Letters From Across the Sea

ONE day last summer, I reached into the mailbox and drew out the usual assortment of bills, fliers, and correspondence. I immediately set all else aside and stared at an air-mail envelope with orange-and-blue markings. The small stamps featured a ship, planes, and a public monument and bore Cyrillic words, which I quickly translated as POST-USSR. It was a letter from Russia.

I scanned the return address, unable to decipher the Russian cursive. I could feel my heart beating as I sat down on the couch, carefully opened the envelope, and read the first line: "Guten Abend meine lieber Kinder, Benjamin."

Several months before, I had obtained from my uncle in California the names and addresses of two of his cousins who had made contact with him 10 years after the death of my grandfather. For a long time it had not been safe for our Russian relatives to write, to have any contact with anyone in the United States. But under Gorbachev things had changed.

One of my uncle's cousins, Gregory, had written that his father, under Stalin, had disappeared one day from a farming collective. Years later, the family learned of his death in Siberia. "The time was very dark. Now we can talk," he wrote.

Anna, another cousin, also began corresponding. "I would very much like to start to write again to each other," she had written, "if you have nothing against it. Shall I write in Russian or German?"

As a student in Austria in 1963 I had gained a working knowledge of German. I dusted off my old Worterbuch, and composed a brief letter to my "Aunt" Anna, knowing I was not getting all the word endings correct, but hoping she would understand and respond.

I had wanted so much to know of relatives in the Soviet Union. I had just completed a seven-part narrative, published on the Home Forum page, about my grandfather's Siberian exile and escape to this country. But I knew nothing about relatives still living in Russia.

And now my first letter: "Guten Abend, meine lieber Kinder, Benjamin." The letter came from my "Aunt" Anna. But for a moment I could read no further, so moved was I by the warmth of her greeting: "Good evening, my dear child, Benjamin." She used a language passed down from her great-grandparents and their parents, Mennonites who had settled in imperial Russia.

Under Catherine the Great, Russia had been a land of promise for my ancestors. Russian agriculture needed upgrading, and the Mennonites, hard-working farmers persecuted in Germany for their religious beliefs, needed a homeland. Catherine offered them land and exemption from compulsory military service.

But at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the czars became increasingly intolerant of religious minorities. In 1914, in the early months of World War I, my grandfather was arrested and banished to Siberia. Then came the revolution and the terror of the Bolsheviks, followed by the devastation and famine of the civil war.

`WITH great joy have I received your letter," my Tante Anna wrote. Then she told me about her life. Widowed, she lives on a farming collective in southern Russia, north of the Caucasus Mountains. In her letter she enclosed school snapshots of her four children, now adults, three sons and one daughter. Wolodja, the only one not married, still lives at home. He drives a tractor for the collective.

"It is a very difficult time," she wrote, months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They had food - potatoes, bread - but it was impossible to buy clothes, and when something did show up in the stores, it was too expensive.

Since that first letter, Anna and I have continued our correspondence. Each time she opens her letters with warm greetings to me and my family, then tells me the comings and goings of her family. A niece has traveled to Germany and writes of the amazing things available in the stores. Then Anna comments on the continuing scarcity of supplies in Russia, the difficulty of buying shoes, the high price of sugar and noodles.

In March, she sent me a picture of one of her goats, a white one, her favorite. "I love my goats," she writes, "but I haven't had much luck with them. One has kidded, but isn't giving enough milk for the little one."

"What will become of the collective, God only knows," she writes. If you have money, you can "purchase" land to farm on your own. She does not have such money. "But what life brings, and what God wills, we must accept."

Tante Anna's last letter brings good news. There has been plenty of rain and the grass grows tall. Her goats are now thriving, giving schon milch, fine milk. They have plenty of vegetables: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers. Last month she visited her son who lives in Gelendzhik on the Black Sea, and recently several of her family - sister, nephews, nieces, and their children - visited her to celebrate her birthday.

Yes, life goes on in Russia, despite the deprivations and the chaos. And despite the dark years of the past, the family goes on, too, a remnant gathering together to celebrate, to share, to strengthen the ties that bind.

I, too, the American grandchild of an exile, am drawn by her letters, by her warmth and affection, into the circle of Russian relatives I have never met. "As we sat around the table," she writes of the family gathering, "we spoke of you."

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