Death was everywhere.
That’s how Khaya Matusevich, now a Milwaukee resident, remembers the scenes she witnessed during the Second World War. Matusevich grew up in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She was 12 –years old when, in 1941, she and her family encountered bombing in the country.
Along with her grandmother, Matusevich had been away from home and her parents to visit relatives. When the bombing began, Matusevich said she and her grandmother fled on foot into the forest.
Most people were hiding and running, she said through her daughter Svetlana, who translated from Russian. Matusevich didn’t want to leave her grandmother, so they walked.
“The planes were so low that she could feel them with her hair,” Svetlana said, communicating her mom’s words.
Their walk back to Minsk took days. By then, she said, Germany’s military had reached the area and was entering the city.
Back home, Matusevich learned her parents and younger sister had already left. Matusevich followed behind an aunt, uncle and cousins who were leaving town by horse and buggy. She said her grandmother stayed behind with one of her daughters and eventually died in the ghetto.
Matusevich and her relatives traveled for months until they reached the city in Russia where her uncle would give up the horse, buggy and all of the family’s belongings in exchange for help getting spots on a train, she said.
The family landed in Kazakhstan before traveling to Uzbekistan. Matusevich separated from her aunt and uncle there and stayed in the dormitory of a school that served kids from the nearby farms.
Seeking to reunite with her parents, Matusevich said she began penning letters that she would mail to cities in Russia. Her parents had likely registered as refugees, wherever they were, and Matusevich hoped a recipient of one of her letters might recognize her parents’ names.
She studied a map of Russia and targeted places that appeared to be large cities.
After a year of mailing the notes, one in 1942 made its way to her parents in Chkalov. Her father traveled to collect his daughter from the school, reaching her in 1943.
By then, Matusevich had not seen her father for more than a year. He now was bearded, she said, but she knew who he was when she recognized his eyes.
On his journey, Matusevich said, her father brought along a suitcase filled with dried bread, which he fed her at their tearful reunion.
Together, they left the school and made their way back to Matusevich’s mother and sister.
In 1945, Matusevich’s family returned to Minsk, which had been liberated the year prior. As the community worked to rebuild, Matusevich said her family lived in the room of a home across the street from the family of a man named Abram, who in 1948 would become her husband. He had been a sniper in the war.
She worked as a stenographer, he became an artist, and they had three children.
Abram died in 1983 at age 58.
In 1994, a few years after the Soviet Union was dissolved, the family decided to move to the United States, joining relatives in Milwaukee. Matusevich was 65 and had become a grandmother.
Now 94 and watching the events unfold in Israel and Gaza, Matusevich said she hopes people will “stop looking for an enemy.”
“Her only dream is that everyone lives in peace and kids stop dying and they find something which unites them, not separates them,” Svetlana said, translating for Matusevich.
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Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors can be underrepresented in English-language media, because of the language barrier. The Chronicle, over the next several months, is telling some of their stories from our treasured, local Russian-speaking community.