Since we didn’t have time for stops, we all had our duties to perform: Father drove the wagon and tended the team of horses, Anatoly walked alongside to lead the third horse (one horse was always ‘resting’ and ready to be changed), Mama would prepare our food inside the wagon, and my sister sat on the back of the wagon and held onto the cow’s reins. After some time, our lives seemed to achieve a kind of normality, even in our quest for survival. Our tentative peace and hope for the future was tempered by our uncertainty of what tragic thing might await us around the next corner. We wouldn’t have to wait long to see what the next corner held for us.
We set off one day, and at the first turn in the road, a German Jeep with a machine gun flew past us. They didn’t give my father a chance to pull over and let them pass and as they roared past, they knocked my sister off the wagon, whose legs were dangling down in the usual carefree manner of children. The German soldiers didn’t even slow down, much less stop. Suddenly everything was chaos as my sister lay in the road with her mangled and twisted leg, with its knee-cap hanging by skin. The wagons following us nearly ran Galina over, Mama was wailing and father was furious with himself for not being able to pull off the road and save my sister from this pain.
Someone said there was a German field hospital in the next village, so we rushed her there and they put her on their operating table. The doctors were able to save her leg, but just as they finished, Anatoly came running up and told us that we had to leave immediately, that the Red army had already reached our camp and was just hundreds of meters behind us, coming our way. We could not yet move her so we had to leave her there, terrified, at the German hospital, which was being evacuated as the bombs started falling.
As we fled without my poor sister, the US warplanes appeared overhead and began bombing the German camp; we could only imagine how sad and scared my sister must have felt, just 14 years old, abandoned by her family, alone, with no one to hold her hand and now a target for the American and Russian armies! Only God knows how she survived; to this day, when I think of how my dear sister suffered and how frightened she must have been, tears fill up in my eyes.
After time passed and the assault ended, our determined Father fought past untold obstacles he always refused to talk about, to go back to the bombed-out camp and bring Galina back to us, with her leg full of maggots due to the lack of medical attention. As it turns out, the maggots eating the pus from her infection helped to save her leg, and after that our mother cared for Galina and cleaned her leg.
The days blur into one another in my memory, but eventually we found ourselves in the next town. We rode up to a beautiful abandoned villa with rose gardens, grapevines, a big kitchen and a wine cellar. I found a big sack of black beans, and in no time mama was cooking up a pot of warm bean soup. Father and Anatoly went off up the mountain to pasture the animals while dinner was cooking.
Our peaceful idyll was not to last very long; the sound of bombers and fighter planes approached. War planes bomb in three passes: First they circle the site, in the second pass they pick their target, and in the final pass, they release their bombs. My mother and I heard the hair-raising roar of the planes circling overhead and she instantly grabbed me and headed toward the villa’s wine cellar. On the second pass, terrified, I burst loose from her hand and ran away toward the city center’s main bomb shelter. She ran after me, crying “Ludachka! Ludachka!” and as we approached the bomb shelter, we were almost pushed by an explosion into the shelter. My kneeling mother covered me with her arms, protecting me with her own body. Another round of bombs was exploding overhead, and rocks and wood were falling down as the earth shook. I asked mama why the other children were crying and screaming, but she just began reciting the Our Father and said “Pray, Luda, pray!”
Hours later, after the bombing stopped, we came up out of the shelter and walked back to the villa, where we found everyone frantically searching the gardens, looking for us. We stared in amazement at the wine cellar where we were supposed to have been sheltered–it was now a bomb crater! The rose garden, the grapevines and part of the kitchen were demolished by a direct hit. After we took stock and realized we had all survived–even our animals which were safe in the mountains with my Father, Mama could only remind us again to give thanks for the blessings our Grandmother had given when we escaped from Mother Russia, which had once again protected us from almost certain death.