Posts

Serhij Sochocky - Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park WWII

I come from war

I watch my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire of Camp No. 231, Redgrave Park. A military hospital tucked between the wheat fields of Diss, Norfolk, an English village of unremarkable note, this, the site of his final internment camp before all prisoners-of-war were released after the armistice. This is the first time I remember being with my father in England, joining my mother and me on one of our summer returns. He is both out of place and at home in this landscape.Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

He is silent, and I am a spectator.

I look at the colony of prefabricated Nissen huts, which remain, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed to the farm where he and Michael take a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I cannot picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, nor the barricades circling the tents. It is like I am looking at a photograph in a history book, at faceless men, a mystery though it is really my father’s life.

The temporary buildings look like giant mushrooms, the arching, corrugated iron roofs stretch across concrete floors, peeking through acres of wild grass and farmland. The remains of these shelters are the only buildings protruding through the landscape, the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing, all long since torn down. These are the only artifacts left.

Ukrainian prisoners of war, Camp 231, Redgrave Park, England, processing camp, WW II

He stands with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding, reconciling the still countryside with his memory—the water tower withers beneath choking ivy vines. Only the silent orbit of a wild swan disturbs the horizon of liquid glass. Moonbeams have replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. My father turns and looks right through me to the other side of his history.

I am thirteen.

Perhaps, I come from war. War certainly sat beside me at the dinner table as I rearranged my food, listening to my father raging about having nothing to eat but grass soup and stale bread in the camps. War followed me to school when I did not find stories of children like my mother sleeping in air raid shelters, waiting for the silence that comes just before a bomb explodes. I did not see images of war’s unnatural cherry sunsets emblazoned on my history books’ pages. In geography, I learned that Ukraine, my father’s country, was part of the Soviet Union and once called Little Russia, not a country with a soul of its own.

I became obsessed with war. Imagined it. Feared it. I allowed myself to be seduced by stories about it. By its enormity, its uncertainty, by the horrors people like my father and mother witnessed, by the courage of its survivors. War lodged itself in my throat, defined me, chastised me, and tantalized me.

I wondered what it would be like to see war. To confront it, to live through it. Scanning the newspapers for photos of war-torn countries, I searched for the same absence I once knew in my father. I hunted for my mother’s war in the corridors of museums and libraries and in the reedy voices of those who remembered. If I could see war, I could understand my parents. If I could suffer as they did, maybe then I would be worthy of the blessings in my life, and God would not continue to punish me for my innocence. I have not known war the way both of my parents did.

Rather, I carry my innocence about the war like a wound, and it would take a stranger that I once met in a bar to recognize this wound.

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.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

An Exile in Spirit

My darling Anna…

When I was alive, I was like a house haunted by the spirits of all I lost in the war, the faces of my family never leaving me, even while I slept. I walked out of the camps and into your mother’s arms. Yes, your mother’s love was strong enough to assuage the memories I carried, but still, I could not relinquish the hold the war held on my soul. After you were born, your mother and I moved to the States to live thousands of miles away from the soil I had known as a child and a young man, far away from the countries I knew during the war, but still, I could not escape this haunting. This haunting became my silence.

I tried to race the war like a young boy attempts to outrun a train on horseback, galloping through fields, gripping the reins and the saddle, dangerously close to losing his balance. The young boy realizes it is dangerous to try to beat the train for the horse could shy at the sudden whistle throwing him into the train’s path or underneath the animal’s striking hooves. But the boy ignores all the warnings his mother gives him. The child believes that one day his horse will run faster than the train, its strides will be longer, its muzzle passing the driver angrily waving at him from the train window. I was this young boy.

You must understand, I could not give in to my grief that morning when my family’s world fell away when I stood helplessly by as my brother lay in the dirt covered in blood. I was a doctor, but I could not save him. I blamed myself for this. No, there was nothing I could have done, but you see, I believed that God would come into my thoughts quietly, tell me how to stop the bleeding, but He did not, He could not. These are the horrible deeds of men, ones they choose when they turn away from their faith.

I desperately did not want you to know these terrible things borne into my memory so many years ago. You were an innocent child. I could not allow you to know such sorrow; I wanted to protect you from my painful history. I also knew that I could not bear to hear my own voice telling these stories, for I believe I would have been driven behind the walls of insanity. Medicine and my promise to my brother kept me from falling into this abyss of despair, the belief that I would one day outrun the war like the young boy and his horse. I had no choice but to be silent, to take my revenge against the war by trying to heal men like my brother, men I could save.

My darling daughter, I believe the soul moves naturally towards life as one looks into the sky at night for comfort and towards the sun to feel the heat on one’s face in the morning. To be faced with death is to meet unrelenting despair, one that you cannot control, you cannot reverse, you cannot change. Death is as permanent as abiding as heaven’s stars. After the war, my soul knew I had no other choice but to give my life to medicine. Each one of my patients became a man I could not treat in the camps, their faces ones I remembered losing during the war. Each one was a man I swore to save while the commander stood over me, pointing a gun at a sick man’s temples. Each death became my brother, and each time I grieved. I prayed that these men too ill to live would go peacefully, for their family’s well-being as well as their own. Their sons and daughters, wives and sisters, their families deserved a quiet, gentle passing, one my brother did not have. Understand, I mourned my patients because I could not mourn my family, these acts I took to sustain another man’s life or simply to make him a little more comfortable as he began drifting towards his own death, were affirmations of my brother’s spirit.

Rimini, Italy after the World War II armisticeWhat does it mean to be a witness and survive? I have seen you scribble this question with your pencil, tracing the letters over and over. I have left you to ask this question, along with many others. I honestly did not expect you to grow into these questions with such an obsession. I assumed that I would live long enough so that I could have answered all your questions when you were old enough to understand. I am curious…would you have been so driven to know these answers if I had lived, if I had filled in absences I left behind for you? No matter. Yes, I was a witness. I survived. For me, this meant I was always to be an exile, living in a foreign land. I could never return to my home. Italy, England, America – all of these countries my heart would never own.

I was also an exile in spirit. My stories were too terrible to be believed by those who have never looked down the barrel of a gun isolated me. The war, my survival, forced me inside my own mind until all I understood was my own silence.

I never meant for you to carry this silence with you. I wept in the knowledge you absorbed my silence when I tried so hard in life to shield you from such sadness. I do not want you to be the young boy on the horse, foolishly trying to pass the train. I do not want you to become like me, believing you can fill the absences inside yourself with work and persistent brooding. Place your faith in your writing, in the pages that free you from the sadness life visits upon you, from the chaos you feel, from the restlessness you have inherited from me. Place your faith in the words you read and write in the words that do not lie to you. Do not think you can outrun the train because you cannot.

This is the letter I wish I had written to you when I still lived, the one you deserved to have all these years. I would have left you this letter rather than all my silence, but I did not because I loved you too much.

Your loving Father