Let me tell you a story about when I was sixteen. This is the story of how I met Yakov Davidovich after the war in the Siberian Taiga.
The Russian Far East lies between Siberia and the Pacific Ocean, east of the Ural Mountains. In 1944, I travelled halfway across the country by rail to reach my brother who lived there. The war was approaching its final days in the Soviet Union. The Red Army had not yet reached Berlin, but already we were holding our breaths, ready for our collective sigh of victory. For the first time in three years the Ukraine was rid of German occupation. I was alive and free, but I was also alone and without the necessary documents to leave Balta. My only remaining relation, my older brother Misha, lived straight across the country. The Far East, with its long Chinese border, was not somewhere you could travel easily.
I applied for my passport while living in the ghetto in Balta. I had no official papers to show them, only an unofficial copy of my birth certificate showing my birth as December fifth, 1926. Before I could receive a passport, my whereabouts during the war had to be accounted for. It was a complicated process. Everybody was trying to leave, to move around all at once, what a mess! I sought out witnesses to testify on my behalf, to verify my location from 1941 onward. These were people who had been uprooted with me and shuffled together, who were asking the same testimony of me. I had spent these last years of the war in two ghettos. The first was in Ribnista, Moldova, with my parents.
The ghettos, you know, were areas reserved for Jews and closed off from the rest of the city. The ghetto in Ribnitsa was too small and too packed even when we first arrived, my parents and I. Each family had a room in a house; some shared one room between two families. This was not a place to live, to build a home. People were lucky to find space enough to sleep. Many slept on the floor, curled into corners like infants, like the homeless sleep here in alleyways. For the first months my parents and I shared a room with one small family, so we did not have it so bad.
One day it happened that, in Ribnitsa and in the middle of the war, they began to build a park in honour of the prime minister of Romania. Romanians were occupying Moldova at this time, and word had reached some official channel or other that this great prime minister, this Antonescu, was planning on visiting the town. This was a big deal! This was fanfare! Ribnitsa was a little town, so small that plenty of people had never even heard of it. And so they demolished three blocks in the ghetto, dozens of houses, and began to build this park. They wanted trees and a nice garden with flowers, a paved pathway.
I don’t know if Antonescu ever did reach Ribnitsa, but to raise a park out of a ghetto is no easy thing. The young people were all organized and mobilized. We cleaned out the basements and cellars of these newly demolished houses and we planted trees. We would dig, plant, dig one night and return the next morning to find the trees had all sunken in the bad soil. It was too soft, the wrong kind of soil and mixed up with city rubbish. For months piles of debris lined the block; there were large pits everywhere from the old foundations, the hastily cleared-out basements. The trees sunk and we began again. Many times, we began again.
In any case, this park was built and a plaque honouring the prime minister hung off the main gate. The park had taken up a considerable amount of territory and as a result, the ghetto in Ribnitsa grew even more crowded. It used to be two families to a room, and now there were three or four. People living in such close quarters could not stay healthy. The air was bad. We knew it, but we needed to breathe, what choice did we have? So of course there was sickness. An epidemic broke out, typhoid of the stomach. People began to die in great numbers. It is because of this epidemic and because of the reduced living space that a segment of the population was transported to another ghetto in Balta. I was among those moved, and this is how I came to stay in two ghettos during the war.
But this has nothing to do with the story I am telling you, of how I met your grandfather during a berry-picking trip through the Taiga. I still had to reach Misha all the way in the Far East. I managed to procure a passport and my brother provided the official summons. Misha lived in the Amurskaya Oblast in the town of Blagoveshchensk. This town is still there on the edge of the Amur river, which is the eighth largest river in the world and forms the border between the Russian East Coast and Manchuria. There was no war out here in the East, and my brother had not been drafted into the army. At the time he was working as a judge, and judges were of course exempt from conscription.
I travelled by train for three months and I remember that time only vaguely, like recalling a dream that was never too clear to begin with. We were free of German occupation by mid-April. I left Balta in May and by July I arrived at Misha’s doorstep. It is a long way, from Balta to Blagoveshchensk. There is only one train line, winding up through the vast expanse of Siberia, looping around Lake Baikal and continuing down into the Far East. All along the railroad line there are small provincial towns, most of them no older than the railroad itself. I did not spend the entire three months on the train, of course, for the way is not quite so far. I would get off at these local stations and join a neighbouring kolkhoz for few days or a week. I dug up potatoes, did odd jobs. The farmers gave me food in return, a little milk and vegetables, even sour cream. They baked bread for me. They felt sorry for me, the farmers. I was very small, you see, and my parents had died. They had died in the ghetto Ribnitsa.
I saw so much land during that time, but it was all the same kind of land: farms and tall grass, the creeping edges of forests. I would take the food the farmers gave me and go back to the railway stations, back to the train depots in the open air. There were no tickets at the time. Passenger trains weren’t officially running so far into Siberia. It was the month of July, and all these train cars sat together uncovered in the sunlight. You could crawl into any cargo car and catch a ride with grain sacs or canned goods. Imagine, Balta so governed by passports you could barely breathe without papers, and here the trains were open-wide to the whole world.
In this manner I made it to Blagoveshchensk. I travelled alone, but other people were always around. Many were doing the same thing I was, hopping trains when they could and working in the kolkhozes when they couldn’t. Each of us had our own destinations so we rarely travelled together. Most were men, and I was much younger than them. Sixteen, it’s true, but I was very small for sixteen. These men were going west because the war was ending and they were heading home, to their wives or mothers. I was doing the opposite, heading east to find the remnants of my family.
My brother had four children. He had a wife and a mother-in-law, a big family in a small house, which got smaller when I arrived. He owned a goat and a good-sized plot of land. The goat, I remember, was grey and little but no longer young. It provided fresh milk, and the plot was used for vegetables. Upon arriving, I immediately entered the Komsomol organization on my brother’s advice, Komsomol being short for The Communist Union of Youth. We were Russia’s future communists and as such received a uniform, a tie, and a spit-shined pin of Lenin’s profile for our lapels. This Komsomol organization held the berry picking expedition into the Taiga shortly after I joined. It wasn’t prudent to decline these kinds of outings, it was seen as anti-patriotic. In a war, you know, people are so crazy with patriotism they cannot think. Well, when they sent twenty-three of us into the thick of the Siberian forest, I did not think to refuse. The girls – we were all girls in the group – worked together at the food processing plant where I had also begun working.
My brother had the job set up as soon as I arrived, in one of the country’s main food plants. It was the only plant in the area, and so it was very large. There were dozens of departments. We made everything from pasta to candies to some kind of bottled beverages. It even had its own bakery, which made bread for the army. I forgot to mention that in this town, where my brother and I lived, an army unit was stationed known as the Far East Battalion. This is where Yakov was stationed when I first met him.
I was working at this food plant under an internship that my brother had arranged through his contacts at the factory. I interned as a bookkeeper, figuring out the work as I went. This meant a lot of paper shuffling and picking through documents. I didn’t understand much of what I sorted and it took me some time to learn it all properly. I had little education, having only completed seven grades before the fighting reached us, and during the war there wasn’t any school of course. But that is a separate story, how I later came to finish school.
I was telling you how they gathered twenty-three of us Komsomols, all girls, and sent us into the Taiga for berries. The Taiga in Eastern Siberia is a solid mass of boreal forest. There are firs and larches, some aspen and of course the birches. The trees shoot up tall and stand closely knit, with little space between for weaving or forming a footpath. Closer to the ground there are shrubs and the wild berries grow everywhere, all different kinds. But you understand how easy it would be to get lost. Just imagine! Yet they sent us out there alone. The train took us up to the taiga, as far north as the tracks ran. We were expected to walk the rest of the way, to find an appropriate campsite. This is also where they had the gulags, in this part of Russia. Stalin’s prison camps and labour camps were deep in the Siberian taiga. Nobody knew how many there were, but there must have been dozens. But we’re talking about the Komsomol expedition; the gulags are something for scholars to write about.
We made our way by foot. Each of us had a backpack to carry food and supplies. We had a little flour, some butter I think. They had given us potatoes, there were plenty of those. We would all eat together in one group, but now everyone carried something of the load. We walked warily, one stumbling after the other, and did not wander far from the railroad. The birds were noisy but invisible; every other sound was a jolt in the stillness. They gave us no directions so we searched for any clearing where we would have space enough to set up camp. There were no telephones here, nothing like that, not even a cart for our belongings. We couldn’t collect a lot of berries and then haul them all through the woods, so we were counting our steps to keep the train station nearby.
Here we were, walking in circles, when the head girl Clava pointed and shouted and suddenly there was a man coming at us through the woods.
He came up to us, this man, and asked, “Where are you from? What are you doing here?” To see a person in the taiga is a rare thing. We were all girls, you understand. I was the youngest in the group but we were all still young in our Komsomol outfits. If we were surprised to find him in such an unlikely place, he was doubly shocked to find us.
Clava was the leader of our group, the oldest. She took charge, demanded the man’s identity and explained our mission. The man was called Vladik and he was a chauffeur. Vladik pointed westward and told us of a nearby gulag where there had been an incident, some fighting or even a murder. The army’s judicial court had been called in to settle the matter, and the accused parties would be tried in the gulag within the next few days. “And so,” he explained, “I am their driver. I’ve driven the whole legal team up here, the judge, prosecutors and all their paralegals.”
He said, “Don’t worry girls! I’ll show you a good clearing where the berries are. You girls can pick them all night if you’re that crazy. Come on, I’ll show you the way.”
We followed him into the taiga because we were desperate, and our packs were growing heavier even without any berries. Valdik bounded ahead and flirted with Clava, who was married but didn’t say so. He led us to a medium-sized clearing with a few lone trees but enough space to make camp. The Komsomol had sent us here for an entire week; we needed to live somewhere, we needed some shelter.
Vladik saw this and he said to us, “Girls poor girls! You’ll do badly out here all alone.” He said, “Stay here. I’ll go back to the gulag, I’ll talk to my people, they will send some boys down to build you a shalash.”
The shalash that he promised us was a long shelter out of brushwood and leaves. Nowadays you could sleep in tents, but we did not bring any tents with us, only food and blankets. We had to hack the low branches from the trees and pile them together long-ways. This is how we made camp.
So Vladik left to bargain away boys from the army’s legal team, and many of the girls also left to explore the forest. I was terrified of leaving the camp now that we’d found it. I was the smallest, remember, and after all this activity and collective anxiety my nerves were on alert for the worst. It sounds silly when you think of all those months spent travelling alone, but this is how children change when they reach a home and have the privilege of being children again. When Vladik left I was sitting on my own, slapping fitfully at mosquitoes.
I don’t know how much time passed, but I looked up eventually to see three young men heading towards camp. Their voices were canons in the stillness, even their gesticulations rushed noisily through the afternoon sunlight. They said, “Hey Komsomolki! Here we are! Don’t worry girls, we’ll get this all figured out!”
We all gathered around as they approached, crowding them into the centre of the clearing. “We’ll need lots of brushwood,” said the tall one, who was Yakov only I didn’t know it then. “Just pile it all in the middle, twigs too. The leafy branches are best.” He said this in a authoritative manner too big for his lanky frame. Someone tittered. I appraised the three boys up close, incredulously, for they looked too young to be in the army.
“Come, come girls! What are you all waiting for, hurry up!” Clava’s hefty voice shook us up and scattered everyone around the clearing’s perimeters. We carried bundles of branches in our arms and the boys fell all over themselves building us two big shalashis. These boys had hauled a lot of straw down from the gulag, and we tossed it all inside the shelters so we could sleep comfortably.
By this time I felt the day was surely over, but it was not yet dinnertime.
The boys left. They promised to return that evening and build us a campfire. We thanked them, for they had done us good, and ventured into the woods looking for berries; this was a berry-picking expedition, afterall. The sun began its untimely descent just as we got ourselves organized. Without a moon in the sky I couldn’t tell the berries from the bugs. I had barely collected half a basket’s worth of blueberries, all taken from the same outgrowth of bushes I found beneath an old birch. A quarter of that had gone to my empty stomach in anticipation of dinner. Well, I grew frightened when I couldn’t see the other girls. I started to yell for this Clava, the oldest. “Clava! Clava!” And many of the other girls were also like this, yelling. There were a lot of us, twenty-three people in one small area, but the trees were very thick and it is scary in the Taiga when you cannot see anybody.
The voices began to quiet down one by one. Clava finally reached me. Vladik was with her, and so was Yakov. He looked at me and asked, “What’s your name?”
I said, “Liza is my name.” My fingers were blue and puckered from the berries, and I hid them in my pockets.
I later learned that Yakov was working for the army’s judicial prosecution team and was stationed in that same army base in Blagoveshchensk where our food plant sent bread. In that capacity he had come to the taiga. Presently, he shrugged and nodded upon hearing my name.
When we were all gathered out of the woods we were able to prepare a meal. The other boys came back as they had promised, along with several of their friends. They fed our campfire until it ballooned as big as an orange sun and glowed wonderfully bright in all that darkness. The boys began to tell stories about undead soldiers, haunted gulags, and we listened licking buttery potato mash from our fingertips. Yakov became a zombie, stumbling stiff-limbed around the flames while his friend shrieked and wailed like an old woman. It grew late. When the big sun had deflated back into the fire pit one of the paralegals announced it was time for the boys to leave.
Yakov came up to me. He asked, “Will you walk me back to the road?”
I shifted to stand. But I said, “No, I won’t go.”
This Clava, sitting beside me, hollers, “What do you mean you won’t go! Of course you’ll go!” She was beside herself, elbowing me in the ribs. “You’ll go!”
I said, “I won’t go, it’s too dark and I’m scared. I won’t.”
She said, “I’ll come too, why not? You can go with me.” So Clava took me by one arm, Yakov looped his own around the other, and we walked together into the trees. The walk was very short and the whole time I could smell the sweat and smoke in Yakov’s hair. We made it to the road faster than I realized, said our goodbyes, and I walked with Clava back to camp.
The next day the entire legal team was going back east. The judge and the attorneys left at daybreak in Vladik’s car. The rest were all taking the train. They all crowded inside two cars and Yakov thrust two fingers into his cheeks and whistled at me from the window as his train disappeared down the line.
Later, there would be an accident. Their train would get derailed, and he would end up in the hospital for almost a year. But I did not find out until much later. We picked our berries, however many we could, and came back on a different train several days later knowing nothing about the accident. Our berries ended up being sent to the hospital, what a coincidence and I didn’t even realize! I went home to work at the food plant and help Misha’s wife in the vegetable garden.
In a year, Yakov was released from the hospital. After visiting the army base for reassignment, he decided to seek me out. It had been an entire year, remember, and at my age it seemed like a thousand years! Of course I had forgotten all about Yakov by this time. He knew only that my name was Liza, and that I along with all of the girls from our company worked at the food processing plant in Blagoveshchensk. So he dialled the plant’s number. There was only one factory in the whole area so finding this number was not difficult.
It was the main receptionist that answered, and here was Yakov saying, “You should have a girl working somewhere in your factory, a small dark girl named Liza.” There were a hundred girls working at this food plant, dozens of Lizas! Yakov was lucky because this secretary knew me as my brother’s sister. Misha was well known all over the little town.
“Yes, I know the girl,” she told Yakov, “she works in accounting. I’ll put her on for you.”
So he found me in this way. Soon afterwards, Yakov came to see me. He brought me a thick folder of unsent letters. “When I was sick in the hospital,” he said, “you were always standing in front of my eyes.” He had written me those first letters, and many, many letters he wrote me after that. Nowadays, you talk on the phone every night, and in the same manner we wrote each other letters. I never thought to keep them. You know how it is when you are young, you throw everything away.