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Reflections: May 1941
Marty’s dreams of becoming a doctor were shattered by the sound of a loud knock on the classroom door. No one spoke. Each student was fearful of being snatched from the classroom by the uniformed officer of the secret police who interrupted the lesson. One minute Marty was peering through the eye of his microscope in biology class, and the next, he was pulled from class and issued an ultimatum: renounce your American citizenship and become a Soviet citizen or leave school.
While his family never intended to stay in Russia permanently, Marty expected to live there until he completed his education and then return to New Jersey as an American citizen educated abroad. That could no longer happen. His life story, penned in his imagination, suddenly had to be rewritten and the characters recast.
When he and his five siblings refused to become Russian citizens, they were exiled from Leningrad and forcibly resettled in Novgorod. They immediately began planning their exodus from Russia. They needed to secure travel documents from the embassy and find enough funds to pay for their transportation home. Raising the money would take time. They found employment in Novgorod and wrote to their friends back in New Jersey asking for financial assistance.
One year later, Marty found himself peering out the window of the Trans-Siberian Railway as it chugged across the barren expanses of the Soviet Union. Ten years after leaving New Jersey, he was finally returning home, but this time he was alone.
Marty was not afraid to travel by himself, but his stomach churned with uncertainty and guilt at having abandoned his family. His face drained of color when he learned that he was the only one in his family permitted to leave Russia. Anxious conversations and gut-wrenching soul-searching resulted in the final decision. There would be more opportunities to secure the others’ return to the United States once Marty was safely home rather than from within the confines of the Soviet Union. He could not look back or continue to carry the burden of guilt.
He took a deep breath and surveyed his surroundings. The train was brimming with Jewish refugees–men, women, and children–many escaping Poland after the Germans stormed into their country during the autumn of 1939. Some were also traveling solo, separated from the security and companionship of their families.
As endless forests of pine trees whipped past him, he couldn’t help thinking how he, a young man from New Jersey, ended up alone on a train in the Soviet Union. Before the move halfway around the world, he had been a happy twelve-year-old boy who loved to caddie at the local golf course and play street games in the neighborhood.
Back then he lived on a quiet street in the small town of Rockaway where the biggest news in town was the annual Halloween pranks or the arrest of someone’s dad for making moonshine in his basement. Oh, how he longed for those days now!
After the stock market crash, his father lost his job at the steel mill, but his parents were skillful at concealing their troubles. Pa found odd jobs around town, and his twin sisters, Nancy and Helen, went to work at the hosiery mill with his uncle Mark.
Marty heard the tales of families who lost their homes and of children in tattered clothes forced to beg for food in the streets. But this did not happen to his family, so he was shocked when his parents announced their intentions to sell their house and move to Russia. The explanation was that the Soviet Union, unlike most of the world, was isolated from the effects of the Great Depression. Jobs were plentiful there, and his parents had family back in “the old country.”
There was no arguing with his mother and father—just sad acceptance by Marty and his five siblings. Within months, his parents sold their house, and they made arrangements to move in December.
Marty wondered how different their lives would be if they never left Rockaway. He would have a job, his sisters might be married, and he could be an uncle by now, but he could not dwell on what may have been. All he could do now was to focus on getting home to New Jersey and then helping his family join him there. The enormity of the task was overwhelming, but he was determined to succeed.
The compartment Marty rode in consisted of a long narrow corridor down the middle, with clusters of wooden bunk beds on each side of the aisle–two upper and two lower. Military officers patrolled the train, constantly pulling the window shades down whenever they felt the view needed to be concealed.
What could they be hiding, wondered Marty, but he could not waste time on useless speculation. He needed to concentrate on planning what to do once he arrived in Japan, where he would board a ship for the next leg of his journey home.
Every day Marty found himself lost in his thoughts as he stared out the window at the ever-changing landscape. It was hypnotic. Many of the men on the train passed the time playing chess with each other. Marty was happy for the diversion and companionship.
One day, his spell was broken by the excited cries of the passengers as they passed Lake Baikal. This lake, the oldest and deepest in the world, was reminiscent of the ocean which Marty recalled from the journey to the Soviet Union. So much had happened since then–the worst being the death of his brother.
He closed his eyes and recalled that December day in 1931 when his family left their carefree world in New Jersey behind them. None of them realized how much their lives would change.
I Don’t Remember – April 2014
“I just don’t remember.” The instant you uttered those words, I knew I made a terrible mistake that could never be erased. I was stunned and felt a deep sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realized I waited too long to talk to you, and your memories were lost forever.
On that day, you and I were watching a video that David filmed fifteen years earlier. It showed you looking at an old photo album and reminiscing about the friends and family in the pictures. You had a sharp memory then, describing the places you visited and associated anecdotes. I was excited when I first saw the video and later sad and disappointed that I had never seen it years ago. You loved watching it.
Until then, I was certain I knew you because you had been my dad for fifty-three years. I recalled a man who loved his family and job at Allied Chemical. I did not stop to speculate about the boy who became my father or to consider the events in your past which molded your personality.
You were proud of your children–Arlene, Ellen, Mart, Dave, and me. As each new grandchild arrived, you insisted that each child was more brilliant than the preceding one. You were always a nag, but as a parent, I understand it was because you wanted us to make as few mistakes as possible.
You worked hard to ensure there was a meal on the table and clothing on our backs. I never had a sense of being poor or disadvantaged. If you could analyze how to fix something, you did it yourself. I remember when Ellen and I discovered a broken window behind the washer in the basement. You repaired it with a Tupperware lid, cardboard, and duct tape. It was not a professional fix, but it solved the problem and cost nothing. You were resourceful!
It was not until after you died that I considered how much more there was to your story. You were thirty-six when I was born–the first of your five children–so you lived many years before becoming a father. While you told us tales of your past BC–before children–I believed little. I was too busy studying, spending time with my friends, and later raising my own family to ask questions.
Everyone who knew you was aware that you spent nearly ten years living in Russia. While other kids’ dads told stories of playing baseball or fishing in the local pond, you spun tales of mingling with Russian assassins and later trying to warn a United States intelligence agent of the Pearl Harbor attack. At our skepticism you always said, “I have the papers to prove it.”
What papers? Why did you never show them to me, and why did I never ask? I have asked myself this question over and over, Dad!
What was it like moving to Russia as a young American boy or coming of age in a country under the cold-blooded leadership of Joseph Stalin? You escaped by traveling across the whole continent of Russia alone ahead of America’s entrance into World War II. How? Now, in “that moment,” I desperately wanted to know it all, but the hourglass was empty.
That moment has haunted me. I imagine it so often, and the memory evokes so many emotions–anger, disappointment, guilt, and sadness. Most of those emotions are directed toward myself. If only I had taken the time to listen when you tried to share your memories, I would be familiar with your history, Dad, and you would have known I was interested.
I cannot change the past. “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
After you passed away, I decided to begin. I made it my mission to learn what horrors your family suffered in Russia and the role you played in bringing them home. Genealogy research, and that “eureka moment,” when I stumbled upon telegrams, memos, and letters you wrote now stored at the National Archives, enabled me to assemble your very complicated youth. I filled in the blanks by interviewing individuals who had traveled similar roads as you. What I discovered and who I met on my journey of discovery was surprising.
I hope an afterlife exists and you know what I am doing. Several of my friends have suggested that maybe you have been there walking beside me and guiding me toward many of the explanations I have been seeking. Perhaps you are.
I watched that recording many times and think of you every day. I admire you as I learned how nothing prevented you from doing what you had to do to protect your family. I am sorry and I hope you will forgive me.