We called them our “coffee talks.” It was a recurring memory I had of grandmother Lisle making me more homesick for Nebraska.
We’d finished the pot of coffee long before. The plate of cookies sat empty too.
“Magdalena was Jewish! Like all the Mengelders, before they converted. It was a long-held secret your great-grandfather did not want known. In order to survive the pogroms and massacres of old Russia they denounced everything Jewish. Culture, diet, circumcision, all the orthodox traditions.”
She smiled, obviously enjoying my surprise and shock at the news.
“Wait a minute… the Mengelders were… Orthodox Jews?” I swallowed the remains of my cookie, and took a gulp of coffee. “And you and grandfather Jacob kept this a secret never telling any of us. Why? Why keep that information from us?”
“To spare the family, Moni from hatred, bigotry, and Antisemitism. That is all the Jews had ever known wherever they lived. Of course, it was more widespread in East Europe than other places at the time. Jews from the ‘Pale’ lived in absolute poverty, shunned like outcasts. They were thought of as “unclean” themselves like the pork they refused to eat. When German Jews converted to the Christian faith they never talked about their past again, especially to immigration officials. They wanted to conform, to just be German. Later, they came to be known as the ‘Germans from Russia,’ but many of the real ethnic Germans did not want to associate even with the German Jews who converted. They were antisemitic, too.”
Journal pages contained entries about the Germans, Jews and exiled Christians who defied the government and regime during the Czarist, Bolshevik and Soviet era by speaking their mind, expressing their thoughts. Initials were included of those sent or taken away by the secret police during the night.
The journal was their way of recording secretly or corporately the tragedies, pogroms, even critical opinions of the anarchy and Czar they suffered under, then the Bolsheviks and finally the Soviet era. It was a kaleidoscope of all they went through, a mix of everything endured in their lives, the happy and the sad, their despair, tears, cries, fears and prayers.
When I was finished documenting and updating files, saved and sent, I shut everything down and climbed into bed, completely drained from the long day. The nighttime pain relievers were becoming a regular habit. Within minutes I drifted off, asleep.
I ran clutching the journal, a speeding car chasing me once again down the same road I’d walked before. I tripped, stumbling in my effort to get away. The car came to a sudden halt behind me. Two men got out, walked to my crouching body as I tried to get up from the graveled road, tightly clutching by bag. Familiar faces, the men in the hallway at the consulate’s office in Odessa. One was the man in the accident on the road I had witnessed. They were not dressed in suits as before, but wore tunics with ballooned sleeves secured at the waist with wide belts, vests and suede boots like the Cossacks of old Russia. Thick fur hats covered their heads. Long bushy mustaches grew wild above their mouths smelling of vodka. They laughed, prying the journal from my hands. I was forced to go with them as they shoved me into the back seat where another person sat waiting. I could not see that person’s face. It was too dark. But I heard a laugh, cynical, taunting. “Well, Monica we meet at last.”
Feeling trapped, I pushed frantically at a door, trying to get away, but it wasn’t a door, and I was not in a car. It was then I woke up, shivering in my bed.
Dear God, it was so real. What does all this mean? If only I could make sense of it.
I did not know how deep or strong my roots were until I began to unearth my family’s secrets that lay buried like grandfather Jacob. They took possession of not only my past, but my present and future as well. God. What should I do?
The following morning I called Irina telling her I needed to take a few days off, catch up on some sleep and work on files in my room.
Massaging my stiff neck, I took a hot bath, dressed, walked up the street to the café for breakfast, and then took a long walk.
When I came back to my room, I opened up the journal to the last and final entry. It was 1944. Hitler’s army and SS occupied Russia…
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)