Never Stop Questioning

It was really important for me to understand the Communist mentality because it informs the choices that people made. After years of terror, the citizens had learned not to question their government. Thus when Stalin ordered the evacuation of the children of Leningrad, it was done. It’s true that mothers put their children on trains, with their names pinned to their coats, with no real idea where those trains were going and when they would see their children again, if ever.

These words, spoken by Kristin Hannah when she wrote about researching Winter Garden, were gut wrenching. While I understand what drove these women to such desperate actions, I cannot imagine how they were able to walk away from their children.

Except for our new war on terror here in the United States, we have not fought a war on American soil since the Civil War. I hope this never happens again.

Listening to our new president wanting to limit press conferences and instill distrust in the media has made me uneasy. Shortly after the election, the president-elect tweeted: “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”

Three months later, he famously tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

While other presidents have admitted to not being fond of the media, they knew its importance. President George W. Bush was constantly the source of negative comments, yet he understood the necessity of the news media: “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”

If Americans begin to fear our government and stop questioning those in power—even the President—then we risk becoming like those citizens of the Soviet Union during that horrible time when my father lived there. I often wonder how he was able to write all those letters to the State Department, embassies, and even the Secretary of State after growing up during the Great Purge.

Look what is happening in Russia now, where we are hearing about  journalists being killed under the Putin regime. We never what to become that nation. We need to protest, write letters, and question those in authority. That is what living in a free country is all about.

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The Year Slipped by Without Fanfare

Somehow the day passed and I missed mentioning it. I guess it’s because the year just flew by so quickly that I did not even notice that it has been one year since the publication of my book.

Looking back, the question is, did publishing this book about my father’s life in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era meet my expectations? Do I have any regrets sharing this story with friends, family, and strangers? If I did it again, would I change anything?

My answers are that I had few expectations. While I hoped that people outside my circle of friends and family would read it to learn about a little-known part of history, I was both pleasantly surprised and also a bit disappointed that more of the readers were strangers.

Because this was a personal account of what happened during those years between the Great Depression and the McCarthy era to my family, my expectations were that my readers would have been almost exclusively people who knew my dad or me. I also believed that such people would be more forgiving of my lack of professional writing ability, knowing that I had gone into the project with the primary goal of presenting the facts as I envisioned it and sharing my findings with them, not to write a best-seller.

I have considered writing another book, this time a fictionalized account of the story told through the eyes of my grandmother, imagining what she may have felt returning to the homeland of her family, including a mother’s fears of sending her son back home alone during the early stages of the Second World War.

But then I read Winter Garden, which touches on the horrors of the Siege of Leningrad, and I decided that I do not want to write something so sad yet. I would like to write another book, but I have just not decided on the topic.

I have no regrets about sharing this story with anyone and everyone, particularly because I believe my father always wanted his story told. No one was interested in all the details at the time. I stand by my story, even the letters I wrote to him because they show the thought process I had as I was writing the book. Perhaps I should have spent more time in painting highly descriptive pictures of the settings, people, and their feelings. Maybe I will do so if I write another book!

Beginning on Thursday, May 25 and continuing until June 4, I will be doing my second Goodreads Giveaway for people in the US, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. For anyone who has not read Do Svidanya Dad and is living in those countries, enter the Giveaway. I won a book. You may too.

As someone who loves competitions with myself, I wonder if I can beat the number of entrants to my other Giveaway of 961 people.

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A Relevant Prize for Me

I am reading a book which I won on a Goodreads Giveaway. (This may be my first win ever.) I had every intention on buying the book, since it was written by the author of quite possibly my all-time favorite book—The Nightingale, by Kristen Hannah.

Since I enjoyed that book so much I decided to see what else Ms. Hannah had written and was drawn to one of her earlier books—Winter Garden. When I noticed that part of the book was set in Leningrad, well, you can understand why I was intrigued. So I put it on my shelf with every intention of purchasing it, but then I won it instead.

It’s been sitting in my room just waiting for me to have the time to sit down and turn that first page. Now I wish I hadn’t waited so long, because that book has given me some insight into what life in Leningrad was like during the Second World War.

I read about people riding those evacuation trains, just like my father’s family did so many years ago, as German planes dropped their bombs from overhead. As I turned each page, I imagined what it must have been like as my grandparents and aunts huddled together on those unheated boxcars, trying to keep warm during the most brutal winter of the 20th century.

I am sure there were many times when they wondered how they would die, not if they would survive. How would they meet their demise? Would they die from the bombs, lack of food, or would they slowly freeze to death.

What I was not aware from my own research was that many of the evacuees were children, who were traveling on some of those trains without a mother or father. Thinking back on my own children, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for those mothers to send their little ones off, knowing that they may never see them again. So as bad as it must have been for my father’s family, at least they had each other.

Without going into further detail so as not to spoil the story, I would highly recommend checking out Winter Garden. You won’t be sorry.

Incidentally, it’s been a year since my book was pubished, so I have decided it is time for me to do another Goodread’s Giveaway. Stay tuned for details. It will begin next week.

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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 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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