Happy Birthday Baba

Today is Baba’s birthday—a day we never celebrated because we were told she did not know the day of her birth, so we observed the day on Mother’s Day. Maybe she only remembered the month as May. Still, I don’t understand why my father did not know the specific date since I have found several documents, including a journal written by her daughter, stating that my grandmother was born on May 15, 1886.

When I wrote my Mother’s Day tribute to her last week (Baba- A True Survivor), I forgot to mention this detail since I never knew the specific date until I uncovered it via Ancestry.com and my aunt’s journal. This lack of knowledge makes me think that even her own children did not celebrate the day—a thought which I find to be so sad.

I think back on my son-in-law’s birthday last week. His four-year-old son was so excited to celebrate his dad’s big day. He told my daughter what kind of cake to make or buy, and was quite insistent that they have balloons and goody bags.

Well, the goody bags did not happen, but when my daughter suggested they get party hats instead, my grandson happily acquiesced. They decorated the cake, added the candles, and after dinner, they all put on their pointy birthday hats and sang to Dad. What family does not enjoy celebrating each other’s day?

When my father was growing up, I wonder if his family celebrated any birthdays. Did they invite their friends over, did they just have a small family party, or were their birthdays just another day? I just cannot believe they ignored the birthdays of any of them. So why didn’t Dad know?

This evening, when I have my dinner, I will lift up my glass and toast to my grandmother, Efrosinia Petrovna Wardamasky. Happy Birthday, Baba!

 

 

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Baba- A True Survivor

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.

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He Should Have Passed on the Intourist Job

I was skimming through my father’s photo album and came across several photos of his older brother, Tony, dressed in a jacket and tie, posing with another young man who worked with him for Intourist. Intourist was the Soviet state travel agency, founded in 1929 by Stalin and the People’s Commissariat of Travel.

At that time, the impetus for forming this agency was to improve the image of the country and bring in foreign currency, which was vital to the Soviet economy. According to their website, the official birthday of Intourist was April 12, 1929. They had two branches under their wing—one involved in bringing in tourists from outside the country, and the other involved in tourism inside the country which was aimed at providing accommodations, tours, souvenirs, and excursions.

When my dad’s family was forced to leave Leningrad after they refused to become Soviet citizens, they all secured jobs in order to save enough money for the return trip to New Jersey. My father worked as an electrician, his younger brother was a machinist, one sister was a librarian, her twin sister was employed as a telephone operator, and the third sister taught high school English. His older brother had the most interesting, and personally dangerous job, since he worked for Intourist.

Not only did that job put him into direct contact with members of the secret police—the NKVD—but he may have tried to communicate with citizens outside the Soviet Union. In the end, this work had tragic consequences for him.

As we are constantly seeing in the news, there is not a whole lot of respect for the lives of anyone who crosses someone in the Russian government. We have seen the interviews with the journalist who has lived to tell the tale of being poisoned twice, after promoting a film about a friend who was shot just yards from the Kremlin a few years ago. Punishment for publicly speaking negatively about the Russian government has been happening for a long time. Thank goodness we are still able to state our opinions about our government without fear of reprisals, at least for now.

 

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Archives III–South Carolina Branch

After my father died, I discovered that the drawers in his dresser were like the annex of the National Archives, filled with many documents pertinent to the history of his family. In fact, after visiting the archives several years ago and having the letters, documents, and memos from the Soviet consular section pulled, I discovered that what I found in his bedroom were the missing pieces delivered to me from those cardboard boxes in that historic building. All thoses materials were invaluable in helping me learn my father’s story.

Now I have his documents and photographs sitting in my house along with the copies from Archives II, and pictures that Dad carried with him from New Jersey to Leningrad, across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok, then onto a boat to Japan, a train to Yokohama, a ship to San Francisco, a train to New York, and then a car to South Carolina. Now my house is the new annex of the all those records. Who will be the caretaker of them when I am gone? I truly hope that one of my children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews will inherit my interest in our family history. But they should be warned that it is a load of stuff!

Periodically I review all those papers in my private files, hoping to find something I missed or that, perhaps, should be sent to an individual who would appreciate what I have more than me. An example is a photograph I found of his platoon at the hospital where he was stationed in Atlanta—Lawson General Hospital, Company C, 1st Platoon, January 1943.

I also found a program filled with pictures from the commencement exercises at the hospital: The Dental Section, Laboratory Section, Medical Section, X-Ray Section, Surgical Section, Headquarters Company, and the Administrative and Professional Staff.

Any takers out there? I will happily send, at a minimum, copies of these treasures.

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Untrustworthy Now and Then

When my grandparents decided to leave their New Jersey home and move their family to the Soviet Union, it was a risky decision. Would there really be plenty of job opportunities awaiting them, and how would they be received after having been away from their homeland for so many years?

Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been dissolved by President Truman, so there was no one to protect them. While my grandparents were not American citizens at the time, my father and his siblings were, as well as my grandfather’s brother.

Two years after their arrival, FDR became president, and almost immediately, he sought to reestablish diplomatic relations between the new countries. (Hmm—sounds familiar.Let’s be best friends with the USSR, folks!)

Russia had an unpaid debt to the U.S. which Roosevelt hoped to settle, he wanted the Russians to stop meddling in our domestic affairs, and he wanted assurances that Americans living in the USSR would have their religious and legal rights protected.

This was probably all good news to my grandparents, but could the Russians really be trusted to keep their word? Just turn on the news today and you will have your answer. And as in the past, money was the driving force.

In less than ten years, this agreement would have tragic, personal consequences to one of my father’s siblings. Why would anyone ever believe that a pact with the Russian government would be honored?

bit.ly/2oKFEv9

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What Would Dad Think?

My dad never discussed politics with us, at least that is what my now senior mind recalls. We did not sit around the dinner table and have animated discussions about the upcoming elections and he did not voice many opinions regarding the current politicians in office. I did not know if he was a Democrat, Republican, or an Independent.

According to my father, my grandfather advised him to “never join anything,” for he believed that if he had done so, he would have been arrested by the Soviet secret police. Dad could not forget those words even after returning to America.

Still, I am positive that if he were alive today, he would have finally opened up and told us his views on politics. Seeing the coziness between the Soviet president and our current President of the United States, I am confident that he would have been vehemently opposed to such an alliance. He would never have accepted such a friendship after having lost several family members, whose deaths he believed were directly attributed to the policies of Josef Stalin.

Dad would have had no patience to the daily “alt-facts,” and he would have told us they were lies. The older he got, the more open he got with his opinions, and my mother had difficulty silencing him. A classic example was with one of my daughter’s boyfriends, who he believed was out of her life. When the young man walked into my parents’ home, Dad looked at him and said, “I thought we were done with you!”

So every time I hear a discussion of Putin and Trump, I would wonder, “What would Dad think?”

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Skip the Boring if You Want

I was recently lent a book to read by a friend who thought I would enjoy it because it was set in Moscow. It was 466 pages, so it was going to be quite the commitment to read, but I since I was recuperating from surgery, I knew I had plenty of time. The reviews were stellar, so I was excited to dig in and become a fan. However, I was having a very difficult time getting into it, yet I felt compelled to continue. “What is wrong with me,” I thought, because it was becoming more of a chore than an enjoyable read. It took about 200 pages until I my opinion changed, and by the time the book was winding down, I did not want it to end.

Reading that book made me wonder if readers of my book are bored by some of the earlier chapters, which contain a lot of background material and were written to set a tone for what I knew was the juicy stuff coming later. It is like a new television show. Sometimes you need to understand the characters and push through a few episodes before the action begins.

For example, I spent many pages detailing my grandparents early years before their six children were born, followed by the events leading up to their decision to return to Russia. I felt this helped show how desperate they must have felt after having taken such a difficult journey to America and then became part of a community with friends and a home they built.

I wanted the reader to see the six children as typical American kids, who led a simple life playing stickball with their friends, enjoying Halloween pranks, and taking trips into the city with their father. They could have been me.

It was important for me to spend time showing the kids having fun on the ship and the family having a nice vacation in London as a contrast to suddenly moving into a small apartment in a big city in a foreign country.

During one of my earlier drafts, I skipped all of this, partially because I did not know these details until I discovered the diary, but then added these incidents because they helped me understand how they must have felt.

The letters to my father were included because so many people wanted to know how I was able to learn so many details, and while I was writing I was always having conversations with my father in my head. Still, as the person who researched this story, I admit that the best part of the story for me was learning what happened to my father after he got on that train in Moscow headed back to New Jersey across the barren expanses of the Soviet Union. I never knew any of the details about what happened to the family he left behind and how instrumental he was in their return. So I can understand a reader wanting to skip those parts and move on to the action.

That was all part of my decision to self-publish the book, because I wanted total control over the book. Perhaps if I ever write another book—one which is not so personal—I will be more willing to relinquish control. But for this book, I say, skip the parts you find boring and incidental. I admit I occasionally do myself.

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