It was the morning of September 1, 1942, my big sister Valya’s first day at school. My mom was at work. My grandma was bedridden. When I woke up, Grandma told me that she had sent Valya to school hungry as there was nothing to eat at home, not a crumb. Grandma gave me five rubles and asked me to go to the market, buy Valya a tomato and take it to her at school. She explained to me how to find my sister’s classroom and told me not to enter it but wait until recess.
Since September 1941 we had lived in the deep rear, in the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, the town of Jizzakh where we were evacuated together with the whole Tambov Pilot Training School both my parents worked for.
The Tambov Pilot Training School had originally been set up as a training institution training pilots and technicians for the civilian air carriers but was turned over to the military in 1940 in preparation for the war. It became a Prep School training fighter pilots and technicians for the Air Force.
There was a serious reason for that. The German fascists attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In the June-July timeframe Ukraine, Belorussia, and West European Russia as far to the East as the Volga were occupied by the invaders (Blitzkrieg Barbarossa, World War II). Very soon food was in short supply for the civilians. There was barely enough to feed the defenders of the nation as strict centralized rationing was introduced.
Returning to my story, I went to the market and bought a beautiful plump bright red tomato. The good-humored local men (they were exclusively men at the market) teased me, cracking jokes about a “big” customer, pulling at my jacket, entertained by having such a young customer (I was just over 4).
So I was on my way to school with the tomato for my sister in hand. I knew Grandma did not have any food, nor did she have more money to give me so that I could buy myself something to eat as well. I had never questioned my kind grandma as I was aware of the situation. I felt for her as she suffered more than any one of us.
The tomato looked and smelled so tempting and I was so hungry. With my little pinky nail I broke the shiny tomato skin ever so slightly and sucked the delicious juice twice. I immediately felt guilty. The tomato was not meant for me.
I reached the school and walked down the hall. The doors to the classrooms were all shut, it was quiet. I found the right door and without waiting for the recess opened it just a crack and peeked in. The teacher who was sitting at her desk in front of her class turned her head and asked in a gentle voice: “What do you need, little girl?”
“ I would like to see my sister Valya,” I answered.
Valya joined me outside the classroom, I gave her the tomato and headed home. Now pangs of conscience tortured me more than pangs of hunger. My sister never asked me about what had happened to the tomato.
I confessed my “crime” to her sixty years later, it somehow came up. I do not think she remembered the tomato episode and I cannot blame her for that. It happened so long ago!
I have always been overly sensitive.