Archive for the ‘Holocaust’ Tag

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XX, (20)

Chapter XX (20)

The Zemlyanka

Vasily met me in the hotel lobby the following morning, dressed and ready for our adventure into the ‘bowels of the earth’ as Irina had put it, referring to the Zemlyanka, Russian for ‘dugout’.

It was not difficult to see why he had the attention and affection of so many single women in Odessa with his charismatic charm, easy smile, eyes the color of dark chocolate, and amber-colored hair like polished copper. He had that effect on me as I tried to think of something to say upon our meeting. But, my bumbling attempt at light humor only made me more self-conscious.

“When I went to bed last night I dreamt of rats, lice and fleas crawling around my feet, working up my pant legs as I climbed out, screaming and wishing for the frozen tundra of a Siberian frost.”  

He laughed. “I promise you it won’t be as bad as all that. Actually, the area has been treated with a chemical to avoid that problem when someone is down there, but is not hazardous. It has adequate ventilation. But anytime one goes underground, whether or not it is reinforced in concrete or steel, the earth settles, causing cracks or weakness to the subterranean structure, and more so with these zemlyankas over sixty years old. They are damp and cold inside. I have insulated rain slickers, water bottles and flashlights, even hard hats in my car if we need them. The site we’re going to today is not large, but structurally sound, with a floor to ceiling clearance of seven feet.” He led the way out to his SUV parked in the front entrance of the hotel.

We headed northwest, through Tiraspol, then north towards Vinnitsa skirting the eastern edges of Moldova and Transnistria, into the remote black forests of Ukraine. The drive was long, but relaxing as I listened to Vasily share some of the region’s history. We passed small clapboard and concrete block homes along the roads leading into industrial areas suffering from economic decline.

“There is a stark contrast up here in the north from that of the modern city of Tiraspol.” I said. “Is it better employment opportunities in the cities that draw people away from the small towns?”

“Somewhat, yes. There are successful established Ukrainians living in Tiraspol that employ many of the predominately Romanian and Russian residents up north.”

“What is the ethnicity of Ukrainians living here, now?”

“Well, the majority are a mixture really of all ethnicities. German and Jewish who chose to remain here. But, there are also Russians, Armenians and Turks; I guess kind of like in the U.S. a relative mix of everything and everyone who now calls this country ‘home.’ We are now reentering Ukraine, after switching in and out of Moldova and Pridnestrovie.”

Vasily slowed down, exited the main road and pulled onto a dirt path leading into a dense forest. After another couple of miles or so we came into a clearing that opened up and the Zemlyanka came into view covered in overgrowth and foliage.

“I had an engineer inspect it recently for any signs of unstable areas in the case it collapsed on someone. I’m responsible to check on these things occasionally to make sure they do not become some homeless person’s campsite while trespassing. So, since you asked to see things, “real and unaltered,” I think were your words, I was in a position to honor your request.” He looked over at me and grinned.

“Oh, well thank you then for allowing me the opportunity to see it.”

“My pleasure. It gives us a chance to get better acquainted.”

He handed me one of the insulated slickers, a hard hat and flashlight, then donned his own, and turned on an LED lantern. When I turned on my flashlight Vasily led the way down uneven stone and wood steps into the interior to what looked like an earth cave.

The inside was cold and dank, the earthen floor made of hard packed black soil.

There was evidence of further excavation beyond the interior, but was blocked by large wooden slats pulled across the smaller, narrow opening in the form of a large X preventing further exploration. A warning sign, Держите вне, ‘Keep Out’ was nailed on the boards. A small primitive rusted wood stove leaned to one side. Thick tree limbs four to six inches in diameter stretched across the top and up the sides forming the walls and ceiling to hold back the earth, supporting the structure now covered in overgrowth and moss. Ventilation areas opened up through the earth and wood ceiling to allow for air flow and circulation. But, the walls and ceiling were so insulated from outside noise that our heartbeat and breathing was all we heard in the tightly closed space, the blackness so consuming all we could see was what surrounded us shown only by the light from Vasily’s LED lantern he held aloft, and my flashlight, which I’d handed to him while videotaping the inside.

“This is just incredible, how a group of Jews on the run could escape their captors, their killers, and build something of this sort so fast, moving earth, cutting down trees, transporting it all, a wood stove even, and never know for certain how long they could stay here, before moving on. It is amazing how industrious they were when their lives could be ended at a moment’s notice. According to my research those living in the German occupied territories of the Soviet Union were almost always shot on sight, or rounded up for mass extermination, not usually transported to the death camps, except for those forced to march to Transnistria. I’ve heard survivors’ stories of those who escaped during the relocation from the ghettos. And stories of the horrors that awaited all who didn’t.” I said.

“Yes. The ones who did get away often found others on the run, and hooked up with partisan groups who built these, or found refuge with sympathetic villagers. There were a lot of them, hundreds actually who made it to a secure place before the end of the war. Some were sympathizers from other ethnic groups that hated the Germans so much they joined up with them. Their inclusion in the Jewish partisan groups often equipped the group as a whole with more knowledge and resources giving them an advantage over their enemy. But, in places where the anti-Semitism was so great the Jews would form ‘Jewish only’ groups to keep out spies or informers from betraying them.”

When I finished videotaping the inside I turned off my camera, and put it away. A feeling of claustrophobic like suffocation and dizziness from the lack of fresh air and sunlight came over me. Not wanting him to think me a wimp, I said nothing as we walked back up the steps to the outside.

Like another historical icon to its past the Zemlyanka would remain untouched, another memorial to those who forged on with the will and courage it took to survive.

As we headed back to his SUV I looked around at the serenity of the forests, thinking about the sad things that happened here.

“These woods seem kind of eerie, quiet even. More so maybe, when the sun doesn’t shine, or shadows merge in around the trees as it goes down. But, I imagine they provided some protection for the partisans when they hid in them, or wherever to evade detection from the Nazis. The thought of frightened, desperate people with nothing to defend themselves, running for cover from a hail of bullets makes me shudder.” The image chilled me as I stood shivering in my jacket.

“Yes. But, imagine their triumph too, when they surprised Nazis with weapons of their own to fight with, watching them go down under the blows of a wooden club made from these trees, or piece of scrap metal shaped into a saber or knife. They took whatever they found, invented new ways to use it, and then learned the skill of survival. Most often they had nothing but the clothes on their backs when they escaped during relocation. It took small victories like that to form an army of commandos.”

“You sound like one who knows it well, or heard it told by ones who lived to tell it.”

“That is true. Their stories were passed down to our generation well before they were made public, or shared with the West. We Ukrainians see it with the perspective of one who understood their will to survive under impossible odds. One cannot just stand there, vulnerable before his attacker waiting to die. He has to be prepared to fight, with the intent on killing him first. If he is going to have to defend himself he better know how to overtake his enemy, under the worst of conditions.”

“True. With that perspective one can relate to the victim running away, cowering in underground bunkers while pursued, or the one courageously facing his attacker. History is a powerful tool, teaching us to be better prepared for things coming after, whether it is political fallout, or wars not yet fought.” I replied.

“Yes, but it’s a new day, and a different generation. As a member of the consulate it is often times necessary to remain neutral on old issues, if it helps to advance us, compete in the global market.  Be more open, focused on raising the standard of our lives, putting behind us the catastrophic disasters and political mistakes of the past in order to move forward in the twenty-first century. It does not benefit us to worry if there will be another Genghis Khan, Lenin, or Stalin rising up.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Simply put, there is sometimes too much written about the lives and crimes of those killers and dictators from the old Russia to feel any redemption, and the right to put it behind us, in order to build a union with equality for everyone.”

“Are you saying that the media should not exercise their right to report on the horrors committed under a deranged lunatic, or the dictatorship that kept your people oppressed, imprisoned under false charges, in constant fear of their lives? What about your revolutions that brought down a socialistic regime so a democracy could be created? Those are events that changed the course of history in Europe and Russia. It grabs the attention of the world, the kind of attention that makes the press want to report it, and the historians and archivists to document it. I think the majority of people in the free world would just hope your elected officials see that those horrors never happen again.”

Vasily’s head jerked back, his dark eyes pinned on mine, his expression sober, I felt certain of one thing: That I had just made a huge mistake once again running off at the mouth.

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVIII (18)

Chapter XVIII (18)

When I called Irina letting her know I had relocated to Odessa she did not seem surprised, assuming I was just growing tired of Grigoriopol and Olga, and maybe even her. There was more truth in all of that than what I was willing to admit, but just said, “Yes, I thought it a good move since Odessa is closer to some the archives I was inhabiting lately, and felt lured to the big city which is after all a little more exciting.”

She said, “And, of course there is Vasily. I mean with his office being in Odessa too.”

I knew she was baiting me with that remark, but said nothing more on that subject, only mentioned I still had some unfinished business, and information I needed.

So, the knock on the door did not come as a total surprise, much like the rain bursting from the darkening cloud I had been staring at from my window as I drained the last of my coffee from the pot I had sent up with my breakfast order.

“Who is it?”

“Irina.”

Another thing to be thankful for. A peep-hole in the door.

“Hi. Sit down. Have you had breakfast, yet? I could have them bring up another breakfast tray if you haven’t. My treat.”

“No thanks. I’ve already eaten, but the coffee I could use. Now, tell me what is going on, Monica. When I tried reaching you the day I dropped you off at Olga’s you either didn’t get my message, or you disregarded it. So, I called Olga and asked if you were still there. She told me you checked out so suddenly she had no information on your relocation status, just your forwarding number and email address.”

“OK. Yes. I had no choice but to leave and relocate. Irina, I told you someone was following me. But, you never believed me. That night someone broke into my room while I was taking a bath and when I jumped out of the tub to see who it was, or what was going on I later discovered my USB flash drive missing, a little one I wore around my neck. I looked everywhere for it, but it was nowhere around. I had files on it I was working on. Fortunately I had sent on to Washington my earlier work files and documents. But, there were still, well…some personal things on the flash drive. I had to get out of there. Frankly, I was scared. I have no idea who is following me or why…but suspect that someone has hacked into my work files…and things I’ve researched.”

Irina stared at me as if I had grown horns, then sighed and said, “Well, I don’t see how anything I know can help you recover your flash drive, or find out who is following you, or why. But, you seem to find trouble wherever you go.”

“Yes, it appears that way, doesn’t it? But, someone maybe does not like some things I’ve learned while here. Anyway, I was wondering if you could fill me in on some more about the history of Transnistria.”

“I don’t see how that has anything to do with your…troubles, but alright. Do you remember me telling you, that Pridnestrovie, the new name for old Transnistria has been in the process of seeking their independence and recognition as a nation?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Well, there has been feuding and an ongoing conflict between Moldova and Pridnestrovie ever since the 1992 war for independence. Some Moldavians want to keep control of Pridnestrovie, and will try preventing their official recognition for independence if they can. There are many Germans still living in the new Pridnestrovie. The ones in Tiraspol, their capitol have become quite prosperous and successful. The Moldavians want to take back that territory claiming Pridnestrovie owes them huge amounts in taxes. By the way, wasn’t your family from that region, of old Transnistria?”

“I don’t remember telling you where my family was from.” I said, so surprised by her question I knew she could see it on my face.

“Yes, but as you probably know you were well vetted by the Russian officials before being allowed into the country to gain access to our archives. You must know they would have learned all of that information on you beforehand, don’t you?”

The implications and her comment made me wonder just what all they really knew about me, frightening as it was. “OK. I suppose so. Yes, they are from the former Gluckstal German colonies in Transnistria.”

“Well, there are people in Moldova that will stop at nothing to get what they are after. Not all of these people are in the same ‘ball park,’ or ‘playing field’ as you Americans say. Some want reform and change, but there are others who want to run the country with an iron fist like the old dictatorships of the former Soviet Union. They want control in everything, especially the economy. I believe the people of Pridnestrovie are honest people wanting reform and a democracy. But, there are strong factions in Moldova who will try to stop that because they lose all control over the country’s economy and markets that the Germans have built up and made successful.”

“Would there be any reason for any of those people to want access to Holocaust research files and documents, or follow me around to see where I go?”

“It’s possible. The politics in old Transnistria are very unsettling right now, and you have to be careful what you step in if you get my meaning. The people who are presently in power in Moldova are from the original Romanian extraction.”

“So? What are you getting at?”

“OK. As you know, it was the Romanians that collaborated with the German SS and Nazis during World War II when much of the ‘Final Solution’ was carried out, and the thousands killed on the steppes of Russia.”

“Yes, I know about all of that, but why are the Romanians ‘feuding’ now with the Germans in old Transnistria? Weren’t most of those Germans Evangelical Lutherans or Catholics? Isn’t there a lot of Catholics or Protestant Romanians in Moldova? Wouldn’t they be like on the same ‘team,’ to use another metaphor?” I asked.

“No. The Germans who are so successful in Pridnestrovie right now are not just German, Monica. They are descendants from some of the original German Jewish settlers. Some come from the families of victims, or survivors of the Holocaust. It does not matter whether they converted, or not to the Lutheran religion. Whatever they believe now, they are still Jewish to the Moldavians.  We’re talking about families that go way back. There is still a lot of animosity and anti-Semitism here. Do you see my point?”

“Yes.” I nodded slowly, the realization settling now like the Siberian frost.

“Is that the reason I was not given prior permission to interview your elderly citizens about their families and relatives in the Holocaust? Because someone in charge prevented me learning about their past links with the massacres? I asked ahead of time to have appointments set up for me to interview those that could relate their stories. I thought those things were also supposed to be part of the new reforms, but was not given access to the lists of names and addresses of those people.”

“I don’t know, nor have any control over that, Monica. I made your requests known to the consulate of Moldova, that’s all. Sensitive issues like the Holocaust are things they keep quiet about, particularly the massacres in Transnistria and Ukraine. Russia and its former Soviet republics have a very dark past. People can’t forget – especially the old ones – those things, the massacres, gulags, all of it. It can make a big difference on Election Day for someone running for president, or a position in parliament if the candidate, or a family member was guilty of crimes committed against the people. Those candidates want that past buried, like the dead at the cemeteries.”

“Who is it at the Moldavian consulate’s office that decides if a press release is allowed, or not, on something of such sensitive material?” I asked.

“The president’s.”

“And the candidate running this time around?” I asked.

“Igor Grigoraui, the current president who is running for re-election.”

“How did he get elected so easily the first time?”

Another sigh. “I think people did not know as much about him as they know now, like the way he does things, runs the country, the way he wants control of the Transnistria region and its people. The things reported about him may have hurt his chances for re-election.”

“So. Igor Grigoraui is the current president, up for reelection. And he has control of the consulate, what the press is allowed to report, who, or what they have access to?”

“Exactly. Monica, you had better tell me what is going on. What have you dug up on him?”

Dug up?’ Oh, just an old journal .If you only knew, Irina.

With a long sigh, I refilled our coffee cups. This is going to take a while.

“OK. But, please be patient, and don’t interrupt me until you hear all of it.”

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

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

old Mannhalter pictures and Bible 015

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 X, ‘Connecting with Irina’

Chapter Ten

Connecting with Irina

The repeated, Knock! Knock! came again, louder, feeling like a blunt force blow to my eardrums, jarring me out of a semiconscious state of sleep.

The pounding headache and stiff neck reminded me of times I sat confined in an economy class seat during overseas flights, suffering from too little sleep and a caffeine withdrawal. 

Downing a couple of pain relievers I stared back at my reflection in the mirror. My hair needed conditioning, and the honey-gold highlights, a re-do.  Like all else here, it will have to wait until I have the time to go shopping for essential items.  My hazel eyes responded to the ice-cold tap water I splashed on my face. The cucumber moisturizer soothed my sunburned cheeks.

Now, I need some of Olga’s sludge. Sludge, a name I gave Olga’s strong “espresso” coffee, complete with the coarse grounds settled like concrete. Two or more cups of her ‘Turkish brew,’ and I was running on high-octane, its effects lingered leaving me more energized than the robotic bunny in the EverReady battery commercials.

“Just a moment, Olga,” I said, impatiently.

It was becoming routine now with Olga bringing me a tray of her ‘sludge’, Russian rye bread, yogurt, fruit and cream; but, I have to admit, one I looked forward to.

It wasn’t Olga.

“Good morning. I see you made it back, safe and sound.”

“Oh, it’s you, Irina. I thought it was… I mean.  Oh, crap! I’m so not with it today.”

“Apparently not. Well, you better pull yourself together, and quick .” she said.

“Where were you yesterday when I walked out of the cemetery? I tried to make it back in time, but was delayed. I told you before that those things take time, videotaping gravestones. You didn’t have to take off, leaving me stranded out there, alone. It took me hours to get back.”

“And you should know that when I set a limit on time allowed at sites I mean for that to be kept. I won’t hang around for hours to make things convenient for you. I had to get back to town where the cell signal is stronger, and call the consulate to reschedule our appointment. Cell service is undependable that far out. I hope it was well worth your time and effort the inconvenience cost us.”

Ouch! My cheeks and ears felt the sting of her rebuke. 

“It was OK. Just another cemetery with a lot of old stones, but I did manage to extract some good information from it.” I said smiling, enjoying my little metaphor.

“I drove back to look for you, but couldn’t find you. There was an accident on the road that slowed up traffic.”

“Yes, I know. I saw it too. And that reminds me of something else I need to discuss with you. Someone has been tracking me wherever I go around here. Do you know anything about that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Dark blondish hair, scar on his left cheek, medium build, black leather jacket.  Do you know him?”

“No.”

“Well, I think he broke into my compartment while on the train in Ukraine. I am always careful, locking things up. I did some work on my files before shutting down for the night. When I went to use the lavatory at the end of the car,  there was a man hanging around outside my compartment. I think it was the same man. When I came back my door key wouldn’t work and my binder and laptop had been moved or searched. Fortunately, he was unable to access anything important. But, not long ago, you said your officials wanted to “compare  notes” with the U.S. immigration department’s records, census and registration files. Why is that? What do they need to compare?”

Irina let out a sigh. “During the Soviet era there were no archives open to the public to visit or view files. Most records were disorganized, incomplete, lost, or destroyed. As you know files were classified during the ‘cold war’ so people could not look for displaced, deceased, or imprisoned relatives sent to the gulags.”

“Oh? And, what about the records found on the Jews during the Holocaust when your countrymen betrayed the thousands of victims massacred by the Einsatzgruppen SS. Were they just more convenient for Adolf Hitler to find?” I asked,emphatically.

“Yes. That was another unfortunate story when Russia may have turned a blind eye. But, now that we are a democracy and the archives open we have the problem of organizing, and sorting through mounds of files, declassified documents and dossiers of the Russian people as well as those from the former republics. Your system in the U.S. is more organized and thorough. Ours is not, so our officials just want to view the records, update their own, and utilize the same system.”

“And, for your information, while on the subject, our officials do not steal notes or do room searches. Of course, we want our records compared and matched up with those of the U.S. for the benefit of researchers and genealogists. How else could they be of help to those researching online, if there are errors or discrepancies? Only a sleuth steals what he cannot get legally.”

“Maybe that guy is from customs, just wanting to procure legitimate documentation that you have the necessary identification to be here. Just because we are now an independent country doesn’t mean we can trust everyone who enters our country, photographing and videotaping cemetery graves. There are privacy issues. We can’t assume everyone is really who they say they are. Don’t blame me if you fail to find what you are seeking, Monica, or find a flaw in our system here regarding your stay and assignment. We can’t bury our past; Just live with it, and hope we never repeat it. It is not up to me to grant you more than I’m given permission to allow unless first approved by my superior. But, I will speak with him about your requests and see what I can arrange.”

“Alright. Thanks. I would appreciate it, and so would the U.S. Genealogy Dept. of History and Research, and my ‘superior’.”

“Now, hurry up. I’ll wait outside. I promise not to leave you behind this time. We’ll grab some of Olga’s ‘sludge’ and rolls on the way out. We don’t have time for a leisurely breakfast.”

“Yes, ma’am!” I said, a bit sarcastically.

She walked out, giving me “thirty minutes” to dress.

When I was ready and loaded my equipment into Irina’s car I noticed a man across the road collecting bags of trash, piling them into his pickup bed where shovels and garden tools were laid.

“Irina. Do you know the man over there by the pickup truck?” I asked.

“Sure. That’s Jacob. He’s a maintenance man who works here in Gregoriopol. Why, is he another one lurking around, spying on you?” she said, laughing.

“Well, no. It’s just that I’ve seen him around town and just wondered who he was. He was the other man in the accident on the road, yesterday. But, I’d still like to know who the man was that I saw while on the train, then at the Babi Yar, in Kiev, then at the accident scene…”

“Monica, I’m sure he’s just an official that wants to be sure you are not a threat to our security, It’s nothing to worry about. You’re becoming paranoid.”

“I don’t think so.”

________________

 To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson  (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?     

____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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.

******************

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.

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

“Missing” – Friday Fictioneers 100 word story – Historical Fiction, Jan. 16, 2013

“Sasha. I told you before. You cannot color on mama’s pictures. They are very old, very special.”

She picked up the crayons, handing them to him. “Here, you go color on the paper I gave you.”

“Yes, Mama.”

Irina set out fresh candles for the menorah, gleaming from a recent polish.

The phone rang. She was too busy to talk, but answered.

Maybe it is Jacob. Why is he so late getting home?

“Irina? It is I, Isaac. Jacob did not report for work. Some of the workers were roughed up, outside the factory. Jacob was…”

“No!”

Not my Jacob!

*****************


Holocaust Memorial Remembrance

Today is designated a day of remembrance to all those (over six million Jews and others) who perished in the Holocaust. On my blog site I have posted a story I wrote as a tribute to the Jews who died during that time, entitled, The Ghetto Jews. Although the story is one of fiction, the events, the ghettos, massacres, death and concentration camps, gassing and persecution of those who were killed are true. I featured in my story a fictional family who perishes in the Holocaust living in a ghetto in Odessa, Russia (now a part of Ukraine).  Most people today know of the Holocaust events that occurred in occupied Germany and Poland during World War II, but not everyone knows of the thousands in Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries of Eastern Europe who died also as a result of the “Final Solution” to round up, and massacre all Jewish people remaining alive towards the end of  World War II. One of those events ordered by Adolf Hitler in the occupied territories of Russia and Ukraine was known as, “Operation Barbarossa.” All Jews found alive were shot on the spot, their bodies thrown into ravines and burned. Other atrocities and means of killing them were committed as well, and also to other groups found having a different political viewpoint, lifestyle, religion or color of skin, even political prisoners taken during the time of occupation.

During my thirty years of genealogy research to search out my own family roots on my father’s side of the family, I found  clues and connections to the German Jewish ancestry of my grandfather’s family from Odessa, Russia. I became focused on those bits of information, while following my roots back before the 1800 ‘s period. I dug in to resources (books, online  websites, genealogy organizations, and other sources of information) looking for more about my family, their beginnings and locations when they migrated east into Russia from Germany, and eventually into the U.S. in 1889. It has been an awesome journey in time and discovery the things I have uncovered, learned and saved of their lives. I would not have traded the experience for anything and will pass it down to my children and grand children, and to their’s.

One can never forget what happened, but we all can use it as a learning lesson to guide us in respect for others, no matter their religion, background, lifestyle, political view or preferences that are different from our own, including where they have come from, or whatever direction they are headed in their lives. As a Christian and believer, it is what I choose to do, what Jesus wants us all to do, as He did the same when He walked this earth and teaches us to do the same.

The Ghetto Jews

The Ghetto Jews

Odessa, Russia 1944

Jacob pressed his face to the glass. The window, comforting like a chunk of ice soothed his brow, feeling hot to the  touch.

Large, frosty flakes drifted slowly from a dark, cold sky crystallizing on the dirty window.  Shapes and patterns came together in delicate designs like mama’s lace tablecloth she once owned. Used for special occasions like Passover Seder she would spread it out on their dining room table and place the menorah in the center. She would then add the special Passover dishes and papa would lead in the Hebraic prayer. A long time ago, with Joseph and their friends.

He remembered something his papa once said. “Jacob, each person is unique to God and has been given a gift; all have their own identity making them unlike anyone else. We can all give something back to God by contributing to the world, each in their own way. No one is made just like another. Like snowflakes, people are all different. But there is a beauty, distinct in us all.”

Then papa’s face became sad and his shoulders slumped as if shrinking into his chair.  “Sometimes though, it is not the good in them we see, but the bad things they do …that we remember…and cannot forget.” he said, quietly.

Jacob thought about that, then asked, “Why does God make them then, if they do bad things? Why aren’t they like the snowflakes? Why does God make the snowflakes disappear, but not the bad people?”

“Ah. Well Jacob, perhaps the beauty of such things as snowflakes is with us for just a short time, so God will remind us how important it is to appreciate them when they are with us. Then, he rewards us by sending us more again, later, all in different patterns, different designs, all of them beautiful.”

Jacob remembered how he used to try catching them in his hands as they fell from the sky, but too soon they were gone leaving only a trace of their dampness absorbed into the red mittens his mother knitted for him. He no longer had the mittens.

“But, you asked about the, “bad people” that do not disappear. I think perhaps God allows the evil to remain with us for a time too, like the beautiful snowflakes before He makes them go away. One day maybe, I hope they will all be gone too, and we can see only God’s beautiful creations, again.”

His papa was a doctor and a very smart man. Jacob always had questions. Sometimes, when papa did not have an answer to every question he would ponder for a while and say, “Jacob, some things I believe you will just learn about on your own. It is the way we learn best.”

Jacob remembered a time when he and his brother played out in the snow. Mama would let them stay up past dark and the sky became white with a soft like glow. They built forts and bunkers using boxes and buckets, made bayonets from long sticks, and turned bowls upside down on their heads for helmets. Their snowmen wore helmets too and stood as sentries to their fort. While hiding behind them, or running around they would sometimes knock off their head or helmet playing soldiers at war. They would laugh and roll in the snow and when they came in mama would have ready cups of hot sweet cider. They warmed themselves in front of a hearth fire watching the flames dance, the logs crackle, and pop, then go to bed in clean warm beds.

Now Joseph, his brother was gone. And there was no yard to play in the snow or build a safe fort. There was no hearth fire. But there were real soldiers, and there were real guns aimed at the Jews in their crowded ghetto. The terror continued and the sick and old gave up and died.

“Mama, where did papa go?” he asked her, again.  Peering intently through the window gazing out at the swirling flakes accumulating on the ground he saw no sign of him anywhere. Just the snow that fell, leaving the ground covered in white. He would not leave his post, so he stood there, watched, and waited. But unless papa returned to them soon and they could be together again tears would threaten to fall untended and his heart for papa would ache.

An hour passed; three hours, then more. His mother stood silent. What could she say to a child so young? Now burning with fever from this hated curse, will she mourn yet another son to disease? How many more would they bury tonight? For the thousands of Jews forced to live in the ghetto, with the filth and despair they would surely all die. Like a herd of swine in a holding tank, awaiting their fate, their “transport” to where? To be Jewish, or “different,” this was their fate? What could they do but wait here and die? Typhus and hunger ravaged them all. There were rumors in the ghetto of massacres and killings, of Jews rounded up, digging graves, then shot and burned. Of soldiers laughing, making lewd comments, imitating “pious” gestures, and drinking to their deaths.

Stroking his shoulders, she wore a sad smile. “Jacob, come. Lie down. Try to sleep. Papa will scurry fast like the mice that run away when they scatter and hide.”

His tears fell to the sill in tiny puddles on grime. Some of the ice crystals forming outside still remained, as if lingering; stubborn they stayed, as if wanting to remain for Jacob, this night.

~~~~

Aaron ran, his legs feeling like lead, tired from the effort. If only he’d kept himself, more fit, playing and hiking with his sons in the forest. He stumbled, his gait awkward, his body feeling weak, weary. His breaths filled the air like little puffs of steam, building with each effort.   Ice sickles hung off slouching roofs heavy from layers of old snow, frozen in place from an earlier thaw. Ugly and dirty like the pointy nails of an old witch’s gnarled hands they clawed their way down drainage pipes. No beauty remained from an earlier reflection, “like prisms cascading from an ice castle in the sky,” he once told Jacob. The boys often broke them off to suck on, pretending they were, “iced treats.”

Aaron had no way of knowing how late the hour. Down a dark, narrow alley he ran staying in the shadows. He had to make it back before a guard detachment saw him.  Clutching the small vial and syringe with stiff fingers, his arthritic hands felt numb from the cold, stuffed into thin worn pockets of his tattered coat. The medicine, he found in the doctor’s fine house, the one with the yard where his sons always played, building their forts, their bunkers and caves, under a misty, cold sky after a fresh fallen snow.

Now another doctor lived in their house, seeing his patients and collecting their payments. If he were to hope for just one miracle this night, it would be that he make it back to the ghetto before being caught.

From inside the other pocket he took out two keys, tied together with a shoelace. One fit a lock to their back door and the other to the locked medicine cabinet. He found them in the same place hidden under a porch step. They had been hidden for months before he and his family were rounded up and made to vacate their home. It was not safe to be found with them now. There would never be another time to use them again.  He tossed them into the gutter drain as he ran. He knew he would never see his home, his patients, or practice medicine again.

Painful cramps gripped his legs. He stumbled making too much noise, knocking over a garbage can while rounding a corner. Now they would know, and soon they would learn to where he fled, to a hole in the wall where brick and mortar gave way.

He observed the rats one day watching as they came and went, in and out through the cracked, crumbling wall. Aaron wasted no time, chipping and hacking, enlarging the hole. When he thought it large enough, while still dark, he squeezed through, telling only his wife, Rachel where he was going. It was his only hope if he was to get away and try saving his son from certain death. As much as he wanted to squeeze them all through the hole and try to escape, he had no way of ensuring their safety on the other side until he had tried it first. All sides and entrances to the ghetto were watched, guarded constantly.  Clawing at the hard cold ground under the fence he dug frantically and lifted the wire enough to slide through.  Any escape routes were sealed up and closed off. If he were seen entering it now, he would endanger his family, and everyone else. They would all be shot. He would have to hide somewhere and wait till it was safe.

He thought he heard the soldiers’ jackboots, or was it anxiety born out of fear? Closing in they rounded the corner from where he’d come. Faster now, he thrust himself forward, a determined, defiant attempt of alluding his captors. There were no more alleys to run to, no crevice in the wall where he could squeeze through, no door to bolt to, and no window he could jump through.

His mind raced through a Hebrew prayer he prayed with his family on the eve of Shabbat. Sucking cold air, his breaths coming in ragged short spurts, as if seeing his son before him, he sighed. The light snow continued, snowflakes sticking to his beard. Aaron touched them, moisture forming in his eyes. Jacob, I’m sorry I had to leave, I did not want to watch you die. I will not make it home tonight. Forgive me, son. Be brave, for mama.   

Caught like a deer silhouetted under the night winter sky he came into their gun sights. There would be no escape. Shots rang out. Loud, they echoed, sending the sound and its message beyond to the boy who stood waiting for his papa tonight. Aaron fell to his knees, eyes fixed on the sky, as if in prayerful pose. Another shot, and he lay still, the crimson stain forming under his head.

~~~~

Standing at the window his eyes upon the snowflakes stubbornly affixed to the glass Jacob decided he no longer wanted them there. He wiped furiously at their image as if to make them disappear.  A “work of art, like no other,” his papa would say, “beautiful, unique, like you Jacob.” One remained, as if stuck there. And soon, it too was gone. It didn’t matter anymore.

Snowflakes forgotten, sounds assailed Jacob’s ears like none others he’d heard before.  Closer now, a burst of gunfire in quick succession, screams and shouts, doors kicked loose from their hinges, jackboots came running. Jacob clung tightly to his mama gripped in fear for what would come next. Brown uniformed soldiers stormed in, standing with machine guns raised, the “evil” papa had talked about.

Jacob shut his eyes, his face in deep consternation begging God to, “make the evil disappear.”

But today, the “evil” would be allowed to prevail, and the beautiful would not be allowed to live. In quick succession once more shots shattered the ghetto confines, the sounds of screams pierced the air. Soon, only an occasional sputter from an assailant’s lone gun could be heard. Then it too went silent. The snow stopped falling. An eerie quiet settled over the ghetto. The skies filled with smoke from unknown fires, and the sound of transport trucks was heard rumbling through the streets.

____________________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

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