Archive for the ‘Refugees’ Category

I don't have photos of my father's butchering operation, but this photo, reprinted from http://kiscrapbook.knottsislandonline.com/hogbutchering.html, is very close to how hog butchering day looked

The Andes Mountains are the cordillera that runs north to south down the spine of the western South American continent. The great Liberator Simon Bolivar famously said, as he crossed the snowy peaks on a white horse, “If God is against me, then I will defy God.”

In Venezuela, which extends far south and west from the tropical coast, over to the western peaks of the Andes and down into the rain forest, my father entered into partnership with a man who owned a large tract of land in Merida near the border of Colombia with many trees that he used as a lumber forest. We went to live with this wealthy Jewish man and his hefty wife, who did not have any children, didn’t want any, and didn’t like other people’s children, either (which I sensed immediately). I remember their typical big mountain home with corrals, servants quarters in back, and a large garden with pomegranate trees heavy with this new-to-me, exotic fruit that was bigger than an orange and filled with juicy red seeds. I could not resist stealing a few and eating them eagerly, the sweet and sour flavor I can still vividly recall. The lady of the house, of course, complained to my mother that I took her pomegranates, and I was punished—an important lesson after my first incident of intentional theft.

The windows in typical Andes houses did not touch the floor from the inside, but were at knee height, while the outside of the window was from the floor almost to the roof. Late in the afternoon and on into the evening after dinner you could see the young women of the town sitting in their windows watching the world go by. The young local men would go walking around the block to admire and serenade the local beauty he loved as she sat in her window gazing down at him. How wonderful this beautiful, courtly custom was to me, how romantic. The front of our house had big wooden doors like the mansion in Caracas, but the local population was a mix of Indians, whites, blacks, and those of mixed race who were then called “mulattos” and mestizos, and there were also a number of albinos. Life in the Andes was a very different world from the big city.

I had not yet been to school, so my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic school run by French nuns; it was not proper Orthodox upbringing, but after all it was Christian. Then, after a few weeks, my older sister Galina was called to the school and told I was using bad words and was being sent home. I do not recall what the bad words were and I certainly didn’t understand what they meant, perhaps curses I heard from the workers in the sawmill and the slaughterhouse, but I suspect the real reason I was expelled was that we were unable to pay for my schooling– we had no money and no home of our own yet.

Papa went into business with the landowner; My father’s dream was to start a successful meatpacking operation and slaughterhouse along with a deli (as there was no other similar business at that time in all of Venezuela). He raised the livestock, then butchered it. Although Micha had left in search of his own destiny, Anatoly was still with us for a number of months, helping to build a smokehouse to smoke and age the hanging meat–big hams and links of homemade sausages, particularly kielbasa and salami. Anatoly, Galina, and mother were put to work cutting and grinding the meat, and cutting the fat off the pigs, dicing it up, and mixing it together with the ground meat. They would mix this in big bowls, then clean out the intestines (tripe) and stuff the meat into it. All the various meat products were hung up in the smoke house and then taken to market the next day. All this tiring manual work meant the whole family was exhausted by the end of the day, but even so Mama would be up cleaning the tools, knives, etc. and of course the house until the early morning. Sometimes, at two or three in the morning I would wake up and go find her still slaving away. I would sleepily watch her until she was finished, and then we would lie down together and pray, even just the simple Our Father, happy just to be alive together in our new world. While our magical money tree hadn’t flourished yet, Father’s new business seemed promising and we all hoped we had at least planted the seeds for a successful future.


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My brother Anatoly, at about the age he was when we arrived in Venezuela

The skies were just starting to show the first rays of the brilliant morning sun; bright blue skies and puffy clouds hanging above our eager hearts. We were anxious to see this land of honey and money and exotic fruits and birds, all the things that we had heard about, and now we had arrived in port. There was dead silence aboard the ship as the speakers sounded “All Aboard!” and the American flag was hoisted higher and the Venezuelan flag was added. Suddenly the silence was broken and  big black men with no shirts  screamed from the dock, “American cigarettes for Mangos!” Having never seen a black man, I thought at first that the black men on the dock were painted for a special greeting party to welcome us, but they were just hard-working braceros, and as they started throwing mangos onto the ship in trade for American cigarettes, I suddenly realized with wonder that their skin was really that color!

How strange everything was! How nice and warm I felt–I just loved (and still love) that tropical breeze, the hot air—it must have been over 100 degrees, but to me, after years of freezing in war-torn Europe, it felt just right. This was Puerto Macuto, where it was always hot, and behind this long horizontal port city spread across the water stood towering, dark green mountains and a tropical jungle (we were nearly on the equator).

We sat there in port almost the whole day, waiting for I knew not what, but I didn’t mind: I was drinking it all in, feeling the wondrous warmth and vibrant life—how marvelous that feeling was, it is totally impossible for me to describe it. By nightfall we were finally allowed to disembark, saying farewell to all our fellow passengers who were moved to different locations and other places, but happy and free: no concentration camps, no war, no massacres. Some headed off to small hotels and some to houses similar to the barracks we’d lived in in the refugee camp, but we were directed to a private residence in Caracas.

My brother Anatoly was nowhere to be found, but finally we found him kissing goodbye his ship girlfriend of one month. Poor Tolya—his girlfriend had just told him she would not marry a poor man, so his arrival in paradise was tempered by a broken heart. Father led us, looking handsome, confident and strong, like he knew everything,  mother was humble, sweet, and quiet, Galina was with Micha helping to get everything in order, and I was just happy, curious, soaking in all the new experiences and hungry for more as we boarded the mini buses to be shuttled to our destination.

It was July of 1947. There was still no proper road from the port to Caracas, and it took over 2 hours to go a few miles over falling rocks and past dirt slides, packed like sardines in the tiny bus (which I now know is typical of Latin American countries). I was shoved off in a corner without a window, and as the bus made its way up the winding mountain road, I began to be nervous, afraid of the unknown, but ready to face whatever danger might be ahead.

Finally we arrived at our new home, a big mansion with windows down to the floor, with iron grillwork protecting them.  The many private bedrooms were clustered around the big courtyard, a square, open air plaza decorated with palm trees in pots and a water fountain, the beautiful sky overhead. By now I was tall and skinny, and so happy I began to dance and skip and fly around the courtyard like the Matylok/butterfly that was my nickname. Inside, the brilliant shining tile floors reflected big mahogany built-in armoires. It was so exciting to me—so grand!  I explored the kitchen in front of the back garden, and we ate in the huge, high-ceilinged dining room, so Spanish—we had a feast of arroz con pollo, platanos, shredded pork, and a delicious flan for dessert. I was in heaven.

Naturally, we had to come back down to earth! Three months later, the government informed us that we had to move out, find work and start taking care of ourselves. I didn’t understand why we were being thrown out—did we misbehave?  Was it something I had done? I didn’t want to leave our beautiful mansion with fountains and flowers and statues! I sat in my room, rocking in my rocking chair, listening to the rain that was falling and pouring out of the mouths of the cement gargoyles on each corner of ‘our’ mansion, wondering what was going to become of us now.  I heard my parents say that Anatoly was heading off somewhere, supposedly to make a lot of money; Micha was going off to a good job in construction, and we girls were going with Mama and Papa to a place called Los Andes.

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An American refugee program based in Vienna was helping to relocate the suffering survivors of the war and escape from Russia.   I don’t remember how long we waited in the refugee camp, but eventually we were offered a couple of choices for relocation:  to the US or to Venezuela?  We had all heard that America was where money grows on trees, but the next ship sailing was to Venezuela, so my father Fedor Ivanovich chose Venezuela–he did not want to wait even one more day to leave the hell that was Europe at that time.

Where did we embark on the big troop transport ship called the USS General Sturgis?  Was it Italy?  France?  Or even Northern Germany?  I can’t remember—but I do know that it took almost a month of sailing to get to our destination. Being on board a ship for the first time in my life was exciting for me—I ran up and down, all around, as everyone else was lying down in the covered upper deck. There was no more fear, no more hunger or pain, and it was on the General Sturgis that I sampled my very first ice cream–a Neapolitan sandwich with strawberry, vanilla and chocolate—so sweet and astonishing to me that I can still taste it when I close my eyes and remember. And there was peanut butter, something my grandma used to make fresh for us, so getting to eat that smooth, sweet treat again brought back lovely memories of home.

For once, there was no shortage of food. Papa was working down in the ship’s galley, helping to cook the meals that came like clockwork every day. Gala and Mama were lying down for much of the trip, feeling seasick and vomiting with most of the other ladies.  I don’t remember what Anatoly was doing, maybe working, too, as the men could earn a minimum wage for their labor. After a time, things became more pleasant for everyone, especially for me.  I was so very happy, perfectly contented just watching the dolphins that followed the ship and jumped out of the water as if welcoming us to our brighter future and the happiest sunrises of our lives.

On “Captain’s Night,” we all dressed up to put our best foot forward and assembled for a big celebration. To show our gratitude to the Captain and his rescue ship, and all the Americans, we put on a little theatrical show with singing and dancing.  I participated in a traditional  Russian story about two geese, one white and one gray, a story all Russian children knew.  It was a big party, especially for the children.  There was a big tub full of apples floating in water, and for the first time I was introduced to the American children’s game of bobbing for apples.  Ice cream, candies, so many exciting new treats we had never seen before—what a feast we had!

That evening, as the sun was setting and God Bless America was playing, suddenly someone yelled “Land! Land! Land in sight!” And sure enough, there it was, off in the distance; I will never forget all the men and women on deck with tears in their eyes. I still get goosebumps whenever I hear that stirring song, which played as we stood gazing intently at the horizon.  Gala, Mama (who was holding me), Papa and Tola were all crying with joy as  we had our first glimpse, through the last rays of the evening sun, of the beautiful land of our freedom.

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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.

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Painting of the Betrayal of the Cossacks at Lienz, Austria

Days rolled into weeks, and weeks into months. Our wagon train eventually circled around and stopped in the city of Lienz, in north central Austria. All of the warring forces were shooting at us, even the partisans, who accused us of being allied with the Germans–but we were only for God and ourselves, running from the Red Terror of a Communism that was worse than anyone could imagine. We knew only that we wanted to be free–free to choose to pray or not to pray, to work for ourselves. My father, Fedor Ivanovich, left behind his home, his people, his everything, and took with him only the most dear to him–his beloved family—in an attempt to give us safety and peace. His goal was to get away from this madness and misery, away from everything old, including Europe–far away.

Our camp was a beautiful spot amid pine trees in the green valley outside Lienz, near the Drau river rushing down from the mountains. We set up camp below the hills, because we knew there might be partisans up in those mountains. One day, with our campfire going, the smell of home cooking was in the air, and mom wanted some mushrooms and berries, so we went into the hills a little. I needed to tinkle, so we went into the bushes. Through the branches, I saw a partisan watching us with his rifle pointing at my mother. My eyes must have moved him, for as soon as I saw him, he raced away. We ran down the hill as fast as lighting to warn everybody.

Our elders met in council and decided to stay where we were because we believed the rumor that the British were coming to help us. I was very young, so I remember this time as being Lent, the sacred week before Easter, but in reading other accounts of this day, I see now that it was at the end of May/beginning of June. On the morning of June 1, our elders and everyone in the camp decided to hold a service to unite in prayer to God. All the women prepared a great feast for the service and communion with our Orthodox priest, who was traveling with us to escape the fate of my Uncle the priest, who was shot in the head by the Commies right in front of my grandmother.  A makeshift church had been set up in the center of the camp, with a platform built for the service so the thousands of us who gathered could see and hear the priest cry out “Xristos Vascres’ (Christ is Risen!).  As we answered him in unison, English tanks and trucks approached and surrounded us, and as their soldiers began shouting and herding everyone into trucks, we realized we had been betrayed–they meant to send us back to Stalin’s Russia!

Cossack resistance to repatriation was fierce, since no one wanted to be separated from their families and repatriation meant certain death at the hands of the Communists. Mass chaos ruled as our people screamed and resisted being put into the trucks. The soldiers swung their rifle butts and used their bayonets indiscriminately against men, women, and children. Mother, Galina, and I (fortunately father and Anatoly were in the mountains pasturing the animals at the time) managed to run and hide in the trees and watched in horror as many of our people committed suicide–men hanging themselves from trees and women walking into the river with their babies to drown themselves rather than be forced back to Russia. Even after all these years, I have to stop in the middle of writing this because I am shaking and crying remembering that scene that was straight out of hell: the wailing and crying, the sounds of rifle butts cracking skulls, the bodies of my people lying on the ground, the sight of the river flowing red with blood….

Mother, sister and I somehow made it away from the horrific scene of the massacre to reunite with our menfolk in the mountains. With us now was a boy, Micha, whose family was lost that day. It was only mama’s determination to stay with our men that saved us from the terrible fate—death or repatriation and subsequent murder—that befell so many of our people on that hateful day.

We later learned that this forced repatriation of Cossacks was the result of an agreement between Stalin and Churchill reached during the Yalta Conference. Dear readers, I am not a historian or an educated person, and these memories are those of a 5 year old child, but this dark day in history, while not very well-known to many, did happen. While there are relatively few survivors of that day (because either people died that day or were murdered after their forced deportation to Russia), there are a number of accounts that can be found with a simple google search. This one accurately describes much of what we Cossacks saw on that bloody day. While the repatriation of the Cossacks to Russia has not been denied, to my knowledge, the British government has, to date, neither admitted nor offered any apology for their participation in this atrocious massacre, also known as “The Tragedy of the Drau.”

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My sister Galina is in the 2nd row, left

Since we didn’t have time for stops, we all had our duties to perform: Father drove the wagon and tended the team of horses,  Anatoly walked alongside to lead the third horse (one horse was always ‘resting’ and ready to be changed), Mama would prepare our food inside the wagon, and my sister sat on the back of the wagon and held onto the cow’s reins. After some time, our lives seemed to achieve a kind of normality, even in our quest for survival.  Our tentative peace and hope for the future was tempered by our uncertainty of what tragic thing might await us around the next corner.  We wouldn’t have to wait long to see what the next corner held for us.

We set off one day, and at the first turn in the road, a German Jeep with a machine gun flew past us.  They didn’t give my father a chance to pull over and let them pass and as they roared past, they knocked my sister  off the wagon, whose legs were dangling down in the usual carefree manner of children.  The German soldiers didn’t even slow down, much less stop.   Suddenly everything was chaos as my sister lay in the road with her mangled and twisted leg, with its knee-cap hanging by skin. The wagons following us nearly ran Galina over, Mama was wailing and father was furious with himself for not being able to pull off the road and save my sister from this pain.

Someone said there was a German field hospital in the next village, so we rushed her there and they put her on their operating table. The doctors were able to save her leg, but just as they finished, Anatoly came running up and told us that we had to leave immediately, that the Red army had already reached our camp and was just hundreds of meters behind us, coming our way. We could not yet move her so we had to leave her there, terrified, at the German hospital, which was being evacuated as the bombs started falling.

As we fled without my poor sister, the US warplanes appeared overhead and began bombing the German camp; we could only imagine how sad and scared my sister must have felt, just 14 years old, abandoned by her family, alone, with no one to hold her hand and now a target for the American and Russian armies! Only God knows how she survived; to this day, when I think of how my dear sister suffered and how frightened she must have been, tears fill up in my eyes.

After time passed and the assault ended, our determined Father fought past untold obstacles he always refused to talk about, to go back to the bombed-out camp and bring Galina back to us, with her leg full of maggots due to the lack of medical attention.  As it turns out, the maggots eating the pus from her infection helped to save her leg, and after that our mother cared for Galina and cleaned her leg.

The days blur into one another in my memory,  but eventually we found ourselves in the next town. We rode up to a beautiful abandoned villa with rose gardens, grapevines, a big kitchen and a wine cellar. I found a big sack of black beans, and in no time mama was cooking up a pot of warm bean soup. Father and Anatoly went off up the mountain to pasture the animals while dinner was cooking.

Our peaceful idyll was not to last very long; the sound of bombers and fighter planes approached.  War planes bomb in three passes:  First they circle the site, in the second pass they pick their target, and in the final pass, they release their bombs. My mother and I heard the hair-raising roar of the planes circling overhead and she instantly grabbed me and headed toward the villa’s wine cellar. On the second pass, terrified, I  burst loose from her hand and ran away toward the city center’s main bomb shelter.  She ran after me, crying “Ludachka! Ludachka!” and as we approached the bomb shelter, we were almost pushed by an explosion into the shelter.  My kneeling mother covered me with her arms, protecting me with her own body.  Another round of bombs was exploding overhead, and rocks and wood were falling down as the earth shook. I asked mama why the other children were crying and screaming, but she just began reciting the Our Father and said “Pray, Luda, pray!”

Hours later, after the bombing stopped, we came up out of the shelter and walked back to the villa, where we found everyone frantically searching the gardens, looking for us. We stared in amazement at the wine cellar where we were supposed to have been sheltered–it was now a bomb crater! The rose garden, the grapevines and part of the kitchen were demolished by a direct hit. After we took stock and realized we had all survived–even our animals which were safe in the mountains with my Father, Mama could only remind us again to give thanks for the blessings our Grandmother had given when we escaped from Mother Russia, which had once again protected us from almost certain death.

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This is a very old photograph and the scan did not come out very well, but this is my mother, Palina Vasilivna

There was little time to take a break en route, usually only one or two hours, even on the overnight stops. We would stop in a bombed-out village, an abandoned farmhouse, in a field, or up in the mountains. Women en route would gossip, tell personal stories, and exchange useful information with each other. After fleeing one city where the bombing had just killed hundreds, my mother was telling her stories to a weeping gypsy woman whose husband had just left her for another woman, back in a bordello or “gypsy hall” as the euphemism went.  Mother of course sympathized and consoled the gypsy.

My father, Fedor Ivanovich truly loved my mother, Palina Vasilivna, as she was known (in old Russia a married woman took her own father’s name, as did a man. In the same way, I am Ludmila Fedorovna after my father). But even she had known infidelity.

One afternoon, my mother overheard one maid say to another, “Poor Pola, her husband is at the bordello with all those women, since last night!”  My father had never been unfaithful before, but like all Russians (especially Cossacks) he loved to drink, and with the war raging around us and the flight to safety ahead, everyone was wondering if they would be alive for another month, another year. Was he really in town with the whores, saying goodbye to life, or just drowning his sorrows? My mother had been under the impression that Fedor Ivanovich was at another town on business, but when she heard this, she jumped on her beige and white mare, whip in hand, and rode like lightning into the village. She burst into the “gypsy house,” wielding her whip like Indiana Jones, and began administering lashes to all the men, including Fedor, who could not hide from her fury.

In telling this story later, my mother laughed and said, “Well, I wasn’t there holding a candle!” After weeks of flight, and witnessing the horror of the bombed-out city with the screams of the injured, dead bodies being dragged in from the street, children with rags on their feet, it felt good to hear my mother laughing again.

Soon after, my father fell ill and was lying sick and feverish with me inside the wagon. I looked outside and saw refugees walking along behind us, hope and fear in their eyes; I knew I was blessed to be safe inside the cozy wagon.  For those few days, my mother steered the wagon, brave and strong and fearless, driving the horses as well as or better than any man, never stopping.

Finally, after father recovered, he climbed up and took back the reins. We heard him say to her: “Move over! Go back into the wagon and rest, woman. You did well.”

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We traveled at night to avoid the bombers and bandits. “Where are we going?” everyone would ask, but no one answered because no one knew for sure. I snuggled in the soft, warm down-feather pillows inside the wagon, but outside the wind was howling and the snow began falling harder. Our horses were stamping their hooves and whinnying, struggling down the icy mud trail. We had begun our journey with one sled, but my father came from a long line of merchant traders and had managed to beg, borrow or trade for everything we needed.  Now we had a covered wagon, three horses and a cow. Grandma had given us her blessings, with bread and salt, and as we reflected on our good fortune, we knew that her prayers had been heard by God.

Anatoly walked alongside the wagon, looking ahead for problems in the trail, and behind for any approaching enemies. Gala sat on the back of the wagon, holding the reins on the cow, and our dog Red brought up the rear. For a little girl of four, this crude wagon with pillows and blankets was the height of luxury, and our flight from the advancing Red Army started out as a grand adventure. But after hearing explosions in the distance and seeing the red flashes on the horizon, I gradually realized that we were in real danger. As the roaring sounds of battle grew closer, our wagon stuck in the freezing mud; my father screamed at the other wagons for help, but they only moved faster. Nobody had time for anything except saving their own skins.

In a few hours, morning approached. The sun came up, the winds calmed down, and the sounds of distant battle subsided. As the day warmed,  the mud dried, and my father was finally able to pull the wagon out of the ruts and get us moving again. We had lost precious hours, and it was time to catch up with the other Cossacks on the road to nowhere. “Let’s go,” my father said in his tired voice.  “Let’s go and meet a new beginning.”

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Although I came into the world looking like a black, furry monkey, I turned out to be a matylok–our Russian word for a butterfly or chrysalis. In time, a beautiful butterfly would emerge from that cocoon—but it would be years before I would finally have a chance to see myself in the mirror and start to dream about beauty, love and art.

My handsome father, Fedor Ivanovich

Even though the ball of black hair disappeared and the little matylok emerged, I still never looked much like my father, Fedor Ivanovich.  In my mind’s eye, I remember him as tall and handsome, with golden blond hair, a strong, well-built body and the purest blue eyes imaginable (Paul Newman had nothing on my father in that department).  I did resemble him in some ways–his bright smile and mischievous twist to his face, and as I would later turn the heads of men, so did my father turn women’s heads–they looked at him with passion in their eyes.   My father had been sent to the Royal Junior Cadets at the Tsar Nicholas Academy, and he retained his regal bearing as a grown man, especially in a uniform atop his big black stallion.

This is a reprint of the reference photo from last week of my Mother, brother, and sister, but due to my family's turbulent life/upheaval, there are few photos from that time.

In many ways, I had the temperament of my mamuchka, my beloved mother, Pelegea. My father used to call her Pola, perhaps because she had very dark, almost pure black, long hair and the darkest, deepest eyes with a melancholic look of forgiveness for everyone. She could see the pain in the eyes of the gypsies, the Jews and even the Red Army and German soldiers. Where did she obtain these traits of compassion and empathy?  Probably from her mother, my dear grandmother, as forthcoming stories will reveal.

Apart from his blond hair, my brother Anatoly also did not look much like our father.  He had bewitching green eyes (that I always wished I could trade for my own honey-colored eyes), a smaller build and a roguish smile.  He was introverted, quiet and shy, and his hair always danced on the air.

Of my parents’ three children, only my sister Galina looked like our father.  He called her “Alvina” for laughs, but it was not her Christian name.  Galina was the typical pretty Russian girl with her blond curly hair and brown eyes.  She was strong-willed, opinionated, and sneaky.  My grandmother used to say of Galina, “With that face, she can get away with anything.” She was our father’s favorite, and definitely got away with more than either myself or Anatoly every could!

I am in the center, in black. I always loved to dance and perform.

But I was the matylok of the family, and one day I would turn into a pretty butterfly and flit away!

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