From the horror of the massacre to a relatively peaceful, wooded campsite high up in the mountains– miracle of miracles my family survived, through the strength and love of my mother and father who worked hard to save us all, including Micha (“Michael” in English), the refugee boy who joined our family after his own was lost.
We were afraid to come down from the mountains for a while, so our new home was a tent, as the wagon and most of our belongings and family heirlooms had been left behind in the valley, burned, or destroyed. Up in the mountains we had fresh water from a clear stream, mushrooms and berries to gather and eat, and fresh fish. My brother Anatoly would use dynamite upstream and my sister Gala would stand downstream to collect the stunned fish after it blew. I remember going to the river with Anatoly and Gala, it was so exciting to me—the bombing and killing of the fish didn’t appeal to me, but the new green grass by the edge of the stream was so beautiful and I felt such peace sitting and staring at it until it was time to go ‘home’ to our tent.
Fear of being detected made cooking dangerous, so we typically hung the fish from trees to dry it in the sun; dried fish was the staple food in our diet. When we had to make a fire, Papa, Anatoly, Gala, and Micha would patrol the area, on the ‘lookout’ while Mama cooked and I joined her by the fire.
Once, my mischievous behavior (I was a young child, remember) nearly got my mother shot. While Mama was cooking, I ventured into the woods alone and got lost. Mama and Gala separately went looking for me, quite a distance from our little campsite, and Mama was found by a British soldier who was out venturing around. Probably surprised to find Mama in the woods, the soldier ordered my mother to her knees and pointed his rifle at her forehead, telling her to shut up as she prayed and crossed herself repeatedly. Remember, the Allies thought all Cossacks were helping the Germans, so this soldier would have perceived mother as an enemy. Gala had found me and together the two of us appeared where Mama and the soldier were—when he saw us, he lowered his rifle and walked away. We believed he could not hurt Mama in front of her children, could not hurt us, who had, in truth, done no harm to him or his nation. He was very young, also, and far away from his home and family, so perhaps he thought of his own mother and sister and chose to leave us in peace.
Many days and nights followed and winter came, bringing with it hardship. We had no food—father had to kill the cow which had previously been spared for its milk, and whatever other animals we could hunt, sometimes rabbit. We even ate rats and finally, our one remaining horse, the fact of which my father hid from my tender heart, telling me only that our horse had left us because it wanted to be free as we wanted to be free. It was very cold, but even though food was scarce, somehow we managed to survive.
Even in the midst of struggle, children will find ways to be children. Gala and Micha found a board which they used to push me on the snow, like a sled sliding on ice. Once, Gala was distracted and I slammed into a tree and was injured. I became so cold I was nearly frozen to death by the time they were able to haul me back to camp. Mother heated water to warm my hands and feet, and rubbed it on my chest, and put fire in a glass which she pressed to various spots on my back to warm me. These ministrations may very well have saved my life, but this incident resulted in lifelong pulmonary problems—a chronic bronchitis that was my souvenir from World War II, with me forever.
After winter, we came down from the mountain. It was finally Spring, and everywhere we went, we saw painted eggshells lying on the ground, from the traditional Easter Eggs that we Orthodox people painted and then ate at Easter time, so we knew our people were still plentiful in the area. These eggshells also served to remind us of our customs that had not been lost, despite the hell we had gone through and the terrible things we had suffered. What we found when we descended from the mountain was that things had greatly calmed and a refugee camp with wood and aluminum barracks had been set up near Lienz. These were large, long barracks, with a curtain dividing them into separate spaces for families. Within our space, we had additional curtains that separated our area into three “rooms”—one for Mama and Papa, a kitchen area, and one with three cots for Anatoly, Gala, and me. Micha now joined the other men in another part of the camp.
For the first time in a long time, life became easier and somewhat normal compared to how we had been living, and the subsequent months fell into a routine pattern of mundane living. After what we had been through, the refugee camp was a real home–we had our Orthodox church, to which we walked along winding railroad tracks. I skipped and danced and learned to keep my balance on these railroad tracks that wound through wild, tall grasses blowing in the wind that made it seem as though God was caressing the earth.
One wintry day, Mama gave me many small pieces of silver paper that she’d collected from cigarette packages (in those days, every man smoked). I had to straighten them out with my fingernail, then cut them, and then use a boiled potato to glue them, linked together in a chain. When I asked what this was for, Mama just replied with a smile, “You’ll see.” One evening, she put me to bed earlier than normal. My family and Micha came in to give me a kiss on the cheek, it all felt so loving, sweet, and secure—a rare feeling of safety and security that I have never forgotten and will never forget. “Let’s go, Tola and Micha,’ my father said, and the men left us women alone to say our prayers and sleep.
The next morning, I awoke to the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen, decorated with apples, pears, and the silver paper chains I had made. The tree seemed to twinkle, glistening with its dusting of snow in the bright winter sunlight. We danced around the tree and sang traditional Russian Christmas songs and suddenly life seemed beautiful and everything bad was far away from us—we were warm and happy on this glorious Christmas Day.
Later that day, I was told to go and collect our “chow” at the camp commissary, with the refugee cards we were given for food. In my almost 7-year-old mind, only special people were allowed such an important task, so I felt I had to dress the part. I dressed up in mama’s clothes, put on some heeled dressed shoes of Gala’s, painted my lips with a precious lipstick that Gala had somehow obtained and that I was forbidden to touch, and off I went to collect our chow. I think the only reason I wasn’t beaten for my misbehavior was because it was such a special day, but let me tell you, I never did such a thing again!
Then came our New Year’s celebration. Papa found somewhere a large piece of orange silk parachute material, a beautiful color unlike any I’d ever seen, so vivid still in my memory that it makes me smile, and the fabric felt so soft and smooth in my little hands. Mama used this fabric to make a traditional Cossack folkloric dress for Gala, with long sleeves and matching round hat with a veil; how beautiful Gala looked to me, like a princess.
With the New Year arrived a new electricity in the air, we all felt it—hope for a new life, hope that we could all start over again and leave all of the bad times behind us. Later in my life, I would learn that these nightmares would never really leave me, for, as the saying goes, I might have been done with the past, but the past wasn’t done with me.