Nazi German troops invaded Belarus on June 22, 1941. For Belarusians, as for all peoples of the Soviet Union, the Second World War is known as the Great Patriotic War. It’s been almost 80 years since then. People who fought in that war are becoming fewer by the day. However, their descendants – children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – keep alive the memory of what they went through.
During the war, people often became related not by blood but in spirit. This is what happened to a family of Old Believers (Orthodox Christians who refuse to support the modern Orthodox canon). The Kuzmins saved a Jewish teenager, Lyova Vorobeychik, from the Nazis.
This amazing tale of how a dark time united people who up until then had been complete strangers was told to us by Georgiy Kuzmin, a resident of the city of Vitebsk, shortly before his death.
THE KUZMINS, OLD BELIEVERS, AND THE VOROBEYCHIKS, JEWS
Nazar and Anna Kuzmin were religious and hard-working people. Nazar’s ancestors had lived in the Kostroma province of Russia, but when persecutions of Old Believers began, they moved to the village of Mashkino near Vitebsk.
The Vorobeychik family – 16-year-old Lyova, his mother and sisters – lived not too far from the Kuzmins’ village, in the small town of Chashniki, where Germans had built a ghetto. The young man went around the region, trading goods for food. Once, when he was out making his rounds, he was almost caught in a raid, but he ran away and hid in a friend’s attic. The woman of the house sheltered him for several days, but later told him to leave: She was afraid the Nazis would find him. Lyova hid in the woods near the village of Krasnaya Sloboda. It so happened that this was the very spot that the Germans chose to massacre the Jews from the ghetto on February 15, 1942. The young man witnessed the death of his mother, his sisters, other relatives …
By some stroke of luck, the Germans did not see him, and Lyova left that terrible spot. He wandered through villages, asking people for food and shelter. Some allowed him to spend the night, some gave him bread and asked him to leave, while others drove him away immediately. Two weeks later, at the end of February, an exhausted Lyova came to Mashkino. He knocked on the door of the hut at the edge of the village, in which the Kuzmins lived.
The family took the boy in, although it was a very dangerous thing to do: there was a German sapper battalion deployed to the village, and their commander lived with Nazar Kallistratovich and Anna Minovna because he liked the clean and spacious hut.
HOW LYOVA WAS SAVED
The youngest of the Kuzmins’ children – Georgiy, or Gera, as the family called him – was just five at the time. But he remembered those events as if they had happened yesterday. When we talked with 80-year-old Georgiy Nazarovich, he was in hospice, where doctors were helping to alleviate his pain from cancer. A week after our interview, he died…
Georgiy Nazarovich had agreed to meet with the journalists because he wanted to tell them about his parents’ heroic action. He spoke in a low and weak voice, but coherently and logically.
“Lyova came to our house and asked us to hide him. It was night-time and it was very cold. My mother and father took the boy in. They had certainly heard about the massacres of Jews across the region and knew that people hiding them could be killed. But that did not stop them. In the beginning, they hid Lyova in the bathhouse. But it was cold in there, and heating it in the middle of the week could attract people’s attention. My father moved him to the house to make sure that Lyova did not freeze to death. He did it so the Germans did not notice. When it got dark, he put Lyova in a sack, and brought him into the hut, as if he were carrying firewood.”
The young man spent some time in a tiny closet, behind the stove. But the German commander lived in the same house! Every time Lyova heard his voice, he trembled with fear. This could not last long as the Germans could discover him at any moment. Therefore, the boy was secretly transferred to a small distant village, where there were no Germans.
When Lyova was wandering around looking for shelter, he got severe frostbite on his feet. There were no medicines, so they rubbed goose fat onto them. Oksana, the Kuzmins’ daughter, who was a medical student before the war, treated the Jewish teenager. Georgiy and his elder brother Fedya took turns delivering food to Lyova. Fedya and Lyova were almost the same age. But most often it was Gera who brought the food: small children drew less attention from the Germans and polizei.
By the end of March, Lyova’s health had improved a bit. The Kuzmins gave him clothes and shoes. At a family meeting, they decided that Fedya would transfer the boy to the partisans.
Anna Minovna called the boys to her and blessed them, then they left for the unknown. She was unable to breathe easily until the minute Fedya came back home. After that, she prayed for two people – Lyova, to whom she had become attached, and her son Nikolay, who had been fighting in the war since the beginning, and about whom they had no news.
“My mother was going crazy. She believed that her son was alive. But sometimes she would go and look for him among the dead – there were hundreds of bodies lying in ditches by the roads. It was not until 1944, when our troops liberated Vitebsk, that we finally saw Kolya. He had been wounded and had received military honors,” said Georgiy Kuzmin, proudly recalling his elder brother.
NAZIS MADE THE KIDS DRINK ALCOHOL AND LAUGHED
“God, what we went through…,” said Georgiy Kuzmin, with pain and bitterness in his voice. “Bombings, refugees, fires… The smell of death was in the air. The war made us children grow up too fast. I’ve been drinking since I was five…”
“What are you saying?”
“The Germans forced my father to make moonshine. However, they were also worried that the master of the house would try and poison them. They called me and my brother to the table, poured moonshine into cups and gave it to us. My mother begged them on her knees not to make her kids drink alcohol. But they did not listen, they ordered us: “Trinken schnaps.” Fedya and I drank it, to their exuberant squeals. The alcohol made me fall down almost immediately. I stood up and fell down again. The Germans screamed with laughter.”
Those were terrible times. Oksana, Georgiy’s sister, faced mortal danger twice. She could speak German and worked as a nurse in a hospital for enemy pilots. She stole medicines there and handed them over to the partisans. She was taken to the Gestapo twice. When it happened for the first time, Nazar Kallistratovich bought his daughter out – he gave the Nazis a barrel of honey. The hard-working villager kept bees even during the war. When it happened for a second time, he saved her from the gallows by giving the Germans a family heirloom – a gold Old Believers’ eight-pointed cross.
“When my sister – skinny and dirty – came home, we were so happy, and Fedya and I just wouldn’t leave her side,” Georgiy Nazarovich recalled.
MEETING AFTER THE WAR
Saved by the Old Believers from the Nazis, Lyova Vorobeychik spent six months with the partisans. Afterwards, he was flown to the home front. But the boy ran away from there, back to the battle. He had no documents, and he was soon detained and placed under arrest on suspicion of espionage. None of the investigators believed his story. The tale of how a Jew escaped a massacre, hid right under the nose of the fascists, joined a partisan group, then flew to the home front sounded made-up, absurd, and a fairy tale.
The second time, Lyova was saved by his elder brother Pyotr, who was a pilot and had been fighting in Leningrad. Pyotr wrote a letter to the government, confirmed the identity of his brother and asked for help. The government listened to the pilot-hero, and Lyova was released.
After the war, the Kuzmins searched for Vorobeychik, and he searched for them. They only found each other 14 years after the victory, in 1959.
By the time of that long-awaited meeting, Vorobeychik had received higher education, worked as a manager in a construction company, and was happily married. Lev took his whole family on a visit to Mashkino. He had changed a lot, but Nazar Kallistratovich and Anna Minovna felt it in their hearts: this was the same Lyova who had hidden with his frostbitten legs behind the stove, scared of making a sound …
“Lyova was very grateful to our family,” Georgiy Kuzmin said. “He called my parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, and his children called them ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa.’ Mother loved Lyova very much and treated him like her own son. He often visited Mashkino. Each time it was fun and everybody was happy. Once he even flew in on a helicopter! He put my mother and us, the young people, in the cabin, and we flew over our home village. It was unforgettable!”
Lev Vorobeychik died from heart disease at age 59 in 1984. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Vitebsk. Lev’s daughter, Svetlana, emigrated to Israel, while his son Igor went to Germany.
Journalists found Igor Vorobeychik in Cologne 10 years ago. He wrote a very cordial letter about his adopted relatives from the Belarusian village of Mashkino. The letter ended as follows: “I remember them with such warmth. I used to tell my children about them and now I tell my grandson… He listens to my story, with his mouth open, hardly breathing, amazed that there are such wonderful people in Belarus.”
By Tatyana Matveyeva