I am fortunate that my two grandmothers lived long enough for me to remember them, but I really only knew my mother’s mom, who lived in the house next to us for my first thirteen years. My Russian grandma—Baba—came into my life when I was eighteen months old. She lived with us for a while, but because she only spoke Russian, I never was able to speak with her unless my father acted as an interpreter.
After years of research, I now know what an extraordinary woman she was. As a young Russian bride, she found herself alone after my grandfather suddenly left, fearing repercussions from the government after refusing to participate in pogroms (killing of Jews). The story was that she heard nothing from him for at least five years and feared he had died.
After receiving a letter informing her that he had made his way to America, she boarded a steamer with her brother-in-law for a very rough, two-week journey to New York. Six children and eighteen years later, she found herself headed back to her homeland after their American dream was shattered by the hardships of the Great Depression.
During the next twenty-six years, she lived under the rule of Joseph Stalin, a man who literally eliminated anyone who crossed him.
Ten years after leaving her home in Rockaway, New Jersey, my grandparents and four of their children became wartime refugees, forced to flee their home with nothing but what they could carry on their backs or push in a wheelbarrow.
For five months, she endured brutal temperatures dipping as low as -40º as they all walked, hid in abandoned barns, and rode in crowded, unheated trains until they reached their final destination over 1000 miles away.
Baba had to endure enormous suffering and incredible heartache: the loss of two children directly attributed to the actions of the Soviet secret police; the death of my grandfather, who died from pneumonia and starvation after sleeping outside an overcrowded train station; and the death of her first grandchild, who perished at the age of just one month, likely from malnutrition because there was little food for any of them.
When Baba finally returned to New Jersey, she left behind three grandchildren between the ages of ten and fifteen, who she never saw again. As a grandmother myself, I cannot imagine how unbearable that must have felt.
So whenever I have a bad day, I think about my grandmother. Nothing in my life can ever compare with what she had to endure. What a courageous, strong woman she was. She never gave up.