Margarita Khrapunskaya: Memories of War, and a Life Well-Lived
Margarita Khrapunskaya, 88, has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in 20th-century history. Here, Margarita describes World War II as she saw it, with all of its chaos, hardship, and human resilience.
By Margarita Khrapunskaya - JDC client | March 2, 2021
One day, in sixth grade, a boy passed me a note. “You are my life, my thoughts, my hopes,” it said. “You are everything to me. Yours, Isak.” I laughed.
At 88, I still have this note — that boy, Isak, became my husband.
It’s strange how small moments can change everything. But that’s always been the case for me, from when I was a child in Belarus, through the war, until now.
I can still see my home in Kalinkovichi. When my father came back from work each day, I would sit on his lap and we would sing Jewish songs. My mother would join in. She had a beautiful voice, a soprano. We were a musical family.
Come holidays, all the guests would sing. My uncle Margolin would pull out his violin and start playing, while his daughter Mirra would play spoons. Food filled the house. Somebody would buy matzah, secretly, and share it with everyone. My mother would cook gefilte fish, lekach (honey cake), biscuits. No one went hungry.
And then it happened: June 22, 1941. The day was hot and bright, and it is seared in my memory. I was at the cinema with friends. I don’t remember the film, only that it was about pilots.
Back at my house, there were women everywhere — women crying, women fainting. Farewells to fathers, farewells to sons. Even on this first day of the war, two soldiers had died — two local boys, two men who were somebody’s sons, and now there were two grieving mothers falling to the ground in agony near our house.
“Kids,” the women said, “this is a war.”
When the war started, the music stopped: The Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union.
When the war started, the music stopped. The Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union, and all I could remember was my mother rushing to the post office, sending telegram after telegram asking about her sister. My elder sister was in Minsk at the time, with my aunt. Where were they? We couldn’t find them. The Nazis had occupied Minsk, and with each minute they were getting closer.
We took only summer clothes with us when we evacuated; the war would end before the autumn, we thought. At the last minute, my mother grabbed some sofa cushions. I remember thinking that was strange.
The train started moving. My mother kept silent and held me in her arms. I think about her now, what she was seeing and thinking. She was only 37 years old, leaving behind her husband, her home, her extended family.
Twice our train was bombed, and twice my mother covered us with those sofa cushions. There was screaming and swearing outside the train. Together, beneath the cushions, we huddled and waited.
In the Russian town of Kartaly, we stepped off the train. We were ushered into our new home: a series of wooden barracks. It was cold, and we hadn’t brought any winter clothes. Everyone received a simple wooden bed.
Then, it wasn’t new anymore. It was our life. There we were, living in the barracks. I went without school for a year. Oftentimes, we would heat the stove and gather around it. We scavenged for the scarce food we could find — potato skins, mostly — and cooked something we generously called “soup.” To use the bathroom, we had to step out into the frigid cold. Someone had brought a sweater, and so we wore that to the toilet.
Everyone, kids and adults, looked for food. There was a field near the barracks. With my bare hands, I would dig up the soil and hope to find something, anything. All we could do was look for food. All we could do was try to stop the hunger. It is still so hard to talk about this.
Eventually, freedom came. After leaving the barracks, we went to Miass, Russia. There, we ran into my sister. She had gone with my uncle and aunt on foot, 300 kilometers, from Minsk to Kursk. Her legs were swollen, and I barely recognized her: She looked like an old woman.
Time sped up. In 1950, I entered university and became a teacher. This was my dream since childhood. When you love teaching, you treat the children and their parents with tenderness and respect: It is true happiness. I’ve earned so many awards for my teaching, some from the Russian government and other, more local ones.
But the dearest thing are the memories of my students. I keep their letters and articles they’ve written about me. These are sacred objects. I feel true happiness when I read, “You are my favorite teacher. I will remember you all my life,” or “I will always remember your brilliant classes.”
My warmest memory is from the class of 1969. They wrote an ode to me. Here’s one fragment: “Today we would like to give you all the flowers on the planet. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to do it. We will pick them up in one big virtual bouquet. From each of us, there is a piece of appreciation and respect in each petal.” I cried.
I feel the same degree of warmth and appreciation as a JDC client here in Pskov, where I now live. Yulya, my homecare worker, is deeply loyal and immensely kind. I will tell you frankly — when she comes to my home, I feel calmer and more confident. My soul grows warm. She helps me with everything: cleaning, washing, pharmacy errands. Whatever problems I have, whatever anxieties, Yulya solves it. There is not a single day when she does not ask me about my health. I’m not sure how I’d survive without her.
So I want to thank Yulya, and I want to thank JDC, which cares about me so deeply. I have lived a long life, been pushed from my home, experienced cold and hunger and the violence of war. Now, at 88, I can say with complete confidence and appreciation: The Jewish community is my second home, and it makes sure I’m never alone.
Margarita Khrapunskaya, 88, is a JDC client in Pskov, Russia, receiving food and homecare.