Only dates and figures box suffering between worn covers.
In truth, those who survive remember everything:
those who wept, those with faith, those bearing false witness,
those who refuse to forget. Inventories are taken.
These are the dead.
From war. A family walks the earth to find an unmarked grave.
From hunger. Ruins on a blistered land shiver under a dawning sky.
From grief. Steam rises from a son’s body after a spray of bullets.
Every town, every farm hides something: an anonymous death, a mass killing, ashes from torched houses.
Nothing is forgotten; little is forgiven.
After war’s spasms, only those things eternal remain –
the smell of bread baking in the hearth,
family photographs wrinkled by years of sweat and doubt,
the soft light of a candle on a wooden table in winter
….and all of childhood.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/img023.jpg10141452Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 15:25:522020-10-28 17:37:33The Inventory of War
I reach deep into the freezer on a crusade to vilify the starchy culprits, violently casting everything I find to the floor. Stiff hamburger buns skid across the linoleum. Two slices of pita bread soar over my shoulder. Half-eaten loaves of focaccia and olive bread come to an unceremonious halt at the edge of the stove. Why can’t I ever manage to finish any of this bread? I dig like a wild animal into the farthest corner of the freezer only to find one orphan bun wedged against a package of bread dough. One frozen bun and I am saving this because I am afraid that the grocery store will stop making buns? Why do I have this dough? When was the last time I made bread? When have I ever made bread? I hurl the dough to the floor, but it hits my barefoot instead. The icy air numbs every inch of my sunburned arm to my shoulder. I open my hand to find four tiny ovals of bruschetta. Why four? I scream, hurling the pieces across the kitchen—the bag arcs over the counter before landing in the dining room.
The graceless exit of the bruschetta temporarily suspends my tirade, and I burst into tears. Touching my hand to my chest, I stand sobbing into the open freezer. My breathing shallow, my hands shaking, I whisper, I am so sorry, Daddy. I am so, so sorry. Mournfully, I stare around my kitchen, gazing at the consequences of my tantrum. I retrieve each piece of bread with trembling hands and gently place each bundle back in the freezer. As if my fingers hold not bread but an expensive crystal, I rescue the tiny bruschetta pieces from the dining room and collect the pita bread and the solitary bun.
Why does bread continue to define me, haunt me, disgrace me? Will my father’s words that stung me with a shame I still carry ever waste away? I wait for the final wave of my storm to pass. On the floor, no evidence of my careless anger remains.
I did not want to write about bread today. Yet, bread has always been the leading actor in my history, a fixture in my memory. What did my father value like gold? Bread. What did my mother bake for my father on days when the winter air was thirty below zero or on sizzling summer mornings when the heat and humidity suffocated the kitchen? Bread. What kept my father alive in the Nazi concentration camps? Bread, of course.
Bread was not only my father’s obsession; it was my terror, too. Bread muscled its way to life’s center stage in my family, awakening memory like a dangerous spell ingrained in every meal and embedded in the flour and yeast of each slice. Persistent shadows of my family dinner table resurface without warning, my mind replaying treacherous nights when dinner became a bleak and perfunctory affair, nights that my parents and I revisited each day like a penance for our sins, nights that I cannot expunge from my memory.
I listen closely to the past and hear the chafing sound of my father’s spoon scraping the sides of his glass bowl filled with pallid white rice. Scrape, scrape, silence, as he raises his spoon to his mouth. Scrape, scrape, another pause until the silver spoon grazes the glass again. My mother and I stare at our plates, pushing tender meat and Brussels sprouts onto our forks with our knives. Cut a piece of meat, divide the spherical sprout, and maybe add a dash of potato or carrot, our rhythm shifts with each hesitant bite. The pinched expression on my mother’s hurt face, so hurt by my father’s refusal to eat the meal she carefully prepared, stifles my urge to eat. I fix my eyes on my plate, knowing that my father’s anger will be the fourth, uninvited guest at our table again tonight.
Serhij Sochocky was a prisoner-of-war in Austria and Italy during World War II.
“You are not in the camps anymore, Serhij. You have meat and vegetables. Why do you insist on eating rice,” my mother pleads.“I have to stay fit. Too many doctors are overweight, and that is a terrible example for my patients,” my father replies, dismissing her question as if it were a fly.
“But you are so lean and fit, Serhij. Do you remember when we worked together in England, you ate so robustly,” my mother soothes, refusing to relinquish the argument.
“Stella enough. I do not want to talk about it anymore. Besides, I was very overweight when we worked together, don’t you remember,” my father snaps. “Anna, what are you doing? Eat your dinner! Now!”
I’m not too fond of Brussels sprouts, but I don’t want my father to be angry with me, so I maneuver the tiny cabbages around in a circle before taking a bite and swallowing hard. Most evenings, I manage to eat the sprouts but cannot bear the strips of gristle that I carefully remove from the meat. The thought of trying to chew the fat tightens my stomach into an iron ball.
My father’s gaze, persistent and angry, scorch my already flushed cheeks. With his attention turned to me, his hand reaches out to yank my chair closer to my plate. I brace myself, waiting for his voice to detonate.
“Anna! Stop it! Stop pushing your food around your plate,” he growls, his anger rapidly rising before coming to a rolling boil. “Anna! Aah! My daughter is selfish. She has food to eat, and still, she is selfish,” my father bellows.
“Oh, Anna, please eat darling,” my mother begs. She stops eating and waits. My mother’s eyes, weary from my father’s anger, weary from night after night of my father’s refusals to eat anything but rice, fill not with tears but with resignation as deep as Hades.
Because I know what will come next, I push a piece of the pork chop fat onto my fork quickly and press a sprout on the end to mask the taste. I chew furiously, trying to swallow, but the gristle will not break apart. I chew faster and faster, but still, the fat refuses to slide down my throat. The texture of the fat is so vile. When my eyes start to water, I reach for my glass of milk.
The kitchen falls silent.
“When I was in the concentration camps, Anna, do you know what I had to eat,” my father hisses.
I nod and swallow hard. This is one of the few stories from the war my father tells, a story he repeats in tune with his anger.
“A stale piece of bread and a handful of grapes. We had to make soup from the grass. Grass soup. You are a selfish little girl. Here you have meat, but you refuse to finish it.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy. I am full. I cannot finish.”
“You will sit at this table – alone – until you finish your dinner, Anna,” my father shouts as he shoves his chair back, leaving the table in a fit of anger I know will last for days. I sit staring at my plate until the trees melt into the darkness.
So many years after the war, I think my father starved himself with intention. At dinner, a bowl of rice was his staple, but he foraged the cupboards for bread and cookies after dinner. In the mornings, when my mother came into the kitchen, she found the deflated skin of a banana that my father had eaten in the middle of the night.
Did my father think that he did not deserve to eat? Did he not trust that the refrigerator would be well-stocked when he opened it? Or did his diet obsession camouflage his conviction that no one would ever control him again by starving his body — a tenuous shield against the ambiguity of a future he never learned to trust?
Maybe my father was right. I am selfish. Images of sprouts and gristle, the bread once littered across my kitchen floor, pulls me under, deep into a familiar eddy of guilt.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/image29-scaled.jpg14392560Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 15:23:582020-10-28 17:51:23The politics of bread
I watch my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire of Camp No. 231, Redgrave Park. A military hospital tucked between the wheat fields of Diss, Norfolk, an English village of unremarkable note, this, the site of his final internment camp before all prisoners-of-war were released after the armistice. This is the first time I remember being with my father in England, joining my mother and me on one of our summer returns. He is both out of place and at home in this landscape.
He is silent, and I am a spectator.
I look at the colony of prefabricated Nissen huts, which remain, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed to the farm where he and Michael take a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I cannot picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, nor the barricades circling the tents. It is like I am looking at a photograph in a history book, at faceless men, a mystery though it is really my father’s life.
The temporary buildings look like giant mushrooms, the arching, corrugated iron roofs stretch across concrete floors, peeking through acres of wild grass and farmland. The remains of these shelters are the only buildings protruding through the landscape, the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing, all long since torn down. These are the only artifacts left.
He stands with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding, reconciling the still countryside with his memory—the water tower withers beneath choking ivy vines. Only the silent orbit of a wild swan disturbs the horizon of liquid glass. Moonbeams have replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. My father turns and looks right through me to the other side of his history.
I am thirteen.
Perhaps, I come from war. War certainly sat beside me at the dinner table as I rearranged my food, listening to my father raging about having nothing to eat but grass soup and stale bread in the camps. War followed me to school when I did not find stories of children like my mother sleeping in air raid shelters, waiting for the silence that comes just before a bomb explodes. I did not see images of war’s unnatural cherry sunsets emblazoned on my history books’ pages. In geography, I learned that Ukraine, my father’s country, was part of the Soviet Union and once called Little Russia, not a country with a soul of its own.
I became obsessed with war. Imagined it. Feared it. I allowed myself to be seduced by stories about it. By its enormity, its uncertainty, by the horrors people like my father and mother witnessed, by the courage of its survivors. War lodged itself in my throat, defined me, chastised me, and tantalized me.
I wondered what it would be like to see war. To confront it, to live through it. Scanning the newspapers for photos of war-torn countries, I searched for the same absence I once knew in my father. I hunted for my mother’s war in the corridors of museums and libraries and in the reedy voices of those who remembered. If I could see war, I could understand my parents. If I could suffer as they did, maybe then I would be worthy of the blessings in my life, and God would not continue to punish me for my innocence. I have not known war the way both of my parents did.
Rather, I carry my innocence about the war like a wound, and it would take a stranger that I once met in a bar to recognize this wound.
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I had loved art as a child. Swirling my paintbrush in red and white, watching the bristles turn to pink delighted me. There were pallets of carefully measured primary colors, rationed to avoid the excesses children adore, margarine containers of muddied water, too clouded to rinse the color from the old brushes, two-foot-high easels with pieces of masking tape in the corner imprinted with each child’s name, and denim smocks riddled with dried paint.
The morning I stood before my easel with my pallet in hand feels like yesterday. Autumn leaves of red, orange, and yellow sprinkled my construction paper, spinning in gales of a silent wind. I had an active imagination and could hear the leaves chattering in the breeze. I believed the leaves, like the birds, sensed winter approaching. I would paint my picture and preserve the leaves until spring.
I did not hear Mrs. Johnson hesitate behind me until I felt her fingernails grazed my neck as she snatched my hair and pulled my head back. Her voice shook with rage as she hissed in my ear, “You are painting the wrong way! You will ruin the brush!’
My voice stammered as I tried to explain why some of the leaves needed stems. Mrs. Johnson responded by seizing more strands of my short hair. My eyes swelled with hot tears. I knew if Mrs. Johnson saw my disobedience, she would pull harder. She growled in my ear once more, “Anna! You are painting wrong! You are not supposed to hold your brush that way! Stop painting upwards,” before wrenching the brush from my quaking fingers, reinserting it between my thumb and forefinger, and squeezing my little hand until my fingertips throbbed.
Head down, I watched my tears evaporate into the paint fragments of my smock and could feel the stares of my classmates on my back. That day, art became a mystery, secrets others knew but refused to share with me. When once I had seen the music of colors, shapes, and brushstrokes, I saw only an ugly, wretched piece of yellowed construction paper. In those few brief, devastating moments, art lost its innocence. The belief that I should never try to paint or draw or write stories again without risking the wrath of others is rooted firmly in my consciousness.
Over the years, half-heartedly, I raged against the memory of childhood betrayal by landing parts in school plays and memorizing literary pieces for oral interpretation contests in high school, but mostly I capitulated. For a study away semester in college, I had desperately wanted to go to Florence to study Michelangelo and Botticelli, lose myself in the maze of Renaissance architecture, and sip red wine as the sun cast a burnt orange glow over the cobblestone streets.
Instead, I went to Chicago to study urban politics. Partly due to the money I knew my mother did not have but mostly a result of not having the temerity to resist my childhood wound, the prospect of traveling to Italy disintegrated.
Art continued to be both a mystery and curiosity. Occasionally flirting with a class or entering a museum, I stared at paintings and sculptures from a place of ignorance and shame. Art history stymied me with its complexity and breadth of history. I lacked the language to interpret what I saw and felt in contemporary or modern galleries.
Art intimidated me. That is until I discovered William Blake.
With anger and passion, outrageous Biblical storylines, the radical artist pulled me into his web of madness. In graduate school, the passions for art and mystery, myth, and story returned and took hold of my heart. As part of the semester, I studied Blake with reverence and astonishment, I wrote a serious of fictitious letters to my rebel hero, and with the guidance of a kindred spirit, I found my voice on the page.
The following is one of the last letters in the series I wrote when our relationship had bridged the gap of time, and I learned my resistance to the hunger of the soul was futile.
My dearest William,
Last night, my fingers entwined in yours, you led me to the edge of an endless pool of red-hot fire. Molten rocks exploding, surging rivers glowing with their own consumption. In awe, I watched you reach into the fires of imagination. Spoonfuls of flames cupped between your fingers bloomed like lotus flowers with petals of sapphire, emerald, and gold. Terrified your hands would burn, I wept into your palms until the flames vanished. I held your hands to my cheek to soothe the blisters, my eyes would surely see, but when I turned your palms over in my own, your hands had healed.
Again, you reached into the fire to gather a bouquet of imagination’s fury alighting tree limbs and stones, books of poetry, and lost photographs. Beneath heaven’s starry blanket, I leaped to extinguish the flames with my breath. I stamped my feet mercilessly until my bare soles bled. I searched in vain for waters to control the unruly blaze. I begged you to harness the fires, fearful of their roaring heights. Your eyes twinkled with a hint of madness. Your gaze pierced through my own skin, boring a bloodless hole into my trembling heart. I wept again, begging you to discipline the frenzy until I sank to my knees, convinced my own horrible, fiery death was at hand.
It was then you knelt beside me, your hands on my face, wiping the tears of dread from my eyes. In a voice as gentle as a man in love, you said to me, “Why do you resist that which you know you cannot,” holding my eyes to yours until I surrendered to the flames of my own imagination and desire.
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Deep inside the bowels of the Imperial War Museum, I stand with a group of tourists and British nationals waiting to enter a simulated bomb shelter. Once inside, the guide instructs the assembled group to sit along with the wooden seats along the far walls. Grade school children on summer holiday giggle and poke at each other before their parents issue admonishments. A sliver of light from the guide’s dimmed torch pans the room before the door closes, leaving a giddy hush and pitch-black darkness behind.
Before I came to England, my mother’s friends, Pam and Derrick, excited by the prospect of my return and curious about my writing, gathered articles and books, photographs and newspaper cuttings about the war for me. One day, a package with a half-dozen photographs of an old bomb shelter that the previous tenants had constructed in their house’s back garden during the war arrived. Along with the photos, Derrick had painstakingly sketched two drawings of the shelter’s interior in pencil.
If you are interested, Pam had written, there is a virtual Blitz experience at the Imperial War Museum in London. And now, without warning, the simulated air raid siren of the Blitz experience Pam referenced in her letter shrieks. Exaggerated voices of a fictitious family penetrate the whining signal warning of imminent bombs. The mother’s voice’s veracity reminds me of a character on the television program, Eastenders – sharp, nasal, and perpetually angst-ridden.
Dishes clatter. Ration cans tip over and roll across the floor. The mother argues with the children’s grandmother. An unseen baby howls inconsolably. The siren’s wail climbs steadily, drowning the conversation. The thin walls start to shake.
During the war, my mother slept in a steel-plated Morrison bomb shelter like this museum reproduction in her family house’s front hall. At night, during the air raid warnings, my grandmother carried my sleeping mother down the stairs to the prefabricated shelter. Knowing nothing of bombs and war, my mother slept gently tucked inside metal walls. Pushed against the wooden staircase, the wire mesh sides and the roof, a plate made of heavy steel, ideally shielded anyone inside from caving beams and bricks if the house sustained a direct hit. Inside, a steel-enforced mattress accommodated two adults and two children. The front side slid vertically, and when the air raid siren bellowed, my mother and her family climbed inside to wait for the All Clear siren to howl.
Though it was cramped and overheated, the shelter was stocked with food, handbags, ration coupons, gas masks, a flashlight, and books. In the daylight, like Pam and Derrick’s predilection for disguise, my grandmother covered the wire mesh with a tablecloth and planted a vase of roses in its center. The pressure of this life lived through never registered in my young mind as a child. However, I tried to imagine what being inside a shelter must have been like, listening to the planes swooping over the rooftops, the rapid-fire of artillery, and the piercing sound of warning sirens.
Prepared for the first ‘bomb,’ I wait to step back into my mother’s life. The walls of the museum shelter tremble like a Disneyland ride. I am as yet, unconvinced by the simulation. The Eastenders’ voices ring hollow. The muffled outbursts climb in intensity until the war outside unleashes torrents of earsplitting blasts. Parents beside me quiet their children and whisper, “It’s not real, love.” After a particularly potent explosion, I lurch forward, convinced the shelter walls would implode, leaving all of us exposed. Even the Eastender characters have grown quiet. I cannot see my hands gripping the edge of the seat, but I know my knuckles are white.
The line between history and the present evaporates.
My mind races. How will the coupons last the month? Will this shelter be enough to keep my family safe? I know the questions I ask myself are manufactured, yet I will focus on the answers. Is this how legacy is transferred from parent to child? Gradually, the bomber planes dissipate, the time around explosions lengthens, and the shelter walls stiffen.
When I emerge into the bright lights of the museum, I am shaking.
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Under the shadow of the domed Greenwich telescopes, I lean over a thin, black line bordered with twinkling red lights, the geographical collision I have longed to see for years. When I was a child, I ardently scoured my grandmother’s Suffolk garden for evidence, convinced that the slender furrow snaking through the carrots and runner beans was actually the Prime Meridian Line in dusty disguise.
I am still on the hunt to understand the line that has divided me from birth.
In front of me, a little sign points in opposite directions towards the eastern and western hemispheres. I glance around quickly to make sure no one is looking before I begin to play childish games with myself hopping back and forth over the embedded black ribbon. One minute I am standing with both feet planted in the western hemisphere. I scamper over to the other side, dipping my toes back over its edge like I am Goldilocks trying to find a porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold. Eastern hemisphere. I was born on this side of the line. I stand quietly for a few minutes, looking at the side of the world. I cross the line. Western hemisphere. This is the side of the world in which I have lived most of my life. The story behind this geographical split in my life may not be evident to many others, but as the Prime Meridian Line, the line’s divide, like my own, has always been irrefutable to me.
In a photograph taken of my mother at age thirteen, she does not see a hint of the divide to come. Around this time the photograph was taken, my mother and her classmates from the East Anglican girls’ school in Bury St. Edmunds climbed on a bus twice a week to travel to another school for swimming lessons. The bus rambled past a processing camp. The men behind barbed wire were not English but Ukrainian prisoners-of-war waiting to be granted legal status as newly arrived immigrants by British government authorities. With naïve and youthful enthusiasm, my mother and her classmates waved madly to the anonymous men hovering near the fences of the Surrendered Enemy Personnel Camp 231, Redgrave Park.
The year before my father died, when I was thirteen years, my parents and I visited the camp remains. The buildings looked like giant mushrooms. Their arching, corrugated iron roofs stretched across broken concrete floors marooned in acres of wild grass and farmland. The remnants of these shelters were the only buildings protruding through the landscape. The only artifacts left. All the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing had been torn down decades ago.
My father had wanted me to see Redgrave so that I would understand a part of him, but instead, he stayed silent, and I was still the spectator. I remember gazing at the colony of prefabricated Nissan huts that remained, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if soldiers followed him to the farm so he could steal a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I could not picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, or the barricades circling the tents. I was looking at a photograph in the history book of a stranger.
That day, I watched my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire. He was both out of place and at home. He stood with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding, as if reconciling the English countryside with his memory. The water tower withered beneath choking ivy vines. Moonbeams had replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. Only a silent orbit of a wild swan disturbed the horizon of liquid glass.
Abruptly, my father turned and looked right through me to the other side of his history.
I was born to one of the men living behind barbed wire and the woman who sailed past him in a battered school bus. Indeed, their marriage assured me that my life would always be tethered to another part of the world. I am not responsible for the history that continues to unravel on both sides of this invisible line; yet, this legacy the fates have dealt me is mine. I have not always known these truths. Decades isolate the adult woman I am now from the teenage girl when I crossed over this line. Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be true. Yet, our family joked that my true lineage not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup of American by experience.
The Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth. Perhaps I have always been Anna, from America.
Part of me believes that today I must choose one side of the line over the other. If I had to decide at this exact moment, if I could not reverse my choice once made, on which side would I claim as my own, on which side of the ocean would I call home? I place one foot in the western hemisphere and leave the other one on the eastern side. I straddle over the line, a position with which I am most familiar.
Partitioned like the human equivalent of 0 degrees Longitude and 0 degrees Latitude, I came of age looking not forwards but backward.
My mother crossed this line for love. She stayed on the western side of the line for the same reason after my father died, believing that my future and, therefore, hers was in America. My grandmother expected us to return to England after the funeral and could not understand why her daughter would not come to return home. Yet, my mother’s friends said that she made the best decision for both of us. Years later, I am not so sure.
I stare at the line before moving to the eastern side. Do I imagine I have caught a glimpse of a place called home? Or am I simply trying to imagine the life I might have had if my family had not come to America but stayed in England? How would my past have unfolded differently if all the pages of my parents’ history and lives had stayed intact?
What does it mean to be ‘from’ somewhere anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? Four walls in a particular house? A landscape of a continent? A time in history?
I am more committed to the four walls I live in rather than an actual geographic location. My grandmother’s house, the apartment at the Veterans Administration, my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. I write about the English four walls, the walls I write in, the house I imagine buying in England. Maybe the home left behind is more accurate in one’s imagination. Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America?
Did I ever really choose one country over the other?
In the brilliant and sweltering late afternoon sun, so uncharacteristic of an English summer day, history wells up inside of me once more. I am still divided, still learning to live with the burden of my own survival, which I inherited, one that almost broke me. I remain lured by the magnetic pull between what might have been with what is still hungry for a place to call home.
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The fruitcake batter, rich with Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, dried cherries, cranberries, and dates, rises slowly. Resisting the overwhelming urge to open the oven door for the third time, I wait to learn if my cakes match my mother’s ones once made at Christmas. Baked for friends and old workmates from the public library, my mother’s cakes attained a legendary holiday status, christened the best fruitcake ever tasted. Trays of mince pies line every surface of my kitchen counter, too, the scallop-shaped button pastries burst with hot, sticky, dried fruit.
Though I bake the mince pies in the shadow of my mother’s history, I adjust the fruitcake recipe with the fruits of my own time. Gone are the maraschino cherries, green candied fruit, and orange peel. Dried cherries and dates, steeped cranberries, freshly roasted green chili, and a hint of ginger replace the familiar holiday fruitcake.
A month before her death, my mother’s memory of baking her jeweled fruitcakes failed her completely. “I never bake!” she angrily claimed to those who ate the rich, dense fruitcake slices year after year.
Mince pies triggered more soothing images in my mother’s deteriorating memory. Weeks before her death, she retrieved the baking tins I now use from her cupboard and a jar of mincemeat to bake the dainty pastries.
Entering her apartment, after spending three days and nights in the ICU at my mother’s bedside, when I found my grandmother’s tins and the candied fruit on the kitchen counter, I burst into tears.
Like my mother, I am conscientious about food and purposefully eat smaller portions and leftovers without hesitation. I do not waste food. I love food and will eat anything offered to me except liver and game of any kind, the taste of blood and death is too consuming for me. I relish the primal process of eating with my fingers, moving hands to mouth. I love the earthy smell of green vegetables pulled from the dirt with the sweat of honest labor. The sweet smell of berries and nectarines in summer and apples and rhubarb in autumn reminded me of my grandmother’s flourishing garden and the days when I used to crawl under the netting in the summer heat to pick the pregnant fruit.
Though I ferret out offbeat food vendors like my father, buying fish and vegetable curries with a few Thai bot coins or freshly rolled tortillas from a child on a rural South American road, I do not starve myself as he did. I do not eat raw garlic – an old Ukrainian habit – preferring to suffocate omelets, lasagna, and salads with the pungent cloves of his addiction. I do not compulsively monitor my calorie intake, and my evening meals do not consist of bowls of white rice, either. Instead, I prefer the ecstasies of cheesecake and blindingly rich artichoke dip.
I am also a liar.
I buy twice the food I need if it is on sale, squirreling it away in cupboards and the freezer, yet I ration what I buy, metering it out for a holiday, or a birthday, or for an undisclosed moment when hunger will surely strike. I am lazy about food, too. I skip meals choosing work over food. If I can finish this project, I will have something to eat. Sometimes, I even tell myself that I have to earn the right to eat.
War habits never truly fade, especially when the habits are not one’s own.
Yet, each time I extract another perfectly browned cake or platter of mince pies from the oven, my own addiction to history and my own obsession with memory dims a little more. Pressing the ready-made dough into the bottoms of freshly washed and greased tins and spooning fresh mincemeat into the tiny dimples repairs my ruptured union with the past.
Baking might have guided me through the first year of fresh grief, but redemption itself comes in many forms, especially when it silences the politics of bread for good.
When I was alive, I was like a house haunted by the spirits of all I lost in the war, the faces of my family never leaving me, even while I slept. I walked out of the camps and into your mother’s arms. Yes, your mother’s love was strong enough to assuage the memories I carried, but still, I could not relinquish the hold the war held on my soul. After you were born, your mother and I moved to the States to live thousands of miles away from the soil I had known as a child and a young man, far away from the countries I knew during the war, but still, I could not escape this haunting. This haunting became my silence.
I tried to race the war like a young boy attempts to outrun a train on horseback, galloping through fields, gripping the reins and the saddle, dangerously close to losing his balance. The young boy realizes it is dangerous to try to beat the train for the horse could shy at the sudden whistle throwing him into the train’s path or underneath the animal’s striking hooves. But the boy ignores all the warnings his mother gives him. The child believes that one day his horse will run faster than the train, its strides will be longer, its muzzle passing the driver angrily waving at him from the train window. I was this young boy.
You must understand, I could not give in to my grief that morning when my family’s world fell away when I stood helplessly by as my brother lay in the dirt covered in blood. I was a doctor, but I could not save him. I blamed myself for this. No, there was nothing I could have done, but you see, I believed that God would come into my thoughts quietly, tell me how to stop the bleeding, but He did not, He could not. These are the horrible deeds of men, ones they choose when they turn away from their faith.
I desperately did not want you to know these terrible things borne into my memory so many years ago. You were an innocent child. I could not allow you to know such sorrow; I wanted to protect you from my painful history. I also knew that I could not bear to hear my own voice telling these stories, for I believe I would have been driven behind the walls of insanity. Medicine and my promise to my brother kept me from falling into this abyss of despair, the belief that I would one day outrun the war like the young boy and his horse. I had no choice but to be silent, to take my revenge against the war by trying to heal men like my brother, men I could save.
My darling daughter, I believe the soul moves naturally towards life as one looks into the sky at night for comfort and towards the sun to feel the heat on one’s face in the morning. To be faced with death is to meet unrelenting despair, one that you cannot control, you cannot reverse, you cannot change. Death is as permanent as abiding as heaven’s stars. After the war, my soul knew I had no other choice but to give my life to medicine. Each one of my patients became a man I could not treat in the camps, their faces ones I remembered losing during the war. Each one was a man I swore to save while the commander stood over me, pointing a gun at a sick man’s temples. Each death became my brother, and each time I grieved. I prayed that these men too ill to live would go peacefully, for their family’s well-being as well as their own. Their sons and daughters, wives and sisters, their families deserved a quiet, gentle passing, one my brother did not have. Understand, I mourned my patients because I could not mourn my family, these acts I took to sustain another man’s life or simply to make him a little more comfortable as he began drifting towards his own death, were affirmations of my brother’s spirit.
What does it mean to be a witness and survive? I have seen you scribble this question with your pencil, tracing the letters over and over. I have left you to ask this question, along with many others. I honestly did not expect you to grow into these questions with such an obsession. I assumed that I would live long enough so that I could have answered all your questions when you were old enough to understand. I am curious…would you have been so driven to know these answers if I had lived, if I had filled in absences I left behind for you? No matter. Yes, I was a witness. I survived. For me, this meant I was always to be an exile, living in a foreign land. I could never return to my home. Italy, England, America – all of these countries my heart would never own.
I was also an exile in spirit. My stories were too terrible to be believed by those who have never looked down the barrel of a gun isolated me. The war, my survival, forced me inside my own mind until all I understood was my own silence.
I never meant for you to carry this silence with you. I wept in the knowledge you absorbed my silence when I tried so hard in life to shield you from such sadness. I do not want you to be the young boy on the horse, foolishly trying to pass the train. I do not want you to become like me, believing you can fill the absences inside yourself with work and persistent brooding. Place your faith in your writing, in the pages that free you from the sadness life visits upon you, from the chaos you feel, from the restlessness you have inherited from me. Place your faith in the words you read and write in the words that do not lie to you. Do not think you can outrun the train because you cannot.
This is the letter I wish I had written to you when I still lived, the one you deserved to have all these years. I would have left you this letter rather than all my silence, but I did not because I loved you too much.
Your loving Father
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These are the few truths about my life before the war, truths I wish I had told you long ago before it was too late…
I was born in 1910 on land once claimed by the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. My birth certificate did not survive the years I spent in captivity. My Alien Registration papers were given to me by the British after the war list my birthplace as Brody, Poland. Still, you must realize that the people of Brody and the surrounding countryside always considered the area, Galicia – western Ukraine. This land, my land, was one of many masters – the Ottoman Empire, the Cossacks, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Polish after the fall of the Tsar, and eventually the Germans and the Soviets War II. Despite shifting boundaries, my family and millions of other Ukrainians like us held fast to our heritage and the land we called Ukraina – borderland.
My own birth came during the silence of winter when the cold moon poured light upon my body. In the year of Leo Tolstoy’s death, I entered the world under the benediction of this writer’s last prayer, a lament, “Struggle on relentless, true heart. Only the iniquitous will perish. He who suffered to the end will be saved,” as if the poets told of my birth, conspired to bless me with these stubborn words of faith to carry with me all the years of my life.
I was born during a time in history when priests wore golden brocade robes and jeweled miters, and the poor kissed wooden icons carved from abandoned scrap. Homes smelled of bread and leather. Nearly everything was made from iron and wood. I grew into a culture where farmers, poets, and priests lived the closest to heaven. Why? Because food from the land kept us alive. Poetry nourished our hearts. And faith assuaged our fears. Land, literature, and faith; this is the Holy Trinity of needful things for Ukrainians, my dear child. The land was most important to my family because it had been lost so many times before, and without land, there would not be any grain to bake bread.
Verse is a solace for those like you, Anna, a solace for whom bread or belief is never enough.
I came of age speaking several languages, including German, knowledge that would be painfully helpful to me later in my life when I was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Our family spoke German when our servants served the meals and moved silently through the house. Your grandfather, my father, practiced law while my own grandfather ministered to others’ spiritual needs as a Greek Orthodox priest. Yes, we were a family of means, well educated; some would say we were part of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. How we lived our lives made us targets of all political persuasions on the left and the right.
For many years, I lived on the farm that my family cultivated for generations learning reverence for the fertility and the vastness of the land. Against the backdrop of history, I learned to read, wept bitterly after falling from my horse, painted Ukrainian Easter eggs in the spring with my sister, and prayed for my family’s good health at Christmas.
I remember when the Bolshevik revolutionaries spread their violence across the Eastern European landscape. I was seven years old. Stripping churches of art and helping themselves to the Old Masters in the Hermitage Museum, the Communists destroyed all they did not understand. With utmost precision, these bloodthirsty, frenzied soldiers later declared war on the scholars, the writers, the artists, and political activists imprisoning and murdering hundreds of thousands of people between 1932 and 1939.
Who did my family list among the disappeared? The violinmaker? The poet? The priest? The professor? I can’t answer this question for you, but I recognized the scents of war by my tenth birthday. I listened to my parents talk about news from “the front.” I saw the names of Ukrainian soldiers posted on shopkeepers’ windows when I went to the market, my mother gripping my hand so tightly, I thought my tiny fingers would splinter into bony pieces.
As a young man, I read Proust, Aristotle, and Dante, yet, my studies of the human body, the articulation of its internal rhythms, its complexity, the inevitability of disease, captured my curiosity much more. Indeed, my father chose me rather than my brother to be educated, to become a doctor. I left my home and traveled to L’viv to go to school at the University of L’viv School of Medicine. I fell in love with all facets of my studies. Still, it was the heart, the body’s most muscular organ, this vulnerable physical and emotional nexus of a human being, that I loved most both for its fragility and strength.
I charted my entire career around the heart’s illnesses until my own heart failed, my darling child, leaving you a graveyard of unanswered questions.
For a while, I was lost in my studies, hungry for the novelty of medical knowledge, and entranced by L’viv, the city of lions and 12th-century walls and towers, Baroque palaces, and onion-domed churches. Once considered the capital of Ukraine before the city came under Polish rule, L’viv always seemed to lie in the heart of disputed territory; it would become a war zone before my eyes.
Alarmed by the advancing danger and concerned for my family, I left my studies in L’viv and returned home to Brody. I was thankful for the nights my family had bread, huge, braided kolach my mother baked over the fire in the afternoons. Each night, my mother placed the loaf in the center of the table and surrounded it with a wreath of candles. I still remember the poppy seeds crackling from the heat, exploding like kernels of corn, and the sound of my mother tapping the bottom of the bread with a knife to listen for the hollow sound. I have watched you too, Anna, your fierce concentration as you plait the freshly risen dough and tap baked bottoms of the kolach bread you have taught yourself to make.
Though your uncle, my brother, fretted about surviving the winter with enough food to feed the family, when I arrived at home, he told me to return to L’viv and finish my education. I was worried about leaving my family to manage without me and what would happen to them when the war we all knew was coming finally arrived. Against my instincts, I returned to medical school. When the Red Army crossed the eastern Polish border, L’viv, the city I had grown to love dearly, a city at the heart of political and geographical purgatory, collapsed under Soviet control. Though met with some resistance from the Polish Frontier Defense Corps initially, the area fell to occupation when the Soviets closed off the eastern front.
The Soviet Union established a civilian government in L’viv and registered each member of the Polish army’s formations. The Soviet government intimated to Polish officers like me that we would eventually return home, receiving the same treatment as Red Army officers. Instead, scores were arrested and shipped to P.O.W. camps. Soviet suspicion of sympathy for the Ukrainian nationalistic resistance contributed to such detentions. The Soviets considered Poles and Ukrainians to be traitors. Once the invasion of L’viv was complete, the Soviets dismantled schools, ransacked museums, and smashed the churches’ stained glass with relish. Even the priests carried special passports and faced arrest and deportation along with landowners, like my family, politicians of all persuasions, lawyers, and judges. Trainloads of intellectuals disappeared overnight; their frozen corpses later found along railroad tracks; the Soviets pushed those they murdered off moving trains.
At the beginning of the Soviet occupation, I was lucky, unlike many others. Upon Stalin’s directive, thousands of Polish soldiers like myself were wedged together in the back of windowless “Black Raven” trucks and transported from L’viv and Soviet internment camps to execution sites. Most of the victims were Polish Army reservists like me – lawyers, doctors, scientists, writers, and journalists. These Polish officers disappeared from Soviet camps at Starobielsk, Kozelsk, and Ostashkov, their bodies hidden in unmarked graves in Katyn Forest.
Soon after my return to L’viv, Stalin and Hitler signed their bloody agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and with a stroke of their pens, set in motion years of war, displacement, and suffering. Violence was days away from beginning in Polish-ruled western Ukraine. The German military marched into Poland from the west while the Red Army entered from the east dividing the area of Galicia and Poland.
Over 7.5 million Ukrainians died during the war, including four million civilians. With only a stroke of two pens, years of war, displacement, and suffering were set in motion, and I was drafted into the Polish army.
When Hitler cast aside his and Stalin’s spurious pact and invaded western Ukraine in the summer of 1941, the Germans uncovered the Soviets’ murderous, dirty secrets that the army had hidden so well. Mass grave after mass grave was discovered, the grisly remains of Polish soldiers who had been registered as “missing” on Soviet officer lists. After the Soviet retreat and German invasion, families searching for their loved ones found torture chambers with body parts stacked like firewood. Anticipating German invasion, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, slaughtered nearly 19,000 Ukrainian prisoners, many of whom were members of the Polish army, in western Ukraine before retreating. Stalin’s mass liquidation killed much of the Polish intelligentsia; nearly 15,000 Polish officers were prisoners of the Red Army and were later executed.
One sickening discovery was found deep within the Katyn Forest. Seven mass graves near Smolensk’s city became the sacred ground for the bodies of 4,300 Polish soldiers. Each person lay bound at hand and foot, shot execution-style in the back of the head, found with photographs, diaries, letters, and talismans in their pockets. The number of bodies found in the forest equaled the number of prisoners held at Kozielsk, one of the early Soviet internment camps. Though I was arrested and imprisoned for two years in a Soviet camp, God blessed me once more: I escaped execution by managing to escape the location where I was interned by bribing a young officer with a hint of vodka. If I had not escaped from the Soviet camp, I would have died in Katyn Forest.
Only one man survived the massacre.
Remember, Ukrainians always turn to faith, my child. During the summers, when wheat did not grow and hope drained away from the soul, we prayed. From farmhouse to farmhouse, men and women once painted wooden icons by hand, ones they believed were endowed with a mysterious power to link the soul of a mortal with God. Faith’s characters sat on kitchen tables and in the shadows of stone hearths gathering dust until waves of doubt swept over the household. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers held their wooden Gods close under the covers, praying for a new morning when this doubt rolled in like a storm.
Do you know the myth of the wicked serpent, Anna? I will tell you. Each year, the serpent casts out his servants to count the number of pysanky, the Ukrainian Easter egg. If the number is low, the serpent’s chains are loosened, and he is free to wander the earth, a wave of terror and havoc trailing behind him. If the number is higher than the year before, the chains around his neck are tightened, and good triumphs over evil. When I was a small child at Easter, I sat between my younger sister, Olga, and my older brother, earnestly insisting the stories our grandfather told were true. My brother chided me for believing such superstitions. Olga stared at both of us wide-eyed, unsure who she should believe.
Even as a young man, I believed the myth of the wicked serpent. That spring, when I returned to the farm before the Soviets came, I insisted that the viper would remain forever chained to a cliff as long as Easter eggs, the pysanka, were painted, bright colors on white ovals. As long as the custom continued, I believed the world would exist. I rose at dawn and painted egg after egg until there were no more in the house; I have always been afraid of the serpent. I remembered the scent of war’s beginnings from days of revolution from childhood.
Land and literature. For me, these parts of my life I knew before the war did not survive. I rarely read a poem, and as you remember, I did not have the patience for a novel. Poetry can be tricky, unleashing torrents of unfettered emotions, like love and the hunger to trust. Only my faith managed to move silently between the decades while my country’s borders bent under the weight of forgotten wars.
Many do not realize the terrors the Soviets perpetrated on hundreds of thousands during World War II. In the main, the history books attribute the viciousness and monstrosity of war to Hitler. Controversies like the one cloaking the executions in Katyn Forest persist in your time because the memory of a nation, historical memory, is the only anchor for many. Memory is not merely nostalgia for those that came through this unforgivable war. Memory and its preservation is a political act demonstrative of one’s survival and central to the heart of one’s cultural and historical identity.
You are named, in part, for your grandmother, and even though you are yet to understand your Ukrainian history, I can see that the humanity and faith of your Ukrainian disposition blends easily with the warmth and compassion of your mother’s English blood. Your path of Fate will be steep, my darling child, and I am to blame for much of what you will shoulder long into the future. Because of your open and honest heart, you will be betrayed many times but remember that you must always have faith, Anna, and do not forget that history is an equally important story, one that is the very definition of your own life. I promise you, one day you will understand.
Your loving father
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