Alone Across the Soviet Union

It was May 1941 when Dad boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow for what was supposed to be a seven day, 5700 mile journey across the barren, sparsely inhabited Soviet Union to the port city of Vladivostok.  In reality, it would be closer to three weeks. Often the train had to back up to gain enough power to climb a steep incline.

Dad probably felt guilty over abandoning his family, particularly because his sisters had applied for their passports around the same time as he, but he knew there would be more opportunities to fight for their return to the United States once he was safely home rather than from within the Soviet Union.

The trains were crowded.  They were filled with Jewish refugees- men, women and a few children- many escaping Poland after the invasion of their country by Germany in the fall of 1939.  Some, like Dad, were traveling alone because they had been separated from their families or they were not given their papers to leave at the same time.

The cars consisted of long narrow corridors down the middle, with clusters of wooden bunk beds on each side of the aisle- two upper and two lower. There were windows within each, but the military officers who patrolled the train were constantly pulling down the shades whenever they determined that the view needed to be hidden.

The price of his ticket included just the evening meal, which was served at two different sittings in the dining car.   The train stopped every few hours, sometimes just for a few minutes, and other times for several hours at certain designated stations to allow for the passage of the westbound train.  Only one track existed at that time. That is when the passengers would buy some food from the many vendors on the train platform who were selling fruit, meat, cheese, cakes, and drinks.

In between those stations, the views consisted of miles and miles of nothing- endless fields of green grass and forests followed by the low rocky incline of the Ural Mountains, which is the boundary separating Europe from Asia. The train passed Lake Baikal, which is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, and passed the dry landscape on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert. Many of the men on the train killed time playing chess with each other.  Dad was a chess player, so perhaps that is where he learned the game.

Finally, as the train neared the end of the journey, Dad would have seen buildings begin to appear outside the window.  When the Trans-Siberian Railway finally reached its final destination in Vladivostok, Dad would have joined the line of passengers as everyone’s belongings were inspected by the Soviet officials, who confiscated whatever they wanted, looking for anything of value to keep for themselves or to sell.  Next, Dad would have boarded a taxi to the pier. His next stop was Japan.

How did I learn all this? I found a wonderful book, “Fast Train Russia”, by Jay Higginbotham, which detailed the author’s experiences riding this train.  I never asked my father, so I decided to see if I could locate someone who may have ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway around the same time as Dad.  Seventy-three years had passed, but after many, many Google searches along with one of the documents I retrieved at the National Archives, I found two men willing to discuss their memories of the journey with me.  What a find!

Sources: Jay Higginbotham. Fast Train Russia (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1983).

Leo Melamed, (Chairman Emeritus Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group), telephone interview by Karen Bobrow, May 7, 2012.

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About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as ancestry.com, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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2 Responses to Alone Across the Soviet Union

  1. chmjr2 says:

    Nice research on the train trip. It helps tell the story of your Father and what he was experiencing.

    • kjw616 says:

      Thanks. It’s great that there are so many resources out there helping me understand what he experienced. Having children in their twenties put what he did in perspective and enabled me to imagine how my grandmother must have felt letting him go.

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