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Fedor Iranovich, Galina & I, in the hotel Tamanoco. Carnival Ball Caracas

Fedor Iranovich, Galina & I, in the hotel Tamanoco. Carnival Ball Caracas

 

After all the wartime struggle to protect us, feed us, and put a roof over our heads, my father seemed lost in the New World. No bombs were falling, no enemy was chasing us. He had been raised and trained to fight, but now his zest for life was gone and he was confronted daily by all the ghosts of yesterday. All he could think to do was drown his sorrows and try to stop the voices in his head: O Mother Russia, what have I done? Am I a traitor– was I wrong to take my family out of Russia? To kill the pain, he drank himself into a stupor with vodka, mixing it with tears for his lost motherland.

Then, after Stalin died in 1953, my father was persuaded to return home by the phony promise that the new Khruschev regime would forgive everyone.  Desperate to see his beloved homeland once more, perhaps even to see his parents again, he took the communists at their word. He booked passage and headed back to Russia from Venezuela. It was not easy for us to say goodby to father, even if he was terrifying to be around the way he was drinking. I remembered he once tried to kill mama in a drunken rage; another time, when I came home late, he threw a jar of kerosene on the kitchen floor and lit the fire. If I hadn’t shut the bedroom door tight, I would have been burned all over and never had a modeling career.

The last phone call we had from him came from Italy, where he excitedly informed us that “all was forgiven” and we should come with him back to the Motherland. We never heard from him again, and later learned that he was executed shortly after he re-entered the U.S.S.R., after being tortured for information and forced to make a false confession of “crimes against the state.”  Many others met the same fate after the imaginary “liberalization” of the Khruschev period, but fortunately my mother had no desire to return to Russia, remembering the horrors of the Old World and the catastrophes that had only ended when we reached America.

Mama’s only dream was to escape that world and take care of her children. But needless to say, when we learned of Papa’s fate, the fear hung over our heads like a black cloud. What if the communists came for us here in Venezuela? Who would protect us when we heard that knock on the door? Soon after we heard the awful news, Mama applied for refugee residential visas for us at the US embassy. She was determined to get us beyond the long arms of the communists, in the promised land of America, with freedom and liberty for all.

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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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