“I really don’t think I remember much of my childhood except a horrible war. And when the war sort of ended, but it wasn't ended yet, the Germans were still there and they had let us open some churches. My brother Mikhail, Michael, was still alive at that time, and that's when he was baptized in the church, when it opened.”
“Oh, it was a beautiful, big church. I saw angels singing on top of the church, but when I was telling someone that I saw angels, they said I probably just heard people singing.”
Tears well up as a girlish smile emerges and Lubachka unearths some joy from the recesses of a brutal early childhood. Lubachka is affectionate for Luba, which is short for Lubov, which means love. Luba is my mother. Named for a Holy Martyr, who at age 9, was tied to a wheel and beaten with rods until her body was covered with bloody welts. She and her older sisters, Faith and Hope, survived being burned over an iron grating, then thrown into a red-hot oven, and finally into a cauldron with boiling tar.
Did Lubachka see angels?
Maybe it was the hunger or the dehydration causing hallucinations.
Maybe it’s something none of us can explain and some of us want to believe. The word angel is derived from the Greek word angelos and the Latin word angelus, both meaning messenger. We all hear messages.
I hear voices, though they’re far from divine. I hear voices when I’m asleep. I hear voices when I’m paring down a few thousand words of analysis, emotion, and research into a thousand never-quite perfect words, in an hour before I race out the door to school for pickup, halted suddenly by the slow flow of leisure parents who have been lingering outside the building for hours, complaining that they won’t be able to head “down east” until Thursday this week.
I hear voices when the subway stops between stations for a sick passenger in another car and swim team practice is about to let out and I have to get the puppy and walk her over to the rec center to meet my son.
I’ve heard a voice, just a few times, that told me if I meander into rush hour traffic while an 18-wheeler and a MTA bus blow through a red light, that nobody would suspect suicide when I’m flattened into the pavement.
Sometimes I’m floating or cutting through gentle waves in the Caribbean Sea, or pushed up against a throng in a nostalgic trance on the floor at a show, and the voices stop. They always pick up again when I can’t sort out which anxiety is keeping me awake and there’s few precious hours before daylight.
Maybe it’s my Dyadya Misha, my Uncle Mike, telling me it’s OK. Maybe he’s trying to break through my stubbornness and ego to remind me that I have to be more forgiving of my mom, not because she sees angels or hears voices, but because we all hear voices.
Maybe I should listen. We invoke Saint Michael for protection from invasion by enemies and from civil war, and for the defeat of adversaries on the battlefield. He conquers all spiritual enemies. Over all the Nine Ranks of the Heavenly Powers, the Lord appointed the Holy Archangel Michael (his name in Hebrew means “who is like unto God”), the faithful servitor of God, as Chief Commander.
At least little Michael, Mishinka, lived long enough to be baptized. In the Orthodox faith, babies are baptized about three months after birth. Mishinka was immersed in sanctified water a little later, as there was no escape from holding places in camps to do it secretly. Lubachka’s two younger brothers died in infancy, unbaptized.
Did angels appear when Mishinka’s frail body was tossed into a mass grave?
Most of Lubachka’s loved ones were dumped into unmarked pits, some with limbs mangled and dismembered, genitals violated and mutilated, but essentially in tact to resemble the remains of a human form. Others with brains blown out by the stock of a rifle, to save bullets. Hitler explicitly ordered a surge in ammunition production in early 1940, for fear of the shell crisis that’s widely blamed for toppling the Kaiser’s armies in the autumn of 1914.
The most traumatic memory isn’t the moment of Mishinka’s death, it’s a moment of regret.
Lubachka’s memory impetuously blinks back on, like a light bulb dangling from a frayed wire, to retrieve another visceral early childhood experience, one she’d likely repressed.
“I do remember something which I'm very upset about. My little brother Michael became sick because there was this one room where we lived with four or five families because we all lost our houses and everything. But it was not where I was born in Vitebsk Oblast near the Russian border. It was somewhere farther away, closer to what is now the Polish border. My mother was in quarantine because she had typhoid fever, and my little brother Michael was still breast-fed at that time, and she wasn’t with us and the two of us were left there, and this one woman in another room had a cat, and it was a cold, a very, very cold autumn day.”
“It was very cold outside. And, of course, he wasn't dressed, he only had a shirt, like some kind of an undershirt. The woman with the cat came and threw him outside, and I wasn’t able to pick him up or anything because I was too small. And then that's when he got very sick. For what seemed like a long time, he was very sick, and there was another girl that was my age that lived in that room, and we were playing cards, and my little brother would cry, and I would get very angry at him because he was disturbing me. To this day, it tortures me that I was angry at him. That I did that.”
“The woman with the cat, she was Polish, and her daughter had affairs with the German soldiers, so they had everything. We didn’t have anything.”
Everything, in this instance, means enough clothing to cover a full body or enough food to keep children alive.
The cause of Michael’s death remains unknown, but the timing spurs a rush of atrocious memories. In the mind of a child, Mishinka was ill for a long time, but his feeble breath lingered and his weak heart ticked only a little longer than that of his twin Ivan and their youngest sibling Pyotor.
“When my little brother Michael died, that's when my grandmother, my father's mother, and his sister were very brutally killed.”
Michael died in “either October or November. I don’t know. I don’t know what year it was. Maybe 1944, probably 44. And the thing is, we were living at that time where the German soldiers were, but my grandmother, my father's mother, and his sister that were killed, they were killed in a place the Partisans watched in the daytime, and the Germans would be there at night. The Partisans were there, or the Germans, I don’t remember. But anyway, somehow, I do sort of remember going to the graveyard, and they were all, as far as I know, all killed and just buried in one, unmarked grave. But the graveyard was where we lived before the war started.”
Lubachka can’t recollect how or why they’d returned to the border of Smolensk.
“My aunt, at that time, was in school in Russia where they had to learn German. The German soldiers took her and another 16-year old, and they were asking who is living in this house, and they had a list of people and they were told to burn down their houses.”
“She was 16, so of course, she's going to say whose house it was. She was lucky because her father was also a Partisan, and of course he wasn't there at that time, but he was in their party. And my father was against the Bolsheviks and everything else, and he was in a German zone. And so when the Partisans came after them, they told him whose house it was.”
“They came to get my aunt, they wanted just her. My grandmother, she ran after her daughter. And then they took them a few miles away from there, but they had to cross some kind of a river, and they were going to be interrogated there by the Partisans, where their headquarters were. But what happened, it became close to nighttime, and they had to get out of that region because I guess that's when the Germans were coming or something, so the Partisans said that we know what's going to happen with them. They didn’t want to waste the bullets.”
“So they used the other part of the rifle, the wooden part, and they beat their heads open. That's how they were killed, and when my father saw that, it really affected his mental state for the rest of his life. And so then we had to just, I guess, put them in ground, and we had to leave there because the fighting between the Germans and Russians was about to start.”
“And then when we got back to the place where we lived, and the second day, or I don’t know, maybe it was the same day, I don’t really remember. I was outside. And I saw my brother who was all in white, that's not the way he was buried. I guess I don’t know what he was buried in, that I don’t remember, but I saw him outside and to me he had represented an angel.”
Some two decades before my mother told me this story, I was standing over the open casket of her father, my degushka, my grandfather, at a monastery in rural Herkimer County, New York, a home for decades to the Shastokovich family for two generations.
Maybe I hallucinated. I’m certain there was an apparition in the form of a body outlined in bright light. There wasn’t enough sunshine pouring in through the stained glass windows of the cavernous church to explain what I saw.
I was tired. I had barely slept for days. I rarely sleep enough. Those voices keep me awake.
And when the time of our demise shall approach, and of our liberation from this body of clay, leave us not, O Archangel of God, without defense against the spirits of evil under heaven, who surround us to close off the ascent on high for human souls; so that, guarded by thee, without stumbling we may attain unto those glorious habitations of Paradise, where there is neither sadness nor sighing, but life without end.