Chapter Four (Part I)
With the interest in family histories and popularity of genealogy clubs and organizations the national archives and data bases became burdened with files and information on the migration and immigration of ethnic groups. Documented stories recounted the immigrants’ trek and journey, across continents by train, or boat. Upon their immigration to North America those affording first or second class passage came, declaring all their possessions aboard in trunks, stowed away in the hold of the ship while they were shown to cabins, or quarters stacked with bunks.
Enduring hunger, and inclement weather those less fortunate traveled thousands of miles from all directions, across open terrain, rugged mountains, or through raging rivers by foot, wagon or whatever mode they could afford, often stopping and staying for weeks or months at a time to rest or replenish their provisions before reaching their port of embarkation. Hamburg, Germany, and Liverpool, England became inundated with refugees, and transients waiting to board a ship bound for American shores. Carrying all they owned the weary and destitute trudged up ramps with cloth bundles tied together, thrown over their backs, and then proceeded down dark steps into steerage. Families with children, vulnerable, and trusting, small hands clutching tightly to a parent huddled together in the hold of a ship, rocked violently by lurching waves. Infectious disease consumed hungrily its victims, like the passengers who snatched up their food. Meager rations were passed through the lines as hands received their measured portions. None was wasted. None was sanitized. Weary from their long journey they stood waiting to be processed through the lines only to find themselves turned away, or deported once they reached their port of entry. Because of the failure to pass the physical examination, on entrance to the U.S. many were not allowed beyond the arrival gates. With no financial means, sponsorship or assistance to support their existence, once registered, or some other technicality unacceptable to immigration officials, they returned to their country of origin.
After World War I, and during the heightened regulations of the Bolshevik period the rate of immigration from Russia was reduced considerably when Stalin and the Communist regime clamped down on ethnic groups, sending thousands to the gulags and work camps on the frozen Siberian frontier. Thousands more starved during the Holodomor famines in the 1920’s – 1930’s when collectivization farms ruled a tightly controlled market of goods and products produced solely by the German colonists.
When the dissolution of the communist regime came in 1990 it opened the door for thousands of German and Russian dissidents to leave, immigrating west into Europe, North America, north into the Canadian provinces, or south into the countries of Brazil and Argentina, many coming out of incarceration, or exile.
For surviving Jews of the Holocaust still in East Europe and Russia it allowed those remaining to immigrate to Israel. With the changes and newly independent former Soviet bloc countries it opened up opportunity and access to family and ethnic histories, census records, and immigration files. The search for missing relatives and locations of surviving family members was now possible through participating international archives and databases.
The pressure placed on local government officials gave reporters opportunities to tour the gulags and speak with guards of the former KGB on the incarceration or release of those kept as political prisoners. Their records were made accessible.
It was in Kharkiv where I met Lyudmila and heard her story.
Like thousands of others she was unable to immigrate to America because she got caught up in the ‘sweep of injustice,’ a term used to describe the period when Joseph Stalin swept up millions in the U.S.S.R. for all termed ‘disloyal to the party,’ or unfaithful in serving the ‘Motherland.’ of Russia. Thousands were executed. Thousands more were sent off to labor camps. Few survived the camps. Those who did were relocated to homes where they could live out their lives in relative comfort.
My agency in the U.S. learned of Lyudmila’s existence and where she was relocated upon release, but when contacting the Ukrainian official in Kharkiv to arrange my visit with Lyudmila they told me that her, “health was not good, that she was not a strong woman to sit through an interview.”
Using my reporter instincts and prowess I protested, promising to be careful to not tire her. They finally agreed.
My taxi pulled up in front of an old, white-washed concrete block building, in need of paint and patching on places where walls were chipped, or pitted from its exterior finish. Located within a section of old Kharkiv early residential city limits, it looked like a former clinic, or small hospital converted to a nursing home with as few staff members as needed to run the place and look after their elderly residents. After showing them my identification papers, passport and press card needed for permission to interview they let me in.
The woman was frail, her voice weak, her sight, failing. Her birth record listed her born in 1922, her age now, 90.
The nurse made her comfortable, propping her up in a worn, upholstered chair, then sat a container with water, and a glass on a small table beside her.
When I was given permission I clipped a tiny microphone to Lyudmila’s gown, then positioned a video cam on a tripod by her chair, and checked her image on the display screen. When satisfied with its position I turned it to, ‘record’ and sat down in another chair facing her. The nurse gave her some water through a straw, then took a seat near her, waiting for me to begin.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson