500 + Jolly :The great escape


My 71-year-old grandmother had to come to terms with the reality that she would have to leave her home and move East. It was the autumn of 1941. Germany had declared war on Russia in the summer and enemy forces were getting threateningly close to the town of Voronezh, where we lived. 1Bombing of the neighbourhood had already begun.

Granny Bella Isacovna’s family comprised her son, Gilevich Abram Davidovich and his wife Rachil Matveevna, my parents, and her daughter, Rachil Davidovna, my aunt. My mother Rachil was an engineer, employed in the distillery business, and Rachil, my aunt was a trained pharmacist as well as a trained pianist who played background music for silent movies. After the war began, my father Gilevich joined the volunteer corps. 

When the decision was reached that the family had to leave, it was also clear that Gilevich could not accompany the women because of his engagement and that the  women would have to be on their own. Rachil Matveevna, my mother, rose to the occasion. Russians from Voronezh had already begun evacuating. Those in high places, rich and powerful, were given train tickets for the East. Others were left behind, possibly to be killed. As a Jewish family, Bella and her children were among the latter. Anticipating what may befall them, Rachil managed to get train tickets and all the necessary arrangements for the journey. It wasn’t easy, but Rachil was a very smart and capable person. She was only 32 and I was 4.

Journey: We boarded one of the jollies and left on the 16th of October, 1941. The train was crowded and facilities basic but at least we were on the move.  We reached Riazhsk, 287 km north where the train halted, and passengers went out.  Shortly after, the station was bombed by German planes. Passengers had to continue moving by another train which was meant for long distances. But its driver was faced with a decision: to start in the evening and face the danger of damaged or bombed tracks or wait till morning to be seen by the bombers. There was a bridge just ahead of the station and was vulnerable as a target of attack. The driver gathered all the passengers together and asked  their opinion; they all decided to leave at night and risk the danger.

The train had no provision for food or water -just tiers and bunks for passengers to lie on. It had to make several frequent stops at small towns and villages to give way to military trains. At the stops, passengers could get off to get provisions and to walk. But there was a danger of getting lost. I was taught to remember names of three places: Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, the final destination. This was as a precaution so that in case  I was lost I could tell people where my family was headed for.

 Because of the risk of bombing, the adults on the train were instructed to  lie over their children and then cover themselves with whatever they had to escape shelling.  On the way, my mother caught a cold and was running a fever but made sure no one got the wind of it lest she was taken off the train.

We travelled for 16 days and reached Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia in the beginning of November in the middle of severe winter when the temperature was down to -40 Celsius.

We were put up in barracks and dormitories, few of which had proper windows. My mother found a job in a brick factory as a head of the planning department. And Rachil, my aunt too got a job there as an accountant. The bricks manufactured here were used to build the factory for producing rockets for the Katyusha mortars.

I suffered from bad tonsils and fell ill soon after arriving at Krasnoyarsk. Conditions were not exactly perfect for a young child.

We were not the only ones to come to Krasnoyarsk. 

                              Mother and I

Prisoners who had been freed in Russia were sent here too, with very little provisions, no future plans nor prospective work. Siberia was ill prepared and food shortage was widespread. I remember, one day, Granny Bella found a bag of potatoes which was like a feast. Someone must have stolen and kept it aside. No one owned up. But everyone enjoyed a good meal.

The family moved to a small one room in a hostel. Shortly after this Bella’s second daughter Vera joined us and she was accompanied by Maya , her 17-year old adopted daughter, and my father Abram Davidovich.

Maya’s life had been one of endless tragedy.  Her father, Yakov Samuilovich Leybovich, was the chief architect of Rostov, a town south of Voronezh. Her mother, Elena Borisovna Pochtivaya, was the chief paediatrician. During the period of repression before the war under Stalin and Beria, Yakov was declared by the local government, as state’s enemy and Elena being his wife was similarly branded. They were exiled and the daughter put into an orphanage. Vera and her husband, Leybovich Teodor Samuilovich, Yakov’s brother rescued Maya from the orphanage and adopted her. The trauma affected Maya and scarred her for life.

Yakov disappeared forever. Maya’s biological mother, Elena Borisovna, was exiled to Bushuyka, a small town near Chita in Siberia. When Vera Davidovna joined the army, Maya left for Bushuyka and got admission to a medical school in Chita but couldn’t continue her studies because of her childhood shock. Then Maya went to stay with Elena Borisovna.

We continued to live in Krasnoyarsk till 1945. We could not return till we were called back. My parents and aunt got job offers in Voronezh, L’vov and Kishinev. They chose to go to L’vov, west of Ukraine. That is where we settled down. I completed school and went to do medicine here. Aunt Rachil returned to Voronezh for a while but came back to L’vov.

I stayed in L’vov, built my own family till we moved to Moscow in 1973.  That is another story.


Eleonora Abramovna, an Oncologist lives in Moscow

Note on the Title:

There were two kinds of trains – fast and slow. The former, with lower denomination (for example, number 1 or 10 or 25), were called priority; they were more comfortable, but their tickets were more expensive and fewer. Usually people had to travel by the slow trains, with high numbers (for example, 510). These trains were basic in terms of amenities, were uncomfortable and provided no food or beverage. Most people travelled by these slow uncomfortable modes of transport. Unable to change their circumstances, they turned to jest, tagging the trains as ‘jolly,’ or ‘cheerful.’

Author profile

Eleonora Abramovna is an Oncologist who lives in Moscow.


  1.  South of Moscow, this town was not far from the north eastern border of Ukraine.


  1. Awesome story! Lots of learning on how ordinary people experienced life during the second world war in different parts of the world. Keep up the good work.

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