I read some blogs daily and one of these is "The Common Room." Lately, they have published several posts listing free or very inexpensive (as in $.99 or $1.99) books to download to Kindle. Although I do not have a Kindle, I have the Kindle App on my iPad and I have downloaded lots of books. It's almost addictive to read lists of free books and, intrigued by the titles and the positive comments of those who make up the lists at The Common Room, download them all. Needless to say, there are several I have yet to read.
One of the downloaded titles covers a part of history that has always fascinated me in the way people rubber-neck at accident scenes - WWII Europe. The other historical subject that is equally interesting to me is Russia just before, during, and right after the revolution. The book, "The Secret Holocaust Diaries," includes both, so I not only downloaded it, but read it in one afternoon, AFTER leaving work at 3:30pm, WHILE getting my hair done.
It is the story of a woman who is remembering her lovely childhood as a member of a wealthy Cossack family right after the Russian Revolution. Her family lives in the Eastern Ukraine and the small village of her mother's mother, Konstantinovka, has not felt the reverberations of the Bolsheviks just yet. Nonna Lisowskaja is the daughter of Cossacks on her mother's side and possible Jewish roots on her father's side, which she never nails down. Her father is of Polish birth and changed his name from Lisowicz to Lisowskaja to sound more Russian and, perhaps, less Jewish. Once the events of the late 1930's hurled Poland into war her father's family, murky to her at best (she never met them since traveling outside the Soviet Union even in the early days after the Revolution was impossible), disappeared entirely. If they were, indeed, Jewish, they mostly likely perished.
Nonna's happy memories are luminescent. Her descriptions of the Last Great Russian Christmas that her grandmother was determined her family should experience, especially the children, in the old fashioned pre-revolution way, in 1932, are the most beautiful. The visions of her grandmother's large house and the woods nearby blanketed in yards, not feet, of snow, and the sleigh ride by horse to the Orthodox Church on Christmas Eve remain with Nonna forever and are surrounded by the nimbus of cherished memory.
The problems come when the Revolution finally hits Konstantinovka, and Nonna's grandmother is forced to "donate" all her farm animals, family keepsakes and most of her land to the newly created local collective. Next, WWII officially begins with the invasion of Poland by Hitler. Soon Hitler is breaking his non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and attacks Russia through the Ukraine. Nonna's beautiful childhood is over. She relates her experiences from this point on with vivid anguish.
I devoured this book, turning each page waiting for the family pictures that Nonna saved and that are mentioned so many times. After all, before the bad times came, her father was a professional photographer with his own dark room. The pictures are not published in the book. I couldn't believe it. The images of this woman and her beloved family, in words, were burned into my brain and I really wanted to look into their eyes.
Not one to give up, I began to surf the Internet. First I typed the title of the book into Google and clicked on "Images". Sure enough, there were a few sepia and black and white photos that looked promising. I clicked on one and found the book's official web site, "Secret Holocaust Diaries.com".
At the top of the home page is a link called "Photos and Documents". I had hit the motherlode. All Nonna's pictures are there.
Next, I clicked on another, more modern 1960's image and found this blog,"Becoming Ukrainian". This is a blog written by Nonna's children after finding and reading their mother's memorabilia, and then publishing her diaries posthumously. Like any normal children in the modern age, they try to find their mother's Ukrainian village, Konstantinovka, to walk in their mother's footsteps and to see what, if anything, is still there.
They find their great grandmother's house idealized in Nonna's diaries, the one where she spent that idyllic Christmas, somewhat the worse for wear, but still there. They also find some cousins that remember Nonna and were contemporary with her, and their grown children. It is fascinating reading.
The one most painful thing in Nonna's story is the loss of her mother at a very late date in the war. It is April, 1945 and Nonna has heard from her mother in Ravensbruck. After that she never hears from her again. She receives an anonymous letter from someone after the war has ended that tells her that her Mama has been incinerated in an oven at Ravensbruck. She still doesn't give up hope. She encounters a woman in the hospital where she is working who has had a stroke, depriving her of speech, yet when Nonna shows her a picture of her mother, the woman becomes very excited and has to be given a sedative. She recognized her, but could not say, or, presumably write, any information, and so Nonna gives up. Her mother's last letter tells her to go to America if she survives the war. And, in 1950, that's just what Nonna does. After a wonderful marriage to a kind American named Bannister, three lovely children, and a much happier life Nonna passes away in 2004, never having seen her native land or her family again.
Here's the kick in the stomach. Guess what her children find out when they visit the Ukraine in 2010? They find out Nonna's mother, Anna, DID live. She made it back to Konstantinovka, and she came back with a new husband and a baby son. She taught music and painted up until she died in 1975. She raised her son to love music, and so Nonna's children have a half brother in the Ukraine.
I sat back from the computer screen and just stared into space. Poor Nonna. She never knew that her mother was alive and well and lived until 1975! She could have seen her mother again, could have had a whole 25 more years with her, but Nonna kept all of her past life a secret to both her husband and children, only once in a while bringing out some of the old photos to show her children who their ancestors were. By essentially burying this portion of her life and never openly acknowledging it, she lost the possibility of finding her mother, whom she adored. Nonna lamented at war's end that she was the only one left and there was no one with whom she could share memories, both good and bad. They were alive in her head alone - she thought. She had a beloved brother who, for his protection from being drafted into the Russian army, was sent to Riga in 1938. His name was Anatoly and she never saw him again either. Perhaps Nonna's children will go there next and try to find traces of him.
Oh - and one more site - where you can hear Nonna's voice in a recording she made for her children in 1993 for Christmas. When Nonna came to the US, she landed in New Orleans. She must have stayed there for a long while because her English is American Southern. It is the most delightful accent I've ever heard - a thickly Southern tinged Russian accent.