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When a cruise missile flies over, your insides clench
Bronislava Gromova (nee Tumarkina), the wife and literary secretary of Dmitriy Gromov, and her father, the 87-year-old Lev Tumarkin
Bronislava Gromova
My dad was seven when he with his mother (I was named after her) was evacuated to the Urals. Eighty years later, he had to remember it all: living under bombings, sheltering in a basement, packing documents into an emergency suitcase.

I still feel like I am watching a movie

About the start of the war, I learned from my son, who called me at five in the morning on February 24th. He and my daughter-in-law lived close to the TV tower, which was shelled in those very first hours. Still groggy from sleep, I didn't understand anything. Despite all the warnings, it was impossible to imagine that Russia will dare to bomb residential areas of a peaceful city, and that cruise missiles launched from Belgorod would be flying overhead. However, this happened, and with another air raid you find yourself crouching on the floor.

Lev Tumarkin with his great-grandson
When on the third day of the war an extremely strong explosion rocked the Freedom Square, we were simply thrown into the air. We knew, what Russians did in Syria, so they acted exactly in the same way with the “Russian speaking” Kharkiv. To this day, I feel as I am reading a book or watching a movie: it is a coping mechanism, because I just cannot believe everything that’s been happening.

Lev Vulfovich Tumarkin: A son of one of my friends, who lived near the automatic telephone station, took her away from her home just half an hour before a rocket hit it. The entire apartment was destroyed. And the house across the street where another friend of mine lived, collapsed completely.

Bronislava Gromova: Back in the day, we had many acquaintances in Russia! Right after the war started, we called our relatives in Kazan and heard them say: “well, you’ve been bombing Donetsk for eight years, take it in return.” Although, the conflict in Donbass has long been frozen: only eight people died there last year, it’s less than it is per hour now…

I grew up in the USSR and understand the total impact of propaganda, but in the era of Internet, such blindness is simply astonishing. Actually, the break happened back in 2014: we stopped communicating with many people, who shouted “Krym-nash [Crimea is ours]!” And yet, air raids on residential areas in the 21st century almost in the center of Europe still can’t fit in my head.

Dad was ready to play Russian roulette

I grew up on stories about the war — my mom was also taken away at the age of three, and I grew up being told about this. As well as the stories about how they saved every morsel of bread. And today the history repeats itself — enough to drive you to despair.

I always thought I was brave. But when a cruise missile flies by with this terrifying whistle, everything within you tightens. And you realize that if you fall apart now, you will not be able to help anyone else, so, you have to leave everything behind and run.

The day before, I asked my father if he wanted to stay. He said, he had lived enough and was ready to play Russian roulette. However, my brother and his children kept calling from Germany and begged us to rescue their grandfather. My son signed us up at the Beyt Dan Jewish Cultural Center for an evacuation bus, and next morning, as soon as the curfew ended, we left our house with light backpacks and a cart. It was impossible to call a taxi, so we walked to the station for an hour and a half; my dad used Nordic walking poles. Luckily, it snowed, and the fog descended on the city — they usually did not bomb in such weather.

Kharkiv center after shelling by Russian troops
I always thought of myself as a brave person, but when a cruise missile flies overhead with this terrifying roar, you just feel your insides clench
We traveled in a caravan of minivans without stopping overnight, sometimes in the opposite lane. It took us almost two days to get to Lviv. We were grateful for that, as many refugees had to stand on trains shoulder to shoulder. Along the way, our drivers were stopping in their home villages and brought us several boxed of food from home: potatoes, eggs, and bread, which we have not seen in a week. They also gave us well water, which was very tasty.

I started crying when they brought us all of this. I remembered how in 2014 we used to collect warm clothes and food for the refugees from Donetsk and Lugansk, and how I used to weave masking nets. It was only then that I realized that now we were the refugees accepting help from strangers. This food was incredibly helpful because little gas station shops along the way had been emptied out by refugees: they bought up everything but the ice cream.

Then we headed to Poland and seven hours of wait time at the border crossing. We reached Germany on the night of March 8th. During the first few days in Kassel, I startled from every sharp sound, even if it was just someone shutting a door.

The center of Kharkiv after the raid
The first few days in Kassel I used to jump from every loud noise, even if it was just someone shutting the door
Before the war, we used to dream about meeting my grandnephew, who was born here during the pandemic. And I had often imagined the whole large family living together in one apartment. That’s exactly what happened. So, all those dreams have come true, except, that package didn’t include bombings of my hometown, Kharkiv.

* Many in Ukraine (and beyond) are familiar with Henry Lion Oldie — the pen name of a creative team of Kharkiv-based writers, Dmitriy Gromov and Oleg Ladyzhensky. At some point, their science fiction collaboration was recognized as the “Europe's best writers,” and overall, these co-authors earned approximately twenty awards, including those from Russia.

The testimony was chronicled on March 16, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina