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Breathing in history

The decades after the last world war may have accelerated the desire for modern conveniences during the 1970s. Still, in my grandmother’s mind, the old manual washer sufficed, its very existence a rebuke to the growing obsession with expediency. Indeed, even simple everyday habits like washing clothes spoke volumes in the cultural conversation I both consciously and awkwardly traversed as a young child. T

After connecting the washer’s tubing to the kitchen sink, my grandmother sorted the laundry with a military commander’s efficiency. Delicate blouses and sweaters. Undergarments and stockings. Sheets and towels. Pushing the kitchen table back until it was wedged between the wood-burning stove and the pantry door, my mother shuffled the manual washer across the red tile floor until the hose reached the kitchen faucet.

After my grandmother filled the washer with water through a small metal opening, the steam rising as if from a pot of boiling water, she grasped a wooden pole, the shape and length of a walking stick, and stirred the clothes. Slowly, she mixed the clothes and poked the dry surfaces deep into the soapy water.

Clothes bubbled and boiled, simmered and steeped until my grandmother hoisted the clothes from the machine with the end of her stick. The dripping clothes sailed through the kitchen like kites caught on a tree branch before my grandmother deposited them in a plastic washbasin. Clapping her wet hands and reaching for her walking cane to steady herself, my grandmother guided me to my station, “Come on, darling, you like to turn the handle for Grandma, don’t you?”

She selected a blouse and wrung out the excess water, squeezing and twisting, before carefully feeding it between the mangle’s rollers with her fingers. I turned the wooden handle, sluggishly at first, until the two cylinders clenched the blouse between smooth jaws. A corner of blue peeked through on the other side. As more of the blouse appeared, the handle loosened in my hand until the piece of clothing emerged, flattened, and only slightly damp.

Three generations of clothes hung next to each other on the clothesline all afternoon. Shetland cardigans and silk stockings. Pairs of their thigh-length knickers and embroidered slips, gray and chestnut tweed skirts, and floral print dresses rocked in the wind beside my cotton t-shirts and blue jeans and my mother’s bras and polyester pants.

When I buried my face in the fabric, I smelled sunlight, wind, and roses and breathed in history.

War’s soundtrack

In almost every photograph of my mother taken when she was a child, she was by the sea. Sometimes she beamed right into the camera, posing as if she was on the stage. In my favorite, she giggles entirely to herself, clutching her seashells as her polka dot dress balloons in the breeze. Her tiny body casts a huge shadow across the sand. Caught by the photographer, her arms extended, she leaned into her unsteady steps in cream buckled shoes—a bundle of blond innocence in motion by the seaside.

Days before England declared war against Germany, families stubbornly trekked down to the East Anglian beachfront, not knowing how long the memories of what could be their final holiday for some time would have to last. Less than a month before Prime Minister Chamberlain laid down the gauntlet, my mother and her family, like other families, spent their last few days by the sea at West Runton, a seaside resort on the north Norfolk coast.

This is the way I picture my mother’s last holiday by the sea. The salty breeze had nearly chased a sluggish cold from my mother’s chest, and she, anxious to enjoy the waning days of the summer sea, absorbed the wind, the sunlight, and the beach. For hours, she sat mesmerized by bobbing sailboats the size of milk cartons dwarfed by miles of ocean. Oblivious to the spirited voices soaring over the radio, she waited patiently in the warmth for her mother to unpack the picnic basket full of cucumber, tomato, and beef sandwiches, sliced apples, and orange sponge cake.

Pinched strains of organ music drifted between the sculpted legs of winking ceramic horses on the carousel, each rotation a kaleidoscopic blur. Children clamored at the skirts of their mothers, begging for a turn on the merry-go-round, its colors bright against the faltering sky. Mothers glanced at each other, waiting for the first handbag to open. The women knew that the first days of war were around the calendar’s corner. An unspoken signal passed faintly between the young women. Purses clasped shut. “Look at the sea darling and the seagulls diving into the water to pluck a fish for their midday dinner. Soon we shall have a picnic on the beach,” one mother tried in vain to turn her child’s attention away from the silent ponies.

Along the East Anglian beachfront, holiday visitors rented huts along the boardwalk. Shelves piled with swimsuits and towels, picnic baskets and thermoses, puzzles and toys, books, and straw hats burst at the seams. Children trimmed sandcastles with smooth pebbles worn by centuries’ waves. The men poured over crossword puzzles, listening to cricket games broadcast over portable radios. Women engaged in animated conversations swapped sandwiches back and forth across blankets.

Next door to my grandmother’s beach hut, a man named Dr. Ware, also from Bury St. Edmunds, stared intently at his radio. With his discarded crossword beside him, he gazed hopelessly at sea, watching the children chase each other through the sand and the foam. Turning to my grandmother, he declared, “There is going to be a war. Let’s go home.”

Vulnerable since before the Napoleonic Wars and during Elizabeth I, the East Anglian coastline was a primary target for invasion by Hitler, especially after the fall of the Netherlands and Belgium in 1940. Coastal stretches of pebbled and sandy beaches, emptied of holiday visitors, resembled a prison yard. Tentacles of eight-foot-high, barbed wire barricades slithered along the coast for miles to impede invasion and along the coast of southern England; the areas of Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Dover earned the unsavory title of Hell’s Corner.

That August day, word spread across blankets and over picnic hampers, along the shoreline, and through the line of beach huts. Within hours, my mother’s family left for home. At age three, my mother glimpsed her first image of war from a train window. Passing through the Norwich station, the train slowed long enough for her to see hundreds of sobbing young children, crammed shoulder to shoulder, reluctantly listening to Red Cross workers. London’s children, shepherded into lines matching their destination tags, were being evacuated to the country, away from the bombing, away from their families. My mother saw children like her huddled together with their name tags and gas mask boxes swaying around their necks through plate glass. The government had issued gas masks months before, and evacuation waves were escalating. My mother remembers the gas masks made the children look like miniature elephants, their noses shifting and swinging with each step.

Arriving home from West Runton, my mother and grandmother returned to find two little girls, and their mother from Bethel Green had been billeted with the family. Though the three evacuees had traveled only seventy miles from London to Bury St. Edmunds, the country surroundings and the absence of noisy red Double Decker busses and black taxicabs unnerved the East End children; many children arriving in the English countryside during the evacuation waves had never seen a cow or a sheep before their journey.

After introductions, the mothers agreed to consider boundaries dividing the house between the two families. Routines for preparing meals, quietly arranged by the two young mothers, go unnoticed by the children. My mother’s family retreated to the back of the house, the East End family to the front rooms, only meeting in the evenings around the wireless to listen to news about the war.

September 3, 1939. A Sunday morning. Gardens, spared by an early frost, still bloomed. The air carried summer winds inland from the sea. The shipping forecast predicted steady waters and a cloudless sky. Great Britain declared war against Germany. The women around my mother sipped cups of rationed tea in West Road’s front room, listening to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany on the wireless.

France and the Netherlands had fallen to the German invasion within days, and now only eighteen miles of the English Channel separated the French coast from England.

When the church bells rang, the circle of women around my mother wept. The thundering church bells, silenced by government order, would ring again only if England faced invasion or if the war was over.

A disembodied voice of the radio commentator, church bells fading into the crackling wireless, and the sound of her mother crying, this was the soundtrack of war my mother always remembered.

Black and white footprints in a snowstorm

Long before I knew the details, I understood that my parents’ lives were formed differently. Indeed, the worn, brown photographs from my competing European bloodlines testify to this divergence of history. On my mother’s side of the Culley family, I have many photos of smiling great aunts and children enjoying a day at the beach before the war. The women, legs tucked beneath them like rabbits, sit on wool blankets. The children, naked except for their bonnets and diapers, clumsily shovel teaspoons of sand into marmalade jars or coffee tins.

I move the pictures around like pieces to a puzzle, putting them in order by a person, by location, by pastime. All the pictures of my mother with her family at the beach in one pile, all my grandmother’s photographs holding my mother in another. I play games with these images and concoct stories about the women in the photographs for entertainment, not from necessity. This side of my family moves through everyday life, photographed next to the things they valued – a prized rose, houses, and farms. I imagine days spent by the sea and afternoons rowing on the river and smile at their proud poses in military uniforms and nurses’ capes.

Yet, like five o’clock shadows, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles do not figure prominently in my life on this side of my family either. The absence of photographs is my proof for this hypothesis. I can only fill a small corner of my dining room table with the few photographs I have of the Culley men. Unguarded moments like the one of my mother’s Irish grandfather and great uncle sitting by the seaside in three-piece suits while reclining in canvass chairs are rare images. These men belong to history, not memory.

Even my mother had difficulty recalling much about these men who are largely silent and have always been silent to me. Conversely, photographs of the next generation of Culley men – like my mother’s first cousins, Ted, Alan, and Fred, dressed in military uniforms and ready to die for God and country – were men I sat across from during Sunday dinners, the table long and plentiful of both food and history.

Culley women have always been a different story. Dozens of their photographs demand center stage. Year after year of class pictures record my great Aunt Stella gazing intently at the camera beside her eager-faced and freshly scrubbed pupils.

Before she married my Scottish grandfather and relinquished the Culley name, my grandmother stands on the Loma ship deck with her right hand behind her head and her left knee half-bent, posing like a film star against the railing in a photo taken in 1931. In another, my grandmother sits with six other nurses, not on a bench outside the West Suffolk hospital but in a boat. All are dressed from head to toe in World War I uniforms, their crisp caps starched into stone, and their pinafores pressed sharply by the iron blocks heated on wood-burning stoves.

I cannot reenact stories told or untold with my father’s family photographs that are left. I only have one image each of my grandparents, my great grandfather Jonah (his name I learned from a condolence card my mother received from a man in Chicago after my father’s death), and my father with his sister, Olga, in Ukraine. I have several prints of my father in Rimini’s detention camp and a handful of tiny, square photographs of him as a young man, the context, location, and story unknown.

Among the few photographs I have, some, like the photograph of my Ukrainian grandparents, are so damaged that the images look like part of a ship’s wreckage, half-hidden in the sea’s sandy bottom. White streaks and creases have weakened Their faces, and only parts of their bodies are visible. This damage makes sense to me. After all, my grandfather and grandmother have never been anything more than apparitions. Because of the ruined image, I inventory my grandparents’ parts I can see.

Grandmother Irena. She sits on my grandfather’s right hand on an invisible chair. Patches of her thinning hair look like straw pulled back in a bun. Her close-set eyes sink into her face like an owl’s beneath her bony eyebrows. Her nose, angular and square, overshadows a serious mouth set in a straight line. The half-moon circles under her eyes sag into her cheeks. Her lace collar, an island of beauty, stretches over her cardigan. I see where her sweater ends, and her opaque arms begin, one hand folded over the other in her lap. Her shoes are stout and heavy; her limbs are frail from age, not simply hunger. Her body is diminutive; her face austere.

Ukrainian grandparents

Michael, my grandfather, really does look like a specter that might wither at the first hint of sunlight. Much of my grandfather’s body is hidden; only the arc of his shoulders, the left triangle of his coat, the collar, the edges of his shirtsleeves peeking out from under his coat, his stocky fingers, and the fold in his pant leg emerges from the ghostly background. I cannot see his feet though I can tell he is a small man in stature but with a stolid chest like a horse’s barrel. His dark suit blends into the trees and the sallow stains of the photograph. His bald head, thin lips, and protruding ears are the clearest parts of him. The edges of his long coat cover his misty fingers above the crease of his trousers. His blanched collar mistakenly suggests he was a priest like his father, Jonah. My grandparents’ necklines, her lace, and his false holiness shed clues to their personalities and are marks of their wholeness.

I do not have any pictures of my father as a child. In black and white, my father has always been a man. He wears adult clothes. A military uniform. A doctor’s coat. A wool sweater and khaki pants. I cannot quite picture my father as a child, his dark, thick hair falling over his huge, blue eyes. I cannot see him learning to walk, clinging to his mother’s skirts like a dancer’s barre. Even as a child, he surely looked like a man dressed in neatly pressed trousers and a crisp white shirt with a pair of suspenders and beautifully polished leather shoes. After the war, in photographs I have, he rarely smiled. A shame, really. He had such a brilliant grin. His blue eyes twinkled like sunlight on water, and when he poured his entire body into laughter, he seemed surprised like a child startled by the sound of his own voice.

War erased my father’s past like a pair of footprints in the snow after a storm, leaving me the scar of his silence. His photographs are like open wounds to me because, unlike my mother’s family, I knew precious few of the survivors.

When history speaks

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.

Voice from Ukraine

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 own 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.

Serhij Sochocky - Brody, Ukraine

This is your father

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 elevated 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 own 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 seducing 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 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.

 

Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

A riddle I could never solve

Great grandfather, Greek Orthodox priestTiny 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 usually 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 own 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 small 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 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 just run quickly 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…Serhij Sochocky with Polish soldiers, World War Two

…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 true context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, was to travel 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 own 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 in 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 on 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.

When a father’s love is helpless

My dear Anna,

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.

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. This day I cannot release from my soul, even in death. It is the early morning. 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.Ukrainian grandparents

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 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. His life is in danger because of his politics. My brother is not only a professor of agriculture; he is also a leader in the Ukrainian resistance movement.

– 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 harvest this earth, plant corn, and wheat from seed. 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. 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

Few truths about my life before the war…

My darling daughter,

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

Twin afflictions: war

The photo taken of me in the fourth grade does not resemble others from earlier years. I am older, and my hair is longer, yes, but the photo differs ut because my smile lacks conviction. I am not looking into the squinted face of the man who came each year with his camera cases and tripods, silver screens, and flashbulbs, his wares spread out like a picnic on the wooden gymnasium floor. Rather my hazel eyes are staring out into the world inside my head.

While the 1970s may have been a decade when the events that continue to tear at the fabric of American politics and cultural priorities today were quietly incubating, the pivotal markers of my own generation quietly washed over me. Born, not in America, but in England to European parents who survived a catastrophic world war, one as a child, one as a prisoner before following in the footsteps of millions of others by emigrating to the United States, I was living on the periphery of another potent and chilling history, one that did not belong to me.

This history would shape me long into adulthood.

This history would almost break me.

I was ten years old when my fourth-grade photo was taken. It was 1976. Patty Hearst marshaled a semi-automatic and sported a beret on the cover of Newsweek. Charlie’s Angels topped the Nielsen ratings, breaking the hearts of prepubescent boys across America. Captain and Tennille stormed the record charts with Love Will Keep Us Together, battling Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for attention. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, beat Gerald Ford in the November presidential election, only to be doomed by the Iranian hostage tragedy and the deepening oil crisis.

At first blush, I was not unlike other children I knew growing up on the prairie in a state some call “flyover country.” I worked hard in school. My report cards logged “As” in Reading, Language, Spelling, Social Studies, Arithmetic, and Science, but “B+s” in Music and French and a “C+” in Physical Education. That year, I entered the “Flying Fish” advanced swimming class. Several of my friends and I earned a certificate from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Read-a-Thon. I clamored onto the Bicentennial Train, the traveling museum that crisscrossed the country to celebrate America’s 200-year-old independence in the heat of July.

Yet, I was distinguishable by my differences with all my conspicuous integration into normal American life. My mother and father spoke with foreign accents. I did not sound like my parents nor my young peers. My Ukrainian last name’s complexity with both its spelling and pronunciation spawned any number of adaptations in a classroom full of Johnsons and Larsons each September when my face grew warm and pink, waiting for the inevitable moment a new teacher asked me to say my name for the class.

My family tree was one-sided replete with Ukrainian uncles, aunts, and cousins I could never meet. I lived within the bounds of a tight-fisted prairie community where the family members of most people I knew were scattered on nearby farms or across town, not in countries behind the Berlin Wall, living at the mercy of a feared Communist regime. And then there were the aftershocks of my father’s war. I had no one to talk to about my father’s harrowing emotional explosions, his devastating silences, or explain to the terrors that the aftermath of his war brought to the dinner table, terrors that came in the dead of night or on days when the sun glowed like a new penny. No one I knew shared this kind of history. Grandparents around me may have survived the same war, uncles, and even aunts perhaps, but the parents of children I knew did not walk out of Europe alive after spending ten years in prisoner-of-war camps like my father. Besides, I had no idea what to tell, even if I had someone to tell.

War was not the only taboo in our household. The issue of where my parents and, by extension, myself, called “home,” was equally provocative and uniformly indistinct. From the very beginning, our sojourn in this country was always meant to be brief and England, not America, was home. Until I entered high school, I lived with the secret knowledge that Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a layover, a train stop, on my family’s perpetual journey of return to settle permanently in England. A plane’s arc over a cold ocean defined me from birth. Far from my friends’ childhood intrigues, the side of my family I knew, I saw intermittently. This fact alone stymied my schoolmates with grandparents and cousins living across town rather than across an ocean.

I was both a spectator to my parents’ tragedies and a supporting character in my family’s narrative, trying fretfully to navigate my way through the murky waters of a war I did not witness and understand a country that was by turns both my birthright and a puzzle to me. No, I have never been in a war zone, yet, the war my mother and my father witnessed and its psychological aftermath that my father, in particular, struggled with until his death, pierced the walls of my mind until the silence became my desperate prayer. No, I had never relinquished a home, an embedded community of family and friends stretching back decades, or a country that breathes life into the heart like my mother did when she made her decision to come to America with my father.

Yet, I have spent nearly half my life trying to understand how their history, this legacy has shaped me. Though I understand that I cannot live my life through the lens of a distant past that never belonged to me, this history still resonates in the frantic decisions I make sometimes and defines the hunger I may never truly satiate to find a place I can call home.

Pensive was the word my mother used to describe my face when she looked at my fourth-grade photo, asking me in a worried tone of voice if I was sad. No, I replied, honestly believing in the truthfulness of my answer. Years later, when I look at this school picture, I understand why my school photo did not resemble others coming before or after. That year, I realized that I would have to learn to live with the precious burden of my own survival. In the photograph, my tiny face is weighted with the knowledge that I would carry the twin afflictions of war and a hunger for a home in my young heart for many years to come.