Archive for the ‘family histories’ Tag

My fish story; the one I reeled in

 

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That’s me, with my fish in front of our YNP cabin by Lake Yellowstone, about age 8 or round that. 🙂

 

16 & 1/2 inches it was. We measured it. I was about eight and the youngest of my sisters and cousins. We vacationed in Yellowstone National Park, had a cabin right on Lake Yellowstone and had a fishing contest. I stood on the river bank, holding a rod and reel and looking out onto the water, waiting for a bite.

It seemed like forever when I felt a strong jerk, saw a large fish do a flip-flop in the water and called my dad over. He confirmed I had a big one. As it yanked on the line I stood with my feet firmly planted on the shoreline and pulled hard. My dad thought he might get away if I tried managing it by myself, so he gave me a hand and together we reeled it in. My cousins and sisters all caught fish that day too, but when all were measured mine came out the largest.

I had my own fish, my own ‘fish story’ to tell through the years, and the best part? We cooked it, ate it and enjoyed it that night with all the other fish, and it was so good.  🙂 From that day on lake trout and rainbow trout became one of my favorite kinds of fish to eat. The trout fishing was good at Yellowstone Nat’l Park.

And, it is plentiful here in Colorado, too with all our lakes, rivers and streams. Now, when my husband, grandsons or son-in-law goes fishing, and I don’t go, I just say, “Catch me a fish, too.” and my little grandson says, “Yes, grandma, I know… I will.” He loves to fish, knows all his lures, what to use, what fish like, and what doesn’t work. He’s caught some great fish himself and would rather fish than do anything else. But, his little sister won’t be outdone, so she likes to fish now, too, just like I did at that age. Below are pictures of my grandchildren, Trevor and Alyssa with their fish they caught this last June. It’s a sport we love here in Colorado, and it’s been a great summer to fish.

And in the U. S., today is ‘Grandparents Day’, so from one grandmother to other grandparents out there, I wish you a Happy Grandparents Day.

Joyce E. Johnson (2015)

 

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“…her children rise up and call her blessed…”

She embraces each day

ready, whatever may come

watching over all

entrusted into her care

She blesses all she touches

~~~~

With her hands she makes

designer clothes; she creates

and feeds her children

that which grows from her garden.

She manages her household

~~~~

She makes decisions

with the carefulness and thought

of one who is wise

governing business ventures

with prayer, confidence and grace

_______________

Footnotes: This poem is my perspective of the woman portrayed in Proverbs, Chapter 31, Old Testament bible. She is a mother, a wife, a business woman, and a governess who is blessed because all that she does she does with God’s help, with the wisdom gained throughout her life. I chose to use this passage of scripture in Proverbs as an inspiration for these three verses of Tanka poetry to honor a Proverbs 31 woman and mother on Mother’s Day. My own mother was a woman and mother who exemplified the Proverbs 31 woman with these characteristics, and though she is now deceased I hope that I can be one of such character. To all mothers out there, I wish you a happy Mother’s Day.

Joyce E. Johnson © 2015


I still love to dig

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Digging for Roots.”

I think the person I am is greatly influenced by the family I came from. When I wrote my first posts on my blog site a couple of years ago I told about the 30+ yrs. of genealogy research and work I’ve done digging into my paternal grandfather’s past and family. They were Germans from Russia, immigrated from Odessa, Russia (now the country of Ukraine) in 1889. Much of my research and information was used to create my current novel and project entitled, The Informant’s Agenda.

I was blessed to be able to travel to Russia and Ukraine in 1989 to commemorate their immigration to the U.S. and learn all I could about them and their own journey out of persecution and anarchy. I later learned too that their family were once originally from Jewish descent, then later converted to the Lutheran faith. These are the genealogical roots of my family that define me in such a way that makes me proud of my heritage, my faith, and my insatiable drive to learn more. I am so thankful for the opportunity to have made the journey, literally to the country of their origin, and also through the years of time travel with all the resources, books and research materials used so I could learn all I could about them. I have scrapbooks and binders so full of collected documents, records, old family photos, and Ged files that they cannot hold any more. Still I continue the ‘digging’ at times into my father’s side, and also my mother’s side from Germany . It is a legacy I will pass down to my children and grandchildren. It is a ‘dig’ I would not have traded for anything.

_____________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

Ancient Family History

Below is my submission for this week’s Daily Post Writing Challenge Full Tanka

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/full-tanka/ 

 

I pulled from the box

old photos; dour faces

staring back at me;

There is not one, a smile; but

just their sad look that graces

 

our new family

seeking ancient history;

For all they will have

is what is left to pass on

in this box of old faces

 

so I pulled it out

and began with my long search

looking for good clues

but learned it was not to be

so easy once I started

 

so I shoved it all

back into the dusty box

where they all remain

together even this day

sealed inside their box coffin

_______________

Footnotes on the above Tanka poems. This story poem is true fiction in the literal sense as I actually have over 30 years of successful family genealogy on my paternal grandfather’s German family from Russia with boxes full of not just photos of ancestors but piles and stacks of documents and many other resources used throughout the years as well as membership into one of the leading German Russian genealogy organizations. So, even though this story is fiction, my own family is not, and has a long heritage of Germans from Russia.

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)


The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXII (22)

Chapter XXII (22)

 

Cossack soldiers stood in billowing black pants and white puffy sleeved shirts playing a woeful sad strain on their violins to the screeching train as it sped by.

Hands and faces peered between wooden slats. Sad eyes stared at nothing really except the desolate landscape of the Russian steppes mile after mile. It was not the Trans-Siberian with comfortable, warm sleeping compartments, but cold, hard box cars headed east into the frozen tundra. Suddenly, it was my face I saw staring back at me, and I jerked, waking myself from the horrid nightmare.

Sweating, chilled, I could hear the rumbling of the wheels rolling on tracks, as it vibrated through my head. Two hours later the headache pills and hot shower did little to ease the tension. Why? What does all it mean? I can hardly get through a night’s sleep without these dreams, seeing faces, Cossack soldiers, open graves, flowers thrown upon a stone, Jonquils, grandmother Lisle’s favorite, scattered by gusty winds.

My nose craved the smell of her baked pies and cookies as I looked at family photos before me of her, grandfather Jacob, and the family that day in November when he died. The picture was a favorite, one of several I’d packed and brought with me. It wasn’t his death or the details I dwelt on, but instead the moments before when we sat at the tables eating our Thanksgiving dinner, laughing, and catching up on everyone’s news. But, Grandfather Jacob’s death changed it all, and for weeks we mourned our loss.         

Grandmother Lisle was physically spent for days following the funeral. The constant visits of friends and family wore her out, though they meant to be kind. Soon it grew quiet. His presence was there, but only in spirit. It seemed empty, this time with only one pair of slow feet padding around the old house where they lived during most of their married life.  The sounds of his steps and footfall after fifty years of marriage would not grace the little house again.

The tiny American flag on his old desk hung from its pole at half-mast. It was a small replica of those seen where huge flags hung outside government buildings. Grandmother Lisle tearfully lowered the little flag after we all returned home to their house from the funeral. All of his personal things, papers, books, and Bible were still in their original place on top of his old coffee stained oak desk. She stood looking at it all with a sad smile while needlessly straightening things, even caressing his worn Bible as if it brought a small measure of comfort.

“He was always so particular about the things on his desk, kept everything in its place, all neat and tidy. He would pull out his old, swivel desk chair and ease himself down in it, then go over the budget, balance the checkbook, check the stock prices from the morning paper, or write in his journal. He had a set routine for everything, it seemed.”

My aunt got a serving table set up with all the food brought over. Grandmother didn’t want anything, but we put a little food on her plate and told her to eat something. The men in the family busied themselves around the house to get it ready for winter, sealing up windows, chalking, doing the things Grandfather Jacob always saw to himself.

The leaf shaped pendulum on the beautiful, antique Cuckoo clock they bought early in their marriage while on a trip to Germany slowed until finally coming to a reverent stop. They kept it wound, always running, unless they were away on vacation. After his death it remained quiet and still for the entire time of her mourning. She did not want to hear the tiny bird announce each hour as it popped out, like a surprise visitor, then hurry back inside while the pendulum ticked on.

Earlier that week while standing at his graveside, I watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground thinking about the note left for me upon his death. How I would give anything for another moment alive with them both. But, I was on my own, and it was the ticking away of minutes in my brain that reminded me just how alone I was.

Oh, grandfather. What should I do? Tell the story of the “Christianized Germans” who once were Jewish serving the same God, now with a new faith, like Jacob Gruenfeld? Or tell the story of the Jews who rejected the Messiah defying all to remain true to their roots, and suffered the fate of an insane killer determined to eradicate the Jewish nation? Who will I crucify if I tell the truth? Who will I protect if I don’t? I am so confused. Dear God, help me do the right thing. I owe it to my readers, to the world, even to tell the real story, but at what cost?

My coffee had cooled, but my laptop warmed under my fingers as I began to type.   

[They were East European Jews, born in one country, migrating to another, seeking acceptance and opportunity. Settling the colonies of the Russian Empire, they grew their crops, worked a trade, worshiped in their church or synagogue, raising their children to believe in God. They wanted a better life, leaving all behind in one country believing it to be better in another.

Some joined the ‘enlightened’ reform movement adopting the ways of their Lutheran German neighbors. Others became more introverted, drawing away. The latter group became Hasidim Jews with a devotion to Orthodox tradition, kosher diet, old style dress, an abiding knowledge and following of the laws of Torah.

But, hardship, famine, pogroms, destruction and death awaited them wherever they went. To live, they would renounce their religion and lie, allowing themselves to be baptized and convert to the Evangelical Lutheran faith, or the Russian Orthodox Church. It was not enough to survive the horrors coming. Their immigration records followed them. And because of this Hitler found them.

They went through examinations, inspections. There was no separation or sorting of Jews, even those intermarried with a Christian. If they were just a quarter Jew or had a Jewish grandparent, they were selected for extermination. The massacres had begun…]

With a fresh pot of coffee I returned to the keyboard referring to my notes filling enough pages to run a special edition of the Omaha World Herald as Jeremy would say. When I was done and all of it edited I hit the ‘send,’ with a request for an electronic return receipt. The attachment was forwarded on to my department supervisor in DC, and then I deleted the file from my laptop, and got dressed.

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The making of story, The Informant’s Agenda, and thirty plus years of research

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My family history – files, photos and documents on the Mannhalter family tree from Germany, Russia and North America

 

It was the year my father died in 1982 when I began the long journey of researching my paternal family history. When I realized all the resources out there in libraries, genealogy organizations and later on internet sites it opened up a whole new world of things at my fingertips, literally.

My paternal grandfather’s family were a part of the huge mass of immigrants who came over to the U.S. from Russia. My grandfather came from Odessa, Ukraine. As the years progressed and I learned so much about their lives, culture and what they left behind in Russia I had no clue yet or real evidence of their Jewish background because their family was Lutheran when they immigrated in 1889. When I did learn of their Jewish connection and background I was hooked and obsessed with my research.

I began filling up notebooks, buying scores of books and maps, joining German Russian genealogy clubs and visiting libraries and the RLDS Family History centers in my location to get into their exhaustive archives and files. I remember the excitement as I scrolled through their massive microfiche files and cataloged records and  finding a copy of the actual document of my 3x great grandfather’s immigration from Germany into Russia in 1786. I must have scared the other women in that room who filled their days volunteering time at the family history center when I loudly exclaimed,  “I found it. I found my ancestor.”

The rest is all history too as I spent hours pouring over books, maps and resources. Then in May of 1989 my dream came true and I was booked with a tour group to visit Russia. My husband was unable to go with me, so I flew to Moscow alone and hooked up with the tour group when I arrived. We visited Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Odessa and finally Leningrad (then named after Vladimir Lenin, and now renamed St. Petersburg). It was an absolute unforgetable and exciting trip. It was during that time, the ‘cold war’ period when Russia and its republics were still under the Communist regime.

But, my  journey did not end with that trip. I still revisit those places if only through the internet sites, maps and resources as I write the chapters of my ongoing story, The Informant’s Agenda and follow Monica on a similar journey as she travels to Russia, Moldova and Ukraine to learn the history of her own family, and that of families like her own. The same excitement (almost) is there as i narrate her story and journey.

Little did we know that Ukraine would make history again with the aggressive action by Russia to take possession of the Crimean region. The history of Russia, Ukraine, and all former Soviet republics is one of turmoil, revolution, dictatorships, destruction and rebuilding.  Now again, the country of Ukraine fight to keep and regain what they have lost to Russia. Their economy suffers while the west decide if, or how it can help. Their plight to keep a government and democracy strong is once again hanging in the balance. Although I will not bring into my story their current story I follow it in the news, and my prayers and thoughts are with them through this time. I hope one day Ukraine will look back on all this as just another chapter in their history that helped strengthen and unify their country in the reformation process.

________________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVI (16) Part 2

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Chapter XVI (16), Part 2

The Journal – Into new hands

“Jacob, I’m sorry to have loaded all this on you. Especially the way it has brought back some sad memories of your time in the ghettos. I did not mean to burden you with this, but…”

“No. Ms. Mengelder, you are not”

“Jacob, you can all me by my first name, Monica.  I don’t have anyone else to trust right now with this information. But, this stuff involves you, your family, what you all went through. If my own grandfather’s family had not gotten out of Russia when they did I believe they would all have suffered the same fate as you and your family.”

Jacob nodded. “Go on.”

“You see, in the back on the last pages there are entries listing crimes committed by Romanian soldiers and German colonists against the Jews during the war. Of atrocities during the Holocaust when they liquidated the ghettos, and ordered the death marches.  ”

“I scanned the contents of the journal and sent them to my online accounts, so I could get them transcribed and translated in English for my family. I had no intentions of making it public or revealing its contents. But, I have documented it all. My cousin, Jeremy back home in the U.S. is more skilled and can do this better than I can. I sent him scanned copies of everything here.”

“But, we’re concerned about a security breach in our e-mail communication while I’ve been here. He’s done some research for me on names mentioned in the last entries and is able to keep his search inquiries more secure. Information he found and the identities of these people have led to some in Moldova with high-profile positions in politics and business.”

“I think there are surviving family members of those who may have changed their names or spelled it differently after the war to maybe hide their identity. I believe your father or the one whose initials are on the last entries knew the names of some of the soldiers and killers responsible for the deaths of those at the ghettos in Odessa and the concentration camps in Transnistria.”

Jacob lifted his reading glasses from the table, put them on and opened the journal turning the pages slowly. He looked up at me with a perplexed expression on his face, “You said you have been followed while here in Moldova? And you think there are others here that know about this journal?”

“Yes, but I can’t be certain. I think someone gained access to my notes a few weeks ago while aboard the train on route from Kharkov to Kiev.  Not many people know the reason I am here, except for the Russian officials contacted. Unfortunately, I am not sure I can trust them. Since I am here on assignment for the U.S. Dept. of Genealogy, History and Research I am required to work with those officials who accompany me and know my itinerary at all times.”

“While here I learned about a man named Ivan Antonescu.”

“Why, he was the man who was involved in my accident. He was very angry, and seemed in an awful hurry that day. If what you say is true, then I think you need to be careful. He has associations with those in the upcoming election campaign for Igor Grigoraui. These men are running Igor’s campaign, the Antonescu brothers, Ivan and Victor. They are Grigoraui’s financial backers. They work with Igor’s campaign manager, Vladimir Krupin to reelect him. These men can be very persuasive. Igor’s opponent running against him wants to open records, make them public and investigate accusations about money laundering, foreign debts, the steel industry, and shipping trade. Things of that nature. Much of the tax revenue in our economy is benefiting the pockets of these men, not the country or people of Moldova. Pridnestrovie is seeking their recognition for independence from Moldova, but Igor’s administration holds them responsible to pay back debt and taxes they owe. The Antonescu brothers own the franchises and conglomerate on most everything, including those in Pridnestrovie, particularly Tiraspol. With Grigoraui in office he will keep the power and influence to run things his way without the people knowing how he really conducts his business in Moldova.”

“Then, if they don’t know anything about the journal or what it contains, what possible reason would they have to be interested in a genealogist from the U.S. working on old census files and immigration documents?” I asked.

“They make it their business to learn what they can about everyone visiting our country. They do not want outsiders, especially reporters learning about their business affairs. With this information (he tapped the journal with his finger) I think they would not want this information known.”

“I know there are many of the old Germans and Romanian families still living here from the war days. Even if those killers are all deceased now, the people of Moldova would never elect a man to office whose family was guilty of crimes committed against the Jews. Those killers were not all found or brought to justice for their war crimes, and their offspring might do anything to protect their family name. It is a horrible thing to have that known of your family if one was guilty of those crimes; more so if one of them was running for public office.”

“It has been said that much of the money, artifacts and personal belongings of the Jews worth any value was ransacked and confiscated by those killers during the war. Most of it has never been found or reclaimed by their rightful owners. There are also some members of the surviving Jewish families that were in those camps when they were liberated that have not left the old Transnistria. Securing the reelection of Grigoroui to president of Moldova would also secure the future holdings and conglomerate of the Antonescu family. So, there is much at stake for them financially in keeping power.” Jacob stared at the journal for a moment, and then said. “I think perhaps it best that I hide this somewhere where no one can ever find it again.”

Worried that these men could learn what I knew I hoped I had not already exposed Jacob as an accessory to my quite literally antiquated genealogical ‘digs’, but  I was still a reporter, as much as I was an archivist, or historian determined to research what I did not know, report what I had found, and write about what I had learned.

_____________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVI, (16) Part 1

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Chapter XVI (16)

The Journal – Into new hands (Part 1)

The house was not far, this side of Hlinaia, a small concrete block style, old, but appeared recently painted. The yard looked as if maintained on a regular basis. 

There was no response to my knocks on the front door. When I noticed his truck parked in the gravel driveway I knocked again, harder, and waited.

Floor boards creaked under slow, halting steps. The door opened.

“Ms. Mengelder? What a surprise. Come in. Did you come to ask more questions of me?” he said, smiling.

In spite of the tragedies he’d suffered it was his dry wit one could appreciate.

“Jacob, I’m sorry I appeared like a relentless press hound on your heels that day.  But, I do have an important issue to discuss with you if you have time to talk.”

“Of course. Come in. Have a seat. I’ll make us some hot tea. Or is it just that flavored coffee you drink like so many Americans? With whipped cream or fancy swirls on the top?”

“Oh, you mean Starbucks?” I laughed. Yes, we love our Starbucks. But, I love tea too, if you want to go to the bother. Thank you. I would like that.”

His furnishings were simple, old, but comfortable, his house clean. He filled a brass urn with water and crushed tea leaves. The urn was an antique like those from Middle Eastern countries.

“Is that a real samovar, Jacob? I’ve seen pictures of ones once used in the Russian Empire, from down in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I think? I read they brew the best tea.”

“Yes, it was a cast off left over from things salvaged after the war when things were found and reclaimed by the Soviet state. When the republics won their independence they allowed Jewish war refugees to come and claim things once stolen by the Nazis. I had nothing left from my childhood saved or found. When I found that it reminded me of one my grandmother used before we were… so much was never found or reclaimed by the owners, so went into storage for surviving Jews who could come and claim things they wanted or needed. There is much history to those old things. Oh. I’m prattling on like the old relic I am. So, what can I help you with? You had something to discuss”?

“Yes.” I said, laughing. “Well, I was hoping you could tell me where the graves of the Mengelders are located that you told me about earlier. The ones before the war of course. I’ve been looking for them, but…have not located any yet, unless they were among those I could not read or decipher.  That’s why it was so incredible the way we met and I learned of your story, and the way we’re connected through the Mengelder line.”

“Well, I don’t know where all the Mengelders graves are, but some of the older ones are scattered in cemeteries here and there wherever their village churches sectioned off plots of ground in the 1800s, or where they settled and colonized.”

“Well,  my own grandmother told me a story about how the Mengelder ancestors in old Russia kept a journal of all the events and dates of things that happened in their lives, and some of the horrible things that happened to them. When they immigrated they could not bring it out of Russia, so it was left here with the next generation to keep going. Do you know anything about a family journal?”

“Yes. I think my father kept one, wrote things down, before he was killed. He taught me how to read and write at an early age, because the schools then did not allow Jewish children to attend. He told me how important it was to keep a record of things for our family. When the camps were liberated, I began writing in one, also. It was a way of healing… therapeutic to write down my thoughts and feelings. I would have nightmares about the war.. .”

As he talked he shared more about the way the Jews dealt with things in the aftermath of the war, rebuilding their lives, looking for lost and deceased relatives.

There was no subtle way to approach the subject of the journal, and confess how I came to possess it, and what I’d found in it. Confirmation was needed to prove my suspicions of those mentioned by name in the journal and their involvement in the Jewish massacres during the war. Jacob was the only person I trusted.

“Jacob, when I was at the Pridnestrovie Cemetery a few days ago I noticed one of the stones was leaning, crooked. When I tried to straighten it I found something buried under it. When I dug around the base of the grave I pulled this out. I don’t think the grave I found this under is one belonging to the Mengelder family, just one chosen at random to bury it.”

“After I found it I sat down beside the graves, and started reading. I was afraid the pages would tear, it is so old, but it was wrapped up in this tin, which helped preserve it, I think.”

“I missed my ride back to town with Irina. She had driven off before I got back to her car, so I had to walk back to town alone and that was what I was doing when I saw your truck that day on the road, and witnessed your accident with that man. I’m sorry about not stopping though to see if you needed any help. There was no excuse for my deliberate avoidance. I just wanted to get back to town quickly before it got dark. When I tried a short cut walking through some of the old village of Colosova, I got lost and stumbled upon an old man there who led me back onto the road, to Grigoriopol.”

“I did not want to risk losing the journal, or having it stolen. I have been followed at times and am worried that if it was known that I have it I would be in trouble and have to explain how I came to have it. Since it is so old, it is a rare and valuable book, irreplaceable, like an antique. Much of it is in old German script, which was easier for me to transcribe. I got all of it transcribed and documented, but only for our family. No one else, except my cousin knows about the journal or its contents. At least not to my knowledge. That is why I need to trust someone else with it now. Jacob, do you think this journal could be the one your father had before he was killed?”

His expression looked as if he had gone into shock. Finally, he nodded, caressing the ancient book as if afraid it would disintegrate in his hands while doing so. He looked up at me, with tears in his eyes. “If this is my father’s journal – the one I remember – then it is a treasure you have found.” he said.

“Yes, it is. But, there is something else about it, too. It contains names and sensitive information I think involving people during the war. Do you know if he had it on him the day he disappeared when he did not come home?”

“I’m not sure. He said he was going to go out and look for food and medicine. But, maybe he went to the cemetery instead, and buried the journal there. He was gone for a very long time. He slipped out under a hole in the wall he had made, and promised us he would be back. I was very sick, running a fever. There was Typhoid in our ghetto. I waited, watched for him, but…” he said, taking his handkerchief, and wiping away tears. “He never returned.”

______________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIV (14), ‘Jacob’s Story,’ continued (Part 4)

Chapter XIV, ‘Jacob’s Story’, continued (Part 4)

“After the war we didn’t know who we could trust again. Evil prevails in those with hate in their heart. It is not just with one kind of people, or one race, but with any. I believe there will always be those who choose to hate for whatever reasons.”

“I saw people who claimed to be Christians, but they betrayed us, or turned us away when we needed help. We were their neighbors, living side by side, but they were unforgiving of Jews who rejected the Messiah they preached about. There were some who turned their own gun on the Jews and shot them. But, there are stories of Jews who were protected and hid from their enemies, fed when hungry, clothed when stripped of their own. Some became martyrs and died alongside Jews when the Nazis came. I was young, but wise beyond my years.”

“Jacob, do you know if any of the collaborators; Romanians or Germans here involved in committing these atrocities were ever caught, or found?”

He shook his head, “No. I think most were never seen again. After the war, there was so much chaos, locating missing people, registering survivors, trying to treat and care for the afflicted I don’t think it was the thing that was foremost on people’s mind, until much later. I think the horrors of the war left everyone traumatized. There was some good that came out of it though like the Zionist movement and the birthing of the state of Israel. Their intelligence agency was born, and an army of trained fighters formed. I know they have hunted for the guilty involved in the deaths of the Jews. But, I don’t know if they have been entirely successful hunting them all down.”

“It seems hard to believe that there could still be any alive somewhere and walking free. How do you deal with all this, even now after so many years? Aren’t you bitter? Don’t you feel hatred for those who killed your family, and left you to die?”

“If I am to be the kind of person called by Messiah’s name to love as he loved, can I carry hate in my heart? He has called us to forgive, as he forgave his enemies. I admit it is difficult at times. But what is to be gained from hating? It is the evil of a darker force that walks among us, trying to destroy all that the Messiah died for. But, He was raised up, resurrected and lives so we would not have to walk through life with those shackles on, but be freed of them. That is the deliverance, the power we have as his children.”

“My Mother cried out to the Christian Messiah to help us, to save us from the soldiers who came for us. That is what changed us, Ms. Mengelder. No baptism, Torah, traditions or prayer shawl would have saved us from them. Out of our desperation we were given eternal life, and placed our trust in the one called Jesus, making him our Messiah. We prayed for deliverance, not just from the Nazis, but also for our soul.”

All I could do was nod my head in silent agreement and thank him for sharing his story. The park was still empty, no children on the playground, no one around to hear, or care what he had shared with me. Only the birds quietly perched on tree limbs as if with respect listened quietly too. We sat for a few moments just listening to the rustle of the trees, soft breezes blowing under a clear blue sky.

It made me shudder to think about the scattered remains and ashes of the thousands who died and suffered at the hands of their enemies, their graves we walked upon, the trees, flowers, parks, buildings and roads built above it all as if declaring that life does indeed go on, and one has to move forward.

It was hard to contain my own emotion, so didn’t even try. It was as if Jacob’s life was being replayed in slow motion before my very eyes like a repeat from a documentary on the History channel. His grandmother Magdalena, the sister to my great, great-grandfather Adam whom my family had tried so hard to locate could now be technically laid to rest, even if there was no grave we could find or visit.

_______________________

This is the end of chapter XIV, but the story will be continued with new chapters posted after Christmas.

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIV, ‘Jacob’s Story’

Unaware I had drawn the stares of others in the café I sat tapping the fork on the rim of the plate, my food untouched, cold, my mind and thoughts thousands of miles away.

“Moni, your grandfather told me about an old journal their family had. A story his father passed down to him. The journal contained information on the family, their thoughts and things about the changes and political upheaval during the czar’s rein. He said they wrote even of the horrid pogroms. The journal stayed behind with family members who could not immigrate.”

“Are there any family members still living in Russia?” I asked her.

“Maybe. I don’t know. But, there was one,” she replied. “A long time ago, in the 1930 s, a woman, by the name of Magdalena. She was your great, great grandfather’s younger sister. The Russian officials told him once that her husband and children perished in the Stalin purges when they rounded up the Christians and political dissidents. They were exiled to Siberia. They were Christianized Germans. All died in the gulags, or prison camps, they were told. The authorities claimed they committed crimes against the state. A letter came once from another German villager telling him she was alive at that time. But they did not allow her to write or contact him. When the family inquired to the authorities about her they claimed they had no information at all except to say they could not locate her. All correspondence stopped after that letter.” Grandma continued.

“After World War II ended and reports of displaced persons and refugees were filed family members sent more inquiries out, this time to the International Red Cross. If she was still alive by the time the Nazis occupied Ukraine and Bessarabia she might not have survived especially then. She would have been perhaps in her seventies then.”

“You mean because she was ethnic German? Which put her in danger with the Russians if she sided with the Germans, accused of collaboration and all?” I asked.

Grandmother Lisle paused, sighing deeply, quiet for a while. “Possibly. But, she was probably not safe anywhere over there, particularly with the Germans!”

“Why? Wasn’t she Lutheran like the rest of the family? A “Christianized German,” like you said?”

“No, she was not.”

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He was perhaps in his late seventies, hunched in the shoulders. His worn work clothes showed the signs of one who was used to the toils of hard labor. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead as we walked. His hair was graying, thinning, his skin with sun spots showing age and time spent outdoors.

Our chance encounter was not what I would call a coincidence, but rather one destined  to help enlighten me on family secrets and histories buried here like the graves I documented.

He pointed to an area just down the street where shade trees hung heavy with limbs full of summer’s foliage and grass that grew thick and coarse. A little park nestled in the middle with old swings, slides and empty benches. We walked to one and sat down.

“Jacob, could you tell me what you know about your family? Where they came from? Where they settled”?

He nodded, quiet at first as if collecting his thoughts, then began. “I was born here in Transnistria, in Colosova. My families were farmers. My mother’s name was Raisya, my father was Anton. His family came from Wurttemberg, Germany, originally, but lived in Prussia before they immigrated to Bessarabia”.

“Were they part of the original German Lutheran groups of colonists that settled  here in the early 1800 s”? I asked.

“The Mengelders were German, but they were not Lutheran.”

“Do you know the names of your relatives further back in the Mengelder family?”

“There was Johann, Adam, David, Rueben, Elizabeth, Jacob…” He went on, as he named all those on the Mengelder family graves in Pridnestrovie cemetery.

“My own grandfather’s name was Jacob. He always wanted to be known as just German, although his family were registered as Lutherans on church records. He always said that a ‘good German could be proud of their heritage.’” I said, smiling.

“Ms. Mengelder. I am not sure one can define an ethnic group either ‘good,’ or bad. It is like separating the blacks from whites, like they did in your country before your civil laws changed all that. There are good people to be found in any ethnicity. Just as evil touches all groups, there should be no divisions in race or religious affiliation.”

Jacob’s reply to my comment was like a firm rebuke, leaving me embarrassed over my remark, yet I did not feel the sting of his correction. It made me appreciate his perspective, and I felt admiration for this thought-provoking man.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (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

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.

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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. 

A Family History

… 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 (NIV)

Family photos of my paternal grandfather’s family and his German Bible

 

            I started researching our genealogy in 1983, one year after my father’s death. After he passed away, I had a strong desire to know about our heritage, our family history, and the countries of Germany and Russia, where they came from. My father often talked about Russia and how his father and family “came over” from Odessa, Russia. I was always mystified by that country, its history, past, culture, and people. He told about there being no freedom to worship in a church, read a Bible, or pray aloud. To do so meant arrest, imprisonment, being exiled to Siberia and labor camps. Little did I know until later with my research that all of that, and worse things, actually did happen in Russia. I learned that thousands of Germans in Russia went to their death, or to labor camps. What was their crime? They wanted to congregate with other believers, attend a worship service, construct a church, or keep alive their German roots, their culture.

            In the mid and late 1700 ‘s the Germans were invited to immigrate to Russia and settle on the steppes of South Russia in territories now belonging to Ukraine and Moldova. Catherine the Great, a German princess, and Czarina of Russia promised them their freedom to live as they had in Germany. They trusted her manifesto, declaring such promises, and protection. But, she did not keep her word. The Germans did not want to follow a Marxist,  or Bolshevik regime, or serve in the Red Army, under the ruthless, murderous dictator, Joseph Stalin. They did not believe in the Socialists’ ideology, or want to conform to Communism. German Jews who were part of this group were coerced into converting to the Russian Orthodox religion. Hundreds more chose to convert to the Lutheran faith before or after their immigration into Russia, like the Mannhalter family. Pogroms and persecution followed, directed at the Germans and Jews. They were rounded up and placed in cattle cars, taken away to labor camps, or put in prison cells, many of them tortured, many dying while incarcerated.  Hundreds more died from the famines in the 1930 ‘s.      When the Berlin Wall was built it was not only to confine the East Germans, but all the ethnic Russians, Jews, and everyone within the communist countries of Eastern Europe. When the revolution rose up against the Communist regime in 1991, and a democratic government was formed it freed everyone of restrictions. It allowed them to travel where they wanted to go, live the way they wanted, worship God, or practice their religion. The Germans in Russia left en masse, pouring into the unified Germany, the United States, and other countries. Many of the Jews immigrated to Israel.          

            My father’s interest in his family’s background inspired me, and a strong desire to begin the quest for our ‘story’ began. It inspired me on to learn all I could about their past. It has been thirty years of research, an emotional journey.

            When I took a trip to the former Soviet Union in 1989, it marked the 100th year of my great grandfather, Adam’s (and his family) immigration in 1889.                   

            I took along my father’s Living Bible given to me when he died. I declared it on my declaration document as I entered the Soviet Union. I read it in my hotel room the first day of the tour, as I prayed for protection, that God would make His presence known to me while traveling in this Communist country. He did. In a way my father too, took the journey with me, in spirit at least. When I returned home, a small American flag hung above our front door to welcome me back home after the ten-day trip. My husband, Wayne had put it there.

            In 1998, Wayne and I went to New York, the New England states, and Washington, D.C. for a vacation. We were able to spend a day in New York City touring the historic Ellis Island (now a museum), the Statue of Liberty and Battery Park (the former Castle Gardens).

            It was at Castle Gardens where our family disembarked and proceeded through the lines of immigration. On the day that we went there, I sat on the ferryboat staring up in awe at the beautiful Statue of Liberty. I was overcome with emotion, wiping the tears from my face. The statue had been set in place just a few years before great grandfather, Adam and his family disembarked from their passage ship. They must have seen it too. Did they maybe also wipe tears from wide-eyed faces? It was crowded the day we were there. There were long lines of tourists waiting to get inside. We were unable to get in to see the rest of the monument. We could only walk the grounds outside it due to the late hour. We had spent considerable time at Ellis Island and Battery Park the same day. We had to use the ferryboats to cross to each site.

            When we walked around Battery Park, the very place of their immigration processing, a park ranger gave us a personal tour. I told him about my family genealogy research. He took us to the place where the early immigrants came ashore to go through immigration processing, just as thousands of others did a few years later at Ellis Island when it opened in 1892. Then they closed Castle Gardens.

            Ironically, there remains buried underneath Battery Park an old landfill that was covered, filled in and beautifully landscaped with a memorial to honor the immigrants. Trees, grass, flowers, and plants are everywhere, thriving and maintained. What a beautiful way to honor that spot by planting the trees, flowers, and plants. I thought about that as a wonderful illustration of our family’s historic past. Our ancestors who went before us were like a tree, transplanted upon American soil, watered, nurtured, and cared for by those honoring them, wanting to keep alive their legacy. They came ashore, walking from the portals of their past through the gates into their future, into freedom. They came with hope and purpose, and believed it would be easier for those coming after them. It is my hope that my children and grandchildren will walk through the portals of their ancestors’ past with this book to get a glimpse of the life our ancestors left, to come to a blessed land, America.

 

Joyce E. Johnson

© 2012

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