Archive for the ‘The Informant’s Agenda’ Tag

Self-reflection – Chapter 25 of The Informant’s Agenda

The below story is fiction. It is chapter 25 in the ongoing story, The Informant’s Agenda. You can find chapters 1-25 posted under the heading,  The Informant’s Agenda

~~~~~~~~~~~

The minutes, hours and days tick on, but one loses track of all under heavy sedation and can seem an eternity has passed making one feel like a part of their life has gone missing. There was a sterile smell, the sound of the soft padding of feet near my bed, and hands adjusting tubes, IVs and monitors. When the bandages were removed from my eyes shapes and shadows moved in and out of my blurred vision like apparitions. My skin was red and blistered. My throat felt as if scraped with glass.

My family, and my supervisor in the U.S. were notified of what had happened. My mumbled pleas to speak to them went unnoticed until I would be, “physically able to talk coherently and process emotionally what happened.” I was told by the ‘doctor in charge’.

“You need rest right now. We’re taking care of everything. You’re getting the best care and attention. Then we’ll be able to assess what you need, and approve visitors and calls.”

Before I was released from the hospital I was put in touch with the American liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Odessa. They arranged for my things at the Ayvazovsky Hotel to be packed up and moved to my new room at an American agent’s home while in recovery. A nurse came in on scheduled visits to check on my recovery process and see to any additional care I needed.

Irina came to visit me twice to give me news and updates on the investigation of the explosion, and to tell me that it was reported that Vasyli’s and the superintendent’s bodies had not been found if they were indeed dead as reports speculated. It was then that I just lost it. I felt as if the train in my dreams had run over me, crushing me. What stared back at me in the mirror was not the ‘Monica Mengelder, archivist from Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.’, but a scarred, frightened woman, broken and alone in a country trying to make sense of what had happened, and why.

My heart ached to be home with my family. In my thoughts I was still sitting with grandmother Lisle at the kitchen table. We’d go through a whole pot of coffee and plate of cookies while looking at old family pictures scattered across the dining room table, some with grandfather Jacob’s sisters siting erect in front of the men on straight back chairs, their dour faces looking like they were constipated or something. Grandmother said whenever she tried to lighten things up with a funny joke or story the two unmarried spinsters hardly smiled.

“It was as if they just sat there with a pained expression on their face, so it was nearly impossible to get them to relax, or even open up, share anything about family secrets.”

“Did it ever work?” I asked.

“Rarely. At times I thought I saw a faint crack in their plaster face, until maybe they thought it was an indiscretion of some kind to loosen their corset strings a little.”

I laughed so hard I had to run to the bathroom to keep from wetting my pants. Too much caffeine that morning.

My tears now met with the energy bar when I thought about the fun we had in the kitchen stirring up a batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies.

Such a long time ago. I will never have those moments again with her.

My head ached. The dizziness and fatigue returned. There remained just a few pain pills from the prescription provided for me after my release from the hospital.

Newsprint swirled around on the paper before me. Reports of the accident filled space in local, regional, national, even some international issues. It was presumed an “accident,” an “irreversible mistake in judgement…to allow anyone other than construction personnel down in the unpredictable subterranean underground structure before the completed restoration, when there had not been a full inspection…” authorities were quoted to have said. The stories went on, “although the investigation continues, it has not been determined an intentional incident in nature,” but the blame and speculation seemed clearly directed at the superintendent and Vasyli, consulate of Ukraine, Odessa, both, “presumed dead.”

Maybe, if I had not ‘requested’ a tour of the Catacombs Vasyli and the superintendent…. If only I had not…

There is no time for self-reflection. I cannot do anything to bring back Vasyli or the superintendent, if they are… But, what I keep only to myself is not fair to those who deserve to know the truth. And, I know I cannot leave this country knowing what I know if first I did not try to report my findings, or inform the authorities of what I have learned.

______________

Joyce E. Johnson (2016)

           

 

The Catacombs – Chapter 23 of The Informant’s Agenda

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXIII (23)

 The Catacombs

Odessa, Ukraine

 “Hi, Vasily. I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I’m sorry I’m a little late.”

He smiled. “No problem. If you’re ready then, we’ll go. We’ve a long day. We’ll be using the headlamps. It’s dark and cold down there.”

“I thought the catacombs were not open to the public. Irina told me they weren’t ready yet, that there’s still work being done in the tunnels.”

“We can get into some parts right now if we go down with the engineer on the project. We’ll be meeting him there.”

Two hours later we descended the narrow passageway deep into the bowels of Odessa’s underground city, and pulled on our headlamps adjusting it to the darkness. An oxygen mask was included. The smell of dampness trapped between centuries old earthen layers of limestone and bedrock filled the interior cavernous tunnels. Compressed clay and mortar filled gaps where water or sand from the Black Sea had seeped through openings leaving its salty residue to merge with the mold.

“Much of this area that is decayed will be sand blasted and redone using a composite of granite and marble, eventually. Electricity will run throughout and plumbing put in. Shops, museums and such will be added in time.”

“Do you wonder if there were any who ever went mad while confined down here under the earth for months or years at a time?” I said.

Vasily nodded. “Possibly. But, it was a fortress designed to shelter them from many things, including their enemies. The alternative was death or captivity. Dating back to the late 1700’s under the reign of Czarina Katherine the Great it would make the Zemlyanka seem like a mere anthill or dugout in comparison. The catacombs are as old as Odessa’s history. Their tentacles stretch for 1,500 miles, the largest and longest on record in the world.” he added.

Our voices seemed to bounce off the walls of the open chambers we entered but when we came through the narrow pass we could hear other voices reverberate through the tunnels we navigated through. We were not alone. Assuming they were the voices of the construction crew Vasily and the engineer did not seem overly concerned we had come so close to encroaching upon their work site.

We continued on, while he told me more of the catacombs’ history.

“Over time leaks and slime deposits from the Black Sea formed the smooth surface on the stone floor beneath giving it that slick, wet finish, so step carefully when coming down into the interior chambers.” He pointed to what looked like hieroglyphic symbols and ancient drawings on the limestone walls. “Early inhabitants of the tunnels used tools to carve pictures leaving their deep impressions for the generations after of the things that went on. All of it tells a story, stories of war, their adversaries and the life they led while in hiding.”

As I stepped from one chamber into another Vasily and the engineer stopped to talk. When I turned back to them to wait for their lead Vasily said, “It’s OK, Monica. I’ll catch up. I just need to speak to the engineer for a moment.”

Nodding, I turned a corner to view another wall. Unaware of any concern, or their conversation I walked through the chamber studying the pictures carved on the walls.

“Oh, this is amazing, all these symbols, drawings and signs. There is one of the Czarina Katherine in a carriage, or troika with a caravan of sorts, wagons following, and Cossack soldiers guarding it.” I mumbled to myself.

It was all so surreal, like De ja vu all over again, the dream I had the night before. The sound of the train with its screeching wheels rolling along the tracks. But, it wasn’t.

It was a hissing sound coming from the direction of a connecting chamber. Then I heard what sounded like an explosion from inside the tunnel and it started filling with a cloudy substance. When I yanked on the oxygen mask and tried to run back towards Vasily and the engineer I could not find them. Walls buckled as if straining under the weight of the earth, large sections broken, lying everywhere.  Scared out of my wits and thinking they might not be able to reach me, or worse that they were caught in the explosion, or cave-in where I’d left them I felt vulnerable and alone in a cloud of sickening fog that smelled like gas.

The dizziness, fatigue and nausea I experienced grew stronger as I braced myself against the walls for support. I screamed for Vasily, the engineer, anyone who could hear, but no one answered or came back. The blackness rushed like a wave, surrounding me. It soon grew quiet, eerily quiet.

There was little I remembered about the turns and passages we came through earlier. Everything happened so fast I could not think clearly, but knew I needed every bit of strength I had left in me to make my way out of there. The tunnels seemed to branch off in all directions and I could not be certain which way to go as I could barely see anything beyond the cloud that smothered what air there was left to breathe. My legs felt heavy, unable to move. My eyes were burning from the gas or smoke emitted in spite of the headlamp and the oxygen mask I wore. My lungs were stinging. Struggling to breathe I yelled again for help. But, no one came. Running my hands along the wall I felt cool air drafts wafting down from fissures nearby and stumbled about following it as I breathed in the fresh salt air and tried to make my way back the way we had come, praying as I went. God, help me. I don’t want to die here. Show me the way to go.

_____________________

The above story and characters is fictional, but the Catacombs do exist under the city of Odessa, Ukraine. They hold mysteries and stories as old as the city itself. There is information and images available on Wikipedia and the internet of the catacombs. The above image is one I took from the internet. When I visited the former soviet republics and Russia in 1989 and toured the city of Odessa our tour group was able to see parts of the catacombs open to the public. This  is chapter 23 of, THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA, a novel and work still in progress to be continued as new chapters are drafted and edited. Thank you for following the story if you have been, and for any comments.

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 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 XX, (20)

Chapter XX (20)

The Zemlyanka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIX, (19)

Chapter XIX (19)

Starting from the beginning I told her only what I felt she had a right to know, not where, or from whom I had learned what I knew. My primary intent was to protect Jacob, respect his privacy, and all other sources and contacts I had while here. Information about the journal, its contents, how and where I’d found it I kept from her, also. My own research files I decided would have to be sufficient proof, pulling out my typed up reports and handing them to her. They contained documented names, cross referenced with the original names, dates and details of atrocities committed against the Jews during the years of 1941-1944 in the ghettos of Transnistria and Ukraine by the Romanians and their Iron Guard in charge of carrying out the massacres.

Irina lifted her eyes from the reports and set them on me with an expression like I had just puked in her coffee, a look of disgust or unbelief; I couldn’t discern which.

“You can’t be serious. Do you realize who you are dealing with in these accusations? Do you know just how serious this is if this is true? I know these men are ruthless in business, and even though there are old rumors to this effect these men protect themselves and come back with what you Americans call a ‘spin’ on things. They have tight control on everything here.”

“Naturally. Considering the kind of people they are one would not expect them to be anything else but. I told you I have trustworthy sources who have helped in this search and can attest to its credibility, but I will not give you their names or contact information. I also have an obligation to report my findings to my own agency in Washington and to those in Israel seeking information on Holocaust collaborators and killers still living.”

When my cell phone rang I looked at the caller’s name, then excused myself and walked into the bathroom.

“Hello?”

“Ms. Mengelder? This is Olga. I received your check-out notice from the desk clerk, but I have something of yours that was found on the floor under the bedside table.”

“What is that, Olga?”

“It is a flash drive I believe. When the maid vacuumed the rugs she found it. Perhaps it fell off the table or bed as you packed. Would you like for me to mail it to you?”

Stunned speechless I did not reply at first trying to think how it could have been ‘found’ on the floor when I knew I had searched everywhere for it before I left.

“Thank you, Olga. I guess I must have missed it when I packed, or it ‘fell’ onto the floor as you suggested. I looked for it, but couldn’t find it. Thank you for calling me to let me know. Yes, I would appreciate it if you could send it to me, but my address and location is only temporary right now. Could you send it to the consulate’s office in Odessa instead, in care of Vasily Kuznetsov? He will see that it is returned to me. Just give me a minute and I will look up the address.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary Ms. Mengelder. I have it, and will mail it out.”

“Thank you, Olga. Goodbye.” It would be difficult to determine if the files and data on it were hacked or compromised, and learn who, or why someone was playing a game of ‘lost and found’ with me, but felt certain someone had taken it, and now decided to ‘return’ it.

Irina was too busy touching keys on her iPad to notice the interrupted call from Olga when I walked back into the bedroom.

“I’m taking notes for later. I want to do a search on some things for myself,” she said without looking up. “I have my own sources. Who have you told about these files?”

“Those files? No one. But, I have my own sources of information. You and your people were unwilling to provide me with real interviews so I sought out some on my own time. But, since you are the representative assigned to me, and know the ins and outs of your government policies I am letting you see the official reports I have already filed and sent to my own department agency back home. Like I said, I think the information should be sent to authorities not under Grigoroui’s thumb, so they can decide what to do with it.”

“And do you really think they will believe what a genealogist has found in some old records? They’ll think the documents are forged. They will demand to know who your sources are. The names here are people who could be in their eighties or nineties by now, if still living. Just because they have the same surnames as Grigoroui and Antonescu does not mean they are related to them.”

“I realize that, but look at all the similarities in their background family history. I read that Grigoroui’s opponent wants records opened and investigated. So, I’m betting they would just love to have all this poop scoop on Grigoroui and the Antonescu brothers. Do you know what this information would do when hitting the media? Front page articles under bold headlines, television news channels demanding interviews, CNN’s ‘breaking news’ coverage, internet and wire services: all about Grigoroui’s and the Antonescu brothers’ long kept family secrets. Look, Irina, I am not out to win yours or anyone else’s trust or approval here. I went after the truth. That’s all. But, my hope is that it will enlarge the scope of investigation here for the killers responsible in the massacres of the thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Time is running out for finding those old ones to bring them to justice and trial for their war crimes. Israel and the US are still looking for those not yet found.”

“Be careful, Monica. You’re an American archivist, genealogist, free-lance reporter. They’ll call it a ‘conspiracy’ to ruin Grigoroui’s chance for re-election and will have you thrown out of this country on your… butt, if of course you are that lucky to get thrown out and not killed first, or at least arrested for slandering a president in office. Have you considered you might lose your own job and credibility? Do not underestimate them. Those men are the new ‘Iron Guard’ of the old Russia.  Have you told Vasily about this?”

“No. I see him tomorrow. He doesn’t know I’ve moved out of Olga’s and relocated here. I haven’t told him about being followed either. But, now that I have a picture of the one who followed me in Moldova, maybe Vasily can help.”

“You have a picture?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes. One I took at the Chisinau International Airport just to see if I was being watched. But, it worked.” I smiled.

“Let me see it.”

“Here,” I said, pulling it up on my phone. “But, it is not real focused. I was standing way back in the terminal under a departure screen when I took it.”

“What is he doing there holding up some kind of large folder by a locker?”

“Looking for what he thought I was hiding. I rented it, then stashed some brochures and a newspaper in it.” That was all I was willing to say, and hoped it was enough to satisfy her.

“Don’t assume anything, Monica.”

“I don’t. As a researcher there is one thing I have learned above all: Truth is always supported by facts.”

“What I am saying is if this unravels, and all of it’s true, be careful what you do.”

And the one thing Jeremy told me.”Trust no one but yourself.”  

My cell phone rang again. “Hello? Hi, Vasily. Yes, fine, thank you. And you?  Good. Well, yes, I’m done with archiving and photocopying in Moldova, I think. But, I still have some things to do in Ukraine. Olga’s? No, I checked out and relocated to the Ayvazovsky Hotel in Odessa. It’s closer and a little more convenient for the remainder of my time here. Yes. In the hotel lobby? That would be great. Thanks. I look forward to it. Tomorrow then. Goodbye.”

“He wants to show me some things before going to lunch. He is going to take me to a “zemlyanka,” or dugout used by the Jewish partisans during the war. I have heard about them but didn’t know if they still existed, or where they were located.”

“There were some located in both Ukraine and Moldova.”

“Vasily said to wear comfortable clothes and walking shoes.”

“Well, I don’t think he would consider taking someone through those if there were still any issues with flooding or asphyxiation. The largest one runs under the streets of Odessa. There has since been some work done on it to reinforce the walls and seal up the weakened pipeline that ruptured. Some advocates and historians want it saved and preserved as a memorial site.”

“Sounds more like boots and a gas mask is needed. Doesn’t sound like a place to advertise, or promote on a scenic brochure. But, they sound fascinating. Can’t wait to see it.”

“Yes, I think it would be something you might enjoy poking your nose into.”

_____________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XVIII (18)

Chapter XVIII (18)

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

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

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

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

“Who is it?”

“Irina.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So? What are you getting at?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The president’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter 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 XV (15), Part 2

Chapter XV(15), Part 2

With a cheap lock from a hardware store I took a cab to Chisinau International airport, and rented a locker in the public terminal. After locating the locker, I pulled a large padded manila envelope from my tote bag and placed it inside the locker, making sure I could be seen by anyone watching. Standing by the locker I casually perused through a brochure, and checked calls and messages on my cell phone. Then, I pulled out a compact, smoothed down my hair, and swiped some powder to my nose while looking through the compact mirror at people behind me. After I placed the compact back into my bag, closed up the locker, secured it with the lock, I walked away with the tote bag over my shoulder. The journal and my laptop remained inside my bag with other personal things throughout the charade. The bulky envelop left in the locker contained nothing more than a pile of kiosk brochures and newspapers.

When I got to the end of the corridor I camouflaged myself in a knot of passengers viewing flight arrival and departure schedules from an overhead screen and turned around to look. A man walked to my locker and inserted a small tool into the lock to open it. It was the same man who broke into my compartment on the train to Kiev, the one who had followed me all other times, and the one I saw outside the consulate’s offices in Odessa.

All the while I had my cell phone camera set to video, focused in on my subject, and videotaped him. With no clear recorded sound from that distance I could only imagine what might have been mumbled swear words as I watched his expression and lips moving at finding nothing but the trivial contents I had left behind. He slammed shut the locker door with the lock hanging loose and hurried away. Leaving the journal in a secure locker was out of the question for obvious reasons.

The night before I had deleted reports, pictures, files, search history, and e-mails from my laptop after sending them out, and transferred all over to my secure accounts under an alias name. Copies of all including my finished work files, archival lists, videos and photo files while on assignment were now safely stored in accounts giving only the U.S. D G H&R access to them.

Backup copies too kept on my flash drive I wore around my neck under my shirt were transferred as well. The journal I had already scanned with a copy, all correspondence, and research sent prior to Jeremy. I only hoped I had not waited too long in taking steps to protect all.

Oh, God. I hope I have not screwed things up.  It is too late now to return the journal. I’ll just be followed there, too.  I may have compromised confidential material, and jeopardized my assignment here. What should I do with the information I’ve learned? What now? Who can I trust? Where can I leave the journal. If I’m caught with it…

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIII, Part 2

Map of the Transdnestrian Region

Map of the Transnistrian Region (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

1944 – Transnistria ghetto             

My fingers are stiff, numb from the pain of cold and frost. I don’t know how much longer I can keep the journal, record the things I know and have seen. If caught, I know I will not see my son and wife again. It is for Jacob, Raisa and the rest that I write this and hope one day it is found by someone who will learn the truth. Oh, eternal God, redeemer, Jehovah, cover us with your mercy. Deliver us.   

Our food line today was shorter. The faces of some I saw before, now gone. We are served meager rations of bread with a thin gruel. I saved back some of my bread, eating only a small amount so I could leave more for Jacob. He is running a fever. I fear he has caught the dreaded Typhoid. Like his brother, Joseph, and many others who have already died.

The smell of unwashed, lice infested bodies emaciated in their soiled rags fills my nostrils. Huddled together, bent over, joints stiff from the cold, eyes protruding from dark sockets many look like the walking dead. They will not survive much longer. When I look at them I see myself, a bony protrusion of brittle stick like limbs.

Crudely built cots made from slated wooden crates are pushed together to hold all of us crammed together in the old warehouses. There is no heat. We are given no wood or coal to build a fire to warm us during the winter months. Guards laugh, calling us their “prisoners” and tell us we must serve time for our “indiscretions committed against the Reich’s commander and chief.” I have been assigned to a construction site at their barracks.

We are inspected and closely watched as we are rounded up each morning before dawn, stand in line while they call our numbers, and wait while they check their lists for those now dead or anyone missing. When that is done we are given our ration bowl, devour its contents hungrily, work for hours with no breaks, little protections against the harsh winds and cold, then marched back to our quarters at the end of the day.

That is when I saw him. Mueller, a Jew like me, now claiming to be converted and baptized hides behind his altered documents wearing a crisp clean uniform given to him by the Reich’s commander in the Romanian Iron Guard. His pious look fools no one. His heart is as cold and bitter as the soup in the steel drum. They serve him soldiers’ rations, allow him to bathe and use their toilets, and drink their liquor. But, he has betrayed us all, turning in our names, giving them information about our family members, our history, and circumcision. We are all marked for death, because of him. I have seen him staring at me with suspicious eyes when we are marched out, and ordered to report each morning. I worry that he may know what I do, or where I hide as I write this.

Our families once farmed, side by side, breaking ground, planting, cultivating. They celebrated harvests, shared the bounty, and suffered through the bad years, together. We were brothers in spirit, working alongside, believing that one day we would rise up and join others in an insurrection to turn the tide and see a democracy born from this anarchy. But, it is for naught. We are brothers no more. He is free, to live. I am destined to die.

Time is short. I fear I will not be alive much longer, for the things I know and write about will be found.

Oh, my dear Raisa and Jacob. Where did they take you? What have they done to you? Will we ever be together again? I cannot bear to think what they will do to you both if they find me with this.

A.G. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I’d finished my notes and reports I sent off an e-mail to Jeremy marking it ‘priority,’ asking him again to review, translate and do a thorough search on the names.

________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

 

Fiction – ‘Doors’

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

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

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

_________________________

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter II, – The Mengelders of Omaha

Chapters and pages in chronological order

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

Chapter Two

The Mengelders,

Omaha, Nebraska

 Grandfather Jacob, his wine glass raised, as if standing for communion at his Lutheran church stood addressing the Mengelder family on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-eight of us crowded together at my grandparents’ home for the annual family  reunion.

“Does this sound familiar?” Jeremy said quietly, leaning towards my ear.

“You think? Yes, just a little.” I said, smiling. “But, this stuff is important to him. He just wants to remind us of the virtues of  ‘family values’, our ‘beginnings and rich heritage’, all of the above.” I said. We all bunched together, anxiously waiting for him  to finish while he delivered his speech, “embracing family, country, and freedom” once again.

Grandfather continued. “When our family came here in 1889 they earned the right and privilege of American citizenship. They embraced a new world, a new country. They could vote, go to church, and worship God openly, without fear. They could obtain an education, exercise free speech, without persecution or imprisonment.  They could visit friends and not worry about spying eyes, or listening ears. No opportunities were taken for granted.  They were patriots. Today, we are Americans in a free world that will one day seek to return to all once gained, that is now all but lost.”

Winding it up, he added, “At such times as we live in, there might be intervention by the evil one to take our most esteemed privileges from us and place in its stead the works of men with ruinous strife and hatred. But we will fight for our rights and with dignity we will stand before our flag and God, and declare our country, built with pride, perseverance, and respect for all. To God, our flag, our family, and our freedoms.”

At that point, grandfather took a sip from the wine glass in his right hand, while holding a little American flag in his left hand marking the occasion and the day of ‘thanks’ as we raised our glasses, the younger ones their soft drinks, and my uncles their beers, pronouncing a toast to, “freedom, democracy and liberty of one nation, and its people.”

“Hip, hip, hooray! To our flag, freedom, and the grand ole U.S.A.”, shouted Chad with a smart mouthed smirk, gulping down his Coke.

“Here, here! Let us pilgrims march forth into victory. And dinner.” declared John.

“Cheers to the red, white and blue. Cheers to me, and you.” said, Ben, our ‘poet’.

My cousins enjoyed a good laugh, not meant to be at the expense of grandfather Jacob. He just tended to be a bit long-winded when they stood impatient, waiting to load their plates from the bounty spread out over the buffet table.

When he finished and the prayer said we filled our plates and found seats at tables spilling out of the dining room, living room and kitchen. It was enough to freak out a fire marshal. We made a noisy bunch, laughing, joking, everyone talking at once.

Grandfather Jacob sat at the head of the dining room table in his chair looking like a proud peacock, patriarch of the family clan. His once thick silver locks now ringed his pink pate like a wispy white halo. His wire rimmed glasses framed kind, but intense, dark brown eyes. His face, the color of old ivory bore the deep lines, wrinkles and aging spots of his eighty-six years.

He worked on the mounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, and corn custard beside a half eaten turkey leg.  Another small plate with salad and rolls lay beside it disappearing just as fast. While eating he listened to bits and pieces of everyone’s conversation around the table, not missing a beat to add his input on all.

Grandmother Lisle sat beside him, her dainty hands cutting through a slice of turkey while discussing her Sweet Potato Pie’s ingredients and secret to a “flakier crust” with aunt Libby.

Sitting beside my uncle Heinrich at the other end of the table I nodded politely to all his ramblings about the things wrong with our government, and all that needed to be fixed in Washington, DC.

It was a typical holiday gathering, some watching football games on TV, my cousins in the basement playing pool, and the women cleaning up in the kitchen, gossiping while they worked.

Grandfather excused himself to go watch the boys play kick ball, and “get some fresh air”.  His pallor, and quiet mood seemed a bit off as I watched him through the opened window above the kitchen sink where I helped with clean up.

Their noise drifted in, as did the heat from the unusually warm day in late November.

With some nudging from the boys, Grandfather relented and joined them in a game of kickball, but had a harder time keeping up with the ones he once bounced on his knees calling his “little patriots”.  He jostled around, returning the ball a few times when suddenly he clutched his chest and collapsed to the ground.

We all ran out. My cousin wasted no time calling an ambulance.

Grandfather’s face turned red. He struggled to breathe. His words came slowly, his eyes turning to grandmother Lisle now kneeling down beside him, stroking his hot, perspiring forehead.  “Tell them… the truth. Make them…. proud….of… their heritage. My dear Lisle,… love. I will…see you, one day. Tell… Moni….”

Grandmother Lisle shook her head. “No, Jacob! You cannot leave me. Not now. There is no time for you to be sick.” she said, her voice breaking. She sobbed, imploring our help.

My uncle and cousin tried CPR, not waiting for paramedics to arrive. But, it did not help. A final breath and he lay quiet. A white cloud moved across the midday sun, his eyes staring upward, unmoving. A strange calm came over me as I looked down at his still form, realizing we had just lost him. In my mind I had an image of grandfather Jacob soaring through clouds, into the heavens, enlightening all the angels carrying him. And God smiling, while he “went on, and on,” his speech to all who would listen.

When the paramedics arrived their attempt to revive him was futile.  He was rushed to ER, but was pronounced dead from a “massive coronary,” turning our day of “thanks” into one of mourning.

A week later bouquets of flowers draped his coffin, as the Lutheran minister delivered the eulogy. The family gathered again in Omaha, Nebraska for his funeral, wept and mourned, then went home returning once again to busy lives, their jobs, all except me. It was grandfather Jacob’s wish to make me the “keeper” of our records, archive our history, and “preserve it for the coming generations.”

“Moni,” – he always called me that – “do not memorialize me when I am gone.  Learn the truth of our family’s history.  My grave will be but a stone to the quarry you will come to find. Learn our heritage. Write our story that it may be remembered. The patriotism to our country will live on in the hearts of the descendents that carry the banner of our beliefs. Those who value the words honored in our constitution will uphold the principles our nation’s founders swore to live by,” he’d written in a letter to be given to me upon his death. It was saved and kept with his old German Bible, passport, photos and naturalization papers.

Known jokingly as the ‘reporter’ in the family I lived up to their word, receiving my BA degree in journalism from UN, Lincoln, Nebraska. My father once told me, “Monica, develop your rapport with people instead of the report on them. Be sensitive to those whose lives and stories are subjected to someone else’s disclosure.”

As the creator of the literary press research paper, THE QUILL AND QUEST while in college I developed a web site and blog, enhancing it with new features.  By updating our site daily our readers could read articles, post and blog on political issues at home and abroad. Our newest feature; genealogy and archival research on diverse ethnic groups became a special project promoting interest, inquiries and questions from people wanting to research their ‘family tree,’ many of them becoming regular contributors or bloggers. Its success drew the interest of other professors and students majoring in history and genealogy studies in other schools. German, Russian and East European Jewish ethnic history became the most popular of our research studies project. And my obsession.

After earning my Master’s degree in history and genealogy studies I began assessing what I had on my own family history. Grandmother Lisle and I went through old documents, files and photos during our coffee talks, always with a plate of her “fresh from the oven,” Oatmeal Raisin cookies, my favorite.

Carefully turning pages of grandfather Jacob’s German Bible, I read the scrawled names, birth and death dates on family record pages, personal notes, mementoes and bookmarks stuffed inside, even favorite scriptures underlined and noted.

The worn, antiquated passport of my great-grandfather with pages as fine as tissue spilled loosely into my hands, well over a hundred years old now. Names and dates of family members’ immigration were scribbled on lines in Old Russian Cyrillic script.

Then she brought out another box, dust settling on it as it had been stored, hidden away, its contents giving off a musty, old smell. In unbelief I watched as she pulled things out, and it was then I learned the secret kept, like a hidden piece to a puzzle needed to complete the picture. And I realized the reason for grandfather Jacob’s fanatical patriotism.

Months later grandmother Lisle became weak and frail after suffering the flu the previous winter. Unable to regain her strength and recover she died peacefully in her sleep. Our family once again came together to mourn their loss. Like grandfather Jacob she believed anyone could be, “an American forging paths with a spirit of adventure and greatness,” like the first patriots and immigrants who came to shore pioneering the way.

We buried her a week later beside grandfather Jacob. Their adjoining gravesite now held another fresh bouquet of yellow daffodils, her favorite. It was Memorial Day.

While applying for a current passport and visa papers to travel abroad I received a call from the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research in Washington, D.C. They hired me, and I was sent on assignment to Europe with a team of archivists.

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

Note: The above story is fiction, but the photos above are mine. They are ones of my own family and grandparents. The story is based on facts, some true, some from other resources to create the fictional story of The Mengelders of Omaha.

%d bloggers like this: