Rivka Bem (Part II)

My mother, my brother and the others were given work to do. It was hard and strenuous, but it was still considered decent. [This lasted] until the Germans began moving closer. The boss of the village warned us that if we were caught by the Germans we would all be killed. He gave us two horses and a wagon; we all piled on and we were driven to a distant area.

Here we saw all the men and boys who were being taken to the battlefront. My brother had a sudden desire to go with them and he told my mother that he wanted to join them in the army in order to be able to take revenge. My mother adamantly refused his request. She would not give him permission. However, my brother, who was 14 years old at the time, would not listen. He left us to go to the front.

We were taken with others onto wagons and we traveled to another village. There we sat on the sand [not far from] the beach. We were tired and hungry with nothing to eat, nothing to drink. From there we were taken by boat to another distant area. Here again the conditions were terrible: no food, no clothing, nowhere to sleep; it was miserable. They didn’t understand our language and we didn’t understand theirs.

How much longer did you remain in this town?

At this point we were so hungry and tired we needed to figure out a plan to keep ourselves alive. Back when we first arrived in Kiev at the start of the war, my mother returned to Berdichev to retrieve my brother and bring him to Kiev. Upon her return, she brought back with her a lot of jewelry which she hid in her clothing. It now came in handy.

I suggested to my mother that we go to the next town and try to find my brother. My mother was not in favor of this idea but she agreed to accompany me. There was no means of transportation so we would have to walk there. We began walking each morning at 4 a.m. We walked until midday. When the sun was very hot, we sat down and rested until sundown, when the air was cooler and we were able to continue walking. At night we joined the other people who were sitting and drinking tea in the chechana — an all-night tearoom.

Upon arriving in town I suggested to my mother that we try to locate a shul; I figured that there we would find Jewish faces. With a little direction we arrived at a shul. Immediately, people came over to help us. I was taken and given a warm bath and fresh clothing. It was a new life for me. My mother was able to sell the jewelry she had brought along. It was definitely worth more than we received, but for us, whatever we got was a fortune.

Life felt good because we had food to eat. Unfortunately, we could not remain in this town, so we began our walk back to the village we had left — a three days’ journey.

We arrived in the town of Stalingrad, where the Russians and Germans were shooting at each other. We had nowhere to hide, nowhere to live, nothing to eat. It was just my mother and I, all alone.

We went out to the highway and my mother tried to stop a passing wagon, but no one would pick us up. Finally we went out and blocked the next wagon from driving. Without a choice, a wagon full of soldiers stopped to give us a lift. They brought us to the train station in Tikhoretsk. The station itself was all bombed out. It was frightening; the Germans were running in all directions. There were cattle wagons passing loaded with people and we were thrown onto these wagons too. We traveled awhile under horrible conditions. There were no bathrooms; the little children were all crying, there was nothing to eat, not even water to drink. Eventually we arrived in a town called Debent. We left the train and remained there for a few days. Then we continued on to the town of Baku.

to be continued


These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.