When the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 started, my father, Morduch Isaakovich Korobov, and my mother, Sarah Solomonovna Korobova, worked at the bicycle factory in Kharkov, Ukraine. My older brother, Isaak, was going to second grade, and I was only two years old. In October 1941 the plant where our parents worked got an order to evacuate to Bukhara, Uzbekistan. At first my parents wanted to leave me and my brother with our grandparents in Kharkov; however, they learned of the Nazi massacres of Jews, and it was decided that we would leave together. I was two years and ten months old when our family and other Kharkov families were loaded into boxcars. We were on the road for over a month. We often stopped. During bombings, people jumped out of the cars, many of them with children in their arms, and hid behind the embankment. We lay face down, covered our ears with our hands, and waited until the bombing was over. Sometimes we heard the sound of the locomotive’s buzzer and ran back to the boxcar—often under the exploding shells—because we were afraid of being left behind. After each stop along the way we counted casualties—the dead and wounded, stragglers from the train. Then we ran out of food and water. Hungry kids were crying, and many got dysentery and lice. In the dirty, stinking cars we could not breathe (the toilet was out, and we were using buckets). Adults and children were coughing and choking.
Finally, when we got to Bukhara we were placed with other families in the old school. We lived there in unsanitary conditions for several months because we had not been able to settle at the homes of the local population. For forty-six months we lived in a small room. It actually was a hallway, which the locals gave us out of pity. Our relationship with the owners of the apartment was strained. We often had quarrels and even fights with them. I was still a little boy when I was hit in the eye with a stick during a fight with the owners’ kid. The eye got black, festered for a long time, and did not heal.
Local people were not very happy with our presence in their homes. My parents and Isaak, who was twelve at the time, started working at a defense plant for ten to sixteen hours a day. I was in the kindergarten. I was taken home only at night, and often I was left for a day or longer. During one of those long days I was seriously injured when I stretched to reach a clothes hook and a long, full-length closet fell on me. I was in the hospital for a long time. After that I experienced severe headaches and dizziness. I had trouble sleeping and became visually impaired. The consequences of this injury I feel even today. I was no longer taken to the kindergarten. Instead I went with my mother to pick cotton on plantations. The cotton’s bright white bloom causer my vision to deteriorate further, and I could not see anymore. After receiving a special treatment, I began to wear special glasses for the blind.
In December 1943 my father volunteered to go to the front line. He immediately was assigned to the infantry rifle unit, and during the first battle on January 27, 1944, he was killed. I have a single letter, written before this battle, in which my father says goodbye to us. I was a little boy, but even today I remember how my mother cried, standing with the letter in her hand in the little Bukhara room and how my brother and I, too, began to cry, though perhaps we were not yet fully aware of the loss.
In autumn 1945 we returned to ruined Kharkov. At the site of the house where we had lived, we found ashes and ruins. People who knew our grandparents told us that they saw them among other Jews who were taken to Drobitskiy Yar. During the first six months in Kharkov, we shared a room with distant relatives and friends. Then we were given a room (10.5 meters in size) in the communal apartment of an old house near a suburban train station, Levada. There was one small kitchen for five families.. There was one small kitchen for five families. Each family had a little kitchen table and a primus for cooking. We had a toilet outside, and going outside in the winter was a particularly difficult procedure. Water for drinking and other uses was taken from outside. In extreme cold the pump often froze and did not work. We did not have wood to heat our room.
After the war my mother worked in the bicycle factory for a short time and later as a cutter at the knitting factory until her retirement. She got up at dawn and drove me to school on a sled. I remember well this long journey on the slippery, broken streets. It was freezing. My clothes were light and leaky, and I often had frostbitten cheeks, arms, and legs. As a child I developed varicose veins and thrombosis, diseases that prevented me from being drafted into the army. When I came to the United States in 1998, I had several surgeries.
In 1946 I went to school. Shoes and clothes after the war were not plentiful. Somehow my mother got me a used pair of shoes. One shoe was black, the other dark brown, and both were patched in many places. She also found pants and a worn shirt for me. That was my school outfit. Winter 1946 in Kharkov was particularly cold, so my mother stuffed the insides of my shoes with old newspapers. In school we did not take our coats off because of the cold. We did not have desks, just rows of seats, and instead of notebooks we used scraps of coarse brown paper. Ink on that paper blurred and then spread, provoking the wrath of the teacher because it was difficult for her to sort out our scribbles. In such circumstances the last thing we thought about was studying. All I wanted to do was to eat, and the main question of the day was where to get some wood for the stove. I ran to the station Levada, where on some successful days I could collect coal dust and chips at the gate of the warehouses. When I was able to drag this extraordinary wealth home, I felt like the happiest boy ever.
Written by Mikhail Korobov, Never Heard, Never Forget: Vol. I, 2017