My Mom (in a white dress) with her cousins just before the war.
Senior Lieutenant Malka-Galina Lerner, 1944
Today, May 9, I celebrate my Mom’s second birthday. I call this day her second birthday, as she did, because her actual birthday was on another day years earlier. She chose this second birthday herself because it represented a huge change in her life and the lives of everyone around her. It wasn’t that this was a beautiful spring day, or that the lilacs were in full bloom. May 9th is the day Russia marks as the end of World War II in Europe.
On 22 June 1941, the Germans broke their agreement and invaded the Soviet Union in ‘Operation Barbarossa’. It was a Sunday. The day before in Soviet schools there were graduation parties. When bands stopped playing, yesterday’s classmates, by tradition, went to meet the dawn. Young Muscovites headed to the Red Square, those in the Crimea – went to the seashore, in Kiev – to the banks of the River Dnieper, and in Leningrad to the River Neiva, to greet the white night. That far north, the June Sun never sets completely.
An unidentified witness described what happened next. “That day the dawn began in Moscow at 3:45 AM, but at the country’s border the engines of German tanks were already rattling and fascists’ airplanes were already in the air to bomb major Soviet cities. They had already set their course and 15 minutes after the dawn they opened their bomb bay doors, and bombs showered down on the cities and the Great Fatherland War began!”
Drawn suddenly into the War, the Soviet Union mobilized its military, activated its weapons industry, and called out to ordinary citizens to do what was necessary to stop an existential threat. Millions were called into service and many more volunteered. My Mom joined the army.
When the Soviet Army retreated from the German advance in the winter of 1941, the Nazis took all the food for their Army from the people they were invading. Only those who could not move away remained in their homes. Lots of abandoned houses were burned and a few rare people stayed home with the hope they could survive.
Once, my Mom shared one story that gave me a glimpse of that part of the war. She had not eaten in two days and had no shelter, so she knocked on the door of one such house. A woman with a baby in her arms opened the door and invited my Mom in to warm up. My Mom felt so happy to have the warmth of the house around her, and the cheerful smell of potatoes frying on a tiny stove made her head spin. Here was a family – someone else’s family but a family nonetheless.
Potatoes frying on a tiny stove made her head spin
The woman went into another part of the house with her child, closing the door after her. Mom stood there several minutes, trying to absorb all the warmth, but the potatoes frying in the skillet were screaming her name. Mom could have taken a piece – no one was looking – but she opened the outside door and left, knowing those inside would need the food. Mom’s part in the War was just starting.
1973 reunion of women – WWII participants – in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) near MOTHERLAND CALLS statue. My Mom is in the second row on the left.
She was wounded near Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle in the history of humankind. Her left arm was hanging on the tissue and a bomb, that fell close to her created a deep funnel, pulling out soil and stones and throwing it on my Mom’s head. Others, who were near her, did not survive.
In another story, she shared how she was dragging a wounded soldier from the field where many were shot from airplanes, and a German airplane was flying in circles above her head. He flew away for a short while and then, returned. getting closer to the ground. Then, he was going up circling and circling above her hand and she was holding her arm above her head trying to hide behind her arm. The pilot let her live.
Youth is a very bright time in our lives, but my Mom’s youth synchronized with four years of blood and destruction. She talked about this time her whole life. She was a hero, my Mom — carrying wounded soldiers from the battlefields to help them to extend their lives.
42 relatives on her side were killed by Nazis
If she had not gone to the war, who knows if Mom would have survived. She told me that 42 relatives on her side were killed by Nazis during the holocaust. She knew they were buried somewhere in the area they had lived. Suddenly, on October 1, 2015, I found out watching 60 Minutes that a Catholic priest from France had gone to Ukraine, Poland and Moldova and discovered the mass graves where they were buried. My Mom survived, but I lost an opportunity to have many cousins and uncles and aunts if these guys hadn’t been killed.
My Mom survived, and here I am and here is my daughter and my grandkids. Needless to say that I dragged all of them to the USA, the safest place that one could imagine. Picture. Needless to say, this gave my Mom a chance to see her descendants.
May 9, 2007
Mom understood how lucky she had been to survive – twenty million fellow Russians had not been so lucky. By the time the Germans signed the surrender, it was May 9, 1945. In Russia that became a national holiday. It was a beautiful day — the lilacs were in bloom and Mom felt reborn. From that day forward, she adopted May 9 as her second birthday.
This May 9th I am putting flowers on her tombstone once again, but she is always alive – for me!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!
Here is some music you would enjoy to celebrate.