So it was my Grandfather’s birthday two weeks ago; his 85th. In previous entries and if you know me at all, you know how important he is to my life and who I am. We sat, like we do around the supper table and talked shop. The conversations don’t always have to do with family history, they can be about many things, but I do like to steer the conversations that way because I love hearing about my family who lived during 1930s and 1940s. I love hearing history told directly from someone who lived it. I also have the strong belief that the more I hear them and the more my grandfather repeats them the better the chance he will remember something he has forgotten in the past 70 plus years since. This time period that my Grandfather grew up in is important for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason why I love to listen and then retell these stories is because I am a part of the last generation that will be able to talk directly to someone from this time period. Talk to someone who lived it, smelt it, touched it and was changed forever by it.
So because of this, over the next few weeks and maybe even more, I am going to share some more stories with you. I am going to write them as if they are conversations, because that’s how they were told to me. That’s what history is, conversations- stories past down from generation to generation- I like to think it gives it a voice, something someone can relate to… feel and touch it. Below I have written a conversation between myself and my significant other – the conversation takes place on a train ride bound for his birthplace- the conversation will hopefully give you a little bit of background of my family. I encourage you to follow along.
So here it is week 1 of my Grandfather’s story…
The early morning sun flickers between the crimson colored train car drapes. The cabins reek of stale vodka and cigarette smoke. I can hear the singing of some Russian ballads coming from the dining car. The lyrics slurred it seems it is never too early for vodka. We have traded the Kiev skyline for Ukrainian grain fields. The sprouting fields of early spring are continuous as our train rumbles along the tracks. Rivers and creeks drip across the canvas like errant water colored brush strokes. I haven’t been to Zaporozhe in what must be almost five years. Just outside the city, along the Dnieper River are the Mennonite towns and communities my Opa and I called home. We flew into Kiev the day before last and very early this morning we boarded a train bound for this unique river city. I am excited to walk the streets again, to hear the language, to taste that spectacular beer once more and to see his crumbling house again.
On the other side of the cabin my backpack rests against hers. Whenever I travelled with my Opa, it was always my backpack accompanied with his black suitcase and his brown leather carryon, one with which he never parted. I smile. One thing I know is that it is going to be weird to travel these roads without him. Every time we were here he would always joke and point out young Ukrainian girls, “Mike she would make a good wife.” If I wasn’t careful he would be setting me up with the flight attendant, or the hotel hostess or the waitress from one of the restaurants we frequented. “Mike you should find a good Ukrainian girl.” I smile again.
Cait who has been looking out the window catches my smile in the reflection.
“What’s so funny?” She asks.
“Nothing” I respond. There is a pause.
“When did the war start in Russia?” Cait abruptly begins again with her questions. I sit up in my chair. I think she asks the questions partly because she is interested, but also because she knows how much I love to tell the stories.
“The war for Ukraine began in June of 1941. The Germans launched Operation Barbarossa; it was a knife into the belly of the Soviet Union attacking the grain belts of Ukraine. Hitler was previously allied with Stalin, signing a pact of Non aggression two weeks before his invasion of Poland in September of 1939. Hitler wasn’t ready to take on the West and Stalin. In 1941 Hitler had gained considerable power and was finally ready and the pact was broken. The Germans were ruthless in the East.” Cait looks back out the window,
“Why didn’t we fly into Zaporozhe from Kiev?” She asks.
“Cause if you flew into the Zaporozhe airport you would understand why. I wouldn’t even call it an airport I would call it a long concrete strip, where planes occasionally land. When you land you might get lucky cause there might be an air traffic controller on duty. Of course he might be sleeping one off or walking the airport ‘security’. I’m surprised there aren’t more plane crashes there. Plus I wanted to be on this train”. I respond.
She laughs, “Why this train?”
“Cause this is where it begins, I wanted to pull into this train station.”
“What happened at the train station?” She asks as her voice loses its light tone.
“This is where my grandfather’s childhood ended.”
“What do you mean?” Her questions are flying now.
“It was here that his father was taken by the soviet secret police and shipped by train to Siberia. In 1932 this is where it all began. See my great grandfather was an educated man, he was a broker or a book manager for a Dutch trading commission and because of this he was seen as an enemy of the state. Bankers, intellectuals, politicians, and free thinkers were rounded up and either shot or sent to the gulags for work detail.” There is a pause and for a minute all one hears are the clackity clack of the train tracks. I continue, “My Opa grew up without a father. He would return from Siberia eight years later mentally and physically broken. He was never the same.” The Russian singers walk past our cabin. “My great grandmother was left to raise seven children on her own. My Opa grew up faster than he had to.”
“Who was the oldest?” Cait continues.
“My Uncle Hans was, born in 1908. He worked in the Nikopol flour mill. He too would be sent to Siberia. The official wording on his death certificate was that he had died of heart failure. That was surely the case. Truth be told, that was the response for everyone who died in the gulags. Heart attack from the starvation, poor living and work conditions or being hung, shot or tortured. He married a woman named Maria. She survived the war; my mom says she was a wealth of information. Supposedly she told the stories how they were, no sugarcoating. She told them straight.
Anna was the next born in 1912. She was incredibly smart always planning the next step for the family. During the war and the travelling years she was the one who would travel ahead and arrange for food, provisions and even fake papers that were needed to escape the Soviet Union’s Iron fist. See part of the agreement between Stalin and FDR was that all Soviet Union citizens were to be sent back to Russia following the war. Tante Anna knew what waited for her and the family so she got papers saying they were Polish. But I am getting ahead of myself. I will return to that story later. Before the war during the thirties she managed a business in Nikopol. I remember as a little child I was so scared of her, she had these really big tinted square glasses and she smoked like a chimney. I also remember how my grandfather cried, when he got word of her death.”
“Who was after Anna?” Cait asks.
“My Tante Lisa. Lisa was born in 1914. Before the outbreak of the war she lived in a Polish city named Stanislavov and when we get there don’t let me forget to tell you the story about what happened there. Anyway she was a librarian and like her older sister was incredibly smart. She married a Russian soldier named Vacielli. He trained Russian soldiers with new advancements in military technology. Later he was conscripted by the Germans into the Wehrmacht and was killed during combat. They had a daughter named Wanda who lives just outside of Winnipeg with her Husband Adolf. They have two kids named Karl and Lisa. My Tante Lisa was like a second mother to my Opa.
Victor was born in 1921 and is next on the list. He too fought for both the Red army and the German army. In 1939 he fought the Finns. He would flee the Red Army in 1941 and would join the SS and later in September 1944 would fight the British at Arnhem in Holland. During the German occupation of Ukraine he was a police officer in Nikopol. One of my Opa’s fondest memories of his brother was in the 1970s. My Opa had to pick up a car he had purchased in Amsterdam and so Victor went along. They spent two weeks together touring the various places where they both fought. I can only imagine the stories they told as they drove through the Belgian forest.”
“Is Andre next? Tell me again how are you named after him?” Cait says twisting a rolled up magazine in her hands. Her enthusiasm is one of the most appealing things about her.
“The man I am named after in part is my Uncle Andre who was born in 1923. Five years my grandfather’s senior, there is not a whole lot that I know of his character. I just know that at the age of 19 he was taken from the family and drafted into the soviet army. The story goes that my great grandmother stood on the bank of the Dnieper River waving goodbye to her son. She waved until she could see him no more. She would send food never knowing if it made it to him. It was the last time they ever saw each other… Now my uncle never fought for the Red Army, he was later thought of as ‘undesirable’ and like his brother and father he was sent to Siberia.”
“Why did your Mom name you after him?” She repeats again.
“Well my uncle was stuck in Siberia and as the Cold War continued on during the 60s, 70s and into the 80s my grandfather petitioned for his release from that grotesque wasteland. It wasn’t till the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that my grandfather found progress. My grandfather wrote him letters pleading Gorbachev for his release. Gorbachev was a man who had visions of a new reformed Communist Party. His policies of Perestroika and Glasnost opened the doors to the west and allowed for my uncle to finally after forty years of imprisonment move out of Siberia. Gorbachev responded to my grandfather’s letters. This is why my mother named me Michael Andrew – for Mikhail and Andre. It was on my birth date that my uncle was first allowed to come visit us in Canada. My grandfather was so proud.” She grasps my hand. “Years later my grandfather would meet Gorbachev and tell him this story. Gorbachev in turn wrote me a note saying ‘from one Michael to another’. Not bad for a couple of Russian peasants from Ukraine”.
Your Tante Elfrieda is next right; she is the one who lives in California?”
“Yeah, she was born in 1926. She’s another smart cookie. She has her doctorate in linguistics from Stanford University. Like you she was a ballet dancer. In 1943 she graduated from an academy in Lodz. She has three gorgeous daughters who live in California, Evelyn and the twins Doreen and Lorna. My mom, aunt and uncle were and are very close with them. They spent their youth traveling together through Europe. Growing up together Elfrieda and my Opa were inseparable, she was one of the gang. She used to make my Opa and his friends pull her in a little red wagon they had fashioned together. Together they swam in the Dnieper, picked mull berries, rode wild horses and stole watermelons off the barges that went up the river. Elfrieda would also be there to scold Opa for doing so and laugh at him when farmers would shoot salt pellets at his bum when he would steal their produce.”
“We’re going to see the Dnieper River right?”
“Oh of course, that was one of the most important places in my grandfather’s life. We won’t miss it.”
The train begins to slow, I look at my watch. I have lost track of time. “This is us”. I say as I lean over Cait peering out the window.
Together we get up and pull over our backpacks. Heading to the exit and platform my steps shorten and my pace slows. I touch every step down off the train, the leather heal of my sandals clipping against the bottom of my feet. As I leap off the last step and land on the concrete platform my heart begins to race. “This train, this train station.”