Category Archives: BBC People’s War

Lydia Sokolik: My Life at War. Part 5

My Family

[This section enlists all of the Alekseev family by name, including some biographical information. – JD]

I was evacuated with my father, Efim Semyonovich Alekseev (1890-1964), and my mother, Marfa Efremovna (1891-1962).

The eldest of all my siblings, Vera (1910-1993), was a mother of two; her husband was a famous Soviet writer, Klavdy Derbenyov; one of their sons, Vadim Derbenyov, subsequently became a well-known Russian film director. Next after her, Peter (1912-1989), was cleared from going into war; instead he worked in the civilian forces and was a member of the MOONO.

The next in line, Dmitry (1914-1943), was a good actor. He took part in the operations at the Khasan Island against the Japanese in 1938. When the Great Patriotic war had started, he went to the army. Although being in the infantry, he often had to go for the intelligence, which occasionally resulted in taking the Nazi prisoners. He was severely wounded in May 1943. The bullet wounded his crotch, and the doctors had to amputate his both legs. He died on the operation table on May 27, 1943. We received a death confirmation on June 22, 1943.

My elder sister, Natalia (1916-1997), joined the secret service in Moscow, which would have become active, had Hitler’s operation against the capital been successful. Natalia was entrusted with several houses in the outskirts of Moscow, which would locate secret groups. She also held the keys to a secret typography, with two sets of fonts, Russian and German. She was in the secret service from October 1941 until February 1943.

Next in line, Leonid (1922-1985), joined the forces after the War had been declared. He went to the Western front in the infantry, and was also severely wounded, but survived. The wound, however, contributed to his death in his early 60s.

My younger brother and the youngest of all of us, Vitaly (born 1928), was evacuated with me. He was in various jobs, but had always loved singing, and was collecting Russian folk songs. He last visited me in Moscow in 2001, and the last we heard of him was that he was living with his children’s relatives in Kazan.

Lydia Sokolik: My Life at War. Part 4

The End of Evacuation, and the Victory (Autumn 1942 — May 9, 1945).

My elder brother Leonid helped us to get a permission to return from evacuation in summer 1942. During a waiting period at one of the railway stations we met the liberators of our home town. A Latvian soldier came up to my Dad and said: ‘Why are your children lying under the bench? The floor is concrete, and it’s so cold’. My father replied: ‘Where else can they lie? All benches are occupied, and they haven’t slept for so many nights’. Then I and my brother crawled from underneath the bench, our mother was left lying on this very typical railway bench. We began to talk, my father went away, and this soldier started paying me compliments. Then he asked me where we were from. I told him that we were evacuees, now returning by permission. ‘Where did you live before evacuation?’ he asked. ‘In Borovsk’, I said. As soon as he heard this, he shouted an officer over to us, a Latvian, too. Together, they explained that their division liberated Borovsk. I later read about this in the press.

In autumn of 1942 we arrived to Yaroslavl. My sister Vera lived in a room in a communal flat and could hardly fit us all, so we had to stay in my aunt’s flat. She was the Head Financier of the Armed Forces Supply Committee (Voentorg-Военторг). She arranged for my father to do carpentry work in several canteens in the city. The rest of us did not work.

In the winter of 1942 Hitler’s troops were attacking Stalingrad, which caused panic in the city. Had Stalingrad been taken, in spring as soon as the ice would melt on the River Volga the Nazis would have entered Yaroslavl. These were extremely tense, difficult days. The checks were carried out every night, with military patrols visiting each and every flat in the city. Nobody would even think of not opening the door to the patrol — vigilance was the prime objective.

We left Yaroslavl in autumn 1943. Our house in Borovsk was burnt by the Nazis. There was no point going back because there was a lack of living spaces in the town, so there was no chance anyone would put us up or rent us a house. We went to stay with my elder brother Pyotr, who lived at Mamontovka Station, not far from Moscow. When we were going from Yaroslavl to Mamontovka, at the Yaroslavsky Railway Station in Moscow we put our basket with bread under the bench, and someone stole it from the other side.

We came to Mamontovka in autumn 1943; the first snow had already fallen. Peter worked in the Moscow Regional Office of the People’s Education (MOONO-МООНО), and he lived on the territory of the Nadezhda Krupskaya Foster Care. We lived there for some time, and then we were given a small derelict house at Klyazma Station, which was a railway station just before Mamontovka. The house had neither doors, nor window frames, but we did not care much. My father was a carpenter, and he very quickly made windows and doors, I even guess they have not ever been changed.

[Note: Lydia and her daughter Olga left the house in 1970. In 2003, the house was still standing].

We met the Victory in Klyazma. The radio had never been turned off, and at three o’clock in the night we heard the signal. We rushed to turn on the black radio plate, and next minute we were hearing the voice of Levitan, who announced a special declaration from the Soviet government. He said that Hitler’s Germany signed the Pact of Capitulation. We ran outside, and the village streets were all full of people, and they were all cheering, and crying, and everyone was very happy.

Lydia Sokolik: My Life at War. Part 3

Evacuation, November 1941 — August 1942.

When we arrived to the village called Murashi, many evacuee families went to the kolkhoz. We could not go because of our disabled mother, so we stayed in the village. Our mother was put into a war hospital, where she spent around two months. At first we did not have any place to live, so we slept in the school’s building, on the floor. Local authorities were very kind to us. But the villagers were extremely hostile. The majority of them were Old Orthodox. I could not say whether they were the suppressed families, or not. My father later explained to me that they must have been people who believed they were treated unjustly. At any rate, they were very well-off. The roofs of all houses were covered with iron, all floors were dyed, which in those times was very expensive to afford. Every house had a hand washer outside. The local people told us later that these were indeed the suppressed families.

From school we were relocated into one such house. But we did not spend much time there. We were not allowed to use water from the home well, so we had to walk half a kilometre to the railway, to collect it. We actually had to cross the railway, which with all climbing up and coming down was a tough journey. But when the winter began, we were melting snow and boiling it to use as drinking water.

Another incident contributed to us leaving that house swiftly. One morning my father went to work. As soon as he went outside, I heard him screaming. I ran out, and saw him with the housekeeper, standing next to a hung cat. The cat was white, with reddish spots. My father was inquiring as to why the housekeeper would be so cruel to the animal. She said: ‘Don’t worry. The cat knows what she did. She stole meat, she was guilty, so she was punished’. The very next day we moved out.

My father found a job as a carpenter at the railways, and we moved in to a small antechamber of a local bath. Despite having no heating, it had electricity. There we lived until we left the Murashi village in August 1942.

One day my father came home and told me and my mum that next day would be the first when conscription will arrive to our town. Next morning we went out. Many women were following their men with cries and prayers, shouting: ‘Our beloved sons, do not fight against the Germans! Shoot the commissars in their backs! Surrender yourself!’ This was in late November — early December 1941. In spring 1942 devastated letters began to arrive, as well as the disabled, armless, legless soldiers.

Then one morning, when we were still sleeping, a woman from the nearby house knocked on our window. My father and I went out to see what she wanted. She stood on the lowest step of the stairs. Immediately, when she saw us, she fell down to her knees and began to beg us to forgive her. Her son had just returned from the front without legs and told her horrendous stories. She nearly forced me to go to get water from the well in her house yard.

In 1942, we worked at the construction site of the Kirov-Kotlas Railway Road. It was a part of the North-Pechora Road, but was later adjoined to the Northern Road. I only had light shoes to wear, and the winter was very severe. The underage were not allowed to work at the railroad, but the brigadiers would let us help them, ‘illegally’. One day we were told a very high official was coming to visit our road, and all underage people (including myself) were hidden away. Later it turned out that this man was the Minister of Railways during the war. I did not work there for long, and in March I became the head of the Community office, where I was responsible for blankets and other household supplies.

Meanwhile, my brother looked after a bread stall, which was owned by two Jewish sisters. He did not tell us, so when my father found out about it, he first was against it because Vitaliy was only young. One of the sisters later came to visit my father to persuade him to allow Vitaliy to work for them. They would sometimes pay him with bread.

Lydia Sokolik: My Life at War. Part 2

The Road to Evacuation.

I had joined the medical brigade, and I was given the overalls, a hat and an anti-gas mask. On 11 October 1941 we heard that Medyn [a town to the north off Borovsk] was already taken by German troops. Three days before that we had the retreating Soviet troops stationed in our town, some soldiers were even staying in our house. One of them was a police officer, his surname was Bystritskiy, who told us about the Nazis’ carnage. He said to my father: ‘Please, let your children go. You may be unable to leave, but at least let them go because the Nazis are extremely cruel to young people’.

Later that afternoon those who worked in the local radio station said farewell to the villagers, and told everyone to go to Balabanovo Station where buses stood ready to evacuate people. My father did not believe it when I told him about this, and he went back to work after his lunch.

Then the air raid siren went off, and I rushed to the meeting of my medical brigade. We were lined up in front of the vice-head of the War Committee of Borovsk, who called several people out from the line. I was one of them. He told me to move forward ten paces, then he came up to me and said: ‘The War Committee orders you to give your up munitions and go home to help your father to evacuate your mother and brother’. I was determined to refuse, but he repeated the order. He then said to me discreetly: ‘You should understand, you must help your parents because your brothers are fighting in the front, and your sister already joined the secret service in Moscow’. I marvelled at how well they knew everything. I gave my munitions to Nina Rostova, who was the head of our brigade.

I came home in the dark. A horse and cart was standing at the porch. I heard my brother Vitaliy crying; I rushed in and saw him sitting on the Russian oven, clinging on to a pillow, and sobbing: ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay home, it’s warm here’. Outside, the land was covered with the first snow…

Some people decided to stay. When we were preparing to evacuation, our neighbour did not approve. She said: ‘Look, you have a samovar, and so do I. When the Germans enter the village, we shall invite and entertain them. So, why are you so keen on leaving?’ When the troops came in the village, some went to live next door to her, and parked their Studebaker in between the two houses. The Studebaker was all stocked with various goods. Local boys, typically curious, saw a box of cigarettes inside, and decided to get it. One of the boys was our neighbour’s son, a 12-year-old. They went in the truck for the cigarettes. She was unaware, but rushed out of the house upon hearing deafening rifle shots. She saw a Nazi officer standing at the porch of the neighbouring house with a rifle, from which he had just shot all five boys, including her son. To save her other two children, she dug a hole in the house’s cellar and kept them there until early January 1942, when the Nazis were driven out from the village.

We had to drive about 1.5 km to get to the centre of Borovsk. We reached it by about 9-10pm. My mother was disabled so it was difficult getting her on the bus. But some men helped us. The bus that took us from Borovsk to the train station was the very last one. We left on 12 October, at about 1am; at 4am, the Nazis entered the town.

Most of my family were Communists, so the Nazis ruthlessly rampaged on our house. We only took a couple of pillows with us and some meat and poultry; the rest was left behind, including hens. They were “executed” by hanging; our red pioneer ties were used as ropes.

The Nazis locked the majority of population in the main church, in the centre of the town, and were going to burn them upon the arrival of their chief SS commanders. The commanders were expected to arrive on 10 January 1942; the Latvian troops liberated the town on January 5.

But we were already the evacuees. Later on 12 October we got on a train, which only started moving in the early morning. At Narofominsk we were bombed… We spent about a month on the train. We left on October 12 and only arrived to the Murashi Station (in Kirov region) on November 5.

Panic was following us all the way. When we left from Borovsk to Kirov by train, people were telling us we would not make it, that we would be bombed. Indeed, we were bombed, although nothing too serious. We were in the last wagon, so during one of the raids our wagon was pushed off the rails. Thankfully, it did not take the entire train with it, but all people had to be moved to other wagons. Of course, we couldn’t just run, with our mother being paraplegic; so other people had to help us to move. The last time our train was caught up in the air raid was near Gorky (Nizhniy Novgorod).

Lydia Sokolik: My Life at War. Part 1

Disclaimer:

This memoire of a life during the Great Patriotic War in Russia was dictated by my grandmother, Lydia Sokolik, in 2006. I submitted this story to the BBC’s WW2 People’s War archive in January 2006. The copyright rests with me, and the BBC has a non-exclusive right to sublicense and use the story. If you wish to use this story, please read the Terms of Use and contact me for a permission.

Location of story:
Russia: Borovsk (near Smolensk), Murashi village (near Kirov), Yaroslavl, Klyazma village (near Moscow)

Article ID: A8998933

Notes on the text: the story is told by the narrator (Lydia Sokolik)

Life in Borovsk.

I was born in a small village near Dorogobuzh, in Smolensk region, on 1 October 1924. I was the sixth child in a family of seven. My father and uncle were both devoted horticulturists; the entire family were avid readers, and the house’s terrace was used in summer as a stage for home theatre. In 1936, we moved to a small town of Borovsk, ever closer to Smolensk, where we lived until October 1941.

How the War Was Declared.

The spring of 1941 was very warm, in early June the Russian town of Borovsk was blossoming beautifully. Its streets knew the moans of Napoleon’s army when it was leaving Russia. In 1941 people were preparing for their summer holidays and school children were finishing with their studies. I was in the final class at school, and like many other boys and girls across the country I had my farewell party at school in late June. We were all going to go to work or to enter higher education institutions.

We had a factory near our house, and every year it would close for the summer holidays. Our house stood on a small hill, behind us there was a magnificent pine forest. The factory workers would normally set up a holiday camp, and nearby there was a parachute tower, with a radio attached to it. In the morning of Sunday, June 22, 1941, we heard a special radio signal, and tuned in to our radio. The broadcaster said that the Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, had an announcement to make. Next we heard Molotov telling us that Hitler’s troops invaded our country at 4am by taking certain cities along the Western border. It was devastating and scary news. Everyone was shocked, as we fully relied on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Victory Day

Although I don’t normally use this blog to write anything too personal, this is the day when I would like to do so. It is 9th May, and in Russia this is the state holiday – the Victory Day.

I grew up listening to my grandmother’s story of her life during the war. Between June 2005 and January 2006 I was taking part, as a story-gatherer, in the BBC’s campaign, People’s War. The aim of the campaign was to create the living archive of wartime memories. And since stories from all countries were accepted (as long as they were in English), I contributed my grandma’s account of her life during the war.

I have always adored my grandma, Lydia, despite the fact that we belong to the two quite different generations, which results in occasional “culture clashes”. She was a working pensioner when I arrived, and when I was two, she left her job altogether, to stay with me. (Another reason was that I adhorred a nursery, and after three attempts my family realised that I wouldn’t be staying there, so someone would have to stay at home with me).

My grandmother held a BA in Law and has always been telling me to use my logic, as well as recalling various stories that had taken place at the Central Forensic Laboratory in Moscow where she used to work. She left when she met her husband, Alexei Sokolik, a Ukranian sportsman of Czech origin, and went to live to Lviv (Western Ukraine) with him. She eventually had to return to look after her parents. My mother was already born in Moscow, and my grandfather died of cancer in 1970. Since her return to Moscow until her retirement, my grandmother had worked for the Soviet Railways as a cinema instructor. Being a member of the Cultural Office at the Committee of the Railways Trade Union (Dorprofsozh – ДОРПРОФСОЖ), she supervised cinema clubs, cinema releases and box offices across all 15 regional railway committees.

So, what I decided to do is to republish the story from the BBC archive. Being a copyright holder, I nonetheless would like to acknowledge the fact that this story has originally been posted on WW2 People’s War website (Article ID: A8998933). It is one of the recommended stories in the archive, and I would like to say that I cannot praise my grandmother enough for collecting her strength to talk on the phone while I was recording. I subsequently translated her account directly from the tape.

This is what you’re about to read (quoted from my own entry on the website):

The story of evacuation of the Alekseev family spans from 1941, when they left their village with the last bus, until 1943, when they were given a derelict house to live in just outside Moscow. In these years there were many moments of joy, as well as of desperation. The evacuation camp set up in the Old Orthodox community was anything but friendly. Upon leaving it, the family was then caught up in Yaroslavl in the winter 1942/43, during the Stalingrad battle, when the prospect of Hitler’s victory created panic in the city. Throughout these years there was a constant fear for two brothers and a sister who joined the forces, which culminated in grief when the eldest brother was killed in 1943.

There are several reasons for republishing this story. It is dramatic, and many years after I heard it for the first time its dramatism has finally caught up with me, and I wondered how I would be able to survive in the similar conditions. I am sure some experiences will echo other people’s, and at best this memoire illustrates exactly where our grandparents got their will of steel. Then, of course, I am an historian, so I can also read my grandma’s story as a historical source. This is also a testimonial of a formidable personal memory, but also makes one wonder how a person goes on living with this experience. Ultimately, such stories should remind us of the devastating effect wars have on the civilian population. The Victory Day, which is celebrated as a state holiday in France (8th May) and Russia (9th May), is the good time to think about it.

The story is quite long, so I will break it up in chapters, which will all be collected under ‘My Life at War’ label. I also won’t do this in one go, so the chapters will appear in the course of this week.

Some VERY IMPORTANT notes on COPYRIGHT:
I understand that, as I am publishing this and subsequent posts, they will be read and possibly shared and/or commented by my readers. However, I hold the image and text copyright, and also the BBC holds a non-exclusive right to sublicense and use the content. May I therefore ask, please, that you 1) read carefully the BBC’s Terms of Use, and 2) link to ‘My Life at War’ label and a specific post whenever you’re planning to quote from them. Otherwise, please feel free to leave a comment.