Archive for the ‘Kharkiv’ Tag

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter V, – The Trans-Siberian

Chapter V

The Trans-Siberian –Kharkiv Station

Passengers lined up on the boarding platform to the Express line as it sat belching steam into gray skies over Ukraine. On another rail yard rested a train retired from its former days looking like an ancient black dragon stretching way beyond the tracks from the Kharkiv station,

It was its history and monumental iconic past that lured me to choose this mode of travel to Kiev, made all the more enticing after taking the guided tour of the famed first class cars used during the Czars’ reign.

Pictures of Czar Nickolas and other historic figures from the Russian empire hung on wood panels. The Romanovs, dictators, politburo and Soviet party bigwigs, the rich and famous, all of them given their place of importance hung on a sort of ‘hall of fame,’ in spacious stately cars. Beds with thick plump mattresses and pillows lay under down quilts and coverlets. Upholstered chairs in deep red damask tapestry sat near heavy wood tables with French porcelain tea service sets and a gleaming samovar. Side bars were stocked with vodka filled crystal decanters, and silver ice buckets. Lit wall sconces accented the draped windows framed in matching red velvet like the upholstery, with tassels and pulls. White crisp linens hung from polished brass towel rods near a built-in lavatory. The first class cars were turned into a museum, open to the public now.  Tour guides, dressed as stewards welcomed the public  to view what once was off-limits to all but the elite class.

A porter led me to car #7303, third one down, and compartment # 9. One man stood alongside the aisle, his face turned towards a window, occasionally glancing back at those passing through.  No one seemed to notice or care about the lone passenger with no bag.

“May I see your key please, miss? I wish to make sure it is the one assigned to you, and fits the lock to your compartment.” he said.

“Yes, of course.” I handed him the key given me at check-in. The door opened. A tray on the small table held packets of sugar,  ‘espresso’, tea bags, napkins and a menu. A little basket with complimentary toiletries was laid beside it. Travel brochures were arranged in a rack on the wall.

“There you go, miss. Enjoy your stay while aboard The Trans-Siberian. If there is anything you need please ring the call button here.” he said, pointing to a small button on the paneled wall inside the compartment.  A steward will come along shortly and check on your comfort. If you wish to place a meal order, or would like to eat in the dining car, and make a reservation you may let him know then. If you need any assistance in any way, please let us know.”

“Thank you. I will.”

Locking my compartment door after he left I settled in and unpacked only what I needed for my one night stay, then pulled out my notes and laptop. A half hour passed before the train whistle blew and began its slow pull away from the station heading northwest towards Kiev, picking up speed as it drew further away from Kharkiv.

As promised, a steward came by and took my “dinner order.” I picked from the menu, and asked for black coffee. Before shutting my door I noticed the ‘no bag’ passenger in the aisle leaning against the window, his face hidden behind a newspaper.

Three hours later I had finished dinner, returned the tray to the steward, sent some emails and worked on files. Ready to turn in for the night, I shut down my laptop, stuffed my notebook, maps and research files into my bag, and set it down beside my luggage. Grabbing my purse and a small bag, I locked my door on my way out, and headed down to the end of the car, to the lavatory.

After standing in line for what seemed a good twenty minutes the lavatory was free. With its unsanitary conditions I hurried my time spent there, thankful to get out and back to my compartment. The man by the window was gone.

I inserted my key into the lock. It got stuck, became lodged, but I managed to yank it free. Bending down to peer through the lock, I noticed the bent ragged, edges around its opening. Did I do that? After repeated tries it finally opened, and I quickly relocked it once inside, not sure by now if it was ever really locked.

My laptop was closed, still in shutdown mode.  I checked my equipment, files, and personal things and could see nothing taken. And yet, things looked different somehow, as if moved. Am I just paranoid, or has someone broken into my compartment? Sometimes it felt as if there were eyes watching me wherever I went. Eyes that bore into my back from unseen places were like an unwelcomed shadow. A face in a crowd, on the metro, or a passenger on the Trans-Siberian could blend in like all the rest, all heading the same direction. Though my work files were all protected in password accounts, it was my family research notes and old photos I carried that were more personal and accessible that I worried about.  Still, it appeared there was nothing stolen.  There was no proof that anyone had broken in, except for a jammed door lock that just hours earlier worked fine when the steward tried it, so shrugged it off and went to bed.

My body had not fully adjusted to the time zones after jet lag, days earlier, and my sleep was sporadic. When it came, so did the dreams. The steppes were filled with graves. Names flashed before me, obscured in Cyrillic, Hebrew and German script on white slab stones, all of them with a face as the train sped by. The train slowed, and I saw my own, with my name in large bold letters, MONICA MENGELDER.  Pushing hard against the stone, clawing at it, I struggled to get free. It was my whimpering cry that woke me. Shaken, frightened, I realized it was only the white pillow I squeezed, tightly between my hands. My face, was bathed in sweat, my body felt cold, and my heart was pounding as I sat up in bed and looked out the window at the sun coming up over the eastern skies. The monotonous rhythm of the train’s rolling wheels reminded me just how alone I felt.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Note: The above photo is not mine. It is one from internet images. Although Monica is a fictional character and her story fiction, I have ridden the Trans-Siberian railway between Kharkov and Kiev, in 1989 and had my own experience on the train. That story can be found here under, ‘ Aboard the Trans-Siberian in Communist Russia, May, 1989’, posted on April 1, 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 IV – Lyudmila

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The above photo is one of mine. It is actually not a photo of Kharkiv, but one of Odessa, Ukraine I took when I traveled to those cities in Ukraine in 1989. I did not have a good picture of Kharkiv to fit this particular scene and chapter so chose to use this photo. Another note concerning the name and spelling of the town of Kharkiv. The old spelling in Russian was Kharkov, but the newer and correct version and spelling is Kharkiv in the Ukrainian. I have used both spellings at times, but is technically correct spelled Kharkiv.

Chapter Four (Part I)

Lyudmila

Kharkiv, Ukraine

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.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

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