Archive for September 2013

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter VII, – Pridnestrovie Cemetery, Transnistria

Chapter Seven

Pridnestrovie Cemetery, Transnistria

The rusted, iron gate was heavy. It barely moved with each push and shove. Tufts of high weeds grew wild around the bottom making my jerking and tugging efforts impossible to gain entrance. After a few good kicks the stubborn relic relented. Creaking, groaning, it yielded, squeaking at the hinges.

When I turned around, Irina was still standing there. Not allowing her a reason to gloat later I just smiled back and gave her a thumb up. She responded by shaking her head.  I’ve met feisty alley cats with better dispositions. Turning back to the gate, I trudged through the weeds and brush. My old Nikes and denim came in handy for these jaunts.

After photographing the entrance, I worked my way back. Records claimed the cemetery dated back to the 1700 s. Rows of headstones leaned to one side, tilted, barely standing, like tired old soldiers standing for inspection. Chipped, cracked, and peeling they settled heavily in the ground. Their dull gray color blended with the dull gray sky.  No good walking path between rows remained, nor a single flower, living plant, or blade of grass visible. But there was litter, everywhere. Pieces of trash lay scattered where wind gusts carried it across the Russian steppes with a ferocious anger. Broken pieces of glass I assumed were beer bottles poked up through the weeds with aluminum cans crushed or twisted, mixed in with all. Much of the debris was caught in the fence that ran along the east side of the cemetery where the section of abandoned, boarded up buildings remained.

Forging through to the gravestones, objects crunching beneath my feet I looked at names and dates, comparing Cyrillic and Hebrew inscriptions. Broken and chipped corner pieces from old gravestones stuck up from the ground with sharp edges.

I should have worn boots, heavy ones to protect my ankles from all this junk.

After searching the front and middle rows, I headed towards the back into the latter time period of the 19th century, those from the 1800 s, into the Bolshevik and Soviet era of early 1900 s.

Each stone held a story, a history. But, who would ever learn of it? Were there any who would even care?  

My job was tedious at times. Still, I hoped my work would contribute to the archives, adding to what had already been learned and enlighten me on things not yet documented.

Irina, my guide, interpreter, travel companion, driver, and whatever other role she was assigned to fill was ethnic Russian. She was knowledgeable on the history of the Russian empire, former Soviet republics, fluent in several languages and dialects with transcribing skills. Knowledgeable of Russia’s past and present political regimes, she was not afraid to speak her mind about anything. In the old regime her mouth would have been her own undoing. In their now democratic government, however she was just another voice in the choir, and no one raised their hackles if someone sang a different tune.

But, when I asked them to arrange a meeting for me with surviving victims of the Holocaust, or their families they told me they did not have, “listings or knowledge of them or their whereabouts. People move around, relocate, change address, and are not required to leave forwarding addresses for those wanting to find them,” they said.

The customs agent at Sheremetyevo International Airport was right about one thing: that I would run into problems seeking after things too “sensitive” to some. But, who? Survivors of the Holocaust and Gulag wanted to share their stories. Agencies and advocates representing ‘Human Rights’ violations still fought the bureaucracy  to get the full story on things that went on, not all of it declassified.  It was my agency that used their own resources to learn of Lyudmila’s whereabouts, and pushed the request through in arranging my meeting with her when I placed an overseas call to Washington D.C. with what I hoped was a secure connection. They insisted on the consulate’s full cooperation allowing me to visit her.

There was only so much Irina could do for me if she herself did not have clearance to get such information, or arrange interviews with some in Moldova. As a researcher and archivist I knew there were untold stories behind those padlocked doors and it was my job and intent to find a way through.

Harsh winds, bitter cold winters, the elements of time and erosion took its toll on the ground settling around the gravestones as they leaned or listed to one side. The markings had become so indistinct they seemed to blur into the background. There was barely anything worth documenting, but between my still shots and my video I swept my cameras across every row, every stone, and beyond covering the camp and its surroundings. Refuse that lay scattered around the grounds seemed to just blend in with all else.

But, it was a rusted piece of metal that protruded up from under a tilted gravestone that suddenly got my attention. Setting down my cameras I squatted down, and like a dog retrieving a buried bone raked away the dirt surface with my hands until it was loosened and pulled free from the ground. Brushing off the caked on dirt I turned over what appeared to be an old metal tin so deteriorated over time, the lid was sealed shut. Using a piece of broken stone nearby I worked the lid. Like the iron gate to the cemetery it was nearly impossible to open. The thought of it holding someone’s ashes made me shudder.

Trying to avoid the sharp jagged edges I managed to loosen one side a mere fraction. Then, I went to work on the opposite side, running the stone along under the edges pushing up, doing the same on the other two sides turning it until the lid worked loose. Slowly, afraid at what I might find inside I lifted the lid.

Not ashes.  But…what is this?     

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Fiction – ‘Doors’

Is it just me, now suspicious of everyone I see? Standing outside my hotel room door, cautious, waiting, listening as if expecting to find one going through my things, my files, laptop.

No! I cannot be this way and do my work here. I have a job, an assignment that requires my total focus and concentration.

I inserted the key, turned it. It opened. My room looked the same, and everything as I’d left it. Maybe, it was I who was changing. Now afraid of my own shadow, a door, a lock, a noise. A face I’d seen before.

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Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Note: The above 100 word story with title (Doors) is my submission for Friday Fictioneers this week. This portion is a part of my ongoing novel, The Informant’s Agenda, and this is the last part of Chapter six, not included in the previous chapter section, but it seemed a good fit for this week’s photo prompt story provided by Rochelle, Wisoff Fields, moderator for Friday Fictioneers.  For the benefit of those who are following my story, The Informant’s Agenda I have not included the FF photo prompt here, so please excuse its omission. 🙂

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter VI – Babi Yar

The Babi Yar Memorial of the 33, 771 Jews massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941 by the German SS in Kiev, Ukraine

The Babi Yar Memorial of the 33, 771 Jews massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941 by the German SS in Kiev, Ukraine

Chapter Six

Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial – Kiev

There was a quiet that prevailed over Babi Yar as people walked slowly to the edge of the sloped grass covering the bowl-shaped field. A lush thick turf filled the deep ravine where over 200,000 Jews were gunned down by Nazi machine guns, their bodies set on fire. A huge granite stone sculpture towered from a platform atop a concrete stairway depicting victims clutching one another in desperation, mothers shielding their babies and children in the throes of death. The monument stood as a memorial to the thousands killed there with no record of their names, or pictures with their faces, their life ending from a spray of bullets, and a plume of smoke rising up into a gray ash sky.

Birch trees graced the outer ring, as if each a declaration to life, and an image of the roots from these beautiful trees sending out new ‘shoots’ across the landscape like little sprouts. The scripture verse  written on a piece of paper left in grandfather Jacob’s Bible came back to me “…there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water; it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant.” Job 14:7-9.

Marble benches placed alongside the walkway like chapel pews held people who sat weeping, some in prayerful pose, others just staring at the sculpture as if seeing a face, or a look they’d seen before.

The images of Holocaust victims killed in death camps, cremated in large ovens, their ashes rising from furnace flues like white dust into the black plumes filled the archives and libraries of media documentaries covering the horrendous events. Thousands more were gassed while cyanide crystals spewed out its poisonous powder through shower heads. Hundreds more left to starve in concentration camps from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from Germany, and east to Siberia would only live on in history, or in the minds of those who were there, but somehow survived. Mass graves with no names or markers, just the remains of its victims filled the grounds across the Russian Steppes and Eastern Europe. Memorials erected like the one here at Babi Yar, in Kiev, Ukraine would never allow one to forget the cost of lives it took to remind us all of a persecuted, suffering people.

My mind reeled with the images. My heart wept for their pain. Where did it all begin? Why no end to their suffering? Where would they find acceptance? A place where peace would reign?

Always migrating, always wandering since the beginning of time, Jews searched for a piece of land to set down roots, build a synagogue, establish a trade or business, raise a family, only to be exiled again to another. Hoping to find a country where prejudice and malice would not be welcome. Where ‘pogrom’ was a foreign word, not one spoken in warning or threat. Where the words, ‘extermination,’ or ‘Final Solution’ would never be real.

For those freed and liberated from death camps after the war Hitler’s Final Solution turned what was meant to be their end into the catalyst that changed their lives.

The world learned of their stories. But, that part of history would never to be repeated, as they declared, “Never again!”

The names of gentiles who wanted to make a difference for the Holocaust survivors and their families became sponsors, contributors and financiers for the memorial project. Their names and a bio were mentioned on the tour guide brochure.

As I turned to leave a guided tour group was just arriving, somber faced, some perusing the material about the memorial in their hand.

Then I noticed a man walking with the group while passing through sun dappled trees lining the path. Sunglasses, camera bag hanging from one shoulder, reading the brochure, blending into the crowd, a face I had seen before. It did not seem like a mere coincidence.

Spotting a café across the street, I hurried over, entered and chose a table across the room. A waiter took my order for a ‘coffee to go.’ My bus schedule showed none leaving or arriving for another two hours. Though I rode a shuttle bus to the memorial site I paid little attention to the schedule for those returning to the hotel. After getting my coffee, I saw a taxi dropping people off across the street and hailed him over. He did a sharp U-turn and I jumped in.

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Is it just me, now suspicious of everyone I see? Standing outside my hotel room door, cautious, waiting, listening as if expecting to find one going through my things, my files and laptop.

No! I cannot be this way and do my work here. I have a job, an assignment that requires my total focus and concentration.

With trepidation I turned the key in the lock, opening the door. Everything looked the same, just as I’d left it. Maybe it was I who was changing. Now afraid of my own shadow, a door, a noise. A face I’d seen before.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Emerging Rainbows Amidst the Storm


The Big Thompson River, Loveland, CO., a spillway near the walking/biking trail. This photo was taken earlier in the spring when runoff and water levels were normal, before the flood Sept. 12-16, 2013. The trail, bridge and path is now washed out and will not ever look the same as we enjoyed it nearly every day as we went walking along the river here.

The Big Thompson River, Loveland, CO., a spillway near the walking/biking trail. This photo was taken earlier in the spring when runoff and water levels were normal, before the flood Sept. 12-16, 2013. The trail, bridge and path is now washed out and will not ever look the same as we enjoyed it nearly every day as we went walking along the river here.

Emerging rainbows amidst the storm

It has been a whole week since our region, towns and front range along the Rockies has been inundated with flood waters. When the sky is cloudy and overcast, the rain still falling, and the sun not seen for days, one looks, hopes and prays for the rainbow expected at the end of a storm. But, sometimes the rainbow is not where we expect to find it as we have seen lately here. It instead is seen emerging from a window opened to us through the opportunities of a community coming together out of necessity and circumstances, bonding together, mutually supportive of one another through prayer and service. That is what happened here in Colorado with the recent floods, and even through the wildfires experienced here in 2012. The experience draws neighbors and people together that have never met. Friendships are born, and we learn life lessons that will remain with us, hopefully not ever forgotten. The road to rebuilding does not stop with the tangible ones we took for granted on all our trips and outings up 34 highway to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, to campgrounds and picnic grounds along the way. It is the rebuilding of a part of life for some who have lost their homes to these storms and fires that teaches us all that though the body can grow tired and weary in the process it is the spirit of determination and resolve to move on, remember the past, but not live in it. We will do that here.

Yesterday, I spent four hours along with my husband and other volunteers as we came together to serve and help those who were evacuated from their homes, damaged or lost entirely to the flood. It is during these times, working together that we think how fortunate we are to have a warm, dry house to go home to when hundreds of others have lost theirs, or cannot return because it is contaminated and unsanitary with affected, polluted water, the same water that looked so clean, calm and peaceful when I walked the trail along the river with my husband and dog just a few months earlier, nearly every day. Now there is a major highway, roads and bridges washed out, walkways, bike trails and landscaping, prairies and farmland completely flooded, altered, damaged and changed that will take months or years to rebuild. But, it is the work we can do with our hands, smile, offer a hug, and a prayer that helps another. It brightens their day, as it does ours. Those are the rainbows we see, and it is enough for now.

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Photos by:  Joyce E. Johnson


Flood water from our Big Thompson River flood, Sept. 12-16, 2013

HPIM2221

This is a photo I took from a street overlooking the same walking/biking trail we took. The heavy steel bridge that crossed it to another side of the river is now gone, completely washed out by the force and current of the Big Thompson at flood stage. The last big flood before this one that did much the same damage, but not as bad was in July 1976 with over 100 people killed.

Flood water from our Big Thompson River flood, Sept. 12-16, 2013

HPIM2220

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter V, – The Trans-Siberian

Chapter V

The Trans-Siberian –Kharkiv Station

Passengers lined up on the boarding platform to the Express line as it sat belching steam into gray skies over Ukraine. On another rail yard rested a train retired from its former days looking like an ancient black dragon stretching way beyond the tracks from the Kharkiv station,

It was its history and monumental iconic past that lured me to choose this mode of travel to Kiev, made all the more enticing after taking the guided tour of the famed first class cars used during the Czars’ reign.

Pictures of Czar Nickolas and other historic figures from the Russian empire hung on wood panels. The Romanovs, dictators, politburo and Soviet party bigwigs, the rich and famous, all of them given their place of importance hung on a sort of ‘hall of fame,’ in spacious stately cars. Beds with thick plump mattresses and pillows lay under down quilts and coverlets. Upholstered chairs in deep red damask tapestry sat near heavy wood tables with French porcelain tea service sets and a gleaming samovar. Side bars were stocked with vodka filled crystal decanters, and silver ice buckets. Lit wall sconces accented the draped windows framed in matching red velvet like the upholstery, with tassels and pulls. White crisp linens hung from polished brass towel rods near a built-in lavatory. The first class cars were turned into a museum, open to the public now.  Tour guides, dressed as stewards welcomed the public  to view what once was off-limits to all but the elite class.

A porter led me to car #7303, third one down, and compartment # 9. One man stood alongside the aisle, his face turned towards a window, occasionally glancing back at those passing through.  No one seemed to notice or care about the lone passenger with no bag.

“May I see your key please, miss? I wish to make sure it is the one assigned to you, and fits the lock to your compartment.” he said.

“Yes, of course.” I handed him the key given me at check-in. The door opened. A tray on the small table held packets of sugar,  ‘espresso’, tea bags, napkins and a menu. A little basket with complimentary toiletries was laid beside it. Travel brochures were arranged in a rack on the wall.

“There you go, miss. Enjoy your stay while aboard The Trans-Siberian. If there is anything you need please ring the call button here.” he said, pointing to a small button on the paneled wall inside the compartment.  A steward will come along shortly and check on your comfort. If you wish to place a meal order, or would like to eat in the dining car, and make a reservation you may let him know then. If you need any assistance in any way, please let us know.”

“Thank you. I will.”

Locking my compartment door after he left I settled in and unpacked only what I needed for my one night stay, then pulled out my notes and laptop. A half hour passed before the train whistle blew and began its slow pull away from the station heading northwest towards Kiev, picking up speed as it drew further away from Kharkiv.

As promised, a steward came by and took my “dinner order.” I picked from the menu, and asked for black coffee. Before shutting my door I noticed the ‘no bag’ passenger in the aisle leaning against the window, his face hidden behind a newspaper.

Three hours later I had finished dinner, returned the tray to the steward, sent some emails and worked on files. Ready to turn in for the night, I shut down my laptop, stuffed my notebook, maps and research files into my bag, and set it down beside my luggage. Grabbing my purse and a small bag, I locked my door on my way out, and headed down to the end of the car, to the lavatory.

After standing in line for what seemed a good twenty minutes the lavatory was free. With its unsanitary conditions I hurried my time spent there, thankful to get out and back to my compartment. The man by the window was gone.

I inserted my key into the lock. It got stuck, became lodged, but I managed to yank it free. Bending down to peer through the lock, I noticed the bent ragged, edges around its opening. Did I do that? After repeated tries it finally opened, and I quickly relocked it once inside, not sure by now if it was ever really locked.

My laptop was closed, still in shutdown mode.  I checked my equipment, files, and personal things and could see nothing taken. And yet, things looked different somehow, as if moved. Am I just paranoid, or has someone broken into my compartment? Sometimes it felt as if there were eyes watching me wherever I went. Eyes that bore into my back from unseen places were like an unwelcomed shadow. A face in a crowd, on the metro, or a passenger on the Trans-Siberian could blend in like all the rest, all heading the same direction. Though my work files were all protected in password accounts, it was my family research notes and old photos I carried that were more personal and accessible that I worried about.  Still, it appeared there was nothing stolen.  There was no proof that anyone had broken in, except for a jammed door lock that just hours earlier worked fine when the steward tried it, so shrugged it off and went to bed.

My body had not fully adjusted to the time zones after jet lag, days earlier, and my sleep was sporadic. When it came, so did the dreams. The steppes were filled with graves. Names flashed before me, obscured in Cyrillic, Hebrew and German script on white slab stones, all of them with a face as the train sped by. The train slowed, and I saw my own, with my name in large bold letters, MONICA MENGELDER.  Pushing hard against the stone, clawing at it, I struggled to get free. It was my whimpering cry that woke me. Shaken, frightened, I realized it was only the white pillow I squeezed, tightly between my hands. My face, was bathed in sweat, my body felt cold, and my heart was pounding as I sat up in bed and looked out the window at the sun coming up over the eastern skies. The monotonous rhythm of the train’s rolling wheels reminded me just how alone I felt.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Note: The above photo is not mine. It is one from internet images. Although Monica is a fictional character and her story fiction, I have ridden the Trans-Siberian railway between Kharkov and Kiev, in 1989 and had my own experience on the train. That story can be found here under, ‘ Aboard the Trans-Siberian in Communist Russia, May, 1989’, posted on April 1, 2013.

‘Yearning to breathe free’. Friday Fictioneers photo prompt

It has been over nine months since I’ve participated in Friday Fictioneers (due to other priority writing projects and time involved), but often read and comment on other writers’ stories. This week, however I decided to add one into the mix. Friday Fictioneer stories can be found at Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s blog, at http://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/ Because of the current piece of work I am editing and posting chapters of now (a novel, The Informant’s Agenda) this photo prompt seemed appropriate to my writing genre and story theme, so here is my contribution this week for this prompt.  The interesting thing is that although my current novel is fiction, this little story has a lot of truth in it as it is based on factual truths found in my novel. 1) My grandfather Jacob’s family were immigrants from Odessa, Russia, and were German Jews. And after over thirty years of research I am now writing a story similar to their own. And 2) I did visit Russia and cities in Ukraine in 1989 where I visited several cities in my novel, and took the photos below this story of the Babi Yar Jewish Memorial in Kiev, 1989 which is a sad, unforgettable site. Information on the Babi Yar can be found in Wikipedia and elsewhere.  Any comments and feedback are always welcome, and thanks for reading.

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The Babi Yar Memorial of the 33, 771 Jews massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941 by the German SS in Kiev, Ukraine

The Babi Yar Memorial of the            33, 771 Jews massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941 by the German SS in Kiev, Ukraine

  I took the photos above of Babi Yar in 1989 while touring Ukraine, Russia : Joyce E. Johnson (1989)

Below is my story to go with the photos above and submitted for the week’s Friday Fictioneers story.

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I thought of Grandfather Jacob and his family coming ashore in 1889, yearning to ‘breathe free’, to live in a land where ‘pogrom’ and persecution were foreign words, not ones to be feared.

The words of one from the Babi Yar memorial to the thousands of Jews massacred in Kiev came to me.

“My mind reeled with the images. My heart wept for their pain. Where did it all begin? Why no end to their suffering? Where would they find acceptance? A place where peace would reign?”

It seemed fitting to end my journey here upon my return from Ukraine.

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Joyce E. Johnson

Remembering 9-11

Reflections

Photo credit: Joyce E. Johnson, 1998

World Trade Center Twin Towers, New York City, April 1998

It was April 1998, when my husband, Wayne and I took this vacation, and these pictures.  We flew into New York City to Laguardia airport on a weekday, picked up a rental car and traveled north up to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, across upper New York to Niagara Falls, down through Pennsylvania, in to Maryland, Washington D.C.,  Delaware and back into New York City and Staten Island before leaving for home from Laguardia. It was a whirlwind trip in nine days as we covered all of the upper northeast and New England from the east side to the west and back again in a loop.

While in New York City those final three days we took a ferry-boat over to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Battery Park. As we toured…

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Posted September 11, 2013 by Joyce in My Writings

Squirrel on a tree


There climbed a squirrel on a tree

“Little squirrel, will you pose for me?”

He said, “I’m busy. Can you hurry?”

I took his picture, and off he did scurry.

He had much to do, and I things to see.

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Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Photo credit: Thomas W. Johnson

We were able to capture this squirrel while on a hike at the Grand Canyon, North Rim on a recent vacation. This little guy was not in the least afraid of those on the path, and in fact looked as if he enjoyed having his picture taken. We think he was chewing off the bark to build a nest, but continued on with his ‘busy’ work, so I decided to try a fun limerick poem for the photo.

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter IV, – Part II, ‘Lyudmila’s story’

Chapter IV – Part II

Lyudmila’s story

Kharkiv, Ukraine

“Lyudmila.” I said, “you can begin now. Tell me about your life when you lived in Cebrikove, and when you were arrested and sent to the camps. Let me know if you become too weak or tired to continue, OK? Then we’ll stop, and you can rest.”

She nodded.  “Our village was small. A few hundred or so. We grew wheat, barley, grain… did our harvests. When drought came the locusts swarmed in like dark clouds. It was a plague…they ate all that we grew, but we replanted each year, through storms, the cold, wind and still we worked…carrying on. We had a Lutheran church… built by the hands of our men. The women served the parish. It took all of us. We worked together, to make our homes…lives better.”

“Then one day soldiers came, … It was horrible…we were terrified of the Reds, … Bolsheviks banging on our doors during the night… yelling at us. They beat us and… shoved their guns at our backs, …pushed us out the door. They did not tell us where they were taking us…or why. We were not allowed… to take anything. They would not let us speak. They… said we would… not need anything… where we were going.  They crowded us…into cold cattle cars, dark as night… smelled of dried cow dung. Then they slammed shut… the heavy steel doors. People were wailing. They feared… they would never see their village… or homes again.”

“The journey took days. There was no clean water to drink, …just meager pieces of stale old bread to eat. We got so thirsty. We cried out… ‘Please! Give us water.’ It got so bitter cold we could not touch… the bare steel for fear of losing our skin… from the subzero frost. It was during winter… in February. We had on only what we wore… when they came for us. But, we huddled together…to stay warm. It stunk so bad…there were only large buckets to relieve ourselves.”

“The train slowed… and we pulled into a station. Tracks just stopped there… There were old wooden carts… and wagons in the yard… We were made to march on foot to…the camps. We thought… they were military barracks. But they were… like those we’d heard about… where prisoners were sent… who worked on… the roads with picks, shovels… and sickles to clear the land… in the woods of… trees and rocks. They needed people to… build the rail line… extend the tracks… farther east and north. It was way to the east… of any villages or towns, out in the… frozen forests of Siberia. They were labor camps… hundreds of miles… from our homes and villages. It was worse than… anything we had ever known.”

“They fed us only… one meal a day, in the morning. A thin gruel like soup …and  pieces of dried crusty bread. A few sips of icy water… from dirty tin cups dunked into… large heavy steel drums… was all we had… They had to… pick at the ice to… break it down… in chips, and melt over fires… for us to get a drink. There were no heaters… to heat anything, not even… our sleeping quarters at night. We worked… twelve hours a day… then taken… to our quarters when dark… to sleep on wooden slats laid across cold slab floors… with fifteen or more people crammed into one room.”

The woman’s voice became weak, quieter as she went on, her breathing more shallow. The nurse gave her sips of water. Her slow, tired voice reflected the difficulty of one showing deteriorating respiratory problems. I turned up the volume on my microphone and leaned in closer, taking notes as she talked.

“Lyudmila, I see on your records that your family was registered as Lutheran. Was it during the purge when your family or village was rounded up?”

“Yes. Stalin hated us all. It was… a prison sentence to just… attend a worship service, of any kind. We tried to meet in secret…privately in homes. We would sneak out…in groups, quietly, at night…our watchers watching for theirs…who became suspicious. So, a few at a time…would walk for blocks…to meet up for prayer and bible study. The old Jews, the orthodox… warned us…if we converted…we would be taken away. But, it did them no good either…to remain Jewish. They were found, too.”

Her last comment sent my mind reeling with my next question. “Lyudmila, what religion was your family when they immigrated into Russia?

“They were Jews… from Germany… the ethnic Germans baptized us when we converted to their religion.”

She took sips of water from her glass, and rested a while before continuing. Waiting patiently, I used discretion before asking another question, until she was finished.

“The Czar required all of  the Jews… to convert… after our people settled. They said… we needed to be… listed on the revision lists. It was so… we would pay the Czar taxes. It happened… after my people came… to Russia, through Prussia… now Poland.”

“So your village became registered Lutherans after they agreed to convert from their Jewish faith? When they settled after emigrating into Russia?” I asked her.

“Yes. I think there were some…that belonged to the… Lutheran religion in Germany, before they came… to Russia. Many of them… came together, in groups, with other Germans. That is… what I was told by my grandparents.”

“Was there any anti-Semitism towards the Jews in Russia when you lived in the settlement areas, the old villages?”

“There were always those…who hated us wherever… we lived. It was not better… in one place, or another. Hard times… followed us everywhere. They made us pay debts… we did not owe… and charged us fees… for things we did not… ask for. They kept making up… laws for us to obey… life was unbearable for us. The Lutheran Germans told us… we would be… left alone if we converted… and worshiped together… in their churches. But there were times…when the Jews, the old ones, wanted to… go back to their Orthodox ways… go to synagogue… live among their own people…who did not judge them…or force a religion on them … or expect them to follow their rules… or diet…the converted Germans… from the colonies…said if we did not want… to face more pogroms…we must live together as Christians…worship together in the same parish.  But they did not understand…  the Jewish ways… they were stubborn and impatient. They believed the Czar… would grant us more freedoms, leave us alone.  They said if we did not… want to live as a German…we would be sent away… The Jews wanted only… to be left alone. The Russians liked none… of us whatever we were.”

“When the Soviets came… for them too, the Christians, Jews… all of us…we  were arrested. Just for worshiping… in a church or synagogue, for refusing…to join the Communist party… None of us… were free. Not to worship… to farm, to even live… in our villages. They kept papers on us all. Where…  we went,…what we did…

When Lyudmila was finished, she was exhausted, spent, breathing with difficulty.

“Thank you, Lyudmila for sharing your story.” I said.

After disconnecting the microphone, and camera, I put away my equipment. patted  her frail, cold hand and wished her good health, knowing it took a lot for her to share it. When I embraced her thin shoulders, she struggled to add something else. With great effort, she said, “Tell our story… to those… who have never heard.”

“I will Lyudmila. I promise.”

The nurse settled her back down into her bed. Before I had repacked my cameras and equipment to leave she was already asleep.

Days later, I contacted the nursing home, asked about her health, and if I could visit her once more, and bring her some flowers as a thank-you gift. They informed me she passed away two days after our interview.

When I asked about funeral details, or if I could deliver, or take flowers to her gravesite, they refused to disclose any more information about her, or her burial, which I did not understand, knowing that her American descendants would want the information. But, grateful for the short time I had with her, I thanked them and promptly sent off the edited video to the U.S. G. D. H.& R. It would be added to their archives collection with a footnote attached of her birth, death and location.

Before my departure from Kharkiv I took a taxi to Freedom Square. Looking up at the monument and reading the plaques detailing its history I thought how ironic it was that it seemed to parallel Lyudmila’s.  The site was first called Dzhezhinsky Square, named in 1928 for the founder of the dreaded iron fisted NKVD secret police, Joseph Stalin, the very dictator who sent Lyudmila and thousands more like her to the labor camps. A statue had been erected in his honor. When the people’s revolution came, and they fought for their independence from the Communist stronghold it was renamed Independence Square in 1993. It was again renamed Freedom Square in 1995 after winning their independence and freedom. The tragic events in Lyudmila’s life, and her story made me realize how thankful I was for my family, grandfather Jacob, grandmother Lisle and those Mengelders before them who endured the hardships in their crossing, and the right to be called an American. And free.

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

Note: The story is fiction. The characters (Lyudmila and Monica) are fictional too. But, Lyudmila’s story is one that is very real and similar to thousands of others and their families and descendants, like that of my own family. My own trip to Russia and these cities in 1989 was to commemorate my own grandfather Jacob’s and family’s immigration  in 1889 from Odessa, Russia. He had family members who were sent to the labor camps and perished there when they were unable to get out of Russia in time. The conversions of German Jews is also true, as was with my family. Their stories will be told as well in this continued story, The Informant’s Agenda. 

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter IV – Lyudmila

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The above photo is one of mine. It is actually not a photo of Kharkiv, but one of Odessa, Ukraine I took when I traveled to those cities in Ukraine in 1989. I did not have a good picture of Kharkiv to fit this particular scene and chapter so chose to use this photo. Another note concerning the name and spelling of the town of Kharkiv. The old spelling in Russian was Kharkov, but the newer and correct version and spelling is Kharkiv in the Ukrainian. I have used both spellings at times, but is technically correct spelled Kharkiv.

Chapter Four (Part I)

Lyudmila

Kharkiv, Ukraine

With the interest in family histories and popularity of genealogy clubs and organizations the national archives and data bases became burdened with files and information on the migration and immigration of ethnic groups. Documented stories recounted the immigrants’ trek and journey, across continents by train, or boat. Upon their immigration to North America those affording first or second class passage came, declaring all their possessions aboard in trunks, stowed away in the hold of the ship while they were shown to cabins, or quarters stacked with bunks.

Enduring hunger, and inclement weather those less fortunate traveled thousands of miles from all directions, across open terrain, rugged mountains, or through raging rivers by foot, wagon or whatever mode they could afford, often stopping and staying for weeks or months at a time to rest or replenish their provisions before reaching their port of embarkation. Hamburg, Germany, and Liverpool, England became inundated with refugees, and transients waiting to board a ship bound for American shores. Carrying all they owned the weary and destitute trudged up ramps with cloth bundles tied together, thrown over their backs, and then proceeded down dark steps into steerage. Families with children, vulnerable, and trusting, small hands clutching tightly to a parent huddled together in the hold of a ship, rocked violently by lurching waves. Infectious disease consumed hungrily its victims, like the passengers who snatched up their food. Meager rations were passed through the lines as hands received their measured portions. None was wasted. None was sanitized. Weary from their long journey they stood waiting to be processed through the lines only to find themselves turned away, or deported once they reached their port of entry. Because of the failure to pass the physical examination, on entrance to the U.S. many were not allowed beyond the arrival gates.  With no financial means, sponsorship or assistance to support their existence, once registered, or some other technicality unacceptable to immigration officials, they returned to their country of origin.

After World War I, and during the heightened regulations of the Bolshevik period the rate of immigration from Russia was reduced considerably when Stalin and the Communist regime clamped down on ethnic groups, sending thousands to the gulags and work camps on the frozen Siberian frontier. Thousands more starved during the Holodomor famines in the 1920’s – 1930’s when collectivization farms ruled a tightly controlled market of goods and products produced solely by the German colonists.

When the dissolution of the communist regime came in 1990 it opened the door for thousands of German and Russian dissidents to leave,  immigrating west into Europe, North America, north into the Canadian provinces, or south into the countries of Brazil and Argentina, many coming out of incarceration, or exile.

For surviving Jews of the Holocaust still in East Europe and Russia it allowed those remaining to immigrate to Israel. With the changes and newly independent former Soviet bloc countries it opened up opportunity and access to family and ethnic histories, census records, and immigration files. The search for missing relatives and locations of surviving family members was now possible through participating international archives and databases.

The pressure placed on local government officials gave reporters opportunities to tour the gulags and speak with guards of the former KGB on the incarceration or release of those kept as political prisoners. Their records were made accessible.

It was in Kharkiv where I met Lyudmila and heard her story.

Like thousands of others she was unable to immigrate to America because she got caught up in the ‘sweep of injustice,’ a term used to describe the period when Joseph Stalin swept up millions in the U.S.S.R. for all termed ‘disloyal to the party,’ or unfaithful in serving the ‘Motherland.’ of Russia. Thousands were executed. Thousands more were sent off to labor camps. Few survived the camps. Those who did were relocated to homes where they could live out their lives in relative comfort.

My agency in the U.S.  learned of Lyudmila’s existence and where she was relocated upon release, but when contacting the Ukrainian official in Kharkiv to arrange my visit with Lyudmila they told me that her, “health was not good, that she was not a strong woman to sit through an interview.”

Using my reporter instincts and prowess I protested, promising to be careful to not tire her. They finally agreed.

My taxi pulled up in front of an old, white-washed concrete block building, in need of paint and patching on places where walls were chipped, or pitted from its exterior finish. Located within a section of old Kharkiv early residential city limits, it looked like a former clinic, or small hospital converted to a nursing home with as few staff members as needed to run the place and look after their elderly residents. After showing them my identification papers, passport and press card needed for permission to interview they let me in.

The woman was frail, her voice weak, her sight, failing. Her birth record listed her born in 1922, her age now, 90.

The nurse made her comfortable, propping her up in a worn, upholstered chair, then sat a container with water, and a glass on a small table beside her.

When I was given permission I clipped a tiny microphone to Lyudmila’s gown, then positioned a video cam on a tripod by her chair, and checked her image on the display screen. When satisfied with its position I turned it to, ‘record’ and sat down in another chair facing her. The nurse gave her some water through a straw, then took a seat near her, waiting for me to begin.

_______________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

The Informant’s Agenda – Chapter III, – Passport Please

English: Departures schedule table in the Sher...

English: Departures schedule table in the Sheremetyevo-2 (code SVO) airport. Moscow, Russia. Русский: Табло вылетов международного аэропорта Шереметьево-2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter III

Passport Please

 Sheremetyevo International Airport

Moscow, Russia

With a courteous smile, but steely eyes the ‘customs agent’ continued.

“Have you been assigned a translator, guide or driver while in Ukraine and Moldova?” he asked.

“Only in Moldova.”

“Are you fluent in Russian, Ukrainian or Romanian dialects?”

 “I can speak German, and a little Ukrainian.”

“And where have you attended school, Ms. Mengelder?”

“I graduated from UN, University of Nebraska in Lincoln.”

“How long have you been employed for the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research?”

“Only a few months.”

“What is your purpose for working in Ukraine and Moldova?”

“It is where I have focused my research, and study on ethnic groups who settled there, so chose to do part of my assignment there.”

“Part of your ‘assignment”?

“Yes, our team went first to Germany and Austria.”

“What exactly are the duties of your ‘assignment’ while in Ukraine and Moldova?”

“I am working with my agency in the U.S. on genealogy projects to enlarge and update our records and databases for our researchers and genealogists who use them for their family research. I will be visiting the records division of archives in each country, doing some micro-filming and photographing cemeteries.”

“And you hold current press credentials?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And has your government made contact, and received permission with the officials in each country to allow you access to these records and archives?”

“Yes. It was prearranged.”

There was a long pause before the agent asked another question, after typing.

“Do you have people, or contacts that you plan to see or meet with when arriving in Moldova?”

“Only my guide and translator. She is the one assigned to me through the consulate in Odessa, Ukraine, and the only one I will be working with besides him.”

“And these two you will be working with. The guide assigned to you in Moldova, and the Odessa Consulate? What are their names, please?”

“Irina Suvorov and Vasily Kuznetsov.”

The official typed some more. The back of his laptop was all I saw as he made notes, glancing down often to refer to my papers. When finished he stood up to see me out.

“I see. Please have a seat in the adjoining room Ms. Mengelder while we make contact with the consulate and guide you will be working with. We will get back with you shortly.” he said.

Taking a seat where I was directed I got out my e-reader and opened it to the page in the book I’d started earlier but had not finished. But, I could not help feeling anxious or nervous over his line of questioning.

When I came in with a team of archivists I did not expect to be interrogated, or asked what would be, “just a few questions” with a ‘customs agent.’ All the members of my team had already been checked and processed through without a hitch. All of them had left on their flights to their assigned destinations into other former Russian provinces.

Thinking back, I knew I had answered his questions truthfully enough without giving him any unnecessary information, or reason to doubt my story.

There was nothing to do but wait until I was free to report to the departure gate for my flight to Kharkov, so passed the time watching passengers check in for flights to gates on either side. The waiting area thinned out. Some stood in front of terminal arrival and departure screens, or checked bags. Some stopped at kiosks to look at brochures or schedules. Others stood in line while waiting to purchase tickets or make reservations.  At times it seemed as if there was one who watched everyone else with nothing to do. Like it was before their old regime dissolved and their democratic government was formed.

After what seemed like an hour or more the ‘customs agent’ came out of his office carrying my passport, visas and identification papers. His face showed no expression, either way.

“OK, Ms. Mengelder, your story checked out. Your free to proceed to your gate for departure. I would like to caution you though, about your time in Moldova and Ukraine to be careful while on your ‘assignment,’ pursuing your stories or interviews. Please consider this helpful advice during your travels. Have a good flight and safe trip.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, puzzled over his comment, wondering what he meant, as I headed over to my departure gate.

__________________

To be continued

Joyce E. Johnson

Posted September 1, 2013 by Joyce in Fiction, My Novel

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