After years of trying to find out more about her Ukrainian mother, who died when she was only 10 years old, Natascha Wodin idly types her name one late summer night into a Russian search engine. To her amazement, for the first time ever, something comes up: the name Jewgenia Jakowlewna Iwaschtschenko, born 1920 in Mariupol. She is led to the site Azov’s Greeks which has a wealth of information about the Greek community that had lived in Mariupol since the 18th century, but also offers a platform for those seeking information about lost family members. Through this platform she makes contact with Konstantin, a Russian with a Greek code name, who makes it his business to help people tracking down their family and becomes Natascha Wodin’s virtual companion, friend and support over the next few months as she unravels her mother’s story. This book is a memoir of her mother and her mother’s family and an account of the broader sweep of history which determined their lives: the Russian revolution and the Soviet domination of the Ukraine, the German occupation during World War Two, and the exploitation of many Eastern Europeans, including Ukrainians, in the factories of Nazi Germany. But it is also a fascinating account of the process of discovery, the crucial role played by new technology in the process and the emotional responses of the writer as she slowly inches closer to understanding more about her mother.
One of the first surprises comes in the very first longer email she receives from Konstantin who has found out that her mother’s grandparents were wealthy landowners and that their six children were well educated members of the Mariupol intellectual elite. The writer is stunned by this news, as her memories of her mother are of a worn down, emaciated, mentally fragile person.Her parents came to Germany at the end of the war as Zwangsarbeiter– forced labourers-working for the Flick business in Leipzig, enduring the punishing and inhumane conditions of those factories. They stayed on in Germany after the war and lived for years in precarious situations- a warehouse, a Displaced Persons Camp, finally their own small house in a housing development for problem families. Though she could speak German, her mother became more and more isolated and depressed due to their pariah status as Russians and DPs and Natascha herself internalized the prevailing prejudices against the family, thinking that they were merely Kehricht– rubbish, scum. And so the idea that her mother came from a privileged and educated background was an utter revelation to her.
Konstantin’s first email contains information not only about her mother but also about her mother’s older sister, Lidia, and her brother, Sergej. Natascha finds out that Lidia fell foul of the Soviet regime after the revolution and was banished to Medwesha Gora in the far reaches of the Soviet Union for many years. It is when Konstantin uses the Russian social media site Odnoklassik that they find out more information about Lidia and her family: it is Lidia’s grandson, Kiri, who responds, saying that this sounds like his grandmother. Using the address which Lidia gives when she applies to be rehabilitated, Natascha does a search on Google Maps and finds the very house where Lidia lived in the last years of her life. She delights in thinking that this is the front door that her aunt, a woman she never knew, but her mother’s sister, went in and out of every day.
The most fantastic discovery which comes from the contact with Lidia’s family, however, is a set of Lidia’s notebooks which are found quite by chance on top of a wardrobe, when the flat she lived in is being cleared out. The content of these notebooks form the second part of the book and give a fascinating account of life in Mariupol for the wealthy and privileged immediately prior to the Russian revolution. The tumultuous and irrevocable changes in their lives and fortunes then brought about by the revolution are described in detail as well as the economic collapse of the Ukraine as a result of Stalin’s policies and the ensuing desperation and starvation of the population. As readers we begin to understand how the writer’s mother, born in 1920 into chaos and turmoil, knew little else growing up- and that hunger was a constant feature of her life.
The third and fourth parts of the book trace the journey made by the writer’s mother, recently married, from Mariupol to Leipzig in the last years of the war. The story is told against a general historical background of events at that time as the writer speculates on the effect of these on her mother- for example the fact that the Ukrainians taken from Mariupol by ship to Roumania were forced to lie on the deck as a human shield while the ships were under attack from Soviet air strikes. It is not hard to imagine her mother’s nerves in shreds after this experience.
The gruelling working conditions her parents endured has been referred to earlier, but their suffering post war is related in more detail here as these are now the childhood memories of the writer herself, born in 1945. Her mother’s misery and isolation, slipping into depression and helplessness, unable to perform basic household tasks or care for her children, are heart rending to read. Still, there are one or two uplifting moments: the warm care and attention given to her mother by a local doctor who has taken a shine to her and the times that the family sing together on summer evenings, so beautifully, that even the most standoffish neighbours creep beneath their window to hear the sonorous outpourings of the Russian soul.
Finally we are told of the tragic evening when her mother leaves the house and does not return- she jumps into the river Regnitz and her death.
This sad story is of course emblematic of the lives of millions of people caught up in the wars and ideological strife of the 20th century. Yet the writer makes the story so personal and hence so moving by telling us about the process of searching and the questions as well as answers which are raised- and of the blinde Flecken– the blind spots-which she comes up against and will never get beyond. If you enjoy memoir and family history and would like to learn more about the experiences of the Zwangsarbeiter, a history less well known perhaps than that of other persecuted groups during the Nazi period, you should read this book, which surely will be translated into English some time very soon.
Sie kam aus Mariupol- Natascha Wodin- €19,95
(available in paperback in German August 2018-€12,00.