I want to tell you a story about miracles, about war, and about love.
My grandparents grew up in the same city, Beltsy, in modern day Moldova. When they were born it was Romania, and when they were teens it was annexed by Russia. They had gone to school together. And, in 1941 when they were 15, the war came to them.
When Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, there was chatter on the radio about what was happening. My grandmother Clara’s family went outside barefoot in their nightgowns to see what was going on, to see if the radio chatter was true.
They never went back home.
As my grandmother told me the story, her voice went unusually soft. This was the reason, she said, why we have no family photographs, why she doesn’t have a single picture of her mother, who died when she was young.
The Nazis were in Beltsy and they were already rounding up Jews. My grandmother’s family ran. They got on a train headed East—they didn’t know where the train was going, and it didn’t matter. It was war, and there was chaos. The conductors weren’t making announcements because they didn’t themselves know where the trains were going or how long they’d be stopped at any given station.
At one point, her younger sister got off the train to buy some soup. There was no food on the trains, and they were hungry. But the train started leaving the station without her. My grandmother remembers the soup splashing everywhere as her sister ran to try to catch the train. It took them three months to find each other, but it was by no means a certainty that they ever would. Such were the times.
And one day, at one of these train stations far away from home, my grandmother stepped off the train briefly. She looked up, and there he was! She looked up, and there was Alex standing with his family, right in front of her.
My grandfather’s family was also fleeing. His older sister lived in Ukraine—Hitler hadn’t yet invaded Ukraine—and they were going there to escape the Nazis. He had just enough time to give his sister’s address to Clara before they each needed to board their trains again.
In the wartime chaos, no one knew how far they needed to run. My grandmother’s family first sought safety in the Caucasus, before they had to flee again, this time to Uzbekistan. When they got there, Clara wrote a letter to Alex in Ukraine, telling him what had happened and her address in Tashkent.
She wrote to him about how the women all wore veils, and how there was nothing to eat.
But Hitler eventually invaded Ukraine, too, and my grandfather’s family also had to flee a second time. By some miracle, Clara’s letter—in spite of unreliable wartime post—reached him in time, just before they fled Ukraine for Siberia. And so, Alex had her address, and when he got to Siberia he was able to write her a letter.
It was a sad letter, she said, because his father had died in the Siberian winter—it was cold and there was no food, and he was in ill health. My grandfather wrote to her about how he’d dug the grave in the frozen earth, and buried his father himself.
And so, they wrote each other letters and kept in touch during the Second World War, even as they were both running for their lives, and struggling against sickness and starvation. If they hadn’t had that chance encounter at the train station, if her first letter to him in Ukraine hadn’t gotten there in time, they’d have lost each other.
They both returned to Moldova after the war ended, and connected after years of writing letters.
They married in 1949.
I knew they’d somehow managed to keep in touch and write to each other during the war, but I never knew how, until my grandmother told me this story for the first time as we sat together at Alex’s death bed, both of us holding his hands. Not even my father had known. It’s a love story, it’s a war story, it’s a story about survival and miracles.
Most of all, it’s a story about two very real people. People who weren’t perfect, people who often argued like the world was ending, people who laughed and loved each other for over 70 years, people who I know loved me very, very much. It’s a story about my grandparents.
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