Archive for the ‘Russia’ Tag

Emerging – Chapter 24 of The Informant’s Agenda

The Informant’s Agenda

Chapter XXIV (24)

Searing pain in my eyes from the explosion left me incapable of seeing anything or anyone beyond the smoke and debris. Yet, my feet were compelled to take one step at a time.

“The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not…want…” In spite of the oxygen mask I wore I could not contain the sobs that broke as I remembered each word, each verse of the 23rd Psalm, the one I learned as a child and recited to my Sunday school teacher.

My throat felt as if it had been scraped raw. It was difficult to swallow, but with each step feeling my way along I mentally recited it again as if standing before the class.  “He makes me lie down in green pastures…” An image of green pastures on a Nebraska farm where cattle grazed contentedly came to mind. I coughed and felt the sticky bloody mucus make its way up to my lips.

He leads me beside quiet waters.” There was the hiking trail my cousins and I took along the Blue River where the water narrowed in places and we walked across the river on rocks. The water was so still and transparent in places we could count the fish swimming downstream as we sat with our legs dangling over high boulders while fishing.

“He restoreth my soul.”  Tears washed the sting from my eyes when I thought of the time I walked down to the altar in our Lutheran Church to pray and asked Jesus to be  my ‘Shepherd.’ The pastor told us we were like His little lambs following the ‘Shepherd’.

“He guides me in the paths of righteousness.” He spoke about the ‘cost’ of what it meant to ‘follow.’  I knew my faith walk would not be an easy one as I entered college, and hung with kids that partied hard.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” No matter how many times I felt fear and anxiety while here in the former Soviet Union countries I told myself that He was with me wherever I went. And, yet I still went to sleep afraid and dreamed those dreams that came to me each night.

Your rod and your staff; they comfort me.” Though, I kept my bible with me at all times, promising God to read some each night I was too exhausted much of the time from a day of archiving names, documenting records, and photographing cemeteries.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” All those times I  shared meals with Irina, Vasily or ones served by Olga at her Inn I did not know if they were my  ‘enemy’ or ‘friend.’ There were so many strange things that happened during these months that made no sense I continually wondered who it was spying on me.

“You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” Lord, I don’t know if there is anything in my life that seems worthy to be anointed by you, but my cup certainly overflows right now with more than I can handle of bad luck, but I will trust you either way.  I will believe there is going to be good that will come from this, as I follow after you, and dwell in your house, that secret place where you reside in my soul, but I pray that you do not let this stream of bad luck continue if I make it out of here alive.”       

What felt like a nudge came from behind like the arm of someone pushing me. It thrust me upward, forward through a fissure that opened before me.

A rush of sweet, fresh air engulfed my senses. Hands lifted me, wrapping me in what felt like cool, soft sheets under and over my body, and I heard the sounds of sirens and screams everywhere, people yelling, “Over here!

When I drifted off and quiet returned there was a sterile smell and the soft padding of feet, and hands adjusting tubes, IVs and monitors around me in a hospital.

My eyes stung from the effects of the gases emitted during the explosion, my skin still burned like that of a very bad sunburn, and my throat was painful and tender, but knew I was making progress. When I was released to go back to my hotel to rest up and recuperate I decided it was time to prepare for my return home to the states. In my heart I knew I was more than ready, anxious even, but I knew too there was still some last-minute things I needed to see to, or people at least I wanted to say ‘goodbye’ to.

Irina came to visit me more than once to give me news and updates on the investigation of the explosion. And also to inform me that Vasily and the superintendent had both died of injuries sustained in the explosion.

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXII (22)

Chapter XXII (22)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

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

HPIM2273_thumb.jpg

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXI (21), The Czarina Catherine

Chapter XXI (21)

The Czarina Catherine

We entered the high-rise building in downtown Odessa, rode the elevator to the 15th floor and walked down a red carpeted hallway to The Czarina Catherine.

The manager greeted Vasily with a hug, and traditional kiss on each cheek, then directed us to a corner table in front of a large viewing window.

“What a spectacular view from up here.” I said. The sky lit up with the bright lights of Odessa.

Gold hurricane lamps sat on each of the small tables with crisp white tablecloths, porcelain china and crystal wine goblets. Waiters moved effortlessly between with trays of food carrying caviar on slices of toasted baguette bread with cups of thick chowder. Pickled herring appetizers with creamed cucumber and diced tomato filled another plate.

Beet colored glass sconces on the walls provided soft lighting for the intimate atmosphere. Portraits of past Russian czars and Czarina Catharine, and oils of Odessa, the Black Sea, and Ukrainian landmarks lined the walls.

In one corner violinists and stringed instrument musicians played old Cossack and Ukrainian melodies. Dressed in red and gold embellished vests, white ballooned shirts, black, billowing pants and shiny black boots they looked like they had stepped off the pages of a history book.

“The architecture of this building on the outside looks like one from the fifties, or old Soviet era, but the inside is all contemporary. Was it recently remodeled?” I asked.

“Yes. The building is old. It used to be a drab, gray apartment building, but has since been converted over to offices and restaurants except for the remaining remodeled apartments on the top floors above.”

“Back home we have those kind that are restored attic apartments in old warehouses and downtown buildings. They are called Lofts.”

“’Loft’ apartments. Nice concept for an attic room. Those here that would qualify are hardly bigger than a cloak room.”

“Some of those on the east coast have circular stairways winding around and up to the ceiling, taking up a whole floor. Those kind come with a hefty price tag or lease.”

“Impressive.” He nodded as if taking a mental note of everything I said.    

“The paintings and icons on the walls here look much like those I saw in, The Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg on my first trip to Russia.”

“Oh, these are reproductions I assure you, but still come with ‘a hefty price tag.’ I don’t remember seeing on your records when we first met that you visited Russia before this trip. Were you here as a tourist then, or for your job?”

“As a tourist, mostly. Since my family had ancestry from the Ukraine, and my cousin, Jeremy was serving an internship abroad we came over together. We did some local tours to places visited.”

“Interesting. And did you find this time around that the ‘Old Motherland’ was changed?”

The waiter interrupted our conversation to take our dinner order. Vasily gave him our entre and wine choices, speaking in his fluent Ukrainian dialect without needing to refer to the menu. Moments later the waiter returned with the first course: a cup of borscht beet soup with the pickled herring appetizers.

“Yes, drastically. In answer to your question on ‘change.’ With the new democratic government in place, and capitalism and entrepreneurs flourishing, it was as if they had stepped off a set of the middle ages into postmodern times. Such drastic changes of things and places from yesteryear to the new look today. The former, old ‘Gum’ department store looked more like a defunct ‘dime and ten’ store, when I went by there, with it decaying and falling apart.” Then I caught myself, rattling off like a self-righteous critic again from the still great super power of the west.

Vasily lifted his wine glass as if gesturing, “Well. Here’s to change, then”.

Our glasses came together.  “To change.”

“Change did not stop there in Petersburg, and Moscow, but changed all over old ‘Mother Russia’. Even into the Siberian provinces,” he added, with emphasis.

“Yes, I know. So, with all the changes I cannot help but wonder why there are still so many areas closed off from the public. The Moldavians especially are so tight-lipped on subjects like what happened during the Holocaust, and famine of the 1930’s, Bolshevism, Stalin, purges and Lenin eras. I’m still trying to figure out what their problem is with an American wanting to visit some historical sites, and…oops, sorry.”

“I think perhaps that is because people want to move forward, not dwell on the past and so they refuse to discuss what has been only painful, like a wound reopened.”

“But, don’t you think that a wound heals faster when it is cleaned up, exposed to the air, the poisons drawn out, and bandages kept off?”

“You’re quite the philosopher with your impressive metaphors. But, to answer your question; there is still a visible scar, while exposed.”

“But, time cannot heal a wound if first there is no reason to cover the scar. And, I think a country cannot move into the future with change if they are not willing to talk about its past, and deal with the things that caused those infected wounds in the first place.”

“Are you philosophizing again, or are we in another debate? It sounds a little familiar, like the conversation we had earlier today.” He said, smiling, keeping a calm exterior.

But, I could see the glint of cold steel in his eyes, and they no longer reminded me of melted chocolate.  And, I realized I had once again fallen into debate and needed to cut the crap, change direction. As deftly as I could, I switched back to the earlier, safer conversation of ‘Odessa’s new look.’

“Odessa has so many beautiful things to see and do, but I have not had much time to get out and visit those things on my ‘to see and do’ list.” I said, hoping to redeem myself, and hoping he would still want to escort me around, if I could only keep my mouth shut while doing so.

“Well, we will change all that. Starting tomorrow I will show you places that are now restored to beautiful malls, museums and shops. And, there are other places I think you will find right up your – how do you Americans say – alley.” He said, holding his wine glass up, then added, “To new ventures.”

“To new ventures.” I repeated.

At times I was ready to chuck all my work back into their musty old file drawers, visit a few more interesting sites, then head back home.

By the time the waiter came out with our next course of the meal, I was thankful to focus only on enjoying my prime rib served with a horseradish sour cream sauce and chopped spinach and potato cheese puff with fresh chives, followed by Creme brulee.

Three hours later after a leisurely walk along the avenue near Odessa’s old opera house and Pushkin’s Square Vasily drove me back to my hotel.          

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XX (20), Part 2

Chapter XX (20) Part 2

Vasily

It happened every time someone expressed opinions contrary to my own, and I countered back much like my old college days, when I was on the debate team. It was not really important, anymore whether I had made a point, but that I may not have made a friend. Irina, I knew would have berated me. Grandmother Lisle would have warned me with a gentle rebuke to be respectful. My cousin, Jeremy would have shaken his head, not surprised at my boldness. And my father would have lectured me.

But, Vasily surprised me. His face and expression was hard to read. At first I thought he was angry. He had a right to be, the way I come off speaking whatever is on my mind without first thinking. But, then he laughed. Not sure if he was setting me up, or just testing me, but I felt my face grow red from embarrassment.

“What are you laughing at? Is it something I said, or did?”

“Well, It’s just that… you have a way of pushing the, how do you Americans say? ‘Pushing the envelope?’ Your strong opinions, free speech, all that stuff you Americans do. It is so spontaneous. You get so… well, kind of defensive. It’s gutsy, easier to gauge a person’s reaction to things, especially you Americans. And you’re different.”

Although I believed he did not mean to be hurtful, or condescending by his blunt or honest assessment of my character, I could not help but wonder if he thought me brash.

“Oh, I get it. Well, you have just seen me do a ‘Monica thing.’”

“What is a ‘“Monica thing?”’ he asked, with a confused expression.

“Well, my family calls it a, “Texas Oil gusher.” I gush out like a Texas oil well spilling out on everyone, because I don’t always think before I speak.”

He burst out laughing. “That… is so funny.”

While I stood there wishing we could start all over, he was enjoying the moment at my expense.

He smiled, and put up his hands as if to surrender. “OK. I will admit that I was testing you. It was not fair. It’s not exactly the right way to build ‘diplomatic relations’ with the West is it? Truce?” His smile sent little creases up under his eyes.

“Yes. But please, no more of that. I’d rather you not see me when I get on issues that are…well, debatable.  I can be rather bull-headed.”

“I can believe that.” He smiled. “Let’s get back. I had a few other places I wanted to show you today, but we’re running out of daylight. We can see them tomorrow. We missed lunch too, so instead I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight to a great little place called, The Czarina Catherine where the music is live, the wine old and sweet, and the cuisine authentic. I’ll give you time to get cleaned up and change. Being down in that zemlyanka is dirty. As our engineer would say, it looks like I came away with ‘soil samples’ on me.”

“I can agree on that, and thanks for the dinner offer. It sounds wonderful.”

We started back. He slid a CD into his car stereo, and the sound of Ukrainian jazz filled the car’s interior.

My frequent checking over my shoulder at cars or people behind me was becoming an all too frequent habit here. But, I kept that to myself. For now.

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVII (17), Part 1

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVII (17), Part 1

The next few days Irina and I buried ourselves in census records, family registry books in the local parishes, photocopied and updated databases. We were heading back to Grigoriopol from Chisinau when Vasily called me on my cell phone, asking if I would have lunch with him.

“Sounds as if he’s trying to score some points with you.” Irina said, looking at me as I put down my cell phone.

“I doubt it. I’m sure he just wants to make up for all the times I asked to see some things your people say are too classified, or ‘inaccessible.’”

“OK. But, it’s not me that made up the rules. Remember that.” Irina replied.

“Skip it. So, what’s he like?”

“Vasily? He’s divorced. There are women practically throwing themselves at his feet, trying to get his attention. Do you want to join the ranks? I noticed the way you looked at him that day in his office.”

“Why is it that every time…never mind. Any available or single woman would either be blind, celibate, or inclined towards their own gender to not notice him. I just wanted to know a little about him. That’s all.”

Irina laughed. “Oh, I see. So, you just wanted to make sure you’re not starting something with one already attached? You’re one of those who lives by a stringent ‘code of honor.’ Is that it?”

“Something like that. Besides, what good would it do me to get interested in a man here in this country when I live in another, and will be returning to soon.”

“Oh, Monica, you can step off your holy platform. If he only wants to take you to lunch and show you a good time, what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I don’t expect anything more. And, I am not on some ‘holy platform’ as you call it.”

“OK. So, you just have the same set of rules as the ‘religious’ do then. Is that it? I’ve seen Americans that like to party whatever time of day or night. Then there are those who act all righteous, and have ‘convictions’ as they call it, but are hypocrites when they let their hair down. I’ve never met any yet who can call themselves one of the faithful who never fall.”

“Everyone falls, Irina. We all have flaws. You, me, all of us. I have no problem to admitting mine. Thank God, we’re forgiven. And yes, I have  standards.  And while we’re on the subject. I’ve seen Russians whoop it up plenty when they’ve downed a few stiff shots. So, what about you? Which type are you?”

“To answer your question, I am not religious. I have no time for it or desire to acquire it. Sure, I like my Vodka, same as all Russians here. Are we so very different from you Americans who like your beers?”

Here we go again.  

Irina dropped me off at Olga’s Inn and we parted, once again on a note of contention, always butting heads.

After I logged on to my Quill and Quest blog, posted and updated files and reports, sent copies to my alias account I e-mailed Jeremy, my parents, and friends back home, then deleted all from my laptop.

Finally! Now for a long soak.

Submerged in a tub of hot water and bath salts up to my neck, I rested my head against a rolled up towel. It was pure bliss for the short time it lasted. Unaware of anything else except my own breathing I had just dozed off when I heard a noise come from the other room.

Stepping out of the tub and donning my robe, I walked out into the hallway from my hotel room to look for the source, not sure if someone had once again broken into my room. My first thought was that it was a cleaning lady, but I had a, ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign still hanging on my door from that morning.

The house maid’s cart sat parked beside a room two doors down. As I walked past closed doors looking for her I spotted a man coming out of his room.

His expression was one of puzzled fascination as he looked at my bare feet, wrap-a-round robe, and soap film clinging to my long, wet hair.

“Excuse me sir. But, is the housemaid here? Her cart is parked outside your room,” I said, pointing to it. “I need to talk to her.”

“There is no cleaning maid here. Didn’t she leave you a towel? You want to come in and use mine? I’ll share.” he said, smiling.

“No!” I said, and hurried back to my room, locked the door and wasted no time. After I washed and rinsed the soap and shampoo from my hair, got dried and dressed, I began the process of packing up. It was time to check out and relocate to a hotel in Odessa. That was where most of my work was now focused anyway.

That was when I noticed my USB flash drive was missing, certain I had laid it on the bedside table beside my watch before my bath. Nothing else was missing, everything else already packed up. My flash drive I wore on a little chain around my neck. A thorough search of my suitcases and room and the bathroom proved fruitless. It was nowhere to be found. The worst part was remembering what I had left on my flash drive not yet deleted: research files done on the names,  Antonescu, Krupin, and Grigoroui, even Vasily Kuznetsov.

_______________

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 XVI, (16) Part 1

old Mannhalter pictures and Bible 015

Chapter XVI (16)

The Journal – Into new hands (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIV, (14), Part 2 ‘Jacob’s Story’

Note: The below portion of ‘Jacob’s Story’ is Part two of a lengthy chapter. It will be continued in Part three, maybe four. The entire story, The Informant’s Agenda is fiction, but is based on actual facts and the history of ethnic and German Jews from Russia, and much of my 30+ yrs. of research on my own paternal German family from south Russia.  My story characters and plot are fiction, and were created to better tell their story. I want to thank those who are following the story, or just reading bits or pieces as they visit here and hope you have enjoyed the story. All comments, questions and feedback are always welcome. In between chapters posted here there will be other varied posts of poems, photos, misc. prose and writings with a few Christmas related ones coming up in the next two weeks.

Joyce E. Johnson

______________________

‘Jacob’s Story’, Part two

“I will tell what I know. But, I was very young…when my father died, so…”

 “That will be fine. If you can start from the beginning of their settlement period that will help fill in the gaps of history I don’t have. Do you mind if I run my recorder while we talk?”

“No. I guess that is alright.”

“They came from Prussia, Germany, Wurttemberg, and other East European countries. They were given sections of land to farm by the Czarina, Catherine the Great in the late 1700 s. They first settled in Grigoriopol, but later migrated to villages in Bessarabia, or southwest Russia, a part of what is now known as Moldova. It joined the countries of Ukraine and Poland that was eventually partitioned and divided up between Romania, Prussia and Russia, all a part of the ‘Pale of Settlement.’”

“Was your family Jewish, then?” I asked.

“Yes. The Jews lived near the ethnic German colonists in villages of their own.”

“Has your family always been Jewish, or did they convert at some time?”

“They came here as Jews, but was told the Czar tried to conform them, make them convert to the Orthodox Russian faith. When the new laws were sanctioned the Czar claimed all the Jews and Germans must dress, talk and be educated alike, but neither group liked that. They wanted to keep their own culture, language, and traditions.”

Jacob continued.

“Many Jews converted to the Lutheran religion. When they were baptized, their names were modernized, their traditions, kosher diet, culture, all changed. It was during the “Age of Enlightenment,” when there were a lot of changes and reforms. Others refused to convert and kept to their Orthodox Jewish dress style and laws. They became known as the Hasidic Jews, very devout.  They were targeted by everyone because they were ‘different’. So, the pogroms continued. They were later blamed for all the wrong in the anarchy, for starting the revolution, Bolshevism, even assassinating the Czar.”

“What about your grandmother, Magdalena? Did she convert?”

“No. She did not want to be baptized.  Jews suffered terrible things when the pogroms came. She denounced God and would not believe in the Messiah sent to save us. She said, ‘There is no God that can change those things which we Jews have suffered.’”

“When the Christians talked about their Messiah we did not judge them if they did not judge us. God is the creator of love and does not judge us for our ignorance. When they continued to preach to us, we just continued to listen, patiently, even if we did not want to hear,” he said with a slight smile on his face looking at me.

“The Jews listened to the stories about a ‘Cross of Redemption’ which the Christians spoke about, teaching them from their Bible. Some tried to help the Jews and were kind in their heart, not just in deeds. When the Jews lived in the colonies the Germans taught them how to farm, grow gardens, harvest crops. They told about the Messiah sacrificing his life to save all.”

“But, my grandmother thought one must die first to be worthy of being saved. She said she felt as if she ‘died when the Cossack soldiers came’ and violated her, and said she, ‘lived in a hell that only the Jews could know.’ She could not understand how a man would give his life to die for the sins of all so that all would be reborn if only they believed”.

“The Czar’s laws were made to force restrictions on the Jews that would not convert. They could not own property, attend their synagogues, go to schools or universities, work as agriculturists any more, or reside in their villages. They were forced to move to the large cities. Revision Lists were drawn up forcing taxation, even when they lived in poverty”.

“It seemed at the time all the Jews were getting baptized so they could be like all the other Germans who were much better off. But they were really not much better off when the Bolsheviks came to power because even the Christian Germans were being taken away to Siberian prison camps by the train loads and most starved to death or were executed. That included Jews who were baptized if they became Christians. The Soviets took away all our freedom, our faiths and right to worship and closed down the churches and synagogues. It did not matter if you were Jew, Gentile or Christian. They all were taken away. Our family was spared that, though. I don’t know why. Maybe, because they still outwardly lived like Jews, because they were not Christians. But we were not spared later when worse horrors came”.

______________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

 

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIII, ‘Revelation’

Chapter XIII

Revelation

 We called them our “coffee talks.” It was a recurring memory I had of grandmother Lisle making me more homesick for Nebraska.

We’d finished the pot of coffee long before. The plate of cookies sat empty too.

“Magdalena was Jewish! Like all the Mengelders, before they converted. It was a long-held secret your great-grandfather did not want known. In order to survive the pogroms and massacres of old Russia they denounced everything Jewish. Culture, diet, circumcision, all the orthodox traditions.”

She smiled, obviously enjoying my surprise and shock at the news.

“Wait a minute… the Mengelders were… Orthodox Jews?” I swallowed the remains of my cookie, and took a gulp of coffee. “And you and grandfather Jacob kept this a secret never telling any of us. Why? Why keep that information from us?”

“To spare the family, Moni from hatred, bigotry, and Antisemitism.  That is all the Jews had ever known wherever they lived. Of course, it was more widespread in East Europe than other places at the time. Jews from the ‘Pale’ lived in absolute poverty, shunned like outcasts. They were thought of as “unclean” themselves like the pork they refused to eat. When German Jews converted to the Christian faith they never talked about their past again, especially to immigration officials. They wanted to conform, to just be German. Later, they came to be known as the ‘Germans from Russia,’ but many of the real ethnic Germans did not want to associate even with the German Jews who converted. They were antisemitic, too.”

Journal pages contained entries about the Germans, Jews and exiled Christians who defied the government and regime during the Czarist, Bolshevik and Soviet era by speaking their mind, expressing their thoughts. Initials were included of those sent or taken away by the secret police during the night.   

The journal was their way of recording secretly or corporately the tragedies, pogroms, even critical opinions of the anarchy and Czar they suffered under, then the Bolsheviks and finally the Soviet era. It was a kaleidoscope of all they went through, a mix of everything endured in their lives, the happy and the sad, their despair, tears, cries, fears and prayers.

When I was finished documenting and updating files, saved and sent, I shut everything down and climbed into bed, completely drained from the long day. The nighttime pain relievers were becoming a regular habit. Within minutes I drifted off, asleep.

I ran clutching the journal, a speeding car chasing me once again down the same road I’d walked before. I tripped, stumbling in my effort to get away. The car came to a sudden halt behind me. Two men got out, walked to my crouching body as I tried to get up from the graveled road, tightly clutching by bag. Familiar faces, the men in the hallway at the consulate’s office in Odessa. One was the man in the accident on the road I had witnessed. They were not dressed in suits as before, but wore tunics with ballooned sleeves secured at the waist with wide belts, vests and suede boots like the Cossacks of old Russia. Thick fur hats covered their heads.  Long bushy mustaches grew wild above their mouths smelling of vodka. They laughed, prying the journal from my hands. I was forced to go with them as they shoved me into the back seat where another person sat waiting. I could not see that person’s face. It was too dark. But I heard a laugh, cynical, taunting. “Well, Monica we meet at last.”

Feeling trapped, I pushed frantically at a door, trying to get away, but it wasn’t a door, and I was not in a car. It was then I woke up, shivering in my bed.

Dear God, it was so real. What does all this mean? If only I could make sense of it.        

I did not know how deep or strong my roots were until I began to unearth my family’s secrets that lay buried like grandfather Jacob. They took possession of not only my past, but my present and future as well. God. What should I do?

The following morning I called Irina telling her I needed to take a few days off, catch up on some sleep and work on files in my room.

Massaging my stiff neck, I took a hot bath, dressed, walked up the street to the café for breakfast, and then took a long walk.

When I came back to my room, I opened up the journal to the last and final entry. It was 1944. Hitler’s army and SS occupied Russia…

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XII, ‘Journal Entries’

English: Aquatint print of a Don Cossack.

English: Aquatint print of a Don Cossack. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter 12

Journal Entries

After spending that afternoon at the Odessa archives filming, indexing and copying files we headed back to Tiraspol, to a Lutheran parish library for more records, then back to Grigoriopol to Olga’s. Irina dropped me off and left.

The first thing I did was send a priority message to Jeremy telling him to contact our cousin, “Jessie” and could he please send me his e-mail address as I had forgotten it and no longer had it with me. This was mine and Jeremy’s prearranged set up “message alert” to let him know we needed to switch to the alias account for e-mail messages, and attachments. When done, I reviewed and updated files, sent reports, e-mails and blog posts, then noticed the priority icon highlighting the one from him. I opened it last, giving it more time and attention.

[M, – got your files on those journal entries. Sending comments along with the transcriptions. Interesting stuff. Get a big cup of Olga’s ‘sludge’.]

When I had made myself a cup of hot tea, I got comfortable, and read the file comments he’d sent along with the transcriptions. He had transcribed the scanned copies of the more difficult journal entries I needed help on. Each had a date or year and initials at the bottom of each entry.

 Sept. 1868

We work hard to gather in the crop. It is harvest time. The winds are not yielding. There is no mercy in them. The winter will soon be here. The warm sun will soon not shine its heat upon our labors. We must hurry the harvest. We work while our bellies are full, content and store away what we will need to save when we are in want, hungry. We pray the locust swarms will not come this year or find other fodder upon which to feed. Elisabeth gave birth to a beautiful daughter today. Praise His Holy name. We named her Magdalena.    J.M.

Oct. 1884

They rode away as fast as they came, Cossack soldiers riding on fast steeds. It was the Sabbath. They tore through our village with whips and rods, fierce eyes piercing our soul like hot pokers. They held their bottles high with its evil amber fluid, praising the Czar. One mocked me covered in my prayer shawl, laughing, taunting. I stood rooted in fear. He ripped it off me and threw it into the fire burning our barn with our stored grain, then laughed like a demon from hell. My legs could no longer run, my voice no longer could be heard above a whimpered cry to eternal God. The harsh cold winds fed the fires, raging on our threshing floors. Then it swept clean the tracks of the murderous Cossacks as if they had not come. All that remained of their presence was the foul-smelling bottles of their drink. We gathered to mourn our loss. Our village destroyed, our food gone, our horses stolen, our livestock killed, our women violated and our loved ones we bury. Forgive me God. I cannot praise you today.   J.M.

 1885

We cannot help our dear Magdalena. She has recurring nightmares of that day. She wakes, screaming, rolling in pain and anguish. She says she still sees the Cossack’s face, his lascivious look. I too cannot bear to remember the horrid deed to our child. Her belly is distended, full with child of that evil man. I sit in despair and write these words. Eternal God, do you not hear our wailing cries? Where is your mercy to we, your people?   J.M.

 1888

The Czar says we must convert, be baptized and become Russian Orthodox Christians, learn their religion, speak their language, wear the clothes of their people. If we do not obey his commands we will be sent away, work in a labor camp, be exiled. I will do as he says, so I can save my family, keep us together, but it will not save my soul. My soul was dead to our God when he forsook us. David has run away. He refused to serve in the army. We do not know where he has gone. I think he has gone into hiding. They are looking for him and hold us responsible. I feel certain we will face another pogrom, more horrible than any in the past if we cannot get out of Russia.   J.M.

 1925

Rail car doors were pushed open. The empty, black space was cold and dank. The smell of cattle excrement and rot was overwhelming. The Bolsheviks shoved guns at their backs as they pushed and forced them inside. Mothers screamed, their children pulled from their arms. They raped the women, pillaged and set fire to their homes. Stole their horses, drove off the cattle, and sheep. Then beat or shot the men who tried to stop the carnage. I begged for mercy for the Christians. But the Bolsheviks would not listen. They said, ‘There are no Christians in Russia. Only good Soviets.’” A.G.

 I read Jeremy’s comments at the end of the transcribed entries.

[When families migrated west for immigration into the U.S. I believe they found people more tolerant toward the Jews. There were so many diverse ethnic groups coming over on ships it was a mixture of every nation and color. They just blended into the masses. Unless noted on their passports that they were East European Jews they most likely told officials and everyone they were Protestant since they had been baptized, and officially “converted” before leaving Russia and the ‘Pale of Settlement.’]

I hit the ‘Save’ button and transferred the transcriptions along with Jeremy’s comments into my document folder under a password protected file with the name, ‘Journal Chronicles’. My brain felt as if it was on overload. After reviewing and studying the Cyrillic and Hebrew letters and script from the video and photos of the graves I compared it to initials, birth dates and deaths, period era and village locations. Could it really be the Mengelder family? There was no proof. It was only my ‘theory,’ unproven, yet made me think that what I had found was a chronological record of my own grandfather Jacob’s family history.     

_____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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, – 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 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

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

English: Departures schedule table in the Sher...

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

Chapter III

Passport Please

 Sheremetyevo International Airport

Moscow, Russia

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

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

“Only in Moldova.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Only a few months.”

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

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

“Part of your ‘assignment”?

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

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

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

“And you hold current press credentials?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

“Yes. It was prearranged.”

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

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

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

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

“Irina Suvorov and Vasily Kuznetsov.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________

To be continued

Joyce E. Johnson

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

Tagged with , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: