Saturday, December 14, 2013

Of Guilt and Self Punishment

A testament to how little is written or discussed of the lifelong emotional impact of watching other people die, even a voracious lay consumer of psychological and medical research and studies as myself hadn’t heard the word “survivor’s guilt” used in the context of my mother’s early childhood until seven years ago. Not a single doctor treating my mother has ever expressed it, and the countless doctors who treated my maternal grandparents for a variety of ailments never made any connection. None have ever seemed to comprehend how and why she’s still so traumatized and often acts, by the standards of practitioners of Western medicine, erratically, irrationally or with extreme sensitivity and volatility. As a teenager, my husband watched as someone very dear to him killed herself. This, to me, is an unimaginable horror – the stuff of nightmares, the kind I’ve had. It’s especially challenging for me to articulate empathy in any profound way that would make my mother understand how passionately I strive to recognize the emotions she experiences. Sharing such emotions isn’t easy and it may not be healthy. Those nightmares were chronic in my early childhood and pre-adolescence, and only began to taper in frequency in my mid-teens. Many would be of what I imaged as concentration camps or people hovering over mass graves as their loved ones were piled into pits like compost. Naturally all these images were based on what my mother and her parents had endured.

My mother with her mother, 1949. My mother with her
father, 1947. Both photos taken in Hanover, Germany. No photos exist of my mother before the displaced persons camp in Hanover. 

Sigmund Freud referred to survivor’s guilt following his father’s death, in a letter to his friend, otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) Wilhelm Fliess, referring to “that tendency toward self-reproach which death invariably leaves among the survivors.

Simply put, it’s the feeling that you have harmed others, especially loved ones, just because you were spared death when they died. The term "survivor syndrome" was coined in 1961 by psychoanalyst W.G. Niederland, who in the 1950s began studying concentration camp survivors.

Among survivors of World War II concentration camps, guilt is sometimes manifested in strange yet subtle forms, such as behaving as if they themselves are dead, inhibiting themselves from success or engaging in self-destructive acts in response to survivor’s guilt in regard to a dead parent or sibling, A H Modell revealed in a seminal article published in 1971 in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. I recall one instance when my grandfather lied down under his car, acting as if he were dead. I was a young teen. I was horrified. I knew it had something to do with his experiences, and I felt guilty for lacking the psychological study to identify his condition. (I have an unsupported theory that survivor’s guilt is passed down to the next generation more so than other forms of guilt.)

“Survivor's guilt constitutes the failure of the psychological immune system to grapple with tragedy of great magnitude. Like an infection that overwhelms the body's immune system, survivor's guilt overwhelms the psychological immune system. Instead of exaggerating the difference between oneself and a victim, the similarity is what strikes people as most obvious. ‘That poor guy was no different from me; it could just as well have been me instead of him.’  With survivor's guilt, the differences between oneself and another person shrink, and so too do the differences between what actually happened and what could have happened. As with a bad infection, the best recourse is medical treatment,” writes Neal Roese, Ph.D., in his 2005 book, “If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity.”

I find this fascinating, as I've often wondered if there was any correlation between people of my mother’s (and grandparents’) immigration and a proliferation of autoimmune diseases. I rarely share this premise, as finding Western medical professionals who even discuss something that’s not published in a study they read or wrote is generally impossible. In any case, I know more than most people outside of endocrinology about autoimmune diseases as it took decades for me to find a doctor to properly diagnose mine. I'd been confident for years that I had some form of autoimmune hypothyroidism, as my maternal grandfather suffered from hypothyroidism and my mother had a thyroidectomy. My grandfather wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late, when he was hospitalized for what may have been delayed symptoms of a nearly fatal car crash that he “miraculously” survived, doctors and first responders told me at the time. (At 15, I was in the ambulance and in the operating room with him.) My mother’s hypothyroidism also went undiagnosed and untreated for decades. Doctors blamed my symptoms on anything else, even my own behavior, and refused to send out blood work for a quick, simple and cheap test of free levels of triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which together regulate your body’s temperature, metabolism and heart rate, because my "TSH (or thyroid stimulating hormone) is fine." Finally, I found a doctor who’d written an article on a study that articulated exactly what I’d been telling other doctors, and he immediately diagnosed me with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, a genetic disease. My mother’s mother had rheumatoid arthritis, and my sister is afflicted with RA, along with Lupus and Raynaud's phenomenon (RP) – all autoimmune diseases.  So many people I knew growing up from the same immigration also suffered from various autoimmune diseases, while diabetes and heart disease was extremely rare in this community. These people grew their own vegetables and fruits, fished and only bought meat if they knew how the animal was slaughtered. This was in the third-largest city in Massachusetts and fourth-largest in New England. My grandparents kept hens in a perch of shelves that my grandfather build into a one-car garage, grew dozens of vegetable varieties and berries, and even kept and slaughtered their own pigs. I often went fishing (at a nearby lake) and mushroom picking (at a nearby forest) with my grandfather. I picked berries from the small yard and helped collect eggs from the hens. My grandfather volunteered as a beekeeper at the monastery where he’s now buried on his vacations from factory work and brought home the equipment to keep hives in the yard.

My unexamined autoimmne hypothesis aside, there’s been even less done to psychologically diagnose these people and treat their obvious survivor’s guilt and often posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is an unforgivable failure of our mental health system and our society at large. America has welcomed the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore” but it has done nothing to help those huddled masses heal from the incomparable suffering of surviving war after war. PTSD and survivor’s guilt is so rarely used in conversations about anyone but U.S. military veterans. Unarmed civilians suffer far more than soldiers. PTSD and survivor’s guilt are often confused, even by trained specialists, but they are very different phenomena. While PTSD is psychopathological phenomenon, survivor’s guilt is more of an expression of a normal concern for other human beings, both as individuals and as a society.

My intention is never to undermine the struggle of soldiers. My father was a decorated veteran who served in the South Pacific and in Korea, and is immortalized in The New Orleans D-Day Museum. Many men in my family have served in numerous wars and conflicts. But when they volunteer or they’re drafted or recruited, soldiers are warned of the trauma to come, even if they cannot effectively prepare for it. Even the most distressed societies make an effort, and often a promise, to protect civilians, yet no adult or child ever is warned of the sudden terror that leads to destruction of what was a civil society. My mother also was robbed of a childhood, adding another level of stress to her guilt.

“The various effects that adults who were child survivors experience can be attributed to many aspects of their traumatic exposure. Children and adults were treated differently in the camps and consequently their emotional reactions were different. Children were likely too traumatized during the war to experience ‘true’ childhood,” writes Fara Kaplan in “Holocaust Survivors and Their Children: A Search for Positive Effects” published by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. “Also, because the child's identity had been in a state of development, their experiences may have remained buried in their memory (i.e., unconscious). This may have impeded their ability to empathize with others and likely negatively affected their adjustment to their own offspring.”

For my mother, the survivor’s guilt from early childhood is compounded by the losses of her parents and my father, all of whom she cared for at home until their deaths from very serious illnesses. The Russians (and Eastern Slavs) I knew growing up did not sentence their sick and old to death in nursing homes. “How can I do that to my parents when they didn’t let me die?” my mother has said, or stated, many times. Of course, she was equally compelled to care for her dying husband. My grandfather’s illness was, mercifully, short-lived: he died about a year after he became bed-ridden, his wife and his daughter as his constant bedside companions. After he died, my grandmother was bedridden for nearly nine years, her (long undiagnosed) brain atrophy prohibiting her from speaking. She would, however, sometimes cry in a chanting tone that clearly signified the mourning of her loved ones, especially her infant sons.  My father was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, metastasized to the liver, shortly after my grandmother died. I’ll spare the details of what such care involves, as I know most Americans lack the palate for visceral reality. But my mother completely gave up her life from 1987 until 2002. She hasn’t recovered from that trauma enough to indulge in what are very basic creature comforts for the average American, such as treating herself to a movie or a vacation – ever.

In a 1972 article in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Stephen M. Sonnenberg, M.D., cites a case study involving a patient who felt guilty that her husband had died during surgery she authorized, after caring for him during a nine-month illness. “She also expressed feelings of guilt concerning the murder of her parents and younger sisters by the Nazis,” notes Sonnenberg.

“With (her husband’s) death, she not only felt guilt concerning him but she lost the opportunity to expiate her long-standing guilt by being a good nurse. In her unconscious, it was as if she had willed the suffering of her past loved ones in an effort to be close to them. Thus, guilt over past events became overwhelming. It would seem that this patient was a guilt-laden woman who lost a guilt-expiating object and at the same time underwent an experience that confirmed her past and present guilt. Signing for 'experimental' surgery was perhaps the final burden, and her obsession over it became clear in her treatment. While she insisted that her husband's good health had been her goal, she also felt that she was a 'murderer.’ Depression was present when anger at the lost object was conscious and when identification with the lost object did not exist. It was the strength of her guilt that made her feel so hopeless and depressed.”

Shulamith Kreitler, Frida Barak, Yasmin Alkalay and Nava Siegelman-Daniel conducted study of 195 family members of cancer patients who had been involved in the care of the patients and had a continuous relationship with them, which found that that survivor’s guilt is prevalent among the caretakers of cancer patients.

“It is distinct from the experiences of guilt and of remorse,” they wrote in paper “Survivor’s Guilt in Caretakers of Cancer” based on the study. “Survivor’s guilt is an affective response rooted in deeper layers of the personality. Most importantly, the observations about the correlates of survivor’s guilt six months following the patient’s death support the theses that survivor’s guilt exerts a pro-social impact on the person’s behavior and that it helps maintain the presence of the deceased in the life space of the survivor. Both of these effects led the deceased a kind of metaphorical immortality, thus helping the survivor preserve his or her own sense of immortality and the sense of continued contact with the deceased. In these respects survivor’s guilt contributes to overcoming death, at least on the psychological level.”

This desire to commune with the dead also plays into my mother’s religious beliefs and practices. Russian Orthodox Christians do not close the casket until it is taken from the church to the cemetery. My grandmother’s body was returned to my parent’s home where she died after being taken to the funeral home. A wake was held at home, with many non-Orthodox Christians in attendance, and kept my grandmother there until being transported 166 miles away to the monastery church. (I drove my mother’s car, following the hearse, which was nearing speeds of 100 mph. It was exhilarating.) Psalms are read over the body continuously and throughout the night until the funeral begins. In the words of the fathers of the seventh ecumenical council: “God re-created man in immortality, thus bestowing upon him a gift which could no longer be taken away from him.”

Nietzsche said Dostoevsky was “the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology.” In Dostoevsky’s work, guilt and sin are existential conditions of man, and each of us is somehow guilty of everyone’s sins. Nietzsche began reading the work of Dostoevsky, who died in 1881, in 1887, finding inspiration in a fellow challenger of the fundamental world view of the Enlightenment. Religious belief is what divides the two. Dostoevsky ultimately believes in salvation and therefore an afterlife, a view Nietzsche boldly rejects. But they share a very similar perspective on guilt.

The confession of Raskolnikov, which leads the protagonist in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to prison, clearly had a profound impact on Nietzsche’s philosophy.

"Throughout most of human history, punishment has not been meted out because the miscreant was held responsible for his act, therefore it was not assumed that the guilty party alone should be punished: but rather, as parents still punish their children, it was out of anger over some wrong that had been suffered, directed at the perpetrator, but this anger was held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent which can be paid in compensation, if only through the pain of the person who injures. And where did this primeval, deeply-rooted and perhaps now ineradicable idea gain its power, this idea of an equivalence between injury and pain? I have already let it out: in the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, which is as old as the very conception of ‘legal subject’ and itself refers back to the basic forms of buying, selling, bartering, trade, and traffic." _ Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887).

It’s impossible for me to imagine a guilt more “primeval, deeply-rooted” than survivor’s guilt.

Monday, December 9, 2013

On Being (Bela)Rus(s)ian

I’ve been struggling to figure out the story behind the photos I posted of my grandfather and his father holding numbers. Online research is useless, and none of the dozens of professors and other experts of Slavic studies and history I reached out to have any clue. The replies, at least have been cordial, save for one from a non-academic that raised an irrelevant point that plays into something I’ve been meaning to write about.

“Those men on them (the photos) do not look like Belarusian types very much,” said the would-be source, a journalist who covers Belarus and other countries for a global news organization. 

His reply, for a number of reasons, offended me. As I attempt to let go of my toxic emotional response, I recall so many random and unrelated comments that have rattled my own cultural identity.

Just four days before receiving this journalist’s email, my son Michael Alexander, who is half Italian-American, and I were at a Japanese restaurant in Dumbo where we have lunch every Monday after school and before his art class.  It was packed that day, so we sat at the sushi bar. As Michael Alexander grabbed and devoured a piece of white tuna from my plate, the sushi chef smiled and said: “Russian boys are good and strong because they like fish.” He looked shocked when I told him we both were born in the U.S., insisting that “you both look very Russian.” His observation was meant as a compliment, applauding me for “teaching him right, even in America.”

Dozens of times I’ve been approached by people, usually blonde women around my mother’s age, who speak to me in Russian, asking for subway or walking directions. They’re all surprised when I tell them, in Russian, that I was born here. When I first moved to New York and was apartment hunting, the longtime Ukrainian landlords in the East Village called me only Natali, the Ukrainian diminutive for Natalia. (Natasha is my legal name, but I was baptized Natalia.) They’d assure me “you don’t look Russian at all. You look only Ukrainian.” Meantime, the well-heeled Russian-born brokers wanted me to move to the Upper East Side, insisting that’s “where all the Russians are. Don’t worry, you do not look Ukrainian or Polish at all, just Russian.” I won’t even get into what all of them say when I mention my mother was born in Belarus.

I joke that I was born to hate myself, the embodiment of Slavic ethnic strife. My father was born in the U.S. to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father.

Few non-Slavs even knew what a Belarusian or a Ukrainian was throughout my early childhood. I recall few things from what I considered to be a lousy “world cultures” class in 7th or 8th grade at a private girls’ school in 1980s Massachusetts. I hold a grudge to this day and blame the teacher for perpetuating myths about cultures he apparently hadn’t studied beyond the simplistic and poorly written textbook we used. “All Russians look like this,” he told the class pointing to a photograph of a young girl with dark hair and dark eyes. I stayed after class to tell him that there isn’t an archetypal look that is Russian, since the world’s biggest country is home to some 160 cultures and very few, if any, inhabitants can trace their heritage to just one. He laughed and patted me on the back, but said nothing other than “you’d better not be late for your next class.” I’d risked a “red dot” for being late for my next class, but the other teacher wasn’t the petty type who made such threats and enforced Soviet-inspired punishment. My grade in his class slipped slowly after that, even if my test scores never dropped.

Naturally there is more to being Russian or Belarusian or Ukrainian or Polish, or a mix of those and likely other ethnicities, than appearance. Escalating national and ethnic tensions are making headlines now, after protesters in Ukraine's capital Kiev knocked down a statue of Vladimir Lenin on Sunday. But Belarus is an even stranger place with far more strife and instability that’s fueled by corruption and its repeated role in war after lengthy and gory war.

My grandfather may have interpreted the journalist’s comment that “Those men …  do not look like Belarusian types very much” very differently as he identified himself as a Russian, not a Belarusian. As I’ve mentioned, he, my grandmother and my mother all were born in Belarus, just over the Russian border. That they were persecuted and that many family members and close friends were killed by Belarusian nationalists, is clearly part of the staunch Russian pride.

It is challenging for me when people attempt to claim me as their own, based on ethnicity as well as religion and cultural heritage. Living in New York, I hear “you’re Jewish like me, right?” as much as “you look Russian, “ or “you look Ukrainian” or “you look “Polish.”

I grapple with what all this means, as it pertains to my mother’s history.

Even a cursory scan of the history of Belarus should quickly dismiss any claim to a pure ethnic identity or “look.”

Stone Age settlements have been discovered in the Gomel region, with sites from the Palaeolithic period unearthed in the village of Yurovichi (Kalinkovichi area) dating back some 26,000 years. Bronze Age artifacts have been found throughout Belarus and at the start of the Iron Age there were three main settlements in Belarus around the basins of the Dneiper, Dvina and Pripyat rivers.

Colonization by the Slavs began in the early centuries AD, eventually replacing the Baltic culture. East Slavs formed the first political associations, or unions of tribes, in the 6th and 9th centuries. The first records from the Polotsk Duchy in what is now modern Vitebsk Oblast and the northern part of the Minsk Oblast date back to the 9th century. Polotsk dominated until the 13th century when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogotia – which spanned modern Belarus, Lithuania, the Kiev, Chernigov and Volyn areas of the Ukraine and western Russia from the Baltics to the Black Sea – rose to power in the 13th century and only began to crumble after multiple wars in the 16th century.

In 1569 the Grand Duchy and the Kingdom of Poland signed the Union of Lublin to create Rzeczpospolita (the traditional Polish State). This ushered in a period of turmoil, which included a war with Russia (1654-1667) and the North War with Sweden and Russia (1700-1721). Battered by its rivals, Rzeczpospolita eventually lost and in 1772 the western provinces of Belarus were annexed to the Russian Empire. In 1795 Rzeczpospolita was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.

Under the first Russification efforts, what was Belarus became a place of ongoing conflict and confusion with revolt under Tadeusz Kostushko’s leadership (1794), the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (1812), the Polish Revolt (1830–1831) and the Great Rebellion, headed by Kastus Kalinovski (1863-1864). During this period, Belarusian students in Saint Petersburg began organizing what set the foundation for the first Belarusian national political party formed in 1903. The Stolypin agrarian reforms, a series of changes to Imperial Russia's agricultural sector launched in 1906, resulted in mass displacement of the peasant classes until 1914, including 33,000 people who were moved from Belarusian territory to Siberia.

During World War I, German and Russian forces fought bloody battles on Belarusian territory, until March 3, 1918, with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Then came the Russian Revolution and the Belarusian People’s Republic declared independence in March 1918, which lasted until the German withdrawal at the end of the year. The Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was created Jan. 1, 1919.

After the Russo-Polish War (1919-1921), the Riga Peace Treaty resulted in the partitioning of Belarus between the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and Poland. All of Belarus was under the New Economic Policy (NEP), implemented by the government of the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1928 and representing a temporary retreat from its previous policy of extreme centralization and doctrinaire socialism. Meantime, the Polish part of Belarus was subjected to Polonization from 1921-1930s. In 1922, the Belarusian SSR became a part of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

It only got worse ahead of my mother’s birth. Soviet economic policy and the introduction of collective farming caused famine in Belarus from 1932-1933. During the Great Purge (1936-1940) more than 86,000 Belarusians suffered political oppression and more than 28,000 were sentenced to death. (My mother was born in 1936 or 1938.)

The Red Army moved into West Belarus on Sept. 17, 1939, two weeks after World War II started. In June 1941, the Great Patriotic War began and by September Belarus was fully occupied by the German army. By the end of 1941, the Belarusian Partisans surfaced and ballooned into the biggest movement in Europe before 1944.

Little has changed, at least in terms of attitude and perception.

A new analytical paper "Belarusian Identity: The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule" released today by the Centre for Transition Studies suggests that President Alexander Lukashenko rejected the ethno-national model of state suggested by his predecessors in the early 1990s and restored a Soviet style “statist nation” run by a centralized bureaucracy. After being elected in 1994, Lukashenko launched a policy of Russification, selecting Russia as a strategic priority for foreign relations in a supposed effort to recover from the economic crisis. A year later he initiated a referendum to introduce Russian as a second official language in Belarus, with the vast majority, or 83.3%, of voters supporting the initiative. The Constitution of Belarus declares the equal status of both languages, but Russian dominates all facets of life and public organizations and officials generally speak Russian.

Since the early noughts, all major Belarus-based media broadcasts are aired in Russian, and there are no all-Belarusian language universities. The study data shows the even as more residents identify themselves as Belarusians, the use of the Belarusian language has eroded, and a Russian-speaking Belarusian nation has emerged. When asked “What unites you with other people of your nationality?” Belarusians refer more to territory and state, than to culture and language. The majority consider the origin of Belarusian statehood in mediaeval Polack and Turaŭ princedoms and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, not in the Belarusian SSR. Still the same people have embraced symbols, such as national holidays and the red-green flag, introduced by Lukashenko’s regime.

“The Belarusian nation, unlike most European nations, did not emerge along ethno-national lines, with an indigenous language, culture or a solid nationalist historical narrative. Rather, it consolidated as a result of a Communist experiment which lasted for 70 years. It experienced many of the major disasters of the 20th century, including both the Stalinist terror and the horrors of World War II. This turbulent path has impacted Belarusians profoundly and, after 20 years of independence, the Belarusian nation is still trying to find its way,” wrote the paper’s author, Vadzim Smok, a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

Smok looks to people like my cousin Tanya, who just began teaching after graduating from Minsk State Linguistic University (MSLU) to effect dramatic social change.

“Younger generations will play a crucial role in the future development of the Belarusian nation. They communicate by the Internet, which remains a free and open space for communication and exchange of ideas in Belarus. They did not undergo Soviet indoctrination or experience its relentless propaganda and tend to prefer to work in the private sector, meaning they are less and less tied to the state. These people look much more free and democratically minded then their parents, and quite soon they will rule the country,” Smok concluded.

For now, I’m still entangled in what my mother’s birthplace means for my family’s identity. Do I have a Belarusian “look”? Do I care? Apparently I do.

My Marvel Avengers’ obsessed (his father’s student) son, the one who was mistaken for a “boy from Russia,” had wanted to be Spider-Man this past Halloween but I insisted he also try on a Thor costume. The saleswomen swooned, with two singing in unison “He IS Thor!” Perhaps that means that he has the “Bealrusian look,” which could be more Old Norse than anything else. In 2010, archaeologists found the remains of an ancient Viking (or what East Slavs call Varangian) settlement in Vitebsk Oblast, where my mother and her parents were born. 

                                                   (Photo credit: Dave Stewart Photogrpahy)

Said Marc Chagall, the Vitebsk-born artist with an extremely complicated ethno-cultural identity, “The soil that nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk."

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Disputed End and a Happy Beginning

“I don’t remember when the war ended,” says my mother. She’s not acknowledging (like most of us) that she forget what she learned in high school history class. For her, the day the Nazis surrendered marks one of many heightened emotions from a traumatic and tortured early childhood. It’s what immediately followed that matters.

But even those who make a career out of documenting such events are at odds over the date.

Nearly seven decades later, historians still dispute precisely when World War II ended in Europe, a tender topic that remains tricky turf for The Associated Press, the breaking news military of journalism where I spent nearly a decade as an editor in the ‘90s and noughts.

Some claim the war ended at the armistice of Aug.14, 1945; others contend it ceased with the formal surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.

Brooklyn-born Edward Kennedy cut his teeth at newspapers for seven years before he was hired by the AP to work in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., and then assigned overseas. He was in Valencia and Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War, then in Rome to report on Mussolini’s Italy. His storied career includes dispatches from France, Hungary, (what was then known as) Rumania, (the former) Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Algiers.

It wasn’t until May 7, 1945, that he became a historical figure himself when he witnessed the surrender of Nazi Germany in Reims, France. The announcement was embargoed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, but Kennedy couldn’t get a response from the censors and decided himself to act as the newsman that he was and release the news.

Kennedy’s dedication to his job got him fired, even though he exonerated his reputation by proving that the U.S. military had permitted the Germans to release news of the surrender while maintaining the embargo on the media.

But it wasn’t until last year that the AP apologized to Kennedy, who had been dead for nearly half a century.

“It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way,” said AP president and CEO Tom Curley. Kennedy, he said, “did everything just right.”

Churchill and Truman had secretly agreed to keep mum until the following day, when the Soviet Union would accept the capitulation of German forces in Berlin. The Big Three wanted to stick it to Stalin and announce the end of the war together on May 8, or "Victory in Europe Day.”

The New York Times ran Kennedy’s byline on the May 8 front page, announcing that THE WAR IN EUROPE IS ENDED!

Thankfully there still were newspapers in the 20th century and Kennedy went on to work as managing editor of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press, and then as associate editor and publisher of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula Herald (now the Monterey County Herald) until his death in November 1963.

For my mother, the exact date bears little significance, but the action is life changing – or life beginning.

“After the war ended, we were free to go anywhere,” said my mother. “During the war there was nothing. We didn’t have anything.”

My mother’s story trails back to life before the farm and then she circles back to her journey and arrival at Lyssenko Displaced Persons Camp in Hanover or Hannover, Germany. Alexandra Tesluk Gibson, who was born at Lyssenko and is the author of memoir The Ashes of Innocence, has been back to the former camp. My mother, who hasn’t left the U.S, save for short trips to Canada, since 1950, immediately remembered exactly where she lived when I showed her the photos of the barracks that Alexandra had posted. My mother vividly recalled that she and her parents used the second door from the left of the giant building and that a close friend and her family used the first door, which connected from the inside to hers. There were four resident entrances, and the two to the right also connected inside, says my mother.

Even before seeing the photos of the building’s modern day exterior, my mother said: “these were very, very large barracks. In each room -- they were big -- we had four families and each one of us had like a corner. And by that time we were given foods. Certain foods. Rationed foods. And we were also given packages of clothes afterwards, they were sent from America and from England.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my mother shared with me dozens of photos, mostly from Lyssenko.

The authentic laughter re-emerges when my mother recalls “I remember this one package that was sent, and it said it was for a child my age, and I wanted that one even though I think it was a little bit too small for me. (giggles) But it was a beautiful coat, so I wanted the biggest one in the package. (giggles) I still remember that coat. It had some kind of checkered pattern on it and it was red or maroon. But it was quite small on me. I guess I later traded it with someone, but I wore it a couple times.” (giggles)

The photos from Hanover reveal the first signs of living for my mother.

“We had a good time, you know, we were allowed to go to school and we were in a British zone and we were in a Ukrainian camp, but we were not allowed to speak Russian. We had to speak Ukrainian. And that's why now my Ukrainian, Russian and Byelorussian sort of sometimes blends together.”

“The life there was very good. I had friends, I went to school and I even went to a carnival, and went to movies.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Common Occurrence Reads as Shock and Horror to a 21st Century Audience

Too much of history is told from the perspective of those who fought battles, ignoring the greater impact on civilians and therefore on society and culture in general. This is especially true of World War II, as social history didn’t emerge until the 1960s. In 2001, historian Sönke Neitzel discovered, at the British national archives, nearly 800 pages of unedited and only recently declassified, transcripts of covert recordings from holding cells, bedrooms and camps that housed prisoners of war. He then found about twice as many reams of the same at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Neitzel and social psychologist Harald Welzer used a careful study of these documents to unleash what came as a surprise to most readers: soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the German navy and military in general, behaved with callous, inhumane brutality against civilians. In their 2012 book, Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying, Neitzel and Welzer use the transcripts from tape recordings of some 13,000 inmates over four years to reveal the kind of details that I’d heard firsthand since childhood.

“I used to shoot at everything, certainly not just military targets.  We liked to go for women pushing prams, often with children at their sides.  It was a kind of sport really,” boasted Oberleutnant Hans Hartigs. His is among the less graphic and grotesque admissions. A junior officer junior officer bragged about what he and his fellow soldiers did to a woman they thought was a Russian spy: “We beat her on the tits with a stick, clobbered her on the ass with a pistol, then all eight of us had her, then we threw her out and as she lay there, we threw grenades at her.”

You’ll recall I wrote about my mother telling me: “When we still were in Russia (Belarus) where my brother died, the German soldiers would cut off the breasts of young women that would not submit to them, and in the wintertime they would tie them to the sled naked and parade them around so other women would see what happens to them if they do not submit to them. At that time, I didn’t understand what it was. I only figured it out afterwards, when my mother was telling other people, but it still was really terrible to see that.”

Reading that quote in a post I’d written triggered additional memories for my mother. The Partisan soldiers were just as cruel and brutal as the German soldiers to my family.

She recalls when she and her parents were living close to the tiny village of Lemnistsa, in an area that was patrolled by German soldiers during the day and by Partisans at night, “quite soon after Germans occupied Vitebsk Oblast.”

The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 under Operation Barbarossa, and German forces occupied Vitebsk Oblast on July 11. Soviet forces seized the initiative from the Germans after the battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943. The Soviet army liberated Vitebsk on June 26, 1944.

My maternal grandmother took my mother and her younger brother “Mishinka” (affectionate for Michael or Mikhail) to Lemnitsa to get some food my family had planted there. “When we got there the Partisans came and they sort of arrested my mother. My father came home from the Soviet Army on leave just before war started. He didn’t go back so they called him a traitor. The Partisans called my mother a spy for the Germans, and detained and interrogated her. They were about to kill my mother and she said ‘just give me one promise, if you kill me, you kill my children with me.’ There were a lot of scenes my mother had seen where a mother would be dead and the child would be crawling over her trying to breast feed.”

My mother uses the term scene to describe a real-life atrocity my grandmother witnessed on a daily basis, and to me they play as if they are graphic movie scenes. It often is less painful for me to imagine my mother’s early childhood from a cinematic lens: a grainy, black and white moving image that seems far more distant than it really was. I’ve never studied filmmaking, save for a graduate level non-film course where we made a short film with still images, and managed to earn an undergraduate minor in studio art without ever taking a photography course, and I express images through words. Still I see everything that is told to me and everything that I imagine as moving image, often passing by too quickly for me to effectively capture with the articulation and detail it deserves.

“There were three ladies whose husbands were Partisans and they came and said ‘if you kill this woman we will not work for you,’ so the Partisans let her and me and Mishinka go. These ladies knew when Germans would be on watch and told my mother when to escape and she took us when it was getting dark and she was carrying Mishinka. The Partisans saw us, but we were far enough away that when they shot at us they didn't kill us. Some Russians working for the Germans were called Politsay and they let us get back to the German zone. My father was there and he didn't come with us because they would have killed us. He was working for the Germans (as a forced laborer.)”

My mother, along with her mother and brother, made it safely back to the German zone in Vitebsk Oblast, but a solider wanted to take my grandmother back to the Nazi headquarters believing she was a spy for the Partisans “My mother said she was not leaving without her children and finally they took us in a horse driven carriage and the German soldier took her to the commandant and said she was a spy for the Partisans and that she went to tell Partisans how everything is situated on German zone.”

That same solider had taken my maternal grandfather’s cousin and his wife and it wasn’t until my grandmother was being questioned that she learned they had been killed just for being under suspicion of spying for the Partisans because their daughter was a girlfriend of a Partisan solider and was in the Partisan zone.

“My mother took me and Mishinka in her arms to some kind of a river and was going to drown us and her.”

Just as my grandmother walked toward the water with her two young children, pulling a prayer (or “holy letter”) from her pocket to read as she walked to their death, “this man appeared who happened to be my uncle’s friend, deugushka (grandfather) Sidorka, and he was a cook for the Germans, a slave laborer, and he said she was not a spy. He said, ‘if my signature if not enough I will give my life for her she is not a spy. The commandant said to ‘take this woman and never bring her back.’”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Goal and Intention of Lubachka, The Novel

Lubachka is not an attempt to write or rewrite a controversial period of history that has been recorded with great inaccuracy, sometimes as a result of intentional bias but more often because the memories of survivors are as convoluted as the emotional trauma and psychological struggle that accompanies such experience. Each survivor's experience is unique and powerful as a tool for comprehending how war impacts civilians and forever changes their lives. The collective history is told only through battles, and how the seats of power are shifted. That the weaponry and strategy continues to interest people, particularly those who have never served as soldiers, speaks volumes about the psyche. Americans, in particular, are inclined to focus on these details in order to distance themselves from the suffering of people like my mother. I lack any ability to connect intellectually with adults who tinker with toy soldiers like a sheltered child. It is cultural history, not military history, that, utilizing narratives such as Lubachka, can help us begin to understand humanity. Battle logistics are only significant in tracing the paths of those who were lost at war and those survived. The important story has been buried in the daily lives of people like my mother.

Through the lens of those who witnessed horrific atrocities comes profound and important insight into humanity, which must be considered alongside the triumphant accomplishments of humanity, such as great art and literature, both contemporary and contemporaneous.

As a former scholar (of literature not history) and as a journalist for more than two decades, I approach this project with the research skills I have developed. This is not, however, intended as a sweeping academic or investigative work. It is a layman's effort at contributing to the memory and shared experience of survivors like my mother, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or religion.  Any statistics I cite are official, and I intentionally avoid engaging in any debate over the “real” numbers that break down how many were killed or died based on ethnic or national profile.

My mother and her parents identify themselves as ethnic Russians, though they all were born in Belarus, so close to the Russian border that my grandmother walked to church in Russia to baptize my mother. There are many confusing details regarding when and why certain people were sent to specific camps, and my mother and her parents were often the minority ethnic population at a particular camp even when there were more facilities designated for Russians. It is significant to note that while Belorussians were often counted differently from Russians (largely because of the Partisan resistance movement of which my mother and her parents were targets), Ukrainians are generally lumped into the Russian category on official statistics. I am a quarter Ukrainian and a quarter Polish on my father’s side. That alone is reason enough for me to avoid any conversation or conflict stemming from national or ethnic pride. My mother is Russian Orthodox and any discussion of religion serves to bolster the cultural context of heinous crimes committed against people of many different faiths.

Lubachka is largely based on my mother’s early childhood memories, but it is written by me. My mother chose to not write this herself, nor did she commission me to write it.  She did, however, speak openly about an extremely traumatic period of her life. This is not a fictionalized account, nor is it written from my mother’s voice. I welcome critics for everything I publish, professional and personal, but I am not making any claims that are intended to set straight a record or undermine other people’s accounts. I welcome any information that might broaden my own understanding of the events surrounding my mother’s experience.

I’ve grown up in a world where “educated” people (those who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree from a college or university) have used the term Soviets after 1991 to describe people who live in (or hail from) countries bordering Afghanistan, China, (the former) Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Iran, Mongolia, North Korea, Norway, Poland, Romania and Turkey. My frustration is nothing compared with my mother’s. Imagine watching all your siblings die in infancy and surviving concentration and slave camps only to be met with ignorance in a free America where you are marginalized and ostracized by people who were brainwashed by McCarthyism.

This is intended as an explainer, not a disclaimer. I am not Lubachka, but of course I am psychologically and socially impacted by my mother’s life story. Every effort is made to present information without cultural bias, using historical documentation as a framework for the events and experiences she describes. This is a deeply emotional account and I strive to represent all information with integrity.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Authentic Laughter Guides a Journey From Slave Camp to Farm

When, as an undergraduate studying Dostoyevsky, I first read Mikhail Bakhtin’s chapter on the history of laughter, I thought of my mother, my grandparents and the other immigrants that had suffered and survived alongside them. Even during the darkest conversations seeped in the most agonizing recollections, they could laugh with a voluptuous wealth as if to announce a triumph of human will. At the start of a recent yoga class, the instructor asked us to think about what the term authentic means to us and to think of another word to assign with it. Immediately my mind reverted to this scholarly experience, some 25 years ago: authentic laughter. In our “society” or “culture” – as much as those words can be authentically applied to the 21st century -- I recall very few instances of witnessing what I would describe as authentic laughter.

The philosopher, literary critic and semiotics scholar Bakhtin argues, in much loftier terms, that laughter can liberate all individuals from personal and situated constraints, compelling individuals into open-ended communication with each other.

“I don’t know if I remember because my parents told me, but they were separating men from women and families, so my father dressed as a woman so he could stay with us. My father was more than 6-feet tall,” mother says, laughing. “A lot of people got separated from their families, children from their mothers, and it was really an agony to hear some of them screaming.”

The laughter’s momentary relief wears abruptly off like a narcotic, as my mother’s memory is quickly led back to a horrific image.

“When we still were in Russia (Belarus) where my brother died, the German soldiers would cut off the breasts of young women that would not (sexually) submit to them, and in the wintertime they would tie them to the sled naked and parade them around so other women would see what happens to them if they do not submit to them. At that time, I didn’t understand what it was. I only figured it out afterwards, when my mother was telling other people, but it still was really terrible to see that.”

Even as my mother recalls arriving in Germany on a freight train from Poland, her memory wanders back to the atrocities in Vitebsk.

The recollections of so many crimes and killings seem to often come together as a single blur of endless suffering. My mother believes her grandmother and aunt were killed before her brothers died, “but there was no one there to take their bodies and they were just left there. And then I guess when we were taking my brother to be buried there -- of course there was no casket or anything, they were just buried in the ground, and so we buried them together.”

My maternal grandfather was the oldest child from “a very large family.” His brother, Alexi, was only 17 or 18 when his mother and sister were killed, “and he somehow snuck out during the night and came crying to tell us what happened,” my mother says. “My father just saw their heads split open (by a rifle handle) … and they were beaten first. My aunt was 16, that I remember. I don’t really know how old my grandmother was at that time.”

My mother’s story shifts to what she says she saw or experienced on her own. Much of it still is a blur.

“When we were brought to Germany, we were stripped of all the clothes and they were putting all this chlorine on us to disinfect us. We were the prisoners, so we would just to go through, and first, the stuff was sprayed on us, and then afterwards it must have been showers and some water was sprayed on us because the Germans didn’t want us to bring any kind of disease back to Germany. And then we were in a camp, under barbed wires. And we weren't given much food and people tried to go against the barbed wire to try and get the rest, and they were being hit for that.”

“The German farmers had the right to come and choose people to come and work for them, and since I was the only child and my parents were still young at that time, they were chosen to work on this farm. And by that time I guess I must've been 7.”

My maternal grandparents were selected to be slave laborers for a family headed by a man who was serving in the German Army at the time, and the grandfather and the daughter-in-law who were in charge “were nice to my parents,” mother says. The farm was somewhere near Nuremberg (Nürnberg), maybe a small village called Doldorf, of which I find no record on any map.

“We were just given a room in the barn to sleep. In Germany at that time, no bedrooms were heated anyway, but you could put hot water in bottles. But they didn’t have any hot water bottles for us, so you just put the hot water and sort of would mop your bed (with it), when it was cold in the winter.”

My mother recalls the old man as opa, the informal name for grandfather in German, and the soldier’s son as Hans, but she can’t say how long they were there before being herded off again.

“It was a long time … it's months or years I guess. I don’t know.”

Nor does she recall the duration of their stay at the camp. She doesn’t know the name or location.

Based on her estimated age during this period, I’m inclined to believe my mother was born in 1938 (as destroyed records indicated) rather than in 1936 as now official records suggest.

As of January 1945, nearly 6.7 million (including 4.8 million foreign civilians representing 14 nationalities; 1.87 prisoners of war; and 23,200 “politicals” or people arrested in their native countries for “subversive activities” against the Nazis and transported to Germany for incarceration), according to Allied and German data accompanied with an affidavit by economic analyst Edward L. Deuss, who worked for the Foreign Economic Administration in Washington. The majority, or more than 4 million, were Russians, which at the time would have included ethnic Ukrainians.

Fritz Sauckel, the Nazi politician who served as Hitler’s chief recruiter of slave labor during World War II, acknowledged at the March 1, 1944, meeting of the Central Planning Board that “out of 5 million foreign workers who arrived in Germany, not even 200,000 came voluntarily."

(Loosely translated, this Nazi propaganda poster (in Russian) boasts: "I live with a German family and am very happy.")

Information from the Nuremberg trials estimated that there were 12 million forced laborers in a class of forced labor camp known as zwangsarbeiter.

At an arbeitslager, forced laborers were guarded and movement of inmates restricted. Those who broke their contracts or didn't produce their quota, were sent to an arbeitsziehungslager for “re-education,” which amounted to punishment and often death. Death rates also were high at zonzentrationlager, camps controlled by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or Reich Main Security Office or Reich Security Main Office or Reich Security Head Office (RSHA.)

I cannot confirm at what type of camp (closely guarded under barbed wire) my mother’s parents were enslaved. The farm must have been classified as a gemeinschaftslager, which was an unguarded community.

“We were just all like cattle. I don’t even remember if we slept on a floor all the time next to each other or in cots, I don’t remember that … We were either on the ground or maybe we had cots. I don’t remember. At one place I think we were in cots. But most of the time it was the floor and we were just given an army blanket because I know there were army blankets because afterwards my mother made a jumper for me from the army blanket.”

Even the days at the farm, which clearly were among the safest (and happiest) for my mother, were encumbered with alienation.

“I was not allowed to play with other kids there. I was not allowed to go to their school. I wasn’t allowed to do anything that the farmers' kids did. They would say that we're the slaves and that there is Luba, she's all white, and she's not allowed to use anything. That I remember.”

For any child such memories can carve cavernous wounds. For my mother these were compounded by what would be unlivable conditions to most Americans today.

“We were given hardly any food, that I remember.” When there was food, it was “just something white that should've resembled soup (again, that laughter emerges). Whatever it was, I don’t know. I don’t even remember if we had bread. I just don’t remember that. “

She doesn’t recall how they accessed water, saying only that “I guess we were given water because we lived, we didn’t die. … I don’t remember bathing there at all.”

My mother doesn’t remember the day they left the camp, as the less tragic memories prevail.

“I just remember when we got to the farm and we lived there, which was of course much, much better than that camp. I think it looked nice. It had big fields everywhere. When it was time to get crops, maybe rye and maybe wheat, all of the workers, even the German ones, and other Russians that were taken by some of the farmers, they would be all working there. And they used to make this soup, in these big, big containers like the old milk containers, and that soup was --- AAAAH! It had ham in it! And it had vegetables! And beans! And so I used to go there, too, because they used to give it to the workers so my mother could give me some of that soup to eat! That was very good.”

“The other thing I remember, on the farm, is they made all of their own cold cuts and everything because they used to kill whatever kind of cattle. And on Sundays, they used to have this supper that was wonderful. It was all cold cuts and hardboiled eggs, but of course, we weren't given enough of it, but it was delicious. I never can find cold cuts like that anywhere in the world,” she says, again with the buoyant laughter. “Life there was not bad. And on Easter time they had an egg hunt and I could never find anything (more laughter). And I guess I was upset, but and then afterwards, I don’t know how I found this out, but when the Germans lost the war, but during the war, too, they were given cards, to get certain foods. And for each child, I guess the children were to get candy, but I was never given any of that candy. And so when the war ended and when we found out that the Germans couldn’t do anything to us, I said to them, (the laughter escalating into triumphant joy) where is all of my candy that was given to me but you never gave to me?”

The laughter unleashes the strong voice of liberation. A child who knew for the first time that she was “free,” whatever that meant. The laughter that punctuated her request for the candy she was owed – she knew she would never get it, but for the first time she could speak -- was born of a rebellion, the breaking free of a spirit that had been imprisoned along with the body. The laughter is far more powerful than the words.

"Laughter overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never used by violence and authority.” _ Bakhtin

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Grave Matter: The Privilege of Proper Burial

Many, if not most, Americans I know generally put off planning for funerals, picking burial plots and selecting tomb stones as long as possible. I’ve known people who have had to make final arrangements for elderly loved ones, something unthinkable for my mother and her parents. Leaving that responsibility – financially, emotionally and socially – to another person would be cruel, unfair and well, unthinkable. Beyond the added benefit of the cost savings that comes with paying in advance and the comfort of knowing that everything will be executed properly, there is a compelling reason why people like my mother and her parents take pride in such morose tasks. My mother’s brothers – among dozens more family members and childhood friends – were dumped into mass graves that have never been marked, unearthed or in any way recognized as burial places.

Of all the villages I’ve researched in Vitsebsk Oblast, Lemnitsa is by far the most elusive. My (for lack of proper term) cousin, Tanya Grishayeva (her paternal grandfather was my maternal grandfather’s younger brother), who was born in Mozyr, Belarus, and now lives in Minsk, helped me cobble what little information – mostly photographs -- is out there.

Perhaps one day the government or an organized group in search for bodies of fallen soldiers will get around to excavating Lemnista, the burial place of my mother’s three brothers who died in infancy. In September 2011, the remains of soldiers of the Red Army were discovered near the village of Noviky, Vitebsk, as part of the CIS International Memory Watch 2011. The effort includes volunteers from Belarus and Russia seeking unearthed remains that will be re-interred in one of the mass graves in Vitebsk Oblast.

For now, the village of Lemnitsa seems lost in time, with a grainy image of a 19th century
water mill that was destroyed and mention of a church in honor of Saints Kosmy and Damiana (Orthodox Saints Cosmas and Damian, or Kosmas and Damianos in Greek) built in 1836 but destroyed around 1910, among the little evidence such a place exists.

There is a haunting consolation that comes with learning that the ghosts of brothers (in some stories, twins) Kosmy and Damiana share my uncles’ burial place. Their history represents a trinity of stories, one for each of my mother’s brothers: Pyotr (Peter), Mikhail (Michael) and Ivan (John.) The Holy Trinity is a key belief in the world’s second-largest (yet most often neglected and ignored by the West) Christian church, and the theme permeates culture, literature and secular life. By the 4th century, a polarity developed between Eastern and Western Christians over their respective understandings of the Trinity. The West viewed God primarily as one essence (the Trinity of Persons being conceived as an irrational truth found in revelation), while the East considered the tri-personality of God the primary fact of Christian experience. The Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea) were accused of being tri-theists because of the personalistic emphasis of their conception of God. Modern Orthodox theologians tend to emphasize this personalistic approach to God.

Orthodox Christians celebrate three different sets of saints by the name of Cosmas and Damian, each with their own feast day:

·      Saints Cosmas and Damian of Cilicia of Arabia on Oct. 17. Legend claims the brothers were beaten and beheaded together with three other Christians: Leontius, Anthimus and Eutropius.
·      Saints Cosmas and Damian of Asia Minor or Mesopotamia on Nov.  1. This story offers some solace with the twins sons of Saint Theodota dying peacefully and being buried together at Thereman in Mesopotamia. Note that my mother’s brothers Mikhail and Ivan were twins.
·      Saints Cosmas and Damian of Rome on July 1. In another Christian tradition, the brothers were martyred outside Rome by a jealous pagan physician during the reign of Roman Emperor Carinus (283–284).

St. Michael's Church in Munich as well as the convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid claim to have the skulls of Cosmas and Damian. For Orthodox Christians like my mother, the need to worship and believe in the authenticity of such relics is powerful. Imagine as a young child not only watching all three of your siblings suffer and die, but also to never know exactly where they were buried or have any way of paying proper respects.

This makes the opportunity to choose and arrange for your own final resting place something of a privilege. I do respect anyone’s desire to decide how their own body will be treated upon death and how they will be remembered. But I always shudder when I learn of people who bury loved ones without any sense of tradition or ritual, assuming that is what the deceased had intended. I believe that those who want no ceremony or guests clearly state such desires long before their demise, and such requests are to be honored. But the notion of simply cremating or arranging for burial without even a dinner featuring the departed’s favorite food or a gathering of some kind, albeit secular and informal, is to me a form of neglect.

Most of the images that exist online of Lemnista are of a railway station connecting the village to routes into Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. A photo of the passenger building at the station is especially eerie, as there are two rectangular cement-enclosed flower beds in the parking lot that resemble the open grave covers filled with flowers at the cemetery at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, N.Y., where my mother’s parents and my father are buried.