Monday, March 22, 2010

The Forgotten Genocide: A Reflection

I believe in divine appointments. Rather than chance encounters and coincidences, I believe that God orders our days within the parameters of the free-will decisions we make.

My story of one of these divine appointments actually begins in July or August 2009 when a friend of mine from Facebook encouraged me to start a blog--even sending me the blog link to get started. "Artists draw, painters paint and writers write" (paraphrased), he wrote me in admonition when I found myself waffling on the idea. I'm not the most secure person and the thought of others reading and (gasp) judging my opinions definitely stretched my comfort level. But, lo and behold, I took the plunge and now have somewhere around 45 entries between my original site and this one. The feedback has been largely positive, with only a few critical readers offering up a counter-point in vast opposition to what I penned. That's OK. They e-mailed me their ideas privately rather than posting them to my blog itself. Maybe they aren't so secure either....

Watching my mom fight her cancer and cope with the idea that her time on earth was coming to a close made me examine my own life closely. Approaching my 40's at the same time was unfortunate timing that managed to exacerbate my feelings of loss. It was only in hindsight that I realized how much my mid life crisis was related to my grief in preparing to lose her and then the actual acceptance once she died. For three years I can honestly say I was in emotional and physical turmoil. Outwardly, my life was in order. I cared for my kids and my husband and functioned successfully within my world; but inwardly, I wasn't sure I recognized myself and even wanted the life I had chosen for myself.

While I sought couples and individual counseling, attending a Weekend to Remember marriage conference with Tony, and participated in a very intense personal Bible study on marriage and another one on coping when life gets hard, it wasn't until I started writing that I truly began to emotionally heal. 

The entries about my mom have been a safe way to redirect my grief. I've long been of the opinion that the suffering she endured while in the Yugoslavian genocide camps needed to be documented. Sadly, this ethnic cleansing experience is one that is largely unknown. Now that the youngest of the survivors are approaching 70 years old, time is short to document this historic event from an eyewitness account

One night I rented the movie "Julie & Julia", the story line based on a woman cooking and blogging her way through Julia Child's French cook book. Since this movie was based on actual events, it was no surprise that her blog was discovered.  Still, I found this encouraging. For just a moment I pondered how fun that would be to be "discovered" and what that could mean. Certainly I had built a good readership to that point, which includes several friends and even three strangers who had found my blog and liked it well enough to become a "follower".  But I mused to myself, wouldn't it be fun to be discovered by someone interested in my mom's story?

As unbelievable as this may sound, the next morning I open my blog and find that not one, but three, people interested in the topic of this genocide had discovered my blog and commented on the "Coming to America" entry.  The third reader, Ann Morrison, was in the process of finishing a documentary on the subject and was hosting a conference on the topic. Clicking on her link, I can hardly believe my eyes when I read that the conference and premiere of the documentary will be taking place two months later in my current hometown, just 4 miles from my house. Thus, my divine appointment. I quickly e-mail her and tell her of the turn of events and offer my assistance and ask if I can be a part of this historic event. She's equally delighted by this "coincidence" and I'm welcomed to participate, even helping with some of the local arrangements. In addition, she asks if she can link my blog site to her website. While I was flattered by her offer, I realized that people wanting to read about the genocide were going to have to sift through 40 other entries about my life. More than they bargained for. So, I quickly created this separate blog site, dedicated to the memory of my mom.  I was truly honored to be linked to her site. Her website discussing the plight of the Danube Swabian people is

The first person to leave the comment was Anita Pare. She was actually the one who found my link and passed it along to the others. Living in Canada, Anita and I became fast friends via the internet. She forwarded links of interest on the topic and was kind enough to answer my questions about the genocide. More knowledgeable than me, her insight was invaluable and she never made me feel silly for asking some pretty basic questions. Anita graciously translated a few hand-written Yugoslavian letters and a poem -- and composed a response for me after one of my mom's distant relatives contacted me via, who was still living in Europe (another "coincidence"??) . We met the first morning of the three day conference. She joined a small group of us and asked about the documents I was preparing for the visual library display. In an "a-ha" moment, we realized our connection without the formal introduction and giggled over the way we finally met.  Spending time with Anita was priceless and I look forward to a continued relationship with her.

On Thursday I was able to attend the first three of four scheduled speakers. The first speaker was Elizabeth (Elsa) Walter who wrote the book Barefoot in the Rubble, which is a memoir of her life as a child survivor of the genocide and her life in coming to America.  She was my inspiration to start penning my mom's story. My relationship with Elsa began almost a decade ago. When Tony and I were researching this topic, she was one of the few published links I found on the web. Information on the topic was scarce. I contacted her during my research and  thus, we formed a long standing friendship. Elizabeth was invaluable to me in helping me to understand the history behind the genocide and to understand some of the specifics regarding the Russian slave labor camps. Elsa reminds me of the fun aunt or your best friend's mom. She's outgoing, fun, talkative and just plain spunky. Her husband Mike intimidated me at first. He is more of an introvert, or so it seemed to me. Also a child survivor, Mike is a man of few words. But when he has something to say, listen up. He's intelligent, well-spoken, and humorous. He is the quiet strength behind Elizabeth's success. They make an awesome couple. Nothing but good things to say about this amazing couple.

In another God-directed coincidence, Elsa would speak once a year at a local library within 30 minutes of my home. It was in 2004 I attended her speaking engagement and was able to meet her and her husband Mike in person for the first time. A year later I attended again, but this time with my mom. We all went to lunch and visited during that time. Six months after my mom died, I heard Elsa speak one more time. It was infinitely more difficult for me and I spilled many tears during her lecture. The evening exposed such raw emotions  that Mike and Elsa avoided eye contact with me. I cannot think back to that experience without feeling overcome by emotion again-- even 2 years later. And it all stems from a piece of string.

In the summer of 2008, Elsa and her husband Mike invited my family to a local German restaurant during our extended weekend in Chicago for my Olsen family reunion. They graciously invited us back to their home to talk and enjoy a traditional German strudel for dessert.  When Elsa was asked to read my blog this winter, she smiled and said she already knew me. Small world. Very small world. Being a part of this conference with the Walters was fitting and I was looking forward to seeing both of them. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to have them over for dinner on the Tuesday night preceding the conference. I admitted to Mike I was a litle nervous about cooking for him. He had shared with us that he's not a fan of  most American cooking. When he helped himself to a second plate of a recipe I had never tried before (bold move of me--or maybe it was just stupid!), I sighed in relief.

The conference resumed on Friday morning.  Having a young daughter still home with me during the day I knew I would not be able to attend the 7 hours of scheduled speakers and had to make an educated decision of which speakers to be present to hear. I opted to attend from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.   As I snuck into the auditorium around 10:45, I distinctly remember Elsa patting the seat next to her and whispering "I was looking for you. Did you just get here? You haven't missed much but Brian is up next. You're going to really enjoy him. He's great".  And he was. It was a great way to kick off the next four hours of speakers.  Also known as Dr. Landry, Lt. Col., Professor Landry and Coach, Brian spoke on the psychological aspects of camp survivors. It's only because we became friends at the conference that I can poke fun at his myriad of titles and accomplishments. Brian stumbled upon the subject of the Danube Swabian post WWII genocide when he was earning his Doctorate of Philosophy. As Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force and Assistant Professor of Leadership and Ethics, he had intended the subject of his dissertation to be on prisoners of war and the psychological aspects in survival. It is my understanding that the direction of his study changed course upon the chance encounter and interview opportunity of a child survivor of the genocide. Changing topics was no small undertaking at this point in his pursuit of the doctorate degree.

I have to admire someone to pursue this topic without a famial connection. With his military career, I imagine choosing the prisoner of war overview would have been inside his comfort zone and knowledge base. But to start with zero knowledge on a topic and write a 200-250 page dissertation? I think that speaks volumes on his heart for the topic, his intelligence and his determination. Luckily for me, he made the dissertation CD available to the conference attendees. Wanting to do the topic justice (and he did), he was granted permission for the paper to be well over the 200 page guideline -- with the final product being over 350 pages. As a survivor's child, I am indebted to Brian for not only giving a voice to the topic, but to do it with excellence and sensitivity.  Much to his surprise, I think, I read the dissertation from front to back. Certainly, I could have read only the 150 pages of Chapter 4, which was the interview portion with the 3 female and 3 male survivors. However, his paper was so well written that I found all of it pertinent and engaging. In the meantime, I'm trying to convince him to convert what he's written and turn into a book form. Or better yet, write my mom's story for me. Hmmm....I might be onto something, Brian....

Katherine Flotz was one of the people Anita referred to my blog, and she left an encouraging comment. Unbeknownst to her, she did not need to introduce herself to me. Katherine was inspired to pen her memoirs in a book entitled A Pebble in My Shoe. After purchasing and reading Elsa's book, I then purchased and read hers. While I found Elizabeth's story to resemble my mom's story more closely, there were certain aspects of Katherine's experiences that paralleled my mom's as well.  I had the opportunity to meet Katherine shortly before Brian spoke. She autographed my book copy as well at the time. Unfortunately, I did not see her again until moments before the documentary premiered, which is when I had our photo opportunity. I also met her husband George that weekend. My regret is that I did not have a chance to speak to them more. While Katherine was more quiet, I saw a spirited aire about her husband. They, too, seem like a great couple to get to know. Fortunately, with all the time I've spent with Elizabeth, she's shared a lot about Katherine with me so I feel like I know her on a personal level.

The last memorable couple was Tina and Kevin from the Chicago area. Tina was an extrovert and had an infectious personality. Talking with her was a hoot. I found myself giggling and joking with her like we had been friends for a long time. During the reception on Friday night we laughed about some funky shoes and fishnet stockings a young woman was wearing.  She pulled it off and we wondered if we would have been bold enough to wear them. Would I have had the confidence at her age, probably not. Could I pull it off now? Wouldn't dare. Tina and I also bantered back and forth about Gakowa, "The escape camp". It wouldn't necessarily be funny to anyone but us and trying to explain it...well, I won't even try. Kevin was her "younger" husband. Being a people watcher and making casual observations, I made note that this was another married couple with one extrovert and one introvert. Not that Kevin wasn't friendly. He was. But I noticed he was the quiet sidekick carrying around an awfully big camera. When asked what he did for a living, various terms surfaced: Oprah....photographer...models....magazine.  The terms were not necessarily related and in that order but it made for a spirited conversation. And that's all I'm sayin' about THAT conversation.

My husband accompanied me to the documentary premiere Friday night, and I was thankful he could attend. Surprisingly, this was the first time I felt emotional during the conference. Obviously, I missed my mom and wondered what she would have thought of the weekend dedicated to this topic.  Honestly, I think from her perspective she would have found the whole conference self-indulgent. I doubt she would have participated, except for perhaps the film itself.  I think to understand why I believe this, it goes back to her opinion of being a "survivor", which I'm not sure she liked being called. One day I asked her how she was so resilient and had overcome so fully the trauma she experienced. Her response was interesting. She had nightmares for years, with them slowly fading away once she got married and started her family. It felt almost like an out of body experience, she told me. Like it happened to someone else. She didn't think of herself as anything but an American.  She fully Americanized and rarely comtemplated her short life in Europe. She forgot sometimes, she said, that she wasn't a natural born citizen of the country she loved. I doubt she'd want to revisit this experience in such a concentrated way. Certainly she talked about that part of her life, and even granted the interview for Spielberg, but to immerse herself in the memories for a weekend? Undoubtedly not my mom's style.

The final event of the weekend was the dinner and dance at the German Cultural Society Hall in downtown St. Louis on Saturday night. Tony and Adam had a Billikins basketball game that night, so I attended with Elise.  Honestly, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. Maybe without Elise I'd had a different opinion, but I did fret a bit on how she would fair for the night. German schnitzels or bratwurst and a polka band, while hanging out with a bunch of grandma and grandpa types might not go over so well.  I talked it up and really got her pumped up for the night, how we'd mingle and I'd introduce her to a lot of people. She was psyched for a good night. And what a good night we had. It was a perfect culmination of a historic weekend. Elise and I sat with the Walter's, the Flotz's, Tina and Kevin, and Brian. Thankfully they served fried chicken (hallelujah) and polka music was fine with Elise. So long as she could dance. And dance she did. After wearing me out, Brian graciously offered to dance with her. After she wore him out she moved on to Dr. Kearn Shemm, who spoke after Brian on Friday morning on the World Wide War Against the Germans.  Finally, she moved on to Katherine. It was very cute actually to see her flit around the dance floor. She was charming and social all night. A mother's dream considering it was not the most child-friendly environment.

Part of the evening was to have a few speakers come to the podium and express their gratitude for the weekend and offer up congratulations to Ann for the success and vision of the weekend. While the others spoke in broken english, one woman speaker came up and spoke in German for a solid 3 or 4 minutes. At one point I leaned over to Brian and said "You getting this?"

"No...although I think I heard Ph.d." he responded.

"Good. Me neither. Although I think I heard the word radishes. Did you hear it?"

Brian smiled. But how could Brian had ever have known 30 years ago in high school that German might be a good foreign language to learn and would help him as he worked toward his doctorate. I, however, took 4 years of German (yikes!) so I have no excuse for not being able to read and write and understand the language. Maybe I shouldn't be admitting this but I only took German in school out of family obligation. I mean, how could I not? I hated it though and it never really stuck. Now I'm just too old and lazy to learn it again. And yes, I feel sufficiently guilty for feeling that way and as an adult I think its one of my educational regrets in life. And no, I don't feel that way about the German language now.

It was a great weekend that I wish didn't have to end when it did. I miss my new and old friends alike and hope that there will be another opportunity for us to reconvene--and that this is a catapult for future reunions. It seems fitting that the men and women represented by the conference were survivors and not only rose above their adversity, but flourished.  Rather than this being a somber, sad conference, it was a celebration of the new lives they had created and a chance to say with forgiving hearts,  "I win".


At April 30, 2010 at 3:15 PM , Blogger Coach said...

What a wonderful reflection of the weekend this is. I find it extremely interesting to compare perceptions and notes on what we all thought of certain events. I got a few good laughs from the reminders about tht HUGE camera and the subjects it has been focused on. or how i didn't understand a single word of the German speaker. :-) Elise is a special young lady and is a testiment to your devotion to her and your family. Only one clarification...I have not yet attended my 30 year high school reunion. Just to be clear about it! :-)
thansk Bonnie for inviting me to read this and your other blogs. You are a talented writer...I think you should start that book NOW!
Brian/Coach/etc, etc, etc....:-)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home