I Don’t Remember

Chapter 2 of my book, Do Svidanya Dad: Tracing the Story of an American Family Trapped in the USSR, explains the moment when I realized  I made a huge mistake that I could never fix. Perhaps it is not too late for you.

Dear Dad,

“I just don’t remember.” The instant you uttered those words, I knew I made a terrible mistake that could never be erased. I was stunned and felt a deep sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realized I waited too long to talk to you, and your memories were lost forever.

On that day, you and I were watching a video that David filmed fifteen years earlier. It showed you looking at an old photo album and reminiscing about the friends and family in the pictures. You had a sharp memory then, describing the places you visited and associated anecdotes. I was excited when I first saw the video and later sad and disappointed that I had never seen it years ago. You loved watching it.

Until then, I was certain I knew you because you had been my dad for fifty-three years. I recalled a man who loved his family and job at Allied Chemical. I did not stop to speculate about the boy who became my father or to consider the events in your past which molded your personality.

You were proud of your children–Arlene, Ellen, Mart, Dave, and me. As each new grandchild arrived, you insisted that each child was more brilliant than the preceding one. You were always a nag, but as a parent, I understand it was because you wanted us to make as few mistakes as possible.

You worked hard to ensure there was a meal on the table and clothing on our backs. I never had a sense of being poor or disadvantaged. If you could analyze how to fix something, you did it yourself. I remember when Ellen and I discovered a broken window behind the washer in the basement. You repaired it with a Tupperware lid, cardboard, and duct tape. It was not a professional fix, but it solved the problem and cost nothing. You were resourceful!

It was not until after you died that I considered how much more there was to your story. You were thirty-six when I was born–the first of your five children–so you lived many years before becoming a father. While you told us tales of your past BC–before children–I believed little. I was too busy studying, spending time with my friends, and later raising my own family to ask questions.

Everyone who knew you was aware that you spent nearly ten years living in Russia. While other kids’ dads told stories of playing baseball or fishing in the local pond, you spun tales of mingling with Russian assassins and later trying to warn a United States intelligence agent of the Pearl Harbor attack. At our skepticism you always said, “I have the papers to prove it.”

What papers? Why did you never show them to me, and why did I never ask? I have asked myself this question over and over, Dad!

What was it like moving to Russia as a young American boy or coming of age in a country under the cold-blooded leadership of Joseph Stalin? You escaped by traveling across the whole continent of Russia alone ahead of America’s entrance into World War II. How? Now, in “that moment,” I desperately wanted to know it all, but the hourglass was empty.

That moment has haunted me. I imagine it so often, and the memory evokes so many emotions–anger, disappointment, guilt, and sadness. Most of those emotions are directed toward myself. If only I had taken the time to listen when you tried to share your memories, I would be familiar with your history, Dad, and you would have known I was interested.

I cannot change the past. “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

After you passed away, I decided to begin. I made it my mission to learn what horrors your family suffered in Russia and the role you played in bringing them home. Genealogy research, and that “eureka moment,” when I stumbled upon telegrams, memos, and letters you wrote now stored at the National Archives, enabled me to assemble your very complicated youth. I filled in the blanks by interviewing individuals who had traveled similar roads as you. What I discovered and who I met on my journey of discovery was surprising.

I hope an afterlife exists and you know what I am doing. Several of my friends have suggested that maybe you have been there walking beside me and guiding me toward many of the explanations I have been seeking. Perhaps you are.

I watched that recording many times and think of you every day. I admire you as I learned how nothing prevented you from doing what you had to do to protect your family. I am sorry and I hope you will forgive me.



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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