Sunshine

“May there always be sunshine, may there always be blue skies/May there always be Mama, may there always be me.”

Galina would have known this song in its original version – used here as the refrain – the sweetly hopeful words composed by a child in 1928. That her mind would take her to this place of safety following an especially difficult ordeal is not at all surprising.

The patriotic verses, set to Ostrovsky’s music, were added by Oshanin later, during the Cold War, mixing martial tones with an innocent message of peace. But the chorus, especially when sung by children, remains captivating and universal, prompting artists like Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Raffi to each record their own English versions.

My Heart

 

“The first time Franz came into the toy shop, Galina was dusting the nearly immaculate shelves, her back to the door. She was half-singing a new song she had heard in the park, filling in the spaces between words with uncertain humming. My heart, it is not peace you want…hmm hmm my heart…

Spasibo, siertze,” he prompted, causing her to spin around in surprise, the dust cloth clutched to her chest. One of Ilya’s carved squirrels fell to the floor behind her….

After he left, the figurine pieces tucked securely in his shirt pocket, she stood a moment, recalling the touch of his fingers against her palm, and the way he nodded politely at the door, waiting until he stepped outside to put the cap back on his head. Siertze, kak horosho na svete zhit’. The lyrics rushed in from some recess of her memory.

“What nonsense,” she said aloud. How good it is to be alive, indeed. Try to remember that when in line for a half-kilo ration of worm-eaten potatoes, the skins creased like walnuts and about the same size, too.”

from Roads, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Press

Eternal Memory

“Father Stefan’s sonorous basso cut through Filip’s fruitless ruminations. In a voice both louder and brighter than before, the deacon intoned the words vechnyi pokoi – eternal peace – for the departed. Filip closed his eyes and heard the congregation join in the singing of the final words, in a rising minor motif of such mournful beauty that even he felt the pricking of tears behind his eyelids. Beside him, Galina’s clear voice rose above the others, then broke down, the last Vechnaya Pamyat’ no more than a hoarse whisper between her barely stifled sobs. Eternal Memory.”
From Roads: A Novel, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Books

Katyusha

Another song I heard countless times growing up, though never in such a charming rendition. Katyusha is the song playing in Galina’s head after the birth of her child, and the name that springs to her lips when she sees her daughter for the first time. Why?

The song was a big wartime hit. It celebrated constancy, home front support for men fighting to protect their country from the fascist invader. Its portrayal of women as passive tenders of the hearth (and heart) could not have been farther from the truth. Women served alongside men in the military, not only as nurses and administrative staff, but as fearless bomber pilots – the famous Night Witches who inflicted real damage on the enemy.

As in the US, women worked in munitions factories, sewed uniforms and parachutes, ran government offices and farms. Like their American and British counterparts, they did important work decoding enemy messages; some were spies. They were teachers, machinery operators, bus drivers, keeping the country running, often while raising children and managing things at home.

Katyusha was also a powerful Soviet missile launcher instrumental in the defense of Stalingrad and other key battles. It seems ironic that this lethal weapon would take its name from such a sweet song. But then war is nothing if not ironic.

Pirog

Chekhov and Gogol called it the glory of Russian cooking.

Pirog, filled with meat for feast days, or cabbage and eggs for everyday consumption, has earned its pride of place among the many great dishes of Russian cuisine. And yet, like the enigma of the Slavic national character, it is a deeply humble dish, rich in its simplicity. Universal. In Roads, it is the one thing Ksenia must make, at any cost, to feed her son, body and soul.

My personal favorite? Potato with sauteed onions and dill. Or maybe sauerkraut cooked with fresh cabbage….It’s almost impossible to choose one when you love them all.

Build it high with chicken filling and it’s called kurnik; salmon layered with rice and mushrooms in a flaky pastry crust makes it kulebyaka. Any variety formed into handy individual shapes becomes pirozhki, without which no traditional Russian buffet table is considered complete. Whatever its name, you can just call it divine.

Perfect picnic food, satisfying snack, a natural accompaniment to soup, pirog, (or its smaller cousin), is as essential to the celebrated zakuski tray as marinated herring, caviar, beet salad, or chilled vodka.

My grandmother, whose baking skills were legendary, could not teach me how to duplicate her creations. She used an old teacup with a broken handle to scoop the flour; everything else – yeast, salt, eggs – was weighed in the palm of her hand or measured by her unfailing accurate eye. Since her passing, I’ve found recipes to outline the proportions. I know what the ingredients are. I can make savory fillings. I spent enough time in her kitchen to remember the technique. What I have yet to learn is how to knead the dough until it “feels right.”

All the more reason to keep trying.

 

 

Author Note

How did this book happen? The truth is, of course, that it did not happen. A book never does; a book is built. It emerges from elements as surprising as they are banal: an overheard remark dropped by a passing stranger; a random thought; the seed of an idea; a memory.

This book is built of stories – the ones I started collecting, unawares, as a child growing up among Russian expatriates in a community that sheltered its members while they learned how to live in a postwar world that would never again be the same. Like refugees and displaced people everywhere, they carried their mementos, their recipes, their customs and beliefs, their language and music wherever they went. These were the tools with which they began to carve out a home among baffling and sometimes hostile strangers.

Some of the stories were given to me, passed on as heritage. Others I absorbed whenever friends and newcomers gathered around the table, affirming the bittersweet victory of survival through shared recollections, covering their scars with deep melancholy as often as with laughter and song. Among these people, there were those who said nothing at all. Their enigmatic silence carried, for me, its own mysterious eloquence.

Some narratives I surmised for myself. I pieced them together from scraps hinting at an ordeal too painful to recall in its entirety, an ordeal that nagged at the mind or troubled the heart, refusing to be completely forgotten.

I grew older, people aged. Some died, leaving a trail of memories that started to seem less reliable. The stories had changed in the retelling, tinged by nostalgia. There were omissions, contradictions, discrepancies. The people who had made those journeys, endured those terrors, were the survivors; they had buried the fallen and searched for the lost. But the picture was starting to blur. If I was going to tell the tale, I needed facts.

There were books to read and maps to study, Internet sources and firsthand narratives to evaluate and absorb. It was not enough. I had to go, to see some of the places where these things had happened. It would all be different now, after so much time had passed. But I had to go.

I traveled to Russia, Belgium, Germany. I saw the Elbe at Dresden, sailed down the Danube from Regensburg. Trains carried me through the Bavarian countryside and its legendary forest, past villages with tile-roofed houses and into teeming cities. Waiting on the platform for a connecting train to my last destination, I heard the conductor announce, “Plattling, Track Two.” Plattling. It was not on my itinerary, but it was in my story. I had the time.

And what would I see there? Barbed wire around weathered barracks, watchtowers, a labor camp museum, a commemorative plaque? Or a housing development, a shopping mall, every trace of the grim history obliterated under concrete and steel? Which would be worse?

I didn’t go to Plattling. After visiting Dresden, I went home. I had a solid historical framework on which to hang the stories; fresh impressions of people, customs, outlook, and language. And I had a landscape through which to move the composite characters I had created, following them as they embarked on a journey I would now begin to imagine and describe. Already, images, plot points, and lines of dialogue were taking shape in my mind. The work had begun. It was time to build the book.

Clearly, I did not travel the long road to placing this work in readers’ hands alone. I thank my editor, Lindsey Schauer, without whose skilled effort to clarify every narrative and grammatical detail these pages would lack much of any polish or cohesiveness they might possess. Of the fellow writers who accompanied me along the way, I single out these: Roselee Blooston, who was the first to take me seriously, and to give public exposure to my fledgling work; Steve Otlowski, who gave no quarter when it came to historical accuracy, and read an early draft of this book in one exhausting sitting, and Rosa Soy, for her keen ear, her stalwart friendship, and her unflinching confidence in my ability to see this project through to its completion.

Many others listened to the emerging work. I thank them for their attention, for their focused criticism and cogent questions, for suffering through my moments of self-doubt and patches of bad writing. I cannot name them all, for fear of leaving out anyone important; each was important in their own way, and to each of them, I am grateful.

-from Roads: A Novel, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Press.

Immigrants

These are immigrant children.

My brother, his favorite (and one and only) fluffy bear, and my four-year-old self, posing for a photograph in a Belgian studio.

What was certainly a luxury was seen as an important way to document our existence, to make a necessary statement: we were here. In the family archives, there are few such records.

Later, with the war receding into memory, my father will own a Brownie camera; there will be snapshots. But for now, the only way to capture our likenesses is to present ourselves, dressed and combed, at the photo studio.

Where is the line between refugee and immigrant? Legal status, yes. Receiving asylum, protection from deportation, permanent residency. Right to work, attend school, receive medical care. The promise of citizenship, not now, but sometime in the future, perhaps. Choosing where to live, once the flight from home is behind you.

There are other, less obvious but no less crucial signs. Asking a gendarme for directions without cringing in fear. Trying out your new language by talking to a neighbor over – why not? – a cup of coffee. Resisting the urge to hoard food, though cleaning your plate is a habit you will never lose as long as you live.

Sinyi Platochek/Blue Scarf

Here’s a popular 1940s song staged as a commemorative musical production number (note the obligatory ballerinas). The Soviet pop singer Klavdiya Shulzhenko added some patriotic verses, turning an already popular romance into an anthem to fidelity and sacrifice. With its lilting melody, Sinyi Platochek belongs to the young, to lovers’ partings and the hope of triumphant reunions.

In Roads, which version did Galina sing to Filip, who was no soldier? Truthfully, I don’t know. With Yalta under Nazi occupation, he was in no danger of Red Army conscription, but the possibility of separation loomed large, nonetheless.

I may have first heard this song at home, the LP spinning on my father’s record player on a Sunday afternoon, my mother humming along while setting food on the table for our early dinner. Or it might have been at one of the frequent Russian club social evenings, where for a modest monthly fee, members enjoyed dancing to a small instrumental ensemble, bring your own vodka to accompany the tasty treats at the buffet. I only know my mother loved this song, because it was a waltz, and because blue was her favorite color.

Seventeen

 

The year is 1943. By now, my mother has completed the eight obligatory grades of school. She opts out of the additional two that would grant her a gymnasium diploma. To what end? Her country is at war. Sitting in a classroom, learning more history and mathematics, seems entirely irrelevant.

Besides, her heart’s desire is to be an actress. She won’t learn that in secondary school, and the art institute is out of the question. She lands a bit part in a local amateur production; loves it. But the time for daydreaming is over. Yalta is overrun by German occupation troops. The business of the day is survival.

Why Roads?

Why Roads?

I chose this title, or, rather, it presented itself to me, the way these things do, early in the writing of the book. There are the obvious associations – the family’s journey, from their homeland into enemy country, along unfamiliar paths leading to unknown destinations, moving, by whatever means, to the next stop.

It refers to actual roads, of dust and stone and asphalt, grassy forest paths and railroad tracks. But also to metaphorical ones, progressing toward self-knowledge, compassion; traversing the torment of guilt toward the promise of joy. Roads to love, and to death.

Behind all that, for me, there was a song.

My father was a factory worker; he spent his days assembling machinery, reading blueprints drawn by other hands not, to his infinite regret, his own. He was well-liked, a quiet, deep-thinking yet sociable and witty man. Gradually, as the effect of the war years receded, he filled our home with books, and with music. His vast record collection encompassed opera and spoken word (I will never forget how the elephant got his trunk), and stacks upon stacks of folk songs. These ranged from romantic renditions of  Soviet recording stars to the virile sound of the Red Army Chorus and the defiant protest songs of Bulat Okudzhava and Volodya Vysotsky.

When I started work on Roads, these songs, this soundtrack to my life, were always with me. One in particular, Dorogi, played in my mind again and again, bringing with it a sense of history, and more levels of meaning than I can begin to describe.