It’s Happening Again

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we hear little on the news except what is happening there. No more talk of Covid or the January 6 investigations. Nothing but the disgusting, horrific atrocities happening against the Ukrainian people. The news has taken me back to my book, and in particular, when Grandpa’s parents and siblings were forced from their homes after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

As a researched and wrote my book, I could only imagine what they went through as I read the history books, my aunt’s diary, and the letters they wrote to my father. Now I am watching it on live television.

Today I am going to take some time reminding us all what happened to our family as a means of understanding what is currently happening in Ukraine. The following is a brief account of what happened to them. Although this story occurred eighty-one years ago, it sounds similar to what we are seeing and hearing about on a daily basis.

As I watch what is currently happening in Ukraine, it reminds me about what happened to my dad’s family when they were pushed from their homes and forced to evacuate close to two thousand miles away from their homes eighty-one years ago. I could only imagine what they went through as I read my aunt’s diary, the letters they wrote to Dad, and the history books. Now I am watching it on live TV. For anyone interested in reading my family’s story, I am making it available for free beginning tomorrow through Wednesday.

While the evacuations of some cities were organized in the beginning, hysteria and confusion often ensued as the stations became more crowded. It was not unusual for there to be thousands in a single station pushing and shoving as they tried to squeeze onto a train.

People were crammed inside like ants in a nest, sitting on suitcases or bedrolls for days and even weeks at a time as they waited for their time to finally board a train. It was nearly impossible to sleep because of the noise of the nonstop chattering of people and crying babies. Those who could not inch their way inside would be forced to sleep outside, which became increasingly difficult as the nighttime temperatures began to dip.

When it became apparent that it could take a very long time to find seats on the trains, people began leaving on foot, carrying as many of their possessions as possible in suitcases, trunks, wheelbarrows and carts. It was not uncommon to see men, women and children trudging along with their belongings strapped to their backs.

My Uncle Pete and Aunt Nancy, along with their spouses, left via the Volkhov River. They were responsible for taking most of the bulky items which could not be easily transported by train or on foot. This included household items such as linens, dishes and pots and pans. My grandparents and two other aunts intended to walk until they could reach a train station. They piled a wagon to nearly overflowing with blankets, pillows, nonperishable food, and carried the remainder of their belongings in suitcases or strapped to their backs. They believed they would all rendezvous within a few days. 

The first night, they slept in a barn in a nearby village, eating raw potatoes and cucumbers stolen from a nearby garden. With the constant sounds of aircraft thundering overhead and bombs exploding nearby, they were fearful that their lives would come to an abrupt end if they ventured outside. They remained hidden there for over two weeks until they felt it was safe to move again.

Each day they continued advancing, staying wherever they could find a place to hide where they would not be in danger. Sleeping was difficult with the roars of the military aircraft rumbling overhead throughout the night. On the twentieth day, they were chased out of their current shelter by some military men who cared little about my grandparents’ age and weakened condition. The soldiers tossed all their bundles from the wagon, taking the empty cart with them. It was a time of war, and civilians were simply inconvenient hindrances.

They spent the days trudging along wet, muddy roads in weather that grew more miserable with each passing day. They trudged along awkwardly for about six miles that day, knowing that, soon, the roads would be impassable.

For anyone who has not yet read my family’s story, I am making it available for FREE beginning tomorrow, March 12, through Wednesday, March 17.

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Looking Back on “Dad Called it Decoration Day.”

During various news reports this weekend, I heard several newscasters discussing the history of what is now called Memorial Day but was initially referred to as Decoration Day. Well, that was not news to me, since I discussed this same piece of history three years ago.

Unfortunately, this year we are not seeing the typical services throughout the nation of people laying wreaths on the graves of their loved ones or parades in small towns like my hometown–good old Boonton USA–where I marched down Main Street while decked out in my Brownie uniform.

Because of what is happening in America this year, we can watch someone who did not serve in any war as he visits Arlington Cemetary and Fort McHenry, or we can turn on the news and watch way too many people crowd beaches and pools despite warnings to social distance because of the coronavirus.  I am doing neither, because today is a day to remain calm. So I remember my Dad and my grandfather who served, but did not die,  in the two word wars, and I can remember  that Dad Called it Decoration Day.

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Adding to Dad’s Box of News

On Wednesday, the 45th President of the United States was impeached. It was a sad moment for me, not because I didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial, but because our country had again elected a man who makes this a necessity. I hope there will be a fair trial.

I decided this was an event that should be added to my father’s box of newspapers, which records events Dad considered important enough to save, beginning with the assassination of JFK in 1963 through the attack on September 11. Dad died two months before the election of Barack Obama, so I added that to the box.

It was interesting to me that my apolitical father saved a newspaper recording the inauguration of Bill Clinton but not his impeachment, yet there were several papers focused on Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and the swearing in of Gerald Ford.

I knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to locate a copy of the Washington Post here in my southern city, so I enlisted my daughter’s mother-in-law in purchasing a copy for me. My neighborhood Publix supermarket did not let me down because it was there that I was able to buy a copy of the New York Times.

With that, my father’s interest in preserving all the news that’s fit to print continues.

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Grandpa Got Caught

What’s a man to do when he has six children ranging in age from four to eleven, he has a mortgage to pay, his wife does not speak the language of the country where he is living, and he is working only as a laborer, so money is tight? Let me also mention that the year is 1925. This was my grandfather’s dilemma.

The answer is to be creative and a little bit sneaky, so my grandfather decided to take advantage of the fruit of the vine for extra income. I had heard about this from my father, and as I have mentioned in my post, The Creativity of Poverty, dandelion wine was the name of the game.

The problem was that this was during the prohibition years, and my grandfather’s business was discovered by the local authorities, so he was hauled off to the pokey.

I recently found a news article which proved that this was not just a family legend. It really happened, and he was held on $1000 bail—the equivalent of over $14000 today. How did he raise the money? I will keep looking for more news articles.

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Looking forward to that Chat

Children are born curious. They learn at an amazing rate and are driven by their need for answers. Among their most favorite words are what, who,  and why, why, why?

My grandson recently spotted my Kindle lying on my end table and immediately wanted to know what it was. I opened it up and showed him the words on each “page” of the Kindle. He was impressed. Next, I maneuvered to the home page, where I was able to show him the photos of all the books residing on my device. I located my book, knowing that he would probably recall seeing it at my house or his.

It was not until I picked up a hard copy of my book that he made the connection between what sat digitally on my Kindle with the book he was able to hold in his hand.

“You wrote that, Grandma?” he asked in amazement. I then explained that his mom had created the cover, while I wrote the story inside—the story about the man whose name is also part of his.

My grandson is now beginning to read, so after reading the title on the cover—Trapped in Russia—he asked who was trapped and why they were trapped. Our discussion evolved into a discussion of war, and I was surprised to learn he was familiar with war, particularly World War I.

I tried to explain how my dad was living in New Jersey but the rest of his family was trapped in Russia because a world war had prevented them from getting on a train and a boat to return home. Commercial airline travel was suspended because of the war, I told him.

He thumbed through my book, looking at the faces in the pictures.

I pointed to the photo of my mother, the woman he calls Grandma Jean. I told him that one day, perhaps nine or ten years from now, he will be able to sit down and read the story of why my grandparents took their New Jersey-born children to Russia many years ago, and what happened after they set sail out of New York Harbor on that December Day eighty-eight years ago.

I look forward to having that discussion with him.

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While in Castlebar, Ireland last month, my husband and I were taken to the Mayo Peace Park and Garden of Remembrance by several of our local friends. On the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, I thought it was a fitting time to discuss this local Irish memorial, which is reminiscent of our own Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

The creation of The Peace Park can be attributed to Castlebar resident, Michael Feeney, who spent years collecting lists of County Mayo residents who died in the world wars and other conflicts around the world. His idea took root after learning that his own grandfather was not recorded among any articles written about the Mayo war dead. Believing that Patrick Feeney was likely one of countless others whose service was not memorialized, Mr. Feeney began collecting the names of those who had served.

After years of gathering those names with the assistance of his wife, Michael Feeney’s project came to life with the opening of the park during the autumn of 2008. The centerpiece is a curved granite wall containing the names of approximately 1100 men and women from County Mayo who died during World War I.  On the perimeter are smaller monuments to the war dead from the Spanish Civil War, Second World War, Korean War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

The park is not meant to glorify war but rather to serve as a place for families to come and remember their loved ones who served in these conflicts. As we walked toward the wall, it magically appeared to grow in size.  It is a very peaceful place. While we were placing a wreath at the base of the main wall, I thought of those in my family who had served, like my dad, but luckily, did not die during their service.


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Where Were They on D-Day?

As I watch all the pageantry happening at Buckingham Palace in advance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I decided to check out what my father and his family were doing on that historic day—taking care to not spoil my story for anyone who may someday read my book.

While Allied forces prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy, several members of his family were dead, two of his siblings were working in a factory southeast of Moscow awaiting funds to return home, at least one was still in Kuibyshev fighting for survival, and several others were in parts unknown. Dad was still on U.S. soil at Camp Ritchie (Daddy Went to Spy School!), diligently writing letters to the American Red Cross and the State Department in an unrelenting mission to bring his family home.

Within a short time, Dad would be boarding a medical ship, the Jarret M. Huddleston, on the way to England. It was a busy and nerve-wracking time.

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Back in Castlebar

Here’s an update to what happened to the Brennan family Bible, which I had spoken about a few years ago. (Not Lincoln or the Queen—but Still Very Cool.)

I recently went to Ireland to visit the beautiful country where many of my mom’s family have their roots, and I also returned a family Bible, which had made its way from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York, then Staten Island, and later to my aunt, Marian Carey Palazzo in Boonton, New Jersey in 1981. After her death, my daughter Jamie drove it from New Jersey to me in South Carolina.

Transporting it was no easy task. The Bible weighs 13 pounds, but as challenging as it was for us to bring it to Ireland, it was a piece of cake compared to what it must have been in 1862!

The Bible is approximately 170 years old, and is therefore quite worn. That was not surprising considering how many hands touched it and how many times it was moved over the years. The cover was literally falling off, so we secured it with self-adhesive bandages for its journey across the pond.

I knew getting through the security checkpoints at Charlotte airport would be challenging. We had to wait while they unwrapped the bandages and insisted on peeking through each page, looking for who knows what. I assured them that if there was anything of value hidden inside, I would have removed it long ago. Trust me. I looked many times for that certificate or photo or perhaps a touching letter. Luckily, the TSA agent recognized the age and let my husband help her open it, which is apparently rarely allowed.

Although I wanted to return it years ago, I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it without risking its loss or further damaging it. I refused to let it out of my sight. I scoured stores seeking a bag large enough to carry it, yet small enough to fit under my airline seat, and I finally located it at TJ Maxx.

After the trip across the Atlantic, it was placed in a taxi, then onto a train for a 2 ½ hour ride to Galway, passing by lush farmland brimming with sheep and cows grazing peacefully in the fields.  My precious cargo remained in the bag at our hotel, while we explored Kylemore Abbey, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Burren. I highly recommend all three.


Next, we loaded the Bible onto a bus for a short ride to Castlebar, where we were greeted by our friend, Brian Hoban, who carefully placed it into his car for the ride to the local tourist office, where we presented it to the town.

After we left, it was transferred to its new home at the county library—its final resting place.

I loved waking up each morning and looking at it siting safely away from the curious eyes of my two grandchildren, but it is back home and in a place where more people will see it.

But I will miss it.


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100 Years Ago Today

One hundred years ago today, my father was born in the town of Rockaway, New Jersey–the fifth child of Russian immigrants. While I would never claim that “my dad was better than your dad,” I will assert that my father’s life was more unique than most.

At the age of 12, his family relocated to the Soviet Union because my grandfather believed he would easily find work there. That move had a profound effect on the lives of Dad and his family. While he enjoyed the exposure to the opera and ballet, which would never have happened in his school in New Jersey, that benefit was overshadowed by the increasing loss of freedom. The assassination of one of Stalin’s closest friends and rivals was the impetus to a massive purge in which millions of Soviet citizens were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. One of Dad’s claims was that he was present at a meeting allegedly attended by the assassin.

On his return to NJ in June of 1941, he passed through Japan. My father told us over and over that he was warned by a Japanese police officer, whose English language skills were mediocre, that he needed to leave quickly because “Japan was going to ‘boom-boom’ the United States.”

Five months later, he was in the army, just one month before that prediction became a reality. During his time in the army, he worked tirelessly to bring the rest of his family home. I discovered evidence of this in letters, memos, and telegrams at the National Archives—one even written by the Secretary of State.

This past week I learned that 2 ½ years after leaving for Fort Dix, Dad was sent to Intelligence School at Fort Ritchie in Maryland. I know the exact dates of his attendance as well as the specific course in which he was trained. This was the first piece of evidence to a part of Dad’s life which surprised none of us.

But to me, he was the person who taught me to ride a bike in the backyard, change a tire before I got my driver’s license, assemble and disassemble our above-ground pool each year, constantly take wrong turns on family trips, mispronounce numerous words and phrases (like Doogie Howser), continually call the local chemical company to complain about the smell emanating from the building, and insist that each new grandchild was smarter than the previous. He was kind of quirky and spoke his mind sometimes too much, but that was Dad, and now I know what an amazing and difficult life he led.

So if your father has stories that surpass those of my Dad, I hope you have written them down because I would love to read them.

If you want to read his story, you can download it FREE today through April 12.

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Daddy Went to Spy School!

Every few months I google my name to see if anything new has appeared—my maiden name, not my current name. I try the many variations I have discovered, and this week, I got a new hit. On the second page of my Google search a website appeared: V-Z Surnames–The Ritchie Boys.

Apparently during World War II there was a camp in northern Maryland used to train Intelligence personnel, and my dad’s name was on the roster. Dad was trained as a spy? That was news to me because I always thought that my father was part of a medical unit. I even have the photographs of Dad with a plethora of nurses appearing to be having a jolly good time.

Then I recalled a mysterious line in his discharge papers which said, “8 weeks aerial photo interp” alongside “8 weeks surgical.” I sent a letter of inquiry to someone affiliated with the webpage.

I immediately heard back from the son of the primary researcher, who stated that “I would say he had foreign language knowledge that they wanted to use. Most of them were translators, interrogators, spies, etc…”

Follow-up emails confirmed what I already knew since I had a very unique name: Dad was a Ritchie Boy. What surprised me, and I disagree based upon a conversation that my brother had with my father many years ago, was that Dad was an infantry cadet in the Russian Army in 1938. That would have been after he graduated from high school in June of that year. My father had said that he refused to enter the Soviet Army because he was an American citizen, so I am curious why that would be in his file.

The Ritchie Boys Researcher, Daniel Gross, told me that in his opinion, Dad’s medical skills may have been of greater value than his Russian language skills or his ability to interpret aerial photographs.

Many of the Ritchie Boys were German Jews, whose German-language skills were particularly useful as interrogators. Mr. Gross stated that “In cases where a Ritchie Boy is assigned to a team and/or attached to a unit (Division, Army, etc), I can usually find some additional information on the soldier but in the case of your father, I wasn’t able to get additional service information from these records.”

So there is another mystery about Dad that will never get resolved. Since he returned to work on a medical ship, I asked if he would still be considered a Ritchie Boy. Here’s what Mr. Gross said, “One of the (many) unresolved points is the definition of a Ritchie Boy (whether it should be narrow, e.g. only graduates of the basic 8-week course or broader to include non-graduates of the 8-week course, plus graduates of shorter courses, etc).

In any case, it has been verified that my father went to Intelligence School, and I have a slip of paper to prove it.

To learn more about these men, go to “The Ritchie Boys.”






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