We are all familiar with the Syrian refugee crisis, but do we really know what it’s like to be on the run from a war—not knowing how to keep your family safe or where you will find shelter free from danger? While I am fortunate to live a worry-free existence, I looked to my father’s family, who one day found themselves running from a war in a foreign country in August of 1941. At that time, they had been living in the city of Novgorod, just south of current-day St. Petersburg.
What follows is an excerpt from a chapter in my book detailing five months running from a war.
They knew it was a matter of days before they would hear the sounds of Nazi planes flying overhead, so they began the hasty preparations to leave. On the morning of August 14, they left Novgorod, headed away from the hostilities with their evacuation papers carefully packed away. The city fell to the Germans the next day.
Part of the family left on a boat via the Volkhov River. They took most of the bulky items which could not be transported by train or on foot. This included household items such as linens, dishes, and pots and pans. My grandparents and three aunts intended to walk until they could reach a train station. They piled a wagon with blankets, pillows, and nonperishable food, and carried the rest of their belongings in suitcases or strapped to their backs. They believed they would rendezvous with the rest of the family within a few days. They were sadly mistaken.
The first night, they slept in a barn in a nearby village, eating raw potatoes and cucumbers stolen from a nearby garden. With the constant sounds of planes thundering overhead and bombs exploding nearby, they were fearful their lives would come to an abrupt end if they ventured outside their shelter. They remained hidden there for over two weeks until they felt it was safe to move again.
Each day they continued advancing, staying wherever they could find a place to hide so they would not be in danger. It was difficult to sleep with the roars of the military aircraft rumbling overhead throughout the night. On the twentieth day, a few military men who cared little about my grandparents’ age and weakened state chased them from their current shelter. The soldiers tossed their bundles from the wagon and took the empty cart with them. It was a time of war, and civilians were inconvenient hindrances.
They spent the day trudging along wet, muddy roads in weather that grew more miserable with each passing hour. They traipsed along awkwardly for six miles that day, knowing that soon, the roads would be impassable.
They continued to eat only what they could steal. One day, Russian soldiers confiscated their food and accused them of being spies, but when they examined their evacuation documents, they set them free.
In early September, they found a hideout in a tiny hut in a small village where they remained for two months. They had traveled scarcely twenty-five miles since leaving three weeks earlier. Their goal was to reach a train station.
The primitive unpaved roads could not withstand the downpours, so they could not move until November when the autumn rains stopped. By then, the temperatures, which had been declining each day, were nearing arctic levels. There was a blessing which came with the coldness because the muddy washed-out roads were freezing, enabling them to travel again. They were eager to distance themselves from the fighting since the ground forces were now so close they could hear the gunfire in the stillness of the night.
Although the calendar indicated it was still autumn, the weather signaled the arrival of winter. It started to snow, and the sky was blanketed with thick, gray clouds. Rarely did the sunshine give them any respite from the gloom. It was getting colder each day, with temperatures regularly dipping below zero. In addition to the suffering brought on by their nomadic existence and lack of food, shelter, and warm clothing, the war continued to knock at their door.
On the twelfth of November, they finally reached a train station, and after sixteen days of patiently waiting inside with thousands of other weary travelers, they boarded a train. After spending months slowly plodding along the unpaved roads with thousands of other evacuees, they were grateful for the transportation, no matter how primitive it was.
Some days, they had nothing to eat but black bread and water. Other days, Soviet militia men who managed the food stations along the routes treated them to hot soup and bread.
No one in the family was physically injured, but my aunt Helen was shell-shocked from the experience. When her sleep was not disturbed by enemy aircraft buzzing overhead or the sounds of bombs and artillery fire exploding nearby, she would awaken screaming from terrifying nightmares that interrupted her sleep with increasing regularity.
On January 16, 1942, they arrived in the city of Kuibyshev—the temporary capital of the Soviet Union—having traveled twenty-three hundred long, grueling miles during the past five months. My aunts called at the American Embassy a few days later and notified the embassy officials about their travels from Novgorod to Kuibyshev. They informed the ambassador in residence that their parents were Soviet citizens, and they were the American citizens who corresponded with them last year.
They were luckier than some of the Syrian refugees because they all survived their journey. While the ensuing months and years did not treat them well and not all of my father’s family survived, for that moment, they felt they were out of danger.
When I read the news and see the photographs of the families, and particularly the children, I think of my father’s family. Something must be done.