Pridnestrovie Cemetery, Transnistria
The rusted, iron gate was heavy. It barely moved with each push and shove. Tufts of high weeds grew wild around the bottom making my jerking and tugging efforts impossible to gain entrance. After a few good kicks the stubborn relic relented. Creaking, groaning, it yielded, squeaking at the hinges.
When I turned around, Irina was still standing there. Not allowing her a reason to gloat later I just smiled back and gave her a thumb up. She responded by shaking her head. I’ve met feisty alley cats with better dispositions. Turning back to the gate, I trudged through the weeds and brush. My old Nikes and denim came in handy for these jaunts.
After photographing the entrance, I worked my way back. Records claimed the cemetery dated back to the 1700 s. Rows of headstones leaned to one side, tilted, barely standing, like tired old soldiers standing for inspection. Chipped, cracked, and peeling they settled heavily in the ground. Their dull gray color blended with the dull gray sky. No good walking path between rows remained, nor a single flower, living plant, or blade of grass visible. But there was litter, everywhere. Pieces of trash lay scattered where wind gusts carried it across the Russian steppes with a ferocious anger. Broken pieces of glass I assumed were beer bottles poked up through the weeds with aluminum cans crushed or twisted, mixed in with all. Much of the debris was caught in the fence that ran along the east side of the cemetery where the section of abandoned, boarded up buildings remained.
Forging through to the gravestones, objects crunching beneath my feet I looked at names and dates, comparing Cyrillic and Hebrew inscriptions. Broken and chipped corner pieces from old gravestones stuck up from the ground with sharp edges.
I should have worn boots, heavy ones to protect my ankles from all this junk.
After searching the front and middle rows, I headed towards the back into the latter time period of the 19th century, those from the 1800 s, into the Bolshevik and Soviet era of early 1900 s.
Each stone held a story, a history. But, who would ever learn of it? Were there any who would even care?
My job was tedious at times. Still, I hoped my work would contribute to the archives, adding to what had already been learned and enlighten me on things not yet documented.
Irina, my guide, interpreter, travel companion, driver, and whatever other role she was assigned to fill was ethnic Russian. She was knowledgeable on the history of the Russian empire, former Soviet republics, fluent in several languages and dialects with transcribing skills. Knowledgeable of Russia’s past and present political regimes, she was not afraid to speak her mind about anything. In the old regime her mouth would have been her own undoing. In their now democratic government, however she was just another voice in the choir, and no one raised their hackles if someone sang a different tune.
But, when I asked them to arrange a meeting for me with surviving victims of the Holocaust, or their families they told me they did not have, “listings or knowledge of them or their whereabouts. People move around, relocate, change address, and are not required to leave forwarding addresses for those wanting to find them,” they said.
The customs agent at Sheremetyevo International Airport was right about one thing: that I would run into problems seeking after things too “sensitive” to some. But, who? Survivors of the Holocaust and Gulag wanted to share their stories. Agencies and advocates representing ‘Human Rights’ violations still fought the bureaucracy to get the full story on things that went on, not all of it declassified. It was my agency that used their own resources to learn of Lyudmila’s whereabouts, and pushed the request through in arranging my meeting with her when I placed an overseas call to Washington D.C. with what I hoped was a secure connection. They insisted on the consulate’s full cooperation allowing me to visit her.
There was only so much Irina could do for me if she herself did not have clearance to get such information, or arrange interviews with some in Moldova. As a researcher and archivist I knew there were untold stories behind those padlocked doors and it was my job and intent to find a way through.
Harsh winds, bitter cold winters, the elements of time and erosion took its toll on the ground settling around the gravestones as they leaned or listed to one side. The markings had become so indistinct they seemed to blur into the background. There was barely anything worth documenting, but between my still shots and my video I swept my cameras across every row, every stone, and beyond covering the camp and its surroundings. Refuse that lay scattered around the grounds seemed to just blend in with all else.
But, it was a rusted piece of metal that protruded up from under a tilted gravestone that suddenly got my attention. Setting down my cameras I squatted down, and like a dog retrieving a buried bone raked away the dirt surface with my hands until it was loosened and pulled free from the ground. Brushing off the caked on dirt I turned over what appeared to be an old metal tin so deteriorated over time, the lid was sealed shut. Using a piece of broken stone nearby I worked the lid. Like the iron gate to the cemetery it was nearly impossible to open. The thought of it holding someone’s ashes made me shudder.
Trying to avoid the sharp jagged edges I managed to loosen one side a mere fraction. Then, I went to work on the opposite side, running the stone along under the edges pushing up, doing the same on the other two sides turning it until the lid worked loose. Slowly, afraid at what I might find inside I lifted the lid.
Not ashes. But…what is this?
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)