Human kindness helped me survive
Before the war our family lived in the centre of Leningrad, on Maximilianovsky Lane. My parents worked in the Baltic Factory. My two sisters and brother went to kindergarten in Fonarny lane, while I was living at my granny’s in the village Dubrovka not far from Valday.
When the war began, I was 5 years old. I remember, how our military cars were retreating along a public road, while German motorcyclists in green helmets were rushing to meet them and shooting at cars and house windows.
We soon moved out from frontline Dubrovka to Luzhno, and settled down in someone’s bathhouse. My granddad got ill with typhoid and died. There was hunger. When we found some frozen potatoes, our grandma made pancakes, and sometimes the Germans gave us a bottle of soup from a field kitchen. One day, while I was going out for soup, my grandma died. Then a local party official came and took my granddad’s half-length coat and whatever he wanted from our home.
The Germans took orphans and sent them to an orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod. In a few days they picked out Jews and Gypsies (they took a Gypsy girl who was sleeping near me on a plank-bed) and buried them alive in a huge pit outside. We stopped our ears with our by fingers in order not to hear their screams. The soil over the pit was moving for several days.
We lived in the orphanage for a year. Our supervisors were Russian women, and some of them even felt pity for us. But what could they do with so little food? Sometimes they gave us chunks of bread with sawdust. I swelled and couldn’t walk because of hunger. Once a big and angry servant woman took away my ration and said, “In the end you’ll be food for the worms!”
Then the Germans ordered people to sort the children out. I was still waiting for my mother and didn’t want to go away with strangers. But after all, as an orphan, I was given to an elderly and childless couple – Fyodor Bogdanov and Evdokia Bogdanova. They adopted me as their daughter and treated me kindly. But times were very hard and hungry. We ate only frozen potatoes and roots. Once a horse was killed by a shell on the street. So many people came at once that after a minute only a patch of blood was left.
However, although these were hard times, I don’t remember any instance when people in any house I visited didn’t share something to eat with me, at least half a biscuit or a spoon of a soup, but I was fed. But for that human kindness, we would not have survived.
In 1943 people living there began to be driven away to Germany, so my foster parents left their home with me. We were wandering through nearby villages. In addition, I got ill with whooping cough. We couldn’t hide much longer because the Germans were taking everyone away without exception. They caught us too, and we were sent to Ostrov with other people. Gypsies and Jews were picked out again and sent to a ghetto, but we were loaded into boxcars and went further to the West.
This was a frosty winter, all of us felt cold and hungry. My foster parents were giving me almost all their food, warming and rubbing me. My legs were always warm: dad Fyodor, a shoemaker, made wonderful headscarves for me while we were still at home.
On the journey some people tried to escape by breaking floor planks and jumping out of the wagon to get away. The Germans shot at them, and I don’t know if anybody escaped.
We were not fed until a stop in Poland, where we were all taken to a distribution centre. Those who were ill and weak were sent to a crematorium. The rest were taken to a bath, our clothes were boiled (there were so many lice on us!) and we were loaded in a wagon again.
We were taken to Western Germany and put into a concentration camp behind barbed wire on the edge of a town. We lived in huge wooden barracks, painted green. There were men in one barrack and women with children in another. We slept on plank-beds, which were in three rows. Adults worked in a factory; children cleaned the place and helped in the kitchen. People came back from work so tired, they couldn’t even speak. But when an adult saw a child, it was rarely that he didn’t stroke the child’s head. He didn’t say a word, but all the same the child felt warm and joyful at heart.
We were fed twice a day with steamed hokey but without bread. Women in the kitchen tried to give children extra pieces of rutabaga or turnips. But when they finished work, the Germans checked all the kitchen workers’ pockets and beat them if they found something eatable. To tell the truth, there was one old lame German among the overseers, who didn’t stop them. If he saw a bulging pocket, he said, “Go, go!”
But in the barracks one Russian woman sneaked to the Germans, telling them who was talking and about what, and what anyone had brought. Once I went to the toilet and found her lying upside down in the hole with slops. I ran back to the barracks screaming, but women shut my mouth with their hands and told me to keep quiet. The Germans never found out who killed the tell-tale.
Sometimes we were sent to work on a farm. We went through a forest, beside a concentration camp with Soviet prisoners of war who were utterly exhausted and lay on the ground under the open sky. As we came back from work, we threw food for them over the fence.
We were freed by the Americans in May 1945. They transferred us to their camp where there was a bath, a dining room and a laundry. They fed us well and tried to persuade us to go to America. My foster parents didn’t agree, and we went back to our Motherland in the autumn.
In Ostrov we were allocated to local villages. I with my dad Fyodor and mum Dusya got to Gryzavino village under Biryusovsky village council. My age was estimated as eight, and I started going to school. My life was gradually improving. Mum and dad tried to feed me heartily and dress me warmly, and I forgot about my real parents.
Meanwhile my blood mother was looking all over the world for her dark-haired Galya. And one fine day, when I was sitting at the table, doing my homework and suspecting nothing, neighbours’ kids came in and shouted, “Galya, you mum has arrived!”
I was very surprised and said, “What mum?”
It seemed that I ought to be happy, but it turned out to be a tragedy for everyone. My dad couldn’t stand it and went away. I was sitting between my two mums and crying bitterly, and did not even touch my presents from the city.
My first mother persuaded my second one to let her take me away, because she was living all alone. Both my sisters and brother had been killed the same day when a bomb hit their kindergarten. My father had gone missing at the front.
So in December 1945 I came back to Leningrad again. All the time I cried for my foster mother and didn’t really accept my true one. From my pre-war life I remembered only my uncle Ivan, my mother’s brother, who lost his three fingers in an accident.
“If my uncle Vanya comes, I will believe that you are my real mother.”
My uncle Vanya lived in another city, but, nevertheless he came and I had to believe him and get used to my forgotten mother once more.
But after two years my Mum got seriously ill; it was a result of the siege. I used to visit her at the hospital in Pirogovsky Lane for half a year, and she always treated me with either a biscuit or a piece of sugar. Then she died, and at the age of eleven I was alone again. No matter how many letters I sent to Gryzavino, I never got an answer from my dad Fyodor and mum Dusya. Maybe they had moved somewhere else. I didn’t agree to go back to an orphanage at any price, because I remembered my terrible life in the orphanage in Novgorod.
I was given a cash benefit for my mother’s death, and I lived on it. My neighbours helped me. When I came back from school, and they would call out from one window and then from another, “Galya, come in for some food!” And they gave me either a bagel or a sausage.
At sixteen I finished the 6th grade and began to work. My teacher advised me, “Don’t tell anyone that you were a prisoner! Don’t even mutter about a concentration camp!”
So I was silent. I was writing in all the questionnaires: “Have never been captured or occupied”. Only in 1988, when benefits for young prisoners of fascist concentration camps were announced, I dared to apply to the KGB for confirmation. They called at the factory where I had been working as a milling machine operator all my working life, and there was an argument in the personnel department: how could I, a former prisoner, work in a classified enterprise! Although I was only four to eight years old when I was a prisoner of the Germans, I was compelled to leave.
I felt very offended because the war and the concentration camp are like an unhealed wound, and I am reproached for this. I could not have survived without my foster parents Fyodor and Dusya. They have probably ended their days now, but I will remember them as long as I live.
Translation into English by Yatsenko Elena and edited by Robin Minney