone on the occupied territory for three years. He was between life and death many times. How did he manage to survive? Is it just luck or his courage, intelligence and calm, a bit phlegmatic nature? Or might his untypical Jewish appearance have saved him?
Let him tell the story.
“I was born in 1930, in Mosty shtetl of the Grodno region. My real name is Izrail Ruvimovich Rubinstein. I had a younger brother, Leva. My father was a shoemaker. We lived in Poland. The reunion of Western and Eastern Belarus and annexation to the USSR in 1939 changed our life. My father became a wireman, a member of the civilian staff of a military unit. On 22 June 1941, the command of his unit provided a vehicle for our urgent evacuation.
Together with two other families we went eastward. When we approached the city of Volozhin, the Germans started aerial bombing and machine gun shooting. My mother, brother and I rushed to the woods, while my father remained near the truck. At this moment I lost my mother and brother. I kept going through the woods and searching for them, and, when I finally came to a road, there was nobody there. So I was left all alone. I don’t remember how long I wandered about in the woods, ate berries, catnapped, but then came to a road again. I understood one thing that I had to head east. I memorized where the sun had set the day before, and went in the right direction. Other refugees confirmed it.
Suddenly, several trucks stopped on our way. Some people in civilian clothes jumped out and began forcing the crowd into the trucks. Not all refugees were getting into the trucks, many of them were hesitating. One woman was struggling against and crying that her child had got lost. Part of the trucks with people drove away. Soon I heard shooting and shouting from the direction they had gone. I was terrified. Someone from the crowd said that those had been German raiders. Then I hid behind a bush, kept my head down and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was quiet. I came out to the road and saw only people heading in one direction… I joined them, but later managed to get on a cart. Soon I was taken by a military truck and came to Minsk. It happened just before the Germans invaded the city, on 28 June, I think.
I was walking along a street, somewhere not far from a brewery, completely exhausted, when I heard Jews speaking in one of the yards. I went there and asked for shelter. I told about myself and where I was from. Those people helped me and I stayed at their place for about two weeks. Then the Germans forced into the house. They had some metal plates on their chests and must have been from gendarmerie. They started shouting at the hosts, demanded something, ordered to sew on yellow patches on the clothes. The Germans left, and the hosts, having exchanged a few words, told me:
“Son, you are dark-haired, but still you don’t look like a Jew. And, you can flee to safety… You’d better go! Always go east. You may manage to cross the front line, then you’ll survive. If you stay with us, most likely you’ll be killed…”
And I left the city. I walked through the woods but along the highway. Two days later I suddenly met two young men in the woods. They were in civilian clothes, but had short-cut hair. These were Red Army men, who wandered away from their unit. I told them that I had wandered away from my relatives and got there with other refugees from Western Belarus. One of the men told me:
“Look here, lad! Tell no one that you are a Jew, if you want to live! Forget you name. Tell everyone the same story, that you don’t know your parents, you are from the children’s home, and your name is Vasya Ivanov! Well, tell me, who are you?”
And the other added:
“You’d better not say a word at all. You can’t speak Russian. You speak Russian like a Jew.”
Roaming about the woods, the three of us came to a village. It seemed quiet, and we decided to go there for some food. The young men reminded me to keep my mouth shut, they would speak. We entered the village, rounded a hut, came to an open place and stood paralyzed by the unexpectedness. There was a car, three Germans with submachine-guns and a cow in front of them. On seeing us, they waved to come to them. One of them ordered in German the young men to help load the cow after it was shot. Everything seemed simple but the young men felt abashed and couldn’t understand who the Germans were going to kill and what would happen to them.
Then the German got into fury and started shouting that those Russians were swine and cavemen. They didn’t understand simple words in German, when everyone in Europe understood them perfectly! He pointed a gun at us and shouted that he would kill us and find others. At that moment I understood that I could keep silence no longer.
“Wait!” I shouted in German. “Don’t shoot, I’ll explain to them what to do, and they will do everything you ask!” When the cow was killed and loaded, the young men asked in dumb show for the permission to go, but the Germans ordered us to get into the car and go with them to Minsk.
We were driven to the German housekeeping unit. I was immediately taken to the headman who started asking questions about me and my knowledge of German. I told him that I didn’t remember my parents, had been brought up in a children’s home and had studied German at school. There also was a German officer in spectacles standing by the side of the headman and, looking at me, whispering something to him. Then the headman asked another question:
“Why do you speak German in the manner that only Jews speak?”
“Because our teacher of German was an old Jew. As she taught me, so I speak.”
“Good. Now read and translate this.”
He put a paper with something printed on it in front of me, and I read and translated from German into Russian easily. Then he said that I would help soldiers who had brought me. I was taken to their room and shown a place on the floor. I didn’t see those young men any more. As for the Germans, I went to stock up on provisions a couple of times with them. Then I was taken to the headman again. As I understood, that German officer in spectacles insisted on my Jewish origin. I was made to undress and they made sure that he had been right… Later, when I remembered what had happened, I realized that that four-eyes had figured me out not for my incorrect German, but for my bad Russian.
In the evening I was lying on the mat and waiting. It was strange but at that moment I somehow didn’t want to think about death and was sure that I wouldn’t die.
Suddenly, the solders I had gone to stock up on provisions broke into the room. Two of them were hideously drunk. They pointed a gun at me, shouted and wanted to shoot me immediately, but the third German, the truck driver, stopped them.
“You are drunk, go sleep yourselves sober,” he shouted. “Don’t mess up the room, there’s no escaping for him anyway, we’ll kill him when leaving.”
They dropped off to sleep, so did I.
Here I should say that God exists or I have a guiding angel, because at dawn I didn’t wake up myself, but was woken up by the voice of the German truck driver, whom I didn’t see. The voice said rapidly:
“Get up quickly and run in your underpants past the sentry, as if you were caught short! Get away from here quickly, you hear me?”
I did what he had told me. So I left the city again, and again I wandered through the woods, but along the highway, with the only thought: “Go East”. It kept going the whole summer. I spent most of the time in the woods and came out only to ask people for food. Everywhere I told the same story: “Children’s home, Vasya Ivanov.” People behaved differently to me. Helping me, some of them were indifferent to my future, while, others, and they were the most, showed goodwill and gave advice. No person I addressed believed I was Vasya Ivanov, but nobody betrayed me. Many people strongly advised me to master Russian, suggesting different exercises and tongue twisters. I understood that I needed it badly, as I had spoken only Yiddish since my childhood and could understand Polish. As for Russian, I was unable to pronounce that famous word “kukuruza” (corn) that the policemen used to reveal Jews.
Well, I kept going, as I thought, east. I passed villages and settlements – Smolevichi, Borisov, Krupki…
Much happened to me on my way, but I remember mainly people’s kindness. In one village an elderly couple wished that I had stayed with them. Evidently, they liked me. I stayed at their place for some short time, they treated me very well, and those people were well-to-do. But I happened to have eavesdropped their chat that they still were afraid and unwilling to deal with me … Hearing that, I took my knapsack, put some food in it and left when they were still sleeping. Autumn came early. It was cold and difficult to stay in the woods. I decided to look for some lodgment for winter.
Life took me to Klimovichi village of Chernoruchie selsovet of Shklov region. I was given shelter by Seledtsov family. They were amazing, wonderful people (today they are Righteous among the Nations). The family consisted of an elderly woman, Anna Afanasievna, her son, Yemelian, and her daughter, Natalia. When I asked them for shelter, I told about myself only what I had told to other people. During the long winter I was hiding behind the Russian chimney stove on a sleeping bench. One Anna Afanasievna told me:
“You see, Vasya. We know that you are telling lies about yourself and understand why you are doing so. You should tell us the truth. Then we can think how it’s better to help you.”
And I decided to tell her everything. On hearing my story, Anna Afanasievna talked to the village elder. He thought everything over and told me that I was a grown-up already and shouldn’t hide, but do something to earn a living, for example, to work as a herdboy. He suggested that I should stay not only at the Seledtsovs, but at the other villagers’ by turns. Thus, everyone in the village knew truth about me. I started to graze cattle with the beginning of spring and stayed at different people’s houses. I remained in the village till the very liberation in 1944.
That time was very hard – bitter cold, hunger, lice, typhus. There were a lot of risky and dangerous moments for me and because of me… I remember once I stayed at a house of a woman who had two daughters of my age. In winter a group of German soldiers horned into the house. The woman was quick to hide the three of us on top of the Russian chimney stove. The girls lay on the edge of the sleeping ledge, looking out from the short curtains from time to time, while my place on the sleeping ledge was against the wall. The stove had just been heated and it was hot for me to lie, so I was constantly tossing and turning, while the girls kept whispering to me to be quite.
The hostess felt very nervous, while the Germans sat down to table, talked loudly and laughed. Fortunately, they were just solders and soon left. Then I remember how my fellow villager and I went to Shklov. We were coming out of the house when the Vlasovites were passing by. One of them saw me and shouted: “Look, what’s this Iddy-boy doing here?!” “You are another!” I replied. The old woman who had been following him, ran from behind shouting: “You filthy scum! Leave my grandson alone!” Other women supported her and the bloke decided he had better left. By the way, there was also a Jewish girl, Klara, hiding in our village, but no one ever saw her. Now she lives in Israel.
In 1944, after the liberation I was employed by the military organization Smolensk commissary as a herdboy. At the start of winter I was taken to the army headquarters in Lyublin. I became a watchmaker’s apprentice.
In 1945, I went through Poland and Germany to the Elba river. Then I drove cattle from Germany to the Smolensk region. In December 1945, I was discharged from the commissary and went to Moscow together with the watchmaker. I was offered a place at Suvorov college, but I refused and kept working. In Moscow I was issued all documents for the name of Vasily Ivanovich Ivanov. In the same year I went to my native Mosty shtetl. I found out that my mother and brother had been seen in the ghetto. As for my father, there was no information.
In 1947, I left Moscow for Mosty and changed my last name for my real name. The Mosty city council sent me to factory apprenticeship school in Ros settlement. After graduation I worked at the brick plant in Grodno, then for Promburvod organization. Then followed three years of the army service. After demobilization I came to work for Promburvod again. Due to my work I travelled all around Belarus.
In 1956, I got married, took my wife’s last name, Lobanok, and since then I have been living in Borisov.
Well, that seems to be all. I saved my tree - life, and this tree gave sprouts. I have two children, grandchildren and great grandchildren!
“Vasya, what helped you to survive?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled: “I think, kind people who live in our Belarus.”
Jewish settlements in Minsk region