Adopt an ancestor, enrich yourself
Posted by E on February 5, 2011
There are few things sadder to me than to see the vital documents, precious old photographs, and stacks of correspondence being auctioned off on ebay for profit. Just last week I saw a scuffed, stained porcelain doll that had been in a Jewish ghetto in Belgium, and another that made it through Buchenwald and was stamped as the possession of one Anna Schwarzman. A little girl once loved this doll enough to carry it around with her as she was displaced from her home and homeland.
Often these kind of personal treasures end up in museums, but it’s not always so, and possessions such as these surface frequently on ebay. Everything from old love letters to ID cards, to passports and assorted documents that had been of extreme importance to their owner.
Just last week, a photo of a young girl flanked by two older people, presumably her parents, was listed for an auction. The back of it had a line in Romanian, written in a delicate, cursive script: “So that the memory of this precious beloved day may never be forgotten.”
Surely back on that summer day in 1922, this girl never imagined that someday her precious papers would be on sale to strangers for less than $10 – perhaps she imagined that her own children would keep these items in treasured photo albums. Perhaps she never had children. Perhaps she never made it through the war.
Sometimes I wonder – will the things I love so much, the few remaining items of my childhood, be auctioned off by someone who will never understand their value to me?
Whenever I can, I’ve made it my mandate to rescue lost ancestors. For all intents and purposes I consider myself an orphan, with no family on this continent. The few distant relatives I do have back in my native homeland, a country I left when I was 10, are divided from me by more than an ocean: the barrier of language (my Romanian is terrible), different social norms, differences in how we perceive the world, society in general. I hardly know the people back in Europe, though we share some strands of collective DNA.
So when I’m on ebay and I look into the faces of these people whose names I may never know, I feel a special ache for the dispossessed. In their eyes, I see myself: an orphan collectively building herself a new family, one photograph, one letter, one wartime document at a time.
It started with one piece of paper – I was hunting around for something altogether different, an out-of-print book, when I stumbled upon a listing that captivated me. It was a stateless person document issued in a refugee camp in Austria at the end of WW2.
Stapled to the inside cover was a passport-size photo of an old woman who reminded me of my grandmother. She had the saddest eyes in the world, loaded with anger and pain and possibly defeat. I thought to myself, how would it feel to be 65 years old and be considered “stateless”?
At that age, she should have been warm and comfy in her own home, her meals cooked by a daughter-in-law…but no, she was a displaced person, a widow, someone with the echo of death already playing in her eyes. While people all around her were being selected by immigration committees, Canada, the US and Australia were looking only for young, able-bodied and preferably single persons to emigrate. Serafima would not have been on anybody’s desired list.
Not only did I acquire her documents, but I began to research her story from the few details included on the ID: the name of her birth-village, Labinskaya (changed to Labinsk in modern day) a small Cossack-founded town in the Caucasus Mountains.
Wikipedia told me that between August 1942 and January 1943, Labinskaya was occupied by the German Wehrmacht. The residents had fearlessly fought the enemy, and on January 25, 1943 Stanitsa Labinskaya was liberated from the Nazi occupation. But between that time, thousands of residents had been forced to either flee, or been sent to concentration camps.
Perhaps Serafima’s husband or sons perished in the fighting. One will never know, and a Google and Facebook search does not reveal anyone with her last name or variations thereof. It is possible the name Sadochlin(a) ended with the war.
I wondered why there would be so many Cossack refugees in Austria, and why they were still there after the war had ended, instead of returning to their Russian homes. Then, after another hour of research, I discovered about the Yalta Agreement, and the forced repatriation of Cossacks by the British Army.
Seen as enemies by both Russians and the Brits, the Cossacks who returned to Russia were sent directly to Siberian gulags where they met austere conditions and often death. The ones who refused to get on those trains were beaten and shot to death by the British Army.
In Lienz, Austria, there is a graveyard with some twenty crosses, where more than three hundred Cossacks who refused to return to Stalin’s Russia were instead massacred by the British Forces. I’ll probably never know if Serafima made her way to Camp Kellerberg from the massacre at Lienz, or was transferred there from another displaced persons camp.
The story may very well end here, with her document in my hands, but the memory of this heartbroken woman lives on inside me. I take comfort in knowing that Serafima has now found a person on the other side of the ocean, six decades and a lifetime after the moment that photograph was snapped, who will not allow her name to be forgotten.