News & Stories

WWII Survivor Remembers Hardship, Human Kindness as Refugee

Lyudmila was four years old when the war started. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union with a massive army of more than three million soldiers. Lyudmila’s father was conscripted to fight in the Soviet resistance. As the Nazis advanced, little Lyudmila and her Momma were evacuated by train, along with other Soviet Jews, from their tidy apartment in Kiev to a Jewish community in Turkestan. They took nothing with them, she remembers, not even the dog.

“There, we were treated very well,” Lyudmila recalls. A relief organization gave them a house and food, and her mother worked while she went to school.

As fascist soldiers advanced on this community, the displaced Jews were evacuated once again, this time on horse-drawn wagons, to the shore of the Caspian Sea. There they suffered hardship without food or shelter for days, waiting for a large steamship to transport them across the sea.

“People were very sick and hungry, it was terrible. But we all helped each other,” she said.

The most harrowing part of her journey took place at sea, when the 300 Jews on board had to walk across a narrow gangplank onto another ship.

“I remember suitcases falling into the sea, and people jumping into the water after them,” she shudders.

After several days, they arrived at a refugee camp in Turkmenistan. She remembers being sick with chickenpox and subsisting on bread with fish oil and salt. Momma found work again at a hospital, and she began school against her will. There, at least, she ate one good meal a day.

They stayed there four years, later joined by her grandparents, until the radio announced that Kiev was free. The return trip home took 41 days by train, but when they arrived, their apartment was empty.

“Our neighbors took everything,” she said sadly. 

They also feared they had lost Lyudmila’s father, because his letters had stopped and they could not contact him. As they learned later, the news blackout began when he had been reassigned from the Western Front fighting Germans to the Eastern Front fighting Japan.  Happy the day he rejoined his family.

“I had a very good life after that,” she said.

She went to college and got two degrees, first in nursing and then in economics. She got married and had a daughter.  In 1998, though, Kiev once again became a dangerous place. Crime rates skyrocketed. The parents of Lyudmila’s son-in-law were murdered. People started leaving once again.

Lyudmila’s family went to Vienna, and with the help of the Jewish Federation, relocated in New Jersey, and then to Indianapolis when her son-in-law found work here. Lyudmila worked as a seamstress with J.C. Penny for many years.

Today, Lyudmila, 81, continues to struggle, but mostly with health and balance. The Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis referred her to CICOA, which provides help with bathing, dressing, medication reminders, meal preparation, and housekeeping tasks. A portion of her attendant care also is provided via a grant through the Jewish Family Foundation for survivors of World War II. Her daughter is her caregiver. But her joy—her face lights up when she speaks of  her—is her great granddaughter, her Princessa, now four years old.