I click the green button to accept the call. The faint connection grows stronger until an image of a forty-something-year-old man with closely cropped hair and wire-rim glasses comes into focus. I am aware that my unwashed hair pulled back into a barrette coupled with a repeated bout of neurotic eyebrow rubbing probably does not make the best first impression.
“Hello,” the voice announces in a deep-throated Eastern European accent. Aside from his greeting, the only sound coming from the other side of the world is shuffling books and papers splayed around his desk. He pauses before speaking once more, “My name is Roman Pinyazhko, and you are Anna Sochocky.”
I nod a little too enthusiastically. Out of sight of the screen, my fingers alternate between drumming patterns on the desk’s surface and smoothing the wrinkles creased in the thigh of my gym pants.
“I am glad you and I have an opportunity to speak,” I begin clearing my throat more than once. Before I have an opportunity to continue, Roman seizes the nascent conversation with authority.
“My mother works at L’viv Medical University with your cousin, Yaroslava. Yaroslava searches for you many years.” His English, broken into fragments, proceeds his detailed outline of each element of his dogged investigation.
“Your father’s name was Serhij. He was a member of the Polish Army and, later, the Ukrainian Division Galicia. He was born in the village Krugeiv. His father’s name was Michael. He was a lawyer. His mother, your grandmother’s name, was Irena. Your grandfather was a priest. Your father’s sister’s name is Olga. You have three cousins – Yaraslava, Zaraslavia, and Lydia.” (Zaraslava, my oldest cousin pictured)
Roman pauses to shuffle through a labyrinth of papers. The hesitation evaporates into another round of facts always known to me. “Your father was in Rimini camp? Roman does not wait for my ascent and continues. “After his detention in Rimini, he traveled to England.”
Sensing an opportunity to respond, I interject that after my father’s detention in Rimini, he was transferred to a processing camp at Redgrave Park, where he remained for two more years. Roman pauses to take in this information. “I can email you a photograph if you like,” reminded me of the fragments I still had in my possession.
“Your father worked as a doctor in Cambridge. He worked at a sanatorium in North Carolina and then South Dakota,” Roman regains his footing. “There is much I have to tell you.”
Ronan continues. “Your father died of a heart attack. You and your mother were in England, yes?”
I swallow. Hard. Our benign conversation has shifted. So few people knew that my mother and I were in England when my father passed. How on earth would a man I do not know have this information?
Yet, Roman’s following statement will rewrite the reasons why contact with my father’s family did not simply evaporate but was unknowingly severed by a woman who claimed to be a friend.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_771b374a2be0421391831c451a3931dc7Emv2.jpg1332918Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:212021-07-29 13:05:37As investigation unfolds, more questions
A photograph of me dressed in my third-grade school uniform materializes. Only then do I truly understand that the urgent emails and Facebook messages are not fiction but fact.
Do I remember the child in the photograph? The girl appears happy enough, but like most of my school photographs, each one tells a secret story of anxiety, household discord, and, most of all, isolation.
Was this photograph taken the year I first believed that the twin afflictions of war and immigration would subsume me?
Nursing my private pathos for decades, I did not question the absence of half my history, half my family, half my self, yet the genetic chasm left behind a burn scar in my psyche.
The next message jolts me back from the throes of history and sends a chill down the length of my spine. Each lick of my lips accentuates the dryness in my throat. I dial the number, but the call does not connect. I text, please send me your country code. A curt message is immediate admonishing me that I have all that I need.
I try placing the call once more, only to be met with a digitized message of failure. Your call cannot be connected. Please check the number and dial again. After the third failed attempt, I toss the phone across my desk. Running my fingers through my hair, my thumb finds my familiar spot of anxiety above my left eyebrow. Now what?
Apparently, the world isn’t as connected as the technological genies suggest, I grunt. Abandoning my neurotic eyebrow rubbing, I choose another obsessive activity — refreshing the Facebook page again and again.
The Skype ring tone breaks my reverie. I watch the answer and reject items flash on my screen.
History has come calling. Am I ready to answer?
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/img190.jpg954966Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:122020-11-30 15:46:41I have much to tell you
The first image streaming across my Facebook page is one I remember from family photo albums. My father stands at the nurse’s station at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, making chicken scratch notes to a patient’s chart. A light glare interrupts the photo once more, yet the man in the photograph is unmistakably my father.
After all these years, why has history come calling? Who is the person making contact with me? How is a photograph I remember from my childhood in someone else’s possession halfway around the world?
I stare at the image, unable to pull my eyes away. Scrolling backward, I locate the haunting message.
“I write in the name of your cousin Yaroslava from Ukraine, your father, serhij niece.”
Still pondering the mysterious message, another photo filtered across my screen. My mother and I at Christmas in our tiny apartment at the Veterans Administration campus. The green shag carpet I once ran my toes through in summer, the line of Barbie dolls on the shelf of an end table, the squat artificial Christmas tree of all the years of my childhood, my mother.
I bite my lip, drawing a pinprick of blood, and reach for my cup of cold tea. Stunned, yes, but more curious than nervous, I wait for the next chapter of my history to materialize.
Absently, I click on an unrelated website link scanning the news headlines. For some reason staring at the stranger’s photographic evidence of my own life makes me feel like a voyeur.
Stones now turned, souls definitely not at rest.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_f1e5f25912114df08918fa49924ac9707Emv2.png393342Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:092021-03-30 15:46:11When history speaks
I stare at the truncated sentence and accompanying photo that has surfaced on my Facebook page. Five days before this morning’s Internet shocker, a similar message sans photo arrived in my inbox.
This is your father.
The light glare bursting from the photo’s left side manages to obscure the people’s faces in the image, yet, I see a hint of my father’s receding hairline and high cheekbones.
This is your father.
I re-read the message and read it once more. The name of my father’s niece rings true, but who is trying to contact me? Why now? Thirty-five years after his death? The dormancy of my father’s life became my truth years ago.
Internet scams abate, but so too do erroneous searches for lost family members, discarded affections, or friendships. Social media often fans the flames of loss, guilt, and isolation, seducing people into seeking out relationships that are best left dormant. Reunion fantasies imbue these searches luring lonely people to ignore the reasons behind a severed relationship. Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps?
I learned to write around the absence of half my family, half my history, treating the few photographs and stories (or myths), documents, and snatches of conversation I heard as a child as ‘family gospel.’ I revered the absences, resented those my father bequeathed me with his death, ignored each one, yet found comfort in their oddities. I claimed my isolation drinking in its potency like an addict.
Absence defined me. And now? What?
“I’m afraid I cannot see the faces because of the glare,” I type, my fingers striking the keyboard not with the confidence of a seasoned typist but like a novice hunting and pecking each letter. I wait.
The author claims to know the daughter of my father’s sister, Olga. Olga, the cherished sister of my father, fretted about listening to the BBC for any hint about her life behind the Iron Curtain. Long ago, strange photos of Olga’s little girls arrived without warning, too. Manila envelopes with stamps not from Ukraine but Maryland had the aura of contraband. These black and white photos of my Ukrainian aunt’s daughters brought tears to my father’s eyes.
History cannot be kept silent forever, but its emergence on a crisp, autumn Santa Fe day unsettles me.
Only ten minutes will pass before all that I have known, all that I have surmised and believed will evaporate into the mists of a once-forgotten history.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_f1e5f25912114df08918fa49924ac9707Emv2.png393342Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:042021-09-01 14:33:46This is your father
Tiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.
From time to time, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet, and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward, fiddling with the knobs on the radio, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.
The walls in our tiny apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.
Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings, and this evening does not look promising.
Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.
My father has turned the radio off, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.
“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.
Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.
“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.
“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.
The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can dash from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…
…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…
Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the actual context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, traveled from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.
On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.
I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my private inventory from fragments I collected:
a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy, and Redgrave Park, England.
Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.
I understood that my father was not born in America but Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.
Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/img027-1.jpg14282208Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:52:032021-03-30 15:48:56A riddle I could never solve
You remind me of my brother. You are fierce as he was determined to push your way through any obstacle, impassioned to stand up for what you believe is right. I know he would have been a good uncle to you, Anna. I know, too, that it is not only the absence of a photograph of my brother that frustrates you but that you hunger for the story of his death. I shall tell you.
This day I cannot release from my soul, even in death. It is the early morning. In my memory, I see the color of the sky, the military jeeps barreling onto the family farm, and the confrontation with the Nazi soldiers. Leaning against the door of the house, hands shifting deep within his trouser pockets, the face of his watch barely visible above the seam, my older brother speaks in hushed tones with me, my father, and our grandfather about the approaching advance of the Germans and days of hunger our family will surely know.
He fishes out a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and studies the price estimates for wheat, potatoes, beets, and rye. Each week he travels into Kyiv to bargain with the merchants hauling sheaths and bushels in an open wagon behind the family’s team of horses. He bargains but does not settle lightly—his business acumen is not merely talent but a necessity. There will be enough food if we are careful, he surmises.
Days before, I returned to the farm after escaping the Soviet internment camp. Newspaper headlines foretold the German army’s advances. I had left the farm in the hands of my brother, a man more devoted to the blackened wetness of earth between his fingers than scientific pursuits. In my absence, the land had seeped into every crevice, every pore of my brother’s frame until only human breath separated this man from the soil.
I am not worried about food. All of us have been hungry before and will be again. Though I worry about my parents and my sister, my brother’s future concerns me the most. My brother is not only a professor of agriculture; he is also a leader in the Ukrainian resistance movement. His life is in danger because of his politics.
– The Nazis will come for you if you do not leave the farm and go into hiding, I tell him.
My brother answers my criticism with his own retort:
– Serhij, we have no choice. We must fight the Nazis. These men are agents of the devil. First, Stalin killed our people, now Hitler’s armies think that they will take all that remains of our country, our land. I will be safe. You worry too much.
Between his fingers, my brother rolls tobacco, sealing the edges of the paper with a warm spit before handing the cigarette to me and turning to go to the barn to meet Michael, our family’s young farmhand. On this bitter morning, Michael and my brother begin to tend the horse team before collecting the eggs and milking the cow. The sweet fragrance of hay mingles with the warmth of animal breath, yet, the sky has turned against us early this year. Already that morning, Michael and my brother have ventured into the nearby fields to assess the damage of an early frost, to salvage enough to sell so we may eat.
The sound of staccato shots fired into the air is the first and only warning that Nazi soldiers have come. My mother and sister scream and huddle together, sobbing, their wailing drowning out the wind. I rush outside with my father to find my brother standing in the center of a swarm of young soldiers.
The unit commander, inches from me, orders me to produce birth certificates and land deeds. I counter him, demanding that he provide his own military identification. I am stalling, trying the distract the soldier’s attention away from my brother.
The hollow frame of my father sways on the porch. He taps his cane on the floorboards. His balding head sharpens his features. He is aging and feeble. My sister shrinks behind our grandfather. Mother’s raspy breath quickens. Over the commander’s shoulder, I see Michael’s frame peeking around the barn door. I shake my head to deter his advance.
The ring of Nazis closes in around my brother. Suddenly, my brother storms towards the commander, demanding the soldiers leave his family’s farm. The officer and my brother scream so loudly, their words are unintelligible. Pointing to the soldiers, my brother gestures vigorously towards the road. Sweat beads surface on his graying temples.
The commander makes the first move, drawing a pistol from his breast pocket, slowly backing away and extending his arm, the blunt end of the firearm grazing my brother’s cotton shirt. Silence. Jeep engines hum. Father’s cane stops.
– You are a dirty Ukrainian spy. This land belongs to Hitler now!
I watch my brother’s eyes move slowly, clockwise, before resting on the lines of my face.
– This land belongs to Ukraine! You are thieves and criminals, all of you!
– This is Germany’s land! Say it in the name of Hitler. This is Germany’s soil. Say it! If you don’t say it in the name of Hitler, someone will die. Who of your family shall I kill? Who? Your mother, your sister, your brother? Or perhaps I shoot you.
My brother draws his breath slowly before speaking, again turning towards me, knowing that this will be his last defense, then faces the German commander.
I have risen at dawn to coax weary horses to work in blistering heat and unmerciful cold. My hands are callused, my fingertips numb from the icy tentacles of winter. First, the Bolsheviks came to take our land, then you arrive, but it belongs to neither of you. This land belongs to Ukraine.- I harvest this earth, plant corn, and wheat from seed. Call me a spy if you like. Shoot me if you will. This land will never belong to Germany. I will not betray my family. I will never betray my country. Never!
Never. As the last word seeped from my brother’s lips, he collapses in a spray of gunfire, the commander’s bullet the first to pierce his breast. He lies writhing, a crimson stream of blood arching through the parched earth. His crisp cotton shirt, a maze of powder burns, slowly rises and falls in rhythm with his stilted breathing. He mutters, raises his fist towards the commander. Pieces of his watch crystal lay next to his wounded body, shattered by the preciseness of the bullet. I know that his only regret is that his family must watch him die.
I go to my dying brother and kneel beside him, pausing to listen to his faltering breaths. Our grandfather administers the last rites. I grip my brother’s hand, telling him the pain will soon stop—his breathing halts. I place my hand on his forehead, gently closing his eyes. My brother is in the hands of God.
Now you know the story I refused to tell you because my love for you has always been helpless.
Your loving father
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_f1d36dec59da465f874b27a0244419277Emv2.gif420640Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:29:012021-07-29 13:07:33When a father’s love is helpless
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 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 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 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 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 were 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 Katyn Forest’s unmarked graves.
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 Galicia and Poland.
Over 7.5 million Ukrainians died during the war, including four million civilians. With only a stroke of two pens, the war set years of displacement and suffering in motion. The Polish army drafted me into service.
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 a mass grave with grisly remains of missing Polish soldiers on Soviet officer lists saw the light. After the Soviet’s 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 later executed.
One sickening discovery found deep within the Katyn Forest – seven mass graves 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 flee the prisoner-of-war camp by bribing a young officer with a hint of vodka. If I had not fled the Soviet camp, I would have died in Katyn Forest.
Only one man survived the massacre.
Remember, Ukrainians always turn to faith, my child. 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 loosen, 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 tighten, 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 scolded 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 horror 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 blend effortlessly 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. Remember that you must always have faith, Anna. 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
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/img021.jpg1284924Anna Sochockyhttps://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:28:512021-09-01 14:39:39Few truths about my life before the war…
Contrary to my father’s unwillingness to relinquish the past, I am desperate to remain in its tender embrace. At the living room window, I balance precariously on my tiptoes, watching for Mr. Carsrud to pull the squat orange bus with its rounded roof against the snow-crusted curb outside our apartment building. Globe-sized headlights and cranberry-lit bumpers pepper 22nd Street in the early morning dark. When the bus arrives, I bend over to hug Sandy and tell him to be a good dog while I am at school. My mother shoos me out the door, warning me to be careful on the sidewalks still layered with ice from the last storm. Outside, giant snowflakes tumble from the pre-dawn sky in a near blur before clinging together on the cement pavement. I turn and look up at the living room window, searching for the outline of my mother against the snowy darkness. When I reach the end of the sidewalk, Mr. Carsrud swings open the doors with a silver handle, the doors crunching together like an accordion bellows.
“Good morning, good morning, Anna,” says the bus driver who has taken me to school every day since my first day of Kindergarten. “And how are you this morning, my dear?” he asks after I am safely inside, turning the crank once more to lock the cold outside.
“Fine. I guess. Mr. Carsrud, I spilled tea on my homework this morning when I was trying to finish the questions I was stuck on last night. I hope I won’t get into trouble.” The hot cereal my mother made for breakfast has turned my stomach into a circus act.
“Ah, my dear. My dear. Don’t worry. You finished your homework, didn’t you? I am sure Mrs. Pratt won’t mind a little tea, will she? You will have to be a little more careful next time, won’t you?” He winks at me, braking sharply for a stoplight. I nod furiously.
Familiar and reassuring, Mr. Carsrud reminds me of my grandmother’s friends’ husbands, who dress in layers even on summer days. Maybe it’s his thinning hair on the back of his head that I study each morning or the scent of his clothes smelling of spent tobacco, old wool, and the dust that lingers between the curving radiator pipes in my close, airless classrooms.
With a steady hand, Mr. Carsrud maneuvers the rattling bus through freshly plowed streets. Under flickering street lamps, pine-tree silhouettes line Phillips Avenue. Lit houses and others still in darkness shiver in the near silence of the early morning. Cars left running in driveways groan, the exhaust streams curling, separating, and curling again in the frigid air.
Glistening and iridescent snow covers the rolling hills inside the entrance to the All Saints school grounds. With great effort, the bus creeps up the steep drive. Under his breath, Mr. Carsrud announces to no one in particular that he shall have to go over the road with sand again. As the bus turns, the enormous Quartzite cross in a snowy depression dug deep into the hillside comes into view marking Bishop William Hare’s grave. Our pastor tells us that Bishop Hare started All Saints during chapel service because he believed that God’s work was to bring unbelievers closer to the Almighty and educate missionary children on the South Dakota prairie.
The bus moves slowly past the mottled pink and white Quartzite chapel, looming like a haunted castle in the approaching light. Later in the day, when the whole school walks across the snow-packed pavement to the chapel, its turret will throw a bulbous, onion-shaped shadow over the cross, and all afternoon Bishop Hare will be in the shade. Mr. Carsrud maneuvers the bus near the front steps of the school. The heavy wooden front doors seem a little out of place in a sea of pink stone.
I climb off the school bus and solemnly wave goodbye to Mr. Carsrud. Though he will take me home with the other children later this afternoon, for some reason, the bus ride this morning feels like it should be my last one. He looks at me quizzically, smiles, and returns my wave. The door closes behind me, and I am pierced with the understanding that next year I will not ride the bus every morning with Mr. Carsrud. I will not be a student at All Saints anymore. I do not know where I will be going to school next year, however. My name has been on the list for acceptance into an English boarding school since I was born, and now the fateful time is almost here. If I pass the entrance exam next year, I will go to Culford Boarding School after turning thirteen. If not, I will go to the local Catholic junior high school in Sioux Falls.
Once inside the school building, I slowly climb the spiraled marble staircase that curves to the right, leading to my sixth-grade classroom on the third floor. I tell myself to prepare for the real goodbye that I know is coming. I pause on the landings of each floor, standing in the path of a cold draft seeping through the closed, iron-sculpted window frames. The frosted patterns on the glass are faint in the darkness, but when the sky slowly lightens, curlicues and elaborate icy webs will appear as if by magic. In winter, Mr. Carsrud spends a lot of time bleeding the radiators to keep the school warm. Still, in spring, when he pushes the windows wide open to let the fresh air inside, the overwhelming scent of lilac and apple blossoms silently winds a path around the stairs, making it hard to concentrate. This spring will be my last one at All Saints School. I whisper into the nearly empty hallway.
I resolve to walk around the entire campus before I leave for good and begin to make a mental list of my goodbyes to the classrooms, the chapel, the lunchroom, and the playground. The spooky tunnel connecting our school building with the chapel, the lunchroom, and the principal’s offices that becomes a haunted house at Halloween each year for our school carnival will be last on my farewell list.
Outside the door to my classroom, I hesitate and peer inside at the bulletin boards crammed with paper snowflakes, world maps, and photographs carefully torn from the pages of National Geographic magazines and at the letters of the alphabet cut out from crisp colored paper pasted along the walls of the chalkboard. I race to my desk and frantically begin to engrave my initials into the worn, creaky lid with a pen, hiding my imprint in the sea of doodles that have come before me. I barely finish the ‘S’ when Mrs. Pratt strides past my desk and instructs us to open our green textbooks on South Dakota history.
The entire class groans at the prospect of our twenty-minute sessions. Twenty minutes seem like the longest twenty minutes of our young lives. Our history textbooks have a badly drawn replica of Mount Rushmore on the green cover. Mrs. Pratt pulls a goofy face and spends more time than she needs organizing her desk before our lesson, mandated by the state legislature, begins. I suspect we will not be reading from the book today. I smile faintly in anticipation, waiting for Mrs. Pratt to ask the same question she has asked every week since I have been her student: “Now, class, if there is a fire, what is the first thing you should do?” Mrs. Pratt snorts, barely able to get to the end of her question without laughing.
“Toss the South Dakota history books into the fire on our way out of the building, Mrs. Pratt,” the whole class shouts with glee. Mrs. Pratt explodes with laughter, and we know that another week will pass when we do not have to read from these awful books.
Mrs. Pratt is married to a member of the Lakota Indian tribe. She does not laugh when telling stories about how the settlers stole the stone from the Lakota Indians. The people who built this school raided their quarries and left the chiefs with little rock to make their peace pipes. I know she is telling the truth. I have been to Pipestone with my parents, and the displays describe how pioneers mined the stone, though their effort is not defined as theft. I feel a little guilty about playing with the stone bits that have fallen away from the buildings at recess, using the pieces for etching patterns in the pavement.
When Mrs. Pratt closes the textbook with great drama, I put my head down on my desk. Today may be one of the last times I hear Mrs. Pratt tell stories about hunting feasts, buffalo hunts, and why Lakota medicine men use pipestone to make their pipes and collect wild herbs for injuries and illnesses. Mrs. Pratt confirms what I have long suspected. History is more than words between the covers of a book. I silently say goodbye to my favorite teacher, burying my face in my school sweater.
Before lunchtime, Father G. leads the solemn procession of first through sixth graders into the chapel. Each day, one of the teachers assigns one of the 6th-grade students to carry the silver-plated cross and the American flag into a chapel. Phillip and Jane are carrying the flag and the cross today. The boys, dressed in navy trousers and white turtlenecks, push each other in line, trying to make those with untied shoelaces trip. Opposite, the girls, wearing plaid jumpers and pearl blouses, whisper behind cupped, tiny hands before walking through the arched doorway. All of us wear Santa red sweaters with the purple and gold school emblem sewn onto our chests: “All Saints School. From Glory to Glory.”
The chapel’s narrow pews are worn thin in lopsided patches. Underneath my fingers, the wood feels slippery. I search for patterns in the wood and trace profiles of faces in the seat beside me. Father G. walks slowly to the intricately carved wooden pulpit and methodically climbs the stairs to give his sermon. Behind him, a solitary gold cross on the altar gleams against the deep amethyst cloth. The slightly slanted magnetic numbers on the board are telling us which hymns we will sing today. Our pastor turns the pages of the enormous Bible and begins to speak in a weary voice. He seems to bear the weight of God on his stooped shoulders, a weight like my father’s secret burden.
Instinctively, I finger the outline of the silver cross underneath my jumper and turtleneck. Each year, as part of the All Saints Day celebrations, all the sixth graders sit at the Head Table with our pastor and eagerly bite into cupcakes, hoping to find the unique coin in the sweet dough. The student lucky enough to strike the metal coin is allowed to wear a silver-plated replica of the All Saints cross on an ivory ribbon for the entire school year.
The cross, hidden under my school uniform, is my fragile secret. I never take it off, even when I go to bed. When I hear my parents argue about returning to England to live, I stroke the smooth, worn surface until the cross is warm like a radiator. The frequency of their arguments has grown in the past year, and sometimes I hear loud declarations from my father about my mother and me becoming American citizens. If we are moving to England if I am going to school there soon, why do we need to have American citizenship? I am glad I was lucky enough to wear the cross.
After chapel, nearly the entire school, grades one through six, files down the stairs into the compact lunchroom cramped with round tables. Teachers and children pass around plastic baskets of hard-toasted bread chunks called ‘rusks,’ steaming bowls of canned green beans, hamburger goulash, and blue pitchers of fresh milk. Mrs. Pratt sits squarely at the center of my table, peeling a grapefruit. She has a grapefruit every day for lunch and passes each dish to the student sitting next to her without pausing to heap a spoonful on her plate.
When the goulash bowl is empty, I volunteer to go to the kitchen for another helping and crane my head around the corner of the counter, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Carsrud’s wife. Mrs. Carsrud sees me and wipes her hands on her apron on her way to the kitchen window. “May we have another bowl of goulash, Mrs. Carsrud?” I try to convince myself that my voice is firm, pressing my wobbling legs further into the wooden floor.
Do not cry. Do not cry.
Mrs. Carsrud hands me a replenished bowl. I silently tell her how I will miss seeing her at lunch every day. I will miss sitting in the worn wooden pews of the chapel upstairs and smelling your cooking while our pastor talks about God and goodness. “Thank you, Mrs. Carsrud,” I say, forcing myself to smile broadly before raising my chin and walking with determined steps back to my table: the penetration of her kind eyes in my back nearly makes me faint.