Sonya Fridman

Ilyanitskoe Ghetto Survivor (Ukraine)
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Sonya was born on April 14, 1929. Sonya lived in a large house with many rooms and a big yard, in a small village called Illyintzi. Sonya’s brother, Shunya, was four years older than her but they had a close relationship and were inseparable, especially because they were often left together at home while their parents were working. Sonya had a great life; she played with her brother and the boys in the neighborhood, she went to school, and participated in many dance recitals. However, when the war began, Sonya’s childhood ended at the age of twelve. The family did not want to evacuate without Sonya’s father, Moisey, whose civil position as director of a restaurant was mobilized for the military, so they remained in their home, which would soon become occupied by the Nazis.

On a warm June morning in 1941, Sonya heard the word “war” for the first time and, by the looks on the faces of the adults around her, she knew that trouble had come. On July 24, 1941, the Nazis were confidently marching through the town and, two days later, they invaded Sonya’s house. That was Sonya’s first encounter with another word – “pogrom.” The Nazis made themselves comfortable, making a mess, and taking valuables. The blatant robbery by the invaders was followed by that of the family’s neighbors. Even one of Sonya’s classmates joined in, grabbing personal belongings and spitting insults at her.

In October, the Nazis began to impose a new order. All of the Jews in the village were relocated to the houses near the river, a large area that began from Sonya’s corner to the river. Sonya’s house was now home to several families. Thankfully, her family had a large house, not only because they had to fit a lot of people, but also because it could serve another purpose – her parents turned the last room into a secret hideout.

The new Jew-only area was easy to spot. All of the homes were marked with “zhyd”, the derogatory term for a Jew, and were marked themselves – forced to wear the yellow Star of David on their sleeves. But that was only the beginning. Forty men were taken right away and murdered. The remaining inhabitants of the ghetto were herded to perform harsh physical labor for the Nazis.

Sonya remembers very well the day of November 7, 1941. The Nazis ordered them to light a fire and dance around it singing ‘For the Homeland, For Stalin’. It was a caricature of patriotic joy – the only emotion they could feel was terror. The Nazis only laughed, taking photos, and then demanded that they raise their hands and tighten the circle around the fire. It was only through the timely intervention of the Hungarian contractors who talked the soldiers out of killing them, giving the Jews a chance to run away, that they escaped certain death.

A few weeks later, the SS came to their town and they all knew they weren’t meant to survive. The Nazis rounded up the ghetto. As the sweep began, Sonya’s father and his friend hid the rest of the family and the house residents in the cellar, covering the entrance with logs and ducked into the secret room. The Nazis did not find the secret room and everyone in their house survived. They hid while the Nazis herded the Jews they did find in the forest past the houses and executed them.

When it was over, it was decided that they run through the other small towns, hiding with friends and acquaintances. Dangers crowded them. Once, a young man Sonya knew began stalking her with the intention of handing her over to the authorities. He searched for Sonya in her hiding spot, but was unable to find her. When he was gone, she escaped and dashed to another nearby village at a friend’s house. A neighbor there noticed that the friend’s step-daughter was on her way to the police and warned Sonya, so she was escorted to a forest near another town. The family was caught by the police more than once; beaten, separated, and humiliated. Many times, Sonya had to run at night alone across fields, sleeping in a hole during the day, or someone’s shed, cellar, or a pile of wheat.

After many travels and suffering, friends helped her family reunite. Only much later did Sonya understand how much people risked for her. They could have been killed for aiding a Jew, but, time after time, friends, relatives of friends, and kind people put their lives on the line to save Sonya and her family.

After they found each other again, the family lived in a drafty, damp cellar together for two months until they were warned of a raid and Sonya’s father decided that they would seek contact with partisan groups in the forest. In March 1942, they left and encountered a horse-drawn wagon with Nazi soldiers. Sonya’s legs had atrophied in the cellar, so she was unable to run away. Luckily, the soldiers turned out to be a partisan group in disguise; twenty young soldiers separated from the Russian army led by Stepan Korolev. He allowed them to join the group and they finally had a home, transient and not always safe, however it got them through the war. Although just in her teens, Sonya tended to the wounded, helping save those she could. But that time didn’t just give her a chance to survive the war, it also introduced her to her life partner. While with the partisans, she met a young man named Ivan Vinnichuk, who would eventually become her husband under his real name – Iosif Fridman.

After the Soviet Army came through, liberating the area and disbanding the partisan group, Sonya walked to Kiev and asked to join the army in order to fight on the front. However, she was not accepted and instead was urged to pursue her education. She graduated with honors but had some difficulties getting accepted to an institute despite her consistent academic excellence because she was Jewish. When Sonya was eventually admitted to the Institute of Economics and Finance, she was an excellent student. After graduating, she worked as an economist in various positions for thirty-two years at the same organization.

Sonya always lived in fear of pogroms in Kiev, so, when the opportunity to immigrate was available, her family decided to take it. Now she resides with her family in New York.

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