Archive for the ‘Transnistria’ Tag

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 XIV (14), ‘Jacob’s Story,’ continued (Part 3)

Chapter XIV, ‘Jacob’s Story,’ continued (Part 3)

“I was very young when all that happened. But, the faces of the soldiers, the evil things done. Those things I cannot forget, even as I have tried to…they stay with me.”

“We were living in Odessa. The Jews were all confined to the cities during that time. My father would show my brother and me how to garden, plant seeds in tiny plots and teach us what he’d learned from his father. He was educated and trained in Odessa as a doctor, but later lost his medical license to practice when Jews were moved and confined to ghettos. When the ghettos got overcrowded the Jews were transported to other places. It became very unsanitary and people were always ill. So much sickness and hunger. No one cared to help us, or treat the sick. By then there were no seeds of anything to plant. We were just thankful to get food, clothing, and clean water to drink.”

“The Romanians put in charge of the Jews kept us all isolated. Fences were erected and places sealed up. Then the Nazi soldiers came and ordered the liquidation of the ghettos. The Romanian soldiers aided them in helping to carry out the massacres and deportations.”

“My older brother, Joseph died of typhus, like so many others. I got very sick, and my father squeezed out one night through a hole in the wall. He told my mother he was going out to find us food, and medicine. But, he was gone for days. We did not know where he was. We heard shots so thought they had found him, killed him. Then soldiers came for all of us, to transport us to Transnistria. They thought there were others who had escaped, searched everywhere, sealed up everything, and marched us all out of the ghetto with guns to our backs.”

“I was seven when the soldiers came to transport us to the concentration camp in Transnistria.”

“They shot all the sick, the old ones and any who were not strong enough to work. The old and weak ones were the first to be killed, thrown into ditches, or burned alive while crammed and locked into storage sheds. Some were hung up alive by meat hooks. They threw screaming babies and children into the fires until their cries were silenced. Some were  thrown from high windows onto the street, while the mothers were made to watch, wanting to die with them. Many were asphyxiated in mobile vans as they were shoved in and the gas turned on through exhaust pipes.”

“Grandmother Magdalena was one of the old ones that could no longer work. She was about the age I am now when they shot her in the back as she ran screaming into the freezing waters of the Dniester River. I watched as her body jerked violently from the bullets, then went down under the ice floes exploding from machine guns.”

“The younger ones that could work were forced into cattle cars packed so tight they could barely breathe. My mother and I were in that group. She held me up over her shoulders to keep me from being trampled. Many suffocated and died, their bodies all bunched together. We had to step over them to get out. People were fighting for just the air to breath. They could not get out fast enough climbing over the corpses. Those who were not taken by train to Transnistria were forced to march the rest of the way through the icy waters of the Dniester, and frozen steppes in nothing more than the rags they wore, or put on ferries.  People sold or gave away their clothes to anyone in exchange for food. The rest of our time was spent at Transnistria waiting the day when they would kill us all, or leave us to starve to death.”

“What about your mother, and you? Were you together at the camps?”

“When we got to the camps in Transnistria the children were yanked away from their parents and separated, some never seeing one another again. A soldier pulled me from my mother’s arms and she screamed at him as he hit her repeatedly. I was dragged away. They would not let us say goodbye, hug or anything. She started crying out, “Yeshua, Yeshua!’” His voice broke, trying to hold back sobs as he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.

“Finally, when the Russians advanced westward in their pursuit of the German army Transnistria was liberated, and the Germans and Romanians retreated.  The remains of thousands of Jews murdered lay wherever they were killed. We never learned where my brother’s or my father’s bodies were. To prevent the spread of more disease there were mass graves dug, or bodies burned in piles to cleanse the areas. My mother was still alive when the camps were liberated, but her skin hung loose over her thin bones. Her eyes looked sunken in her drawn face. I remember how beautiful she was once…long dark hair, soft clear skin, eyes that laughed when… well, before all that happened.”

____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIV, ‘Jacob’s Story’

Unaware I had drawn the stares of others in the café I sat tapping the fork on the rim of the plate, my food untouched, cold, my mind and thoughts thousands of miles away.

“Moni, your grandfather told me about an old journal their family had. A story his father passed down to him. The journal contained information on the family, their thoughts and things about the changes and political upheaval during the czar’s rein. He said they wrote even of the horrid pogroms. The journal stayed behind with family members who could not immigrate.”

“Are there any family members still living in Russia?” I asked her.

“Maybe. I don’t know. But, there was one,” she replied. “A long time ago, in the 1930 s, a woman, by the name of Magdalena. She was your great, great grandfather’s younger sister. The Russian officials told him once that her husband and children perished in the Stalin purges when they rounded up the Christians and political dissidents. They were exiled to Siberia. They were Christianized Germans. All died in the gulags, or prison camps, they were told. The authorities claimed they committed crimes against the state. A letter came once from another German villager telling him she was alive at that time. But they did not allow her to write or contact him. When the family inquired to the authorities about her they claimed they had no information at all except to say they could not locate her. All correspondence stopped after that letter.” Grandma continued.

“After World War II ended and reports of displaced persons and refugees were filed family members sent more inquiries out, this time to the International Red Cross. If she was still alive by the time the Nazis occupied Ukraine and Bessarabia she might not have survived especially then. She would have been perhaps in her seventies then.”

“You mean because she was ethnic German? Which put her in danger with the Russians if she sided with the Germans, accused of collaboration and all?” I asked.

Grandmother Lisle paused, sighing deeply, quiet for a while. “Possibly. But, she was probably not safe anywhere over there, particularly with the Germans!”

“Why? Wasn’t she Lutheran like the rest of the family? A “Christianized German,” like you said?”

“No, she was not.”

**************

He was perhaps in his late seventies, hunched in the shoulders. His worn work clothes showed the signs of one who was used to the toils of hard labor. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead as we walked. His hair was graying, thinning, his skin with sun spots showing age and time spent outdoors.

Our chance encounter was not what I would call a coincidence, but rather one destined  to help enlighten me on family secrets and histories buried here like the graves I documented.

He pointed to an area just down the street where shade trees hung heavy with limbs full of summer’s foliage and grass that grew thick and coarse. A little park nestled in the middle with old swings, slides and empty benches. We walked to one and sat down.

“Jacob, could you tell me what you know about your family? Where they came from? Where they settled”?

He nodded, quiet at first as if collecting his thoughts, then began. “I was born here in Transnistria, in Colosova. My families were farmers. My mother’s name was Raisya, my father was Anton. His family came from Wurttemberg, Germany, originally, but lived in Prussia before they immigrated to Bessarabia”.

“Were they part of the original German Lutheran groups of colonists that settled  here in the early 1800 s”? I asked.

“The Mengelders were German, but they were not Lutheran.”

“Do you know the names of your relatives further back in the Mengelder family?”

“There was Johann, Adam, David, Rueben, Elizabeth, Jacob…” He went on, as he named all those on the Mengelder family graves in Pridnestrovie cemetery.

“My own grandfather’s name was Jacob. He always wanted to be known as just German, although his family were registered as Lutherans on church records. He always said that a ‘good German could be proud of their heritage.’” I said, smiling.

“Ms. Mengelder. I am not sure one can define an ethnic group either ‘good,’ or bad. It is like separating the blacks from whites, like they did in your country before your civil laws changed all that. There are good people to be found in any ethnicity. Just as evil touches all groups, there should be no divisions in race or religious affiliation.”

Jacob’s reply to my comment was like a firm rebuke, leaving me embarrassed over my remark, yet I did not feel the sting of his correction. It made me appreciate his perspective, and I felt admiration for this thought-provoking man.

_____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIII, Part 2

Map of the Transdnestrian Region

Map of the Transnistrian Region (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

1944 – Transnistria ghetto             

My fingers are stiff, numb from the pain of cold and frost. I don’t know how much longer I can keep the journal, record the things I know and have seen. If caught, I know I will not see my son and wife again. It is for Jacob, Raisa and the rest that I write this and hope one day it is found by someone who will learn the truth. Oh, eternal God, redeemer, Jehovah, cover us with your mercy. Deliver us.   

Our food line today was shorter. The faces of some I saw before, now gone. We are served meager rations of bread with a thin gruel. I saved back some of my bread, eating only a small amount so I could leave more for Jacob. He is running a fever. I fear he has caught the dreaded Typhoid. Like his brother, Joseph, and many others who have already died.

The smell of unwashed, lice infested bodies emaciated in their soiled rags fills my nostrils. Huddled together, bent over, joints stiff from the cold, eyes protruding from dark sockets many look like the walking dead. They will not survive much longer. When I look at them I see myself, a bony protrusion of brittle stick like limbs.

Crudely built cots made from slated wooden crates are pushed together to hold all of us crammed together in the old warehouses. There is no heat. We are given no wood or coal to build a fire to warm us during the winter months. Guards laugh, calling us their “prisoners” and tell us we must serve time for our “indiscretions committed against the Reich’s commander and chief.” I have been assigned to a construction site at their barracks.

We are inspected and closely watched as we are rounded up each morning before dawn, stand in line while they call our numbers, and wait while they check their lists for those now dead or anyone missing. When that is done we are given our ration bowl, devour its contents hungrily, work for hours with no breaks, little protections against the harsh winds and cold, then marched back to our quarters at the end of the day.

That is when I saw him. Mueller, a Jew like me, now claiming to be converted and baptized hides behind his altered documents wearing a crisp clean uniform given to him by the Reich’s commander in the Romanian Iron Guard. His pious look fools no one. His heart is as cold and bitter as the soup in the steel drum. They serve him soldiers’ rations, allow him to bathe and use their toilets, and drink their liquor. But, he has betrayed us all, turning in our names, giving them information about our family members, our history, and circumcision. We are all marked for death, because of him. I have seen him staring at me with suspicious eyes when we are marched out, and ordered to report each morning. I worry that he may know what I do, or where I hide as I write this.

Our families once farmed, side by side, breaking ground, planting, cultivating. They celebrated harvests, shared the bounty, and suffered through the bad years, together. We were brothers in spirit, working alongside, believing that one day we would rise up and join others in an insurrection to turn the tide and see a democracy born from this anarchy. But, it is for naught. We are brothers no more. He is free, to live. I am destined to die.

Time is short. I fear I will not be alive much longer, for the things I know and write about will be found.

Oh, my dear Raisa and Jacob. Where did they take you? What have they done to you? Will we ever be together again? I cannot bear to think what they will do to you both if they find me with this.

A.G. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I’d finished my notes and reports I sent off an e-mail to Jeremy marking it ‘priority,’ asking him again to review, translate and do a thorough search on the names.

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

 

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter IX, Grigoriopol

Chapter Nine

Grigoriopol

Grigoriopol sits on the border of eastern Moldova and the unrecognized territory of Transnistria. It was geographically a strategic place for me to stay. But, politically it was a controversial site of contention between the two divided regions, home to several ethnic groups of people, the predominant ones being of Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian extraction. The Armenians founded the colony in the 1700 s before the German colonists came, settled in, and then moved on because the two groups could not get along. The Mengelders were part of that first group of Germans.

A café sat on the far end of the street where they serve German, Russian and Romanian cuisine. A newspaper/printing office, convenience store, gas service station, and the small inn were all that remained open, or lit up at 10:40 p.m.

Few residents could speak English, except Olga, the owner and manager of the small inn where I stayed. It was the neon sign above her establishment that I found comforting now as I entered through the front door with my bag, exhausted from hours of walking with little else on my mind but getting safely back to my room at Olga’s.

The snacks from Olga’s trolley cart, and a hot bath helped revive my weary body, but the lure of the journal was too tempting to climb into bed for the much-needed sleep.  Over cups of hot strong tea and magnifying glasses I examined and studied its contents while sitting up in bed.

A soft knock on my door, and I was once again feeling as if caught with ‘forbidden fruit’.

“Yes, who is it?” I asked, quickly stuffing the journal under my pillow,

throwing my robe across my laptop and notebook beside it. When satisfied I’d camouflaged all, I walked to the door, waiting to hear a reply.

“It is I, Ms. Men… gel… der? Olga. I warmed up a bowl of borscht for you. Very sorry to disturb you. Were you out? May I leave you the tray? I saw your light on.”

“Just a moment, Olga.”

When I opened the door, Ms. Levitchi held out the tray showing me her best smile with her crooked, yellowed teeth. Her teased mop of uneven bleached locks, and thick dried slabs of pancake makeup pasted on her plump rouged cheeks showed creases under her eyes and chin where folds of old fat sagged.

Grateful for the hot meal, I replied, “Thank you. It looks wonderful.”

Bidding her a goodnight, I closed and locked the door again, placing the tray on a table and ate the beet soup, and black bread, hungrily.

Now, back to the journal. The script was difficult to read written in old German and Cyrillic. A chronological order of events were recorded, births, marriages, weddings and deaths documented, as well as the happy, sad and some very tragic.  Some where the ink was faded would need strong magnification or deciphering. Initials were used rather than full names, I presumed to keep the writer’s identity secure, different ones used throughout the journal recording families migrating from Wurttemberg, Germany, up into Prussia, then into Bessarabia in the late 1700 s by wagon and later by boat as they crossed the Bug River to Bessarabia, and later the Dniester to new settlements.

Hmm. Similar to what the old man said.

Before I settled in for the night I sent off an email to my cousin, Jeremy telling him about my day, the accident I witnessed, Irina deserting me, and the long walk back. What I did not tell him was the journal I’d found, afraid I might get a lecture from him.

The guilt of what I’d done, taken from one’s grave weighed heavy on my conscience. But, knew it was just a matter of time when I would have to trust him with that information and ask his help in transcribing it once I had scanned it all and sent it to him in an attached file.

After typing some notes and saving all into my laptop account documents I forwarded him copies.

Comments I posted to my web blog, The Quill and Quest were made public to associates and peers. But, other information concerning my assignment here was known only to Irina, the consulate, my family and the U.S. G D H&R in Washington.

When I was done updating my reports and travel log, I sent the attachments to my account back home, then deleted them from my laptop, except for those still on my flash drive which I wore on a chain around my neck. With my passwords changed frequently Jeremy was the only person I trusted and who had access to all. An alias profile and log-in user name helped keep my account secure, preventing anyone else access and learning the identity of sweetpotatopie@Quill&Quest.net.

Nebraska was nine hours behind Moldova’s time zone, so I could not always make direct contact and cell phone signals were not the most reliable on the steppes.  When I made a call there was often sounds of garbled or static interference, disrupting wireless connections.  Calling Jeremy, my supervisor, or anyone from home from outside my room or the inn seemed still the best practice. The signals were better, but it was also more private, away from listening ears.

Finally, I logged in to my Quill and Quest blog, sent comments, logged out, then logged into to my social network accounts leaving nonessential posts there, and logged out. As long as I made contact and commented on what another cousin called “predictable quibble and trivial drivel,” what little my ‘friends’ knew what I did, where I was, the better.

After shutting down my laptop, and the journal put away, my strained eyes, overtaxed brain and aching body succumbed to the exhaustion as I fell into a deep sleep, alone with my thoughts, but not in my dreams, seeing things, places, and faces of people, not all of them friendly.

_______________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

 

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 VII, Part two, – ‘Discovery’

The Informant’s Agenda

Chapter VII, Part two

Discovery

Pridnestrovie Cemetery, Transnistria, Ukraine

Under layers of paper was an old book bound together with frayed shoelaces.

Brittle black leather binding no longer kept the pages intact, loosened and barely attached to thin threads from the spine when I pulled back the fragile cover. Stain, dirt, and the passing of time had yellowed the thick coarse pages making the handwriting almost illegible, but not impossible for one with keen transcribing skills and knowledge to decipher antiquated rare books. A pair of magnifying glasses from my bag brought the names, dates, and journal logs in closer as I turned carefully the fragile pages.

Oh, my… I can’t believe this! 

Guessing it could be maybe a hundred years old from the looks of the scrawled German script and dated entries I realized there had to be more than one person who recorded information, judging by the name or initials at the end of each entry. It had been remarkably preserved through the years wrapped in paper and protected in the tin. Loose scraps of paper with more notes were stuffed inside the tin, all the journal pages filled up.

The words of grandmother Lisle came back to me, as I sat staring blankly out across the steppes, the journal in my lap. She had a way of teaching us kids things in life using object lessons. One especially, I remember, when I was ten. Her freshly baked batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies – my favorite – sat cooling on the stove. With no one around, I took one, gobbled it down, then took another, just as she walked in. She always told me, “Moni. First, ask. Don’t just take something, unless you have permission.” She caught me eating the cookies, and reminded me of the rule, “It’s too close to dinner time. Dinner first, then dessert. But, since you have already eaten your cookies, you will not be allowed any with ice cream after dinner.”

Consequently, I went without my dessert after dinner.

The memory was still as fresh as the smell and taste of her cookies. As I sat contemplating whether I should take it, I tried to vindicate myself from the guilt, feeling like a thief.

It is the ultimate treasure! I cannot leave something this valuable behind. It will just rot in the earth, maybe never found, the truth never learned, a story never told. If I can transcribe its contents, it may disclose vital information on the history of this cemetery and its occupants. Maybe it holds the key to some of those padlocked doors, a portal to their world, their era. When I am through with it, scanned and transcribed it all, I will bring it back and return it. No one will ever have to know what I’ve found.

An hour had passed before I realized I was running late. Irina will be livid.

Wrapping the journal up in the paper I placed it back inside the tin and tucked it down into my backpack then patted the soil down around the hole and tried to reposition the gravestone again in its place. It was too heavy, so I gave up trying. After repacking my cameras and notebook I walked out of the cemetery with my bag.

With the journal I had no doubt that whatever wealth of information and history it held it would maybe help in answering some questions I’d had since coming here. What really happened with the German Jewish groups that settled in these parts? Did they go into hiding during the Holocaust? Were they discovered? Are there any still living?

It was all I could think about, all I could focus on right now, not worry about whether I was wrong in taking the journal.

Delving into the pages of history here was like entering a long, black tunnel. A dark, cold place to be, but the only way through, to find a way out. Feeling drawn to that tunnel now, I entered it, not knowing where it would lead, determined not to turn back.

____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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