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Helen and Sol Krawitz Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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Survivor Profile




(1937 - PRESENT)






JULY 28, 1937









    (Translation from the Russian by Elena Volkova and Jolie Black)

    When we talk about evacuation of people today, one can imagine specially prepared buses, trains and special routes. But during World War II in the USSR, fleeing from the Nazi party was not well organized. People were just given evacuation sheets and they could move the suggested direction or choose to go their own way. Generally, the evacuees were those who were afraid to stay. They were mostly party functionaries, their families, and Jews.


    People traveled by horses and trains, mostly cattle wagons. Railway stations were not accustomed to the large number of passengers and the accumulation of so many people in the unsanitary conditions led to a lot of illness. Water was the only thing always available at the stations – both hot and cold. Many refugees died on the way. Considering the fact that many of the refugees were children and older people, it was only the luckiest people that could survive under those conditions. Perhaps we were among these lucky ones, unless you count the heroic efforts of the parents. It is the parents, overcoming all difficulties and unusual conditions of life that saved their children.


    In late August 1941, my family received an evacuation sheet. Lev Polyakov, my father, was a railway engineer, so he was sent to prepare the roads for the army rather than being drafted. Therefore, at the time of evacuation of the family, he was building roads and a crossing in the area of the Tsimlyansk on the river Don. At that moment, our family lived in Rostov-on-Don. Military and city officials did not know that Rostov-on-Don would be occupied by the Nazis soon, much less twice. The first occupation was very short, from the 21st to the 29th of November 1941, and then the town was liberated until the end of July 1942. The second occupation lasted six months, until mid-February 1943.


    Before the arrival of the Nazi army to our city in October 1941, all high school students, including my older sister, Sofia, were sent to dig trenches around the city to defend the city. My mother, of course, could not leave her eldest daughter, and put off evacuating until Sofia returned. But this approach had its problems – the authorities realized the severity of the situation so they sent everyone, even children, to protect entrances to the city, but nobody bothered to organize to return the children. The circumstance was saved by the correspondent journalist of the newspaper “Molot.” Raspopov went to pick up his daughter and brought Sofia as well. However, he was in such a hurry that Sofia had no time to take her belongings. According to Sofia, the next day, in the middle of October 1941, our family moved to Zheleznovodsk to our relatives.  There were four of us – my mother, two sisters, 17 and 13 years old, and I was 4 years old.


    A couple of weeks later more relatives came to Zheleznovodsk from Rostov – four adults and two children that were placed into the same apartment. It became impossible to live that way, so we all moved further south and stopped in the town of Kizlyar. Here, our family was allowed to settle in the little, summer house in the field, usually used in the summer for vacation, field work and preparation of food. There, I fell ill with measles and nearly died. My mom had to walk through the fields to a nearby village to belongings for food or make repairs and tailoring to local women. There were no drugs and no doctors. After illness, I couldn’t even walk and had to crawl to move around.


    After learning about our difficult situation, my father’s brother, Michael, offered to help us return to Zheleznovodsk. During this time, my father continued to build roads and the crossing of the Don in the area of Tsimlyansk, and on July 13, 1942, a pontoon bridge for the crossing of troops was ready. My dad was injured and had contusions. He got caught under a massive bombing, but on July 18th  he reached Zheleznovodsk, where he was reunited with his family. On  August 2nd, our family was evacuated to Makhach-Kala, in Dagestan.                            


    In the port of Makhach-Kala, tens of thousands of refugees accumulated. They filled the streets, without basic sanitary living conditions. Traveling across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk was impossible due to lack of passenger ships. So Lev Polyakov appealed to the Minister of Dagestan with the request to equip the barge with the most basic sanitary facilities and to send people on deck and in the holds of these cargo ships (barges). Our family crossed the Caspian Sea during a severe storm, when the waves gushed over the deck and took down everything unsecured.


    It was August 5, 1942, when we reached Krasnovodsk. Thousands of exhausted refugees lay in the streets suffering from heat, hunger and lack of drinking water. The train could only take a very small part of them once a day. However, thanks to the persistence of Lev Polyakov, who went to the station chief and asked to send his family, otherwise he would kill them, and himself. Finally, we got to Tashkent, and then to Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, the destination listed in the evacuation sheet. In the small village of Gornaya, Ulbinka, my family lived until October 1943, and our father Lev Polyakov was busy building strategic roads in Kazakhstan.When our family returned to Rostov-on-Don, we learned that our house had burned down and we had to start from scratch. This is the story of the evacuation of myself, Vladimir Polyakov.


    My Wife, Irina’s Story

    Another story is about the evacuation of a two-year girl Ira Kanishevsky, who subsequently became my wife, Irina Polyakov, the daughter of the Jew Samuel Kanishevsky and a Russian woman, Kira Korjova, but the story was different. Before the first occupation of Rostov, Ira, her mother and grandmother were evacuated from Rostov to Pyatigorsk.


    After the first Nazi occupation, they returned home when Rostov was liberated. The Germans soon reoccupied Rostov-on-Don on July 1942, and in August the Nazis began to destroy the Jews in the city. They caught and shot them in the Zmievskay Balka. (“Russian Babi Yar” in Rostov on Don where more than 20,000 people were killed. The greatest number of victims, including poisoned children, died in 1942 on August 11th and 12th).


    Irina Polyakov explains:

    “One of our neighbors warned my grandmother that another neighbor went to the Germans to tell them about the Jews in neighborhood. My mom grabbed me very quickly, and we ran to the outskirts of town to hide at the house of our Russian relatives.

    We stayed there until the Soviet Army came and liberated Rostov. All that time, my father Samuel Kanishevsky was in the Army fighting against the Nazis”.



    Date: August 1, 2017

    Location: Polyakov residence

    Interviewer: Nancy Gorrell

    Translator: Elena Volkova


    Q: Describe your hometown of Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
    It was a large city of 300,000 people. It was known as a port of three seas because the ships came from the North, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. The ships came through the Volga River. At that time the River Don was the border between Asia and Europe. Both my wife and myself were born there. My mother was born in the Ukraine town of Mariupol. And my father was born in Chernigov, Russia. During the Revolution, they ran from their shtetls because they were Jewish. My mother was the youngest of five children and my father was the eldest of five siblings.


    Q: Describe your family background.
    My father was an engineer specializing in railroads. When he was a little boy, he was very clever and bright—unusually bright for a little village boy. The Revolution gave him a chance to get an education. My mother worked in a shoe factory.  I have two sisters, Sofia and Lilia. One was 13 years older and the other 10 years older; both survived the war. During the evacuation, I was a very little boy, and my mother had to carry me and the girls had to carry all the belongings.


    Q: Describe what you could remember of your evacuation.
    I remember dark trains and a barrage of big waves. I remember I was very afraid. Recently, I met a friend who told me about his evacuation with barrages. I remember the town of Ulbinka in Kazaskhstan. It was a small village near the mountains. They had beekeepers and vegetable gardens and thick woods. They hunted.


    Q: Do you have any memories of anti-Semitism?
    Then I didn’t know I was a Jew. My father was respected as an educated engineer. They didn’t want to let my father go.


    Q: Describe your memories when you went back to Rostov-on-Don.
    We wanted to go back home. It was a big city. We wanted to see our family.


    Q: Who survived in your family? Who didn’t survive?
    My uncles were killed. Most of the men who returned from the war, died from their wounds. My father was the only real survivor who lived until the age of 84. He lived the rest of his life in Rostov and worked there as an engineer.


    Q: What was life like in post-war Rostov-on-Don?
    The downtown disappeared. The center was burned and destroyed. I remember the smell. Our apartment building was ransacked and burned. For some months we stayed with a family friend of our fathers. My father somehow got an apartment in a building he was working on, and we lived there while it was still under construction. My sister still lives there today. She is now 93.


    Q: What was your schooling like growing up?
    When I was seven, it was 1944 in Rostov-on-Don, and I went to school like the others. In 1954 I went to the university for engineering. It was a university for engineers and builders. I graduated in 1959. By that time I knew I was a Jew. That’s why I didn’t go to Moscow University because as a Jew, I wouldn’t get in. They didn’t have an official quota for Jews, but everybody knew. After graduating, I was sent to the city of Kursk to work as a construction engineer.


    Q: How did you meet Irina, your future wife?
    It was 60 years ago. Irina was in the same university. She and her friend were in the hallway talking about drama and boys and I saw them and decided to borrow a coin for the public phone. It was 15 kopeks. I asked the girls if they had a coin for the phone. And Irina gave me the coin and I bought an ice cream with the coin. Later she saw me eating the ice cream that I bought with the coin. This is how it started, and now we have one son, Michael (Misha) and four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.


    Q: When did you get married?
    In 1961. “She was just waiting until I returned the coin. She waited three years. And I still didn’t pay her back.”


    Q: Why did you emigrate?
    Our son, his wife and two little children (ages 5 and 2) decided to emigrate to America. His wife’s parents decided to emigrate too. It was at a time when we felt a lot of anti-Semitism. Irina’s aunt came to us and said, “Don’t be afraid; my basement is ready for you to escape.” A person said on TV a Progrom would be in Rostov in 1992. The situation was very uncertain. The military guards were at the borders of Russia. They were very much anti-Semitic. By that time we knew we were Jews because we were reminded everyday. Cossacks. By the time that time they were active. One time they decided a Greek man was a Jew and they raped and killed him. The Governor of the territory stopped them.


    Q: When did you emigrate?
    We came in 1995 on March 8th and settled in Philadelphia. It was during a strong rainstorm. I remember the smell of cakes. I thought there was a bakery in our apartment. Everybody was baking. It was nice. It was Women’s International Day. We lived in Philly for three years, and then moved to Raritan, New Jersey. We built our house. My son and his wife started to work at the J and J Pharmaceutical Company while we were raising the kids at home.

  • Sources and Credits:

    SSBJCC Survivor Registry Interview, August 1, 2017, Interviewer: Nancy Gorrell; Biography “Evacuation” by Vladmir Polyakov, translation by Elena Volkova and Jolie Black.