Was Anyone Safe?

It will come as no surprise that whenever Dad wrote a letter to anyone- the State Department, the American Embassy, an Army official- the response usually took months. There was a war going on, so his letters were not a high priority, and both Dad and his family were on the move.

My father returned to New Jersey in early July 1941. He stayed at the home of his godmother, Mrs. August Chwat on 29 Broad Street in Rockaway, which was a short distance from the home he left ten years earlier. Since he was twenty-two years old, he was required to register for the draft. His family had no way of knowing this.

On September 16, 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act, the first peacetime draft was passed by Congress. Initially, all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six were required to register. When the United States entered the war, the age requirement to register was expanded to include ages eighteen to sixty-five.

As Dad learned when he reached Honolulu on June 22, Germany invaded the Soviet Union on that day, so he must have been wondering and worrying about his family.  It was clear to me from the letters I found at the National Archives that neither he nor his family knew the whereabouts of the other.

Within forty-eight hours after Hitler’s troops stormed into the Soviet Union, Stalin swiftly organized an Evacuation Council to oversee the withdrawal of millions of citizens away from the warzone.  No plans had been in place prior to the invasion because Stalin had been certain that no battles would ever be fought on Soviet soil.

My father wrote a letter to the State Department on July 19 and then watched for news about the hostilities abroad. What he learned was that two months after he said good-bye to his family in Novgorod, the Nazi’s were progressing deeper into Soviet territory, advancing on the cities of Moscow and Leningrad.  Dad must have known this news meant that the hourglass was nearly empty for his family.

The Germans had already attacked Minsk and Smolensk, which were just a few hundred miles away from where they had been living. Novgorod was certainly in Hitler’s path. Although his brother and sisters had been instructed to proceed to Moscow to pick up their passports so that they could also return to New Jersey, the fact that the war was knocking at their door changed everything.

The city of Novgorod fell to the Germans in August and Dad had no way of knowing if his family was dead or alive. The wait for news from them must have been torturous.

By the seventh of November, Dad arrived at Fort Dix, New Jersey, now a private in the United States Army.

The following month, when Japan surprised most everyone but my father with their attack on Pearl Harbor, he was now enrolled in a sixteen-week course training him to assist doctors on the battle lines.  The skills he had begun at the Leningrad Medical Institute were now becoming useful.

Meanwhile, the State Department was trying to locate Dad’s family to try to get them out of there, but transportation via the Trans-Siberian route ended the day Hitler’s forces attacked the Soviet Union. A new route home would be necessary. At the same time, no one, not even the State Department, was aware that Dad was now stationed at Fort Oglethorpe-just north of Atlanta, Georgia. Communication on both continents was a mess! Neither Dad nor his parents knew the fate of the other.

Sources:  John Wooley and Gerhard Peters, UC Santa Barbara, “The American Presidency Project,” accessed July 13, 2013, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15858.

Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival of the Soviet Union at War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009), 26.


About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as ancestry.com, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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3 Responses to Was Anyone Safe?

  1. Sheryl says:

    What a story! Every time I read a new post, I’m even more amazed by his story.

  2. kjw616 says:

    Thanks Sheryl! That’s how I felt as I started uncovering more of the story. I am happy to see that Dad’s story is of interest to people like you- not in the family.

  3. Pingback: The Buzz About What Happened to Tony | Do Svidanya Dad

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