Why shut down Memorial?

So sad and disappointing to find out that the human rights organization, Memorial, is now an illegal entity in Russia. Why? Supposedly, Memorial has received foreign agent status after receiving funding from abroad. Technically, the NGO is supposed to acknowledge this funding on every web page, instead of just on the home page. Memorial also received internal funding, in tiny amounts, by family members oppressed during the Stalin years. 

Family members affected by Stalin. Grandparents far right. 

It’s like Putin and his cronies have decided that my grandparents, whose stories I only discovered after the collapse of the USSR, never died because of Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks. It’s like Putin saying that I have no right to know why my mom became orphaned at the age of 12 out in Yaya, Siberia. It’s like saying my grandfather was not wrongly accused for treason under Article 58 and shot during the 1937/8 Great Terror. It’s like the Russian present is afraid of its Soviet past.  Why would Putin deny his country’s atrocities? Because he wants his countrymen to be nostalgic for the good old days as a communist powerhouse. He wants to re-write history, but why? So he can affect the future?

Germany has accepted its dark Nazi past with numerous monuments, memorials and most importantly, education of the young. True, it took a full generation for the silence about Nazi atrocities to be broken and for the guilt to be admitted. But now we can look at Germany as a role model of how to reconcile the wrongs of the past and create a better present.

Here in Canada we have declared a national holiday on September 30th, as Truth and Reconciliation Day. It’s a tiny step  . . . as is renaming schools, streets and removing colonial oppressor monuments. We here have our own horrendous past with indignities perpetrated through the residential schools. Our racism is still alive and well, as our jails and our poor neighbourhoods can attest, but we are acknowledging its existence. Secrets lose their power in the light. 

Why is Putin silencing Memorial? Why is he so afraid of the truth? Memorial or not, inter-generational trauma is real. We see it on the streets of my city where I grew up seeing homeless drunks and being told that it was their race that was the problem not us—the colonizers. 

My family members. . . grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles, were victims of Stalin’s atrocities. Putin can silence Memorial but he can’t silence our stories. We have to tell them. It’s too bad the year has to end on such an ominous note. May the new year bring positive change. Happy 2022 to us all!

 

In her Own Words: Christmas in the Urals, 1945

Someone recently asked me whether it was my mom's voice or mine that expressed writerly ambitions in Tainted Amber.  

While my mom regularly derided my interest in books as 'brotloße Kunst' or 'breadless art,' I've scavenged bits and pieces of her own words written in her hard-to-decipher handwriting. Just recently, I found, inside what I thought was an empty journal, pages called "Die Fahrt nach Russland, 1945" or 'The Journey to Russia, 1945.'  Such a treasure which served to underline her oral sharings of those dark times. Crow Stone is based on her memories, after doing much background research.

My mom actually had a piece published in Kanada Kurier a German-language newspaper, based here in Winnipeg. (It morphed out of the 1969 closing of  Der Nordwesten.)  I found Mom's yellowed newspaper article amongst her scattered papers, in between recipes and budget plans. Both newspapers were ubiquitous in our house when I was growing up. Now I scrounge to find copies!  Here's a translation of her published piece about Christmas as a prisoner of war. 


The Story of the Coal-shippers’ Christmas

by Else Schroeder 

(translated & edited for flow and clarity from the German by Gabriele Goldstone)

A group of twenty girls, called the coal-shippers, is working at an electric energy plant near Kurgan and Chelyabinsk in the Urals. I am one of them.

The distance to work is about seven kilometers. The temperature is -40 degrees and we travel there in the back of a dilapidated truck. Because it is Christmas Eve, two other girls and myself go back to our camp early to warm up the room we all share and to decorate it to look a little bit festive.

When the rest of the girls return, we eat our evening meal: thin soup and a slice of dry bread – not a very satisfying, elaborate Christmas dinner!

Back in our barrack, it becomes quiet. Here you hear someone sobbing, and there someone wipes away a tear from her cheek. Homesickness and longing for loved ones fills the room. I suggest we sing some Christmas songs, but there is opposition.

“Are you able to sing in this dreary place?”

There’s a knock at the door. A girl from another group is looking for company. I ask her, “Do you want to sing some Christmas songs?” She says yes, and so the two of us sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

Suddenly it’s dark in the room. We can hear footsteps in the hallway and expect an inspection. We had been told not to burn homemade candles. But instead, we receive orders to line up immediately to go back to work.  The electric plant is out of power and needs more coal. The old truck is already waiting for us.

We head back out and fill up two lorries. The truck driver has a nice nap while we slave. Then, when it’s time to return to our camp, the truck won’t start. It’s probably frozen.  Now what?  

“Wait here until someone comes to get you,” is the order. The guard points to a building not too far away—a stall for animals. It’s filled with cows, sheep and even a donkey.  

The night is cold, the sky, clear, starry. After the guard heads back to the main camp in his own vehicle, peace and quiet surrounds us. The animals are lying on their beds of straw, and us girls, tired and worn out from the cold and work, do the same, trying to get some sleep.

Kurgan Area in the Urals. Wikimedia Commons
But one of us has to stand guard, and that one is me, because I have been made their leader. While the others sleep, in my mind, I am participating in the Christmas story. The stars so bright. The animals in the barn. Everything leads me to Bethlehem. I am celebrating Christmas with twenty other girls and still I am all alone. 

Finally, it’s morning.  Another truck fetches us for some breakfast and then it’s back to work again, back to shovelling coal.

That was my Christmas in the year 1945.

 

Christmas Milestones

After the war, my parents, like many involved in the Second World War, had a lot of catching up to do with regards to raising a family. My parents married in 1952, came to Canada in 1953, and I was born in 1954. I was an important piece of their dream for their new life in Canada. 

Homelessness had defined the first 35 years of my mom's life and she was eager to be tied down by domesticity. My dad, on the other hand, having lost his first two children along with his marriage during the war, was eager to rebuild what he'd lost. 

Little Gabi's first Christmas was spent in the Wolseley area of Winnipeg on Lipton Street. I cycled past the house this summer, imagining my parents fussing over this new little Canadian in their life. Little angel, I was not!

Christmas always seem to mark milestones in people’s lives. What will Christmas, 2021, be remembered for, sixty+ years from now? The final year of the COVID pandemic, or the peaceful year before things got really bad? Grateful for what I have, right now. 





 

Grüß Gott from inside a Snow Globe

As winter snuggles in to rest during the dark days of December, I remember my first December away from home. I’d been backpacking through Europe and my friend and I used our Youth Hostel or Jugendherberge guide to show us the way. Some hostels had closed for the season and so we had fewer options. However, our Inter-rail Pass continued to open up new worlds and new experiences, even as we found ourselves colder and a tad lonelier than in the fall. 

Traipsing through the Austrian Alps was like being in a Christmas card. I don’t recall the name of the village where we disembarked, this one time, but it was off the beaten track. The train station attendant nodded a curt good-bye and pushed us out of the station with a “Guten Abend, my Fräuleins.”  He then locked the door behind us and we were on our own. Snow fell in the purplish light of the growing night as the mountains seemed to close in around us.

My friend and I stood under a lamplight trying to figure out which way we had to go to find the youth hostel. Nothing made too much sense, so we decided to just started walking. The place was tiny. Very tiny. More of a hamlet than a village. We passed by a woman wearing a kerchief and shawl, sweeping snow from her sidewalk. 

Grüß Gott,” she called out. I responded with my own “Grüß Gott.” I’d learned the expression months earlier while working in Berchtesgaden. It literally means, “Greet God” and is a blessing, of sorts. After we passed the woman, we soon came to the end of the road and the end of the village. No hostel. No restaurants. Not even an expensive Pension to consider.  

We studied the hostel guide. Turned out that there were two similar-sounding villages in the area and we’d gotten off at the wrong stop. Now what? The train station was obviously locked but still we headed back there to read the train schedule. Next train wasn’t scheduled until morning. 

So we stood in front of the station, snow falling, darkness growing, my feet wet and cold and my backpack suddenly feeling much too heavy with my Canadian flag on it quite useless.

The only soul in sight was the woman, still sweeping snow. She now gestured to us. Was she was going to tell us not to loiter?  We’d discovered this was frowned upon at other train stations. 

However  . . . close-up, the red-cheeked woman’s eyes twinkled with warmth. Her German, full of mountain dialect, was hard to understand and I had to concentrate on every word—but her welcoming invitation was obvious. 

Inside her quaint, alpine-style cottage, with its gingham tablecloth and heavy wood furniture, a blue-tiled Kachelofen (ceramic wood stove) kept the place warm. We ate a satisfying soup with dumplings and then sausage and bread with hot cocoa. She smiled as we gobbled down the delicious food.

Later she brought out a photo album and shared pictures of a young man . . . her son.  It turned out that he was hitchhiking through the States and she hoped that by looking out for us, someone would be looking out for her traveling son. 

Later, we slept up in the loft, under comfy feather duvets. In the morning, we ate a Bauern Frühstück with ham and eggs, hearty bread and good strong coffee. We hugged our good byes and headed off to catch the morning train as the sun reflected brightly off the snow-capped Alps. 

I’d almost think I made all this up, but my friend remembers it too. Such is the gift of travel and of being vulnerable. It was one of the best Christmas memories I’ve ever received. 


Doing our Best

Throughout the pandemic, my personal disruptions have been mere irritants. I’ve not lost my job, I’ve not had delayed medical procedures, and I’ve not cancelled travel plans. I’m old enough to be retired, lucky enough to be healthy and grateful to be able to satisfy my need for novelty with local trips. I’ve also been able to meet new and interesting people via the internet. 

Canada's Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg
As an EAL volunteer with a local immigrant centre, I’ve learned about faraway places. Mostly, I’ve learned that people are people, no matter what their home language might be or the nature of their government. Through them I get a human view of current affairs, but it also helps me appreciate history. Just as cultural and political environments shape a person today, so it shaped the people of the past. As someone who’s often immersed in the past, it’s empowering to recognize the humanity of us all. Whether Chinese or Ukrainian, living in a fascist country or a democracy, we all have the same range of emotions, basic needs and desires.

The opportunities that this pandemic, through the magic of modern technology, has given me to connect one-on-one with newcomers to Canada makes me again appreciate the choice my own parents made back in the fifties. Engaging with current immigrants, whom I admire for their courage and their hope, reminds to never be complacent about the opportunities in this country. 

Imagine living in China where the work motto is ‘996’. That’s shorthand for working from nine until nine, six days a week. Imagine living in Ukraine where in some towns, it's cheaper to get a fake vaccination certificate than an actual shot . . . a country where no one trusts that what the doctor injects in you is in fact a vaccine and not some random liquid. Imagine living in Russia where my new release, Tainted Amber, would be banned because it depicts Nazi youth on the cover and might distort Russia’s determination to revise the Stalin years. A new piece of legislation,  Federal Law No. 280-FZ , was enacted in Russia back in July which forces bookstores to pull offending materials.

I know that Canada has problems. Lots of problems. But we’re trying. Aren’t we? 



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