Remembering the Holodomor during COVID19

In Canada, the fourth Friday and Saturday of November are Holodomor Remembrance Days. I remember my grandfather, Eduard Ristau, who survived the Holodomor in rural Ukraine. He would have spent 1932 and 1933 in hiding—trying to avoid arrest—after his farm had been confiscated for collectivization. Mathilde, his wife and my grandmother, died in distant Siberia a year earlier. My mom, Else, and his other kids had been safely sent to East Prussia just in time. But my grandpa couldn’t get his documents in order. And so he lived through Stalin’s starvation agenda enforced by the OGPU (Soviet secret police).

During those long months of starvation, my grandfather received letters and money from his East Prussian extended family. In 2004, I read those letters in the Zhytomyr secret police files. It was so precious to me to make this connection with him and I am forever grateful that he let his kids get out of the country in time. My mom and her siblings, already half-starved after their time in Siberia, would probably never have survived the Holodomor. 

While visiting various villages in the former Volhynia area, one old woman told me of how she would cower in the fields with the mice as the OGPU came around confiscating grain and the seeds for the next year’s crops. 

Our local Human Rights Museum educates visitors about the Holodomor and reminds us of the suffering caused by deliberate starvation by the Soviet government. 

Today, during  COVID, I am grateful to be living in Canada—a country that is trying hard to help each of us stay alive, fed, safe and warm. It’s mind-boggling to me that anti-maskers would see masks as anti-freedom.

And yes, you can miss what you’ve never had. I’ve always missed my grandparents and it took me half a century to learn their story. Opa Ristau—homeless and starving in the empty barns of rural Ukraine—I remember you today on Holodomor Remembrance Day.

FYI:   28,000 people died daily at the height of the famine. Today—with a pandemic raging—I’m finally beginning to grasp what that number means. Another sad fact: 30% of those deaths were under the age of ten. 


Finding Bremer Stadtmusikanten in Riga

Instead of singing along on Saturday mornings with Popeye, the sailor man, I sang German folksongs under the enthusiastic leadership of Freddy, our German school teacher.  That’s where I first learned about the famous Bremer musicians—a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster. Based on a Grimms' fairytale, the four aging animals, worn out and rejected by their owners, become traveling musicians finding happiness through adventure and comradeship.

Last fall, I was delighted to meet those musical animals again in Riga, Latvia. It turns out that Bremen and Riga are sister cities. Bremen presented Riga with a replica of their historic bronze statue back in 1990 to celebrate Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union. 

from Wikimedia
The Riga statue was re-imagined by Christa Baumgärtel and has the animals surrounded on either side by wide metal bars. This frame represents the broken iron curtain through which the animals now peek to create their music. 

Here’s an image of the original 1953 statue in Bremen by artist Gerhard Marcks.

Politics aside, rubbing noses with any of the four animals is supposed to bring good luck.  These famous animal bards are also depicted by sculptures in places as diverse as Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Fujikawaguchiko, Japan. 

Back to Saturday morning cartoons . . . if I’d been a kid in Russia back in 1969, I could have experienced the Bremen town musicians on TV since it was a popular Soviet cartoon

It was fun to find a connection to childhood on my Baltic adventure.

'Their' Country

I have a guilty pleasure (besides the Abba one) of following the young royals. It’s hard not to with this smart phone of mine that constantly puts them in the headlines. I find little Princess Charlotte to be absolutely adorable but will keep my opinions about the older royals in her life to myself. Anyway. One recent article shared that Prince Harry laid a wreath in LA rather than in the UK. Now let me digress.

I am a Canadian and yes, I am infinitely grateful that my parents chose this country as their new home after the ugly Second World War. Yes, I know the Nazis were beyond evil. Yes, I know that my father, by fighting for them, could also be called evil. 

But, he was my dad and somehow, I have had to come to terms with what he did and with the uniform he wore. The education system I shuffled through did nothing to address this predicament—and I have decades of shame and struggle behind me—one that thousands of immigrants continue to experience. 

Buffy St. Marie’s song, The Universal Soldier, supports me in this struggle and so does the memorial that Prince Harry visited. It reads “In Memory of the men who offered their lives in defense of their country.”  May our country never be the aggressor, may it never be the evil one. May my son never be called to be a Universal Soldier.

My publisher, Ronsdale Press, will be doing a panel discussion, via Zoom, about the war on Tuesday, November 17th.  "Second Generation WWII: A German Perspective."  Panelists include, Michelle Barker, author of the award-winning books including My Long List of Impossible Things, The House of One Thousand Eyes, and A Year of Borrowed Men, along with, Heige Boehm, debut author of Secrets in the Shadows. Email for a Zoom invitation. 

Red poppies, red stones.

While wandering through the Schleswig-Holstein cemeteries, I found a few memorials dedicated to the Second World War. One was remembering those lost at sea during Operation Hannibal. 

Operation Hannibal was the 1945 desperate naval attempt to save civilians, stuck in East Prussia, from the Soviet advance. My mom wanted to board one of the ships . .. the Wilhelm Gustloff, (read Ruta Sepetys's amazing novel) or the Steuben, or maybe the Goya . . . waiting in the Pillau harbor. Mom never made it across the Vistula Lagoon and instead ended up in a Ural coal mine. 

Later, while biking back, I found poppies growing on the side of the road. Poppies—a Flanders field icon—and a poignant reminder of the paradox of life. Fragile and yet so tenacious. This was fall and the poppies were re-blooming. Maybe just for me? Those poppies belong to my dad's past love. But that's another story.

Red poppies, red stones. These are the travel souvenirs that I treasure. 

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