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.


Plyometric Exercises

by Christine on May 17th, 2010

filed under Exercise, General Information

Plyometrics is great for endurance and strength!What are plyometric exercises?

Okay all you Biggest Loser fans – you know how every season Bob and Jillian make their contestants jump onto the top of the (ungodly high) black step stool?  That short, furious burst of energy used to fuel that (super-scary) jump is called a plyometric exercise.

Actually, plyometric exercises are a high-intensity training technique designed to produce fast, powerful movements. The most common plyometric exercises are hops, jumps, and bouncing movements.   Plyometrics can help build strength, endurance, speed, and muscle.

Plyometric exercise are also terrific plateau-busters. If you are stuck in a weight-loss stallmate, consider taking up a plyometric exercise routine for a week, or check out a high-intensity interval training exercise (CLICK HERE for more information).

How do I get started using plyometric exercises?

Clap pushups

  • This is pretty self-explanatory. Do a regular pushup, but at the top you launch yourself into the air, clapping your hands underneath you.

Box Jumps

  • Just like in the Biggest Loser, stand behind a box or stepping stool set to the desired height. Swinging your arms and bending your knees, jump onto the stool.  Keep your knees bent when you land. Step down and repeat.
  • You can also do this same exercise by jumping onto the 2nd step on a stairwell.  This is a good at-home alternative if you do not have a safe box or stool to use.
  • You can increase the intensity by holding onto freeweights in each hand.
  • You can increase the intensity by increasing the height of the box or stool.

Vertical Box Jumps

  • Stand behind a box or stool, as in the exercise above.  Put your right foot on the box.  Shift your weight forward, onto that right foot, and use that right leg to launch yourself into the air. Land in the same position as you started. Switch starting legs and repeat.

Lateral Bounds

  • Standing in “ready” position (knees bent, arms parallel in front of your like you’re holding downhill ski poles), jump to the side as far as you can, landing softly on your leading foot. Keep your knee bent and supple. Straighten yourself and regain your balance. Repeat by bounding onto your other foot. Repeat.
  • A variation of the lateral bound is to move at a 45 degree angle to the side. (If you are facing due “north” and if you jump due “east” in a typical lateral bound, then this would have you jumping “northeast.”
  • You can increase the intensity of this by adding freeweights in each hand.

Burpee Variation #1

  • Start by standing tall then drop to your hands in front of you in push-up form. Stand up as quickly as you can. Make sure that you don’t drop your knees and bang them on the floor. Make sure you land with your elbows bent.

Burpee Variation #2

  • Star t by standing upright, feet together, hands in the air by your ears. Bend down, and jump your feet backwards so that you are in plank position. Jump your feet up inbetween your hands again. Stand up into starting position. Repeat.

Mountain Climber

  • Get down into plank position.  Jump your right foot up in between your hands.  Now jump it back to start, but at the same time jump your left foot up in between your hands. Keep your butt down for an increased intensity.

Jump Rope

  • That’s it. Just jump rope. Any variation of jump-roping is a form of plyometric exercise.  No need for a description here!


  • Starting by standing with both feet together. Jump forward onto right hand foot (your left leg should be off the ground), lunging down into a deep lunge on the right leg.  Step backwards to starting position. Repeat on your left leg.
  • You can increase this exercise by holding freeweights at shoulder-height.

Tuck Jumps

  • Start with feet together, knees comfortably bent, arms in front of you. Swinging your arms to help with momentum, jump as high as you can, and tuck your feet under you (kick yourself in the butt if you must!). When you land, your knees should be supple and bent.
  • Add freeweights for an added intensity.

How safe are plyometric exercises?

There are varying opinions in the sports medicine fields about whether plyometrics are safe or not. The American College of Sports Medicine states that “plyometric training is safe, beneficial and fun activity for children and adolescents provided that the program is properly designed and supervised.” The American Council on Fitness and the National Strength and Conditioning Association are also in favor of plyometric exercise.

That being said, there is risk for injury if you don’t follow certain safety precautions. I wince every time those Biggest Loser trainers make their trainees make that leap onto that high pedestal. The most important is creating a safe landing technique.  A safe technique should involve landing on the toes, rolling to the heels, and keeping your knees soft and supple. Avoid twisting or turning at the knee because this could cause your knee to sprain or pop out.

Before embarking on a plyometric exercise routine, it is recommended that you be able to squat 1.5 times your bodyweight in order to have strong enough knees to support plyometric jumping.

Videos to watch

Confused about my descriptions? Want more ideas? See what I’m talking about by watching these videos on Youtube:

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