The Fabric of a Community: a tribute to Bev Morton

June 6th would have been Bev Morton’s 74th birthday.  In her honour an opening reception was held to celebrate her art at The Studio of La Maison on Provencher Boulevard. Aptly titled, “The Fabric of a Community,” the tribute highlighted her contributions to the local art scene.  Her death in November, 2021,  left a gap in many lives but her friends and her generous financial contribution to the Manitoba Arts community ensure that she won’t be forgotten.

Bev's sister, Sandra Weizman

Fabric art by Bev Morton

I continue to nurture her partner’s real-life geraniums, featured here in this piece of fabric art.  Never mind that Bev was a ferocious Scrabble player, I was in awe of her tenacity and vision. Even as she lay dying, she was planning the next art show.  And now, her sister, Sandra Weizman, has made it happen. 
Inspiration from
 geraniums

It’s a wonderful testament to the power of art, of memory, of community and to sisterly love. 

While the Wayne Arthur Gallery is no more, its spirit lingers on. The show continues at La Maison’s The Studio until June 22nd.  (From The Forks, it’s a short walk via the Esplanade Riel Footbridge.)


La Maison, 219 Provencher Blvd.


D Day for Germans

 D-Day. 80 years since Juno Beach near Normandy became famous. Canada lost 381 men on the first day of the invasion … a battle that lasted 77 days with many more lives lost. 

1944. My dad in a hurry to nowhere.
My parents didn’t immigrate to Canada until 1953, didn’t meet each other until 1951. So where were they in June, 1944?  My mom would have been working in an artillery factory in Stablach, East Prussia … present-day Stablawki in the Kaliningrad Oblast. She lived in the barracks, next door to a prisoner of war camp known as Stalag. As a civilian, I assume she had time to enjoy the beautiful June weather during her breaks. Maybe she went on a bike ride and picked some linden blossoms. East Prussia has beautiful linden, beech and chestnut trees. 

And where was my dad, the Luftwaffe pilot in 1944? As a crash survivor, he would have been in Poland's Stubendorf (Izbicko) and Posen (now Poznań) training new pilots in a “Blindflugschule.” Which means, training pilots to fly via instrument panels, not visuals.  My dad would have still been with his first wife, who got pregnant that summer with their second son. Maybe he had some spare time to play with his older boy. He’d always been good with kids. 

However, with the arrival of the D-Day troops on Juno Beach, that would be the last beautiful June for my parents. By June of the following year, the European war was over. The D-Day assault had been the beginning of the end for,the Nazis. Within a year, both my parents would be in Soviet custody. D-Day marked the end.

Would the Germans of June, 1944 be aware of the change coming at them? Certainly, the average German family had been affected by the true cost of war ever since the Stalingrad winter of 1941/42. But was the Nazi propaganda machine, run by Goebbels, still masking the inevitable doom that was in store?  Without a doubt.

I haven’t been to Normandy, but I’ve visited nearby Calais and sleepy little Fécamp. It’s hard to imagine fishing villages turned into slaughtering grounds. Why can’t sleepy villages be left to sleep?

June 6th … D-Day in Canada … a very different day for Germany. Of course, modern Germany is not the Third Reich and the men and women who experienced the Second World War are mostly gone. We have new wars grabbing headlines, new young men being called up to fight, new fronts being created.  It’s ironic that Germany’s leader, Olaf Scholz, stands with the Allies at these remembrance ceremonies, with Russia now the aggressor state. What will the next generation be commemorating 80 years from now?  


sunset vs sunrise

A friend invited me out to Victoria Beach the other day where she'd been granted an art retreat. Driven by curiousity, I jumped at the opportunity to enter through the gates into this restricted and historical beach resort. Victoria Beach, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, has had a reputation of being unfriendly to immigrants. 

Until the 1950s, cottages throughout Manitoba were accessed by trains. One track ran up the east side of Lake Winnipeg serving Grand Beach and Victoria Beach (along with smaller resorts) and the other track went north along the west side, serving Winnipeg Beach and Gimli areas. The different routes also meant that sun-seekers didn’t have to mingle with other races, ethnicities or classes. 

East side of Lake Winnipeg at Victoria Beach

To have a cottage at Victoria Beach meant you were a ‘civilized’ person who was escaping into nature because you had earned it … you were successful. It also meant you were probably British. You were definitely not Jewish or East European. East beach people got to walk sandy beaches and watch sunsets.

Meanwhile, the rest of us … the immigrants, the poor, and the dis-inherited … established beach communities on the west side of Lake Winnipeg. Here, we got to watch sunrises and collect stones on the rockier shoreline.  The really well-healed holiday-ers headed out straight east to Lake of the Woods, a lake offering up islands for total privacy. Again, a different train route. 

Nowadays, of course, cottage communities don’t depend on trains. A network of highways created access to many summer resorts throughout our well-laked province. Even campers like me have access to beautiful beaches. 

My parents, 1950s' immigrants, could never own a Victoria Beach cottage but that didn’t stop them from dreaming of a west side cottage.  My dad helped build enough of them in his early years here in Canada but it wasn’t until I was in high school that his own cottage finally became a reality on Valhalla Beach. 

My dad (left) at a cottage construction site, 1950s

Nearby Gimli had a thriving community of Icelanders, Winnipeg Beach welcomed Jews, and Ukrainian and Russian settlers built up other spots on the west shoreline.  Yes, the east side still has better sand and idyllic sunsets. It still holds on to a nostalgic past that still charms its privileged vacationers by keeping out the public. 

But the west side has great rocks, good fishing and ordinary people. The sunrises are amazing and promise a future that assumes equality amongst all ethnicities. 

West side of Lake Winnipeg near Gimli


a dangerous faith

I’ve no regrets or doubts about dropping out of the German Baptist faith community in which I was raised … a community my adult-self considered stifling, narrow-minded and judgmental. Yet right-wing evangelicals still thrive as they continue to feed people’s needs for spiritual support and I admit that my upbringing has continued to influence me. For example, I learned to study words and to read between the lines.  We would pour over literature, aka, the ‘Word of God’ and try to interpret its meanings. Pastors could deliver hour-long sermons about a single verse. So it's not surprising that I did two degrees studying literature, albeit from secular sources.

Neudorf Baptist Church in Volhynia
A hundred years ago, there were about 200,000 Germans in Volhynia and at least 50,000 were Baptists. (Volhynia is a triangular area northwest of modern Zhytomyr). In the town of Neudorf, a huge red brick Baptist church was built back in 1907. During Soviet times it became a grain storage facility. In nearby Heimtal (now Yasinuvka), 50 km NW of Zhytomyr there was a German training seminary and teacher’s college, built around the same time. Yes, a hundred years ago, the German Baptist movement was thriving in Ukraine.

By the 1930s, however, under Stalin’s collectivization, things had drastically changed. My grandfather, ex-kulak, was a homeless fugitive hiding from NKVD authorities when he was arrested one final time on June 3rd, 1937. With a Bible in his possession they had enough evidence against him to find him guilty of treason … and he was finally executed in September. 

Today there are about 100,000 Ukrainian Baptists in Ukraine. Again, they are threatened and persecuted. Their enemies are no longer Soviets with a hammer and sickle flag. Now its Russian authorities who feel threatened by this small evangelical movement that just won’t be beaten.  Recent new clips show Baptist churches being vandalized.  Being a Baptist is still a dangerous thing.

Yesterday I did a book talk with a small group of Baptists from my former immigrant church. They know little of their own family histories. Many of them were only children when they fled war-torn Ukraine, Poland and East Prussia. Their memories are small memories ... like hiding in a closet as homes are vandalized or picking maggots off of horse meat or stepping around dead bodies. They clutch their faith like a child holds a teddy bear. I can only listen and try to imagine. And pray for today's victims of war.  We can all pray.









It's Just-Spring

Basking in spring sun


It's been a slow spring here on the Manitoba prairies.  Rainy, windy, cool.  And yet ... the light grows stronger, the days grow longer and buds are bursting.

The cat chills in the warm rays, while the dog focuses on muddy smells.  I put gangly geraniums back outdoors to let them recover from an indoor winter and maybe compete with the show-off dandelions. 


Bug-wise,  I've only had three wood ticks so far this season and I managed to rescue a bumble bee that bumbled into the house by mistake. I also found the  ladybugs cozy winter hideout amongst last season's leaves. 


Happy Spring!

Nature keeps cycling

Bee recharging in the sun after near-death experience

Back in 2004

Heimtal, Ukraine, 2004

It's been twenty Mays since I've been to Ukraine searching for my mom's home village.  Back in 2004, Federofka (now called Kaliniwka) was a broken village with a difficult past and an equally difficult future. It was part of a countryside littered with forgotten kulak windmills, sunken graveyards, homemade distilleries, and dilapidated homes. BUT ... it had a skyline brightened by industrious storks soaring above, nesting on broken chimneys or hydro poles as they cared for their young.  Spring was full of hope, with lilac, chestnut and linden blossoms sweetening the air and promising honeybees a sweet crop.

Former collective in Ukraine, 2004

It was less spring-like in the nearby city of Zhytomyr were I got to peruse secret police files and discovered the reasons for the human suffering in the countryside. There was a Victory Day parade rehearsal happening just as our small group was wandering through a public square.  It was eerie, back in 2004, as World War Two tanks rumbled past us, old Soviet military music blaring and ominous government vehicles encircling the parade staging area.  Twenty Mays later and the rehearsals are over. 

Soviet-era tank monument in Zhytomyr, 2004 

Spring, 2024. Ukraine is fighting for its life. Are the storks still able to nest? Is nature finding its way through the madness of war? Or are the red granite stones of the former Federofka turning a deeper red? 

Peace to Ukraine. Peace to the storks, to the soil, and to the people. 

Red stone marking base of my grandfather's windmill,
former Federofka, 2004

Beech Trees and Book Woods

Beech trees along Baltic

The trees are awakening here on the prairies and like every spring, I marvel at their magic.
Jane Gifford’s The Wisdom of Trees: Mysteries, Magic and Medicine came out back in 2000.  One section tells about the beech tree. I’ve not encountered beech trees here in Manitoba. Maybe our prairie winters are too severe. 

Maybe that’s why I noticed them when cycling along the Baltic back in 2019. Beech forests are found throughout Europe.  I welcomed their cooling shade after yet another sloping hill turned steeper than our intrepid leader promised. It was in the towering, gloomy beech woods that I tried to imagine the Second World War refugees hiding from their enemies.

Buchenwald, meaning 'beech woods', has become synonymous with the Buchenwald Concentration camp, about ten kilometers northwest of Weimar. Once known for its beech trees, almost 250,000 people were brutalized by the Nazis in that beech tree prison. 

Shade in my Garden
But the beech tree has more positive associations. Beech tree seeds, or nuts, were used during hard times to create ‘ersatz kaffee’ and even used as a tobacco substitute. Beech tree oil and butter is a common by-product and beech wood is favoured for carving wooden spoons and other household utensils. 

But the most interesting thing about beech trees—for a book-lover—is that the word, beech, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word boc, which became the German word Buch. Buch became buchstabe, meaning letter of the alphabet.  So once Buchenwald was not a place of horror. Once a Buchenwald was a forest of books. A library.  Before modern paper production, beech wood could be used for early writing tablets. And, as Gifford points out, beech tree are great for carving lovers' initials.

Even if I can’t grow beech trees in my garden, I’m still appreciating their impact. Like Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

Part of my home library









 

94 years ago ...

Nancy Drew debuted on April 28, 1930. She'd been conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, son of German immigrants, and fleshed out by a ghostwriter we all knew as Carolyn Keene.  After his early death, his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams kept Nancy Drew alive, by supplying outlines for her mysteries. Carolyn Keene, as mysterious as the mysteries she penned, was Mildred Wirt Benson for the first 23  books. 

But this post isn’t about the authors.  I’m  thinking about the timing. April 28, 1930.  Even though the Great Depression had descended with a thud, it didn't dampen the success of the series.  Nancy Drew and The Secret of the Old Clock was an immediate hit.  Her earliest ghostwriter, Benson, said: “ … (ND) was everything her author—or any girl, in fact—wanted to be and then some.” (page 117, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak).

Because I’ve been obsessed with my mom’s history for the last twenty years, I can’t help but compare my eleven-year-old reading habits to hers. What was Katya, aka my mom, reading in 1930? (Hint: It wasn't Nancy Drew because the Russian translation for Nensi Dru didn’t come out until 1994.)

My mom wasn’t much of a reader.  Kulak daughters like her weren’t visiting libraries or bookstores to find adventure.  At 11 years old she was about to embark on a journey to Siberia. She did have a bit in common with Nancy though.  Both lost their mothers at a young age. Both adored their fathers. Both had a pet dog. 

But while girls on this side of the Atlantic escaped with mystery novels, girls in the Soviet Union were either joining the compulsory Young Pioneers or dealing with homelessness, exile and imprisonment.  No wonder my mom seemed jealous and even discouraged my love of reading. But forbidden fruit is so very sweet. During the sixties, I read and reread Nancy Drew along with a required dose of German poetry and Martin Luther bible verses. While the German translation of Nancy Drew debuted in 1966, I didn't get a copy.

April 28, 2024. Nancy Drew is still on bookshelves. Forever young. Forever single.  Forever driving her blue roadster. Once regarded as a trashy serial, too low-brow to be ‘real’ literature, she finally made it to library shelves in the 1960s and she's been in circulation ever since. 

The power of novels ... such a mystery. 


Border Issues

Another one of my former EAL students recently received her Canadian citizenship and I'm so happy for her.  Applying for a passport will be the next step.  It’s been a long and tedious journey. Dealing with bureaucracy takes tenacity and patience.  Her new-found Canadian pride reminds me of how fortunate I am to have a passport and to not have border issues … at least not with most countries.  Borders around the world seem to be growing in importance.  How did that John Lennon song go?

 “Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too."


My mom's family: fresh arrivals in Winnipeg 1953

Winnipeg attracted many European immigrants back in the late 1940s and 1950s. I remember the term DPs quite well. It wasn’t a positive label. DPs, often Eastern Europeans, came to Canada after the war to avoid repatriation to the USSR.  Resettlement in our overcrowded city was marked with language issues and financial strains. 

My mom’s family experienced decades of homelessness and went from displaced people, (as kulaks) to migrants (as orphans), to refugees (fleeing war), to forced labourers (war reparations) to migrants again (to Germany) to Permanent Residents (in Canada), to full citizens (in Canada). 35 years of not belonging. 

At the former border between East and West Berlin

This rootlessness probably started back in the 1860s when my great-grandparents migrated from the Gdansk/Danzig area to settle in newly opened farmland of the Volhynia area. In Volhynia they stayed long enough to establish not only villages but an infrastructure filled with schools, churchs and business.  They stayed enough years to call Volhynia home. 

Then in the 1930s, Stalin forcibly ‘resettled’ kulaks into Siberia and other remote areas. (See Red Stone)  A few years later, family in pieces, my mom and her siblings crossed the border from Soviet Ukraine into East Prussia (explored in Broken Stone). Later, in 1945, she crossed the border back into the USSR.(Crow Stone) A 1947 travel visa let her travel to Soviet-occupied Frankfurt an der Oder. She then needed to do an illegal border crossing into Western Europe, where she registered as an official ‘refugee’. 

She had no documents to prove her birthplace. The refugee category allowed her to obtain eventual German citizenship and further, an opportunity to immigrate to Canada. It took her until 1964 to get her Canadian citizenship. (A scene in my new book!) She was so proud of her Canadian document and of her new passport.  


I cross international borders without much worry except about the carry-on liquids I carry.  Passports are keys to safety, to opportunity and to new lives.  As long as there are borders, we will need passports to unlock the gate.

Now our country has new waves of immigrants, wanting only peace and freedom. Seems simple.


 

Fitting In

Just read Call Me Al, written by Wali Shah and Eric Walters. It’s a middle grade novel exploring the immigrant experience in Canada. Having spent the past seven years meeting with newcomers as an ‘English language facilitator,’ I can appreciate the challenges of adjusting to Canadian culture.  I grew up in an immigrant family and know what it’s like to live in two worlds. Call Me Al was told from an insightful and captivating young person’s perspective.

 

Wali Shah, author and spoken word poet

Wikipedia image

Like any young person, 13-year-old Ali desperately wants to fit in, hence his name Ali, becomes Al. This reminded me of an incident working in an after-school science program, a few years back. We had Syrian refugees in the grade three class and I was unsure of one boy’s name. “Just call him Mohammed,” one white boy shouted. “My dad says they all have the same name.” Like skin colour, names matter when you’re a kid … they can label you as different. 

While I didn’t have to deal with the challenges of racism, back in the sixties I had to deal with the post-war stigma of having German parents. My father had been in the Luftwaffe and still had a rough, military exterior. My mother … well, we dismissed her messed up past as too confusing … something I’ve tried to make up for with my novels. 

'Gangsta'-posing at Anita Daher's potluck
May, 2023
with the award-winning & prolific
Eric Walters

In Call Me Al, Ali needs to please his self-sacrificing Pakistani parents who expect him to become a doctor. Turns out that at 13, Ali has emotional and social needs that can’t be neatly resolved with perfect math scores. 

Without giving too much away, the novel ends with a compromise. I’m not sure every immigrant child’s story ends so neatly, so happily. But middle-graders might feel empowered by Ali’s story. It’s the kind of novel I wish I had an opportunity to read when I was an awkward grade eight kid, ashamed of her family and living in two worlds. 


About April

My backyard in April

T.S. Eliot, in The Wasteland, called April the cruelest month and I’d have to agree. It’s a month of transition and even change for the better is difficult. Stronger sunlight battles brisker winds. Snow turns to puddles, which return to ice before grudgingly retreating back to puddles, which shrink ever so slowly. Skinny, naked branches thicken with buds and eventually green sprouts emerge in even the shadiest spots. 

April was a cruel month in Europe, back in 1945. Sifting through old magazines I’ve collected over the years, I’m reminded of Nazi atrocities. That April, the Allies were like a spring sun bringing warm winds and exposing Nazi crimes of unbelievable proportions. Charred bodies, ditches filled with corpses, stick-like survivors. Images befitting the cruel month of April. Hitler belongs to April, too. Born April 20, 1889, he shot himself on April 30, 1945. 

Gardelegen Massacre in April, 1945:  CC  Max Stuck

So April is a month of endings, of beginnings, of transition. Ugly, cruel and yet hopeful. I’ll take it one day at a time.

And if this sounds too depressing, I also have fond memories of this month. Of anniversaries, of birthdays and of unexpectedly warm, summer-like days. My favorite April moment: finding pussy willows ... so tenacious, soft and brave. 

April … cruel to be kind?  A lyric from a modern poet. Thanks, Nick Lowe.  Let’s hope the cruelest month will finally be kind to us all. 


A Purple Light

Our city glowed purple this past week thanks to a national epilepsy awareness campaign. A long time friend and member of my writing group, was instrumental in bringing an Epilepsy and Neurosurgery Care unit to our city.  Thanks, Pat. With my own family directly affected by epilepsy I’m well aware of the need for epilepsy treatment facilities. 

It was my family connection to epilepsy that prompted my research into the condition and I used what I learned to write Tainted Amber. In that novel I highlighted the Nazi intolerance to epilepsy and their attempts to sterilize or even murder people with the condition.

What is epilepsy? Surging electrical brain activity that leads to seizures or convulsions.  (Think of an electrical thunder storm).  Modern medicine can monitor electrical surges through EEG. Locating the electrical misfirings can lead to proper medication to control these 'storms'.

CC  https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_uk/8135755109/

How many Canadians are affected by it? About 300,000 (1% of the population) or more than 3 million people worldwide.

Famous people with the condition include: Albert Einstein, Socrates, Charles Dickens and Elton John. 

Thankfully, modern science has found medication that can control unwanted and unexpected seizures. There is no need to sterilize or euthanize people diagnosed with the condition. And with more research, more awareness, more purple light campaigns … we can now support and not stigmatize this seizure disorder. 

Thanks to advocates like my friend, Pat, our city is taking positive steps in that direction. Pat, you look great in purple!



Puzzling Memories

My aunt who inspired 'Marthe' in Crow Stone
Crow Stone was inspired by my mom who died back in 2011 at the age of 92. I’d been collecting her chaotic memories all along, and later put them together into narratives … filling in the missing pieces with background reading and travels … almost like doing a puzzle. As I quoted Kate Morton, last week, I was fulfilling the universal human need to create a narrative.  

A few months after Mom's funeral, I visited her youngest sister who'd been unable to come to the funeral. This aunt lived up in northern BC and passed away the following year.  It was from her that I learned the story about the child she'd fostered during the flight from the Soviet Army in the final months of the war. She claimed that it was this little girl, whom I call ‘Erika’* in the novel, that saved her from my mom’s fate in a POW camp in the Urals. My aunt was 19 in 1945 and looked after little ‘Erika’ until she came to Canada in 1953 after ‘Erika’ had finally reconnected with some of her own family. 

My aunt, date unknown, prob. about 1950

I’d been trying to meet up with ‘Erika’ as I researched the book, to no avail. Imagine my thrill to now finally connect via email. Imagine my surprise to have ‘Erika’ asking me to fill in the details of her early childhood. Imagine my absolute delight to be able to share my book and my research with this woman, now in her early eighties, living in northern Germany. 

from The Guardian, Jan.3, 1947, p.8

I told ‘Erika’ of how much my aunt loved her. My aunt had shared stories about how the surviving East Prussian women and children were forced to work in the newly formed collectives or kolkhozes’.  Those were extremely difficult years. Food was scarce ... hunger and disease was everywhere. But my aunt, smiled with gratitude as she shared, “little ‘Erika’ was our sunshine as she sat amongst the vegetables with us as we worked. She sang to us with her sweet voice and gave us so much happiness.”

To be able to share this memory with the real ‘Erika’ makes me so very happy. Of course, I sent her a copy of Crow Stone. I know it’s not the factual truth … it’s not a memoir. But the magic of story transforms facts into emotional truths that can be just as valid. 

It's making these sort of connections that makes my writing and research efforts seem so worthwhile.


*See Crow Stone, pages 91, 98 and 101 for mention of Erika

welcome sign of collective or kolkhoz in the former USSR
from my own collection
'





Reading Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s one of my favourite novelists. Her latest novel, Homecoming, had been on my TBR pile for a while. I’ve really lost myself in the worlds of two of her earlier novels, The Forgotten Garden and The Clockmaker’s Daughter. This new one, Homecoming, however, was not quite as compelling. The pace seemed plodding, the characters and POVs too confusing, and the convoluted plot line more irritating than intriguing.  What saved it was the writing!

I love Kate Morton’s writing. Her novels evoke mood through a neglected natural setting. Besides nature gone wild, there are the inevitable neglected homes in her stories ... revealing complicated pasts. I’m reminded of the ruins of East Prussia inside modern Kaliningrad.  Here in Canada, ruins are sparse. If we have any ruins, they're soon razed for new development or burned by homeless people keeping warm. 

Besides nature and history, Morton’s ardent love of books and old things infuses her work. She braids mystery, nature and human frailty into compelling narratives. 

Here are some of my favourite lines from Homecoming

About story:

 “…the first and firmest human addiction is to narrative.” (p. 116)

About walking:

“…to walk was to think, to think was to breathe, to breathe was to stay alive.” (p. 193)

About home:

“Home, she’d realized, wasn’t a place or a time or a person, though it could be any and all of those things: home was a feeling, a sense of being complete.” (p. 543)

About time:

“…a sense of timelessness, of nature, older and more pervasive than anything human beings and their histories could generate, grew thick and warm around them.”  (p.544)








about travelling

Me and Lenin in Zhytomyr in 2004
People travel for different reasons. Some, of course, travel because of work. But many deal with the stresses of new time zones, busy airports, and passport controls by choice.  Some travel to escape … and any random destination will do. Some travel to re-connect … with people, times, or places. Some travel to get lost. Some travel to find themselves. Some travel because of weather. In spite of our warm houses, warm cars and layered clothes, we still wimp out on the cold. Some travel to relax in spite of  luxuries in their own homes. Some travel for adventure. Some travel, not by choice … some are exiled. 

Others don’t travel much at all. Like me. I’ve been restrained by finances and family health issues. Past family travel carefully avoided the big (expensive) spectacles of the world and focused on local, nature-centred camping trips. 

As I youngster, I had my first suitcase at age three … a round blue-with-white trim affair, with a slot for an umbrella. I was sent on a journey as my parents prepared for the arrival of my only sibling. I guess that trip made me an exile.

sunset in Bucerias
As a student, I traveled to escape and find myself … doing the requisite year-long backpacking trek through Europe. Later, the few trips I managed to squeeze in while raising kids focused on exploring my roots. 

This last trip was the first time, in 40 years, that I went on a trip for fun. Holidaying in Mexico, last month, was weird. I felt strangely out of step with my fellow tourists. Hedonistic even. This is what people do? Eat in restaurants, have drinks, buy stuff they don’t need and get too much sun? Just for the fun of it? 

It doesn’t explain why I’ve booked a holiday in Mexico for next year. Practice, perhaps? I need to practice. But mostly, I promised my family that I’d share. After all, they were house-sitting, care-giving, and dog-walking while I was soaking up the sun. 

Truth be told, I find reading to be an awesome way to travel. Right now, I’m in southern Australia, soaking up the drama of a Kate Morton historical novel. Love how she time travels between present and past. 

And for me, time-travel is the best kind of travel!





Déjà vu

I recently learned about Ksenia Karelina’s arrest in Russia. According to CNN, “Ksenia, a dual citizen, went to Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister. She has been accused of treason for allegedly donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US.”

She became an American citizen in 2021 but Russia does not accept dual citizenship and she now faces a potential 20 year prison sentence if found guilty. Treason? Because of a fifty-dollar donation supporting Ukraine? Boggles the mind. Putin’s re-creating a Stalin terror-state.

My grandfather was found guilty of treason back in 1937.  That was under Stalin. A person charged under Article 58 was considered an ‘enemy of the people’ and a counter-revolutionary.   The law was in place until 1958 under Nikita Krushev. That was the same year my surviving relatives received letters of ‘rehabilitation’ from the Soviet government, entitling them to pensions. 

With Yuri, translator who helped me peruse a thick file
involving my grandfather in the secret police files/Zhytomyr

Modern Russia’s version of Article 58 is Article 275, updated in April 2023. It defines treason as "espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance rendered to a foreign State, a foreign organization, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation, committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation."

It’s been 20 years since I accessed the secret police files in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. With the help of a translator, I read through my grandfather’s file along with the files of his brothers. On thin pink papers, I read of the money he received from family and a church group in Poland and East Prussia. Eight DM (Deutsch Marks) in July, 1934, 11 DM (Deutsch Marks) in November, 1934, another 8 DM in April, 1934. A pittance of money to help him survive as he struggled to get an exit visa out of the country.  A pittance was all it took to charge him with treason. Translated, from his file:

Executions were carried out in the basement of this building
- former NKVD headquarters in Zhytomyr

 
“Found guilty on August 28 and  condemned to death.  This should be carried out on September 19, 1937 at 3:13.” 

And now, a young woman, accused of treason for sending a Ukrainian charity fifty-one dollars. Déjà vu, indeed!


What I'm Reading



This book, Nancy Drew and Company, came out in 1997 so its perspective is a tad dated. Nevertheless, as a first book I've read about the phenomena of Nancy Drew, it was insightful. I appreciated learning about series fiction in general and its influence on 20th century readers. I was an avid Nancy Drew fan and remember the stigma of being one. Not surprised to learn that it wasn't until the mid 1970s that the NYC public library would carry the series. Forever young, Nancy Drew was a role model for me and this book confirmed that she was also a role models for millions of other young readers.

And now, because I'm going on a trip, I've pulled out a book I found this past summer in a Little Free Library ... Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel.  Not sure what sort of internet connection I will have ...  and don't want to risk sand on my electronics.  I won't be gone long ... two weeks. But I've suddenly got 'ants in my pants' and need to get out of dodge!


puzzle pieces

What I’ve tried to do through past stories is shine a bit of light on forgotten lives. Take my grandmother, Matilde, age 41. She was put into an unmarked grave in Yaya, Siberia back in February of 1931. 

Then there’s her youngest son, Jonathan, a toddler who died along the way … left somewhere along the train tracks crisscrossing Russia. No birth or death certificates to mark their lives. Faded photographs and confused memories. Even red granite stones become anonymous over time. 

My grandmother with Jonathan on her lap

Current temperature in Yaya, Siberia is minus ten. Keeping track of the weather in Yaya is a way for me to stay in touch with my grandmother. Crazy? I know. I still hope to visit the town which orphaned my mom and her siblings. To get there I need a two-day train trip east from Moscow to Novosibirsk, and then change trains for another four-hour ride. Maybe, someday.

In the meantime, there are two other youngsters I’ve been trying to remember. My father’s two sons from his first marriage were born during the war … perhaps in Posen (now Poznan, Poland) The stigma of his subsequent divorce after five years' Soviet imprisonment, of being German, and the ubiquitous nature of death at the end of the war—means their short lives … like the lives of countless other young children … flow into an anonymous ocean of tears. For our family, their lives belonged to dark closets and forbidden photo

My father with his first son in his arms

albums. I’m still searching for a way to weave their brief lives into my stories. With only vague clues to their histories, my imagination meanders.


Did unremembered lives really live? Of course, they did. And we, the story-makers, try our best to recreate life from the lifeless.  It’s like putting a puzzle together without a picture for reference. 

This post was inspired by a Eurasian Knot podcast I listened to last night while dog-walking. While their conversation focused on Mennonite repression, my family’s German Baptists/Lutherans shared similar stories. 


Curious, Kind, and Brave


Absolutely thrilled that my new manuscript, “Waltraut” (working title) has been accepted for publication. This book was so much fun to write, that it barely felt like I was working. I loved playing with my protagonist, Waltraut. She’s been a good friend to me over the last few years. Re-visiting childhood memories like Saturday German school, summer church camp or the show-home dream, put me into a youthful headspace, decades away from today. 

Waltraut also reminded me of the challenges that come with being in two worlds … the stress of fitting into a Canadian school and community. Whether it’s the obvious issue of language, or the subtler issues of culture including food, hair, clothes and parental expectations …there can be huge demands on a young person in a new country. The issues Waltraut faced back in the 1960s, still exist today. Immigration—due to war—is a current affair.

What I want readers of this middle grade novel to discover is the empowerment of being themselves … of embracing and loving who they are … of speaking their truths. Diversity is a strength. We’re all unique, all different and yet we’re all on the same journey. To be you is not a noun … not a reflection in the mirror defined by hair, skin colour or clothes. It’s not a language to speak or read, or a food to cook and eat.  To be you is to be a verb … to accept, to share, to learn, to be a friend. 

I thank Nancy Drew for inspiring me to strive to be curious, kind, and brave!

p.s. More information about my new publisher and release date will be coming soon. But I just couldn’t wait to express some of my excitement! 


what's in a word?

Raphael Lemkin
Having spent most of the last ten years immersed in researching 20th century violence that involved my own family, it’s disconcerting to view this new century’s headlines offering up real-time atrocities. Last night I listened to CBC Ideas, which broadcast parts of the Genocide debate speeches at the Hague. 

Definition of genocide:  a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part. It does not include political groups or so called “cultural genocide”.  The word, created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, didn’t get legal status until 1946. 

Memorial to drowning victims in Yantarny
This month, 78 years later, the Hague's international court dithers about its application as vulnerable people suffer … ironically, being killed by a people once themselves almost destroyed by genocide. 

January is also the month when more than 10,000 Jewish women, from up to thirty of Stuffhof’s external camps in East Prussia, were forced to march along the Baltic’s amber coast to the mine in Palmnicken (now Yantarny). Only 3000 made it. Instead of being stuffed into one of the amber mining shafts, as originally planned, the emaciated prisoners were forced into the icy Baltic.   

The Baltic near Yantarny on a summer's day

I’ve blogged about this particular atrocity before, but it’s an event that I can’t help but remember every January here in Winnipeg, where it’s cold and windy. I’m grateful for the grace of life that gives me the comforts of warm clothes, food and home. 

While these Jewish prisoners were dying, controlled by a heartless Nazi leadership, the East Prussian civilians were about to embark on their own trek of cold and suffering. 

January is a cruel month … why can’t we all just have a group hug, tend our home fires and read a good book?

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” ― Albert Einstein

Reading and writing books, listening to others share their stories … it’s the way towards peace. 

Amber Mine entrance 







 





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