Survivor Stories: Rita
Rita was born in 1934 in Kiev, Ukraine during the Soviet era. Her father was an army officer and her mother was a Primary School teacher. In 1939, her father was relocated to Bialystok in eastern Poland and Rita and her mother moved with him.
On June 22nd 1941, without any announcement, Nazi Germany began military action against the Soviet army and Rita's father was sent to the front. As bombing began in the towns and settlements, seven-year-old Rita and her mother, who was seven months pregnant at the time, fled along with other military families and civilians in the region. Her father couldn’t leave his division, but he sent a car and they were driven out of Bialystok. Rita’s mother held tight to her hand as they watched the home where they expected to greet a new baby fade in the distance.
A Dangerous BridgeThey quickly reached the River Bug and the driver stopped. Rita strained to see through the window what was wrong, and she heard voices grumbling outside. Her mother squeezed her hand as the announcement came. “Everybody out. The bridge has been destroyed and can’t carry cars. We’ll have to walk across.” Rita scrambled out of the car after her mother. They walked toward a wooded area as the driver and others who’d pulled up short began to discuss a way around. Some had begun tentatively picking their way across the remains of the plank bridge, determined to get across. Within moments, a whistle sounded in the air and Rita’s mother covered her with a shout as a bomb landed on their car, blowing fragments of steel in every direction. They ran into the cover of the woods, the smoke and shouts rising behind them. Rita clung to her mother’s hand. “We have to cross the bridge. We’ll go through it,” her mother said. One step at a time, they plodded, sections of the bridge snapping in protest, threatening to drop them any moment into the rushing water below. They picked up their pace at the sound of a vehicle. Rita looked back. GERMANS. They emerged with long guns, shouting at those crossing the bridge. People screamed as the first shots rang out. Her mother hurried her forward, ignoring the creaking planks and screams and bodies falling into the river. “Run, Rita,” her mother tugged her from the bridge to the cover of the forest.
Refuge in the Forest
Once in the woods, the sounds of gunshot far behind them, they walked on foot from village to village, seeking food, water, and shelter. Each day, they darted out long enough to make their meagre requests before retreating again to the safety of the woods. All the time, her mother’s pregnant belly led the way. Her hand often rested beneath it, as if to relieve the weight even for a moment. On July 3, 1941, her mother sent her ahead with another group of people. “I’ll stay here and have a rest,” she said. “No, we must keep moving, Mother,” Rita cried, urging them forward. But her mother could not and she leaned against a tree. Rita knew she needed help. She rushed from group to group, begging for help. Finally, a woman took pity on her and ran back to the forest where her mother was on her back breathing heavily. Rita did just as the woman said, and before long, her baby brother Gary was born. The kind woman wiped him down and wrapped him up, handing him to Rita. “This is your brother. Take good care of him.” Rita looked from the towering trees in the heart of the Belarussian forest to the face of her new brother. She held his tiny hand the way her mother had held hers crossing the bridge.
They couldn’t rest long, as the German army was on the move, and they heard shots in the distance compelling them to keep going. The days were spent traveling from village to village, keeping to forest as much as possible. Finally, with some help from retreating Soviet soldiers, they arrived in the Belarussian town of Gomel where they were able to ride on a train until it was bombed and they again fled. It took them thirty days and numerous disrupted train rides to make it to Kazakhstan, where they stayed for two years. It was a difficult time, full of hunger and cold. Her mother worked ceaselessly to feed them, all while longing for news of their father and the end of the war. In Semipalatinsk where they were finally able to settle, Rita couldn’t go to school because she babysat her brother. Her mother worked long hours to bring in the meagre food they could afford. The cold and hunger was so invasive, their jaws bled.