My previous blog, Was Anyone Safe? mentioned that “his brother and sisters had been instructed to proceed to Moscow to pick up their passports.” There is a subtle message from me in this statement- brother is singular, but Dad had two brothers. The missing plural was not an error of omission; it was intentional.
One day in early May 1940, Dad received a telephone call from his brother Tony, who knew of my father’s intention to return to the United States. At that time, Dad and the rest of the family had been exiled to Novgorod, while Tony remained in Leningrad as a tour guide for Intourist.
Tony wanted to meet with my father because he had something to tell him that could not be discussed on the telephone. My uncle was worried that his phone calls were being monitored.
My father had told us the story many times. Tony told Dad that when he returned to the United States, it was important for my father to meet with the FBI. He said that he had some information which my uncle believed would cause a diplomatic break between the United States and the Soviet Union. He asked Dad to come to Leningrad to meet him because he was ill with pneumonia and was unable to travel.
A short time later, my father received a second call from Tony, who told Dad that his fever had dropped which meant he was getting better. Despite the improvements in his health, Tony had been visited by someone who insisted on sending a “doctor” the next day to examine my uncle. Tony told my father that he did not believe the man who was being sent was actually a doctor. “If he comes,” Tony told Dad, “then I know I will be dead within twenty-four hours.”
That was the last time any of them heard from Tony, and the family was convinced he was poisoned by the NKVD (secret police) because he knew too much. Unfortunately, whatever information he wanted to tell my father was lost forever. What really happened to Tony? I have a friend, a professor of Russian history at Washington and Lee University, who offered several theories:
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 contacts with foreigners, particularly an American immigrant working for Intourist. May 1940 was such a dangerous time — the USSR had just defeated Finland in a short war, part of which was fought only 25 miles or so north of Leningrad. (The USSR lost somewhere between 127,000 to maybe 200,000 soldiers in the war, and many of the wounded were treated in Leningrad hospitals.) Germany at this time was in the process of invading and defeating France, and the USSR, as Germany’s ally, was preparing to go into and annex Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania the following month. Perhaps Tony stumbled on to some important information related to these larger world events. Or, maybe he was overheard criticizing Soviet policy.
I have omitted mentioning Tony’s death intentionally. I stumbled across a blog written by a woman who had been traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway beginning on September 12 of this year. Following her blog was another way for me to see the landscape of what my father may have seen so many years ago. Although I realize that the buildings, roads, and even the train itself have undergone changes, the mountains, rivers, and lakes will be the same. Take a look at her blog, The Trans-Siberian Railway at last! and her ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
While she was in St. Petersburg, my new blogging traveler-friend, who was also following me, kindly offered to take pictures for me. Tomorrow I will show her photos of the cemetery where Uncle Tony was buried.