"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Jul 29, 2017

Shades of Grey, Part 2

Dear President Putin,

Can I come live with you? It’s just a matter of time, and I’d like to beat the rush for spots along the Baltic. I’m certain to remain productive during my 40-or-so remaining years since I don’t possess an ulcer-producing portfolio; am not addicted to narcotics; and I've started riding a bicycle again.

I was really hoping the American Dream wasn’t a myth (as I’ve been told) but my Bubbela has finally burst. Nevertheless I am quite grateful to have learned such austerity in my current homeland; enough to make the prospect of life in Russia seem a tropical breeze. I’m not even worried about radiation.

Circa 1915
I can prove I’m Russian.
In 1913, aged 18, my fraternal Grandfather Czeslaw (Chester) made his way across Europe from what is now eastern Poland to escape persecution by the Tsar (and just hard times); ostensibly with hopes of a better future for his descendants, including me. Grandmother Rozalia followed a year later. Poland did not formally exist when each arrived on Ellis Island; it having been divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia; and our family home fell in (your) neck of the Steppes.  So despite their cultural identities as Poles, immigration records list my grandparents as Russians from Russia. This bureaucratic oversight may just save my life one day.

Dad on Grandpa's lap 1925
Over the years Grandpa sponsored many relatives, yet others preferred to remain behind in Leonowka, near Chelm, in the province known as the Wolyn, along the Ukrainian border (for historians). The area was a mix of Ukrainian Christians, Polish Roman Catholics, and a small population of Polish and Ukrainian Jews. Children attended school together and people managed to get along, sharing their meager resources.

Great-grandmother Aniela, known as Babcha, came to visit her sons in 1937 but was unable to return home in 1939 when Germany took over the western 2/3rds of Poland, and Russia occupied the east.  Later on, when the Nazis invaded Russia's piece, Poles were rounded up indiscriminately and sent off to concentration camps; while Polish children were plucked off the streets and sent to the Fatherland for “Germanization”. No doubt my Catholic relatives were terrified, waiting for the ax to fall.

Despite fears and perils of their own, on the tiny family farm Great-Uncle Wiktor rose to the occasion and did what he could to help his neighbors hide and escape. It cost him and his family dearly, as my second-cousin Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride portrays in her book, Children of Terror, co-written with another Holocaust survivor, Inge Auerbacher. (Their compelling book is available through Amazon.)

One August night in 1943 Bozenna’s family woke to the alarm, “This is the night.” Angry over past historical wrongs and other nonsensical claims, the Nazi-backed, nationalistic Ukrainian People’s Army (UPA) was rampaging throughout the province of Wolyn, burning everything in its path and committing such atrocities that the Poles fled to the Nazis for safety. Grateful survivors were summarily sent off to concentration camps, including my great-uncle’s family.  Leonowka was wiped off the map that night.

Following the war, Uncle Victor and his children were located and safely arrived at my Grandfather’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.   Wife and Mother Janina had been sent to another concentration camp, where unbeknownst to the family she’d been subjected to some nasty Nazi experiments, which took its toll on the poor woman. It therefore took longer to locate her. Here's Babcha with her refugee grandchildren, c. 1947.

Small world, sure; but a pity the family fell so out of touch and amazed this story is relatively new to my immediate family. I cannot imagine Babcha and my grandparent’s angst, watching Dad and his siblings enjoying all things American, while not knowing for certain what was happening to those stranded behind.

I didn’t know all this when I penned my first, inaccurate family pilgrimage in Shades of Grey; and so while researching now-vanished Leonowka I happened upon Bozenna’s book and wrote to ask if we were related. She responded, “Yes, indeedie", and declared my sister Hillary had been the flower girl at her wedding. Bozenna and Inge travel and lecture in schools, sharing their firsthand experiences during that horrific period in history. Kudos to them, since I squirm whenever I hear remarks that the Holocaust was a hoax.

Where were they? Being sent off to Russian gulags and German concentration camps, if not massacred outright. Perhaps the reason for my grandparent's and their sibling's silence in later years is similar to my Dad's for not wishing to relive his experiences during WWII in the Pacific. When I asked friend if it was the same with their fathers most answered yes. Perhaps their silence is in direct proportion to the level of horror they endured.

Social revolution has always struck a chord in my soul since I tend to root for the underdog, and my sentiments are sprinkled throughout my writings. Perhaps I was being radicalized as a child in New Jersey, learning Tchaikovsky and Shostakovitch on the piano. I’ll admit to having eaten in the Russian Tea Room. I wore red a lot growing up. This is possibly how home-grown radicals begin, or so we’re led to believe, but I was never taught to hate.

Once the Trump administration gets wind of the dissent in my immigrant past, this galumpkis is cooked for sure. I’m already on a list somewhere.  Most of my relatives have made good lives for themselves and Granddad would likely feel vindicated for all the suffering he and his siblings endured on everyone's behalf.

But things haven’t worked out so great for me, at least not good enough to want to stay. I don’t believe our President cares one whit about the peasants he claims to represent. It’s all about money, but now no one is even trying to hide the fact.

In my humble, America is going to hell in a hand-basket and I don’t want to watch up-close and personal. Things won’t get better for millions of us, so I’m taking a leap of faith that your Russia will eventually make it to the Socialist finish line before we do.

Chester and Rose's 50th
No wonder you’re smiling Mr. Putin, watching people like me even contemplating fleeing to your safety, just as my ancestors ran towards the Nazis. Is this not a nightmarish scenario? And all it took was a little computer fiddling?

No…Russia cannot be blamed for all our messes, but it doesn’t matter at this point. Will you take me or shall I try elsewhere? New Zealand is my next choice, since my maternal Grandfather was a Kiwi.

Grandpa Chester might be horrified in heaven that I'd even consider heading for Russia; yet I’d hasten to ask as a reminder why he decided to pack up and leave HIS homeland a century ago. I’m sure not everyone considered it a good idea, but he landed on his feet OK. And I’ve got Grandpa’s genes.

I seem to recall a period of time not long ago in which American companies were clamoring to go to Russia and introduce you folks to Capitalism, but they misjudged the soul of the Russian people and got burned in the process. I’d just like to go for the change in scenery, paint a little and maybe track down some gulag-cousins.

So whaddaya say, Vladimir, got a little spot near the water for me and my dog? I’ll give you my Faberge Gourd Egg as a goodwill gift, but it is most assuredly not a quid-pro-quo.

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