Passing on the memories of Grandma Zena

by Christine on September 10th, 2010

filed under Christine's Life Updates, General Information, Short Stories

I come from a family of spectacularly strong individuals. While my father’s mother was strong in a subtle, “raised five children on an income of next to nothing” kind of post-depression way, my mother’s mother was strong in a more brutally obvious way. I talked about her the other day in this post, and her influence on my life was profound.

My grandma Zinaida (We called her Zena, like “Zena Warrior Princess”) was born in northern Russia in the 1920s. She had 24 brothers and sisters, and she was the middle child. Her father was the mayor of a small down, but when political parties switched in Russia, he was taken to Siberia. She remembers the day when he was taken away; she told me it was the first time she had ever seen an automobile before. Big black cars drove down their long dirt driveway. The men waited as my grandfather hugged my grandmother goodbye. Then he got into the car and she never saw him again.

She was sixteen years old when World War II broke out.  She recalled to me one time being taken prisoner in the Russian army, and having her butt-length hair shaved off. She said she cried that day, but I suspect that the atrocities that she witnessed thereafter made her cry for very different reasons. As a 16 year old girl, she was put to work in the Army, finding bombs that hadn’t detonated on contact with the ground, and using her skinny fingers, pulling the plug on them.  She recalled another time, being so exhausted that she fell asleep in a muddy ditch. She woke up finding a bomb that had rolled down the hill and landed on her lap, still “hot.”

Eventually she was captured by the Nazis, and she was put into a work camp. I don’t know how long she was in the camp, or where.  Most likely she didn’t know the answers, herself.  Eventually she escaped (how she escaped is still a mystery to us), and traveled around Europe, hiding in peoples’ attics, working as a nurse for underground movements, such as the Belgium Underground.

She was captured again, and this time put into a concentration camp. There she met my grandfather. Dmitri was also from Russia, except from the south, near the Black Sea. For a while he was in Italy, work for various political movements. There my grandfather made some important contacts that would help them get to the United States after the War. Together they escaped from the concentration camp and lived in hiding as best they could.

When the war ended, my grandparents were in Germany. They had no place to go; they couldn’t go back to Russia because of political instability. They were Displaced People, or people with no nationality and no homes. Germany had thousands of these people left in their country after the war, and the only way to house them was by converting the former concentration camps into Displacement Camps. In one of these camps in Stuttgart, Germany, they had three children, including my mother.

My mother lived in this converted concentration camp for about the first 10 years of her life. (We have a theory that this time in the camp has had health implications on her later in life. Both she and my aunt have skin cancer. Doctors have presumed that this rare type of cancer may have come from nuclear testing, which was happening within and adjacent to the camps in Stuttgart. As young children they would have played in the dirt, and sanitary conditions were poor in the camps.)  During this period my grandparents worked as musicians in local bars. My grandfather played the accordion and my grandmother played the balalaika and sang. Their payment? Scraps of food off the table at the end of the night. They lived this way for 10 years or so.

They tried once to get to the United States, saving up every bit of money they possibly could. However, when the time came to get on the plane, my grandmother was so malnourished that she failed the physical exam.  They lost their money on the tickets and had to stay in Germany.

They were determined to make it to America, and my grandfather went to Italy to purchase a new last name. You see, during this period rich families would sponsor Jewish families to come to the USA. My grandfather purchased a more Jewish-sounding last name, as opposed to his Russian-sounding last name. Sure enough, they got sponsorship. Alexandra Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, paid for my family to come to the country. (Alexandra sponsored many families to come to the USA, including the famous composer Rachmaninoff.)

This is really when my mother started to experience some language problems. In Germany, they spoke Russian because they were living in a camp with other Russian families. However, when they came to the country, my grandparents lived in an old farmhouse (no running water, no power) with a German family. So they switched to German, and my mother had to learn a whole new language. (My grandmother knew 14 languages fluently by this point, having learned while avoiding capture in Europe.)  My family hated Ohio so much they went to the nearest consulate to find out how to go back to the displacement camp in Germany. The consulate told them that, because they were people with no home and no country, they couldn’t leave. They were stuck in the USA, and they hated it.

They eventually moved to Chicago, and that’s where my mother was thrown into public school for the first time, around age 10, and the first time she had to learn English. At the same time, away from the German family, my grandparents switched back to speaking Russian, further confusing my poor mum!  My grandparents were incredibly poor; they lived in a terrible neighborhood (Humboldt Park) and worked as janitors. They worked very hard, all their lives.

My grandfather died when I was very young, and I don’t remember him very much. He used to cheat my father in card games, and drink Vodka like it was water. I remember he always smelled like cigarettes and his eyes were as bushy as caterpillars. My grandmother just passed away a few short years ago. I often tried to get her to talk about the past, but because so much of her past were filled with bad memories, she kept them to herself. I tried numerous time to get her to tell if she was Jewish or Christian, but she absolutely refused to share that information. She suffered from a constant fear of government all her life.  However, she loved people. Oh, I mean she LOVED people. She would talk with anybody and everybody — which was easy, considering she knew so many languages. She told me hundreds of times that the German people as a whole were the kindest and most loving people she’s ever met.

My grandmother wasn’t a great cook, but I’ll tell you what, she made the most amazing salad you’d ever meet in your life.  My salad dressing is similar, but it won’t ever be the same as Grandma’s.  She had her own vegetable garden and oh, somehow my memories of grandma are synonymous with fresh veggies!

And that woman could eat! She wouldn’t let anything go to waste. She’d even eat fish bones. Even if there were leftovers on someone else’s plate, she would eat them, too! My mother used to slap her wrist and tell her, “Ma! It’s not the war anymore! You can get more later if you want some!”

I eventually learned a few Russian words, and I’d say things in a low man’s voice like, “Shut up you old hag!” (in Russian) that would make her absolutely HOWL with laughter!  When she was in the nursing home, she used to tell us old jokes, basically comparing Hitler’s mustache with a big smear of poop. Oh, how Grandma loved her poop jokes! She’s laugh so hard and for so long that she’d cry and get the hiccups.

I always keep a photo of my family, the day they arrived in the USA, to remind me where I come from and just how far the family has come. I try to use it as a reminder that when I’m having petty problems in my life, like if I’m feeling fat and ugly (I can guarantee you that my grandmother never sat around wondering if she was fat or ugly), that my family has overcome real obstacles. It helps put things in perspective sometimes.

I miss you babushka.  I’ll always be your “little Chrishinka.”

Two days ago I became a “Second-cousin.”  My cousin (from this side of the family_ had her first baby, a health boy named Seth! I’m thrilled! My brother doesn’t have any children, so this is as close as I’ll get to being an “Auntie.” I am so excited to have Seth in the family, and I am hoping to spend my winter putting together a memory book of old photos of our grandparents (his great-parents) so he can remember them and know what a strong family we come from. He will never have gotten a chance to meet to meet Grandpa Dmitri and Grandma Zena, but I want their memory to live on for a long, long time.

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  • TessieRose

    What an amazing story. I can’t imagine the horrors that they lived through, what a testament to their will and strength. Thanks for sharing.

  • Heather

    What a wonderful story. I truely think that coming from strong women shape who we are! Boy the Duggars have nothing on your great gma!

  • Dr. Fatty

    Very Cool post and I love the picture. Congrats on the addition to your family!

  • islandbandit

    thanks so much for sharing her amazing story. it’s important every now and then to get a reminder of just how trivial many of our problems are in comparison.

  • Sarah-fogler

    Christine – love this post… I can’t imagine growing up like that and how blessed you are to know her stories! And BTW … you scared me a bit about the camping experience! Yikes… I’m nowhere NEAR the hike/canoe-to-camp… give me a car and a cot and it’ll be a good start for me! (lol)

  • Patrick

    Family history is something to be remembered and passed on. I have a family tree that covers about 150 years, I wish I details even farther back but I do not. I share stories of our past with the kids when opportunity arises.

    Your story is quite amazing and you are wise to use it for self reflection in maintaining perspective as to what a bad day is really like. Make copies of the photo and store them safely away.

    Oh, and congrats to your family in it’s newest arrial!

    Have a great weekend!