I’ve always seen it as my obligation to dive into my family’s secrets, perhaps in a quest to figure out what cast the long shadows that have always hung over it. With my mom’s family that was easy. There were archival documents, references, a long paper trail.
My father’s family always seemed bland in comparison. Decent, modest, hard-working people who kept out of politics and out of trouble. My father lived in a small village in the countryside as a child, and was 12 when the war ended. My beloved aunt was 14. I’ve been gently begging them for any kind of story, of anything they knew or had seen. A few gradually emerged. Here is one:
During the war, when all young, able men were off fighting somewhere far away, it was left to women and the old to carry with farm work and other labor. Which is why the government allocated to them “forced laborers”, slave laborers from occupied countries, often just teenagers. My father’s village had workers from France, Poland and Russia.
The mandate was to treat these laborers as badly as you could get away with; they were supposed to worked to exhaustion, and fed and housed poorly.
The villagers, and there were only a few of them, did not have that kind of contempt in them. Faced with a frightened group of other human beings they behaved decently. For example meals were taken together – a violation of the rules that could have gotten everyone into deep trouble. But the little community held together. Later, after the war was over, several of the former laborers from France and Poland got back in touch, some even came to visit, to exchange memories and catch up on where life had taken everyone.
The biggest challenge to his covert arrangement was when one of the Russian laborers became pregnant by her Russian boyfriend, and had a little boy, Vladimir. The official directive (as my aunt tells me) was that children born in these circumstances were not to be fed, so that they would starve. The little band of people rallied together around the baby, summoning up clothes, diapers and even an old baby carriage. They managed to keep the existence of this little boy secret from all outsiders and authorities.
When the Russian laborers heard that the war was over, and that they were to be repatriated, they wept. They must have felt that nothing good was in store for them. Returning forced laborers were often treated as traitors, as being ‘contaminated’ and of “questionable loyalty”, and sent off to hard labor or gulags. Many suffered a lifetime of abuse and suspicion.
None of the Russian laborers of my father’s village were ever of heard again.
I sometimes wonder what happened to little Vladimir, born between the fault lines of two merciless world events.