Why I Like Herring
It was early in the spring of 1943. The war on the territory of the Soviet Union had been going on since June 22, 1941, the day fascist Germany treacherously attacked the Soviet Union along an extended front line, crossing the borders of Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia.
My mother, my grandmother, my sister, and I lived in Uzbekistan, a Central Asian Republic of the Soviet Union, over two thousand miles away from the front line. In the fall of 1941 shortly after the War started we had moved there from the central European Russian city of Tambov together with the Fighter Pilot Training School. Both my parents worked for the School. My dad flew in a couple of weeks later.
He could not stay far away from the front line in Uzbekistan while his Motherland was in peril fighting for its very existence. He had sent a request to the Air Force Headquarters volunteering to be sent to the front. His request was promptly denied with a reference to his exemption as a highly qualified aeronautics engineer whose service in training specialists (fighter aviation pilots and technicians) was extremely important. He was appointed Chief engineer of the school soon after his graduation. Originally the school trained specialists for the civilian air carriers. By the time the war had started on the territory of the Soviet Union, it had been turned over to the military. He would not give up and would continue submitting requests to the Air Force Headquarters asking to be sent to the front. After his third or, maybe fourth request, it was satisfied.
Life has changed for us and everyone around us dramatically since the beginning of WW2 on the USSR territory.
We did not have enough food; some days just a piece of dark bread a day as food had been rationed. It was hard on everyone. Experiencing pangs of hunger was torture for a growing child. It was with you every single minute of your waking life. Once I heard the adults discussing the situation in my family mentioning that my mother’s monthly salary (she was the only breadwinner at that time) was 600 rubles while a loaf of bread on the black market cost 500 rubles. She could not afford to buy anything but the ration.
Very soon there appeared some extremely emaciated people in town lying on the streets, unable to walk. They came from Ukraine, Belorussia and western parts of Russia, running from the war and starvation, to Uzbekistan. The people thought it was easier to survive in a warmer climate. Unfortunately, there were no jobs for most of them, and hence – no rations. I do not know if any social help was available. Of course, I realized all this much later when I started reading a lot.
Once I saw a very emaciated man on the lawn in front of our house. He was on his knees and one elbow looking around. I remembered that we sometimes (on a certain weekday) picked up from the officer’s canteen some kind of brown liquid with dark brown dumplings floating in it. It was given to us as soup. Only my mom could eat it trying to save some bread for us children. Neither my sister, nor I could swallow the “soup.” The same was true of my grandma who had a serious abdominal problem. So I quickly found an empty can and asked Mom for help. She heated the soup and poured it out into the can. I ran to the man and helped him drink the liquid and eat the dumplings. That was all I could do. The next day the man was gone. I do not know what happened to him.
I was not 5 yet and looking back, I believe that in war time children mature much faster exposed to extreme circumstances. I closely listened to the news on the radio following the daily situation at the front that children my age would not normally do in peacetime. When the War started, The Red Army (name used for the Soviet Army at that time) retreated every single day. It was very painful to listen to the news of the Red Army retreat. The Fascists were stopped in the early winter of 1942, when they approached Moscow (about 17 miles from the Soviet capital in the northwest direction) after very intense battles that lasted for about four months. From that time on the Fascists started retreating very slowly with heavy battles and enormous losses of human life on both sides. The Red Army could eventually liberate much of the area which the Germans had previously occupied. It was the summer of 1944. By about January 1945, the battles were waged outside the territory of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the war was still being waged and we started losing close relatives. We were dreaming of the time all this horror around us would end. All of us know how slow time flows for children. The awful war lasted for a long four years. I had already lost both my maternal grandparents, who stayed in the occupied part of Russia. I had never seen them. I also lost two uncles - one on my mother’s side (a career artillery officer), - and the other one on my father’s side drafted as a very young man of 18. He went missing in his first major battle – that of the Kursk - Oryol Bulge.
There were a bunch of us, the evacuee children. We went hungry and were obsessed with food trying to find any edible plants. We were scavenging for whatever we could lay our hands on, anything that was more or less edible or at least chewable. As an example, we found out that the yellow blossoms of the arid acacia bush had sweet nectar at the stem of the blossom. We would pull out the blossoms and suck out the sweet nectar. The same happened to be true of the red clover blossoms. It helped, somewhat, in quenching our hunger.
Yet another one of our great discoveries was that tar used for repairing roofs was chewable creating an illusion of gooey food. We knew enough not to try and swallow it.
Still, chewing it quenched hunger somewhat. We were happy about our discovery only to be deeply disappointed later when we found out that not all tars were the same. On one occasion we tried to chew the tar found on a construction site and wound up with our jaws stuck together so tightly that we could not open our mouths. We had a hard time scraping the tar out. I am recalling another food-related episode. One of my little friends (Tolik by name), a year or two older than me, shared with us pieces of sunflower oilcake he found on the railway tracks. It had come from a cargo train passing by, transporting oilcake for pigs. Tolik picked up a few pieces of the stuff that fell on the tracks. I was grateful as well as impressed with his generosity. He suffered from hunger as much as the rest of us and yet he shared the food with us! The oil cake was delicious and I hoped he would keep finding more of this delicious stuff.
Going back to the gist of my story, one December night in 1943 around midnight, Mom woke up my sister and me around midnight to let us know our dad was visiting on business for a couple of days. We had not seen him in a few months and were extremely happy. Mom suggested that we sit down and eat some food that Dad brought us. We had been tucked in without supper or anything to eat at all. Mom had not had any food to give us. What we found on our plates was a piece of salted fish for every one of us. She explained to us that it was a huge Caspian herring, Zalom, from Tehran, the capital of Iran where Dad had been on a government assignment. The herring was out of this world delicious. Since that time I have been dreaming about the food that became my absolute favorite. Mmm… so yummy, especially if you had boiled potatoes to go with it. We did not have any, but it was still very good.
During his visit en route from Tehran to Moscow my Dad later told us about his trip to Tehran. He was a member of the Technical Support Group that airlifted the Soviet Government Delegation to the Tehran Conference.
Later that year Dad was recalled from the front altogether and got a position with the Air Force Engineering Department Headquarters. Soon thereafter he moved us to Moscow.
The Red Army defenses had held firm but at a great cost of life. Although specific numbers are still debated among historians, it's estimated the Battle of Kursk caused around 800,000 Soviet casualties and 200,000 German casualties as stated by Wikipedia.
The Tehran Conference was a strategy meeting of Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill from 28 November to 1 December 1943, after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. It was held in the Soviet Union's embassy in Tehran, Iran. Wikipedia