1 Russian beginnings



Taken out of Polish and Russian Jews

My mother Rachela was a Polish Jew, born in Brzeziny near Lodz. My father, Abram Melamedzon, shortly called as Abrasza, came from the town of Majkop located on the side of Caucasian Mountains, and he was a Russian Jew. They both met owing to Zahara, my daddy’s older brother. He was a merchant running a men’s garment shop in Kharkiv and he was going to Brzeziny to buy suit fabrics. It was there that Zahar met and married Sara, the wholesaler’s daughter. And Sara was my mother’s cousin.

Daddy first helped his brother with business, then he opened his own shop. It was time for him to start looking for a wife. A matchmaker offered him a maiden coming from a fine family living near Kharkiv. The conditions were good, so he went there to get engaged. As his visit was longer than expected, her parents asked him to stay overnight.

In the middle of the night the creaky door wakened him. He opened his eyes and he can see: his fiancé, dressed in a sleeping rope, comes up to his bed. He pretended to be sleeping but she was standing and looking at him. He understood that if he only wanted he could have got her. Eventually, the girl left. Next morning he didn’t even stay for breakfast. Having said he had to come back to his business immediately he left and broke off the engagement. When he confided in Zahar and his wife, Sara thought of her cousin, Rachela.

Go to Brzeziny, as though you wanted to buy some fabrics at my father’s brother, he is also a wholesaler – she suggested. – Uncle Chaim has a daughter, you may like her. So he did. He went to Brzeziny and did like the girl. Rachela, having received Sara’s letter presenting a husband candidate, liked him too. Her parents also accepted him and their wedding (full of guests) took place in Warsaw, in 1914. It was then when Rachela’s mother was at the opera for the first time. The grandma was delighted. Since that time, each Saturday, on her way back from the synagogue, she used to say: – How beautifully the cantor sang today! Just like in the opera! Daddy didn’t want dowry. He only asked Rachela’s parents to buy her a piano she would choose, and this piano came with them to Russia.

I was born on 19. 04. 1915, but since the World War II  I have been associating  this day equally with my birthday and with the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I was named after my mother’s grandma, Esfira, who was so strong and so much loved by her granddaughters that many of them gave her name to their daughters. A short form of Russian Esfira is Fira, but its Hebrew equivalent is Ester. Since I lived in Palestine, I have been Ester in official documents, but my doorplate reads „Fira”. I have always been Fira.

My Mummy came from a privileged background. Her parents, Fira and Chaim Ber Dymant, made money on selling textile fabric and men’s garments produced in their own manufactory in Brzeziny. They had built a tenement house at Sienkiewicza 6 and brought up seven children. Mummy, born in 1892, had four brothers: Aaron, Izaak, Natan and Max, and two sisters: Lee, called Lili and one more, whose name I don’t remember as he died at the age of 16. When Mom was older she spent much time in Lodz, where she attended the conservatoire of music. She was a pretty, well-mannered and well-behaved girl. She played the piano, knew perfectly Polish, Russian and German. She could have been liked by men.

Daddy was four years older than her and was brought up without a father, as Meir Melamedzin had been serving for twenty five years in the Tsarist army. He had been forced to join the army, but then he stayed there for good. There were advantages of this. Each family of the Jew who was serving in the army needed no permission to live anywhere in Russia and to run any kind of business. So, when Meir’s sons – he had four sons and one daughter, Rywa – grew up, they opened their own businesses using their resourcefulness and parents’ savings. Three sons, Salomon in Moscow, Zahar and Abram in Kharkiv, opened shops with men’s clothing. Only the youngest one, Lowa, was not interested in merchandising. He had always wanted to be a doctor, so his older brother, who were making good money,  shared the costs of his education and sent him to Berlin for medical studies.

I don’t remember my Grandfather, but I still keep in mind  Grandma as she visited us in Kharkiv for a few times. Daddy was her beloved son. At that time the grandfather Meir didn’t serve in the army any longer. He and  Grandmother lived in Majkop and run some business, but it wasn’t prosperous.


The house in Kharkiv and typhus in Rostov

We lived at Bialowiezczyska 26. My older cousins, Osii, Zygmunt and Pola Melamedzon, the children of aunt Sara and uncle Zahar, lived in Jekatierinoslawksa street, just around the corner. On Sundays I used to come to play with them. One of my favourite games was „to shot the uncle”. After dinner uncle Zahar was taking a nap on the sofa, and I, being almost three then, was tiptoeing to him and crying: – Bang, bang! The uncle was jumping at this sound, his newspaper was falling down to the floor and he was following it by sliding off  the sofa. I also remember „cheating the nanny”. In the evening my nanny came to take me home. As I didn’t want to come back I was hiding in a wardrobe. – Fira has already gone home, on her own – my cousins said with laughter. The nanny took on the game and she was pretending to burst into tears over lost little Fira. Every week the same performance took place.

This nanny was Russian, I don’t remember her name, and she saved me from the Bolsheviks when the October Revolution had broken out. It was the autumn of 1919 and I was four and a half. The Soviets took power in Kharkiv and they started arresting, inspecting and persecuting the bourgeoisie, to whom we belonged.

At the beginning of one night the Bolsheviks burst into our flat. I was woken up by banging on the door. The nanny opened the door and the Chekists barged in and started to look for my parents. They must have had their names on a list of people to be arrested. But my parents were out. There were only us and a cook maid at home. Having found no parents the Chekists started to search through all the drawers and cupboards. They were probably looking for valuables.

I was standing with the nanny and the cook maid in a dining room. One of them came up to us and asked: – Who is she? – he reached out to me. I still can see him. A broad shouldered, mustached one in an unbuttoned coat. I didn’t understand much, but I was afraid of him. When he reached out to me I cried: – Mummy! – and I hugged the nanny’s legs. Having me tied to her skirt she said calmly: – She is my little daughter. – Your little daughter? And where is your husband? – he asked. – Why shall I need a husband? She is my girl and I am raising her – she replied. This convinced him. He left me, finished searching and they went out.

This man knew that taking a child would make its parents turn themselves in to the Chekists. What had saved me then was my nanny, who kept a cool head, and my strange cry. It was strange as it was the first time that I used the word „mummy”. Spending days with a nurse and then with next nannies I had no close relationship with my Mom. When I needed to be helped or comforted I turned to my nanny. I must have remembered from a playground that other children always cried „mummy” when they felt endangered, pained or treated unfairly. So, in case of emergency I did the same automatically.

When I woke up in the morning, my parents were already back and they were packing suitcases. Having learnt about the Chekists’ intrusion they decided to leave the town immediately. There was a danger that the Chekists might come back. My parents burnt all documents so that we could pretend to be other people in case of being caught. They also took their jewelry and money out of hiding places, and we went to the railway station. We took a train to Rostov-on-Don. Quite recently the Reds and the Whites contested this town, but  before that time uncle Zahar and his family had gone to Rostov, so my parents decided to take refuge there first, and  think what to do next.

In Rostov, we got sick quite soon. Both Mom and Dad caught typhus. I caught scarlet fever, probably from my cousins. When my cousins were already in hospital I lived with aunt Sara and the uncle. However, very soon uncle Zahar also caught typhus, and then I contracted scarlet fever. I was so sick that the aunt took me to hospital in the middle of the night. I was even glad to go there and stay with my cousins.

When we were in hospital someone from Kharkiv came to our flat and was asking about the Melamedzons. – Someone gave you away as the bourgeoisie – he told aunt Sara, the only one who wasn’t ill. – The Communists want to arrest you, you’d better run away from here. We couldn’t run away, though, as we were not healthy and too weak for a journey. Only after a few days did my Mom, almost recovered, helped Daddy get dressed. She took him to the railway station and put him into the very first train that was leaving at noon. She was worried about him and his health conditions, but they had to take a risk.

Under a false name in Novorossiysk

The train took my Dad to Novorossiysk, the city port on Black Sea. After around two weeks Daddy let us know he was already better and that we could join him. When we were leaving, Osii, Pola and Zygmunt were already at home, but uncle Zahar’s condition worsened.

In Novorossiysk we lived in a rented room in one of barracks standing along a big yard. However, we didn’t stay there long, as the Bolshevik activists with their families lived in the neighbouring barrack, and Daddy didn’t want to stand out. We moved to a tenement house in one of main streets of the town. We took a dining room with an alcove for a two-person bed and a big basket, full of our things. Every evening my Mummy prepared a bedding for me on this basket. I was almost five but I was a small girl, the basket was quite big, so I had enough space.

Daddy claimed to be a book-keeper and he found a job in an office, but we didn’t use his name, just a false one. We didn’t feel save, as the Chekists were searching houses also here. One evening, when Dad was still at work, a few men in leather jackets came to search through our flat. Mummy grasped a pouch with diamonds and golden coins, which was in a chest, but she didn’t know where to hide it. Fortunately the men started searching from another room. Mummy took my hand and we slipped out of the flat.

There was a man with a gun in front of a gate, but Mom passed by him and started  moving away. Then he shouted – Hey you. Stop or I ‘ll shoot! However, Mummy didn’t stop and she entered the first gate. Then she opened the door of some flat to go inside and hide. But we can see a Chekist having his back to us. They are searching here too. Mom closed the door immediately. He mustn’t have noticed us. We left again. Fortunately the man guarding our tenement house doesn’t shout nor shoot. Maybe he came inside for a while and didn’t notice us.

We knock on another door. There is no searching in this house. Mummy asks hosts for help and those people help us. They put us to bed and cover with a feather quilt. We are not allowed to move. We must wait until the searching is over. We had been lying for a long time. Eventually, someone went to check the street and came back informing us: – The Bolsheviks are gone. You can go back home.

We didn’t move out then, I don’t know why. Apparently soldiers didn’t find anything in our flat and the guarding man didn’t know which flat we had left. He didn’t even know if we lived there. My parents must have come to conclusion that there would be no more searching soon. We didn’t differ from the others. We were dressed like the others, we lived like the others, on my father’s little income, we didn’t sell out the diamonds. Though, Mummy afforded the excess once. She bought for me a beautiful textile doll on the market. This doll, with a ceramic head and its face so gently shaped, looked real. It must have been expensive once, but now it was sold out for a song by a impoverished burgeois or aristocrat. I was happy and kept playing with it.

One day I can see that a little boy from the neighbours looks at me. He smiles at me and his mother tells him something. He came up and asked me to show my doll. I showed it proudly and he took it and he hit it against the pavement with all his might so that its head scattered into pieces. I burst into tears and his mom started to laugh and clap her hands. When my Mom came, attracted by my crying, they were gone. She could have done nothing even if she had come earlier. Later, when we were at home she explained it to me: – They must have been the Bolshevik family. That boy didn’t have such a doll, so he envied you. But we can’t do anything as they can hurt us. Do you understand? I was only five but I did.

In Novorossiysk we received a letter from aunt Sara. Uncle Zahar, she wrote, died of typhus. She and her children are going to the west, they will try to cross the border to Poland. Maybe they will succeed. We didn’t know what happened to the rest of my father’s family: grandparents in Majkop, brothers Salomon and Lowa, sister Rywka and her family. Daddy was writing letters to their pre-revolutionary addresses, but there was no reply. They didn’t know how to find us either. We didn’t live in Kharkiv any longer. Father had never managed to get in touch with anybody from his family again.


Escape across the Black Sea

One day, in the autumn of 1920, Daddy heard that a Turkish ship put into port. It brought Russian people who wanted to return home, and on its way back it would take those who had a permit to leave Russia. But it is also possible, my father learnt, to get on board illegally by bribing Turkish sailors. There are some middlemen in the port, so called tricksters, who help arrange it. Daddy got in touch with them and made a deal with the sailors. They didn’t want money. They will smuggle us if they get a big Persian carpet. Father bought this carpet and soon five sailors came to our place to take it. In the evening, they said, me and Mummy should come to the port. One of them will be waiting for us and let us get on the board. Daddy will join us later.

Mom packed the most valuable things in a suitcase. In the evening we took a cab and went to the port. I still keep in mind a sight of a swinging cab light on a rocky road. The sailor was waiting at the appointed place. In the darkness he brought us to a wooden barrack at the sea, which later appeared to be the lazaret. It was full of beds and the sick, I heard whinings. We were to wait until somebody picked us up.

Mummy put me to one of empty beds and I fell asleep. She woke me up in the middle of the night. The sailor with his colleague turned up. – Hurry up, we are going. Don’t say anything – he commanded. His companion took our suitcase and went ahead, disappearing in the dark. Our sailor took my Mom by hand and told her to grasp me so that I couldn’t get lost. In the darkness, sideways, we eventually reached the ship. There were no soldiers around. But somebody was waiting for us on the ship. They threw a rope ladder and thick rope. Mummy should climb the ladder and the rope is for me and the sailor. – Jump on my back and grip me tightly. Remember you mustn’t say anything – the sailor whispers to me. He started to climb the rope I felt my grip loosening with every pull up. I mustn’t say a word, so I silently tried to keep tight hold, but I was falling down. He realized that I was falling at the very last moment. He caught me with his hand and lifted me. When we boarded, he picked me up and quickly brought to the engine room, where Mummy was waiting. Our suitcase was also there.

We had been lying there and waiting for two days watching the rats plundering in the corners. Only after Daddy joined us did we move to our own cabin, among the legal passengers. The ship had been standing at the port for next two days, which made us very nervous. It could have been controlled at any moment. Finally, we sail. When the shore became a thin line and there was no danger of stopping us, all passengers, both legal and illegal ones, were filled with joy. We leave Russia! The joy proved to be premature as the fear was to be back.

The ship set the course for Constantinople but we were moving so slowly that on the next day we still were on the territorial waters of Russia. Suddenly the patrol boat stopped us. All passengers and crew went up on deck and listened to the boat captain using a speaking tube to announce that soldiers would  board. They received the information about the passengers trying to leave Russia illegally. So everybody is to sit aboard in a row, handling their passports and documents confirming the legality of leaving.

Certainly, these words caused general confusion, as there were many „fare dodgers” among nearly five hundred passengers. We decided that me and my Mummy would stay on board. There was a chance that not everyone in a crowd of women and children would be controlled. Daddy would hide below deck.

For these few days we had got acquainted with some people on the ship, my parents with adults and me with children. Now, when we were waiting on board, the girls started to play hopscotch. I wanted to play with them but Mother put a heavy pouch into my apron pocket, today I know it was filled with our valuables, and told me to sit calmly and watch the pouch. Yet I couldn’t stand it and I joined the girls. The soldiers are walking among people to control their documents and I am hopping and shouting at my Mother to take the pouch away from me as it is disturbing. Fortunately, nobody took a notice of it.

Suddenly I can see a group of people led under arms by the soldiers. They are illegal fugitives caught below deck. My Dad is one of them. Altogether thirteen people, with a talking and struggling Gypsy among them. Finally, the woman takes out a pouch with valuables from between her breasts, shoving it to the commander’s face and shouting to let her free. She says she has got the money and she will pay. The convoy stopped. This caused some mess, even legal passengers started to shout at the soldiers to let the Gypsy free, to let everybody free. The crowd around the group of fugitives became bigger and bigger, people began to press and cry. Eventually, the soldiers restored order by threatening with guns, but then it turned out that one man disappeared. There were only twelve people left in the convoy.

Someone took advantage of the mess and mingled with other people. I can see it’s Daddy, as he is no longer among the caught ones. The commander is nervous, he shouts now that he will not let the ship free unless they find the runaway. Though our captain protest. He doesn’t agree, he can’t stop the ship any longer as we have to reach the ports at the appointed time. They were angry but they let us go. They took those twelve people and left the ship. Only then did Daddy come out of a hidden place. He was still trembling. He took a risk, fled and survived.

I was a little girl then and I didn’t understand many situations I took part in. So, being unaware of danger I wasn’t afraid so much. What filled me with real dread was a heavy storm that came next night when we were on the high seas. The ship was rolling and pitching in the waves like a small inert ball, and I was screaming, being sure that we were going to sink. Since that night I’ve been having fear of water.

After five or six days we disembarked at Constantinople.