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Leonid Sonkin

Leonid Sonkin

Ukranian Jewish Immigrant, Siberian Labor Camp Survivor and Red Army Veteran

Heritage: Ukrainian

Listen to your teachers. Your teachers always wish for you the best. Don’t rush ahead to be an older person. Be as beautiful as you are today. Now is the best time in your life.

Leonid Sonkin

Ukranian Jewish Immigrant, Siberian Labor Camp Survivor and Red Army Veteran

My name is Leonid Sonkin. I was born June 5, 1931 in the Ukraine. World War II began in 1941. I was in the second grade. My father, Simon, went into the Red Army to fight the Nazis. In August 1941, he was killed in a huge battle.

When the Nazis invaded our city, my mother, sisters, and I were evacuated to work in Siberia. My mom, Gitta, worked day and night. I babysat my little sisters until 1943. When I turned twelve, I, too, went to work in the factory. There were a lot of kids working there. We put boxes under our feet to work, because we were so short. All of us slept, ate, and worked in that factory.

When the war ended we came back to the Ukraine. Everything was destroyed. The Nazis killed my grandparents. They put huge stones around their necks and lined them up along the river with other Jewish people; kids, babies, children, old people, everybody. That memory is kept. Even though sixty years have passed, not even a soul will swim in that river.

In 1950, I graduated from college to be a chemical engineer. After graduation, I went into the Red Army. I served on the Iranian border for four years as a guard. During that time parents from Iran were trying to get across to visit their children living in Azerbaizhan. What can you do? You don’t want to shoot them. So I would sometimes just let them go.

We were living in socialism. When I married in 1956 my wife and I received one room to live in. When our son was born we were given one more room. I was in the communist party for forty years. I had to be, because if I wasn’t I couldn’t get work. In the Soviet Union I couldn’t practice Judaism. People were afraid to because the communist system is atheist. To be a Jew was to be looked down upon.

I came to the United States in January of 1993. The Soviet Union began to disintegrate. I came here for a better quality of life. People in America are the same nice people as people are all over the world. When I came to America I had my legs, but they were very sick. They started to get sick when I worked as a child in Siberia. My legs got very cold because there wasn’t heat in the factory. I got gangrene. After I arrived in the United States I lost one leg completely and in the other leg I lost my foot.

I have two sons living here in Minnesota, Boris and Dmitri. I have two grandsons, Eugene and Mark. One grandson is now serving in the United States military. He is driving a tank in Iraq. My wife died in the Ukraine in 1989. I married a second time, two years ago, to a Russian woman named Rimma. She would come with her daughter to clean my apartment. We fell in love. I proposed to her. You’re never too old for love.

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Beautiful, Young Children

Honoring Leonid Sonkin

I was born in the Ukraine
Before the Nazis invaded
When they did my father
Joined the Red Army
Mom and I
Sisters, too
Traveled four slow months to Ural

Siberia, it was cold
Living and working
in the factory
With boxes under our feet
When the war was over

Came back home to find out
That grandmother and grandfather
Were killed by the Nazis
Lined up along the river
People who
Thought to be Jews
The Nazi’s killed my father

Then I went back to school
Worked my way
through college
To become an engineer
Then served in the Red Army

In Azerbaizhan it was my job
To keep people from
crossing the border
Families, old and young
Children on their shoulders

Sometimes I
Closed my eyes
And just let them cross over

From Stalin to Krushchev
Climbing up that ladder
In the Ukraine to Moscow
But what did it matter

When they found out, with a shout,
“Out of ten million people
You couldn’t find me one engineer
Who wasn’t Jewish?”

So off I flew
I’m telling you
After I retired

To eat borscht made of beets
In this land of chicken noodle
With my sons and grandchildren
Together we now doodle

In my home, where I live
In Eden Prairie
There’s one thing
I have learned
There’s no need to be contrary

Be beautiful
As you are
Beautiful, young children

Words by LARRY LONG with Linda Bergman’s 3rd grade class of Forest Hills Elementary School.
(Eden Prairie, Minnesota)
© Larry Long 2004