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Posts Tagged ‘Lienz’

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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