Holodomor and Family

on grounds of Manitoba Legisture

One of my newcomer-friends from Ukraine forwarded links to a series of three films about the Holodomor which was marked this year on November 25th. I watched the movies on YouTube this past week. Since the series is in Ukrainian, I needed English sub-titles. What added to the normal challenge of watching a movie with subtitles, was that I was searching for a glimpse of my grandfather in the reels from the 1930s. Didn’t happen.

my grandfather, 
shot in 1937

I did see a lot of white-kerchiefed peasants, thatched houses, horses—pulling wagons filled with sacks of grain, menacing pitchforks, clips of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin … but no clips of my grandfather. He was supposedly hiding—running from village to village, using assumed names, after his release from a Zhytomyr prison in 1932.  By 1937, the authorities caught up with him and he was finally tried for treason and shot.

The other thing I saw a lot of in these films was dying children. Painful to watch. My mom and her three younger siblings got out in 1931, thanks to their father’s quick thinking and selflessness. 

Many Ukrainians are only now learning their own tragic history. After decades of suppression and of manipulation of their own stories, they’re finally dealing with their own trauma. This current war isn’t just about land … it’s about history and identity and about family secrets.  I’m not from a Ukrainian family. My mom, her siblings and parents, born in Ukraine, were ethnic Germans. But they were also affected by Stalin, his Five-Year Plans, and his forced collectivization.

Thatched house in the former Federofka, Ukraine

I never thought of my mom and grandparents as Germans or Ukrainians or Russians. I thought of them as family … later as displaced people simply trying to survive. Sure, they held on to some German traditions, to their mother language, but they also adapted as was necessary so that they could get along with their neighbours and build community. It’s kind of like what we’ve been living here in Canada. 

It’s been nine decades since Collectivization and the ensuing Holodomor destroyed the Ukrainian countryside—a long time for the truth to be known. 

Finding Story in the Facts

You, The Story (sub-titled, A Writer’s Guide to Craft through Memory) by Ruta Sepetys, was a slow read … not because it was difficult or tedious … but because it was affirming and comforting. It reminded me to trust my gut, to go with my instincts and to believe in my own story. Sprinkled throughout with user-friendly exercises, the book's a great resource … especially for beginners (of any age).  And what an interesting cover!

Sepetys, author of a couple of my favourite novels set in eastern Europe: Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray gives plenty of examples to showcase the power of perspective. She offers tips on using detail … “specificity is authenticity” (page 33), about dialogue, setting and courage. She reminds us that failure is a prerequisite to success.  

We manipulate truth ... we pick and choose memories to highlight our narrative. As writers of fiction we can shine the light on the parts that will move the story forward. 

I just finished reading Anne Berest’s new book, The Postcard—(again with an incredible cover!) a novel strongly inspired by memory. In fact, it’s curious that it says ‘a novel’ on the cover, rather than 'a memoir'.  Some readers, including a good friend of mine, say they have no time for fiction ... for make-believe, for pretend. I tend to disagree. It's through the ART of fiction that truth can be told. The Postcard is a prime example of Ruta Sepetys’ nonfiction guide to exploring memory. 

Both books, inspire me to continue solving my own family mysteries … one of which was also precipitated by a postcard. The postcard was from Berlin and arrived shortly after my father’s death in 1993. With the recent collapse of the Berlin wall, my father’s ex-wife had returned to  the city to remember. Her postcard stirred up memories about my father’s life in Nazi Germany when he'd had another family.  That postcard was a portal to a father I'd never known. 

Anne’s Berest’s novel, The Postcard, reads like a mystery and it explored aspects of the French experience of the war that I was unfamiliar with. Yes, that war is still relevant. 

One Year

It’s been a year since my novel, Crow Stone, was released. I still pinch myself that a story I carried with me since childhood has actually become a book. Turning my mom's confused memories into a narrative helped me appreciate the community of displaced people who enveloped my childhood.

While not topping bestseller lists, Crow Stone’s release, released me from the weight of my mother’s trauma ... a trauma that stayed with her until she died at age 92 ... still paranoid, but also resilient and clever.

Thank you again ...

- for support from my Canadian publisher, Ronsdale Press, even as they transitioned to new owners. 

-  for positive reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Canadian Materials Review and more. 

- for the book’s travels to the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs.

- for the attention from Dr. Mateusz Swietlicki, East European professor from Wroclaw, Poland.

- for German podcast listeners who got to hear me interviewed.

I’m grateful to you for sticking with me on my meanderings. My new projects … immigrant stories – one for adults and one for middle grade—are looking for homes. Traditional publishing is a challenging and crowded field.  More people are writing, less people are reading. 

I keep reminding myself ... it's a journey, not a destination. 

Picking Favourites—Not Fair!

Shepherd, an online database of books connecting readers, authors, and their books by theme asked contributors to select their favourite books of the year. Not fair! Almost every book I read is a true treasure and I appreciate and respect the writer and their need to tell a story. 

That said, much of my reading these past few years, has focused on the history of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and Second World War history.  Violence involving the former USSR continues to create headline news as the ‘special military operation’ grinds on into a second year with no end in sight. War and death dominate our news and Canada is flooded with  21st century war refugees. 

The authors of my three book choices include:  Erin Litteken, an American novelist writing for adults. Marsha Skrypuch, a Canadian novelist writing for middle grade, and Mateusz Swietlicki, a Polish academic, specializing in East European studies.  To find out about the books I chose, visit Shepherd. https://shepherd.com/bboy/2023/f/gabriele-goldstone.

It’s empowering to know that the experiences of our families, hidden for decades because of war, immigration and even shame, are being explored via the power of literature. These are excellent books, targeted at a variety of readers,  about a history that still matters. 

Thank you to the folks at Shepherd for making it so much easier to follow topics of interest. I recommend them to fellow authors, readers and teachers. A great resource!

Check out their website for favourite reads of almost 1000 authors. And if you're an author, you might want to join their growing list. 

Pumpkin Talk

I shared an interesting conversation this week with my EAL student, (I’ll call her Olga) a recent arrival from Ukraine. We discussed the North American celebration of Halloween. None of the students I’ve worked with, from South Korea, China, Iran and several now from Ukraine, are comfortable with our infatuation of scary. The immigrant church community where I grew up wasn’t too happy with Hallowe’en either.  (Halloween or Hallowe’en comes from Hallowed Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day).

For young Canadians, Hallowe’en is about pumpkin carving, fake graveyards on suburban lawns, ghost sheets blowing in the wind and candy—lots of candy. Us older folks like scaring ourselves with a good ghost story or movie. Halloween frights equal the adrenaline rush of a roller coaster ride. Nothing more. 

During our conversation, Olga and I looked at Halloween traditions around the world. In Mexico, the holiday takes place over two days and family graves are lit up with candles. I learned that in Ukraine, cemeteries are visited the week after Easter and food is left behind to nourish their souls. Here in Canada, we have no special holiday for the dead.  Not even a day off work. Just an evening where kids get to dress up and go begging for candy throughout their neighbourhood. We laugh at scary.

Meanwhile in Russia, they’re snubbing anything Western. This year, they have their own version of Halloween and call it Pumpkin Saviour’s Day

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