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 


can revenge ever be justified?

I’ve been reading with intense interest, Nicole Eaton’s 2023 release, German Blood, Slavic Soil, How Nazi Königsberg became Soviet Kaliningrad. Eaton’s academic style makes for slow reading, but it’s jam-packed with information. Her thorough study showcases what I fictionalized in Crow Stone.  My mother’s time in East Prussia ended with her deportation to the Urals in the spring of 1945, but her sisters stayed behind. They would have witnessed the renaming of Königsberg to Kaliningrad in July of 1946, staying in the Soviet-occupied enclave until their forced expulsion in 1948. 

As I prepared for my 2019 trip to Kaliningrad, I asked a surviving cousin about her time in East Prussia after the war. She shared some place names Pillkallen (which I wrote about here), but it was difficult because I didn’t even know what questions to ask. Eaton’s book might have helped me understand the situation better. 

Mikhail Kalinin
I’d read several memoirs written by East Prussian survivors, but nothing that summarized the events with objective detachment. Eaton’s research confirms, what many memoirists shared:  East Prussia received the bulk of Soviet revenge. They were not liberating the civilians from Nazi rule, they were punishing them for being fascist. Eaton writes, “East Prussia, as the first German territory the soldiers entered and a place where so many refugees were intercepted during their flight, suffered the worst violence of any German conquered territory, including even Berlin.” (page 129). 

Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad in honour of one of Stalin's buddies who'd died earlier in the year. Changing names, changing identities. The final act of ownership.

With current world conflicts raging, it’s again revenge not liberation that seems to be fuelling violence. Can revenge ever be justified? 

For more about how Königsberg became Kaliningrad, watch this on Youtube.

the power of attitude

I started off the year listening to Viktor Frankl’s short essay collection, Yes, to Life. It caught my attention because I’ve been following the alarming trajectory of Alexei Navalny’s life. How does one stay positive in spite of horrendous circumstances? 

As a Holocaust survivor, Frankl knew that attitude is the one thing that cannot be taken from a person who’s lost health, freedom, dignity and family. 

In this book, Frankl posits crisis as offering opportunity. The Chinese word for crisis includes the word opportunity. 

Like Eve in that metaphorical Paradise, we always have a choice.  I need to remind myself, again and again, that it’s not strength that creates power … it’s courage. 

I also appreciated Frankl's thoughts on collective guilt. Like Thomas Mann, in his 1945 BBC radio broadcast,  Frankl says that we are liable for collective actions of a society even if we were not personally responsible. 

CC by Dmitry Aleshkovskiy 

Alexei Navalny, Viktor Frankl and countless unseen, untold people continue to generate hope throughout our messed-up world.  May our own acts of courage empower Alexei Navalny, as he continues to Say Yes to Life. 

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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-...