From Refugee to Immigrant

 

My grandmother, born Elena Haborskaya, to whom Roads is dedicated. It was her voice I heard, throughout my childhood, bearing witness to the events of the momentous Twentieth Century in Russia: born in Tsarist times, her life encompassed the Revolution, the First World War, the Russian Civil War, the Ukrainian famine, the Second World War, and the Nazi occupation of Crimea.  Stalwart, self-educated, honest to a fault, she approached life with integrity and faith – qualities that enabled her to face the difficulties of her time, to save herself and those she loved, bring them through the hell of war.

In these photographs, I am struck by the evidence of hardship and hunger etched into the lines of her face, only to be smoothed a few years later when living in relative safety and having regular meals became possible. The constant between them is determination and a seriousness of purpose she would manifest to her dying day.

Baba Lena, Germany
Baba Lena, Belgium

Leaving for America

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing

Well, here we are. Brussels, 1956. Trunks and cases already on board, documents in order. Friends and well-wishers gathered to see us off, posing for one last time together before the train takes us to the harbor, where we will board the SS Italia for the transatlantic voyage.

I’m the one in the baggy drawers, clutching, most likely, something to read. My brother is on my left, with my mother behind him; next to him is his best Belgian friend (and my first crush), Alain. Behind Alain is my grandmother. My father is second from the end in the back row.

I don’t remember the girl’s name. But I know I desperately wanted a pair of white knee socks just like hers. The reason I couldn’t have them, whatever it was, is lost to history.

Reader’s Guide

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.

Reader’s Guide for Roads

Filip thinks of himself as a modern man, the new Soviet citizen, free from the outdated beliefs of Russia’s past.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?

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.

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

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.

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.