by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

Mama's war: echoes from the past

The article below was written in 1986 and won third place in the Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Author's Association Non-Fiction Writing Competition that year. It was published in a slightly different format in "Echoes from Ukrainian Canada," a special issue of the Canadian literary journal Prairie Fire, (Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn 1992).

Sofia Mazepa Paszczak died peacefully and painlessly on June 9, 1997. In her last year she was no longer as described in this article, but in her version of reality was happy and at peace. This was read by the author, her daughter, at the panakhyda (memorial service).

As I kiss my sleeping children at night, my thoughts involuntarily flash back 40-some years to another mother and child an ocean away. Could I have done as well had I been in her place? Would I have survived the war? I cannot answer. But over the years, as I watch my own children grow, so grows my admiration for my mother. She did survive, paying a great price for that survival. Only now the 50-year-old war is claiming one of its final victims, and chalking up one of its final victories.

When I was a child I listened to my parents and their friends reminisce about the war years. In the early 1950s the new immigrants, the DPs, visited each other often, clinging together for security and companionship in a new land. Playing nearby, I absorbed the stories. They did not seem that strange to me; each was equally weird and scary.

To someone who did not live through it, the adventures of ordinary people during World War II may seem invented. After the premiere of "The Great Escape" in 1963, the film critic of The New York Times wrote that the writers must have made up the story, because it was just too incredible. The newspaper was deluged with letters from furious veterans who had lived through it all and had even stranger stories to tell. Many times I heard my mother sigh that if she had stopped to think of the consequences of her actions, she would have been dead many times over.

When Nazi tanks poured into western Ukraine, then under Polish rule, my mother was 17 years old. When Soviet Russian forces began advancing sometime later, the fear of them was so great that my mother decided to leave home and head west. After what Stalin had done to Ukraine in the previous decades, the Nazis seemed the lesser (and still unknown) of two evils. Even though she went willingly, she joined the over 2 million young Ukrainians who had been corralled in village and city markets and herded onto cattle cars for Germany. These were the Ostarbeiter, the eastern laborers, the forced slave labor of German factories, mines and farms. Along with workers from other occupied lands, they freed the Aryan race for more important service to the fatherland.

Mama was placed on a farm. She was lucky. Factories and railroads got bombed - farms didn't. That's where she met my father, an Ostarbeiter in a dairy. At first their life wasn't so bad; there was plenty to eat and they were in a relatively safe area. But it was not home. My future parents were idealistic, as were most of the other Ukrainian forced laborers. They wanted a free Ukraine, free from Polish, Russian and now German rule.

Soon, in the confusion of war, a Ukrainian underground began operating among these forced exiles. They served as agents, couriers and forgers. False documents were needed to provide them with new identities to facilitate travel throughout the expanding Nazi-occupied territory.

Mama traveled from Germany to Ukraine (by then a German colony) with her new papers. She was petite, beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde. By that time she had learned German so well that the natives were sure she was German, but just couldn't tell from which province. On a few occasions she was almost caught.

Once the military border had changed overnight, and she had the wrong pass. Being found out could have meant execution on the spot. The officer questioned her sharply, but she pleaded ignorance: "I thought this was ALL Germany now, and borders don't matter anymore." With that she even got a ride across the border bridge. Mama could have had it easy by accepting one of the many officers' propositions. But that would have meant disgrace, to herself, her family and her nation.

One vivid recollection of a trip home to her village was of the gallows in the square, with resisters and members of the underground (including a friend) left hanging for days by the Gestapo as an example to others. Mama did spend some time in a labor camp of some kind, and once, only once, mentioned seeing the dogs chase escapees into the woods.

I don't mean to think of Mama's past, but certain things I see or hear immediately remind me of her wartime experiences. In the country, whenever I notice a railroad track, in my mind's eye I see a young woman bending down in the pitch dark to feel the surface of the steel - is the rail smooth or corroded, used or abandoned? She needed to know, because she was in Bavaria on her way to steal her brother out of a stone prison carved into the Alps. He had been imprisoned because of his nationalist anti-Nazi activities; he was one of many.

Mama planned this escape in advance, even writing to her mother back home on a postcard that she would be getting "X" out of prison. She knew that letters were censored, postcards were not. By train, at night, she reached the town. There she even asked passers-by where the caves were located. They told her, and reassured her that "du bist deutsch, du findest alles" - you are German, you'll find everything. My details are sketchy, but Mama gained entry, slipping in via the rivulet running through the center of the stone floor and hiding under a bunk. She even remembered she was irritated that her coat got dirty.

Because of the remoteness of the area, security was lax. Mama got her brother and his compatriots out, and had false papers and some clothes ready for them as they dispersed into the night. My uncle had to travel back with Mama, because he knew no German at all. On the train, full of military personnel, he placed his head in Mama's lap, and she covered his forehead with a scarf. They were a couple and he had a terrible headache, so Mama spoke for both of them when necessary. The few times Mama told me this story she ended it by shaking her head: "It was crazy, it was suicidal. I can't believe I did it, but I had to."

When Mama still talked about the war, I was too young or too involved with other things to listen more intently or to ask questions. Now, there is no way I can ask, and so much that I still need to learn.

I know very little about my older sister, my parents' first baby, who was born probably in 1943. Often Mama had to travel with the baby on trains that no longer had any windows. She thinks the infant got sick from the cold trains, and what Mama believes was her cold breast milk. Only Germans and Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans in occupied territories) were permitted access to medical assistance. For the Untermenschen (subhumans, the Slavs) there was no help. This time, it was too late for false papers.

My sister died of pneumonia at 14 months. Mama's only tangible memory of her first-born, Lesia, is a brown photograph of a beautiful baby girl, dressed all in white, in a white coffin. I don't even know where she is buried. Mama lost touch with reality then, wandering Bavarian city streets with an almost-shaved head.

The war did not end for her in 1945. The rest of her family was still in Ukraine. She and my father could not return because they had been in the underground, working against two enemies, one now defeated, one victorious. They and I lived in a DP (displaced persons) camp for four years, until a new land an ocean away welcomed us.

Only after Stalin's death in 1953 was postal contact resumed with the Soviet Union. Both my parents then learned, within a week of each other, that their remaining parents had died in the post-war years. It was a delayed mourning. Mama's beloved younger brother, Mykhanio the doctor, had been released from Siberian imprisonment only to die in his mother's arms upon return. My grandmother died soon after.

Mama never got over the traumatic final separation from her family. She lost her family and homeland to Stalin and Hitler.

When I was in high school, Mama finally fell apart. The war came back to haunt her - the bombs, the voices, the dogs, the gallows, the officers and her baby. She was hospitalized a few times, underwent electrical shock treatments, and has been on medication ever since.

The pills help only so much; she is still not all there. It's worst when she forgets to take her medicine, and yet gets so offended if we remind her. Her mind races, she thinks that everything everyone does is wrong, and even evil, and she is obsessed with the minutest details of all our lives. If only we would listen to her and do things Her way - we, she, and life itself would be just fine. Why, if her mother were alive, she would listen to her every word, because her mother was always right, her mother was a saint, her words were pure gold. If only. ...

Mama's condition will not improve. We have to struggle very hard to maintain our own sanity in dealing with her. Soon, she will find her peace. For now, when she's not ranting and raving and worrying, Mama sits with her arms folded across her chest. There's a grim half-smile on her lips, as her unblinking eyes either stare or dart about, seeing something wonderful or terrible from long, long ago.

It's all right. Mama has seen more than enough reality for one lifetime.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 19, 1998, No. 29, Vol. LXVI

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