Narrated: Ruvim Katz, St-Petersburg, Russia
English Translation: Mark Klionsky, webmaster's father, St-Petersburg, Russia
Editing: Maria Klionsky, webmaster's daughter, New York
Posted on: 3 Feb 2017
Last Updated on: 3 Feb 2017
Narrated by my grandfather Ruvim Katz

Ruvim Katz, village boy, 16 years old, 1935

Klimovichi, Belarus
Simply put, I joined the Red Army to escape from sheer poverty.

My family has always lived in poverty. Despite this, I had a huge thirst for knowledge. I clearly remember seventh grade, which I jointly attended with my older sister Sara. We took turns attending school every other day because we only had a single pair of worn-out boots. These boots we inherited from our older brother Girsha, who had already left to a nearby town in search of better pay.

Our father, Isaac Katz, was uneducated and a peasant. Our mother, Masha (Mikhlin) Katz (1886?- 1959) was the daughter of Hazan Abram Mikhlin (1850?-1919) of Petrovichi, and could read and write only in Yiddish.

Our father sincerely considered schooling to be a harmful occupation. I remember, once, when he saw how well I could read and write, he disapprovingly shouted in Yiddish, "Ikh rekhem professar (Who cares, professor). Your time would be better spent studding for a carpenter or a bricklayer!! That way you could actually earn something.”

After graduating the 7th grade of a middle school called ‘Semiletka,’ in
Russian, I firmly declared to my parents that I would continue my studies and I would finish high school whether they liked it or not. At the same time, our family moved from our farm in the Smolensk region to the small Belarusian city of Klimovichi.

Klimovichi was located nearby and we moved into the area occupied by fellow Jews. The high school was also nearby, so I was transferred over there.

Once my father learned my intentions to continue high school, he demanded that I also spend my time working at the collective farm. He demanded this as if he did not know that it was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to combine the farm work with studying. When I tacitly refused, he threatened to go to the local prosecutor to complain that his son is a rebel who does not want to work.

Though my father talked tough (my mother was silent), I knew that it was empty talk. The authorities always encouraged young people like me to continue their school studies. I was almost certain that my father would come back with nothing, even if he tried.

It was 1934, and Soviet newspapers were filled with headlines such as "The Major Advances of Socialism on All Fronts.” However, even to receive a loaf of bread, special ration cards were needed.

The bread lines started in the early morning and it was my assigned task to get in line very early in the morning in order to buy a loaf for our family. After receiving my loaf of bread, I would run to my school but was always late. However, my teachers understood my situation very well as it was common, so they did not reprimand me.

At my High school there were two great teachers. They were two women who graduated from the Hertzen Teacher's College in Leningrad and came to us via special assignment ('по распределению').
They were highly respected not only at school, but also in our town.

I very much wanted to become a teacher so I could be like them. Besides, I liked to teach classes (Jumping ahead, being the officer of Red Army, I had to teach electro-and radio engineering at school for junior non-commissioned officers. It turned out I was so good at it that our battalion commander demanded that all non-commissioned officers attend my lectures as well).

Finally the time came to finish the high school. Where should I continue my studies?

I had a strong desire to go to Leningrad and enroll into Hertzen Teacher's College. But what would I live on? My father had repeatedly told me not to count on food parcels from them. This meant a hungry life was ahead of me again, the life of which I so much wanted to escape.

I shared these thoughts and doubts with our neighbor, who worked in a Klimovichi’s military registration and enlistment office.

It was that time, he gave me the advice which would define my entire life: "Join the military college, there you would never think of food and clothes. At this moment, we have an enlistment request from the Leningrad Military School of communication. Join it!”

So, I decided to enlist. There were five boys who left for Leningrad. Only two, including me, got accepted. This was in the summer of 1936.

Once I started my studies, it all seemed like a fantastic fairytale to me. I had my own clothes, my own bed, and most importantly, I was not hungry. 

When I first arrived, I could not stop eating. I still remember my first meals- the first course was borscht, the second course was cutlet with porridge.
click to enlarge
"Defend USSR!",
Soviet propaganda poster, 1927
Our drill-sergeant, I still remember his name, Makarevich, asked, "Who want’s more food?” I just sat and kept mum, as it was impolite to to ask for more. But my neighbors at the table shouted, "Here, here, Cadet Katz has had his plates empty for a long time.” The drill-sergeant then asked me, “How much more do you want?” I answered, “How much is possible?” He brought me an extra plate with four cutlets. I ate everything.

After three months my uniform collar no longer fit. Army regulations require for collars to always be clutched, therefore it was necessary to order a new shirt. However, a new shirt with a larger collar size was too big for me and the sleeves were too long.

There was a military tailor in our college but he worked only for the officers, not cadets. Luckily, the drill-sergeant sympathized with me and got the tailor help with my uniform.

This was partly because I was always on friendly terms with him and would volunteer for any physical task or request.

Regularly, he would call us up and ask, ”Who will volunteer to chop the firewood for the kitchen?" I would take a step forward, “Me!” For me, chopping the firewood was entertainment. I have chopped firewood since childhood. Or the drill sergeant would ask, “Who will volunteer to clear away the snow?” I would take a step forward again, “Me!”

At the college, I always had my clothes cleaned and ironed. In contrast, in my home village, I never even had my own clothes. I was usually provided with the worn, altered linen left over from my two elder brothers, Girsha and Faiva. That is why I fell in love with my brand new cadet uniform.

Similarly, my military boots were shined at all times. I was an excellent student, mostly because I believed that my good grades were the way to thank my teachers and commanders for my much better life.

But frankly, it was quite simple to excel. While other cadets were on Sunday and holiday breaks, I had nowhere to go. This led me to camp up in the library with my textbooks on electrical equipment, radio equipment and other technical disciplines.

I also excelled in my physical training. I was short, but physically very strong. This was largely because I started harrowing fields at the age of ten and was plowing fields with a horse by the age of twelve. For execution of such operations, iron hands were necessary.

Ruvim Katz as military cadet, 1938, Leningrad
Three years in school had passed rather quickly.

Upon graduation, I have received 10 day holiday leave to see my parents. I arrived to Klimovichi, wearing a brand new uniform of the Red Army lieutenant.

My showing created a sheer commotion! Not a single person from our extensive family had ever reached an officer rank.

For the occasion, my mother put on her best dress (which she had sown from the left-over pieces), and left to walk down the street with me, holding my hand.

On our way,  our Jewish neighbors and acquaintances greeted us with great respect,
”Der lib tsuh zaere gahst,” which means in Yiddish, “Love to your guest.”

My mother, beaming, answered, "Ah dan’k" (Thanks).

After I graduated, I was sent for service to the military unit in the city of Torzhok, which was not far from Moscow.
After a month we were loaded onto a train and directed to Liepaja, a city in western Latvia located on the Baltic Sea.

We thought that we were sent there by the invitation of the government of this country (many decades later, after the collapse of the USSR, when confidential archives were revealed. It turned out there were no invitation but ultimatum but then we sincerely believed to what was published in our newspapers).

Once I got acquainted with the city, I was struck by abundance of goods in grocery and household shops.

I naively thought, this is how our life will be at home when we build communism.

As an officer, I received a double salary. One salary was in Russian rubles, the other in Latvian currency. The Latvian money completely covered my living expenses, so my entire salary in rubles (700 rubles) was sent to my parents.

For my parents, it was a huge amount of money. It was so much that after saving for a year, my father constructed a new log hut, having thrown a former hatka which has no wooden floor even.

The next time I arrived home on holiday leave was in May, 1941. At the beginning of June I returned back to my military unit, and on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany started war with the Soviet Union. I was involved in this war from the first to the last day, but that's another story.