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Rena's Memories

Part 13 (Nazi Occupation)

We survived but the winter was very, very hard. We were constantly scavenging for food and fuel.

Click on images to enlarge.

Surviving the First Winter

The apartment on Bankova Street had central heating, but it was not working. Initially the water was turned off as well and we had to get it from outside. My family and I lived in the tiny kitchen which had a shelf high up for sleeping and that’s where we slept. The kitchen had a wood stove but finding fuel was a problem.


After we moved there I met two girls, Rima and Lida. One was (I think) a year and the other a couple of years older than me, and we always did things together. We would go into the destroyed buildings and salvage whatever wood there was left to heat our homes. The biggest “treasure” was unburnt wooden beams. We threw rope around them and pulled them down. At the end of the day we would split our “loot”.


We also stole peat that was dumped outside the Nazi government headquarters across Bankova street. It was scary but we felt patriotic stealing from the Nazis. Occasionally my parents were able to get long logs of oak or pine. Rima and I would saw these and split them. I loved sawing wood. My father tried to do it with me once. He could not hold the saw straight and kept on blaming me. My father was not suited to any of the survival skills. 


Government building across Bankova street from Rena’s apartment. The street looks much nicer than she remembers.

Photo by Håkan Henriksson

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The winter was very, very hard. It was the coldest winter in our memory. If we had frozen potatoes we would grind them up. I still remember how terrible the frozen potatoes tasted. Food was very scarce. We would walk to villages and my parents would exchange things at the bazaar. I remember walking with my mother with a sled through the snow to find food. I was so tired that I thought I’d never get back.


Our staples were salt pork, potatoes, and whole wheat flour. Before I never had much of an appetite but that winter I did. I was always hungry.

My mother didn’t do well. She was very skinny and had some kind of sores due to malnutrition. I don’t remember being sick or suffering or anything like that. In fact I was healthier than I was before. It might have been just the stage of my development. I turned twelve years old that first winter.

From the English language Wikipedia article Hunger Plan:

The Hunger Plan (German: der Hungerplan; der Backe-Plan) was a plan developed by Nazi Germany during World War II to seize food from the Soviet Union and give it to German soldiers and civilians; the plan entailed the death by starvation of millions of "racially inferior" Slavs following Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union

Fritz Gieseler etc

Fritz Gieseler, the Black Market and a Special Wool Dress

It must have been toward the end of the first winter that my parents met a German civil servant, Fritz Gieseler. He was in his early fifties so he was too old to be in the army. Fritz came to Kiev to work for the German civil government which used the building across Bankova street from our apartment. It was the same building from which we stole peat.


Fritz was a Russophile. He fought with the foreign legionnaires in Siberia during World War I. He spoke fluent Russian and wanted to be friends with educated Russians. The German government officials (mostly Nazis) hired Russian housekeepers. Fritz asked my mother to help him with his apartment and he enjoyed my parents companionship. He was a friend as well as an employer.

My parents claimed that Fritz saved us from starvation. He fed my parents and I much better than he realized. If he knew the liberties we took with his food card he would have disowned us (this is my present thought). The short version of the story is that we stole vodka and cigarettes that I traded for food. I will give the details below.

The Germans had their own store where provisions were plentiful (by our standards). Along with the necessities, the store was well stocked with vodka and cigarettes - the Germans mitigated the unpleasantness of the harsh winter away from home with drinking parties. Fritz, however, didn’t drink Vodka and he smoked a pipe.

I was sent there by my mother to get provisions for Fritz using his coupons. I would go to the store with study bags (korsinki in Russian). I remember the store well. It was always crowded with Russian housekeepers and the check-out employees were Russian women as well. 


My mother had an arrangement with the women checkers. After I would get what Fritz needed, the checkers would put some bottles of Vodka and packs of cigarettes into my bags. There were times when I had nothing to get from Fritz. In that case I proceeded directly to the bazaar. I had regular customers for the illicit goods. The transactions had to be carried out carefully. I would sell the goods for huge sums of money and the profits were split with the women checkers.

Of course that was all illegal. My mother would say, “You’re a kid. Nobody will catch you and if they catch you they won’t prosecute you.” But there was a lot of danger in it. It was more dangerous than pushing drugs in this country.

My father didn’t participate in this and he worried about me, a twelve year old,  getting caught. I didn’t fully comprehend the risk involved and I loved trading on the black market. We were able to have salt pork, sour cream, butter and even some meat, and my mother’s health improved.

We met Fritz at the end of the first winter, so the black marketing must have started during the summer and continued through the second year of occupation.

Bobbi claimed that Fritz not only saved us but many others. I remember my mother trying to help people using Fritz. Some young man was captured by the Nazis and my mother was instrumental in his release. The young man’s wife used to come from the village and stay with us. 

In the spring, Fritz’s wife, Magda, came for a visit. She was very nice and happy to have Russian friends. She was a good seamstress so she sewed me two dresses.  My mother gave some old dresses to Magda and she used the least worn material to make two new ones. One of these was a beautiful woolen dress with buttons from top to bottom and I wore it for many years. Before we left Kiev, my mother made new buttons - each one with a gold coin inside. That’s the dress I left Kiev in and we lived off of those coins (more about his later).

That couple helped us survive. They didn’t have any children so they were very happy to practically adopt me. After my parents and I had emigrated to the U.S. we sent some packages to Fritz and tried to be helpful. My parents remained friends with him all through life.


Fritz had always been a civil servant and he continued being a civil servant in his native Berlin after the war was over (he ended up in West Berlin). Bobbi even visited Fritz (approximately 1969). By then his wife had died and he was living in an apartment for older people. I don’t remember if he was still in Berlin or not, but she spent some time with him. He was not in good health at that time. After a few years he stopped writing and we assumed that he died.

With who and where Fritz fought during the Bolshevik revolution is a mystery. The Central Powers and the Russian Empire were enemies during World War I.  The Central Powers continued the war with the new Bolshevik government till a peace treaty was signed March 3, 1918. The civil war in the former Russian Empire continued for a few more years. During part of that time Germany propped up a conservative government in Ukraine. I haven’t found evidence for any Germans groups independently supporting the White (Monarchist) army.

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