Faded Memories

On the Vistula Lagoon. . . 
Reading, or should I say—trying to decipher—my mom’s scattered memories . . . faded handwriting stuck between recipes and budget lists, is worth the effort, even when it’s a challenge. For example, in this one little notebook she mentions Graudenz, the town in the former East Prussia used as a collection point before they were shipped further east. Now Graudenz is in northern Poland and called Grudziądz.  It's about 200 kilometers from my bike path which had followed along the Vistula Lagoon . . . the same Lagoon my mom had desperately been trying to reach. 

With a current population of close to one hundred thousand, 
Grudziądz is a fair-sized town, twice the size of Manitoba’s second largest city, Brandon. Like much of Europe, the town was built around a castle and there were many battles between the Poles and Prussians before the Second World War and my mom’s fateful time there. 

It had been made part of Germany in 1871 when Bismarck created the German Empire (also known as the Second Reich) and by the early 20th century, the town was predominantly German-speaking (although many were bilingual). This makes me wonder if it's the same confusion that eastern Ukraine now faces with bilingual citizens, Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking becoming enemies through manipulative politics. 

With the Treaty of Versailles, Graudenz once again became Grudziądz and many Germans left. 

The area interests me, not only because the town was a step along my mother’s journey to the Urals, but because my great-grandparents once lived somewhere in the vicinity. They left for Volhynia back in the 1870s. It’s a time and a people that I’ve not studied and know little about. I just know my grandfather was born to West Prussian farmers in modern-day Ukraine, then Volhynia, in 1875. 

Modern border between
Poland and Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast)

Between the First and Second world wars, the town, part of the Polish Empire, prospered as an important business centre. Military training academies also flourished, while animosity between Germans and Poles grew stronger and stronger—especially when the Nazis came to power in the Third Reich. By September 3rd, 1939, the Nazis had showed up with their cruel atrocities. 

A concentration sub-camp, part of the notorious Stutthof camp, was established in the town. Those remaining barracks probably housed my mom back in May, 1945 as she awaited deportation to her forced labour camp in the Soviet Union.  By June, she'd have been stuck on a hot, crowded box car, heading to the Urals. Makes me appreciate the leafy-shade of my peaceful garden even more.

All about Hedgehogs

Three reasons I wanted to learn more about the hedgehog. 

First, I just read an article from The Paris Review about a little boy refugee from Ukraine who could save only his toy hedgehog from his toy menagerie during a recent bombing. 

Second, I received a beautiful handmade ceramic hedgehog on my recent Interlake Artist’s Wave Tour.

Third, I spotted a live hedgehog in the Zelenogradsk (Cranz) bushes during my visit to the Kaliningrad Oblast. 

Three reasons that the cute little critters deserved some more of my attention. Here’s what I learned.

Hedgehogs are . . . 

1. One of the oldest species on earth, found throughout Europe, eastern Russia, Africa and more. They are now considered an endangered species.

2. Considered an omen of good luck by Egyptians who made amulets with hedgehog images. But later, in the middle ages, that omen of good luck changed to being an omen of bad luck. And even witches in disguise.

3. Night creatures who like to hide and dig under bushes. 

4. ‘Hedge’ ‘hogs’. Literally, that means, bush pigs. Moms are called 'sows' and babies are called ‘hoglets.’ Their name, however, is the only pig connection they share. 

5. Though tiny (fit in your hand), they are not rodents and use their pig-like snouts for snuffling in the dirt for their insect diet.  

6. A herd of hedgehogs?  That’s called a prickle! Some call it an ‘array’ but ‘prickle’ is much more fun. 

7. A happy hedgehog might purr!

8. While Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll saw them as evil, Beatrice Potter opened our eyes to their cute and cuddly side in 1905 with The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.  The character was inspired by the author's pet hedgehog.

9. The German word for hedgehog is Igel. And it’s as an Igel that I grew fond of them throughout my youth.

10. The German Grimm Brothers had a tale about a hare and a hedgehog.  It's the drawings in the link that remind me of my childhood readings.  The lesson to be learned is that it’s not  for us to be uppity and to judge a hedgehog for being a hedgehog. 

Maybe we should all just embrace our unique selves and be proud of who we are. Pick your prickle with pride. For all the children refugees in Putin's 'war', let's believe that hedgehogs bring good luck!  Hug your hedgehog tight!

About Setting: The Ural Mountains

Perhaps this tank I photographed in Zhytomyr, Ukraine
was built in Tankograd, aka Chelyabinsk

I haven’t been to the Ural Mountains, but it’s on my wish list. The mountain range forms the border between Europe and Asia. During the Second World War, Stalin moved his major industries more than 1700 kilometers east of Moscow to the mountains, (about the same distance as Winnipeg to the Rockies) in order to protect his war machine factories from the Nazi invasion. Today, we know Tankograd as Chelyabinsk . . . still a major industrial complex.

Not only did the Ural Mountains offer a natural protection from invaders, but the Urals are rich in minerals—especially the coal needed for creating electricity to run the factories. Other minerals mined in the area include gold, diamonds, platinum and copper. 

Canadian Mountains
for a Canadian Goose

But besides war-machine industries, the Ural Mountains are rich in natural beauty . . .a place for adventure tourists. Here’s a quick comparison of the Ural Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.

The Rockies run about 2500 km, north to south. The Urals? About the same, also north to south.

Highest peak in the Urals? Mount Payer at 1472 meters in the far north. Highest peak in the Rockies? Mount Albert at 4400 meters in Colorado.  Highest peak in Europe? Mont Blanc at 4800 meters.

Age difference? The Urals are old! 250-300 million years vs. Rockies at 55-80 million years. That might explain the height difference.

Besides my mom’s unfortunate time as a POW in the Urals, two other events highlight the area for me. One, the Chelyabinsk meteor crash in 2013 and two, the 1959 Dyatlov Pass mystery, which was finally solved and shared in January, 2021. 

For me, the Urals—part of Crow Stone’s setting—must remain a second-hand experience for now. At least I’ve been to the Rockies, to the Alps, and have had a generous dose of cold winters . . . the rest I’ve had to mine from books and my mom’s memories. 


Dressing for the Weather

Clothes, like cars, have become so much more than tools to hide our nakedness or keep us warm. Clothes say a lot about a person and we constantly appraise others, and perhaps ourselves, by what they (we) wear. Even without the influence of advertising, we seem to know who’s well put together, who’s got no taste and who just doesn’t care. Kind of crazy. Animals are much better off with their all-season adaptability. 


Second-hand or vintage clothes are all the rage and my daughters seem to get a real thrill going thrifting and I’ve tagged along a few times. Yes, there are bargains out there, after all, our western world overflows with stuff.

But back at the end of the Second World War, 'stuff ' was valuable. Especially clothes. You wore what you could get. Sewing machines, tailors, department stores, fabric shops, all that infrastructure to support human fashion had been destroyed. That’s what world wars do. 

Soldiers eagerly tore off insignias that labeled them and became ordinary men again. Warm coats or boots stolen off a corpse were treasured finds. And there were a lot of corpses. As the snow melted and that spring of 1945 revealed the hastily buried, it was an ugly mess. But clothes and boots were salvaged for the living. Size, cleanliness, and definitely style, no longer mattered. It was all about survival. 

Matti Blume
Prisoners of war—those unlucky enough to find themselves in the clutches of the Soviets—were at the end of the line when it came proper winter gear. My mom, trudging eastward to the coal mines of the Urals, dressed for survival. She knew what Russian winters were like. 

Officially, prisoner of war garb was called Telogreika. These quilted jackets were stuffed with cotton that would be grown in the Soviet Union in places like Kazakhstan. I know that my mom wore such a jacket because of a memory she shared of a woman being close to a bonfire and the cotton catching fire.  

The Telogreika was warm but not too water-proof. No, they did not supply the prisoners with proper raingear. When I worked as a mail carrier, I couldn’t convince my mom that I had the proper gear for the Manitoba weather and that, in fact, I preferred facing the elements of nature to the artificial lights of an indoor job. 

Dressing for the weather is a luxury that I, growing up in Canada, take for granted. Modern-day “Telogreika” jackets are ubiquitous and every Canadian probably owns one. Today’s quilted jackets are filled with down or polyester and some are waterproof. Looking at images of the refugees in Ukraine, back in March, I noticed that puffer jackets are ubiquitous over there, too.

How we take the comforts of our closets for granted . . . until we’re on the road, fighting for our lives. It's been a fickle spring and I'm never sure what to wear. Peace time problem. 

InterRail turns 50 and brings back the Memories!

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the InterRail Pass.  In 1972, an InterRail ticket, for youth under the age of 21, cost 235 DM and was good for up to a month.  That was fifty years ago? Unbelievable. 

It sure brings back the memories. I had several InterRail passes while I worked and traveled throughout Europe during a student work program. I’d just turned 20 and embraced the economical opportunity to explore Europe.  The InterRail Pass had to purchased inside Europe—as opposed to the EurRail Pass which was purchased outside of Europe. 

Countries to visit on 
InterRail Global Pass

With the InterRail Pass, the trick was to buy the ticket in a small country because in that ‘home’ country you were required to pay 50% of the fare. So, I bought one ticket in Luxembourg, that tiny enclave amidst Germany, France and Belgium and then paid minimal to get back into Germany, where my co-worker, Renate, lived in Saarburg near Trier. Then, I could basically travel throughout West Germany to my heart’s content. 

My home base was Berchtesgaden in the extreme south end—two hours from Munich and half an hour to Salzburg. In Berchtesgaden, a mountain town geared towards tourism—partly because of the American military recreational centre located at Hotel General Walker after the defeat of Hitler, and partly, because it’s just an absolute gorgeous setting in the mountains— I was guaranteed to get work in a Pension or restaurant and made lifelong friends in this friendly Bavarian town. 

My family connections, however, were at the opposite end of Germany, on the North Sea, north of Hamburg. Thankfully, my InterRail ticket could cover that long and expensive journey. Of course, I travelled outside of Germany too—a completely wonderful adventure. I slept in trains, hostels, train stations and lived out of a small backpack. I ate irregularly, got confused with all the different currencies, met the most interesting people and have barely a bad memory. Getting lost, going hungry, and meeting weirdos was just part of the experience. 

InterRail travel was a huge part of my journey towards independence. My own three children, whom I encouraged to do the same, haven’t been quite as passionate about travel. I’m not sure why the seventies had such a travel allure. Europe bustled with young people carrying backpacks. Traveling through Europe, some of it on my own, changed my life in many ways. I came back to Canada, reluctantly, but with a yearning to understand more about my roots. That was before I understood what the Soviet Union had done to my mother’s family—before the collapse—which opened up a whole new frontier for exploring my roots. 

Train travel is not known to be economical here in Canada, but there are cross-country passes available and with the rising cost of fuel, collapse of Greyhound, and an aging population nostalgic for the youthful days of InterRail, perhaps it's something to check out.  

Inside VIA coach Marcus.Dyck

In any event, Europe’s InterRail Pass no longer targets only the young. It’s grown old right along with me. By the eighties, the train pass described youth as under 26 and by the late nineties there were no more age restrictions. Yes! There just might be another InterRail journey in my future.  But the world is incredibly unstable right now and I, for one, am not ready to be a ‘tourist’ abroad. 

Thankfully, I have books to read and interesting people to meet right here in this prairie city. And even without an InterRail Pass, life continues to be an adventure. Now where’s my backpack?

Prisoners of History


Like most of the world, I’ve been following the Ukraine War with great interest. This past week, there were headlines about the first Russian prisoner of war, charged with war crimes. A 21-year-old Russian has been found guilty of shooting a 62-year-old man on a bicycle. He was ordered to shoot and he did. The widow of the civilian feels sorry for the young soldier, now sentenced to life in prison, but can’t forgive him. Of course not. Forgiveness and healing take time. Will we ever forgive Putin for starting this mess?  

Besides perpetrators of specific war crimes, there are regular prisoners of war. The Ukrainian survivors of the valiant Mariupol siege are now prisoners of war. Supposedly up to 1700 Ukrainian soldiers are in Russian hands. Not an enviable fate. Being formally registered by the Red Cross so that humane treatment can be guaranteed under the Geneva Convention, doesn’t seem all that reassuring.


During the Second World War, because the USSR had not signed onto the 1929 Geneva Convention, the Nazis did not feel obligated to follow it.  Soviet soldiers captured by Nazis were thus doomed to death by starvation or complications from disease. (And they’d thought life in the Soviet Union with Stalin had been tough.) Two out of every 3 Soviet prisoners died without any ammunition wasted on them.

Public Domain, Russian prisoners of war near
Sumy, April, 2022

Revenge was inevitable and when Germany finally capitulated, people like my dad—once a pilot for the Luftwaffe, later a member of the Military Police on the East Front—ended up in terrible camps with equally high mortality rates. And to make-up perhaps, for all those forced Ostarbeiter, people like my mom—who’d never been in the military, or any Nazi groups, a young woman, forced to spend the war years in a munitions’ factory—slaved like a workhorse in open pit mines of the Urals. 

And now with social media and instant news, there's so much more propaganda regarding treatment of war criminals I can barely believe that the news headlines today are about current events. How can this all be happening again? 

On Mom's Trail

(This is a copy of an article I prepared for SGGEE (Society for German Genealogy  in Eastern Europe) It can be found in its most recent journal, available to members only. (Vol. 24 No.1  2022 March). 

creative commons
It’s long been an ambition of mine to physically retrace my Volhynian-born mother’s footsteps. With Don Miller’s guidance, I started at the beginning, in Federowka, 35 kilometers northwest of Zhitomir. That’s where the storks dropped off Else Ristau back in 1919. On that roots tour, in 2004, I visited Zhitomir’s secret police files and perused documents which convicted my grandfather—former windmill owner, Eduard Ristau—as a class one kulak, guilty of counter-terrorism.  I viewed the ditch where they dumped his body in the fall of 1937 during the Great Terror and even looked for happier times in nearby Pulin, where Mom was allowed a sip of her father’s dark and bitter beer. Most dear to me were the granite remnants of the Ristau windmill discovered with the help of Helene Nickel, an older woman in Federowka. I tucked a piece of its red granite base into my mom’s pocket when she was buried later in 2011.   
Kulak orphans in Kreuzburg

That 2004 trip became an important turning point for my sense of self.  Growing up here in Canada, without much of a history—my mom having only a confused and limited point of view of what she’d been through—had left me feeling untethered, detached and without a true identity. With the help of SGGEE, and much reading, I now have a rich inheritance and a much stronger appreciation of my place in this chaotic world affected by war, social unrest, and now, even a pandemic.  How rich we are when we discover our past. 

My mom survived her Siberian exile as the child of a kulak and in 1932 ended up with Ristau relatives in Kreuzburg, East Prussia (now Slavskoye, twenty kilometers south of the present city of Kaliningrad). In the fall of 2019, I cycled through these East Prussia parts of my mom’s life. 

The former Ostpreussen (East Prussia) no longer exists as a political entity. Germany’s easternmost province is now divided amongst Russia, Poland and Lithuania and while Lithuania and Poland have prospered in the thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the tiny Kaliningrad Oblast continues to be a rather forlorn part of eastern Europe—a place for Putin to test his missiles within shooting range of the rest of Europe. 

The guided adventure began in Riga, Latvia and we alternatively biked and drove down to Klaipeda, Lithuania. Klaipeda, once the German city Memel, sits right on the Baltic. There we admired a statue of Ännchen von Tharau. (Germans might be familiar with the famous folksong about her.)  Back in the 1930s, her statue had incensed Hitler when he realized she had her back to him while he orated a victory speech from a balcony overlooking the public square. 

From Klaipeda, we took a ferry across to the Curonian Spit—a scenic ninety-eight-kilometer long strip of ecologically-fragile land, a Unesco World Heritage area, divided between Lithuania and Russia. On the Spit, we encountered huge drifting sand dunes, wild boar, and migrating birds. It was during my 2004 trip to Ukraine with Don Miller that I learned to appreciate birds . . . especially the storks and the cuckoos. Our East Europeans ancestors were closely connected to nature and this is reflected in their culture—including their songs, poems and memories.

Our small group (there were six of us) stayed overnight in Nida (Nidden), a resort town made famous by Thomas Mann who spent several summers there, and established a writing colony, after receiving the Nobel Prize for his novel Buddenbrooks in 1929. Later, the Nazis confiscated his place and turned it into a convalescent home for recovering Air Force officers. My father, himself at one point an injured Luftwaffe officer, was never amongst the privileged elite . . . a good thing, I’d say.

From Nida, we continued to the Russian half of the Spit. While there was only a modest entry point, it felt intimating entering Russia on a bike. The border guards took their job seriously with fearsome-looking guns and barking dogs. I was grateful for our multi-lingual guide who got us safely across and I’m sure he was grateful, too.

The difference between Lithuania and Russia on that Curonian Spit was felt as soon as we used the park washrooms. I preferred the natural setting of the bush (even with the stinging nettle or possibility of wild boar), to the filth of the offered outhouses. And yes, we did spot wild boar, along the road as we cycled. 

In spite of the dirty washrooms, this part of Russia had an inviting rustic charm. We stopped in Rybachy (formerly Rositten), which had been a renowned German migratory bird research station and is still used by Russian naturalists. Climbing the sand dunes was an amazing—and exhausting—off-road adventure. Because of the delicate nature of the dunes, we needed to stay on marked paths. Entire villages have been buried by the drifting sand dunes over past centuries. Good luck finding clues to ancestors in those villages. 

Our first night in the Kaliningrad Oblast was in the former spa town of Cranz (now Zelonogradsk). This area along the Baltic is also known as the Amber Coast—and yes, I hunted for amber—unsuccessfully. Later I bought some at one of the ubiquitous kiosks selling very affordable amber jewelry. 

Aside from natural beauty, the German influence is still strongly reflected in the architecture of Zelonogradsk. While Russian corruption or confusion has left some of the modern beachfront hotels indefinitely unfinished, old German villas offer a laid-back ambience of a past era. Trains in the 1930s had regular-scheduled, heavily-used routes for the East Prussians to enjoy the Baltic Sea breezes. 

It’s nearby along this same coast, by the Palmicken amber mines (now Yantarny) that Nazis forced thousands of Jews into the icy Baltic back in January, 1945. So much history, so much loss, along these scenic shores. Unlike visiting Ukraine, where a woman tried to spit in my German face, I found more awareness here of the positive aspects of German influence. 

On to Kaliningrad, the capital city of the Kaliningrad Oblast. Known as Königsberg since 1255, and the birthplace of Immanuel Kant, the city was decimated during the final months of the Second World War. My mom had shared tales of using the city tram and of window shopping in the once prosperous city. My personal obsession here was to eat Königsberger Klopse in a local restaurant. 

There’s little in Kaliningrad to remind a German tourist of the past. This was Stalin’s intent and he’s succeeded. However, The Dom next to Kant’s memorial, has recently been rebuilt. Even the Russians. . . transported here to replace the exiled Germans . . .  admit that Königsberg was once beautiful and embrace its complicated history. I felt overwhelmed with a sense of loss.  The brutalist House of the Soviets, (behind me in the photo), was built in the seventies to replace the war-damaged Königsberg Castle. It’s never been used or even finished. Back home, when I shared my trip with an older German woman who’d survived the devastation of East Prussia, she reminisced about how the chestnut trees began to bloom in January, 1945 because of the heat from the fighting. Now the downtown core was mostly concrete and traffic.

I’d prearranged a side trip while staying in Kaliningrad to visit the former Kreuzburg, my mom’s hometown during the 1930s. Now called Slavskoye, it’s about 20 kilometers south of the city.  We drove, rather than biked, to this town and upon retrospect, that was a bad choice. The traffic jam, leaving Kaliningrad city, was terrible. Did everyone have a dacha out in the countryside? Our Belorussian driver, Igor, slowly inched past the modern sports stadium built for the 2018 World Cup.  He didn’t hesitate to use his horn or even boulevards as necessary. Finally, we were out. 

Unlike the city which was rebuilt with the ugly Soviet-style concrete monoliths, rural areas of this oblast are marked by derelict ruins leftover from the German years. I was especially charmed by more of the majestic linden and chestnut trees lining the roads. Like the birds, trees and perennials tell stories of past generations. This was the East Prussia I had visualized. All that was missing were the Trakehner horses for which East Prussia was once famous. 

Similar to making family connections in Federowka back in Ukraine, I felt myself nervously anticipating what I’d find here in this hometown—this neglected time-warp of Europe—wedged between the past and the future. The Germans had all been forcibly expelled after the war and the area had been repopulated with unmoored people from the rest of the Soviet Union. A lot of the good, arable land still lies dormant—beautiful but wild. 

I was delighted to walk down the broken cobblestone main road of the former Kreuzburg and thrilled to later find the house where my mom found shelter with East Prussian relatives. Yes, the house my uncle had built in the 1930s was still standing. Earlier, I’d discussed its location with my one surviving cousin now living in BC.  “At the end of the road, in the ‘Schul-siedlung’ (school neighbourhood) with a well in the front,” she’d told me. We asked for help along the way and found it, just like she said. 

Second World War bullet holes still marred the house exterior, but on the whole, the house was lovingly looked after by an old man resettled from Kazakhstan who was proud to walk us through his beautiful garden. Time restraints, on account of the previous traffic jam, forced me to decline his offer for tea inside. His curious neighbour, her yard boasting a tree of ripe apples, was also curious about us. Wonderful people and I would never begrudge them my family’s former world.

Not far from the house stood the school my mom attended. The outside, still bullet-pocked and neglected, appeared to be used as an apartment with several residences. According to reports I’d read, by February, 1945, the Wehrmacht had sought shelter in the school while fighting off the Red Army. The village has an extensive graveyard for the fallen Soviets who died far away from their own homes here on what was once German soil.  Meanwhile, my mom’s younger brother, who disappeared during the last months of the war and ended in a Soviet camp, was never to have a marked grave. Such is war.

Our bike trip continued the next day and we cycled out of Russia into Poland. At one point, we cycled parallel to what was left of the Autobahn Hitler had started building for his Volkswagon. The Berlinka would have connected Königsberg to Berlin. Somewhere nearby would have been Stablach, a military establishment with a munitions’ factory. My mom worked there, and lived in its barracks throughout the war, cycling the eight kilometers back to Kreuzburg for visits. 

It didn’t us take long to reach the Polish border crossing at Mamonowa (the former Heiligenbeil) where we waited for hours as vehicles around us were taken apart. Dogs sniffed through everything. When it was finally our turn, our Canadian passports were greeted with a smile and a quick wave through.

In the winter months of early 1945, there was a different kind of slowdown on these roads. Back then, the snowy woods and pathways would have been jammed with military vehicles going one way, and mothers and children pulling all they could, the other way. Civilians tried to reach the ships waiting in harbours along the Baltic. They crossed over the icy, slushy Frisches Haff (Vistula Lagoon) from small towns like Frauenberg (now Frombork) to reach Pillau so they could board ships like the Wilhelm Gustlaff or the equally doomed, Goya or Steuben.  These ships offered them an escape from the Soviet tank armies, but not necessarily the Soviet Navy. More than fifteen thousand, mostly women and children, drowned in the icy Baltic in those early months of 1945.

It was misty, the day when I looked over the Vistula Lagoon . . . a brackish strait of water that in 1945 froze because of the extreme cold. It offered a welcome shortcut to the ships. I imagined the broken wagons stuck in ice as the low flying Soviet bombers strafed the desperate civilians. A poignant moment for me.  

My mom and her sisters, however, never made it as far as the Vistula Lagoon. They were stopped by Red Army soldiers somewhere in the woods along the trails that I cycled. For my mom, it meant transport back into the Soviet Union of her childhood. It meant more than two years of forced labour in an open pit mine in the Urals. For her sisters, it meant working on a Soviet kolkhoz near Drobrovolsk (Pillkallen or Schloßberg) until 1949. As I cycled through the scenic beech tree woods, I had much time to ponder their loss of freedom, lots of time to imagine the bodies of the hastily buried under snow in the ditches along the way. Lots of time—especially when the cycling trail was uphill!

Cycling is a great way to appreciate a landscape and because I grew up with the echo of Ostpreussen in my ears, it felt a bit like going home. While we can’t travel now, we can research to make a future trip more meaningful. After all, genealogy and travel go together like good cousins.

Religion & Culture in Ukraine

I’ve been reading a book that explores early 20th century Ukrainian history through narrative and I'm learning about Ukraine's rich culture. Sunflowers under Fire (Diana Stevan) was a Whistler Independent Book Finalist in 2019. The author explores her family’s experiences in western Volhynia, which was under Polish influence. (As opposed to my family’s experiences in eastern Volhynia, under Soviet influence).

In Conversation in Volhynian village 

As the descendant of German Russians, these Ukrainian traditions, many revolving around religion, are new to me. The faith practices of Ukrainians, Russians, and Germans were suppressed under communism and both orthodox and protestant churches were outlawed. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses.”   

Church buildings were re-purposed to store grain throughout the Soviet times while church bells were melted for the war effort. Religious meetings, outside of churches, were also banned. My own grandfather, on trial in the summer of 1937 during the Great Terror, had been charged with, among other things, having a bible in his possession. 

German Baptist church
 in Neudorf, Volhynia

Touring Kyiv back in 2004, the only thing bigger and grander than the monuments celebrating the victory of the Second World War, were the re-finished churches. Their gold-plated roofs glittered in the sun. Was it always the same old woman—ubiquitous at many of the grand sites, gold teeth matching the gold cupolas—sweeping for alms?  Of course not. That could have been my own mom had she not finally made it to Canada.

The alternative to religion, for those abused by atheism and poverty, seemed to be a homemade distillery. And those were also ubiquitous on my travels through 21st century rural Ukraine. 

Homemade vodka in Ukrainian village
Since the fall of the Soviet state, religion is again braided together with tradition, culture and politics. It's a rather messy braid, I'd say.  

Churches, ostentatious with power and wealth, still prey upon the already humbled. 
Perchersk Lavra Kyiv


At Manitoba Legislative
dedicated to victims of Holodomore
This past week there were news images of the dismantling of the friendship monument in Kyiv. A symbol to peace can’t stand strong when bullets mock its existence. Although I saw many monuments and statues during my travels over there, I don't remember this one and now, I guess it's too late.

Lenin, in Ukrainian village in 2004
I find it hard to believe that this monument even existed. After all, it’s not the first time that Mother Russia tried to destroy Ukraine. The Holodomor, a deliberate starving of Ukrainians back in the early thirties, proved that Russia had only contempt for its ‘friend’. 

A quick google, and I found other monuments supposedly dedicated to friendship but that only sneer at its meaning. North Korea and China have the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. No pedestrians allowed.

The Friendship Park between California and Mexico has in recent years morphed from being a picnic area to being controlled by U.S. Border Patrol watch.

Close to home, we have an International Peace Garden between Manitoba and North Dakota. Canada has the longest undefended border in the world. Too bad such a border cannot be taken for granted. Too bad that broken friendships can endanger so many lives. 

Friendships can evolve. There was a poem I learned as a child, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” (by Joseph Parry) Built on trust, friendships are fragile things that need more than symbolism to flourish.  Ukraine now has new friends and I’m proud of my country for being one of them.  

Without friends, I truly don't know where I would be. Can't choose your relatives, but friends are precious, indeed. Real friends don't need monuments, they just need a warm human hand.

Irène Némirovsky

Discovering Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky was such a gift. I don’t remember how I became aware of this book, but there was no waiting line for this 2006 edition (Sandra Smith, translator) at the library. I was immediately pulled into the narrative which coincided with the narrative of the events in Ukraine. People on the road—walking, driving, hurrying along, carrying what they could. Not sure when, or if, they’d go home again.  Air raid sirens in the background. No, not near Kyiv, but near Paris. Not late February, 2022, but early June, 1940. 

If the setting wasn’t enough, then the exquisite prose kept my eyes on the page and in my mind’s eyes I saw the beauty of the French countryside juxtaposed against the ugliness of war.  

But it wasn’t the setting, the prose, or the perceptively-drawn characters that held my attention to the very end. . . that made me read with careful deliberation. It wasn’t even the narrative—of love, hate, insecurity and surrender—between conquerors and the conquered, between rich and poor, between family members and couples—that kept my reading slow and intent.

No, it was the story behind the story that continues to reverberate within me. Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in the summer of 1942 and this novel, Suite Française, was unfinished. The appendix shares her notes and plans to make the 300-page manuscript into a 1000-page tome. The appendix also shares letters written on her behalf to rescue her from the Nazi clutches. 

Public Domain from 1928

Born in Kiev (Kyiv) in 1903, Némirovsky had a lonely—although lavish—childhood. She spent much of it in Moscow and St. Petersburg, fleeing after the 1917 Revolution, and ended up in France. Her literary success came early with the release of David Golder in 1929 and made into a hit movie in 1931. She was abruptly arrested in July, 1942 and died soon after. Her husband tried to help find her but also died in a camp later that year. Their two young daughters survived only through the help of friends. 

The inscription in the 2006 translation by Sandra Smith, written by the surviving daughter, Denise Epstein, reads:


The tragedy of intolerance continues to stalk our times. But secrets lose their power in the light and books like this shine light.

There's another, older and deeper, reason this book resonated with me. As a child, my dad once shared memories of being a Luftwaffe officer in occupied France. I don't remember where, but it was a happy memory for him of a place with endless bottles of cognac and burgundy. I was just a kid and the memory's dim. Yet, this novel highlighted that dinner conversation from my childhood.  What ominous times. 


It’s rather claustrophobic when you’re inside a Winnipeg spring blizzard. The cat, dog and I stare out the window at the fresh white stuff falling on top of the dirty remains of last November’s first snow and . . . and what? After a long, cold, pandemic winter, now slip-sliding through an April blizzard and a deepening war, bad-news stress is a real thing. Here's a link

We can’t change the weather. All our wishing and hoping and rationalizing will not change the weather one iota. So the cat arches his back, does a three sixty in his favourite spot, kneads himself comfy, and goes back to hibernation mode. 

Meanwhile, the dog and I will do our twice daily rounds, using the street, not the snowed-in sidewalks and we’ll notice, like we always do, that walking in a storm is not as bad as it looks. In fact, it’s rather fun. Back inside, we’ll hunker down in the cozy warmth of home with renewed appreciation. 

But there’s another claustrophobia bearing down on me. This one has nothing to do with the weather or the pandemic. It’s the war news. It’s one thing to research past wars and to step into past lives and write about them. But there’s something mentally oppressive to also hear about a current war happening in the zone of my historical and fictional interest. 

Do I do what the cat does and shut it out or do I follow the dog into the conflict? Of course, an old woman like me would be useless in a war zone and my meager dollars are but a drop in the bucket of humanitarian need. But I can’t follow the cat’s lead. I can’t just grow tired of it and go back to sleep until it’s over. 

I’m fortunate to have connections to both the Ukrainian and Russian side. Stepping into their boots, if only for a few minutes, reminds me that this war is not just headline news. Like me and my two pets, the people caught in this conflict zone also yearn for spring and new growth. 

I have faith that spring will come. If only I could apply that same faith towards peace in Eastern Europe. While I keep the shovel handy and wear waterproof boots, others stockpile weapons and ammunition.

The growling snow plough, barging down my street, is not a Russian tank and I will not complain about this Easter’s blizzard. No! Nyet! Ni!

Staying informed, trying to understand & reaching out beats curling up and tuning out. Sorry, cat. I'm with the dog on this one. 


Thrilled to see that my web  page at Shepherd for Authors is live.

Marketing is such a tough area for me (I would rather hide somewhere with a book near my nose than try and actually sell a book). Therefore, I'm grateful to connect with others interested in 20th century history under Stalin and Hitler. 

I appreciate the great idea behind this resource which is to connect with readers and recommend my favourite books on my areas of interest. 

Check it out!  Here is the URL:


How Evil Grows

Dad on far left

My dad died, today, 29 years ago and I think of him often. Growing up with a father who’d been in the Luftwaffe (he joined in 1936), made me sensitive to the issue of being “the bad guy.” Because I knew my dad loved me and that he was a good person in spite of his previous uniform and war history, I’ve always been curious about what makes evil succeed.  Dad was a smart guy, after all. How did he get sucked into the Nazi cause? 

Here's what I've come up with:

One huge ingredient necessary to grow evil is ignorance. This is happening in Russia right now where the mass media manipulates the truth leaving the average Russia in the dark. Goebbels was a mastermind of propaganda during the Third Reich. He controlled newspapers, radio, and film. It’s harder now with the internet so prevalent, but Putin is making every effort to control that, too. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1968-101-20A / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0

For those who can’t be brainwashed, there’s evil’s second enabling tool . . . fear. Russian protesters are in jail, dead, jobless or leaving the country. Nazis had their concentration camps and even beheaded young people for printing flyers encouraging resisters. (see Red Orchestra and White Rose).

Ignorance and fear can be fought with knowledge and with courage. My dad was a voracious reader after the war and I have a solid collection of his books. He worked at re-educating himself. He was also a courageous man, forging a new life in a new country and bravely admitting to his past. Today, it's Ukraine's president who models courage to his people and to the rest of us.

My dad paid for his youthful ignorance with the loss of his young family, five years in a Soviet gulag and most of all, a deep sense of shame for his    cheerleading of the Führer.  But he was open to learn and he was brave to admit when he was wrong. 

Dad with his first-born, Peter
My dad was a humble man . . . a broken man. Maybe that’s what I loved most about him . . . his humanity.  What is that Japanese art using broken pieces called?  Kintsugi.  It makes broken things more beautiful than they were before. 

Rest in peace, Dad. Peace to our world, too. 

Orphaned Dogs


Caged family pets highlight the emotional pain of the invasion that’s underway in Ukraine. Our family has always shared the house with pets and they’ve been sources of great joy and of gut-wrenching pain. Anyone who’s mourned the passing of their family dog will relate. Even when my mom was on her death bed, she'd eagerly share it with our yellow lab cross—inviting him to jump up and snuggle with her. Dogs have an uncanny ability to connect with human emotions.

Ukrainian Dog looking for Love & Food

With Ukraine constantly in the headlines, I’ve been returning to my trip photos trying to figure out if the little villages I visited are under attack. So far, it appears, so good. Then I found this dog photo. Ah, yes, the yellow dog. Every time we filled up at a particular gas station, he was at our van, waiting for a cuddle and a handout. Orphaned dogs were also often hanging at the backdoors of restaurants or at bus stops. The unlucky ones ended up on the side of the road, like squirrels here in our suburbs. 

Tip, our old family dog, & role model for Zenta

My mom’s family dog inspired Zenta in my book The Kulak’s Daughter. Both my mom and aunt remembered their dog who ran after his family as they were deported during collectivization and who greeted them the following year when they made a brief return. 

When I spoke to elementary school students about my research in Ukraine, one student asked if I’d found Zenta during my trip. Perhaps it was a great grand-dog of Zenta’s who greeted us at that gas station and gave me the power I needed to keep researching and writing these stories. 

How many dogs will be reunited with their Ukrainian families when this current war ends? How many families will be reunited with each other? God, let it end soon. Let the broken families heal.

Red Stone Bleeding

My mom (born 1919) grew up in the Volhynia area (150 kilometers west of Kyiv). Back then, it was home to a mishmash of cultures. Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and German farmers got along with each other, living side by side. They spoke each other’s languages, their children played with each other and they all dealt with the same fickle weather. The rich earth of the area didn’t care who was harvesting its grain. The wind blew, the rain fell, the sun warmed them all equally. 

From painting in a small Koresten, Ukraine museum

True, they might have worshipped in different churches, spoken different dialects in their homes, had different wedding customs and recipes, but they didn’t need weapons to solve those differences. It was Stalin and his secret police (OGPU, later NKVD) who can be credited for creating conflict in the tiniest settlements, or amongst families.  After the forced expulsions (my grandfather went through two expropriations, first in 1915 during the Great War, then again in 1930), then the 1917 Revolution and its ensuing civil war, there were a few years when the area was relatively peaceful. Those were the good years when my mom had a happy, but brief, childhood. The storks delivered babies, the windmill was built, there was a local church community. Communism, at this point was not a threat, but a support. The Soviets encouraged German peasants to build their own schools, churches and even a seminary for their pastors in Heimtal, near Zhytomyr. (I got to wander through those red brick ruins when I visited back in 2004). In A Biography of No Place, Kate Brown writes, “By 1926 there were eleven officially chartered minority regions in Ukraine, and nearly 300 nationally autonomous villages.” (page 20) 

After Lenin died in 1924, however, communist idealism was gradually replaced by Stalin’s ambition. The 1929 decree to liquidate the kulaks forced collectivization upon the family-minded peasants and violently broke up my mom’s home. Suddenly, there were enemies everywhere. German farmers were now labelled tight-fisted, or kulaks. After collectivization and the first Five Year Plan had been implemented, Stalin turned paranoid and started killing everyone around him. The assassination of Stalin’s close friend, Kirov, marking the beginning of the Great Terror/Purge. My German-speaking grandfather, was executed in 1937 as an enemy of the people under Article 58. His crime? My grandfather only wanted to leave the country and rejoin his orphaned children. 

And now we’re in 2022. Putin wants Ukraine to be part of his Russian family. He loves Ukraine so much that he will kill them all to keep them in his sphere of influence. What would King Solomon advise? Kill a child so that no one can have it?  And those in Russia who oppose him are threatened with 15 years imprisonment. 

Putin, Stalin, Hitler. Madmen again attacking the defenceless. No wonder the soil of my mother's home near Zhytomyr is so red. The red granite bleeds once again. 

Red Stones. All that's left of my grandfather's windmill

Call of the Crow

I awoke this morning to the sound of cawing crows. It’s a sure sign that spring is around the corner.

Crows are one of the first birds to return to our northern city after a cold winter. I’ve never been much of a bird person, but there have been a few that have caught both my attention and my imagination.

Back on an earlier research trip for The Kulak’s Daughter  I’d discovered the magic of storks, hard to miss in rural Ukrainian villages. We’d visited in May and the adult storks, majestic in their white and black plumage and their bright orange beaks, dominated the skies as they scrounged for food to feed their growing families. Nearby in a forest, I’d heard the shy cuckoo’s call—a sound that lingers like a wolf’s howl. 

Here in Manitoba, there are no storks, but we do have pelicans and they share physical similarities, including plumage, beaks and size. Pelicans, however, nest on rivers and lakes, not high on telephone poles or old chimneys. Once, when out kayaking, they must have smelled my sardine lunch and hovered nearby. I ate fast so as not to tease or tempt them!  

Another bird I noticed in Ukraine were the rooks. Similar to crows, they had huge rookeries where they would congregate to raise their young. Similar perhaps to communist collectives?

Back in the beginning of March, 2011, I sat with my mom in her seniors’ place.  We were both relaxing after having just celebrated her 92nd birthday. As we looked out the window at a skeleton tree and the tired snow, a crow landed on a tree branch. 

“It’s coming to get me . . . just like before,” my mom declared. And that is the genesis of Crow Stone, my new novel.

So this morning, listening to the call of the crow as it heralds the end of winter with raucous victory, I have to again marvel at the birds—timeless—and yet always marking time. 

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