Posts Tagged ‘Escaping Russia’

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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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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My mother, brother Anatoly, and sister Galina. As my family spent years as a displaced people, few photos exist of me in my early years.

As we left Sarakin or Krasnadon near the Caspian Sea at midnight in a  snowstorm, my mother told me I was dancing and singing with excitement, like I knew everything would be O.K.  My grandmother blessed us one by one and gave us salt bread and an Icon of our Savior, and on our way we went.  All over the Crimean region, people were coming and going with no idea what was going to happen, except that it would be bad.

There were Russian partisans on one side, Germans on the other–supposedly coming to save Russia from communism–Americans bombing overhead, and refugees like us going in all directions.

My father and I sat at the front of the caravan, leading the horse-drawn wagon we had found as we fled.  My mother was busy inside the wagon, cleaning and organizing our few belongings. She piled up our pillows around the sides of the wagon, imagining that the down stuffing would cause any stray bullets to ricochet away from us!

The Cossack wagon train stretched for miles behind us, winding its way through smoke-filled, burning villages where the unlucky inhabitants had either deserted their homes or died in the bombing. Sometimes we found shelter in abandoned barns or empty houses; more often we just camped in the fields.  Wherever we stopped for the night, I snuck out to forage for food- bags of beans or sacks of potatoes that had been left behind in the rush to evacuate. Even in the most deserted villages, we could not find peace; we were unwitting targets for the American bombers seeking out the lines of the fleeing Germans and Italians. The first flight of planes would perform surveillance; the second flight would mark the target; then the third would drop the bombs, with infernal explosions that seemed to come at all hours, without warning.

As we drove the wagons and herds of horses through the passes and down from the mountains into the first village on foreign soil, it became apparent that armies were approaching from all sides, and chaos took over.  My father grew tired of answering the same questions over and over-What should we do?  What did we hear?  Finally, when he hesitated to reply to another wanderer wanting to know where we came from and where we were going, I piped up in my four year old’s voice to give the answer I had heard my father exasperatedly give to many of our fellow travelers–“From nowhere…to nowhere!”

For the first and only time in my life, my father turned to me and gave me a smile and a hug. I remember feeling that for once, my father had actually recognized and acknowledged my existence as his daughter. Perhaps he did not think I was such a fool after all! Maybe my older sister was not his only beloved, maybe not even his favorite! Alas, this gesture was to be the only real display of love and affection he ever gave to me.

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