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Posts Tagged ‘USS Sturgis’

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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