Archive for the ‘Soviet Union’ Tag

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter X, ‘Connecting with Irina’

Chapter Ten

Connecting with Irina

The repeated, Knock! Knock! came again, louder, feeling like a blunt force blow to my eardrums, jarring me out of a semiconscious state of sleep.

The pounding headache and stiff neck reminded me of times I sat confined in an economy class seat during overseas flights, suffering from too little sleep and a caffeine withdrawal. 

Downing a couple of pain relievers I stared back at my reflection in the mirror. My hair needed conditioning, and the honey-gold highlights, a re-do.  Like all else here, it will have to wait until I have the time to go shopping for essential items.  My hazel eyes responded to the ice-cold tap water I splashed on my face. The cucumber moisturizer soothed my sunburned cheeks.

Now, I need some of Olga’s sludge. Sludge, a name I gave Olga’s strong “espresso” coffee, complete with the coarse grounds settled like concrete. Two or more cups of her ‘Turkish brew,’ and I was running on high-octane, its effects lingered leaving me more energized than the robotic bunny in the EverReady battery commercials.

“Just a moment, Olga,” I said, impatiently.

It was becoming routine now with Olga bringing me a tray of her ‘sludge’, Russian rye bread, yogurt, fruit and cream; but, I have to admit, one I looked forward to.

It wasn’t Olga.

“Good morning. I see you made it back, safe and sound.”

“Oh, it’s you, Irina. I thought it was… I mean.  Oh, crap! I’m so not with it today.”

“Apparently not. Well, you better pull yourself together, and quick .” she said.

“Where were you yesterday when I walked out of the cemetery? I tried to make it back in time, but was delayed. I told you before that those things take time, videotaping gravestones. You didn’t have to take off, leaving me stranded out there, alone. It took me hours to get back.”

“And you should know that when I set a limit on time allowed at sites I mean for that to be kept. I won’t hang around for hours to make things convenient for you. I had to get back to town where the cell signal is stronger, and call the consulate to reschedule our appointment. Cell service is undependable that far out. I hope it was well worth your time and effort the inconvenience cost us.”

Ouch! My cheeks and ears felt the sting of her rebuke. 

“It was OK. Just another cemetery with a lot of old stones, but I did manage to extract some good information from it.” I said smiling, enjoying my little metaphor.

“I drove back to look for you, but couldn’t find you. There was an accident on the road that slowed up traffic.”

“Yes, I know. I saw it too. And that reminds me of something else I need to discuss with you. Someone has been tracking me wherever I go around here. Do you know anything about that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Dark blondish hair, scar on his left cheek, medium build, black leather jacket.  Do you know him?”

“No.”

“Well, I think he broke into my compartment while on the train in Ukraine. I am always careful, locking things up. I did some work on my files before shutting down for the night. When I went to use the lavatory at the end of the car,  there was a man hanging around outside my compartment. I think it was the same man. When I came back my door key wouldn’t work and my binder and laptop had been moved or searched. Fortunately, he was unable to access anything important. But, not long ago, you said your officials wanted to “compare  notes” with the U.S. immigration department’s records, census and registration files. Why is that? What do they need to compare?”

Irina let out a sigh. “During the Soviet era there were no archives open to the public to visit or view files. Most records were disorganized, incomplete, lost, or destroyed. As you know files were classified during the ‘cold war’ so people could not look for displaced, deceased, or imprisoned relatives sent to the gulags.”

“Oh? And, what about the records found on the Jews during the Holocaust when your countrymen betrayed the thousands of victims massacred by the Einsatzgruppen SS. Were they just more convenient for Adolf Hitler to find?” I asked,emphatically.

“Yes. That was another unfortunate story when Russia may have turned a blind eye. But, now that we are a democracy and the archives open we have the problem of organizing, and sorting through mounds of files, declassified documents and dossiers of the Russian people as well as those from the former republics. Your system in the U.S. is more organized and thorough. Ours is not, so our officials just want to view the records, update their own, and utilize the same system.”

“And, for your information, while on the subject, our officials do not steal notes or do room searches. Of course, we want our records compared and matched up with those of the U.S. for the benefit of researchers and genealogists. How else could they be of help to those researching online, if there are errors or discrepancies? Only a sleuth steals what he cannot get legally.”

“Maybe that guy is from customs, just wanting to procure legitimate documentation that you have the necessary identification to be here. Just because we are now an independent country doesn’t mean we can trust everyone who enters our country, photographing and videotaping cemetery graves. There are privacy issues. We can’t assume everyone is really who they say they are. Don’t blame me if you fail to find what you are seeking, Monica, or find a flaw in our system here regarding your stay and assignment. We can’t bury our past; Just live with it, and hope we never repeat it. It is not up to me to grant you more than I’m given permission to allow unless first approved by my superior. But, I will speak with him about your requests and see what I can arrange.”

“Alright. Thanks. I would appreciate it, and so would the U.S. Genealogy Dept. of History and Research, and my ‘superior’.”

“Now, hurry up. I’ll wait outside. I promise not to leave you behind this time. We’ll grab some of Olga’s ‘sludge’ and rolls on the way out. We don’t have time for a leisurely breakfast.”

“Yes, ma’am!” I said, a bit sarcastically.

She walked out, giving me “thirty minutes” to dress.

When I was ready and loaded my equipment into Irina’s car I noticed a man across the road collecting bags of trash, piling them into his pickup bed where shovels and garden tools were laid.

“Irina. Do you know the man over there by the pickup truck?” I asked.

“Sure. That’s Jacob. He’s a maintenance man who works here in Gregoriopol. Why, is he another one lurking around, spying on you?” she said, laughing.

“Well, no. It’s just that I’ve seen him around town and just wondered who he was. He was the other man in the accident on the road, yesterday. But, I’d still like to know who the man was that I saw while on the train, then at the Babi Yar, in Kiev, then at the accident scene…”

“Monica, I’m sure he’s just an official that wants to be sure you are not a threat to our security, It’s nothing to worry about. You’re becoming paranoid.”

“I don’t think so.”

________________

 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. 

ABOARD THE TRANS-SIBERIAN IN COMMUNIST RUSSIA, MAY, 1989

ABOARD THE TRANS-SIBERIAN IN COMMUNIST RUSSIA

A true story

By: Joyce E. Johnson

It was May, 1989 when I made the journey alone, flying from the U.S. into Helsinki, Finland where I changed planes and airlines, finally arriving in Moscow, Russia, and the (now former) Soviet Union. I was commemorating the 100th year anniversary of my paternal grandfather’s immigration into the U.S., through Castle Gardens, New York City, New York in 1889. Known as the Germans from Russia his family were part of the original settlers in South Russia in the late 1700 period who first settled in villages of Bessarabia (now known as Moldova) founded and farmed by the early Germans.

I grew excited, and anxious to visit the city of Odessa and Ukraine, the city and region of his birth and family history. Other cities on my itinerary included Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, and Leningrad, a city then named for the Bolshevik, Vladimir Lenin who birthed and led the revolution for the socialists’ regime of old Motherland, Communist Russia.

During the many years of genealogy research I learned about a country steeped in mystery with a dark past, one with a multitude of hidden secrets covered under layers of propaganda, lies and classified files. Democracy was but a word spoken in anxious moments of feverish excitement among Russians gathering on street corners, expectant, yet still afraid to speak out against the Kremlin and politburo’s party members.

Now, one hundred years later I was living my dream to travel abroad into this massive country. Due to job commitments my husband could not take this trip with me so I traveled alone until meeting up with another group of tourists from the U.S. in Moscow.

Most of the traveling we did between cities in the Ukraine was by the Russian airline Aeroflot, but due to a change of plans on our itinerary we took a Trans-Siberian train from Kharkov to Kiev.

My roommate Betty said. “Oh. That trip will take all night. We’ll lose time, and have to sleep on a crowded car.”

I tried to be optimistic and adventurous, and said, “That’s great! This will be exciting. I love trains. We can see the country side and enjoy the ride.”

Betty and I were assigned to share a compartment of four beds with an older, married, Jewish couple.

I noticed the Russian people staring as we waited to board the train. I smiled at them wishing we were allowed to speak to them or communicate in some way. I knew no Russian except for a few words I had learned in haste while studying my guidebook. Only our Russian guide Sasha and escorts knew English, so communication was difficult. It was also forbidden between Russians and American, except through a host.

I trudged with baggage to the train, an icon to their past. I anticipated with excitement the adventure ahead. The large, steel, black monster sat hissing, ready. The smells of live chickens in crates, stale produce, coal and the thick, hot layers of old fuel oil permeated through the rank rail yard as we longed for fresh air.

I tried to imagine who the train might have carried, famed or regal inside its cars. Transfixed with the thought of what it represented to Russia’s past, I climbed aboard with the rest of our group and we were ushered down the aisle of its cold, dark interior. While being shown to our sleeper compartment, I heard the slow chug of engines as it moved slowly out of the railway station.

It was past midnight when I later awoke. Looking out through the dirty glass window, I saw the dark silhouette and shapes of sleeping villages as we sped by. A faint glow of light peered through windows of small houses near the tracks.

I climbed out of my bottom bunk bed to use the restroom at the end of our passenger car. I quietly went to open our compartment door to step out into the aisle trying not to disturb the others.

The door would not open. I tried without success to unlock it, fiddling with the handle and lock. My attempts to unlatch it woke the others. They got up and tried also, but it would not open. Their eyes and faces showed fear, anger. I hoped mine did not.

As our train sped through the Russian Steppes, I sat down and prayed while my traveling companions yelled and screamed for help.

“Help. We’re locked in. Open the door! Somebody!” They each frantically pulled and yanked on the door latch. They were terrified we’d been deliberately locked in.

I chose to remain calm, encouraging them. “They will come. Stay calm.” I said.

We learned while on the trip a lot of things malfunctioned in this country, as their hotel facilities, equipment and transportation modes still operated as if in pre-world war II times. The Soviet Union was decades behind the West in every conceivable way.

We knew that the KGB and uniformed guards were our constant shadow everywhere we went from city to city. A man stood watch just outside our compartment when we boarded, so I knew he heard all our distress and took note of all that went on. Had he been the one to lock us in, or was the door latch only broken and jammed, making it difficult to open? We did not know, but our mind was spent with the possibilities of how this happened, and why.

Our tour guide held all our visas and passports. They were not allowed back until the time of our departure from Russia. Every place, location, hotel and transportation mode provided for us was arranged by their own In-tourist KGB travel bureau and all under the watchful eyes of discrete escorts that carefully blended into the background.

Soon, we heard those on the other side of our compartment working the latch and lock to get it opened. There was much confusion and chatter that followed about why or who might be responsible, if indeed someone was.

When we were finally freed from our compartment, and coming into the Kiev Trans-Siberian station I saw the sun rising, declaring a new day. I hoped it would be better than the night just spent in a compartment we could not be freed from.

When I arrived back home to the U.S. there was a little American flag flying outside the front door of our house. My husband had placed it there to welcome me home, never knowing anything about what went on while I traveled in Communist Russia thousands of miles apart. Mailed postcards I sent home to my family from Ukraine did not arrive home in my mailbox until ten days after my return. Three weeks after I returned home I wrote my story, submitted it to the Times Call Longmont, CO. newspaper, and it was given a full-page with my submitted photos. The picture above is one of the newspaper copies I still keep.

The trip was one I will never forget, one I will always remember, and one I have never regretted taking.

_____________________

Joyce E. Johnson

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