Leonid was born in the small Jewish village of Gershunovka on July 23, 1930, to a religiously observant family. His brother, Yakov, was born five years later. His father, Gregory (Hebrew: Gersh), and the village where they lived were named after his grandfather, Rabbi Gersh haCohen. His parents were farmers.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded Ukraine and made rapid advances throughout the land. Leonid was eleven years old when the Germans marched through his village, ending his childhood and his education. While hiding in the fields from the Nazis, neighbors plundered their home. The Nazis later expelled the Shilkrots and the rest of the Jews of Gershunovka to the Rybnitsa Ghetto.
Inside the ghetto, the family lived in a one-room apartment with several other families. The Nazis took Leonid’s father to the ghetto’s prison, where he disappeared. Leonid was forced to work loading and unloading railroad cars; his mother cleaned streets. Finding food became a daily focus. He went to the ghetto’s food kitchen for meager rations. Sometimes he found produce while unloading railroad cars, other times he simply begged. One day, while secretly gathering fruit in a grove outside of town, Leonid witnessed a group of Jews (discovered by the Nazis in nearby villages) ordered to march to an unknown destiny. While hiding, he heard gunshots, and later emerged to find the entire group murdered. As conditions for Jews deteriorated, he witnessed Romanian soldiers gathering a group of women and children to transfer them to the ghetto and recalls one solider stabbing a mother and child with his bayonet. “Everyday we were alive was a holiday,” he says.
In March 1944, the Soviets liberated the ghetto. The Romanian soldiers retreated, burning down the prison containing 400 prisoners as they left. After liberation, Leonid, his mother, and his brother stayed in Rybnitsa. Leonid and his brother attended school while their mother worked as a technical assistant in the pharmacy to support them. Leonid became a student mechanic, and in 1950, enlisted in the Russian Army for the required four years.
Leonid married Sofia Rotenberg in 1954, finished college, and worked as a manager in a factory for over thirty years. In 1990, he moved to Birmingham with his wife and three sons and their families. Leonid’s biggest challenge was learning English. Coming from a religious family, Leonid says, “Religion was in my heart in Russia, I could not practice it openly. After I came to U.S.A., I can finally practice religion without fear.”