Yuliya Genina

Genina 2

I was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, on September 28, 1930. I have a twin sister who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. In the 1930s we were very poor, but in time, once my parents received an apartment, we lived comparatively well. My father bought a piano, and I studied music from the age of six. I was a good student, and received good grades. Everything was going well until the war suddenly began.

Because Kharkov was such an industrialized city there were many major factories there, such as the tractor factor that also turned out tanks and other military equipment. They began to bomb our city quite soon, although the Germans were still fairly far away. Panic broke out in the city, but our father kept us calm. He was born in 1891, and during the First World War the Germans had occupied the village in which he lived at that time. He said that the Germans were an intelligent and cultured people, that they couldn’t treat people poorly or kill the Jewish people. He said they didn’t kill the Jews during the First World War, and they wouldn’t do so now. This somehow calmed our family situation a bit; we weren’t so panicked. My sister and I were 10-years old, and at the beginning of the war my father was 50-years old and wasn’t sent to the front; he was called up to the civil army to aid the front. They dug trenches there, but I don’t know what else they did. They took him and we didn’t know where he was. He didn’t return home, though he may have come home once every now and then. I don’t remember.

Very soon after the bomber flights came to Kharkov. All around, homes were destroyed and on fire. It was, of course, horrible. Kharkov was occupied at the beginning of October. Prior to that the trains continued to run, because Kharkov was an industrial center. The government evacuated the factory equipment out, since they had to build new factories to make weapons for the front. We tried to leave, but as I said my father had calmed us somewhat, and we weren’t in such a hurry. But after the Germans arrived, our father was not there.

The Germans entered the city very quietly. One day my mother left for groceries and saw an announcement on a wall that the Jews – both adults and children – had to gather quite far from the city center at the tractor factory with their money, gold, and other valuables. That’s when my mother began to panic, of course; she sewed small pouches out of soft fabric to use as backpacks so we could take a few small things. We headed east (the Germans were coming from the west), moving for quite some time from one village to another. No one knew who we were, this woman with two children who’d lost her husband and everything else. At first people helped us, but then it became very dangerous to do so. SS officers were going door to door; that is, they didn’t enter the homes, though we we could hear dogs barking and were alerted. We went from one home to another, and of course we stayed in the cellars. The people feared for their lives, and we were fearful too.

We decided to go through the front, though I don’t remember that very well. I remember that at night we went through the woods and crossed into Soviet territory, as the front was not a straight line. There were troops in main groups there, and we passed through the woods and came out in Soviet territory. This was also very dangerous to do.

Someone told my mother there was a train out of Kharkov waiting, or from some other city, a train with factory equipment headed east. We made it to that particular station. At that time, trains heading east stopped to let trains heading to the front, filled with soldiers and military equipment, pass by quickly. Our train was at the main platform where there was some machinery. The train had several cars for cargo, but none for people. The boxcar doors were closed, and my mother sat us down on the platform. This was the beginning of October, so it was quite cold. Someone saw us (a woman with two children), and opened a door to help us climb inside. There were already people in the boxcar.

We moved very slowly, and didn’t move much (this I remember very well). This was near Belgorod (less than 200 kilometers from Kharkov). Suddenly, we heard the distended noise of German Messerschmitts, which everyone recognized, and the earth all around us began to explode. People in the boxcar said that we should get out and scatter around, that if a bomb hit the boxcar everyone would be killed. Through cracks in the boxcar we saw a woman lying on the ground and two small children crying and running around her (what I saw will stay with me to the end of my life). Right then, our mother put us on her lap, hugged us and said, “if our fate is to survive, we’ll survive it all together. I don’t want to live without you, and I don’t want you to be left without me.” That Messerschmitt has been in my mind ever since that day (at the time the cockpits were open, as if they were glass). We saw the pilot fly low and spray the people (those who had left the boxcar) with his machine guns. And that’s what I’ll always remember, that moment is unforgettable. The train continued on, though slowly.

The second time we were bombed was after we passed Kursk. The rail route was one that existed a long time ago: Crimea, Kharkov, Moscow via Belgorod, Kursk, Tula, and Moscow. They bombed us after Kursk, but the train was moving very fast and there were no casualties. There was just fear, because we’d heard the Messerschmitts and the ground rumbling around us. Another moment I won’t forget: when we passed through Orel we could see that a train ahead of us was destroyed and the station was burning. We passed close to the station, and I remember that I could feel the heat from the fire, as if it was right in our boxcar. All around us we could see the destroyed train cars and human bodies. Naturally, it’s impossible to forget any of this.

We arrived in Moscow, where the train stopped for a long time. The first snow had already fallen there. It was the beginning of October. The train was set to go to some factory, and they knew that there’d be people in several of the wagons; we stood by a burzhuika stove[1], which warmed us some, as it was cold. They took us to the Urals in Siberia, to a small town in the Kemerovo region (I don’t recall the town’s name) and began to unload the train (there were people there waiting for our train). I remember that my mother found work quite fast. At that time in the Soviet Union they would say “he who doesn’t work doesn’t eat,” and so with two children to care for our mother found work immediately. She received ration cards for bread, sugar, meat and some type of grain. I remember that when one of us children lost something it was very dramatic. Our mother worked in a factory (she was, in general, quite unhealthy and had heart problems), and returned from work very tired with a metal pot (with two small holes in it to attach a metal spoon) and some soup from the factory, but besides that we used ration cards. Of course we went hungry, but quite soon after (I don’t recall how soon) my father found us via Buguruslan[2]. Before I came to America, I went to that same center to pick up documents related to the evacuation. There I was shown a light green paper in my father’s handwriting, indicating who, precisely, he was searching for.

My father wound up in Gorky, 600 kilometers north of Moscow. He picked us up and took us back to Gorky. Prior to the war, the factory in Gorky where he worked had made bicycles, and the bicycle factory in Leningrad had been relocated to the Gorky factory. During the war the factory made military motorcycles with sidecars. My father probably went there on one of the trains from Kharkov. When we arrived we were put up in a house there. The government had forced homeowners there to provide rooms for evacuees. We were given an upper room in a home with five windows. The room wasn’t used in the winter, as it only had a partial wall for the pechka,[3] which was in another room. The winter of 1941 was very cold, and Gorky was so cold that we couldn’t go to school. We didn’t have winter clothing. I remember that we had a table by a window with a glass of water on the table. The water in the glass was frozen. My sister and I would sit by the pechka wall across from the windows, and rubbed the wall so much through the winter that by spring we could see the fire inside the pechka, which was visible through the wall. We were very cold and very hungry, and I fell ill. I had horrible headaches, and could not look at lights at all. I remember that they would cover lamps for me. Since then I don’t use overhead lights, just one or two lamps, and since then I suffer from headaches.

We felt better with our father around us. Both of my parents worked, but my father worked a lot. He was a barber before the war and had soft hands. During the war, he worked at a grinding machine in Gorky, and was a real workaholic, working more than 16 hours a day. They considered him a Stakhanovite[4]. When they gave him awards (at that time they didn’t give money but wine and vodka) my mother would sell them. We received another shack, this one with a dirt floor. This time we lived by ourselves. Three-fourths of the room was taken up with a large Russian pechka, which we would lay on watching as our mother gave bottles of wine and vodka to large men who would give her money. The day after that she’d go to the market and buy bread.

Because I’d been so ill, I didn’t start school until after the New Year holiday. The factory issued my father size 10 boots with canvas tops, and even though I was a little girl I wore those boots to school. There were several military factories in Gorky, and when the Germans approached Moscow they began to bomb Gorky as well. We lived in a different area of the city, far from the large factories. In Gorky there was an aviation factory and an automobile factory that made tanks and other combat equipment. We could just see the fires, far away. Our school, which was not far from home, was converted into a hospital, so we had to walk five kilometers, back and forth, to another school. Besides that, since the second school was overfilled with students, there were different shifts, so we arrived home very late at night. One day, during a bombing, they forced us outside as usual, and I somehow ended up in a snowdrift. I couldn’t get out, and had frostbite on my legs and arms. Now I’m very happy to be in Tucson, since all my life in Kharkov I bought special mittens to keep my hands warm in winter. Even now I often have cold hands, but that’s all trivial now, the trivialities of the war years.

This is how we lived before Kharkov was liberated, which happened on 23 February 1943. My mother started gathering things at home for the trip, and we returned to Kharkov during the summer of 1944. The factory didn’t release my father because the war had not yet ended.

The three of us (my mother, sister and I) went to Kharkov. Prior to the war we lived in an old, two-story home, a very beautiful place with stained glass windows. When we arrived, all that was left was a crater. Distant relatives who had arrived earlier sheltered us. They had one large room, with neighboring families, and we slept on the floor until we could get our own room. My mother’s older sister was a doctor at the front, and she began the process for us to get our attestat,[5] since we were considered to be family members of a service member at the front. Thanks to this, we received a room in an apartment where there were five other families. We had one toilet for everyone, and one wash basin in the kitchen. There was one cook top in the kitchen, but it didn’t work because there was no gas. Each room had its own pechka stoked with wood. This is where we cooked our food.

Although the war had long since ended, the factory had still not released my father. Just before 1948, he became ill with malaria, and my mother went to take care of him. Only then was he allowed to go to his family. My father had the highest qualifications as a grinder, and was involved in making part number 226 for a motorcycle. He was one of the only grinders who could make that part. He was a major workaholic, and worked almost 20 hours a day. There were times when he was very tired, but it was necessary to finish the job. They would send two people to prop him up so he could finish his work. Pretty quickly after he arrived in Kharkov, his malaria cleared up. It’s possible the change in climate helped him, but he remained quite weak and didn’t work for some time. He eventually went to work as a barber.

I finished school in 1948, and was accepted to attend university to study biology. The competition was fierce, but I was accepted. I wanted to be a doctor, and was later accepted to study animal and human physiology. This gave me the ability to attend postgraduate medical school after I graduated and worked some. I was already married when I finished at the institute in 1953. While I was very active, and studied well at the institute, I couldn’t find work due to the fact that my passport indicated I was Jewish[6]. They needed specialists everywhere, but as soon as I showed my passport, people would apologize to me and say that all the positions were taken. Unfortunately, this happened to me several times. I had a daughter already, and it was only in 1955 when one of my classmates introduced me to the director of the pathology laboratory at the ophthalmic institute. I became a laboratory technician. This was at a scientific research center in the Girshman Medical Institute, and I worked with Professor Kopid. She taught me a lot related to pathology (such as histology, learning about organs removed either during operations or removed after death in order to determine cause of death or disease).

I took some time off from work and began postgraduate medical school, where I studied for two years. After that, I returned to the laboratory at the ophthalmic institute. When Professor Kopid retired, I became the head of the laboratory. I became a junior researcher and was working on my dissertation. It was very interesting work. To my great disappointment, as an echo of the days of the “Doctor’s Plot,”[7] in 1963 all of the scientific research institutes in Kharkov were closed (in the ophthalmic institute, every one of the branch chiefs were Jews who’d taken part in the war and who’d received awards. All were PhD candidates, very intelligent, and I was lucky to have worked 10 years with such interesting people).

Our institute was also closed. I began working at a regional health station, in charge of the food hygiene laboratory, where I worked for 30 years. I resigned from work two weeks before I left for the United States. I was involved in studies related to the influence of microwaves on group-B vitamins, and I’ve had several articles published on nutrition. I arrived in Tucson in January, 1996.

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[1] A burzhuika is a type of small, rudimentary stove. The word comes from the Russian for bourgeois, “burzhua.”

[2] During World War II the Soviets established the Central Information Office in Buguruslan as a means of tracking evacuees during the war. People could go or send letters to this office requesting information about loved ones.

[3] A pechka is a unique Russian oven/furnace that first appeared in the 15th century. It is used both for cooking and domestic heating, and in many cases people sleep on them to keep warm in winter.

[4] In the Soviet Union a “Stakhanovite” was a term for a hard worker. The name comes from Aleksey Stakhanov, who reportedly mined 102 tons of coal in less than six hours (14 times his quota) in 1935.

[5] An attestat was a certificate issued to support families of officers who had served in the Red Army. Cash allowances were paid to the district military offices in which the families lived.

[6] Block 5 of the Soviet passport required citizens to indicate their nationality. Jews in the Soviet Union were required to state “Jewish” as their nationality in that block.

[7] The “Doctor’s Plot” was outlined by Stalin and Soviet officials in 1952-1953 against prominent doctors (mostly Jewish) who had allegedly conspired to kill Soviet officials. Scores of Soviet Jews were dismissed from work, sent to Gulags, or executed. In his 1956 “Secret Speech,” Soviet Premier Krushchev stated that the plot was “fabricated…set up by Stalin.”