Archive for the ‘WP Longform’ Category

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXII (22)

Chapter XXII (22)

 

Cossack soldiers stood in billowing black pants and white puffy sleeved shirts playing a woeful sad strain on their violins to the screeching train as it sped by.

Hands and faces peered between wooden slats. Sad eyes stared at nothing really except the desolate landscape of the Russian steppes mile after mile. It was not the Trans-Siberian with comfortable, warm sleeping compartments, but cold, hard box cars headed east into the frozen tundra. Suddenly, it was my face I saw staring back at me, and I jerked, waking myself from the horrid nightmare.

Sweating, chilled, I could hear the rumbling of the wheels rolling on tracks, as it vibrated through my head. Two hours later the headache pills and hot shower did little to ease the tension. Why? What does all it mean? I can hardly get through a night’s sleep without these dreams, seeing faces, Cossack soldiers, open graves, flowers thrown upon a stone, Jonquils, grandmother Lisle’s favorite, scattered by gusty winds.

My nose craved the smell of her baked pies and cookies as I looked at family photos before me of her, grandfather Jacob, and the family that day in November when he died. The picture was a favorite, one of several I’d packed and brought with me. It wasn’t his death or the details I dwelt on, but instead the moments before when we sat at the tables eating our Thanksgiving dinner, laughing, and catching up on everyone’s news. But, Grandfather Jacob’s death changed it all, and for weeks we mourned our loss.         

Grandmother Lisle was physically spent for days following the funeral. The constant visits of friends and family wore her out, though they meant to be kind. Soon it grew quiet. His presence was there, but only in spirit. It seemed empty, this time with only one pair of slow feet padding around the old house where they lived during most of their married life.  The sounds of his steps and footfall after fifty years of marriage would not grace the little house again.

The tiny American flag on his old desk hung from its pole at half-mast. It was a small replica of those seen where huge flags hung outside government buildings. Grandmother Lisle tearfully lowered the little flag after we all returned home to their house from the funeral. All of his personal things, papers, books, and Bible were still in their original place on top of his old coffee stained oak desk. She stood looking at it all with a sad smile while needlessly straightening things, even caressing his worn Bible as if it brought a small measure of comfort.

“He was always so particular about the things on his desk, kept everything in its place, all neat and tidy. He would pull out his old, swivel desk chair and ease himself down in it, then go over the budget, balance the checkbook, check the stock prices from the morning paper, or write in his journal. He had a set routine for everything, it seemed.”

My aunt got a serving table set up with all the food brought over. Grandmother didn’t want anything, but we put a little food on her plate and told her to eat something. The men in the family busied themselves around the house to get it ready for winter, sealing up windows, chalking, doing the things Grandfather Jacob always saw to himself.

The leaf shaped pendulum on the beautiful, antique Cuckoo clock they bought early in their marriage while on a trip to Germany slowed until finally coming to a reverent stop. They kept it wound, always running, unless they were away on vacation. After his death it remained quiet and still for the entire time of her mourning. She did not want to hear the tiny bird announce each hour as it popped out, like a surprise visitor, then hurry back inside while the pendulum ticked on.

Earlier that week while standing at his graveside, I watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground thinking about the note left for me upon his death. How I would give anything for another moment alive with them both. But, I was on my own, and it was the ticking away of minutes in my brain that reminded me just how alone I was.

Oh, grandfather. What should I do? Tell the story of the “Christianized Germans” who once were Jewish serving the same God, now with a new faith, like Jacob Gruenfeld? Or tell the story of the Jews who rejected the Messiah defying all to remain true to their roots, and suffered the fate of an insane killer determined to eradicate the Jewish nation? Who will I crucify if I tell the truth? Who will I protect if I don’t? I am so confused. Dear God, help me do the right thing. I owe it to my readers, to the world, even to tell the real story, but at what cost?

My coffee had cooled, but my laptop warmed under my fingers as I began to type.   

[They were East European Jews, born in one country, migrating to another, seeking acceptance and opportunity. Settling the colonies of the Russian Empire, they grew their crops, worked a trade, worshiped in their church or synagogue, raising their children to believe in God. They wanted a better life, leaving all behind in one country believing it to be better in another.

Some joined the ‘enlightened’ reform movement adopting the ways of their Lutheran German neighbors. Others became more introverted, drawing away. The latter group became Hasidim Jews with a devotion to Orthodox tradition, kosher diet, old style dress, an abiding knowledge and following of the laws of Torah.

But, hardship, famine, pogroms, destruction and death awaited them wherever they went. To live, they would renounce their religion and lie, allowing themselves to be baptized and convert to the Evangelical Lutheran faith, or the Russian Orthodox Church. It was not enough to survive the horrors coming. Their immigration records followed them. And because of this Hitler found them.

They went through examinations, inspections. There was no separation or sorting of Jews, even those intermarried with a Christian. If they were just a quarter Jew or had a Jewish grandparent, they were selected for extermination. The massacres had begun…]

With a fresh pot of coffee I returned to the keyboard referring to my notes filling enough pages to run a special edition of the Omaha World Herald as Jeremy would say. When I was done and all of it edited I hit the ‘send,’ with a request for an electronic return receipt. The attachment was forwarded on to my department supervisor in DC, and then I deleted the file from my laptop, and got dressed.

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVIII (18)

Chapter XVIII (18)

When I called Irina letting her know I had relocated to Odessa she did not seem surprised, assuming I was just growing tired of Grigoriopol and Olga, and maybe even her. There was more truth in all of that than what I was willing to admit, but just said, “Yes, I thought it a good move since Odessa is closer to some the archives I was inhabiting lately, and felt lured to the big city which is after all a little more exciting.”

She said, “And, of course there is Vasily. I mean with his office being in Odessa too.”

I knew she was baiting me with that remark, but said nothing more on that subject, only mentioned I still had some unfinished business, and information I needed.

So, the knock on the door did not come as a total surprise, much like the rain bursting from the darkening cloud I had been staring at from my window as I drained the last of my coffee from the pot I had sent up with my breakfast order.

“Who is it?”

“Irina.”

Another thing to be thankful for. A peep-hole in the door.

“Hi. Sit down. Have you had breakfast, yet? I could have them bring up another breakfast tray if you haven’t. My treat.”

“No thanks. I’ve already eaten, but the coffee I could use. Now, tell me what is going on, Monica. When I tried reaching you the day I dropped you off at Olga’s you either didn’t get my message, or you disregarded it. So, I called Olga and asked if you were still there. She told me you checked out so suddenly she had no information on your relocation status, just your forwarding number and email address.”

“OK. Yes. I had no choice but to leave and relocate. Irina, I told you someone was following me. But, you never believed me. That night someone broke into my room while I was taking a bath and when I jumped out of the tub to see who it was, or what was going on I later discovered my USB flash drive missing, a little one I wore around my neck. I looked everywhere for it, but it was nowhere around. I had files on it I was working on. Fortunately I had sent on to Washington my earlier work files and documents. But, there were still, well…some personal things on the flash drive. I had to get out of there. Frankly, I was scared. I have no idea who is following me or why…but suspect that someone has hacked into my work files…and things I’ve researched.”

Irina stared at me as if I had grown horns, then sighed and said, “Well, I don’t see how anything I know can help you recover your flash drive, or find out who is following you, or why. But, you seem to find trouble wherever you go.”

“Yes, it appears that way, doesn’t it? But, someone maybe does not like some things I’ve learned while here. Anyway, I was wondering if you could fill me in on some more about the history of Transnistria.”

“I don’t see how that has anything to do with your…troubles, but alright. Do you remember me telling you, that Pridnestrovie, the new name for old Transnistria has been in the process of seeking their independence and recognition as a nation?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Well, there has been feuding and an ongoing conflict between Moldova and Pridnestrovie ever since the 1992 war for independence. Some Moldavians want to keep control of Pridnestrovie, and will try preventing their official recognition for independence if they can. There are many Germans still living in the new Pridnestrovie. The ones in Tiraspol, their capitol have become quite prosperous and successful. The Moldavians want to take back that territory claiming Pridnestrovie owes them huge amounts in taxes. By the way, wasn’t your family from that region, of old Transnistria?”

“I don’t remember telling you where my family was from.” I said, so surprised by her question I knew she could see it on my face.

“Yes, but as you probably know you were well vetted by the Russian officials before being allowed into the country to gain access to our archives. You must know they would have learned all of that information on you beforehand, don’t you?”

The implications and her comment made me wonder just what all they really knew about me, frightening as it was. “OK. I suppose so. Yes, they are from the former Gluckstal German colonies in Transnistria.”

“Well, there are people in Moldova that will stop at nothing to get what they are after. Not all of these people are in the same ‘ball park,’ or ‘playing field’ as you Americans say. Some want reform and change, but there are others who want to run the country with an iron fist like the old dictatorships of the former Soviet Union. They want control in everything, especially the economy. I believe the people of Pridnestrovie are honest people wanting reform and a democracy. But, there are strong factions in Moldova who will try to stop that because they lose all control over the country’s economy and markets that the Germans have built up and made successful.”

“Would there be any reason for any of those people to want access to Holocaust research files and documents, or follow me around to see where I go?”

“It’s possible. The politics in old Transnistria are very unsettling right now, and you have to be careful what you step in if you get my meaning. The people who are presently in power in Moldova are from the original Romanian extraction.”

“So? What are you getting at?”

“OK. As you know, it was the Romanians that collaborated with the German SS and Nazis during World War II when much of the ‘Final Solution’ was carried out, and the thousands killed on the steppes of Russia.”

“Yes, I know about all of that, but why are the Romanians ‘feuding’ now with the Germans in old Transnistria? Weren’t most of those Germans Evangelical Lutherans or Catholics? Isn’t there a lot of Catholics or Protestant Romanians in Moldova? Wouldn’t they be like on the same ‘team,’ to use another metaphor?” I asked.

“No. The Germans who are so successful in Pridnestrovie right now are not just German, Monica. They are descendants from some of the original German Jewish settlers. Some come from the families of victims, or survivors of the Holocaust. It does not matter whether they converted, or not to the Lutheran religion. Whatever they believe now, they are still Jewish to the Moldavians.  We’re talking about families that go way back. There is still a lot of animosity and anti-Semitism here. Do you see my point?”

“Yes.” I nodded slowly, the realization settling now like the Siberian frost.

“Is that the reason I was not given prior permission to interview your elderly citizens about their families and relatives in the Holocaust? Because someone in charge prevented me learning about their past links with the massacres? I asked ahead of time to have appointments set up for me to interview those that could relate their stories. I thought those things were also supposed to be part of the new reforms, but was not given access to the lists of names and addresses of those people.”

“I don’t know, nor have any control over that, Monica. I made your requests known to the consulate of Moldova, that’s all. Sensitive issues like the Holocaust are things they keep quiet about, particularly the massacres in Transnistria and Ukraine. Russia and its former Soviet republics have a very dark past. People can’t forget – especially the old ones – those things, the massacres, gulags, all of it. It can make a big difference on Election Day for someone running for president, or a position in parliament if the candidate, or a family member was guilty of crimes committed against the people. Those candidates want that past buried, like the dead at the cemeteries.”

“Who is it at the Moldavian consulate’s office that decides if a press release is allowed, or not, on something of such sensitive material?” I asked.

“The president’s.”

“And the candidate running this time around?” I asked.

“Igor Grigoraui, the current president who is running for re-election.”

“How did he get elected so easily the first time?”

Another sigh. “I think people did not know as much about him as they know now, like the way he does things, runs the country, the way he wants control of the Transnistria region and its people. The things reported about him may have hurt his chances for re-election.”

“So. Igor Grigoraui is the current president, up for reelection. And he has control of the consulate, what the press is allowed to report, who, or what they have access to?”

“Exactly. Monica, you had better tell me what is going on. What have you dug up on him?”

Dug up?’ Oh, just an old journal .If you only knew, Irina.

With a long sigh, I refilled our coffee cups. This is going to take a while.

“OK. But, please be patient, and don’t interrupt me until you hear all of it.”

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVI, (16) Part 1

old Mannhalter pictures and Bible 015

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)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XI, Odessa

English: Panorama of Odessa (Ukraine) from the...

English: Panorama of Odessa (Ukraine) from the Black Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter 11

Odessa, Ukraine

We checked in with a receptionist standing behind a circular counter.  Natural sunlight poured in through skylights under the arched dome giving the granite floors and hallways below the feel of a large solarium. Small potted birch trees and fern plants were placed around the spacious ivory and gold pillared foyer. We took the elevator to the second floor and walked down the hallway to room 210. A secretary showed us into an adjoining office.

“Ms. Mengelder, good morning, I’m Vasily Kuznetsov. It is a pleasure to meet you, at last.”

“Thank you.”

“Please, both of you have a seat. Irina, it is good to see you, again.”

“Thank you, Vasily.”

His eyes were the color of chocolate, his hair, a golden hue of Russian Amber, one lock appearing to fall stubbornly over his forehead and skin tone like bronze as if baked in the sun at a Black Sea resort. 

“Ms. Mengelder, I am the liaison in charge of the Consulate of Foreign Affairs Committee. All of your business concerning appointments and itinerary in Ukraine will be approved and granted through our office. May I see your referral and identification papers, please?”

“Of course. I think you will find everything there. As you can see I also have current press credentials.”

“Yes, thank you.” He thumbed through the papers, and then handed all to his secretary standing nearby.

“She will just scan your credentials and visa for our files, and then return them. Now, we have been advised by your agency to afford you all the necessary requirements and courtesy. Of course, we want to be of service to you any way we can. I understand you have visited some places on your itinerary already?”

“Yes. I’m sorry for not making it yesterday, as scheduled. The added delay I know caused you and Irina inconvenience, and I apologize for that. Thank you for arranging another appointment with me.”

“No problem. We are grateful to have the help in updating our records here. They are a mess. Due to the classified status of our archives during the Soviet regime they were never clearly categorized or processed electronically. It is a privilege to work with the U.S. in reorganizing our system. We’ve come a long ways since the old days of record keeping. The new micro digitized technology has now afforded even this once backward country to communicate and transfer information in a way we never imagined.” His smile was engaging, captivating, revealing perfectly straight, white teeth.

“Yes. We have.” The irony in his statement and what I now carried around in secret made more acute the shame and embarrassment I felt, realizing that I would have to find a way to return the journal to where I found it. Once I have the information I need from it.

“Well, how can we help you here?  What will you need?” he asked.

“Well, I have surname lists of those immigrating from Russia and the former Soviet Union during the 1800 s to the 2000 year period entering the U.S. I would like to verify, copy and collect the data in your archives if I may so they can be synced, updated, and made accessible to our researchers, and to yours as well.”

“Yes, I’m sure that can be arranged, as long as you are able to locate them in our mismanaged archives.” he said, with a slight laugh. “Irina will help you in organizing them?” He looked over at Irina, smiling as if seeking her approval.

Irina nodded. “Of course.”

“OK. Thank you. Then in addition, I would like included the records of baptisms, and conversions of ethnic groups from the countries of East Europe, their settlement areas, towns and villages in the ‘Pale of Settlement.’ Here is a list of the founding German colonies I would like data and census records on. And if you have available lists of victims or families of those from your labor prison camps, and the names and victims of those who were re-located to concentration camps and ghettos I would be grateful for those as well. I requested this information earlier, but there was no follow-up. I would like to interview some, if still living, and get their stories on record for our history and research department. We have the names of family members seeking information on missing relatives and family never found or heard from during or after the Holocaust.”

“I understand. Well, there are some people we will need to confer with regarding these requests, but I will do my best to comply. As you know many or most of those surviving the Holocaust are now deceased themselves or quite elderly unless they were children at the time of liberation. Where is it that you are staying at the present time?”

“At Olga’s Inn in Grigoriopol.”

“Oh, yes. Olga.  She is a gracious host. Is she making your stay comfortable then?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Good. Then, we will be in contact with you on your requests and I will see that the archives and records division has the research permits ready for you by tomorrow. Here is the contact name and number you will need to set up a schedule of sorts for records retrieval. If there are those requested they cannot locate, they would put a ‘watch’ on them. They will have a name and picture I.D. card ready for you when you come in. Just let them know I sent you. It will all be arranged. It has been a real pleasure meeting you Ms. Mengelder. We will be in touch.”

“Thank you.”

His secretary walked back in with my papers and handed them back.

Vasily stood, shook my hand and walked us to the door.

Irina and I headed for the elevator.

“He is something to look at, I have to admit, but certainly gets right down to business. Does he socialize much?” I asked Irina, as we walked back down the hallway towards the elevators.”

“Socialize? You have no idea! He is not only eligible, but one of the most wanted or desirable bachelors in Odessa.”

“Oh? How interesting.”

Irina punched the ‘Down’ button at the elevator. “But, you are right about his business practices, too. He Is also all business. I think the meeting went well and feel hopeful that he… What’s the matter? What are you staring at?”

“Those men standing there at the end of the corridor. That guy with the blond hair, with the other men. Do you know him?”

“Oh, him? That is Ivan Antonescu.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“The one beside him is Victor, his brother who owns and runs the huge conglomerate of businesses and companies in Moldova. He is the financial backer of Igor Grigoraui, the candidate running for reelection of Moldova’s parliament. The other man is Vladimir Krupin, Grigoraui’s campaign manager. Why do you ask?”

“That blond guy, with the scar is the man I told you about, the one that has been showing up everywhere I go.”

“Monica, really. I doubt that it was Ivan whom you think followed you. I don’t think he would have any reason to be stalking a genealogist.” she said, with a snicker.

“Oh? A genealogist isn’t important enough to draw your spooks out of retirement, then?”

“I only meant there could hardly be any need for a genealogist to be watched, or followed, if escorted around by an appointed guide.”

“Because whatever there is to know about them worth learning the ‘guide’ will inform on them?”

“No! Stop with the accusations, Monica. But, I will tell you this much. Whatever an official here finds sensitive enough to report can be easily detected with computer and cell phone surveillance. Then, I think that person will have reason to worry about being watched.”

“OK. I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”

Just how secure my e-mails and files were that I sent to Jeremy I did not know.  It  made me think it was time to switch to my ‘alias’ back up account and password, and hope it was not too late.

____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson  (2013)

Posted November 6, 2013 by Joyce in Fiction, Literary fiction, My Novel, WP Longform

Tagged with , , , ,

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter VIII – Transnistria

THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA

Chapter VIII

Transnistria

Working my way west towards Grigoriopol I kept below the ridge in what looked like a dried up culvert running parallel to the road. When I heard the sound of a car coming I climbed back up towards the road to see if it was Irina’s car. But, instead it was a Tiraspol police car. A wrecker followed close behind. Soon after a late model sedan with tinted windows appeared, all headed towards the accident scene.

Keeping out of sight, I turned and headed back down along the road towards the old German villages of Bergdorf, Neudorf and Gluckstal. Now, renamed Colosova, Carmanova, and Hlinaia during the Soviet era, the former colonies with their attached ‘collective farms’ looked uninhabited, almost ghostly, like the old ghetto near the cemetery.

When I asked Irina earlier that day if we could stop and explore the old settlements she refused my request.

“Why? There aren’t any villagers still living there. So, there is no one around to take us through them. Besides, we don’t have the time,” she said.

“But, it’s a part of the history of this region, and my research of these ethnic groups,” I countered back. Her deliberate excuses to deny me access to these places infuriated me. It also surprised me.

She just adamantly replied, “We can’t. That’s all. It’s not one on our allowed itinerary.”

“And why not? Those are the original villages of the German Russians, aren’t they? Even if no one lives there, can’t we go through them so I can get some video of it?”

“The terrain is too uneven. It’s not safe to drive through there, much less walk around. I am responsible to get you to the places assigned on our itinerary. That is all.”

She was right about that part. The road was full of deep ruts and grooves, looking as if left from old farm tractors or wagons. Irrigation streams had dried up, and a foul odor came from the wells no longer producing adequate water supply.

My bag snagged on something sticking up from the ground. Pieces of old farm plows lay rusting in their own grave, in a pocket of sunken earth. Not to pass up an opportunity I took out my camera again, focusing on the buildings and barns to get some shots. What was still standing looked abandoned, deserted.

A crunching, crackling sound came from behind. My reflexes were keenly acute and aware of any possibility, anymore, ready to react at a second’s notice. Quickly shoving my camera back into my bag, I scanned the ground for something to use to defend myself. Grabbing up a metal rod from the pile of refuse I waited, listening for the quiet irregular steps of someone, near.

Agonizing seconds passed when an old man appeared in the clearing. He stood staring at me, his face weathered and calloused. He was dressed in old dungarees and boots.

“Who are you? What are you doing here”?

Not sure what to say I stood staring back, my nerves on edge, rattled inside my cold, sweating skin.

“I’m sorry sir. I was just looking for a shortcut back to Grigoriopol from the graveyard in Transnistria. I missed my ride back, so cut through here. I thought it was deserted, so…”

He looked down at my bag and the metal rod I held tightly at my side. I could not be certain where he’d come from or how long he stood watching me from behind the trees, or even if he saw me snapping photos.

“This is private property. Please. Come with me. I will lead you back onto the road. Why are you carrying a suitcase if you are visiting the cemetery? Were you planning to stay a while, check in?”          

 OK. This old man has a sense of humor.

“No, sir. Just passing through, visiting.” I said with a nervous laugh. “Actually, I am an archivist from the United States. It is my job to photograph graves and document records and cemetery registries for families, working in connection with the archives here in Russia. I have to carry my cameras and equipment with me while working. The noise startled me. I was…, not sure who you were, so thought…”

“As I told you, this area is private, not open to the public.” he said, glancing at the metal rod I still held.

There was no other alternative but to trust him and follow him out of the brush. Nodding, I replied. “I’m sorry.” Tossing the rod back into the heap pile I let it go, hoping I would not regret my action.

Thinking to direct his attention away from my trespassing I went into my ‘reporter mode,’ hoping to dispel the unease and apprehension.

“Could you tell me a little bit about the history here? In Transnistria? Are there any residents still living in these little towns?” I asked.

“There are a few older ones still around.”

“When were the settlements founded?”

“The late 1700’s.”

“From where did the first colonists come?”

“Germany, Prussia, some from Austria and Wuertemberg.”

“What did they do for a living?”

“Most were farmers. Some worked at other trades.”

“Are you a descendant from one of the first families?”

A long pause followed, before he answered.

“My family was.”

“Were they all ethnic Germans?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“Well, I’m a historian, an archivist. I want to learn the history of your people for my research. It’s my job.”

He turned to me, with cold, piercing dark eyes. “Our people suffered many things. They do not want foreigners uncovering their… exposing their past.”

Yikes! There’s nothing like getting belted in the gut with a direct comment like that. If he only he knew what I’d ‘uncovered’, ‘exposed’.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I did not mean to pry into your private life, it’s just that…you see my job is to help people in our country – in the United States – to learn about their ancestral families, maybe descendants still living here, get information of their whereabouts, make connections, learn their history, their story, and document it for future generations. That’s what we do.”

“Alright miss. I will tell you a little bit about us, but I will not give you names or allow you to go through here hunting for those still living. People here wish to remain anonymous about their past.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you. Whatever you can share is fine. And I am grateful.”

“In most things, they remained ‘ethnic German’. But, the Russians forced their own dialects and the Czar’s laws on us, even their Russian Orthodox Church. But, the Germans are a strong people. Proud and defiant. Most were thrown into the gulags because they refused to conform.”

“That is very sad. Was your family among those sent away?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry. Do you know what religion they belonged to when they came to Russia?”

“Most were Lutheran, or Catholic.”

“I see. Do you know if there were any Jews who settled here too, when the colonies were founded?” I asked boldly, not wanting to leave any stone unturned. After all, I am getting good at turning ‘stones.’

Another long pause before he answered.

“Yes.”

“I read that the Jews had their own settlements in the Pale, but I just wondered if they had much contact with German colonists. Before, or after World War I.”

“My grandfather told about pious Jews who came from regions in Germany and Prussia when the early colonists came. And others that settled after, migrating here or there. The Orthodox Jews were always so righteous acting with their own set of rules. They built their own synagogues, but were burned to the ground by the Cossacks.”

“How sad. Do you know if the two ethnic groups ever got along? Colonizing and working together?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I was told about German farmers who taught the Jews how to farm, manage their village operations. But, the Jews wouldn’t listen to the Germans. They had their own ways. Then the government stepped in and made them move back into the cities. The rest you probably know, if you’re an ‘archivist'”, he said.     There was more I wanted to know, but sensed he was through sharing things on the subject, so I stopped with the questions.

The sun had gone down, obscured into the horizon’s red, gold blur. The wind calmed. Only the sounds of crickets and night owls could be heard and our steps on the gravel road.

The man struggled with his gait, shuffling along, his limp becoming more noticeable as he walked. Bad knees or hip, maybe.

The soft glow of street lights in Grigoriopol could be seen from the road.

“I will leave you here to go the rest of the way by yourself. It is not far. Stay on this road and it will take you into town.”

“Thank you for your help and for sharing your story. I’m sorry, but I failed to get your name, sir.”

“It’s not important.”

“Oh. Well, thank you, just the same. Mine is Monica Mengelder.”

He nodded, as if anxious to be rid of me. Then turned, looking back.

“Did you say…Mengelder?” Furrowed eyebrows came together, and his eyes, penetrating with a look of consternation.

“Yes, sir. Monica Mengelder.”

“Well, good night, Ms. Mengelder. It is growing dark. You best be on your way. Please remember in the future, this area is off-limits. It is private property.”

“I will. Thank you.”

He nodded again, then turned around and headed east the way we had come, as I turned west towards the lights of Grigoriopol and Olga’s Inn.

_____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter IV, – Part II, ‘Lyudmila’s story’

Chapter IV – Part II

Lyudmila’s story

Kharkiv, Ukraine

“Lyudmila.” I said, “you can begin now. Tell me about your life when you lived in Cebrikove, and when you were arrested and sent to the camps. Let me know if you become too weak or tired to continue, OK? Then we’ll stop, and you can rest.”

She nodded.  “Our village was small. A few hundred or so. We grew wheat, barley, grain… did our harvests. When drought came the locusts swarmed in like dark clouds. It was a plague…they ate all that we grew, but we replanted each year, through storms, the cold, wind and still we worked…carrying on. We had a Lutheran church… built by the hands of our men. The women served the parish. It took all of us. We worked together, to make our homes…lives better.”

“Then one day soldiers came, … It was horrible…we were terrified of the Reds, … Bolsheviks banging on our doors during the night… yelling at us. They beat us and… shoved their guns at our backs, …pushed us out the door. They did not tell us where they were taking us…or why. We were not allowed… to take anything. They would not let us speak. They… said we would… not need anything… where we were going.  They crowded us…into cold cattle cars, dark as night… smelled of dried cow dung. Then they slammed shut… the heavy steel doors. People were wailing. They feared… they would never see their village… or homes again.”

“The journey took days. There was no clean water to drink, …just meager pieces of stale old bread to eat. We got so thirsty. We cried out… ‘Please! Give us water.’ It got so bitter cold we could not touch… the bare steel for fear of losing our skin… from the subzero frost. It was during winter… in February. We had on only what we wore… when they came for us. But, we huddled together…to stay warm. It stunk so bad…there were only large buckets to relieve ourselves.”

“The train slowed… and we pulled into a station. Tracks just stopped there… There were old wooden carts… and wagons in the yard… We were made to march on foot to…the camps. We thought… they were military barracks. But they were… like those we’d heard about… where prisoners were sent… who worked on… the roads with picks, shovels… and sickles to clear the land… in the woods of… trees and rocks. They needed people to… build the rail line… extend the tracks… farther east and north. It was way to the east… of any villages or towns, out in the… frozen forests of Siberia. They were labor camps… hundreds of miles… from our homes and villages. It was worse than… anything we had ever known.”

“They fed us only… one meal a day, in the morning. A thin gruel like soup …and  pieces of dried crusty bread. A few sips of icy water… from dirty tin cups dunked into… large heavy steel drums… was all we had… They had to… pick at the ice to… break it down… in chips, and melt over fires… for us to get a drink. There were no heaters… to heat anything, not even… our sleeping quarters at night. We worked… twelve hours a day… then taken… to our quarters when dark… to sleep on wooden slats laid across cold slab floors… with fifteen or more people crammed into one room.”

The woman’s voice became weak, quieter as she went on, her breathing more shallow. The nurse gave her sips of water. Her slow, tired voice reflected the difficulty of one showing deteriorating respiratory problems. I turned up the volume on my microphone and leaned in closer, taking notes as she talked.

“Lyudmila, I see on your records that your family was registered as Lutheran. Was it during the purge when your family or village was rounded up?”

“Yes. Stalin hated us all. It was… a prison sentence to just… attend a worship service, of any kind. We tried to meet in secret…privately in homes. We would sneak out…in groups, quietly, at night…our watchers watching for theirs…who became suspicious. So, a few at a time…would walk for blocks…to meet up for prayer and bible study. The old Jews, the orthodox… warned us…if we converted…we would be taken away. But, it did them no good either…to remain Jewish. They were found, too.”

Her last comment sent my mind reeling with my next question. “Lyudmila, what religion was your family when they immigrated into Russia?

“They were Jews… from Germany… the ethnic Germans baptized us when we converted to their religion.”

She took sips of water from her glass, and rested a while before continuing. Waiting patiently, I used discretion before asking another question, until she was finished.

“The Czar required all of  the Jews… to convert… after our people settled. They said… we needed to be… listed on the revision lists. It was so… we would pay the Czar taxes. It happened… after my people came… to Russia, through Prussia… now Poland.”

“So your village became registered Lutherans after they agreed to convert from their Jewish faith? When they settled after emigrating into Russia?” I asked her.

“Yes. I think there were some…that belonged to the… Lutheran religion in Germany, before they came… to Russia. Many of them… came together, in groups, with other Germans. That is… what I was told by my grandparents.”

“Was there any anti-Semitism towards the Jews in Russia when you lived in the settlement areas, the old villages?”

“There were always those…who hated us wherever… we lived. It was not better… in one place, or another. Hard times… followed us everywhere. They made us pay debts… we did not owe… and charged us fees… for things we did not… ask for. They kept making up… laws for us to obey… life was unbearable for us. The Lutheran Germans told us… we would be… left alone if we converted… and worshiped together… in their churches. But there were times…when the Jews, the old ones, wanted to… go back to their Orthodox ways… go to synagogue… live among their own people…who did not judge them…or force a religion on them … or expect them to follow their rules… or diet…the converted Germans… from the colonies…said if we did not want… to face more pogroms…we must live together as Christians…worship together in the same parish.  But they did not understand…  the Jewish ways… they were stubborn and impatient. They believed the Czar… would grant us more freedoms, leave us alone.  They said if we did not… want to live as a German…we would be sent away… The Jews wanted only… to be left alone. The Russians liked none… of us whatever we were.”

“When the Soviets came… for them too, the Christians, Jews… all of us…we  were arrested. Just for worshiping… in a church or synagogue, for refusing…to join the Communist party… None of us… were free. Not to worship… to farm, to even live… in our villages. They kept papers on us all. Where…  we went,…what we did…

When Lyudmila was finished, she was exhausted, spent, breathing with difficulty.

“Thank you, Lyudmila for sharing your story.” I said.

After disconnecting the microphone, and camera, I put away my equipment. patted  her frail, cold hand and wished her good health, knowing it took a lot for her to share it. When I embraced her thin shoulders, she struggled to add something else. With great effort, she said, “Tell our story… to those… who have never heard.”

“I will Lyudmila. I promise.”

The nurse settled her back down into her bed. Before I had repacked my cameras and equipment to leave she was already asleep.

Days later, I contacted the nursing home, asked about her health, and if I could visit her once more, and bring her some flowers as a thank-you gift. They informed me she passed away two days after our interview.

When I asked about funeral details, or if I could deliver, or take flowers to her gravesite, they refused to disclose any more information about her, or her burial, which I did not understand, knowing that her American descendants would want the information. But, grateful for the short time I had with her, I thanked them and promptly sent off the edited video to the U.S. G. D. H.& R. It would be added to their archives collection with a footnote attached of her birth, death and location.

Before my departure from Kharkiv I took a taxi to Freedom Square. Looking up at the monument and reading the plaques detailing its history I thought how ironic it was that it seemed to parallel Lyudmila’s.  The site was first called Dzhezhinsky Square, named in 1928 for the founder of the dreaded iron fisted NKVD secret police, Joseph Stalin, the very dictator who sent Lyudmila and thousands more like her to the labor camps. A statue had been erected in his honor. When the people’s revolution came, and they fought for their independence from the Communist stronghold it was renamed Independence Square in 1993. It was again renamed Freedom Square in 1995 after winning their independence and freedom. The tragic events in Lyudmila’s life, and her story made me realize how thankful I was for my family, grandfather Jacob, grandmother Lisle and those Mengelders before them who endured the hardships in their crossing, and the right to be called an American. And free.

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Note: The story is fiction. The characters (Lyudmila and Monica) are fictional too. But, Lyudmila’s story is one that is very real and similar to thousands of others and their families and descendants, like that of my own family. My own trip to Russia and these cities in 1989 was to commemorate my own grandfather Jacob’s and family’s immigration  in 1889 from Odessa, Russia. He had family members who were sent to the labor camps and perished there when they were unable to get out of Russia in time. The conversions of German Jews is also true, as was with my family. Their stories will be told as well in this continued story, The Informant’s Agenda. 

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter II, – The Mengelders of Omaha

Chapters and pages in chronological order

Family photos of paternal grandfather’s family and his German Bible

Chapter Two

The Mengelders,

Omaha, Nebraska

 Grandfather Jacob, his wine glass raised, as if standing for communion at his Lutheran church stood addressing the Mengelder family on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-eight of us crowded together at my grandparents’ home for the annual family  reunion.

“Does this sound familiar?” Jeremy said quietly, leaning towards my ear.

“You think? Yes, just a little.” I said, smiling. “But, this stuff is important to him. He just wants to remind us of the virtues of  ‘family values’, our ‘beginnings and rich heritage’, all of the above.” I said. We all bunched together, anxiously waiting for him  to finish while he delivered his speech, “embracing family, country, and freedom” once again.

Grandfather continued. “When our family came here in 1889 they earned the right and privilege of American citizenship. They embraced a new world, a new country. They could vote, go to church, and worship God openly, without fear. They could obtain an education, exercise free speech, without persecution or imprisonment.  They could visit friends and not worry about spying eyes, or listening ears. No opportunities were taken for granted.  They were patriots. Today, we are Americans in a free world that will one day seek to return to all once gained, that is now all but lost.”

Winding it up, he added, “At such times as we live in, there might be intervention by the evil one to take our most esteemed privileges from us and place in its stead the works of men with ruinous strife and hatred. But we will fight for our rights and with dignity we will stand before our flag and God, and declare our country, built with pride, perseverance, and respect for all. To God, our flag, our family, and our freedoms.”

At that point, grandfather took a sip from the wine glass in his right hand, while holding a little American flag in his left hand marking the occasion and the day of ‘thanks’ as we raised our glasses, the younger ones their soft drinks, and my uncles their beers, pronouncing a toast to, “freedom, democracy and liberty of one nation, and its people.”

“Hip, hip, hooray! To our flag, freedom, and the grand ole U.S.A.”, shouted Chad with a smart mouthed smirk, gulping down his Coke.

“Here, here! Let us pilgrims march forth into victory. And dinner.” declared John.

“Cheers to the red, white and blue. Cheers to me, and you.” said, Ben, our ‘poet’.

My cousins enjoyed a good laugh, not meant to be at the expense of grandfather Jacob. He just tended to be a bit long-winded when they stood impatient, waiting to load their plates from the bounty spread out over the buffet table.

When he finished and the prayer said we filled our plates and found seats at tables spilling out of the dining room, living room and kitchen. It was enough to freak out a fire marshal. We made a noisy bunch, laughing, joking, everyone talking at once.

Grandfather Jacob sat at the head of the dining room table in his chair looking like a proud peacock, patriarch of the family clan. His once thick silver locks now ringed his pink pate like a wispy white halo. His wire rimmed glasses framed kind, but intense, dark brown eyes. His face, the color of old ivory bore the deep lines, wrinkles and aging spots of his eighty-six years.

He worked on the mounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, and corn custard beside a half eaten turkey leg.  Another small plate with salad and rolls lay beside it disappearing just as fast. While eating he listened to bits and pieces of everyone’s conversation around the table, not missing a beat to add his input on all.

Grandmother Lisle sat beside him, her dainty hands cutting through a slice of turkey while discussing her Sweet Potato Pie’s ingredients and secret to a “flakier crust” with aunt Libby.

Sitting beside my uncle Heinrich at the other end of the table I nodded politely to all his ramblings about the things wrong with our government, and all that needed to be fixed in Washington, DC.

It was a typical holiday gathering, some watching football games on TV, my cousins in the basement playing pool, and the women cleaning up in the kitchen, gossiping while they worked.

Grandfather excused himself to go watch the boys play kick ball, and “get some fresh air”.  His pallor, and quiet mood seemed a bit off as I watched him through the opened window above the kitchen sink where I helped with clean up.

Their noise drifted in, as did the heat from the unusually warm day in late November.

With some nudging from the boys, Grandfather relented and joined them in a game of kickball, but had a harder time keeping up with the ones he once bounced on his knees calling his “little patriots”.  He jostled around, returning the ball a few times when suddenly he clutched his chest and collapsed to the ground.

We all ran out. My cousin wasted no time calling an ambulance.

Grandfather’s face turned red. He struggled to breathe. His words came slowly, his eyes turning to grandmother Lisle now kneeling down beside him, stroking his hot, perspiring forehead.  “Tell them… the truth. Make them…. proud….of… their heritage. My dear Lisle,… love. I will…see you, one day. Tell… Moni….”

Grandmother Lisle shook her head. “No, Jacob! You cannot leave me. Not now. There is no time for you to be sick.” she said, her voice breaking. She sobbed, imploring our help.

My uncle and cousin tried CPR, not waiting for paramedics to arrive. But, it did not help. A final breath and he lay quiet. A white cloud moved across the midday sun, his eyes staring upward, unmoving. A strange calm came over me as I looked down at his still form, realizing we had just lost him. In my mind I had an image of grandfather Jacob soaring through clouds, into the heavens, enlightening all the angels carrying him. And God smiling, while he “went on, and on,” his speech to all who would listen.

When the paramedics arrived their attempt to revive him was futile.  He was rushed to ER, but was pronounced dead from a “massive coronary,” turning our day of “thanks” into one of mourning.

A week later bouquets of flowers draped his coffin, as the Lutheran minister delivered the eulogy. The family gathered again in Omaha, Nebraska for his funeral, wept and mourned, then went home returning once again to busy lives, their jobs, all except me. It was grandfather Jacob’s wish to make me the “keeper” of our records, archive our history, and “preserve it for the coming generations.”

“Moni,” – he always called me that – “do not memorialize me when I am gone.  Learn the truth of our family’s history.  My grave will be but a stone to the quarry you will come to find. Learn our heritage. Write our story that it may be remembered. The patriotism to our country will live on in the hearts of the descendents that carry the banner of our beliefs. Those who value the words honored in our constitution will uphold the principles our nation’s founders swore to live by,” he’d written in a letter to be given to me upon his death. It was saved and kept with his old German Bible, passport, photos and naturalization papers.

Known jokingly as the ‘reporter’ in the family I lived up to their word, receiving my BA degree in journalism from UN, Lincoln, Nebraska. My father once told me, “Monica, develop your rapport with people instead of the report on them. Be sensitive to those whose lives and stories are subjected to someone else’s disclosure.”

As the creator of the literary press research paper, THE QUILL AND QUEST while in college I developed a web site and blog, enhancing it with new features.  By updating our site daily our readers could read articles, post and blog on political issues at home and abroad. Our newest feature; genealogy and archival research on diverse ethnic groups became a special project promoting interest, inquiries and questions from people wanting to research their ‘family tree,’ many of them becoming regular contributors or bloggers. Its success drew the interest of other professors and students majoring in history and genealogy studies in other schools. German, Russian and East European Jewish ethnic history became the most popular of our research studies project. And my obsession.

After earning my Master’s degree in history and genealogy studies I began assessing what I had on my own family history. Grandmother Lisle and I went through old documents, files and photos during our coffee talks, always with a plate of her “fresh from the oven,” Oatmeal Raisin cookies, my favorite.

Carefully turning pages of grandfather Jacob’s German Bible, I read the scrawled names, birth and death dates on family record pages, personal notes, mementoes and bookmarks stuffed inside, even favorite scriptures underlined and noted.

The worn, antiquated passport of my great-grandfather with pages as fine as tissue spilled loosely into my hands, well over a hundred years old now. Names and dates of family members’ immigration were scribbled on lines in Old Russian Cyrillic script.

Then she brought out another box, dust settling on it as it had been stored, hidden away, its contents giving off a musty, old smell. In unbelief I watched as she pulled things out, and it was then I learned the secret kept, like a hidden piece to a puzzle needed to complete the picture. And I realized the reason for grandfather Jacob’s fanatical patriotism.

Months later grandmother Lisle became weak and frail after suffering the flu the previous winter. Unable to regain her strength and recover she died peacefully in her sleep. Our family once again came together to mourn their loss. Like grandfather Jacob she believed anyone could be, “an American forging paths with a spirit of adventure and greatness,” like the first patriots and immigrants who came to shore pioneering the way.

We buried her a week later beside grandfather Jacob. Their adjoining gravesite now held another fresh bouquet of yellow daffodils, her favorite. It was Memorial Day.

While applying for a current passport and visa papers to travel abroad I received a call from the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research in Washington, D.C. They hired me, and I was sent on assignment to Europe with a team of archivists.

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

Note: The above story is fiction, but the photos above are mine. They are ones of my own family and grandparents. The story is based on facts, some true, some from other resources to create the fictional story of The Mengelders of Omaha.

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