Before World War II our family lived in the small town (shtetl) of Lyubar, located just southwest of Zhitomir, Ukraine. I do not have any photos of my parents. The only photo that was left from life before the war is a picture of the second grade students at the Jewish School. I used to belong to that class. This school later was closed and converted into a Russian school. I continued to study there, but I later changed schools and graduated from Novolyubar Ukrainian School.
At various times after the war, our friend Anatoly Kantor contacted all of us who had survived it. For many years he used to gather us at the place where our parents and relatives were killed. We met in Kiev and then traveled by bus to Lyubar. There we remembered those whom we had lost. There was no monument in Lyubar. For many years we tried to get a monument installed, but the local officials did not want it. They taunted us and said it was impossible that four thousand people did not resist and allowed themselves to be killed, although they knew that all those victims were the aged, women, and children. All those people were watched through the sights of machine guns. Only antisemites could think like the local officials did. We petitioned the Communist Party Congresses but always got negative answers. Finally the monument was installed in 1975. But the four thousand Jews were not acknowledged. That monument’s dedication read “To the Soviet People, the Victims of Fascism.”
I would like to tell about the beginning of the war. On June 17, 1941, we had a graduation ceremony at which we got our high school diplomas. My diploma looked very nice, but now I have only a copy of it. The war began on Sunday, June 22. All the young people gathered at the Young Pioneers Club. They wanted us to be ready to go underground if the Germans came. But then, when the Red Army was doing not well and retreated, we were drafted into the army. They selected thirty young men, and we passed the medical exam. They appointed a Ukrainian whose last name was Levadny to be in charge of this group. This man later became a traitor and fled to the Germans.
We received an order to go to the Hrebinky railway station. There was no railway in Lyubar; the closest station was at Pechanovka, 20 kilometers (approx 12.5 miles) away, but we could not go there because it had been captured. So we walked to Chudnov and met many refugees on the way there. They told us that we would have to return to Lyubar. Some of us followed them, but I thought that would be desertion. Only five men stayed in our group.
The evacuation from Lyubar was not organized. Also, many people thought that because the Germans had not harmed the Jews during World War I, they would not do any harm now. So my parents stayed in the town with my 85-year-old grandfather, my younger brother, and my two sisters, ages thirteen and four. I had left on July 5, and on July 9 the Germans were in Lyubar.
There was an orphanage in Lyubar. It was located in a former Catholic cathedral. The communists removed crosses from that building back in 1920s. The Germans forced all Jews into that building. Unfortunately, many local Ukrainians helped the Nazis, and the Germans gave them weapons. Those policemen mocked Jews, raped young women, and then sent them to a concentration camp where they died in the gas chambers. But many people were shot right on the spot. On July 13 and 14, the Germans selected the healthiest individuals, those whom they thought would be able to resist, and shot them. I never saw my family again.
Written by Mikhail Zemlyak, Never Heard, Never Forget: Vol. I, 2017