MOSCOW — LETTER TO THE READER
I remember the trip so vividly — it was our last together — May 2007. My grandfather’s construction company was building a university in Moscow. We planned to stay a week in the Russian capital before heading south to spend 10 days in the small villages just outside Zaporozhe, Ukraine. Or, as my grandfather (Opa) and I refer to it, ‘home.’
When we arrived in Moscow, my brain was 10 hours ahead of where it wanted to be. We had a meal of beef stroganoff at the Holiday Inn, then went to his small apartment down the street.
It was in there that I realized I wanted to write a book about his life. I should clarify — I realized I needed to write this book.
My grandfather was lying on an old green chesterfield, and I sat on a wooden chair that creaked every time I shifted my weight. The carpet was gritty, there was a musky odor from the furniture, 50-year-old lighting that hummed when flicked on and a gas stove had to be lit with a match, but I loved every square inch of that apartment. There were years of his visits left lying around — sweaters in an armoire, aftershave in the medicine cabinet, and an extra pair of glasses on the nightstand.
I was scribbling notes into my brown, water-stained, leather journal. We had made it to the summer of 1942 on our expedition to produce an accurate timeline of his life growing up in Ukraine.
I remember listening to these stories and trying not to let them affect me. I was trying to stay composed. I laugh now as I recall saying to myself, “a good investigator stays composed in the responses to their questions.” I would wait until I was in bed to go over everything and listen to the audio from my digital recordings. It would be in bed that I would try and make sense of it all.
I loved travelling with him. He was still fairly healthy back then. A two-year battle with a debilitating case of shingles and congestive heart failure hadn’t hit yet. When- ever he stepped off a plane in Moscow, Zaporozhe or somewhere in Germany, he in- stantly became 20 years younger. When we were ‘home,’ he was a different person and I loved watching him. When he needed to speak Russian it was effortless; when the time called for Ukrainian, Polish or German, it was second nature. When he conversed with locals, diplomats and fellow businessmen, I would marvel at his charisma and charm. Now that I know all the stories, I know these are talents he developed at a young age.
After Moscow, we headed to Ukraine to retrace his early footsteps. My grandfather, Harry John Giesbrecht was born in Lichtenau, Ukraine in 1928. His father and brothers were sent to Siberia, he witnessed the arrival of the Germans to Ukraine, saw his best friend killed, was recruited into the SS, and later fought near Prague and in Bastogne. He did things and experienced things no one should ever have to.
When we returned to Winnipeg, our home away from ‘home,’ my Opa and I continued to talk shop. Our conversations didn’t always have to do with our family history, but I did like to steer our talks that way. I loved hearing about family members who lived during the 1930s and 1940s. I loved hearing history told directly by someone who lived it. I also had a strong belief that the more I heard his stories and the more my grandfather repeated them, the better chance he would remember something he had forgotten over the 70-plus years.
I find the time period my grandfather grew up in important for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason why I loved to listen and then to retell his stories is because I am part of the last generation that will be able to directly talk to someone from that time period; to talk to someone who lived it, smelled it, touched it and was changed forever by it.
I remember, in that Moscow apartment, looking up at the plaster peeling on the walls and wondering how the hell I was going to portray this thing. How was I to craft this thing that I needed so badly to write?
After four hours of talking, I finally retired to bed. I hugged my Opa goodnight. He kissed my forehead and like he always did he said,
“Gute Nacht mein Sohn, schlaffe gut.”
“Du auch,” I said.
I remember lying in bed, going over all that I had heard. My grandfather amazed me how he was able to recite these stories, like they had just occurred. As our conversations aged and matured, he often told me that he had dreams of his time in Europe and that everything felt as if it were yesterday. It seemed even after 70 years, the stories were still fresh — still painful. After hearing all his stories, I always returned to how real they still were to him. Even after going back to Europe on my own, the reality of our conversations answered my question of how I was to write this thing.
In order to do his story justice, I needed to share them as conversations, because that’s how they were told to me. And in reality, that’s what history is — conversations; stories passed down from generation to generation. I like to think writing it this way gives the stories a voice, something someone can relate to — to feel and touch.
For this book I have collected his stories from our conversations. I must believe that it will be enough. I’ve written the book as a tale about a grandson going to find his grandfather’s story. I wrote it this way so I could draw out the things I needed to. I think if I tried to write something epic, it would take away from its beauty. It wouldn’t bring truth to the past or the present. What comes out is what comes out.