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. 

When the Rules are Corrupt

When I was growing up, like every child of immigrants, I only wanted to be invisible, to fit in. This meant that once I started school, I became a rule-follower. Everything the teacher said was true. Everything my parents said was wrong. After all, my parents were German. The Germans had caused the war. Therefore, the world hated anything German. 

So now, as Putin crushes Ukraine and its people through bombs and destruction and his own people through lies and sanctions, I see similarities to my parents’ lives. 12,000 Russians were arrested for being at protests last weekend. Both countries are ruled by fear—a fear that still feels like a nightmare.

It’s one thing to study war through the distance of history and memory. It’s quite another to know it’s happening in the present time. While it’s still an ocean away, it’s happening to people I know, people I talk to. 

My Russian friends receive their news from manipulated sources. Putin has learned from history. Goebbels controlled the message so that people like my gullible parents became followers of an aggressive and abusive government. Their shame became my youthful burden. Russians will pay for this war for generations to come—even after the physical and economic wounds have healed. It’s so sad, so avoidable and so real. 

For German readers, I recommend, Nachkriegskinder: Die 1950er Jahrgänge und ihre Soldatenväter by Sabine Bode, (Klett-Coda, 2011) about the transfer of guilt between generations.  

For young people, I recommend, Saving Zasha by Randi Barrow, (Scholastic, 2011) a story inspired by true events, of a young boy who tries to save a German shepherd dog from death in a Russia where anything German is hated, even dogs. 

Following rules can be so complicated when the rules are corrupt. 

Wishing the world peace. And hurry!

Cost of War

In Crow Stone (coming out with Ronsdale Press this summer), the Soviets amass at the East Prussian border and, after a quiet Christmas full of foreboding, begin their invasion in late January. It’s 1945. There have been more than five years of war. The Third Reich, aggressor state, is tired and beat. Still. . .  surrender is not an option for its Wehrmacht . . . not as long as Adolf Hitler leads the country. 

With trains overloaded and their schedules precarious, women and children travel by foot and wagon, hoping to avoid the powerful, revenge-seeking Soviet Army. 

Fast-forward to February, 2022. While we watched, the Russian Army amassed troops for months along the Ukrainian/Russia borders. Instead of a foreboding Christmas, there’s a diplomatically-boycotted Olympics to watch. A few days later, the invasion begins.  Women and children now flee via car and on foot towards the Ukrainian/Polish border. 

We in the West have been shocked out of our lazy democracies into a united front. Even conflict-shunning Germany has joined in. Can our world order be so quickly disrupted by one man? Yes. Stalin and Hitler have demonstrated the power of insanity.

Back-track to June 22, 1941. The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact is broken when the Nazis invade USSR, under the code name, “Barbarossa.” Stalin, who’s killed off most of his best generals during the Great Terror of 1937/38, is initially in denial that it’s actually happening and in despair over his own naiveté. (Book: Unternehlmen Barbarossa, published in 1963)

History doesn’t repeat itself, but this is eerily similar to last century’s atrocities. Even the location is familiar. Poor, blood-soaked Ukraine. Victimized, again, and again! By communism, by Nazism, by Stalinism and now by Putinism.

But also, poor ordinary soldiers, poor Russians, trapped by an authoritarian regime. I’m struck by the news clip of a young Russian soldier, being consoled by a Ukrainian woman who offers to phone his mother for him. He’s too emotional to speak. 

I just finished reading M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead. It focuses on the siege of Leningrad and the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Powerful book, easy to read, many photographs, highly recommended.  Here’s a link to a short piece of his music written in 1943 during the siege. 

And here’s a quote from an interview with the historian and Oxford University professor, Margaret MacMillan: “There are never exact parallels, and I always resist saying that history repeats itself. The times are different, the chronology is different, the political actors are different. In fact, history can’t repeat itself because we know what happened before, so in a way that affects the decisions we make now.”

Is that comforting or does that only stoke the fear shaking our world right now?

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