Eighteen-year-old Filip has few options; he is a prime candidate for forced labor in Germany. His hurried marriage to Galina might grant him reprieve, but the rules keep changing. Galina’s parents, branded as traitors for innocently doing business with the enemy, decide to volunteer in hopes of better placement.
The work turns out to be horrific, but at least the family stays together. By winter 1945, Allied air raids destroy strategic sites, but Dresden, a city of no military consequence, seems safe. The world knows Dresden’s fate. Roads is the story of one family lucky enough to escape with their lives as Dresden burns behind them. But as the war ends, they are separated and their trials continue.
Looking for safety in an alien land, they move toward one another with the help of refugee networks and pure chance. Along the way, they find new ways to live in a changed world—new meanings for fidelity, grief, and love
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.
Here are some discussion points you may want to consider when reading Roads, either alone or in a book group.
What other questions or observations arose in your reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Post a comment, if you’re so inclined, or drop me a line.
Filip thinks of himself as a modern man, the new Soviet citizen, free from the outdated beliefs of Russia’s past. But as he becomes disillusioned with the promise of a bright Socialist world order, where is his place? What does society expect of him, and how does that square with his own understanding, his own ambitions? Where do intellectuals like Filip and Maksim fit into the new scheme of things in their homeland?
Galina’s outlook is apolitical. Steeped as she is in the moral views of her parents, how do her expectations of the future differ from Filip’s? Among her life’s priorities, which ones does she consider most important?
Both Filip and Galina are involved in making art; he is passionate about painting and architecture, she sings. Ilya’s skilled craft work is central to his existence, and sometimes crucial to his survival. Where does each of them place art and beauty in their lives? How does their response compare with Zoya’s love of opera? What effect, if any, do their differing outlooks on art have on their relationships?
What happens when people are unable to freely engage in their religious observances? In a highly structured society, extreme patriotism and political dogma are frequently offered as a substitute for religion to guide daily life and behavior. What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of such change?
Collaboration with the enemy is usually perceived as traitorous and is often punishable by imprisonment, exile, or death. Yet in an area under military occupation, contact with enemy forces is nearly impossible to avoid. Where does survival behavior cross over into disloyalty? How do Borya, Musa, Filip, Anneliese, Dr. Blau exemplify different ways of living with this problem?
Stamp collecting and the game of chess function as a minor motif throughout the story. How does Filip’s preoccupation with his hobbies help define his character? How do these activities relate to his wanderlust, his curiosity, his need for logic? Do they give him any advantage in dealing with the upheavals in his life?
When Hitler’s troops invaded Belorus and Ukraine, they were initially greeted as liberators from Stalin’s oppressive regime. Even though the Nazis’ real intentions became clear almost immediately, many people in the occupied region continued to delude themselves. What examples can you find of naïve ideas among the characters – Filip, Galina, Ksenia, Ilya, Maksim?
When Franz declares his love for Galina, do you believe him? How do his feelings differ from the bond between Filip and Galina, or Ksenia and Ilya? What about Filip and Anneliese?
At several point in the story, the family comes up against evidence of what’s happening to the Jewish people. They are shocked, but remain disengaged. What do you make of their reaction?
Conditions in the German labor camps were marginally better than those endured by prison inmates. Still, the laborers were kept close to starvation, with next to no medical care and no recognition of human dignity. When the camps were disbanded, thousands of people found themselves wandering in a foreign land, looking for a way to survive, knowing that returning home meant certain death. Even in the American DP camps, where conditions were tolerable, there was constant fear of repatriation. How does these people’s refugee plight compare with today’s ongoing crises?
Roads is not a novel about war; it’s an attempt to show how war affects people who are caught up in situations over which they have no control, how they deal with the menace in their everyday lives. Maksim is the only one who witnesses the horrors of combat. Everyone else lives in the wartime environment as civilians, navigating new hardships as they arise. Even Filip and Ilya’s involvement with the ROA can hardly be called military duty. How does this view of the civilian side of the war affect your understanding of Europe and Russia’s ordeal?
The ROA was a desperate attempt to bring about political change in the Soviet Union. Its ragtag army received lukewarm support from Hitler’s commanders, who thought they could use the added manpower in their failing battle against a larger, stronger enemy. Given that the movement was doomed to fail, and would brand any man who participated in it as a counter-revolutionary traitor marked for execution, what function did it serve? Knowing the risks, why did people sign up?
Katya’s birth introduces important change into the family’s life. Her presence affects Galina, Ksenia, Filip, even the unfortunate Marfa; it transforms their status in the world. What kind of life can she expect to have, far from her family’s country of origin, as an immigrant child? What difficulties is she likely to encounter, and what benefits might she receive?
The understanding of home undergoes several shifts in the course of the narrative. Is it still home for Zoya, Vadim, Ksenia, Ilya, when the Tsarist era ends and Bolshevism takes root? Filip comes to embrace home as a state of mind – an idea reinforced by the loss of contact with his family, and the eventual reunion. Is that enough? How does the concept of home change for refugees? For immigrants?
“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.
“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
“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
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.
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.
Why Roads? “Dorogi”
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.