Mama – Love, Tenacity and the Toll of History – Part I


Calling Mama’s childhood turbulent
is like saying Hitler was a little rude
or Stalin had a bit of a temper
or Lincoln got a little shot.


By the time Mama was born in the Ukraine,
Russia and Poland had carved her homeland
into east and west partitions, respectively.

Although there was nothing respectful about it.

And yet Dad always said he and Mum
were lucky to have been born in Western Ukraine,
because even though the Poles tried to suppress
the Ukrainian language and culture in schools,
their tactics were not as harsh as the Russians in the east.

Just how harsh, we couldn’t comprehend,
until we learned of the “Holodomor” (Killing by Hunger) of 1932-33,
one of the worst atrocities of the Soviet regime.

Many years later, in her Midwest kitchen,
Mama recited a cryptic little rhyme from her childhood.

 “Нi корови, нi свині,
тільки Сталін на стіні.”

Roughly translated, the little jingle says,

“No cows, no pigs,
but Stalin is on the wall.”

Today we would be saying,
There’s nothing in the fridge or pantry,
but this bastard’s on our wall.

When the first nightmare stories of the Holodomor
began making their rounds, Mama was just six years old. . .

. . . and entering her first year of primary school.

Just across the border in Eastern Ukraine,
Josef Stalin began implementing the most savage
manufactured famine in history.

While other Soviet republics suffered as well,
including people in the Caucasus and Central Asia,
the most draconian measures were reserved for Ukraine.

From November 18, 1932 peasants from Ukraine
were required to return extra grain
they had previously earned for meeting their targets.
State police and party brigades were sent into these regions
to root out any food they could find.

Two days later, a law was passed forcing peasants
who could not meet their grain quotas
to surrender any livestock they had.


Mama said it got so bad that
anyone caught hiding any food,
faced severe punishment, or worse.


Stories abounded of peoples’ desperate attempts to escape
across the borders, only to be re-captured
and forced back to their barren villages to starve.

 


Mom didn’t like to talk about the Holodomor;
her own Mother died during the Second World War,
from eating “a fresh piece of bread”
causing her stomach to twist…
“Consumption,” Mama called it.

During the dark days of the Holodomor
desperation led some to resort to the unspeakable.


For Stalin it was a win-win situation
reaping an annexed country’s resources
to claim success in his “5-Year Economic Plan,”
while “repopulating” dead and deserted Ukrainian villages
with Russians – killing two birds with one stone, as it were.

  To this day, apologists assert
the atrocity was a result of a bad economic policy,
and not a calculated genocide by a pathological tyrant.

How incongruous that the “Bread Basket of Europe”
with its rich fertile soil and thriving wheat farming would be
laid bare after undergoing a year of Stalin’s “Economic Plan.”


Stalin once famously said:

“The death of one man is a tragedy;
the death of a million is a statistic.”

…which explains how a mass murderer can sleep at night.


The first country to call the famine of 1932-33
“genocide” was the United States, in 1988.


The strange, systematic starving of neighboring countrymen
would leave an indelible mark on the survivors.

Little wonder our parents often reiterated
how sacred food was and how a little
piece of bread was like gold to the hungry.


A decade later, when 17-year old Dad left for the army,
his Mother gave him a “krumka” (crust) of rye bread,
as a symbol to ensure he would never go hungry.

Three decades later, after telling the story to his daughter,
he pulled out a plastic baggie holding a curious item,
the symbol that accompanied Dad through a world war,
from Ukraine to Germany, across Eastern Europe,
from Italy to England, and, finally, across the Atlantic to America,
the little crust of rye bread his Mama had given him.


Stalin’s ruthless acts in his sphere seemed about as barbaric as a madman in power could get, yet incredibly, his brutal policies would meet their monstrous match just over the border — in the form of a twisted Austrian corporal…

German propaganda urges Ukrainian youths
to stand up against their Bolshevik oppressors
and join the Ukrainian Division of the German Army.

In September 1939, German troops overran Poland’s western border, beginning WWII.  Simultaneously, Soviet forces were advancing into a wide area of Eastern Europe.  The brief thieves-pact between Hitler and Stalin took shape.  The Soviets occupied eastern Poland, including parts of Mom and Dad’s homeland.  Living in these war-zone areas were more than two million Jewish citizens.

Two years later, when Mama was just 15, Germany broke its faux treaty with Stalin, and “invaded” Western Ukraine.  In order to boot their Russian oppressors out, Ukrainians made a deal with the Germans, who promised young male villagers they would arm them to fight the Russians on the eastern front, and guaranteed Ukraine its independence thereafter. . .  And we all know how well that worked out.

As for the young and able girls, because of the labor shortage, Germany had dire need of farm and factory workers.

Nazi Army drives out the Soviet Army, leaving
Ukrainian people free to work for their liberators… Make sense?

 “This was life under Soviet rule!”

Germany illustrates
life under Soviet Hammer and Sickle.

Initially a recruiting campaign was launched in January 1942 for workers to go to Germany. “On January 28 the first special train will leave for Germany with hot meals in Kiev, Zdolbunov and Przemyśl” offered an announcement. The first train was full when it departed from Kiev on January 22.

At age 15, Mama, along with thousands of girls, many of them children as well as young teenagers, “volunteered” to work in Germany “for the good of their families back home.”

Mama was taken to a rural region in Limbach, Germany.  She never saw her parents or siblings again.  (47 years later, thanks to Gorbachev’s Glasnost period, she reunited with youngest sister Julia).

As for the young workers transported to Germany,
only later did Mom and her friends discover
there was a fine line between “guest worker” and “slave laborer.”


After Germany invaded Ukraine, heart-warming Soviet bull shit
worked hard to convince Ukrainians the Soviets were there
to liberate them – from one menace to the other that is . . .

On behalf of all the oppressed peoples living in Communist territories,
Germany is giving the Bolshevik bully a good crack on his pie hole.
Ironic how righteous one despotic dictator can get while thumping the other …


“Gangsters are Stalin’s last option.

German poster warning Ukrainians not to help the “Red Bandits.”


It was a time of great upheaval
It was a time of great suffering
It was a time of ruthless dictators
It was a good time for the propaganda artists


What can one say about Adolf Hitler that hasn’t already been said.  That he found a willing audience in his countrymen, as the other half shrank in fear and revulsion at the slowly-emerging terrifying truth of his goals?  That one man’s perverted philosophy was able to come to horrifying fruition through a government of criminals, armed with maniacal racist ideas, ready to invade, enslave, torture and butcher untold millions all in the name of a nirvana based on a deranged view of humanity.

And survivors of that experience were supposed to come out with their heads on straight?

In a move to control “the bread basket of Europe,” Hitler’s invasion of Ukraine and other nations in an attempt to create “Lebensraum” “living space” for his beloved ethnic Germans, always struck me as curious since the dumb shit wasn’t even German, but Austrian, and a psychotic racial-profiler to boot.


Communists preparing resistance to the Nazi threat


Soon after arriving in Germany, Mama was placed with a farmer who had a wife and child.  One day he tried to lure her into a barn loft.  Telling us she had “a bad feeling,” about the man, she ran away.  “Dumpkopf!” the brute yelled after her.  When he sent her back to “the office” to be re-assigned, Mama learned her replacement worker became pregnant by this “family man.”

Afterwards, as fate would have it, Mama was placed with a couple she came to call “Oma” and “Opa.”  Their son was away fighting on the eastern front.  Their son’s wife, Elisabeth, and their two children, Lieselotte and Ludwig, lived with Oma and Opa.  At first, the family didn’t know what to make of this strange “Auslander,” (foreigner), but while their son was soldiering, they were grateful for the young Ukrainian girl’s help, and they toiled alongside her in the fields.

As kind as Oma and Opa may have been, this was war time, and Mama did back-breaking work from sun-up to sundown.  Towards the end of the war, when Allies began bombing rural targets in Germany, she told us she was so tired from a day’s work that when the air raid sirens went off in the village, she was unable to muster the energy to crawl to the safety of the cellar.  She just stayed in bed, exhausted, prostrate, not caring.


A map pinpointing the number of “major” concentration camps in Greater Germany.  Limbach – the area where Mama lived and worked with the Reinhard family – is shaded in red.


Sometimes, Mom told us she noticed a strange odor wafting across the air, a smell like nothing she’d ever encountered before.  Somewhere downwind from Oma and Opa’s farm, the smell of burning flesh carried into the air.  Visits from her cousin Teklya who worked in the next village left her troubled.  Whispers and horror-filled rumors invaded her dreams.  Who could believe, let alone comprehend such a thing. . .  But Mama nodded her head soberly, “We knew somehow it was true…”



With daughter-in-law Elisabeth in kerchief on the far right,
Oma and Opa take a rare break to pose for a photograph.

Opa was a baker, as well as a farmer, and often baked treats at home in his brick oven.  One of Mama’s favorite memories was of Opa’s baking skills and especially his memorable apple cheese kuchen, with the fresh fruit he used from the orchard.  We always tried to find Mama a good kuchen, but even baking one of our own, none of them ever measured up to her memory of Opa’s.

Years with the Reinhard’s meant Mama started to pick up the German language.  Something Elisabeth would tease her about – “Oh!  Now we have to be careful what we say…”

Some of Mama’s fellow laborers slept in barns, and their “hosts” didn’t share the same food as the families ate, or have them sit at the family table.

Oma and Opa’s son stands over his family,
wife Elisabeth with daughter Liesolette on lap
and son Ludwig.

How to reconcile Oma and Opa’s son
in a Nazi soldier’s uniform,
with his family’s kindness to my Mom,
is, in the end, irreconcilable.

Mama told us that she never met little Ludwig
because before she arrived at the Reinhard farm,
the little boy had died.

She remembered Opa was inconsolable
over his grandson’s death and mentioned him often.
She told us Opa liked to go to the village pub
where he tried to anesthetize his sorrow with drink.

When Mama came to work for the Reinhard family, Liesolette was a toddler.  Daughter-in-law Elisabeth was a mid-wife, assisting pregnant women during labor.  Mama slept in the same room with Elisabeth and her daughter, and remembered how both mother and child would pray nightly for the safe return of their father.  Mama was happy Oma and Opa’s son did return safely from the war.

She also remembered soldiers routinely coming to the house to check on her and saying “Heil Hitler” – to which Oma and Opa would reply, “Guten Tag.”  “They never said, ‘Heil Hitler,’ Mama noted.  On one occasion, the soldiers asked Oma where the “Auslander” was and when told “at church” – they demanded to know why she wasn’t working. Oma told them the girl’s work was done.   A brave response, considering.

Propaganda urging farmers to metaphorically smash the blockade

Back in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, Mama’s father took a dangerous risk when he hid a Jewish neighbor from the village officials.  According to Julia, Mama’s youngest sister, who had remained in Ukraine, Grandpa was betrayed by a turncoat villager, and beaten so severely by the Ukrainian police in charge, that seven years later, he died from complications from such beating.  When she heard the emotional story years later from Julia, visiting from Ukraine, Mama muttered bitterly, “Stupid villagers.”

When the war ended and Hitler did the world a favor
and shot himself in the demented head,
the Allies had millions of war-torn
homeless people on their hands.


When the Allies came to Oma and Opa’s farm,
they asked Mama if the couple had treated her well.


She answered truthfully, yes.


Mama was in awe but also afraid of the American soldiers,
partly because they removed her from Oma and Opa’s,
after rounding up all of the foreign laborers,
and partly because Elisabeth had warned her
about unscrupulous soldiers.

“Don’t respond if the soldiers try to talk to you,
or even look at them!”

One day, Mama walked past a few American soldiers
celebrating the town’s liberation, the end of hostilities…
One of them offered to share some of his schnapps.
Maybe he was a nice guy – but Mum took Elisabeth’s advice!



Most of the victims of war, and political refugees
of the immediate post-Second World War period
were Ukrainians, Poles and other Slavs who refused
to return to Soviet-dominated eastern Europe.

From the chaos of post-war Europe, these
millions of collateral, homeless victims were
filed under the status of “Displaced Persons.”

Rumors had reached the DP camps
that returnees to the homeland were disappearing,
likely sent to Siberia for hard labor,
and or shot on the spot as traitors for having
“involuntarily” worked on German farms or factories.


And we wondered why paranoia, fear,
and suspicion ruled my parents’ lives
and transferred to the next generation. . .


 

 

  

February 4–11: Yalta Conference
Image via Wikipedia

 

Under an Allied agreement with Stalin,
who had annexed all of Ukraine by this time,
Displaced Persons from Eastern Ukraine
were being forcibly returned into the clutches
of the same despot responsible for the murder
of millions of Ukrainians in the Holodomor.


Knowing they faced death upon their return,
for some, suicide was preferable.


Just as Dad lingered for two years in his POW/DP camp
on the coast of Rimini, Italy, along the Adriatic Sea . . .

So did Mama spend two years in a DP camp
in Saarlouis near the French-German border.
Detainees’ food consisted of soup, and more soup.
This was her diet for two years. . .

Years of poor nutrition at the DP camp
played havoc with Mama’s beautiful teeth
and started her on her life-long health problems.

 

 

Here the smiling avuncular “Uncle Joe,” as Churchill and Roosevelt dubbed the old bastard, meets with his contemporaries (and temporary) Allies.  Nice to know they could still share a laugh.  Roosevelt was deathly ill towards the end of WWII, so perhaps he had an excuse for what “the Big 3” agreed to at Yalta, but Churchill, not so much.

 Note to self:  Screenplay idea… “My Dinner with A Madman”
(Discuss with Eleanor…)   I think it just might work…

Dad always said Churchill made a deal with the devil when he agreed to Stalin’s terms – to return displaced workers and soldiers from republics who’d fought against the Soviets back to a now-Communist occupied homeland.  By branding Ukrainians and others as traitors to the Communist cause, Stalin would justify his murder of returnees.  Those who were spared were sent to hard labor camps in Siberia, often never seen again.

With such upheaval and governmental treachery in their lives, was it such a surprise to see my parents so well-schooled in suspicion, paranoia, and feeling their lives were forever shadowed. . .  An entire generation of post-traumatic stress victims – of the times – of men so evil and despotic, you’d think they could only be concocted in “fiction”, filed under “horror”…


64 years later, thanks to the Internet and International Red Cross Tracing Service, Mama was reunited with Oma and Opa’s granddaughter, Liesolette, after an exchange of letters.  With the help of her children, Mama located the surviving Reinhard family and wrote to Liesolette about how kindly the Reinhard’s had treated her, and how grateful she was to have been placed with their family.

When Lieselotte wrote back and enclosed the beautiful pictures of her family, we were so happy Mama could see photos of the people who had taken care of her during some of her darkest days.

Having been pulled out of school by her parents in the third grade to help with farm work, Mama had never been fully taught to read or write.  Haunted by this fact her entire life, Mama always felt guilty for never writing Oma and Opa after they had asked her to stay in contact and let them know how she had fared.  Lieselotte remembered her mother and grandparents often wondered what might have happened to Maria…

How Mama’s lack of education failed her and how her succeeding choices shaped her whole inner psyche became her life-long cross to bear.


 

Mum and Dad said England was one of the first countries
to open its doors to Europe’s Displaced Persons.

 

In the meantime, Mum’s first two years in England
were spent working to pay off the cost of a ship’s journey
from Germany to her new adopted homeland.

 




No longer a “DP”, the 19-year old enjoys some well-deserved free time with friends
in Bradford, England – before she has a fateful meeting with her future husband.

 

*       *       * 

In industrial regions like Yorkshire,
budding post-war Ukrainian communities began to grow.

 

*       *       *

 

The future husband in question . . . 
Oh Mum and Dad, if only we could have whispered in your ears….


Mom in Lister Park distracted, stifling a grin,
with her feisty first-born, and man-about-town husband.

Dad was well into a decade’s relationship
with his beloved “pah-pih-roh-sih” [cigarettes].
They, of course, would aid in killing him one day,
but for now, those pills his Doctor said to take for the rest of his life
for that rheumatic fever?  “He just stopped takin’ em,” Mum said.

Ask anyone, and they would have told you
Dad was a charmer, a great story-teller, a highly talented musician,
but that war and his sadistic mother, not necessarily in that order,
messed him up in the head something fierce when it came to his family.

If only Mom had had fair warning before she married . . .


To be continued


“If anyone has questions about why [Ukrainians call the 1932-33 famine] genocide, they should look at two statistics, particularly Joseph Stalin’s census of 1929 and Brezhnev’s in 1979. We started with the Ukrainian nation numbering 81 million and ended up with 42 million [39 million missing persons].”

Interview with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko
By Mykola SIRUK,
The Day, 13 November 2007


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10 thoughts on “Mama – Love, Tenacity and the Toll of History – Part I

  1. I told Pani Sophia you were writing about Mama’s life and she wants to come to my house to read it on the computer. Your writing ability is a gift from God Olb. I am so proud of you.

    1. thanx Theodozia, but if God was helping out I wouldn’t have writers blockage and editorial-itis and I wouldn’t have to edit out all the cussing

  2. I simply don’t know what to say. I am thurderstruck and awed by the beauty of this creation. The writing, the imagery and — of course — the intellect/heart combination that resonates throughout it. It is a work of art, plain and simple, and a moving tribute to your family. Thank you so much for sharing this. I hope this can be printed and bound. It is a treasure for your family to cherish for generations and generations and should exist outside the electronic realm. Brava, Olga. You are amazing.

  3. Olga, just finished reading this. You are a gifted writer! You should publish a book witht his story. Please finish soon, can’t wait to continue reading this fascinating story. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. What a wonderful account it’s like getting to know mama all over again, and learning about the history all in one! What tenacity and stick to itness you had to work on it day in and day out and working in between. Persha Klasa Olyoo

    1. oh Halyou – dyakoyou! howevah, u r using my Avatar, Madame ! Cease and desist or I will have to use extraordinary measures !

  5. What a story, and beautifully told. A real work of art. Though you tell the highly personal story of your mater and pater you also give a hint to the stories of countless thousands of anonymous nomads. On a level with “Maus”.

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