“You don’t believe in Death! ” my mother said in a moment of piquancy during our customary game of thrust and parry whenever it came to trying to unearth her war-time secrets. The sheer force of her personality. The power of that voice. And her refusal to yield. I start to understand something about the psychology of ‘survival’ during the darkest days of the last century.
My mother, five feet tall. A female soldier in the Red Army, a partisan, and a POW, captured by the largest fighting machine in the world, three million soldiers of the German Wehrmacht who marched on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
She was 19 years old. She would spend most of the War behind barbed wire, transported by cattle car from one end of hell to the other, landing up eventually as one of Hitler’s Slaves in Germany to keep industry and agriculture of the Fatherland going, while the able bodied men fought on the Front.
Whenever she talked about the ‘camps’, it was never clear to me as a kid growing up in Saskatchewan. (And, I would never ask, because that was forbidden.) Were they POW camps, slave labour camps, or concentration camps? Now, I understand that during those “missing thousand days” of her life, she was captive in all of them. She once remarked on how she learned to play poker in the camps. That she trained rats. Yes, that’s a story you don’t forget as a kid. And, somewhere along the line, she mastered the skill of using a knife.
After the War, the local farmers in Netherhill, Saskatchewan witnessed first hand how the new cook at the hotel could throw a kitchen knife into the wall in a perfect pattern around the hanging fry pans. They also wondered, perhaps only half-joking, if someone someday was going to wake up with a slit throat.
Oh yeah, don’t mess with Agnes.
Even in her hometown of Chusovoy, Russia, her old neighbour described her as a fighter.
As a child on the prairies, she led me to believe that she spent most of the War, working on a German farm, milking cows for an old couple, the Vollands, whose son had gone off to war. But when the War ended, and she could finally get in touch with her own family back in deepest Russia, what did she tell them? Did she confide in her only sister? If so, did those memories survive better than the original log house in which she grew up in Chusovoy?
Only the original window frame of her second floor bedroom remains in tact, as we return to shoot this summer.
My Aunt Nela, herself was decorated five times by Stalin for her own heroism during World War Two, treating wounded soldiers evacuated from the Leningrad Blockade. The local school, one of three in Chusovoy converted to hospitals, specialized in amputations. Recuperating Red Army soldiers even formed their own one-legged football team in Chusovoy, pictured below.
That was the single nagging question for me, when I flew half way around the world this summer. What did my Aunt Nela know? I wasn’t prepared for her answer.