Chapter XVI (16)
The Journal – Into new hands (Part 1)
The house was not far, this side of Hlinaia, a small concrete block style, old, but appeared recently painted. The yard looked as if maintained on a regular basis.
There was no response to my knocks on the front door. When I noticed his truck parked in the gravel driveway I knocked again, harder, and waited.
Floor boards creaked under slow, halting steps. The door opened.
“Ms. Mengelder? What a surprise. Come in. Did you come to ask more questions of me?” he said, smiling.
In spite of the tragedies he’d suffered it was his dry wit one could appreciate.
“Jacob, I’m sorry I appeared like a relentless press hound on your heels that day. But, I do have an important issue to discuss with you if you have time to talk.”
“Of course. Come in. Have a seat. I’ll make us some hot tea. Or is it just that flavored coffee you drink like so many Americans? With whipped cream or fancy swirls on the top?”
“Oh, you mean Starbucks?” I laughed. Yes, we love our Starbucks. But, I love tea too, if you want to go to the bother. Thank you. I would like that.”
His furnishings were simple, old, but comfortable, his house clean. He filled a brass urn with water and crushed tea leaves. The urn was an antique like those from Middle Eastern countries.
“Is that a real samovar, Jacob? I’ve seen pictures of ones once used in the Russian Empire, from down in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I think? I read they brew the best tea.”
“Yes, it was a cast off left over from things salvaged after the war when things were found and reclaimed by the Soviet state. When the republics won their independence they allowed Jewish war refugees to come and claim things once stolen by the Nazis. I had nothing left from my childhood saved or found. When I found that it reminded me of one my grandmother used before we were… so much was never found or reclaimed by the owners, so went into storage for surviving Jews who could come and claim things they wanted or needed. There is much history to those old things. Oh. I’m prattling on like the old relic I am. So, what can I help you with? You had something to discuss”?
“Yes.” I said, laughing. “Well, I was hoping you could tell me where the graves of the Mengelders are located that you told me about earlier. The ones before the war of course. I’ve been looking for them, but…have not located any yet, unless they were among those I could not read or decipher. That’s why it was so incredible the way we met and I learned of your story, and the way we’re connected through the Mengelder line.”
“Well, I don’t know where all the Mengelders graves are, but some of the older ones are scattered in cemeteries here and there wherever their village churches sectioned off plots of ground in the 1800s, or where they settled and colonized.”
“Well, my own grandmother told me a story about how the Mengelder ancestors in old Russia kept a journal of all the events and dates of things that happened in their lives, and some of the horrible things that happened to them. When they immigrated they could not bring it out of Russia, so it was left here with the next generation to keep going. Do you know anything about a family journal?”
“Yes. I think my father kept one, wrote things down, before he was killed. He taught me how to read and write at an early age, because the schools then did not allow Jewish children to attend. He told me how important it was to keep a record of things for our family. When the camps were liberated, I began writing in one, also. It was a way of healing… therapeutic to write down my thoughts and feelings. I would have nightmares about the war.. .”
As he talked he shared more about the way the Jews dealt with things in the aftermath of the war, rebuilding their lives, looking for lost and deceased relatives.
There was no subtle way to approach the subject of the journal, and confess how I came to possess it, and what I’d found in it. Confirmation was needed to prove my suspicions of those mentioned by name in the journal and their involvement in the Jewish massacres during the war. Jacob was the only person I trusted.
“Jacob, when I was at the Pridnestrovie Cemetery a few days ago I noticed one of the stones was leaning, crooked. When I tried to straighten it I found something buried under it. When I dug around the base of the grave I pulled this out. I don’t think the grave I found this under is one belonging to the Mengelder family, just one chosen at random to bury it.”
“After I found it I sat down beside the graves, and started reading. I was afraid the pages would tear, it is so old, but it was wrapped up in this tin, which helped preserve it, I think.”
“I missed my ride back to town with Irina. She had driven off before I got back to her car, so I had to walk back to town alone and that was what I was doing when I saw your truck that day on the road, and witnessed your accident with that man. I’m sorry about not stopping though to see if you needed any help. There was no excuse for my deliberate avoidance. I just wanted to get back to town quickly before it got dark. When I tried a short cut walking through some of the old village of Colosova, I got lost and stumbled upon an old man there who led me back onto the road, to Grigoriopol.”
“I did not want to risk losing the journal, or having it stolen. I have been followed at times and am worried that if it was known that I have it I would be in trouble and have to explain how I came to have it. Since it is so old, it is a rare and valuable book, irreplaceable, like an antique. Much of it is in old German script, which was easier for me to transcribe. I got all of it transcribed and documented, but only for our family. No one else, except my cousin knows about the journal or its contents. At least not to my knowledge. That is why I need to trust someone else with it now. Jacob, do you think this journal could be the one your father had before he was killed?”
His expression looked as if he had gone into shock. Finally, he nodded, caressing the ancient book as if afraid it would disintegrate in his hands while doing so. He looked up at me, with tears in his eyes. “If this is my father’s journal – the one I remember – then it is a treasure you have found.” he said.
“Yes, it is. But, there is something else about it, too. It contains names and sensitive information I think involving people during the war. Do you know if he had it on him the day he disappeared when he did not come home?”
“I’m not sure. He said he was going to go out and look for food and medicine. But, maybe he went to the cemetery instead, and buried the journal there. He was gone for a very long time. He slipped out under a hole in the wall he had made, and promised us he would be back. I was very sick, running a fever. There was Typhoid in our ghetto. I waited, watched for him, but…” he said, taking his handkerchief, and wiping away tears. “He never returned.”
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)