After All These Years

I was watching a news show on television Tuesday night—The Rachel Maddow Show—and the introductory story mentioned that the Soviet Union used to have an official travel agency. That comment immediately got my attention, particularly when she stated that it was created by Joseph Stalin. At the same moment Rachel announced its name, so did I. It was called Intourist. She told her audience what I already knew, which was that all foreigners who visited the USSR during the regime of Stalin were required to use Intourist, which managed all travel arrangements, including the use of particular hotels.

She mentioned that all workers, from the bellboys to the cooks to the maids all worked for the NKVD, which was the “secret police agency later known as the KGB.” Their job was not only to clean the rooms and prepare meals, but also to keep a very close watch on the foreign tourists.

I was familiar with Intourist because my father’s brother Tony worked there briefly around 1940. I don’t know if he was involved in anything nefarious, but I was told by a Russian-history professor friend that

Tony’s work as an Intourist guide almost certainly put him into contact with the NKVD, which kept a watchful eye on foreign tourists, particularly at that time. He probably had to inform on foreigners. At the same time, he might have been able to establish connections to the outside world through the foreigners he met. So, his situation, during a time of war, was quite precarious. The NKVD was very suspicious of Soviet people who had any contact with foreigners, particularly an American immigrant working for Intourist…. Perhaps Tony stumbled onto some important information related to these larger world events. Or, maybe he was overheard criticizing Soviet policy.

Shortly before my father’s return to the United States, he was contact by his brother, who told him he had some information he wanted Dad to report to the FBI. Before they could meet, my uncle died under mysterious circumstances. The death certificate said the cause of death was pneumonia, but my family always believed otherwise. My visit to the National Archives mentioned the family’s suspicions.

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Now, seventy-six years later Intourist is in the news again. I can’t help wondering what my father would think about this.

 

 

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It Never Hurts to Ask

Over the years as I was assembling my father’s story, I had to rely on assistance from outsiders, since Dad was not around to fill in the many pieces himself. I was surprised that no one, despite some with quite impressive resumes, denied any of my requests for help.

The first was a man named Leo Melamed, who had escaped from Poland at the outbreak of the Second World War, crossing the USSR on the Trans Siberian Railway with his parents within months of my father. He went on to a successful career, beginning as an attorney, and ultimately chaired the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He told his story in a book, “Escape to the Futures.”

When I emailed him simply to ask if his book detailed his experiences traveling across the Soviet Union and his journey to Japan by boat, he offered to speak with me of his experiences. I was grateful for his help in giving me insights into my father’s similar experiences traveling to the States at that rather precarious time. He asked me if Dad played chess, and when I answered yes, he told me that my father may have learned how to play chess on the train.

I read a book called “Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret,” written by Steve Luxenberg of the Washington Post. The book details the discovery of a “secret aunt,” who spent many years in a mental institution in Michigan. Beginning during the Great Depression and traveling to several locals—including Russia—Mr. Luxenberg searched for answers to his family story. He employed several of the same techniques as I did, such as genealogy research, to uncover the mystery of his aunt.

Reading this book inspired me to dig further for more information on my father, so I wrote to Steve to thank him. We exchanged several emails, and he answered some of my questions on immigrant travel during the time my grandmother first came to the United States.

“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” by Erik Larsen, is the story of the first American ambassador under Hitler’s regime, and his daughter—William and Martha Dodd. I was quite interested in his sources, so I wrote to him, asking where I might find Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s papers. I hoped there would be some mention of my father’s family among them.

Mr. Larson responded to my inquiry, recommending a visit to the Library of Congress. In a second letter, he explained how to maneuver my way through the library, even suggesting I not arrive too early, stating that the security line is quite slow. “Have an extra cup of coffee, arrive about an hour after opening, and you won’t find much of a line.”  Sadly, my several days at the Library of Congress did not uncover any information on my family, but now I am the proud owner of a Library of Congress card!

Finally, Andrew Meier, professor, journalist, and author of “The Lost Spy,” was my final author extraordinaire who agreed to answer questions I had regarding particular facts I was trying to verify. He answered my email within three days and supplied me with his phone number so we could talk further.

It was important to me that my book be as factual as possible. I learned the lesson that it never hurts to ask. I was always most pleasantly surprised.

escape-to-the-futures            annies-ghosts             in-the-garden-of-beasts           the-lost-spy

 

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Goodreads Giveaway- Will it Work?

As I write this, it is 3:30 Sunday afternoon, the last day of my experiment with a Goodreads Giveaway. With just 11 ½ hours remaining, there are 785 people who have entered to win one of two copies of my book, “Do Svidanya Dad.” This has far exceeded my target of “5,” or the 400 people who had already entered on Friday morning when I posted “More Than Just a Liner for Your Birdcage.”

I think I will learn the names of the two winners this week, and then I will wait and see if this contest begins to generate any sales. Goodreads provides stats, which shows that 363 people have added my book to their shelves, so my hope is that someone will decide to purchase it one day. The thing is, I have been able to look at the shelves of the people who have placed it on theirs, and I have noticed that some readers have huge virtual bookcases, with as many as 72000 on their shelf! (Do they have a life besides reading?)  Somehow, I doubt they will make it to mine.

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But I am encouraged, because at least 785+ people have heard of my story. With Russia being a particularly hot item in the news these days, I am hoping that readers will be interested in learning the story of an American family who willingly moved to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression Era, believing it would be the answer to their poverty. I know that it was a huge mistake, and you will too if you read it.

I will report back with the effect of this experiment on my sales.

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More Than Just a Liner for Your Birdcage

I am testing the waters of a Goodreads Giveaway as a means of increasing exposure to my book. Goodreads, for those not familiar with this website, is a place where one can explore the world of books. It is similar to Facebook in that you can find friends and have discussions, but all the talk is book-related. There is no politicking, no comments on who is playing the newest game or cooking the latest recipes. Instead, there are virtual book clubs and contests to win books.

Would someone want to enter a contest to win my book? Why not try? So after careful research, I decided against Goodreads’ suggestion to have a month-long giveaway of “as many as I can afford.” I chose to have my contest for just fifteen days rather than a month, beginning on Christmas Eve, and I am giving away only two books.  The reasoning is that there are categories for “Ending Soon” and “Recently Listed,” so an author may get the most entries at the beginning and end of a giveaway, and some studies have shown that the number of books given away does not encourage more contest entries.

Being the insecure writer that I am, my initial target was “5,” so when I had around 60 on the first day, I was shocked and thrilled. I have noticed more activity on the first day than on subsequent days. Now, on day #13, there are 400 people who are interested in getting a free copy of my book! Will they read it, or perhaps line their bird cages with it? Who knows, but in any case, I am hoping that a few of those that entered will one day read my book. We shall see. and I must say, the interest was more than I ever expected. Very cool!

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I’m in Good Company

Four years ago, I assembled my bucket list, and as this is a new year, I decided to see how I am doing. After analyzing every item, I have decided that it needs a little tweaking. It needs to be a fluid list, rather than written in cement.

The first item is “learn to serve,” which refers to a tennis ball. That is the first item to go, since my tennis days have been replaced by golf (which is suspended until after my hip surgery in March). I will replace that with “learn to play golf good enough to begin keeping score.”

Next at bat is “climb a rock wall.” I don’t think I can count the wall on the playground, so again, that will wait until after I recover.

The third item is “write a book,” which—hallelujah—I have accomplished, and that is the subject of today’s post. As I mentioned several times previously, since I did not specifically set out to write my book, I had not researched all the work involved post-publishing. Slowly, I am trying to promote it via my author page, Facebook page, this blog, Goodreads, and a pathetic attempt at tweeting.

Two of the pieces of advice which I have been given were in several online marketing articles and by numerous people (including my husband). It has been suggested that I must write another book, because apparently the first book is not always noticed until a second one is written. So I have thought about what to write and have come to the realization that I am just not ready. I have too many other pots in the fire to take the time needed to write another book at this time, and I just don’t want to stop working on those projects. I just don’t! (And once you are old enough to be a grandma, it’s time to start doing what you want.)

I googled “famous one-novel authors,” and the results made me quite happy:

  • Margaret Mitchell- “Gone with the Wind”
  • Boris Pasternak- “Dr. Zhivago
  • Emily Bronte- “Wuthering Heights”
  • Sylvia Plath- “The Bell Jar”
  • Anna Sewell- “Black Beauty”
  • J.D. Salinger- “The Catcher in the Rye”

There are more, but I am just listing some of the most famous classics. A more recent one-book success is Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help.”

So for now I am going to enjoy writing my two blogs, promote my book, figure out if my grandchildren have Huguenot roots since there is college scholarship money available to their descendants, help my friend prove her lineage to a Revolutionary War hero so she can join the DAR, complete my family cookbook, work on my bucket list (the rest, with the exception of “learn a foreign language” involves traveling), and find the owners or relatives of some of the photographs lying around in my desk drawer.

That’s my New Year resolution! If I don’t sell many copies of “Do Svidanya Dad” because I am choosing, for now, to not write a second novel, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I feel satisfied with my decision.
gone-with-the-wind   dr-zhivago   wuthering-heights   the-bell-jar  black-beauty  catcher-in-the-rye-cover

 

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In It to Win It

Merry Christmas Eve everyone! Beginning today, enter my Goodreads Contest to win a copy of “Do Svidanya Dad” and learn the story of what happened when my dad and his family moved to the Soviet Union when he was just a boy. I guess you can say that this is a bucket list item that I finally accomplished. Now, once I have my hip surgery in March, I can consider climbing that rock wall and knock another item off the list.

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Click the photo to enter the contest.

 

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Thankful at Christmas

With Christmas just a few days away, I am thinking how lucky my family is compared with so many others. Although we will not all be together, none of us is lacking any of the basics to live: we each have a roof over our head, we never worry about going hungry, my children all have successful careers, and we are healthy. Below is an excerpt from my book, explaining what was happening to my Russian grandparents and aunts Christmas week eighty-five year ago. They were not so fortunate.

How their lives had changed! This time eleven years ago, they had been safe and warm in their New Jersey home preparing for Christmas instead of fighting to survive. Although their holiday celebrations were modest, how they longed for those days again!

 The train advanced from station to station much like a turtle in search of a new home. They had now traveled over sixteen hundred miles since leaving Novgorod almost four months ago.

 It was just three days before Christmas, and what an awful day it wasa terribly unlucky day! The family became separated from one another. When they boarded the train at the Kuzino Station, they realized Pa was not with them. At the next station, Anna and Helen disembarked to search for him and were left behind when the train departed. They had no choice but to walk, using only the train tracks as their guide.

 “Helen, if we get going right away, we should be able to catch them. You know how slowly that train moves. That’s why they call it the Kuibyshev Komet,” Anna sarcastically said to her sister.

They trudged through the blinding snow, the wind howling at their backs as they fought an almost futile battle to follow the disappearing tracks. They walked for about six miles before reaching the train. Although the boxcars were unheated, traveling on the train was still preferable to walking in sub-zero weather with the ground covered with deep snow and slippery ice.

 Chilly temperatures and snow were familiar to all of them. They experienced cold winters before, but they never expected the arctic air which dipped to forty degrees below zero and pierced their skin like a dull kitchen knife. It was so frigid they could spit, and the spittle would freeze and roll like a marble when it hit the ground. Their hope of surviving the trip diminished with each passing day.

 Miraculously, Helen and Anna found Pa at the next station along with the rest of the family. The next day, Christmas Eve, gave them great joy. Most of the family was together, and they received a wonderful meal at the Sverdlovsk Station: bread, soup, cereal, and bologna. In addition, for the children on the train, there were buns, eggs, white bread, farina, cereal, and soup. Nancy was given this additional food because of her condition.

 So what do we have to complain about here? We all watch the news and see the children in Aleppo, and the recent attacks in Berlin. I personally may have my own concerns, but in the big scheme of happenings around the world, they are trite.

I am taking a blog-break until 2017 in order to relax during the holidays. For any interested readers in the U.S., UK, and Ireland, I am doing a Goodreads Giveaway of my book beginning Christmas Eve and continuing until January 8. (The contest will go live during that period, with a link from here, on my Facebook page, and Twitter.)

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a very Happy New Year!

first-christmas-1978

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