Now and Then - Osinovets and the story of Asya Bernstein

osinovets road of life 1942

Osinovets, October 2020 / Osinovets, summer of 1942

Soldiers unloading flour for Leningrad in the port of Osinovets.

From the memoirs of Asya Yakovlevna Limon (Bernstein), 1926-2022. Born in a Jewish family in Leningrad, she joined the Leningrad River Maritime Training School right after the war began. The following year, having endured the horrors of the first winter of the Siege of Leningrad, she was sent to join the crew of the boat "Forel" which delivered supplies across the Ladoga lake. I found her memoirs in an article on the website of St. Petersburg Jewish community newspaper, and here's an extract from them:

"When the navigation season started our group was sent to work on the Ladoga lake, the Road of Life. We were distributed to different sectors there. I was ordered to become a helmsman on a ship, although I had no pilot's training and I was basically a teenager. But such is the war - you go wherever they send you, it wasn't like I could argue or object. I was very short and frail, and in order to control the huge steering wheel they put a crate for me to stand on. The captain explained to me the basics of my job. In the end, I and one 16 year old boy took turns doing 8 hour shifts. But even after the end of the shift I had no time to rest. Having left the steering wheel, we had to load coal, haul water, wash the three-deck ship and do all other deck-boys' duties.

Asya Limon sailor Ladoga Lake
Asya Limon in 1942

This is how we travelled from our coast to the Mainland. Twenty four hours one way and the same time to get back. I remembered one incident very well. Once we were ordered to transport a military unit, which was led by a young Major. So this Major comes into my captain's cabin and says: "I'm taking such fine troops to help Leningrad, and here's some wee baby girl standing on a crate and steering a ship. Where's the captain and are there any normal people here at all? We're all gonna become fish food soon."

I told him there were normal people, but they were all at the frontline, and that the captain went down to take a rest.

The Major continued: "Can you see what's ahead and to the side of you? What if a plane gets on our six?"

I answered that the machine gunners would tell me when I needed to be more careful. And right at this point a Messerschmitt appeared in the sky.

Machine gunners shouted to me: "Asya, Messer's on the stern side!"

I took the handle of the telegraph and sent the order to the engine room: "Full astern"

The Major slapped me on the wrist, shouting: "You moron, what have you done? Go full ahead!"

I responded: "Comrade Major, do you presume our speed is equal to the plane's speed?"

We roll backwards, while the Messer flew over us and dropped its bombs somewhere in the front.

Then the Major, his face pale with fear, asked me: "How did you even come up with this trick?"

I simply said: "That's how the Captain taught me".

Road of Life map. Asya's "Forel" travelled across the long 105km route from Osinovets to Novaya Ladoga
Road of Life map. Asya's "Forel" travelled across the long 105km route from Osinovets to Novaya Ladoga

Two weeks later the captain appeared on our ship again. I was surprised to see him and asked: "You were afraid you would feed the fishes with me. How come are you back here?"

He answered he deliberately waited to see me, and asked: "Do you know the address Chaikovsky street, 20, flat #20?"

"Yes, this is my address", I answered.

"Do you know Sofia Mikhailovna, Yakov Mikhailovich and the little Vovochka?", he continued.

"Yes, these are my parents and my 5 year old brother", I said.

"Well, they are sending you their regards", he concluded with the satisfaction of an accomplished mission.

I asked him: "How did you manage to find them at all?"

He said he came to visit his own parents, and his father asked him to visit his friend. While talking to this man the Major mentioned his meeting with a tiny frail girl on the Ladoga lake, who stood on a crate behind a huge steering wheel and controlled an entire ship. They asked him about the girl's name and he said her name was Asya.

I was awarded the medal "For the Defense of Leningrad" and the "Veteran of the Road of Life" certificate".

After the war Asya met her love, the military medic from Stalingrad Moisey Abramovich Bernstein who fought through the entire war and had several combat injuries, and spent 53 years happily married until he passed away in 1999.

asya and moisey bernstein
Asya and Moisey Bernstein, 1946

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