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