Archive for the ‘Literary Fiction’ Tag

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XI, Odessa

English: Panorama of Odessa (Ukraine) from the...

English: Panorama of Odessa (Ukraine) from the Black Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter 11

Odessa, Ukraine

We checked in with a receptionist standing behind a circular counter.  Natural sunlight poured in through skylights under the arched dome giving the granite floors and hallways below the feel of a large solarium. Small potted birch trees and fern plants were placed around the spacious ivory and gold pillared foyer. We took the elevator to the second floor and walked down the hallway to room 210. A secretary showed us into an adjoining office.

“Ms. Mengelder, good morning, I’m Vasily Kuznetsov. It is a pleasure to meet you, at last.”

“Thank you.”

“Please, both of you have a seat. Irina, it is good to see you, again.”

“Thank you, Vasily.”

His eyes were the color of chocolate, his hair, a golden hue of Russian Amber, one lock appearing to fall stubbornly over his forehead and skin tone like bronze as if baked in the sun at a Black Sea resort. 

“Ms. Mengelder, I am the liaison in charge of the Consulate of Foreign Affairs Committee. All of your business concerning appointments and itinerary in Ukraine will be approved and granted through our office. May I see your referral and identification papers, please?”

“Of course. I think you will find everything there. As you can see I also have current press credentials.”

“Yes, thank you.” He thumbed through the papers, and then handed all to his secretary standing nearby.

“She will just scan your credentials and visa for our files, and then return them. Now, we have been advised by your agency to afford you all the necessary requirements and courtesy. Of course, we want to be of service to you any way we can. I understand you have visited some places on your itinerary already?”

“Yes. I’m sorry for not making it yesterday, as scheduled. The added delay I know caused you and Irina inconvenience, and I apologize for that. Thank you for arranging another appointment with me.”

“No problem. We are grateful to have the help in updating our records here. They are a mess. Due to the classified status of our archives during the Soviet regime they were never clearly categorized or processed electronically. It is a privilege to work with the U.S. in reorganizing our system. We’ve come a long ways since the old days of record keeping. The new micro digitized technology has now afforded even this once backward country to communicate and transfer information in a way we never imagined.” His smile was engaging, captivating, revealing perfectly straight, white teeth.

“Yes. We have.” The irony in his statement and what I now carried around in secret made more acute the shame and embarrassment I felt, realizing that I would have to find a way to return the journal to where I found it. Once I have the information I need from it.

“Well, how can we help you here?  What will you need?” he asked.

“Well, I have surname lists of those immigrating from Russia and the former Soviet Union during the 1800 s to the 2000 year period entering the U.S. I would like to verify, copy and collect the data in your archives if I may so they can be synced, updated, and made accessible to our researchers, and to yours as well.”

“Yes, I’m sure that can be arranged, as long as you are able to locate them in our mismanaged archives.” he said, with a slight laugh. “Irina will help you in organizing them?” He looked over at Irina, smiling as if seeking her approval.

Irina nodded. “Of course.”

“OK. Thank you. Then in addition, I would like included the records of baptisms, and conversions of ethnic groups from the countries of East Europe, their settlement areas, towns and villages in the ‘Pale of Settlement.’ Here is a list of the founding German colonies I would like data and census records on. And if you have available lists of victims or families of those from your labor prison camps, and the names and victims of those who were re-located to concentration camps and ghettos I would be grateful for those as well. I requested this information earlier, but there was no follow-up. I would like to interview some, if still living, and get their stories on record for our history and research department. We have the names of family members seeking information on missing relatives and family never found or heard from during or after the Holocaust.”

“I understand. Well, there are some people we will need to confer with regarding these requests, but I will do my best to comply. As you know many or most of those surviving the Holocaust are now deceased themselves or quite elderly unless they were children at the time of liberation. Where is it that you are staying at the present time?”

“At Olga’s Inn in Grigoriopol.”

“Oh, yes. Olga.  She is a gracious host. Is she making your stay comfortable then?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Good. Then, we will be in contact with you on your requests and I will see that the archives and records division has the research permits ready for you by tomorrow. Here is the contact name and number you will need to set up a schedule of sorts for records retrieval. If there are those requested they cannot locate, they would put a ‘watch’ on them. They will have a name and picture I.D. card ready for you when you come in. Just let them know I sent you. It will all be arranged. It has been a real pleasure meeting you Ms. Mengelder. We will be in touch.”

“Thank you.”

His secretary walked back in with my papers and handed them back.

Vasily stood, shook my hand and walked us to the door.

Irina and I headed for the elevator.

“He is something to look at, I have to admit, but certainly gets right down to business. Does he socialize much?” I asked Irina, as we walked back down the hallway towards the elevators.”

“Socialize? You have no idea! He is not only eligible, but one of the most wanted or desirable bachelors in Odessa.”

“Oh? How interesting.”

Irina punched the ‘Down’ button at the elevator. “But, you are right about his business practices, too. He Is also all business. I think the meeting went well and feel hopeful that he… What’s the matter? What are you staring at?”

“Those men standing there at the end of the corridor. That guy with the blond hair, with the other men. Do you know him?”

“Oh, him? That is Ivan Antonescu.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“The one beside him is Victor, his brother who owns and runs the huge conglomerate of businesses and companies in Moldova. He is the financial backer of Igor Grigoraui, the candidate running for reelection of Moldova’s parliament. The other man is Vladimir Krupin, Grigoraui’s campaign manager. Why do you ask?”

“That blond guy, with the scar is the man I told you about, the one that has been showing up everywhere I go.”

“Monica, really. I doubt that it was Ivan whom you think followed you. I don’t think he would have any reason to be stalking a genealogist.” she said, with a snicker.

“Oh? A genealogist isn’t important enough to draw your spooks out of retirement, then?”

“I only meant there could hardly be any need for a genealogist to be watched, or followed, if escorted around by an appointed guide.”

“Because whatever there is to know about them worth learning the ‘guide’ will inform on them?”

“No! Stop with the accusations, Monica. But, I will tell you this much. Whatever an official here finds sensitive enough to report can be easily detected with computer and cell phone surveillance. Then, I think that person will have reason to worry about being watched.”

“OK. I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”

Just how secure my e-mails and files were that I sent to Jeremy I did not know.  It  made me think it was time to switch to my ‘alias’ back up account and password, and hope it was not too late.

____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson  (2013)

Posted November 6, 2013 by Joyce in Fiction, Literary fiction, My Novel, WP Longform

Tagged with , , , ,

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 IX, Grigoriopol

Chapter Nine

Grigoriopol

Grigoriopol sits on the border of eastern Moldova and the unrecognized territory of Transnistria. It was geographically a strategic place for me to stay. But, politically it was a controversial site of contention between the two divided regions, home to several ethnic groups of people, the predominant ones being of Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian extraction. The Armenians founded the colony in the 1700 s before the German colonists came, settled in, and then moved on because the two groups could not get along. The Mengelders were part of that first group of Germans.

A café sat on the far end of the street where they serve German, Russian and Romanian cuisine. A newspaper/printing office, convenience store, gas service station, and the small inn were all that remained open, or lit up at 10:40 p.m.

Few residents could speak English, except Olga, the owner and manager of the small inn where I stayed. It was the neon sign above her establishment that I found comforting now as I entered through the front door with my bag, exhausted from hours of walking with little else on my mind but getting safely back to my room at Olga’s.

The snacks from Olga’s trolley cart, and a hot bath helped revive my weary body, but the lure of the journal was too tempting to climb into bed for the much-needed sleep.  Over cups of hot strong tea and magnifying glasses I examined and studied its contents while sitting up in bed.

A soft knock on my door, and I was once again feeling as if caught with ‘forbidden fruit’.

“Yes, who is it?” I asked, quickly stuffing the journal under my pillow,

throwing my robe across my laptop and notebook beside it. When satisfied I’d camouflaged all, I walked to the door, waiting to hear a reply.

“It is I, Ms. Men… gel… der? Olga. I warmed up a bowl of borscht for you. Very sorry to disturb you. Were you out? May I leave you the tray? I saw your light on.”

“Just a moment, Olga.”

When I opened the door, Ms. Levitchi held out the tray showing me her best smile with her crooked, yellowed teeth. Her teased mop of uneven bleached locks, and thick dried slabs of pancake makeup pasted on her plump rouged cheeks showed creases under her eyes and chin where folds of old fat sagged.

Grateful for the hot meal, I replied, “Thank you. It looks wonderful.”

Bidding her a goodnight, I closed and locked the door again, placing the tray on a table and ate the beet soup, and black bread, hungrily.

Now, back to the journal. The script was difficult to read written in old German and Cyrillic. A chronological order of events were recorded, births, marriages, weddings and deaths documented, as well as the happy, sad and some very tragic.  Some where the ink was faded would need strong magnification or deciphering. Initials were used rather than full names, I presumed to keep the writer’s identity secure, different ones used throughout the journal recording families migrating from Wurttemberg, Germany, up into Prussia, then into Bessarabia in the late 1700 s by wagon and later by boat as they crossed the Bug River to Bessarabia, and later the Dniester to new settlements.

Hmm. Similar to what the old man said.

Before I settled in for the night I sent off an email to my cousin, Jeremy telling him about my day, the accident I witnessed, Irina deserting me, and the long walk back. What I did not tell him was the journal I’d found, afraid I might get a lecture from him.

The guilt of what I’d done, taken from one’s grave weighed heavy on my conscience. But, knew it was just a matter of time when I would have to trust him with that information and ask his help in transcribing it once I had scanned it all and sent it to him in an attached file.

After typing some notes and saving all into my laptop account documents I forwarded him copies.

Comments I posted to my web blog, The Quill and Quest were made public to associates and peers. But, other information concerning my assignment here was known only to Irina, the consulate, my family and the U.S. G D H&R in Washington.

When I was done updating my reports and travel log, I sent the attachments to my account back home, then deleted them from my laptop, except for those still on my flash drive which I wore on a chain around my neck. With my passwords changed frequently Jeremy was the only person I trusted and who had access to all. An alias profile and log-in user name helped keep my account secure, preventing anyone else access and learning the identity of sweetpotatopie@Quill&Quest.net.

Nebraska was nine hours behind Moldova’s time zone, so I could not always make direct contact and cell phone signals were not the most reliable on the steppes.  When I made a call there was often sounds of garbled or static interference, disrupting wireless connections.  Calling Jeremy, my supervisor, or anyone from home from outside my room or the inn seemed still the best practice. The signals were better, but it was also more private, away from listening ears.

Finally, I logged in to my Quill and Quest blog, sent comments, logged out, then logged into to my social network accounts leaving nonessential posts there, and logged out. As long as I made contact and commented on what another cousin called “predictable quibble and trivial drivel,” what little my ‘friends’ knew what I did, where I was, the better.

After shutting down my laptop, and the journal put away, my strained eyes, overtaxed brain and aching body succumbed to the exhaustion as I fell into a deep sleep, alone with my thoughts, but not in my dreams, seeing things, places, and faces of people, not all of them friendly.

_______________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

 

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter VIII – Transnistria

THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA

Chapter VIII

Transnistria

Working my way west towards Grigoriopol I kept below the ridge in what looked like a dried up culvert running parallel to the road. When I heard the sound of a car coming I climbed back up towards the road to see if it was Irina’s car. But, instead it was a Tiraspol police car. A wrecker followed close behind. Soon after a late model sedan with tinted windows appeared, all headed towards the accident scene.

Keeping out of sight, I turned and headed back down along the road towards the old German villages of Bergdorf, Neudorf and Gluckstal. Now, renamed Colosova, Carmanova, and Hlinaia during the Soviet era, the former colonies with their attached ‘collective farms’ looked uninhabited, almost ghostly, like the old ghetto near the cemetery.

When I asked Irina earlier that day if we could stop and explore the old settlements she refused my request.

“Why? There aren’t any villagers still living there. So, there is no one around to take us through them. Besides, we don’t have the time,” she said.

“But, it’s a part of the history of this region, and my research of these ethnic groups,” I countered back. Her deliberate excuses to deny me access to these places infuriated me. It also surprised me.

She just adamantly replied, “We can’t. That’s all. It’s not one on our allowed itinerary.”

“And why not? Those are the original villages of the German Russians, aren’t they? Even if no one lives there, can’t we go through them so I can get some video of it?”

“The terrain is too uneven. It’s not safe to drive through there, much less walk around. I am responsible to get you to the places assigned on our itinerary. That is all.”

She was right about that part. The road was full of deep ruts and grooves, looking as if left from old farm tractors or wagons. Irrigation streams had dried up, and a foul odor came from the wells no longer producing adequate water supply.

My bag snagged on something sticking up from the ground. Pieces of old farm plows lay rusting in their own grave, in a pocket of sunken earth. Not to pass up an opportunity I took out my camera again, focusing on the buildings and barns to get some shots. What was still standing looked abandoned, deserted.

A crunching, crackling sound came from behind. My reflexes were keenly acute and aware of any possibility, anymore, ready to react at a second’s notice. Quickly shoving my camera back into my bag, I scanned the ground for something to use to defend myself. Grabbing up a metal rod from the pile of refuse I waited, listening for the quiet irregular steps of someone, near.

Agonizing seconds passed when an old man appeared in the clearing. He stood staring at me, his face weathered and calloused. He was dressed in old dungarees and boots.

“Who are you? What are you doing here”?

Not sure what to say I stood staring back, my nerves on edge, rattled inside my cold, sweating skin.

“I’m sorry sir. I was just looking for a shortcut back to Grigoriopol from the graveyard in Transnistria. I missed my ride back, so cut through here. I thought it was deserted, so…”

He looked down at my bag and the metal rod I held tightly at my side. I could not be certain where he’d come from or how long he stood watching me from behind the trees, or even if he saw me snapping photos.

“This is private property. Please. Come with me. I will lead you back onto the road. Why are you carrying a suitcase if you are visiting the cemetery? Were you planning to stay a while, check in?”          

 OK. This old man has a sense of humor.

“No, sir. Just passing through, visiting.” I said with a nervous laugh. “Actually, I am an archivist from the United States. It is my job to photograph graves and document records and cemetery registries for families, working in connection with the archives here in Russia. I have to carry my cameras and equipment with me while working. The noise startled me. I was…, not sure who you were, so thought…”

“As I told you, this area is private, not open to the public.” he said, glancing at the metal rod I still held.

There was no other alternative but to trust him and follow him out of the brush. Nodding, I replied. “I’m sorry.” Tossing the rod back into the heap pile I let it go, hoping I would not regret my action.

Thinking to direct his attention away from my trespassing I went into my ‘reporter mode,’ hoping to dispel the unease and apprehension.

“Could you tell me a little bit about the history here? In Transnistria? Are there any residents still living in these little towns?” I asked.

“There are a few older ones still around.”

“When were the settlements founded?”

“The late 1700’s.”

“From where did the first colonists come?”

“Germany, Prussia, some from Austria and Wuertemberg.”

“What did they do for a living?”

“Most were farmers. Some worked at other trades.”

“Are you a descendant from one of the first families?”

A long pause followed, before he answered.

“My family was.”

“Were they all ethnic Germans?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“Well, I’m a historian, an archivist. I want to learn the history of your people for my research. It’s my job.”

He turned to me, with cold, piercing dark eyes. “Our people suffered many things. They do not want foreigners uncovering their… exposing their past.”

Yikes! There’s nothing like getting belted in the gut with a direct comment like that. If he only he knew what I’d ‘uncovered’, ‘exposed’.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I did not mean to pry into your private life, it’s just that…you see my job is to help people in our country – in the United States – to learn about their ancestral families, maybe descendants still living here, get information of their whereabouts, make connections, learn their history, their story, and document it for future generations. That’s what we do.”

“Alright miss. I will tell you a little bit about us, but I will not give you names or allow you to go through here hunting for those still living. People here wish to remain anonymous about their past.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you. Whatever you can share is fine. And I am grateful.”

“In most things, they remained ‘ethnic German’. But, the Russians forced their own dialects and the Czar’s laws on us, even their Russian Orthodox Church. But, the Germans are a strong people. Proud and defiant. Most were thrown into the gulags because they refused to conform.”

“That is very sad. Was your family among those sent away?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry. Do you know what religion they belonged to when they came to Russia?”

“Most were Lutheran, or Catholic.”

“I see. Do you know if there were any Jews who settled here too, when the colonies were founded?” I asked boldly, not wanting to leave any stone unturned. After all, I am getting good at turning ‘stones.’

Another long pause before he answered.

“Yes.”

“I read that the Jews had their own settlements in the Pale, but I just wondered if they had much contact with German colonists. Before, or after World War I.”

“My grandfather told about pious Jews who came from regions in Germany and Prussia when the early colonists came. And others that settled after, migrating here or there. The Orthodox Jews were always so righteous acting with their own set of rules. They built their own synagogues, but were burned to the ground by the Cossacks.”

“How sad. Do you know if the two ethnic groups ever got along? Colonizing and working together?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I was told about German farmers who taught the Jews how to farm, manage their village operations. But, the Jews wouldn’t listen to the Germans. They had their own ways. Then the government stepped in and made them move back into the cities. The rest you probably know, if you’re an ‘archivist'”, he said.     There was more I wanted to know, but sensed he was through sharing things on the subject, so I stopped with the questions.

The sun had gone down, obscured into the horizon’s red, gold blur. The wind calmed. Only the sounds of crickets and night owls could be heard and our steps on the gravel road.

The man struggled with his gait, shuffling along, his limp becoming more noticeable as he walked. Bad knees or hip, maybe.

The soft glow of street lights in Grigoriopol could be seen from the road.

“I will leave you here to go the rest of the way by yourself. It is not far. Stay on this road and it will take you into town.”

“Thank you for your help and for sharing your story. I’m sorry, but I failed to get your name, sir.”

“It’s not important.”

“Oh. Well, thank you, just the same. Mine is Monica Mengelder.”

He nodded, as if anxious to be rid of me. Then turned, looking back.

“Did you say…Mengelder?” Furrowed eyebrows came together, and his eyes, penetrating with a look of consternation.

“Yes, sir. Monica Mengelder.”

“Well, good night, Ms. Mengelder. It is growing dark. You best be on your way. Please remember in the future, this area is off-limits. It is private property.”

“I will. Thank you.”

He nodded again, then turned around and headed east the way we had come, as I turned west towards the lights of Grigoriopol and Olga’s Inn.

_____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter VII, Part two, – ‘Discovery’

The Informant’s Agenda

Chapter VII, Part two

Discovery

Pridnestrovie Cemetery, Transnistria, Ukraine

Under layers of paper was an old book bound together with frayed shoelaces.

Brittle black leather binding no longer kept the pages intact, loosened and barely attached to thin threads from the spine when I pulled back the fragile cover. Stain, dirt, and the passing of time had yellowed the thick coarse pages making the handwriting almost illegible, but not impossible for one with keen transcribing skills and knowledge to decipher antiquated rare books. A pair of magnifying glasses from my bag brought the names, dates, and journal logs in closer as I turned carefully the fragile pages.

Oh, my… I can’t believe this! 

Guessing it could be maybe a hundred years old from the looks of the scrawled German script and dated entries I realized there had to be more than one person who recorded information, judging by the name or initials at the end of each entry. It had been remarkably preserved through the years wrapped in paper and protected in the tin. Loose scraps of paper with more notes were stuffed inside the tin, all the journal pages filled up.

The words of grandmother Lisle came back to me, as I sat staring blankly out across the steppes, the journal in my lap. She had a way of teaching us kids things in life using object lessons. One especially, I remember, when I was ten. Her freshly baked batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies – my favorite – sat cooling on the stove. With no one around, I took one, gobbled it down, then took another, just as she walked in. She always told me, “Moni. First, ask. Don’t just take something, unless you have permission.” She caught me eating the cookies, and reminded me of the rule, “It’s too close to dinner time. Dinner first, then dessert. But, since you have already eaten your cookies, you will not be allowed any with ice cream after dinner.”

Consequently, I went without my dessert after dinner.

The memory was still as fresh as the smell and taste of her cookies. As I sat contemplating whether I should take it, I tried to vindicate myself from the guilt, feeling like a thief.

It is the ultimate treasure! I cannot leave something this valuable behind. It will just rot in the earth, maybe never found, the truth never learned, a story never told. If I can transcribe its contents, it may disclose vital information on the history of this cemetery and its occupants. Maybe it holds the key to some of those padlocked doors, a portal to their world, their era. When I am through with it, scanned and transcribed it all, I will bring it back and return it. No one will ever have to know what I’ve found.

An hour had passed before I realized I was running late. Irina will be livid.

Wrapping the journal up in the paper I placed it back inside the tin and tucked it down into my backpack then patted the soil down around the hole and tried to reposition the gravestone again in its place. It was too heavy, so I gave up trying. After repacking my cameras and notebook I walked out of the cemetery with my bag.

With the journal I had no doubt that whatever wealth of information and history it held it would maybe help in answering some questions I’d had since coming here. What really happened with the German Jewish groups that settled in these parts? Did they go into hiding during the Holocaust? Were they discovered? Are there any still living?

It was all I could think about, all I could focus on right now, not worry about whether I was wrong in taking the journal.

Delving into the pages of history here was like entering a long, black tunnel. A dark, cold place to be, but the only way through, to find a way out. Feeling drawn to that tunnel now, I entered it, not knowing where it would lead, determined not to turn back.

____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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

Chapter V

The Trans-Siberian –Kharkiv Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you. I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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

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

Chapter IV – Part II

Lyudmila’s story

Kharkiv, Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will Lyudmila. I promise.”

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

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

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

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

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter IV – Lyudmila

scan0012

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

Chapter Four (Part I)

Lyudmila

Kharkiv, Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

WHEN DARK CLOSES IN – Bender’s Garage, Chapter III, Part 2

WHEN DARK CLOSES IN (Historical Fiction)

Chapter 3, Part 2

Bender’s Garage, Seattle, WA. 1966

____________________

“OK, then. I’ll meet you inside, when you’re ready.” Jennifer said to Scott.

“I’ll hurry.” He said.

“I’m sure. Am I the motivation you need to work a little faster?” She smiled.

“Something like that. Do I need another reason?” He said, grinning.

It grew quieter as they talked. The banging under the noisy heap stopped when she saw the pair of legs from under it slide out revealing a face dirtier than Scott’s grinning up at her. He quickly got up from the mechanic’s creeper as if hopeful to get an introduction.

Other mechanics stood watching as she turned to walk across the work bay to the door of the customer service center. Their staring made her feel uncomfortable, but she knew they were just harmless big boys in dirty overalls.

“Hi, fellas.” She said, giving them her winning smile.

When she approached the door she noticed a wadded greasy shop towel thrown across the bay area smacking the mechanic with the dirty face. It phased him little. His eyes barely blinked, still on Jennifer as he stood like a fixture in stone, on the concrete under him.

She knew Scot could still pitch. He’d pitched all through high school, fast ball, slow curves, all while on the school softball team. He seldom ever failed to strike out players on opposing teams, anticipating their moves, judging his next pitch. But, this time he was unable to move the guy, or wipe the lascivious smile from his dirty face.

She punched in a quarter for the soda machine, and waited as a lever inside lifted and released her choice. The Coke rolled down into the slot.

Arnie Bender, Scot’s uncle came through the door and greeted her, picked up his mail from Shirley, the receptionist and entered his office.

She settled down in a chair to read the book she’d brought. But, the newspapers on a side table caught her eye. She read the titles, and subtitles of enclosed articles, “Stepping up troop movement for escalating war in Southeast Asia,” “Fighting results in increased college enrollment,” “Mothers weep at departure gates; their sons promising to write,” “Debate over U.S. involvement causes division in Congress,” “Parades and demonstrations take to the streets.” Pictures showed hippies holding signs, “Make Love, Not War!Some had those with their two middle fingers raised in a ‘peace sign.’ Others stood defiant, in their face using just their middle finger raised in a lewd gesture. The scenes and news reports were coming with more regularity for the times they lived in.

She stopped reading when she heard Scot’s name mentioned in the adjoining office. She knew it wasn’t right, but couldn’t resist listening to the conversation between Mr. Bender and the receptionist.

    “Mr. Bender, there was a call for you earlier from an Army officer by the name of…”

    “Riggs?”

    “Yes. He asked if you had filled out the necessary papers regarding your nephew, Scot’s employment here. He wanted to remind you that those papers they sent you requesting confirmation of his employment needed to be filled out and sent back ASAP to their office here in Seattle, by the deadline date.”

    “OK. Is there anything else, other calls, or messages?” he asked.

    “No sir. That’s all. The rest are on your appointment calendar, or spindle. This one I highlighted because of its importance. I thought you would want to know. He said it was vital they get those papers back by that date. He left his number for you, to call.”

    “Thank you, Shirley. That is all.”

    Shirley walked out to resume her work behind the ‘Information’ desk.

    Jennifer sat, the newspapers still in her lap, with little interest in them, or her book. She quickly tossed them back onto the table in a heap, as if she’d just been bitten or stung by an angry bee. She decided she would not tell Scott what she overheard or knew, about the ‘confirmation’ papers with his employment status requiring his uncle’s ‘immediate attention.’

    When Scott was finished, he walked inside, took his time card, clocked out, and peeked into his uncle’s office telling him, “Goodnight, uncle Arnie. See you tomorrow.”

    “Sure thing, Scott. I’ll get someone on her car first thing tomorrow.”

    “Thanks. I’ll get her home tonight and pick her up tomorrow when it’s done.”

    He turned back to Jennifer, smiling. “All ready?”

    “Yes. Thanks for the ride home, and promise of dinner.” she said.

    “My pleasure.” He said, grinning.

_________________________________

Joyce E. Johnson

        

WHEN DARK CLOSES IN – Old Friends, Chapter II

WHEN DARK CLOSES IN

Chapter II

1966 – Clear Creek, Washington

Jennifer sat, sipping her coke, watching people coming through the door of Barney’s Smoke Pit. Hazel green eyes, shoulder length dark hair, fair complexion, she was a girl with a vivacious spirit. Her feisty character mirrored the same as her Scotch-Irish father. Her friends claimed she was more her father in a female body than one refined, like her mother of British descent. But, the McAlister family’s unwavering ties to the Catholic Church became more an albatross to Jennifer’s generation than a thread of continuity worth keeping. There was a sense of freedom and coming of age for those in her generation. Her father’s insistence in attending mass, and honoring all the church’s stringent teachings was more like bringing the two clashing together like loud cymbals in conflict and discord.

Jennifer waved to her friend when she came in. Carolyn squeezed through those still waiting for tables to open up. People mingled around outside. The place began filling up, the lunch crowd straggling in.

They hugged. “It is so good to see you again, Jen. I talked with your mom last week, before you got home. Did you have to wait long for the table?” Carolyn asked.

“My mom told me you called. I thought lunch would be fun, like old times. But, no. I didn’t have to wait long. I called ahead so they would have a table ready for three.”

“For three?”

“Yes, I called Dana too. She’s meeting us here.”

“Oh. Well, when you called, you didn’t mention Dana, so I hoped it might be just us two.”

Jennifer laughed. “You wish. But, I thought it would be good if we all… Oh, there she is.”

“Dana, over here.” Jennifer called over, motioning to Dana.

Dana worked her way through the knot of people near the door, gliding through isles, getting looks and stares from every guy in the place.

“I’m so glad your back. Its been too long.” she said, hugging Jennifer. Then noticing Carolyn already seated, said, “Carolyn, how are you?” and gave her a slight hug.

“I’m good. Thank you, Dana.” Carolyn had the lunch menu opened, saying little.

Dana, the pampered ‘daddy’s girl,’ came from a wealthy Italian family who spoiled her to the core. There was no shortage of the thing she had the most of: money. Yet, lacking in the one thing she wanted most from her parents: an unconditional love, she often went seeking in all the wrong places. There was nothing she had not tried. If it was new, she’d done it first. There was no one she was afraid of if there was something she could gain from the relationship.

Her coal-black hair was styled in the tapered, popular ‘page boy’ cut, turned under on the ends, one side swept behind one ear. Both ear lobes sparkled with gold hooped earrings. Her jade colored eyes were made larger by eye liner and a coating of mascara on her long lashes. Foundation and blush blended well into her flawless ivory complexion. Her lips and nails were painted scarlet, a deeper red than the ‘mini’ skirt that hugged slim hips on her five feet, four-inch frame. Worn with a short bolero vest and balloon sleeved blouse, all making her look as if she’d stepped off a page of Cosmopolitan magazine.

An hour later she’d finished her tales on her exploits with fraternity guys she’d met, ones she’d shared a room with, the parties, and the sorority she’d pledged to, and got in. A couple of times she added a little bit about a class or program she just could not ‘get into.’

Jennifer had made no solid plans for her summer break home from college. But, with Dana around she was sure things would not get dull, and they would find plenty to do, not all of them good.

“But, enough about that stuff.” She went on. I’ve met a new guy. He’s a little older than me, one of my father’s business associates, but so cool. College guys can be kind of immature with all their friends around, but…Paul…well, he seems a little more experienced in things, you know?”

“Now, there’s a pretty lass that finds a party wherever she goes. You be careful now, Jenny.” Her father had warned her of keeping company with Dana.

“I’m fine, dad. I can handle myself. You cannot pick and choose my friends for me.” As an only child she felt as if he still treated her like a child, doubting her ability to make good choices. In spite of Dana’s flamboyant lifestyle and the fact that she walked a little on the wild side, they stayed in touch and hung out.

In contrast, Carolyn, who gave balance to Jennifer’s ‘trolling trolley,’ as her father put it was the one who remained a constant, reliable friend, and always there. Her parents liked Carolyn.

“Jennifer, what’s wrong? What are you looking at?” Dana asked.

A couple of soldiers in uniform walked in and were directed to a table near them. It was hard to avoid overhearing their conversation about the, ‘new developments in South Vietnam.’

“Just looking at the officers that came in. I think they’re Army recruiters. Scott told me he had to register for the draft. He’s kind of worried about being called up to serve.”

“But, he’s at ITE (Institute of Technology and Engineering), isn’t he?” Dana asked. “Won’t they exempt him as they have other students?”

“Not unless he keeps up a 3.5 GPA. Working a job doesn’t matter, either. The draft boards are running out of volunteer recruits, and so implemented the mandatory draft.” Jennifer said.

“It has been in all the news. There’s hardly a newspaper reporting anything else, but the war it seems, except for the hippies, or otherwise called ‘flower children’ who ride around in old Volkswagen buses all painted with big flowers. Most of them get all doped up on weed, are into ‘free love,’ and all that stuff. They drive around the country protesting the war, making ‘peace’ signs, demonstrating wherever they go. Many of them are draft dodgers who have taken off for Canada.” Carolyn said.

Carolyn, from a strict German background, always the honest, outspoken one sometimes tried too hard to win people’s respect and friendship. Her Lutheran synod church seemed to solidify her inherit values, although too staunch in their beliefs. The way she dressed, her simple short hairstyle, and basic, little used makeup never changed. Jennifer always wondered if Carolyn was proof to the old cliche that ‘redheads are hotheads.’ There was nothing striking about Carolyn except for the cranberry colored, red hair and her opinionated thinking. She did not ‘get all dolled up’ as Jennifer’s mother would say, to seek dates or praise from guys. Dana called her, ‘Miss prim and proper’ from the ‘starchy shirts church.’ But, her ‘prim and proper’ often earned her the admiration of many a parent. She excelled in everything she did, because in everything she tried, it turned successful. Her head was all business, her style, modest, and her intentions, – Jennifer believed for the most part– sincere.

Such a contrast between her two friends, and Jennifer wondered if the girls would ever get along.

When they got up to leave Dana sauntered out the door, all eyes and heads watching her moves.

Carolyn excused herself at the door, saying she had an appointment and needed to leave. She gave Jennifer a hug, and promised to give her a call soon.

“Well, let’s just us two go have some fun, shall we? Go shopping, like old times?” Dana said.

“Sure.” Jennifer said.

As the Army recruiters got up to leave too, Jennifer watched them get into a dark car with the military license plate logo. She could not stop thinking about the conversation she overheard between the two men about, ‘the newly enlisted recruits, trained and ready to leave, and the new ones, called up and reporting in, but the numbers are still short of what is needed over there.’

Jennifer didn’t really feel like shopping, but knew she could no longer go off and mope like she did as a child when things did not go her way. Her father would try to console her, give her a big hug and say, ‘things might be tough now, but they will get better, Jenny. You’ll see.’

But, these new feelings overwhelmed her, and she wondered if she was really ready for things ahead.

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson


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)

%d bloggers like this: