Escaping The Iron Curtain
America beckoned to survivor of the Siege of Leningrad.
trade their chocolate for bread.
"My mother always tried to survive,"
Berta said. "She thought the chocolate
might have more nutrition than the bread
and agreed to trade:'
But, in 1943, when Berta was 8 years
old, her mother was court martialed for
trading her food and spent 10 years in
jail. Her father died a year later from
poisoning, and her brother went to the
junior marines. As a result, her sister
Dora was left with the responsibility of
taking care of Berta.
e hear stories about our
ancestors and what they
endured to come to the
United States. Farmington Hills resident
Berta Meites' story is one of strength and
A member of Congregation Shaarey
Zedek, Berta (Kogan) Meites, born in
1935 in Leningrad (the modern-day Saint
Petersburg), Russia, lived in a two-story
building above a barbershop and across
the street from the pharmacy and the
She lived with her brother, Boris, her
sister, Dora, her parents, Mina and Gilia
Kogan, and their nanny/housekeeper. Her
parents, originally from Minsk, Belarus,
were hard-working, business-minded
people. Her family did well and life was
That was until 1941, when World War
II broke out. Life changed dramatically
for the people of Leningrad, including
Berta and her family.
A young Berta with siblings Dora and Boris
The Siege of Leningrad started on Sept.
8, 1941, and lasted 872 days, causing
an eventual million plus deaths mainly
due to starvation. German troops sur-
rounded the city in an attempt to squash
morale and prevent the citizens from get-
ting their basic needs met, such as food,
water, medical supplies, oil and coal.
"We were given 125 grams (about one-
fourth of a pound) of bread and hot water
every day; that's it," Berta explained.
"There was a huge warehouse filled with
food that was completely destroyed by
German troops." Out of desperation,
"people eventually started eating dogs,
cats, horses, rats and soap:'
Some people couldn't survive on the
125 grams of food and would die of star-
vation; those that survived were weak and
"You would see dead bodies all over
the city, but nobody had the time, the
strength or the energy to bury them,"
To make matters worse, it was one of
the most brutal winters in the history of
Russia, with extreme temperatures result-
ing in both a blessing and a curse.
Without coal and oil to provide heat,
people got sick and pipes burst, denying
the residents their water supply.
Conversely, the troops surrounded the
May 23 • 2013
entire city with one exception; an area
called Lake Ladoga, the "Road of Life:'
Because it was so cold, the lake stayed
frozen, enabling trucks to drive on it to
bring food and supplies to the city. It also
served as an evacuation route for some.
The second blessing came in the way of
a reprieve from the incessant bombing.
"The German military mission was
stalled because, in Russia, you had to go
through the countryside in order to get
to the city. It was difficult for troops to
travel the bumpy roads in the extreme
weather conditions," said Meites' son,
Gary Raykhinshteyn of Farmington Hills.
Most people chose to evacuate, but not
Berta's mother. She chose to stay because
of the threat of danger from all the bomb-
ing taking place at the lake, the only place
Despite the 24-hour-a-day, nonstop
bombing that occurred some days;
Berta spent much of her time sitting
by her bedroom window drawing. Her
nanny was scared and wanted Berta to
go underground with her for safety, but
Berta wanted to keep drawing.
Officers from the navy would come and
Coming To America
In 1944, the blockade finally broke and
the German troops were out of the city.
"It was the first time I had a briquette of
ice cream since the war," Berta said.
Berta met her husband, Isaac
Raykhinshteyn, in Russia in 1957 and
got married in 1959. They had three sons
Michael, born in 1960, Gary, who came
soon after in 1961, and Edward, who was
born in 1966.
Unlike her mother, Berta and her fam-
ily always wanted to leave, but they didn't
have the money. "My husband and I were
never quiet. We wanted to get out," she
To apply and be approved for a visa,
families had to give up everything to
show their commitment to leaving. Her
husband left his career as an engineer,
and her sons left college. The family sold
everything they had to pay for the costs
involved with obtaining their visas.
Once they were approved to leave, they
approached the Dutch Embassy for a
loan to cover their travel expenses. The
embassy would loan only $100 per person
at that time. In 1979, Berta and her fam-
ily left Russia with $500 for their entire
family of five.
They had the choice to go to Israel or
Italy. They chose Italy and left for the
United States from there. They came to
Oak Park, where her husband cleaned
offices for a living.
"We chose to go to America to provide
a safe place for our family to live," Berta
Gary added, "We left for political free-
dom, not for the blue jeans, the gold and
the diamonds. People like my parents
had to risk it all, leaving with nothing,
to pave the way. I think it's important for
future generations to understand what
the people before them had to go through
to get here:'