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Friday, May 17, 2013

A Mother and Her Daughters

Malashka and daughters, 1947

 World War II seems like ancient history but it is still keen in the mind of our eldest elders. Many of us in the US aren't so familiar with events on the Eastern Front, but my neighbor's mother lived them. I had to look them up. I learned that in September 1939 Poland was invaded by the Germans from the west and the Russians from the east as the result of a non-aggression accord between the two super powers. Poland was effectively divided and conquered. In 1941 Germany invaded Russia, expecting a quick victory, but the Russian army was strong and the Russian winter stronger. Russia pushed Germany back from Moscow, but they continued to fight for 3 years. In 1944 Russia was able to push Germany back through central and Eastern Europe including Poland. In 1945, Russia was part of the Battle for Berlin. With the success of D-Day on the English Channel and victories in the Low Countries and France by the allies, Germany was defeated in 1945. These are the relevant points on which Malashka's story rests. The order of events her daughters remember may not fit history exactly. What came first? What came second? How accurate is the history we read in a book. 

My neighbor Alina read a few selections in HerStory . I had suggested I write about her as my everyday heroine. She insisted we talk about her mother Malashka, born in a small village in Russia and sent wandering in Europe as a displaced person during the war years of the 1930's and 40's. I am glad I agreed. Malashka was her husband's endearment for her. It means "little one". Her name was Melannia, Melonie in English.

Married at 17 in 1925 to Nikolia the son of a wealthy family of land owners in Russia, Malashka saw her husband arrested with two of his brothers in 1929. She was 21. The men were sent to a concentration camp by the Communists because they were suspect as rich landowners. Why three of them were imprisoned and two brothers remained home is unknown. Nikolai worked in prison for 2 years, cutting trees and kept in isolation. Meanwhile the young Malashka ran the farm though she had only 1 year of schooling. She was a woman on her own with three daughters, Alexandria, Valintina and Katina, and her mother-in-law. My friend Alina was not yet born.

Eventually Nikolai was released to go home. Just how that came 3 years short of his release date is not entirely clear. The family still worked their lands and held on to their personal wealth but as the war started to pit Germany against Russia, roving bands of Russian guerrilla warriors called partisans terrorized the countryside. Their mission was to fight the Germans. It was dangerous to help them. It was even more dangerous to refuse. One night they came to Malshaka's house and demanded food. She tried to send them away claiming to have none, but they barged into the kitchen. One of the men threated her with a bayonet held alongside her face, and shot his rifle into the ceiling. Malshak went out with a shovel to dig up food from the storage pit and kept running, thinking they would all be killed. In the morning the band of men was gone and all of them survived.

Then the Germans came and took over the house. It was 1941. Malashka hid from the soldiers in her mother-in-law's barn, dodging the bayonets they struck into the hay, hoping they would not hit her. She was pregnant. Somehow they missed. Her family left their home in the middle of the night, after Nikolai buried things of value they could not carry. They had one wagon, one horse and their 3 surviving children. Traveling with another family and one of Malashka's brothers in law, they went to Kiev. In 6 weeks they moved on staying ahead of the army, avoiding the wandering bands of marauders. The brother-in-law turned back, and no one knows what happened to him. The other family offered to take one of the girls; traveling would be easier with fewer children. Malashka and Nikolai refused. Their family must stay together. The new baby died shortly after birth. They wandered for 2 years with forged papers, scared and hungry most of the time. Alina's oldest sister remembers. She sold candy for bread, but where did they get the candy?

Eventually the family was captured by the Germans and sent by train to a concentration camp but only for 9 days. They were Russians, not Jews. A Polish farmer came to look them over and take them as laborers. In those days there were over a million eastern European workers in Poland. Malashka and her family were fortunate. They were kept together and housed in a barn, not behind wire in a camp. They stayed for the better part of the year until the Russian Army invaded Poland. That may have been in the 1944 push back across Eastern Europe. The Communists were brutal, and the family's papers were forgeries so they ran from their own countrymen moving westward toward Germany. The farmer gave them 2 cattle and a wagon and sent them off to escape the best they could.

Alina was born in that wagon, the date is not known. Calendars and birthdates have little meaning when you are running for your life. They had no food or clothing for the baby. Malashka was in such poor condition her milk never came in. They were on the road and stopped only long enough for Malashka to birth her child. Then they moved on, afraid to stay anywhere very long. Despite the cold winter, Malashak insisted her daughter Alina be properly baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. The cold and hunger may have been the near death of Alina. The baby's arm was infected, who knew why or how, and eventually burst its poison leaving a scar. They were on the road and dared not look for doctors. How frightened Malashka must have been! Not only had her last infant died, her two sons had died of whooping cough. Sometimes they had to run for the hills to avoid the armies. Sometimes they hid in forests. Life in a war zone is uncertain, but Alina survived. Her 3 sisters survived. Her parents survived.

Eventually they were again rounded up, this time in Rosenberg, Germany where they again worked on a farm until the war ended. Then Nikolai signed up for mine work in Belgium. The family traveled by train and was housed in barracks until they could find a flat. That was after the war when people were on the move everywhere in Europe. Alina was 3.

These were likely the Eisden Coal Mines in Flanders where the Russian POW's had been forced to work during the war. There were half a million such workers, many of whom died because of the working conditions. After the war over, records show the mine workers were replaced by German POW's, and the Russians became the supervisors.

In Belgium Malashka's life improved. Her daughters went to school and she was able to stay at home and care for them. I asked Alina how they came to the States from Belgium in 1955. She explained her oldest sister had married a man whose family had been found in Buffalo NY. They were all displaced persons, DP's in the vernacular of the time. Because Nikolai and all of them were healthy, they were allowed to join the oldest daughter in the US. Alina remembers they had to wait more than a year, but the government—one of the governments—sent them on a plane that landed in NYC May 18, 1955. Alina was about 11. She spoke Russian, French, Italian and a little English. The American schools wouldn't let her study languages because her English wasn't good. Instead of recognizing her intelligence, she was steered into secretarial classes. It was the 1950's. That's what women did. Her parents had higher hopes for their daughters, but peer pressure being what it is, all three girls married after high school and settled down as housewives. 
Malashka and daughters, 1990s

But life comes around full circle sometimes. Alina married and had 2 sons. She kept books for her husband's painting business. Later she ran the business in her own name. When her sons were grown, the older went to Alaska to work. He likes the cold outdoors and wilderness. The younger one married a woman from Russia. In Russia she was a nurse anesthetist. In the US her credentials are not recognized, so right now she is a housewife and mother. Some things change a lot. Some things don't. 

I have seen Alina struggle with all kinds of problems, from raising teenagers to illnesses and financial reversals. She always does what she has to do. 'You just keep going on," she says. "What choice do you have?" She is a strong woman who handles things.

I asked her if the women in the family repeated any lessons learned from the war years. She gave me a straight look. "You are stronger than you think. And you can survive anything." I know she must have heard that a hundred times growing up. I think it was her mother's voice that came through to me. There is something else besides strong people who survive war, illness, politics, immigration policies, and that is love. People do what they do, not really for money. They do it for the people they love. Whatever happened, whatever didn't happen, it was about family and people that loved each other, and did whatever they had to do to survive because they were together.

***

Dorothy Abrams lives and writes in upstate New York. She met Ela when she visited Salisbury Cathedral with her partner Eric Reynolds in 2010. Dorothy's recent nonfiction title Identity and the Quartered Circle: Studies in Applied Wicca will be released in 2013. Her essay Moveren the Sea Queen appears in Sorita d'Este's anthology Faerie Queens to be released in 2013. Her current project is The Witches of Fawsetwood, a historical fantasy novel about medieval England.

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