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THE PAIN OF SEVENTEEN
If the comforting passage of time, coupled with God’s gentle mercies, kindly erases the tragic memories of my life, even so, June 29, 1938, will still remain the one particular day that I will never forget as long as I live. I was seventeen years old, and destiny was coming, whether I liked it or not.
When I awoke that morning, I think I already knew. In my heart, or maybe it was the pit of my stomach, I sensed there would be something out of the ordinary about this day. It was an eerie premonition, something you could unmistakably identify but not necessarily explain. Just in my waking up, the day already felt strangely surreal and separate from all others. It was an unusually splendid morning. The entire sky was uncommon, painted a crystal clear blue, with no clouds, and I felt oddly euphoric. And in the midst of the otherwise chaotic circumstances surrounding this time in my life, this day seemed filled with hope and promise, and I couldn’t wait to get it started.
Peering out the window of our second-floor apartment in Gorky’s American Village, I felt the warm and deceptively soothing rays of the Russian summer sunshine on my skin. I was eager to get outside, to meet my best friend, Maria, for a tennis match. I was surging with adrenaline and expectancy. My body, rather than my mind, was happy, perhaps outside of itself. And happy was not an easy thing to be in Russia, in those unpredictably turbulent days, when confusing changes were occurring all around us.
Through no choice of my own, Russia had become my home, although in my mind and in my heart, and sometimes even in my words, I still referred to it as a foreign country. This was not America, where I was born, and no matter how long I stayed, I simply did not belong here. This was not my true home! Here in Gorky, we feared that anything could happen at any moment, and no one ever really knew what to expect from one minute to the next. I speedily ate a very light breakfast, mainly to satisfy my mother’s demands, then grabbed my tennis racket and hurriedly kissed Mama good-bye, nearly tripping over her feet as I jolted down the stairs to meet Maria.
The brick wall and empty lot of an abandoned storefront around the corner from our tenement was a perfect place to practice tennis by myself or when Maria could not play. We had planned to meet there that morning and then walk to the nearby tennis courts together. She hadn’t arrived yet, so I decided to stretch and loosen up on my own. Maria was eighteen–a beautiful, green-eyed Ukrainian girl who lived in our village because her father and older brother also worked in the automobile factory with my father. She was an excellent athlete and competitor, a renowned young gymnast in her hometown, and now a topnotch tennis player here in the village. We enjoyed each other’s company and athletic competitiveness immensely. In fact, Maria was the only other girl my age in the entire village whose love for sports and general athletic prowess rivaled mine. I’m quite sure that’s why we got along so well. Here in Gorky, Soviet sports had become my life. Athletic competition and organized sports were highly esteemed in Russia and taken very seriously. This suited me! Since early childhood back in Detroit, I had been raised to be athletic and physical, and my nature was to be competitive in everything. Maria and I were highly touted swimmers for the Gorky region, having won several district and regional competitions together, and we were now ranked high in the national statistics. She swam the fastest 100- and 200-meter backstroke I had ever seen. She was absolutely phenomenal. I swam the best freestyle and butterfly sprint events in our region. Competitive sports made a positive place for us within this unfamiliar society. Russia was a place where we felt free to excel. But today was not a competition; we planned a day of relaxation, a day to dream of the future, a day for fun. My best friend and I were going to play tennis.
Maria soon showed up, and we began to chitchat, volleying back and forth against the wall, talking and giggling about school and sports and, of course, boys. Our voices made a little rhythm with the tapping rackets, the bouncing tennis balls, and the warm summer wind rustling the leaves overhead. I remember thinking what an absolutely perfect day this was. It was about ten o’clock. My papa was at work in the factory, Mama was at home doing her chores, and I planned to spend time with her later in the afternoon.
Mama was actually my best friend, and Maria came next. I always enjoyed the time I spent relaxing and talking with my mother, because she had an unassuming sort of tranquility about her that made you want to be around her. She had an inner peace and a silent strength that simply refused to be managed by outside circumstances. I counted on her for stability in the confusing world in which we lived. My mother’s gaze drew you in with piercingly light blue, nearly violet eyes. But more than her eyes, it was her heart she was giving you. It was her spirit that always drew you in without effort. When she took my hand in hers, there were no more problems and no more worries. She made you feel that everything would be okay. And that was difficult here in Gorky, to be sure. My papa’s work was hard, and for seven years we had been cut off from our American home. But my mama was something else. I always wanted to be just like her.
That summer day Maria and I were planning to play tennis for an hour or so, have a good workout, and then maybe go down to the river, the Oka, for a swim. Afterward I would come back home, help Mama with the chores, and wait for Papa to come home from work. We’d have dinner together, I’d bring him his pipe, and Mama would make him some coffee. Night after night we’d sit and listen to him worry and complain about problems that agitated him so much at the factory, the things he could not change. My father was an idealist at heart, and change was part of his very nature. He was in constant torment about what he saw at work: the organizational, bureaucratic management “nonsense,” as he liked to say, in the factory. He would shake his head as he recounted the injustices he experienced at work, but then he would reassure us that a better day was coming, just ahead, on the horizon. “Just wait. You’ll see. It won’t be like this forever. I promise,” he’d say, and I always believed him.
Sometimes he would read to me from one of our favorite books–Black Beauty or Treasure Island–and Mama would sit and smile, taking it all in. She enjoyed her family more than anything, and she was always trying to make life better for her husband. I had grown accustomed to these evenings. They were really no more complicated than that. We had made our own kind of adjustment to living in Russia, but beneath it all, I knew something was intrinsically wrong. I just didn’t know how much.
Maria and I hit the tennis ball around and laughed hysterically about a boy named Boris, a Czech, from our high school. She was telling me about something crazy he did in class the day before, when she suddenly stopped in midsentence and almost dropped her racket. She stood as if paralyzed, looking past me toward my house. She whispered, “Margo, a car just pulled up in front of your building… I thought I saw your father in it.” My first thought was, A car? Really? I didn’t understand why Papa would be home from work at this time, and I certainly didn’t understand why he would be in a car or why a car would even be here. I was puzzled; automobiles were not a common sight in our village, except when there was trouble or something out of the ordinary. But I turned and saw the ominous-looking black sedan in front of our house, and then I saw its back door opening. I knew something was wrong–terribly, terribly wrong. And I knew my papa was in the car. I stood there for a moment and stared, unable to move.
Maria looked at my face, threw her arms around my neck, and began to cry. “Oh, Margo, not your father,” she said in my ear. It was as if she already knew something I did not.
Maria was eighteen, going on thirty. Her mother had died under mysterious circumstances just a year earlier, and before that, her grandparents had been murdered during the Bolshevik Revolution. She was already more familiar with pain than I, and she carried a maturity beyond her years. They say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” Maria, despite our relative closeness in age, was already stronger than I was.
A strange man in a dark gray uniform stepped out of the car first and then reached back inside to pull my father out by his arm. Running toward them, I screamed, “Papa! Papa!” I saw the man grab my father’s wrist and force him around the car, where another man got out. He seized my father by his other wrist, and they pushed him toward the apartment. Papa didn’t seem to struggle, at least not much. I thought that was odd. I remember a look of agony on his face, but he didn’t appear to be struggling. What I recall seeing was the uncharacteristic resignation and absence of the fight that usually marked my father. That was strange to me, because he was a fighter–innately a fighter! For a moment he didn’t seem like my father, my flesh and blood. I wanted this to be any other man but him. But it was not. It was my papa. And I knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, so I couldn’t understand what was happening. I loved and admired my father, Carl Werner, more than I could ever describe. I thought he was what a man was all about and what a man should be. I compared every boy and every man I ever met to him. But what was happening here? Why were these men being so mean to him? My papa was foreman of the tool and die department at the Gorky automobile factory and a respected man. This couldn’t be happening! I figured it was all a bad mistake–a terrible mistake–and certainly they would soon have this mess figured out, and things would be normal again. Of course, things in Gorky–in Russia, for that matter–were anything but normal.
About two years earlier, in 1936, Joseph Stalin had commenced infamous purges, instigated and carried out by his bloodthirsty associate Nikolai Yezhov and shortly thereafter by Lavrenti Beria, his notorious chief of the secret police. Beria was directly responsible for millions of deaths and unspeakable cruelty throughout Russia. The period in Soviet history known as the Bolshevik Revolution was over, but the Stalinist regime was at the height of its power and operating at full throttle. Throughout the land, it operated as a heartless killing machine, without conscience. In the period leading up to and during World War II, it took hundreds of thousands, even millions, of prisoners, often with no charges and no trials. You didn’t have to be guilty of anything in Stalinist Russia to find yourself imprisoned or even killed. The Stalinist regime operated on paranoia, with no rational justification.
As my father was roughly pushed toward our building, he looked back over his shoulder, almost as if in confession, to see me running toward him. Then his face was shoved into the door by the two men. I was sprinting toward him but felt as if I was in slow motion, as if I would never get there. The other two men looked stone cold, without showing the slightest feeling or emotion, while my papa was being helplessly led to slaughter. How on earth could this be? The three of them disappeared through the building’s front door as I raced just a few paces behind them, burning with fear and anguish. I flung open the normally cumbersome wooden door as if it were weightless. My heart was pounding right through my chest, and I was panting and crying. I ran up the narrow wooden stairway to see Papa just ahead of me, on the landing.
My papa, oh my dear papa! For the rest of my days, I will never forget his face as he turned to see me standing behind him. It was only a glance, but it was a look I had never seen before and one I wished I hadn’t seen. I saw in his face the end–the end of his innocently blind optimism and the end of his hopes for our life in this country that was not ours. That look bespoke hopelessness, utter despair, and death.
The look haunted me. Tears welled up in his eyes, and I knew that they were more for me than anything else. In a voice that struggled to be firm and reassuring, he said, “Don’t cry, my sweet girl. Everything will be all right.” But his words were empty of faith. I knew at that moment he wanted me to believe his words, but his face told me he didn’t believe them himself.
We knew something of Russia’s brutality even to her own people, and yet my father always thought he could make a difference in this country. We had given up everything we had known in our beloved America and blindly left it all behind us when he brought us here. It was Papa’s decision. And for what? During the hungry years of the Depression back home, he had actually pictured opportunity, livelihood, and financial stability in this country. That’s why he came to Russia in the first place. That’s why we came with him. That’s why I was here. Didn’t they know what our family had given up for Papa’s commitment to this country, this Russia that was now stabbing him in the back as a “reward” for his faith?
The fear in his bewildered brown eyes drained them of all life. He quickly turned away, maybe ashamed that I had seen him that way. At that moment I knew this marked the end of his dream and the beginning of our nightmare. The two men who had arrested my father at work were from the NKVD. Under Stalin, the Soviet secret police had acquired vast punitive powers, and in 1934 the secret police were renamed the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD. No longer subject to party control or restricted by law, the NKVD became a direct instrument for Stalin to use against the party and the country during the Great Terror of the 1930s. Now they had come to search our apartment.
My mind was racing, my heart pulsing uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to do for him. This could not be happening; it just could not be happening! It had to be a mistake. My papa had done nothing wrong; I had to calm down. Once inside the apartment, I fumbled toward the kitchen, where I found some fresh strawberries from our garden. I poured some milk and sugar over them, and with feverishly shaking hands I tried to take them to Papa. I think at that moment they represented my love and much more. They represented everything I wanted to do for him but could not.
I was completely helpless.
I set the bowl down before him, and again our eyes met. “Oh, Papa,” I said, “how is this happening? Please tell me that everything is going to be all right…please, please, please!”
He looked down at the floor, then at the bowl, then at me and over to Mama, and then back at the floor. He said nothing, but he cried silently, violently, from the innermost part of his being. My papa was shaking and looked as though he was barely breathing. He seemed afraid to look up, afraid of what we would see in his eyes. I was scared to death, mainly because I had never seen my papa so fragile and so completely helpless. As for the symbolic strawberries, he could not force down a single bite. We were all speechless and terrified.
Mama was told she could pack him a few necessary items, and she did so with tears rolling down her cheeks. Not a word escaped her lips. I think she was too shaken to utter a sound. What on earth do you pack for your husband, an innocent man who is being ripped from your home before your very eyes while you can do nothing to stop it? I felt I was going mad inside! I wanted to scream, but more than that, I wanted to kill somebody!
My mother managed to pack a small suitcase, moving stiffly, zombielike–silent and pale. I had never seen her like this either. I think she didn’t really believe this could be happening to us. How could it be? Papa’s dream of Russia was turning into a nightmare. Look what they were doing to the dreamer. I didn’t understand what was taking place in our house. Surely I would wake up soon.
I was shaking with rage and helplessness. I ran to my tiny bedroom and grabbed a photograph of myself and scribbled on the back “To my darling papa from his loving daughter, June 29, 1938.” I ran back as they were forcing him up from the table. My mother groaned, an involuntary cry from deep within, but then she quickly covered her mouth with her trembling hand and, in German–my parents’ language of love–softly whispered to him as if only the two of them could hear, “Ich immer liebe dich” (I love you always).
My father could not reply, and I tried to push the photo into his hand as they shoved him toward the door. One of the men put his hand against my chest and sternly said, “No, now back away!”
I flung myself toward my papa and screamed, “Please…Papa… please! You leave him alone!” The other officer grabbed my arms and yanked me away from my father.
I was violently thrown to the unforgiving hardwood floor by a power that I didn’t see coming. Strangely, I felt no physical pain; I think my heart absorbed it all. The photo lay beside me on the floor. Mama screamed as she saw me fall hard on my back, and she threw herself down to cover me. The men dragged my precious father out the door.
I cried, “Please, let me kiss my father good-bye, please!” But they slammed the door shut behind them.
From the hall, the men yelled at my mother and me, “Do not leave this apartment!” Neither of us moved for several moments, but then, unable to contain my dread, I cracked open the door. My father was being pushed down the stairs, and even though he resisted, it was to no avail. One of the officers looked back at me and shouted, “Didn’t I tell you to keep that door closed?”
I drew back inside our apartment, but through the door and from the bottom of the stairs, I heard my father calling, “I’ll be back! You’ll see!” Mama was still on the floor, on her knees, sobbing so hard that her shoulders and her whole body shook. My anger died down as I saw her like that, and I knelt to hug her with an urgency and desperation I had never felt before. She was now all I had, and I was now all she had…and we held on to each other.
Clutching each other tightly, we cried until I thought there were no more tears left in me. I don’t know how long we stayed on the floor, but it surely must have been hours. It felt like days, an eternity–all in one Russian summer afternoon. We held on to each other, trying to grasp that Papa was gone and wondering if we would ever see him again. But he’d said, “I’ll be back! You’ll see!”
The sun was no longer shining through our window as it had on that perfect morning. Now it was dark, and not just because it was evening. We sat there forever, and we spoke no words. What was there to say? At seventeen, this new agony was beyond any of my words. Finally my mother asked if I was hungry, and I said, “No,” but I glanced toward the table and saw my papa’s untouched bowl of strawberries. Waves of pain seared me again, and Mama tenderly stroked my hair. Calling me by her favorite name for me, she said, “Maidie, you should eat something. You must hold on and try to be strong. This is not the end, I promise you. You must have faith and not lose hope. Never give up hope. God will get us through this.”
I’m not sure that I believed her. Although she sounded convincing, I knew her words were as much for herself as for me. Papa was the love of her life, and I knew that her anguish cut deep– very, very deep! I don’t know if we said anything else after that, but I recall lying in my bed and hearing my mama weeping well into the night. As I drifted in and out of sleep that troubled night, I kept hearing faint, muffled, whimpering sounds from the next room.
My father was forty-six years old. My mother was forty-three. I had just turned seventeen. Our life, as we knew it, was over. I tossed and turned, trying to understand how this had happened.
The NKVD was the most powerful and feared Soviet institution under Stalin, who used it to eliminate all potential opposition to his leadership until he was the unchallenged leader of both party and state. Now he was purging the party rank and file and terrorizing the entire country with widespread arrests and executions. During the ensuing Great Terror, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were sent off to labor camps or executed in prison. In Russia, this time from 1937 until mid-1938 was called Yezhovshchina, or the Yezhov Affair, the most severe stage of Nikolai Yezhov’s great purges, when more than ten million lives were lost in the jails and labor camps that sprang up like wild mushrooms all over the country. Situated primarily in the Far North– in Siberia or central Asia, where the climates were most severe–these camps were filled with multitudes of free laborers, peasants, and poor people, all unable to defend themselves. To the Soviet regime, human beings were only the means of production– numbers, items, things to count–expendable.
Countless fathers and mothers of my friends were suddenly and savagely arrested under trumped-up charges, taken from their homes in front of their parents and children–even during their evening meals–and never heard of or heard from again. And this countrywide brutality didn’t seem to distinguish nationality or ethnic origin; it had no bias, no favorites. No one was exempt. I don’t even think the Stalinist agenda was particularly anti-Semitic at its root; the Jews were certainly victims, openly targeted perhaps more than the rest of the population. But the fear was universal. Families in untold numbers, of all ethnicities, were irreparably devastated at the snap of a finger, the signing of another false arrest warrant. Betrayal in its most primitive form was a common way of life during this period in 1930s Russia, even among family members. Mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters routinely and sometimes falsely informed on one another to the police. I suppose it was a last-ditch effort to survive. The pervasive fear of arrest undermined everything. One day you saw your friends, you spoke with them, and the next day someone asked you where they were. It was as if they had suddenly vanished from the planet. “What happened to so-and-so?” was an all-too-regular occurrence. Your neighbor was here one day, gone the next, and no one knew anything about it.
Personal suffering at the very core of the human spirit swept the community like wildfire, and not many were able to escape. The whole world of human experience was driven by pain and fueled by fear. I thought, If there’s really a devil…I mean if he really exists, then surely this has got to be it; he must live here in Russia! By the time the terror subsided in 1939, Stalin had managed to bring both the party and the public into complete submission to his rule. Soviet society was so atomized and the people so fearful of reprisals that mass arrests were no longer necessary, but that had not happened yet–not today, not on June 29, 1938, not in time to save my father.
In the summer of 1938, this was my life: my father ripped away from me, my mother’s husband gone, a good man taken from his family. Just like that, it was all over. Dreams shattered and hopes forsaken in one strangely beautiful but wicked Gorky summer day. Now Mama and I were left in this country that was not our own with no way out. We hadn’t wanted to come here in the first place, and now our future was nothing but a matter of Mama’s blind faith.
Thus began the darkest time in our lives. We suddenly had to find a way to go on without Papa, who until this black day had provided us with a better-than-average way of life, at least by Gorky’s simple standards. We had no support or financial means, no savings and no protection. Though I felt a full-blown anger taking control of my heart, I was also hit by a physical sense of hopelessness and despair. They walked in uninvited, as if they were people or something I could actually touch. And right behind them came a powerful new fear.
My sleep that night was anything but peaceful; it came in agonizing increments when my mind was too tired to think. I slept only by default, for sporadic and lurid spurts a few minutes at a time, and I would fearfully awaken between my terrifying dreams to find that my new reality was much worse than any nightmare. I kept hearing my mama’s words: “Have faith; be strong; do not lose hope.” I didn’t feel much comfort from them now. A stronger force outside of me–fear–was controlling my heart and my thoughts. I thought hard about her faith in God. God would get us through this? I questioned. How could that be? How could anything or anybody wipe away the horror? How could I be sure God even existed? Was God stronger than fear? That was a good question, because I had no idea what to believe in, but I knew that fear was real, as I now felt fear like a three-alarm fire burning out of control. And I could not help but think, Where is God in all of this? as my mind replayed Papa’s words, “I’ll be back. You’ll see,” over and over again.