Incognito Press

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Posts Tagged ‘russia’

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.

Posted in adoption, family, freedom, history, war, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Memories of my communist childhood – growing up under the red banner

Posted by E on December 28, 2007

 

 

After my last post, in which I wrote about my impressions of Cuba, I received some mixed feedback – exactly half of the commentators were against the Cuban regime, and half advocating earnestly for it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle room for discussion when it comes to communist systems of government, does it? I’m not entirely sure what a middle ground would look like, but like any other battle of sectarian ideologies, this battle-line is drawn down the middle with a clearly-defined marker.

My opinions differ from most people I know, not necessarily in their ideology as much as from the formative experiences that have shaped who I am. I am a product of a so-called utopian society that like most others, found its end in a bloody revolution. There are many who still long for the good old times, simply because nobody ever was taught to think for themselves. For many decades, the people of my homeland were brought up to fear what was above them, the Golden Father of all Children, and when his regime fell so many older people didn’t know how to take care of themselves since they had always relied on the state to provide, to teach, and to think for them.

I was one of Ceausescu’s last batch of communism-raised children. We were an experimental generation of youth raised under the shade of a red star, in the Golden Epoch of our Fatherland. Our homeland, our Patria, was what we swore allegiance to. In grade 2, I received my Red Scarf and became a Pioneer. I remember that day clearly – for weeks I practiced memorizing a poem about our Great Father Nicolae Ceausescu that I later recited flawlessly in front of the Pioneer Assembly. In grade 3 I was stripped of one of my pioneer medals because my mother was a political defector. My father and I were followed by the Securitate for two years while we waited for our departure papers under the Red Cross Family Reunification program. In grade 4 I learned how to shoot a rifle. Officially, I became a child soldier for our homeland.

I loved my country. I truly, deeply appreciate that I had the opportunity to grow up sheltered from violence, from materialism, from being over-sexualized at an early age. I loved my uniform, my internal sense of fairness truly appreciating the equality that this white shirt and pleated navy skirt represented: all children, gypsies, christians, jews, all faiths and social classes brought together under one flag, one song, one classroom.

At the same time, I saw a country brought to its knees under the weight of its foreign exports. All of our rich resources were being exported to pay for Romania’s increasing debtload, a debt incurred as part of Ceausescu’s attempts at civilizing its people from its bourgeois roots: churches and villages were raised to the ground in order to pave roads and build collective farms and factories. People were reduced to a name on a ration card, one kilogram of flour and sugar per month, a litre of oil. Nothing more or less.

I remember standing in those lines: the line for bread, for butter, for meat, for books – any leftover money from people’s salaries was spent in a desperate attempt to buy food. There was never enough food for everybody. You could line up at 5 a.m. and it still didn’t guarantee there would be enough left by the time your turn came to the cashier. People made a habit of lining up: they didn’t know what kind of meat would be available at the butcher’s that day, but they arrived promptly at 5 in the morning, always five in the morning – for bread, for clothing, for various amenities.

And what did those people do in those lines? They laughed, they cried, they cursed “Him” who could not be named, but everybody knew – we were all co-conspirators, well-versed in the language of innuendos, scathing jokes and trepidation. Unlike the socialist red banner we lived in, nobody loved their neighbour. Everybody was jealous of each other – tried to figure out who had more, how they got it, and if we could get it too. People called secret, anonymous phone lines and denunced their neighbours for nothing more than a move to a better apartment or a better job assignment.

Under the red banner, I knew hunger, I knew pain, and what I experienced most of all – was fear. A deep, breath-taking fear that crushed your voice inside your ribs. You didn’t look up, you didn’t ask Why, you just obeyed. I knew people who worked at collective farms who went to jail for holding back a chicken from the monthly counts, just to feed their families a bit more protein. Only those who worked for the Party, the State, the Securitate, would have access to foreign currency and could go to that wondurous place we only heard stories about: the Shop. At the Shop, you could buy toblerone bars and Nescafe coffee, and loads of products we spied foreign tourists being served in fancy restaurants. Unfortunately, I never bought anything at the Shop. It was not for people like us. While Ceausescu was building the second-largest palace in the world after the Taj-Mahal, replete with gold bathroom fixtures, I remained underweight for my age.

Sometimes I wonder if anybody who glorifies a system like that of Romania, the Eastern Bloc, like Cuba and China’s, has ever lived inside this world. I don’t wonder this very often since I already know the answer: they have not. Nobody who has lived inside this world of sensory and emotional deprivation would wish for it again. Sure, nowadays Romanians will grumble that: “Before we had money but no food, now we have lots of food but no money to buy it.” But if questioned again about their past, their eyes glaze over and deep sighs can be heard. The emotional blackness of those days will always scar the lining of our souls.

Ceausescu meant well. So did Marx, and Che, and even Adolf (yes, I am mixing political affiliations!). Nobody starts out with the desire to massacre the spirit of their nation. But through deeds that are meant to be “for the good of others”, the result remains the same. Atrocity and sadness remains the legacy of so many regimes where scores of nameless people perish in the name of a warped ideology. Even after the 1989 Revolution, the scars remain, and they will remain there, imprinted on my heart, for the rest of my life.

I miss my childhood, the people I will never see again, the friends and neighbours who we have lost touch with, who all fled in the night to Australia, America, and Europe. One day you had lunch with somebody, the next day they were gone – and you didn’t know whether they had been arrested or paid someone to smuggle them over the border. As for myself, I never wanted to leave my homeland – I was dragged, kicking and screaming, away from it at age 10. In retrospect, it was already too late – I inherited my country’s history in my genes; its pulse beat in my veins like a tumultuous river. Even when citizenship was forcibly stripped from me as a defector, I remained Romanian. It was a thing they could never take away.

Nowadays, when I meet other Romanians I search for the legacy of the terror in their eyes: there is a darkness there, always, a haunted look that lies behind their smiles, their happy countenance. I see other survivors of my generation, other experimental byproducts of a world where walls cound talk, and where a whisper could mean exile. We walk like aliens among Canadians in this country, like wolves in sheep’s clothing – we are not of your world, this world of smiles and polite conversations. We are survivors of something that cannot be fathomed by those who are fortunate enough to have been born here.

I came from a world where being a lesbian would have meant a mandatory five-year jail sentence with hard labour. A world where my writing would be censored and condemned. Where my poetry would have to be dedicated to the Party. Where my life would forever remain not a burning flame, but a sigh.

I have realized that those people who continue the lovely fairytale of a communist utopia surely must not have experienced it. To be perfectly honest, I would absolutely love it if a true socialist state could exist in this world – a state of egalitarianism where all are cared for and provided by a loving government. But that will never happen, since it is not within the boundaries of human nature – it is by default that we strive to compete with each other, to outdo each other’s accomplishments, to work harder and seek greater peaks than those of our neighbours’. By default, true socialism cannot work. I have met leftists who said to me “Oh, but Elisa dear, what you experienced wasn’t truly communism, but state capitalism.” Because of course, they considered themselves experts of socialist systems, and every time one failed, it was attributed to the fact that “Well, that wasn’t REALLY socialism anyway, or a failed attempt at communism.” This came from well-meaning but confused activists, naive individuals who refused to acknowledge that every failure of communism over the last hundred years has been a sign of its instability and profound inability to ever be implemented.

Because as tough and hard-core a leftist as you can be, when you are inside oppression and you suffer in silence, you have but one of two choices: become the enemy, or be broken. On the tree-lined boulevards of Bucharest, in Moscow’s squares, on Beijing’s winding streets, and in the slums of Havana, people survived the only way they know how: a breath at a time.

To all deniers of oppression worldwide – shame on you. What is so quickly forgotten is destined to be repeated.

Posted in activism, canada, censorship, children, communism, cuba, freedom, gay, lesbian, life, politics, propaganda, revolution, romania, russia | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 17 Comments »