A New Direction for Me

It’s been several weeks since I posted a blog regarding what was happening to Dad and his family.  My last posting found my grandparents and three aunts evacuated to the new Soviet capital of Kuibyshev, while the location of my Uncle Pete was then unknown.  I left off in March 1942.

I began this blog nine months ago, and at the time, I didn’t plan where I was going with this. A large part of writing my blog was to determine if anyone other than some close friends, family and my very polite book club would have any interest in reading my father’s story. I am surprised with the interest this has generated both in the United States and in over forty countries throughout the world. A few readers have stopped by only once, while many others have made return visits. The number of viewers, though modest in size, was still unexpected.  I wish my dad knew.

During the last five years, I have been researching and writing Dad’s story.  Initially, I wrote it to my three girls so they could have a sense of their grandfather’s early years. As I uncovered more details and met more people who helped me learn the specifics of his travels, the format of the story evolved to its latest final version, which is his story written as accurately as possible along with letters to him, from me, intertwined within the book. These are the imagined conversations that I had with Dad as I put together his story, so I decided to include them in my book.

I wanted him to know where and how I unearthed the details of his early life. The discovery that documents, including handwritten letters from him, are stored at the National Archives would have thrilled him. Learning that a journalist from the UK included information about Dad’s family in his novel would have excited Dad.

I wanted him to learn about the woman from New Zealand—Bumblebee —who tried to find his brother’s grave, and although unsuccessful, was kind enough to photograph the cemetery for me. (A Bumblebee Searches for Tony-Random Act of Kindness)

I wished to share my excitement in locating the grandson of the woman he met on the boat traveling from Japan to San Francisco in 1941. I wanted to tell him about locating Jerry Aagaard, a man who received his passport in Moscow on the same day as Dad. My conversation with Leo Melamed, the man who was the founder of financial futures and former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would have tickled Dad as well.

Now I am finished and have decided to see if I can find a literary agent interested enough in my book to take this on as a project. I don’t know what I am doing, and perhaps, in the end, I will self-publish a few copies for my family and friends.  I am researching the process, looking for agents interested in my genre, and trying to craft letters according to their individual submission standards.  I expect many rejections, but I only need one acceptance.

I realize what a persistent man my father was, so I am hoping this trait is genetic. I will remember his tenacity whenever I get discouraged.  I plan on blogging a bit about my adventures in publishing for those interested in the procedure, but I need to end the story now.  I can’t give away the ending, can I?Perhaps I will throw out a carrot or two in the coming months. I just don’t know.  But for now, you will have to wait to discover what happens to my grandparents, three aunts, Uncle Pete, and Dad.  All I will tell you is that Dad’s entire family did not join him in the States.

Thank you for your interest.

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What If?

I just returned from a trip to New Jersey where I visited my mother and daughter, flying up on April  10.  That date would have been Dad’s 95th birthday.

Considering all that happened during his lifetime, it is a miracle to me that he lived to celebrate birthday number 89. Unlike his brother, Tony, he did not die at the hands of the Soviet secret police. He survived a train accident in Valdosta, Georgia during the war purely by chance—switching seats with a man who died because of where he sat.

Dad traversed the Atlantic twelve times during the war, going to England, Scotland, France, and Nova Scotia—thankfully not a victim of the hostilities. On this day in 1945, his 26th birthday, Dad was at Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts.

He spent thirty-five years working as a chemist and liked to point out—actually he bragged—that he outlived all his coworkers who died of work-related exposure to chemicals. He observed the mandatory regulations that increased over the years requiring workers in his industry to wear protective outfits, but many of these laws were not enforced during Dad’s employment

I have thought how different his life and the lives of his family would have been if his parents had remained in New Jersey like my other grandparents. Tony would not have died at such a young age, but Uncle Pete’s three children would never have been born. His sisters and parents would not have suffered when they were forced to flee their home as the German forces invaded the Soviet Union. Aunt Helen would not have been a victim of post traumatic stress disorder resulting from the aerial bombings during Dad’s family’s time on the train as they headed east toward Kuibyshev.

However, as my daughter pointed out to me as I played this game of “what if”, Dad may never have met Mom. He may have married a classmate in Rockaway or someone he met at a different job. His five children, ten grandchildren, and one great-grandchild would never have been born.

Life—the good and bad—sends us down a path that would be completely different if one decision is altered. So I guess that despite the pain and sorrow that resulted from the move to Russia, so many people may never have existed if my grandparents walked through a different door. I wonder what would have happened.

Have you ever played the “what if” game?

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Trying Every Angle

It was now March 1942. Dad had learned that his sisters and parents were now in the new Soviet capital city of Kuibyshev, but the whereabouts of his brother Pete and sister Nancy’s husband Waldemar Bulvahn were unknown. They had been separated from the family in August just before when Hitler’s forces stormed into their town of Novgorod. (see Running From the War.)

His family was stranded in a city which had now swelled to over one hundred thousand, they had little money since they had not worked since the previous summer, and the food supplies were not good. They needed the money to go home and it was up to Dad and his family to get the necessary funds, since they learned that the State Department was unable or unwilling to provide funds for Americans residing in the Soviet Union.

While Dad attempted to figure out something on the home front, his brother Pete and Waldemar devised a plan of their own– join the United States Army.  This was a similar idea to one which Dad and his brother-in-law had devised the previous year, which was to join the British Army in India.  In both cases, the men figured that their military pay would be sufficient in bringing their family home.

In both cases, their requests were denied.

Permission to Join United States Army.

Permission to Join United States Army.

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Would Someone Provide the Money?

It has been over a month since I last wrote of the predicament my aunts found themselves in as American refugees who ended up in the temporary capital of the Soviet Union—Kuibyshev—after they were pushed from their home in Novgorod. To recap, the Germany forces had invaded the USSR in June 1941, and Dad’s family had fled Novgorod two months later just days before that city fell. They spent five months moving approximately one thousand miles eastward, both on foot and by train. Dad had fortuitously been able to return to New Jersey a short time before all civilian travel had been suspended.

My grandparents found themselves living in a train station, but my aunts had been permitted to reside in the Grand Hotel. By late February, 1942, they were all told they must leave the city. They had been appealing for help in returning to New Jersey to both the American Embassy and my father, who was then stationed in Atlanta, Georgia. My aunts hoped that if someone would provide the funds, or at least a loan, they could stall for time and remain in Kuibyshev until the money arrived.

My father continued to press the State Department for financial assistance until, finally, on March 3, he received a letter stating “While the Department, since the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, has on occasion made advances from limited special funds at its disposal for loans to needy Americans to enable then to return to the United States from disturbed areas, funds are not at present being advanced to Americans desiring to return from the USSR, nor do the Department’s representatives in that country have funds at their disposal to provide for the maintenance of Americans there.”

He must have been so discouraged to read this.  The letter went on to say that “in case you are able to obtain financial assistance from other sources, the Department will be pleased to accept without responsibility funds for transmission to your sisters through official channels by telegraph at your expense either for their subsistence or for their journey to the United States, and the representatives in Kuibyshev will be pleased to render them such assistance as may be possible in the circumstances.”

The bottom line was that our embassy and State Department knew Dad’s family was stuck there without any funds since none of them had been employed for at least six months. Although the State Department admitted that they did provide loans for some needy Americans to return home, there was no money available for US citizens wanting to return home from this part of the world.

It was all about the dollar, and it was up to Dad to figure out how to get the money. He was just a twenty-three year old young man in the army, thousands of miles away, and the world was at war.  It must have been such a heavy weight for him to carry. What would he do?

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The Stars Now Aligned in Southampton

I knew my father had traveled through Southampton, England on his way to the Soviet Union in 1931.  That fact was written in the diary I had found in his dresser, thankfully penned in English. Dad made four additional trips through that port city on the English Channel during his service on hospital ships during World War II.

Knowing the importance of researching my expeditions prior to my travel, I wanted to ensure that visiting Southampton was not only easy to do, but also of interest on a grander scale than just my own personal interests.

I wanted to verify what I believed to be true: Southampton was the port for Dad’s ship, as well as the Titanic and the Mayflower. That was pretty darn good history for me.  Southampton is home to the Sea City Museum—opened only since 2012—so we hatched a plan to go.

The train ride was a little more than one hour but the cost for the two of us was going to be approximately 150 pounds, which when converted into US dollars, would be almost $250! I wanted to go on this trip.  I was excited to take the same journey between Southampton and London that Dad took as a twelve-year-old boy over eighty years ago, but that was a lot of money for such a short ride. Should I do it, because I would probably never have the opportunity to experience that trip again, or was that cost just too much?  I reasoned that I could probably find a blog written by someone like my friend, Bumblebee (see Bumblebee Trails), who had taken a similar ride, so we decided to abandon the trip and go to the theater instead. That was more practical.

My husband and I headed over to the West End, where the half-price theater tickets were sold.  We scoured the list of available tickets, but none of the shows we hoped to see had cheap tickets for sale. As we discussed alternate shows and other activities to do that day, a nagging voice in my head kept telling me to go to Southampton.

We decided to head to the train station and confirm that the exorbitant price was accurate. When we inquired at the ticket booth, we were told that the cost for the trip would be 20 pounds!  We asked the agent to repeat the price three times, and in a rather annoying tone, she told us, “I said it was 20 pounds.” Apparently there was a weekend sale going on (some sale!), and the train was leaving within ten minutes. Luck was on our side.

The ride was lovely, although the first twenty minutes were more funny than lovely as someone on the speaker talked on and on as well as apologized over and over about the problems with the on-board bathrooms. It was less than a ninety-minute ride for goodness sake!

We passed rolling hills, farms, quaint old towns, and many golf courses. This was Dad’s trip, but I know he saw none of what we were able to observe out the window, because his train traveled to London at night. Still, it was Dad’s trip, and I know that he probably was able to see those scenes as he rode the rail years later while a soldier during the war.

Southampton was a much bigger town than I had imagined.  It was more like a small city to me. The Sea City Museum has two major exhibits: Gateway to the World and the Southampton Titanic Story.

Gateway to the World has displays showing the many people throughout the ages who traveled through Southampton. I did not realize that this port has been active for 200,000 years. There were artifacts, pictures, maps, films, and scaled-down replicas of some of the more noteworthy ships such as the Titanic.  I was able to find Dad’s ship, the Berengaria, which was built to replace the Titanic.

Ship Dad traveled on between New York and Southampton , UK December 1931

Ship Dad traveled on between New York and Southampton , UK December 1931

We were able to view a film showing accounts of soldiers, such as Dad, who had passed through Southampton during wartime. Gateway to the World was the more personal side of the museum for me.

The Titanic Story focused more on the crew, since so many were local to the town. The most moving exhibit was a room which was set up as a courtroom, with an audio-visual show of the inquiry, held in London,during which they attempted to learn who was responsible for the disaster.

I wish we had the time to go down to the docks and walk around Southampton a bit more, but we did not want to miss our return train to London. I left glad that the trip all fell into place. The theater tickets we wanted were sold out for a reason!

 

 

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An 82 Year Old Wrong Finally Corrected

I have returned from my journey to London, which was for the ceremony to honor Louis Brennan, my first cousin four times removed. Without exaggerating, this was the best trip I have ever taken. I had been aware of the plans to honor this Irish inventor for many years, but I had no expectations whatsoever. Was the grandeur overstated by my liaison in Ireland, Brian Hoban, or was this event to be as well-attended as he had promised?  Would the arrival of my husband and I even be noticed and, if the ceremony drew a crowd, would we find a seat?

Thanks to Facebook, I had no difficulty locating Brian when we arrived at their hotel in London. Within a short time, we were introduced to the contingent from Castlebar, who had arrived on the Sunday prior to the unveiling ceremony. I was surprised that they all knew who we were, which should have been a clue as to what would come.

Monday morning we all went to Kensal Green Cemetery—a very long walk and relatively short ride on the London Tube from our hotel. We were able to view the plaque on the wall and the beautiful headstone in private, which enabled us to take pictures “before the arrival of the crowds on Tuesday.”

St. Mary’s is the Roman Catholic cemetery adjacent to Kensal Green Cemetery, built over one hundred fifty years ago.

St. Mary's ChurchThe church was small, seating about one hundred fifty people and contained many memorial plaques on the walls. Louis Brennan’s now had a place of honor toward the front of the chapel. ???????????????????????????????That afternoon, I learned I would be one of five individuals saying a short prayer after the homily by Monsignor Canon Thomas Egan. Fortunately, this surprise honor was sprung on me with little time to get nervous.

The next morning we left our hotel early enough to stop for a bite to eat, and then arrived at the church ahead of the crowd.  We were told that although the church only held one hundred fifty people, possibly four hundred were expected to come. Before entering the chapel, I was delighted to see that a bagpiper would be part of the ceremony.  No details were omitted. No Irish memorial service would be complete without a bagpiper  present.

IMG_0159

Now the question as to whether we would have a seat was answered when we were told we would be seated in row one, alongside the Irish Prime Minister, Brigadier General Paul Fry of the Irish Air Corps and Ireland’s UK ambassador Daniel Mulhall. It was, to say the least, more than I ever expected.

The ceremony in the church included two readings from the Bible, a homily by Monsignor Egan, and a lovely tribute by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, outlining the accomplishments of Louis Brennan and the Irish people. It was quite impressive and wonderful to hear that the grave of Louis Brennan would no longer be just known as plot Number 2454.

The ceremony ended by the saying of the Lord’s Prayer and singing of the Irish National Anthem, both in Gaelic.

Off we went to the grave site led, of course, by the kilted gentleman with the bagpipe.

Grave

Unveiling Plaque

After the laying of the wreaths by The Prime Minister; Noreen Heston, Mayor of Castlebar; Captain Vincent McEllin from the Irish Guards Regiment; Australian Commander Dylan Findlater and me, there were a lot of photographs to be taken.  My husband and I were invited to pose in many, which was, again, not anticipated.

At cemetery

My husband, Gene Bobrow, Castlebar Mayor Noreen Heston, John Kennedy-CBE, me- Karen Bobrow, Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Edna Kenny

We chatted, and when Mr. Kenny learned I was originally from New Jersey, he immediately spoke of The Boss–Bruce Springsteen.  That was a conversation to make my friends and family back in New Jersey proud.

After Ceremony

Until that day, I thought the best party I ever attended was New Year’s Eve 2006 in Times Square, New York City. However, that party has now been eclipsed by the party at Flannery’s Bar in Wembley, where the reception after the ceremony was held.

The final surprise of the day was when I was presented by a lovely Louis Brennan Memorial Plaque from the Castlebar Memorial Committee, followed by laughter, tears, and the singing of several Irish songs by everyone in the bar. It was a day I will remember forever!

Presentation of Plate

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The Stars Were Aligned in London

I traveled to London for the ceremony to unveil the headstone of my distant cousin,  inventor Louis Brennan. Knowing that the event would be presided over by the Irish Prime Minister, known as the Taoiseach, and attended by the Castlebar mayor, several ambassadors and members of the Australian, English, and Irish military, I was naturally quite excited. (more on that another day.)

My husband and I arrived shortly before noon on March 6. As part of my research on my father’s travels, I hoped to locate the hotel where Dad’s family stayed in 1931 on their way from New Jersey to the Soviet Union as well as visit the port town of Southampton. (Finding Dad’s Hotel)

Additionally, I wanted to see the Tower of London and perhaps take in a show. After all, I couldn’t visit London without hitting some of the tourist spots prior to the big day at St. Mary’s Church and Kensal Green Cemetery.  The anticipation was overwhelming.

Imagine my excitement when I opened an email on Saturday morning from my friend “Bumblebee”, the globe-trotting woman from New Zealand who had taken some photographs for me in a St. Peterburg cemetery back in October.A Bumblebee Searches for Tony-Random Act of Kindness

By sheer coincidence, or maybe serendipity, Bumblebee informed me that she was also in London, and was hoping we could meet.

At that point, I did not know what was more exciting—the knowledge that I might meet the Prime Minister of Ireland or that this very kind woman from afar had somehow ended up in London at the same time as me.

How could that have happened?  Her travels were spontaneous. There appeared to be no specific itinerary. The date of the ceremony to honor a man who had died 82 years ago had been changed many times.  Never in a million years did I ever believe I would  be able to convey my gratitude to Bumblebee in person.

She told me she would meet us at our hotel at noon on our last full day in London. She said she would be dressed in a black knee length padded raincoat and would have a small black bag across my shoulders.  It sounded so James Bond.

It turned out that she was not the only woman dressed that way, so it was a little challenging to find the right person.  I eliminated anyone wearing heeled shoes, because I felt a world traveler like Bumblebee would be attired in sensible walking shoes. I was correct.

There she was.  We both stared at each other for a few moments before slowly walking closer. We hugged and then spent the next eight hours together, sharing two meals and coffee.

Bumblebee promised she would begin blogging again.  I told her I worried about her after she had gone silent in December when she visited Iran. She told me her story–where she had been, and where she planned to visit next.

Meeting her was an unexpected and amazing end to an adventurous trip to London.  I never thought I would ever come face-to-face with her.  I guess the stars were aligned that week in London!

Meeting Bumblebee in London March 2014.

Meeting Bumblebee in London March 2014.

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