February 24: that 'accursed day'
I don't look forward to February 24th. It's the day in 2022 when Putin's army invaded Ukraine. My grandparents lived in Ukraine, and my mother was born there. So, since February 24th last year, the Ukrainian flag has flown outside my home.
But there's another, deeper reason why February 24th will tug at my heart-strings.
February 24th was - in the words of my grandmother Aniela Brik - "that accursed day."
Her accursed day was February 24th, 1943. It was the day that tore her world apart.
On that day, Nazi soldiers surrounded the school where Aniela’s only child, Maria was a student. The Nazis captured Maria and others and sent them to work as slaves in Germany for the duration of the war. (Maria is on the left in the picture. Her best friends Lena and Valya were rounded up with her and sent as work slaves to Germany).
Aniela and my grandfather, Sergei, never saw their daughter again.
Maria was my mother. Growing up, I had no idea of what had happened to her. She rarely spoke about her wartime experiences. She died in 2018 and took her secrets to the grave.
But she left me her letters, about 60 of them, written in Russian and Polish from her parents and friends. Although she found it too hard to talk about during her life, I think she wanted me to know how she came to be in Germany and why I was born there.
There was one particular letter that brought me to tears. Aniela wrote it to my mother when Mama was a slave in Germany. Aniela wrote it with a fountain pen in Russian. I couldn’t read it, but I only had to look at it to feel her anguish. Sorrow floated off the pages in clouds of unevenly written phrases, crossed out words, crossed out sentences, everything punctuated with splotches of ink.
I had all the letters translated. This particular letter was Aniela’s confession to Mama. She was telling her daughter why she hadn’t saved her from the Nazis. Aniela was pleading for Mama to understand why she unwittingly committed the greatest sin a mother could - not protecting her child.
Aniela was asking for forgiveness. She signed her letter “Your bad mama”, even though she was powerless to stop what happened. Still she blamed herself.
After that “Accursed Day”, when Mama was shipped to Germany as a slave worker, she was humiliated, bombed, worked almost to death. But she survived. She became a refugee, changed her identity, got married, gave birth to me and had a lover, all in Germany. Later she emigrated to Canada with my father.
She kept her secrets … until I found the letters.