War and Music

I was not a hip kid. My parents were immigrants and watched every penny.  It meant there was no money for fashion or new music … 2 necessary ingredients for being in style. While I learned to sew and gradually resolved my fashion issues, I fed my need for music with a treasure-trove of old music down in the basement where I immersed myself with Dad’s old 78s. 

Rosita Serrano, Public Doman
From an early age I had Lale Andersen, Zara  Leanders, Hans Albers, and Rosita Serrano on the turntable. Serrano, also known as the Chilean Nightingale, became my favourite. For me, Serrano’s song, Roter Mohn, represented all the romance and tragedy of the past.  It's something I’ve been exploring with a current writing project.  

The British had Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again, the Americans had Marlene Dietrich's Lili Marleen and the Russians? Who did the Soviet soldiers listen to for romance?  Perhaps it was the Blue Scarf by Klavdiya Shulzhenko, which I first heard of when reading Maria Stepanova’s book, In Memory of Memory. The lyrics, originally released in 1940 were changed slightly by Mikhail Maximov after the Nazi invasion of June, 1941 and became, “The soldier fires his machine-gun for the blue scarf that rested once on the shoulders of his beloved.” Machine-guns for love.

Cover for Klavdiya Shulzhenko's Blue Scarf Album

When I traveled through the Zhytomyr Oblast of Ukraine back in 2004, it coincided with the Victory Day holiday … the victory over the fascists. In poverty-stricken Ukrainian villages, music blared through tinny speakers as old men drank home-brew and remembered old battles. I was struck by the hold that the music of war still had on the countryside. Even in the bigger centres, military music was blasted by military parades and in public squares. 

Music stimulates emotion and like magic, it transports people to other places and times. It unites people with shared memories and with aspirations for the future. It’s powerful, potentially dangerous and universal in its appeal. 

I wonder what music plays throughout Ukraine during these terrible months of invasion?  Perhaps I’ll find out as I begin a new volunteer session with a recent Ukrainian immigrant. 

Crow Stone's Arrived!

I got a parcel in the mail yesterday ... the kind of parcel every author loves like a newborn baby ... my new book!  Crow Stone, the jumbled and blurry ramblings of an old woman as interpreted by me. It's a story brought into focus with the support of my wonderful writing group and my amazing publisher, and now a tangible object ... a novel.  My only regret is that my mom can't hold it.

How would she review it? I'm thinking she'd shake her head and mutter ... brotloße Kunst (breadless art) ... but she'd be smiling. 

Storied Stones

Solovetsky Stone in Moscow CC, Andy House

Piece of coal from Ukraine
There are many best things about books, and here’s another one … they become stepping stones to more books, more ideas, more worlds. Often a bibliography at the back of a book helps lead the way. Other times, the tantalizing crumbs are scattered throughout. In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova I was eager to follow up on a couple of items—the Blue Scarf, a popular song during the Soviet times and the Solovetsky Stone.

I’ve always been drawn to stone, as my previous book titles confirm, and my fascination with them goes beyond my writing. I have stones with a variety of histories scattered throughout my home and garden. Their timelessness, their uniqueness, their silence attracts me—they bear witness to history.

Baltic Amber posing as stones
So, what was the Solovetsky Stone that Stepanova mentions in her memoir?  The huge boulder is a monument dedicated to political repression in the Soviet Union. It’s right in Moscow at Lubyanka Square, close to the secret police headquarters made famous in our western world by the cold war’s KGB, but previously known as the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD and now morphed into the FSB. Yes, modern Russia still needs its secret police. 

Red Stone from windmill's
foundation in Federofka, Ukraine

This ordinary-looking stone monument was unveiled in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. October 30th is marked as the annual day to remember victims of political oppression. How was that day handled last month? I missed hearing about it. 

The granite boulder comes from the Solovetsky Islands in the northern White Sea. One of my uncles perished out there. An older brother of my mom’s, he was arrested along with her father. I never created a character out of him for my earlier novels (The Kulak’s Daughter or Red Stone) because he wasn’t in the photos done before and after the 1930 exile and his very existence seemed murky. If there’s no photo, then did he really exist?  Now that’s a scary thought. 

Limestone from shores of Lake Winnipeg
Later, I could indeed confirm his tragic life. Back in 1931, as a fifteen-year-old he’d been considered old enough to help build the White Sea Canal. So he’d just disappeared into that no man’s land of rocks, cold and OGPU tyrants. My way of honouring him has been to use his name for my protagonist’s younger brother. That’s all rather confusing, but the truth is, my mom had three brothers … Albert, August and Jonathan, a toddler. Little Jonathan died en route to Yaya, Siberia. August, (called Albert in my books), ended up fighting for the Wehrmacht and disappeared in a Soviet forced labour camp in 1945 while the real Albert, pushed boulders for Stalin’s White Sea Canal.

Stone stories from my
daughter's Europe trip
The Solovetsky Stone in Lubyanka Square is for that  un-photographed Albert, for my fictional Albert (aka, August), and for little Jonathan.  All three youths were victims of political repression in the Soviet Union. Three uncles, dead through Stalin’s policies, along with my two maternal grandparents, victims as well.  Yes, that Solovetsky Stone in Moscow commemorates my family, too. 

When my daughter traveled throughout Europe one summer she brought back a collection of her own storied-stones to share with me.  

Because stones can't talk—they can only listen—they need us to speak for them. Stepping stones, indeed. 

Now I need to follow-up with the Blue Scarf. 

Rest in Peace ... Live in Peace

The story of Crow Stone … out in just a few days … begins on November 11th, 1944. Here’s the opening paragraph.

November 11. Today is Albert’s twenty-fourth birthday and he’s coming home to celebrate. Well not home, home, but what’s become home—Königsberg here in East Prussia. I’m meeting him at the train station, the same station where we arrived when we were homeless children—kulak orphans. Will I even recognize Albert? The men all looks the same in their grey field uniforms.

His brief visit will be the last time he gets to be with his family. Inspired by my mom’s real brother, August, he soon disappears into the quagmire of a Soviet Union prisoner of war camp.

Two months later on a Red Cross/Crescent postcard, dated January 17, 1945, he writes, ‘Things are going well so far, wishing the same for you. Hope we can soon reunite in our homeland.’ Well, there was no homecoming, no home to return to, and no future. 

This Remembrance Day I want to remember that war kills. It kills the enemy, the hero, the child, the old woman, and the family dog. War doesn’t focus on a uniform or on an age.

Solzhenitsyn, Public Domain

In Prussian Nights, a narrative poem composed by Solzhenitsyn and committed to memory while he was in the Gulag after being accused of empathizing with the enemy, he remembers war.

Some soldiers have gathered round

          A pram that’s been abandoned,


Lace trimmings, too:

’Look, a little ‘un.

Still, he’s a German!

He’ll grow and put a helmet on.

Deal with him now, d’you think?

The order from Supreme Command

Is Blood for Blood!    (p. 67. Prussian Nights, translated by Robert Conquest)

Rest in Peace, Uncle A. Let me never take this living in peace for granted. 

The unmarked graves

I’ve been curious about this Erich Koch who was the top Nazi in East Prussia during my mom’s time there. Who was he and what is a Gauleiter?

The word Gau means area and leiter means leader. It's not been used since the Nazi defeat, except in a derogatory way. In the Nazi hierarchy there was the one and only Führer, and one level lower were the 16 Reichsleiter (later, 22), and then the third highest tier were the Gauleiters of the various districts throughout the Third Reich. In East Prussia, aka Ostpreußen, it was Gauleiter Erich Koch. 

A career-Nazi (born in 1896), Koch joined the Nazi party in 1922 and become East Prussian Gauleiter in 1928.  He whole-heartedly endorsed the master race theory, later promoted to Reichsleiter of Ukraine and known for his brutality. 

Erich Koch at his trial in Poland in1958

As the war was ending, East Prussian civilians were finally permitted to flee via Operation Hannibal on January 23, 1945. Koch's faith in the master race had faded and he didn’t wait around either. A ship waited for him in the Pillau harbour (avoiding the chaos of the masses) and he headed to Flensburg (close to my dad’s home turf) in Schleswig-Holstein.  Koch’s plan had been to follow other top Nazis to South America. 

Captured in Hamburg in 1949, he was tried in Warsaw and imprisoned in Barczewo, Poland (former Wartenburg, East Prussia). Spared a death sentence because the Soviets thought he might know what happened to the Amber Room,  he died at age 90.  Like my grandfather and my grandmother, and several of my uncles—and like Hitler himself—Koch was buried in an unmarked grave. During this month of remembering, when graves and memorial sites are visited and bedecked with flowers, it’s poignant to think that the perpetrators of war and so many of its victims lie in unmarked graves. 

Maria Stepanova

But then who needs a grave to be remembered? Seems rather unnecessary. The whole idea of what to do with a person’s body after its life has left seems irrelevant to the actual memory of what that person meant to the living. I’m reading the 2021 Booker prize winning book, In Memory of Memory, right now and perusing the idea of how to remember the past. A fascinating read. 

Maria Stepanova's quote from Bertolt Brecht seems appropriate here. “And you see only those who stand in the light while those in the darkness nobody can see.”

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