My biological father was Ukrainian. I lived with his last name until my late twenties. He had met my mother in a refugee camp in Germany right after World War II. Of Bulgarian origin, she was a refugee who had been taken by the Nazis in the Soviet Union during the war and, luckily, wound up in Dresden as a nanny in a Nazi military doctor’s household, where she was well treated when the doctor was home but badly treated, deprived of the food she was entitled to by the mistress of the house when the husband was in the field. My mother fled when we bombed Dresden and was picked up by an elderly farm lady in Bavaria as she was dying on the roadside. She was nursed back to life by that lady’s family.
I start that way because I know so much more about my mother than I do about my father and to point out, as my mother would always say, never to judge people according to their origins or group but consider how they behave as individuals.
The two married. My mother’s wedding dress was made from an American parachute, at that time fabricated from white silk. I have pictures of that.
The two crossed over into Belgium ten days before I was born in the Reine Astride Hospital in Charleroi. My father went to look for work and was sent to the Belgian coal mines with words that explained that when he learned French he could look for something else.
My father was an architect, from a family where three generations had been architects. My mother, when I was an adult, told me how my paternal grandfather, also a refugee in Germany after the war, paraded with his walking stick, a very dignified man. I know nothing else about him.
While working in the coal pits, my father was also very active in the Ukrainian liberation and anti-Soviet movement. I have a picture of my father and friends around the portrait of Taras Shevchenko that my father had made from the bottom ends of bottles.
My father learned French in two years and went to look for a job outside of the mines. He was told that was all he could hope for. Though he had wanted to be an artist, he had only been allowed to study architecture by the Soviets, as that is what they needed. He had designed communal housing which had actually been built. He brought his designs for other projects he had dreamed of but not been allowed to build. The Belgians had nothing but the coal mine to offer him.
Frustrated, disappointed beyond measure even though he and my mother had applied to emigrate to Canada, he asked my mother to go back to the Soviet Union with him. She, who as the daughter of a well-to do leading family in a Bulgarian town on the Sea of Azov, had been sent as an enemy of the people to one of Stalin’s first camps in the north of Russia, refused. He disappeared. For years I had been told that he had been spirited away by the Soviets because of his Ukrainian activism, taken on a ship in Antwerp. It is only after I was middle-aged that the second version came around. I have given up on the facts.
Alone with me, with no one to earn anything, my mother moved in with another refugee family, only to be driven out by the unwelcome advances of the man of that house. It was then that one Sunday, in an older refugee’s home, I saw a face I liked from the vantage point of the cupboard I was cleaning. Yes, I was weird, a two-and-a-half-year-old who liked super clean things. I looked up at that face, climbed on his knee, then asked, “Will you be my papa?”
Guess what? He became my papa. He was yet another refugee, a mechanical engineer from the Soviet Union, who had been taken prisoner of war by the Nazis, had managed to escape, wind up in our 3rd Army, to become yet another coal miner in post-war Belgium. I have a picture of him with two fellow American soldiers.
Papa was from the Caucasus region, the only son of a Ukrainian widow and a Russian widower. His mother died giving birth to another son when papa was only two and his father died when he was eight, just as the Soviets were taking over the Caucus’ region. An orphan, he was turned away by both his half-brothers and half-sisters, becoming one of the numerous street children in the first years of the Soviet state.
The Soviets took him, fed and clothed him, and educated him. He became a mechanical engineer in a ‘sovkhoz’, a giant state farm, then went to fight against the Nazis. When after the war, he was to be repatriated he welcomed that. On his way back to the Soviet Union he ran into a friend by accident and was told by him that, as someone who had been with the Allies and worked with them, he would be sent to Siberia or executed. Besides, hadn’t he sworn as a soldier that he would kill himself before letting himself be taken by the enemy, by the Nazis?
Papa changed course. He proclaimed himself a Pole and managed the interrogation process. He gave himself a new birthdate — the 25th of November. The survivor, the street child, was strong.
My mother and papa faced many challenges. One of them was that they could not get married. It was one of the things which made it almost impossible at that time for them to come to America. It was only thanks to a Methodist minister working for refugees wanting to come here that they finally made it in 1956.
My life was colored by that past. Both never told me about my father. However, I aways saw a different face from papa’s as I looked up sometimes. Besides, there were factors that led me to feel that nothing was what it seemed. For instance, why was I, supposedly of Russian heritage, taken to a Ukrainian camp as a five-year old? Why was I, an Orthodox, given over to Catholic nuns at that time? By the way, I loved the camp and one of the nuns was my favorite. I still remember a very patriotic Ukrainian poem from that time that includes in Ukrainian, “..I am a true daughter of the Ukraine.”
Still in Belgium, I managed to open a trunk one day. There were my father’s designs. I remember one that remains clear in my head. A two hundred seventy-degree circular house with a garden in what can be looked at as a hole in the open doughnut. There was also a portrait of me. My mother and papa never brought that to the US.
In the States both my mother and papa wound up working in factories, my mother often sewing samples for clothes for places like Sachs Fifth Avenue, papa in Bogue Electric, valued because they understood that he was something, even asking him to help their professionals with some little points.
They did what they could, getting away from the mainstream of refugees, settling among Americans, letting me dream and go not only to college but one of the Seven Sisters, the best there was before the Ivy League opened its doors to women.
They only married when I was in college, having declared my father dead. Even I had to testify before the judge at that time. But was he dead? I never really searched nor will I. Why? I was angry that he had not considered me and my mother, that he had valued his patriotism towards the Ukraine more than he valued us, that he had not put up with what my mother and papa put up with to try to provide for me. Remember, I did not even know that he had talked about going back to the Soviet Union in spite of having worked against it. However, that would have been another reason for me to be angry.
And now, as an elder, I am facing another horror, an armed conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, another spear being thrown at me. For me no one is right, and no one is wrong. For me it is just one more aspect of us, so-called ‘wise men’ — ‘homo sapiens’, being cruel to each other. It is part of what drove me to the United Nations, to work in places like Cambodia, South Africa and Mozambique. It is what drove me to apply to be the president of the Thanks-Giving Foundation and give it all I had in the eight years I was in that position and still proudly be one of its representatives to what is now known as the Civil Society Unit of the UN’s Department of Global Communications.
As the founder of Thanks-Giving always said, “I give thanks for the gift of life and for the ‘other’”.