It’s the idea that connects people all over the world. Some live in their home all their lives, while some lose their home and are forced to find a new one. However, the most unfortunate grow up without a home altogether. As I’ve found out, my paternal grandmother Zoya belongs to the latter category.
Even though I’ve known my grandmother Zoya my whole life, I’ve never really asked her about her youth. I was only aware that, after the Russian Revolution, her family, like many others, was forced to move all over the country to escape persecution. As a result, I felt a little nervous when my grandmother called me on Skype to start the interview.
Truth be told, I didn’t expect that call. I was planning on calling her next morning, not on a dark and quiet San Francisco evening. Needless to say, the change in schedule didn’t calm me down. Nevertheless, my nervousness subsided when I saw my grandmother. She was energetic as always, her gray hair cut short and contrasting with her dark eyebrows and olive skin.
She sat in front of her computer, diffused morning sunshine traveling through the curtains and lighting up her living room in Volgograd, with a big, ornamented carpet visible on the opposing wall. Even though I couldn’t feel it, I knew that it was much colder in Volgograd than in San Francisco, despite the sunlight suggesting the opposite.
In the beginning, we just made small talk in Russian. I asked my grandmother about her wellbeing and found out the reason for the change in schedule that it was simply more convenient for granny Zoya. Then the interview started.
To start the interview, I asked my granny about her father. I knew little about him, except that he fought against the communists in the Russian Civil War and for that had to travel far away from big cities to avoid pursuit by Soviet officials.
“He was a White officer, but when they lost he joined the Red Army until he retired in 1925,” she said.
That sentence caught me off-guard as it contradicted what I fought I knew about my great-grandfather. After all, he not only was an army officer, but also managed to switch sides, an undoubtedly difficult move considering that the Red Army was a communist force, while Whites were patriotic anti-Communists, which made them the biggest enemies during the Russian Civil War. While a simple soldier could have changed sides relatively easily, the officers had more power and were thus assumed to be more loyal to the cause, meaning it was harder for them to be accepted by the other side.
“He worked as an accountant,” she continued, “because he was educated. He had to, to be an officer in the White Army.”
She explained to me why her father had to run. “It was dangerous to be a former White officer. When you went to work, you sent your papers to Cheka [USSR’s security force]. When they checked then and learnt you were a former White officer, they chased you. So we had to move all the time. We lived in Noviy Oskol, and Kursk, and Karmak, and Nijni Tagil ….”
Here granny listed many places in Ural, some of which I knew, but most didn’t. Grandmother was unsure how long they stayed in one place, but she thought it varied from a couple of months to a year.
I felt a great sympathy towards my grandmother, as well as doubt about how I myself would have lived through that situation. I tried to imagine a life like that, always on the run, afraid that the next time you would be too late to move and you would be imprisoned and your family left with no way to support itself, but I knew that everything I imagined was just a shade of the real experience my grandmother and many others had to live through.
My grandmother explained to me that, while her father’s former position as an officer made them refugees, his talents allowed them to survive. “He was educated and had really neat handwriting,” she said. “At the time it was really rare; most people were ignorant and uneducated, especially in villages. So my father wrote letters for them to the government. They liked him for that and that’s why, when the papers arrived asking for him to come for questioning, they would always tell him and we were able to safely escape.”
Luckily, her father survived the pursuit. “In 1940, he travelled to Moscow to plead for the end of persecution. He was admitted to Kalinin [important Soviet functionary], who signed the papers that allowed my father to work freely. Thanks to that, we were able to settle in Talica.”
Unfortunately, her story didn’t end on that happy note. “We lived in Talica until 1947, when my mother died. Then we travelled to Belorusia to our relatives, but my father was sick with tuberculosis and died soon after, in 1949. On the bright side, we weren’t really affected by WWII, as we were far from the battlefront.” Grandma smiled, trying to put a positive spin on her misfortunes.
I was shaken by this, as even though I knew that my granny’s parents died when she was young, I didn’t know the details and was extremely surprised by grandmother’s fortitude, calmly discussing such extremely traumatic events and even finding strength to smile about the small successes. Still, I continued the interview and asked her about some details. “Do you remember when the persecution started?” I asked.
“It started before I was born,” she replied. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you much, but I was just too young to remember most of it. My elder brother could have told more, because he was born three years earlier.” Suddenly, that sentence ignited her memory. “He was born in 1927, and it must have been just when we became refugees. Yes, it all started in 1927 and ended in 1940, when I was six, soon after my younger brother was born in Karmak.”
I later found out that the start of the family’s persecution wasn’t accidental, even though it came after the end of Civil War in Russia. That year corresponded with the rise of Joseph Stalin to power as a leader of the Soviet Union. He was famous for his paranoia and tendency to repress everyone he fought was against him, so it certainly made sense to start with those known to disagree with the USSR policies.
Finally, I asked my grandmother whether she had anything from her time as a refugee.
“How could I? We were too poor,” she remarked. “We had only what we could carry, just clothes and pillows and beddings. Even if we had kept anything, we would have had nowhere to put it. In Karmak, we lived five people in a single room.”
Still, she ended the interview on a high note. “It became much better when we settled in Talica. Even though there was war going on, we had a cow and chickens and gave their milk and eggs to help the army during WWII.”
The interview provided me with a lot to reflect on. My grandmother spent her early childhood on the run, with no place to call home and no possessions to treasure. Remembering her first real home filled her with joy, despite her stay there ending in tragedy. However, even today many are forced to live the same way my grandmother once did, lacking any home and unsure whether they’ll ever find one. The testimonies of witnesses such as my grandmother reveal not only the tragedy of children born and raised without a home, but also the ease with which just one signed paper can bring salvation to whole families.
Dead silence. Suddenly Ms. Ho hears footsteps, scurrying at first with minimal sound but exponentially getting louder. She turns the two bodies over. Dead. Bullets shot straight through the head and the heart. Blood. Blood spilling everywhere. It’s gruesome, it’s gory, it’s a civil war between the citizens and the corrupt government. Those two gunshots really crack the air. She could hear screaming, people in her boat yelling at the dead ones to wake up. The footsteps stop along with the arrival of a couple of Vietnamese security guards, dressed up all in dark rather camouflaged green, holding up flashlights at them. It’s dark all around, the water, the sky, the fate of some of their lives. “We don’t want any harm,” she tells them, “we gave the needed gold to get our boat and our boat leader is a very kind and good one.” Pause. BANG! A bullet rocketed straight out of one of the guard’s hidden rifles headed towards her, in a fish tank where she was hiding, but deflected from a basket next to Ms. Ho’s head, veering off instead to her sister’s back. This was real, this was a part of Ms. Ho’s teenage years when she fled her country, Vietnam, after the Vietnam War, the war in which both the US insurgents as well as the capitalist South Vietnamese lost to the Northern Vietnamese communists in 1975. 1977 was when Vietnam decided to kick out all Chinese, a thankful act for those who wanted to get away from the corrupt communists. Luckily for her, she just so happened to be able to pass with her special double racial ethnicity as Chinese and Vietnamese.
Ms. Xuan Ho is my mother’s friend whom she met at Oracle many years back. She is a black haired, middle-aged computer scientist who now lives here in California, working at Oracle for the last 16 years. She also has an extremely traumatic backstory that got her from Vietnam to here, raising her family, getting a living and more. Having been to all of my birthday parties when I was younger, she knows me pretty well. I knew her vaguely from my past, yet, as one can tell by looking at a five-year-old’s brain, they seem to forget those kinds of things.
It was a casual Monday evening down at the Oracle Headquarters where my mom helped to arrange to meet with her. My hands were anxiously tapping at my thighs to get ready for the massive overload of quick jotting and typing of notes I would have to take in a couple minutes. I didn’t know much of Ms. Ho’s background information until my mom told me in the car on the way to Oracle Building 200. I forgot my pen so I decided that I could just type and record with permission via my notoriously indestructible Nokia. The time in our car said 5:01 and the meeting was supposed to start at 5 sharp. I was very nervous and asked my mom to drive a bit faster, but she barked back that she didn’t want some GTA V police car to come over anytime soon. 5:02.
After many stop-and-ask questions and joking some three to Pho puns with my mom about being so late, I finally found Ms. Ho waiting patiently for us near the mirror that viewed our majestic crescent-shaped backyard filled with the beautiful fountain and the “floating” Oracle America’s Cup Winner Boat. The wall we were near looked like the common office-styled “100% Pure Wood” theme.
“Christine! Your son! He’s grown so tall since I last saw him!” Ms. Ho exclaimed to my mom.
“Thank you! Ahaha!” said my mom.
There was some quick talk about life and all between my mom and her while I started setting up my computer for note-taking and more. After a while, I felt that the environment felt right enough to dive into my first question and so then I did. “As a refugee, what sparked the sudden desire to leave your birthplace and country? Was it a life-and-death experience? What did you witness or what did you do to get out of the place?”
Ms. Ho, being a native of Vietnam, told me: “The real reason for trying to escape Vietnam was because after the World War ended and post the split of Vietnam’s North and South to being just a single ‘Vietnam’ ruled by corrupt commies, people would be living in fear because all citizens would have no freedom. Everyone would have at least one official look after every single check, bill, action that a citizen has been doing to make sure everything is under the legal rules of the communist government. No freedom at all. People would mostly just follow everything the corrupt government would say as means to not get suspected on and watched over even more. For my family, we were somehow claimed as the third richest family of all of Vietnam.”
When she said this, I expected some sign of happiness or positive facial expression, yet when I glimpsed at Ms. Ho’s face, she seemed to portray the contrary.
Looking down solemnly at the empty table we were sitting at, she said that “The communist government would send armies and thugs to go out at night and ransack those rich families’ jewelry store (our family had one too), and would torture the parents and temporarily jail the kids. They felt that by ransacking and stealing money from the rich and putting it into the hands of the government would even out the economic disparity gap capitalism always would have, thus achieving their dream goal of an economic equilibrium, communism. Everyone gets everything the same, everyone is not broke but not rich at all either. We didn’t want anything bad to happen to us, so my family decided to flee at night with 267 other Chinese Vietnamese, with the aid of the fact that the Vietnamese recently decided to kick out the Chinese. Myself being part Chinese and Vietnamese, I was an exception, but I still went. My parents had to bribe boat leaders to take me away, and they went their ways. I was alone with strangers.”
Hearing this, I reflected on how grateful I should be for having the opportunity to be born in and live in such a beautiful place as the Silicon Valley. I don’t think that I would’ve stayed alive for long if I would’ve had to leave my family, like what Ms. Ho did, as means to head on to a non-assured path to liberation.
“We were placed in a small boat as big as roughly two small tables, not big for 267 people. We would vomit from such huge seas and having only two decks; sometimes the top deck filled with the boat crew and family would vomit on us and cause illnesses to spread. Many got sick and some died. Many times, we would get stopped by Vietnamese Communist Security Guards who would ask what we were shopping for. I would have to hide inside the many fish tanks our boat had in the bottom deck. Sometimes they would let us go if our boat leader would bribe them, but sometimes they weren’t as friendly.”
“By not friendly,” I interrupted, “do you mean blockading-kind-of non-friendly or?”
“No,” Ms. Ho insisted, “non friendly as in they would stick out their rifles and check to see if we were there via noises down in our level and hearing from the top. One time, one couple was so happy that we were fleeing that they clapped really loudly and made so much noise that the guards came and shot them dead and tried to shoot me but missed. God saved me that day. Many times we would get the worst of the worst health conditions. I was only able to recover back to a healthy condition but barely alive when we were stopped by a Malay Marine who would’ve shot us down if my boat leader didn’t negotiate with them to let us onto their island, Paulo Bidong, where I waited for my sponsor to America.”
I then asked her if she had a pivotal moment that really inspired the motivation to leave Vietnam. “My kind friend,” she explained, “told me that our family was on the list of getting robbed one night and that we should go somewhere safe. Knowing this in advance, we decided to bribe the government ahead of time so as to not get raided and to get the government to like us and no longer bother us. It was really all about money, fear, and lack of freedom.”
Freedom. I heard that word come up a lot.
“It’s a key word to every individual’s happiness. Without freedom, there’s a lot of limits to what you can do in your life,” Ms. Ho insisted.
“So what got you here from Malaysia?” I asked, using it as a transition to my next question.
“I got here by a sponsor from my elder sister who was living in Arkansas,” she declared. “She helped bring me here on my 23rd birthday. I was given clothes too, a wonderful thing, because over there on the boat we could only bring one set of clothes and that was it. Also, I was baptized as a Christian in Arkansas in a church I stayed in and helped out in because when I was about to get shot in my boat that other time, I thought that in America there were no Buddhist temples and so I prayed that if I wouldn’t die I would convert. I always keep promises.”
“Okay, this one may be hard, but because you aren’t a soldier who killed somebody, was there ever a time when you saw someone die and felt sad because you couldn’t do anything to help them?” I nervously asked, knowing that we weren’t supposed to discuss these kinds of questions, as we were warned.
There was a small pause. I sheepishly looked around the room as if I had done something wrong. Eventually, noises of birds outside the window chirping broke up the silence.
“Yes, of course,” she said, looking sternly at me, her eyebrows furrowing into a V-shape. “I remember back on the Malay island one time when I heard one of my neighbours say that one of my friends has felt trapped staying on that island for so long (six months) and decided to take the chance and commit suicide. It was very, very depressing. Her whole family had already died, and the neighbour who told me was her husband. Another time, that same person’s brother also had a very sad accident. He was traveling by boat and so happened to cross some Thai pirates who saw he had a ring on his finger and tried to cut it off and ended up doing so as well as pushing and drowning him in the ocean too.”
I felt as if all these Vietnamese refugees were just like running targets, people with bounties on their heads which would attract others to try and ruin their lives. I felt pity for her.
“Lastly,” I told her, “how did you adapt to this new cultural place from Vietnam’s? And, rather off topic, but how do you believe your words can be relayed to later generations?”
With confidence, she replied, “Not being a born American, it took a rather long time to figure out how things go in this capitalistic country versus back home in the communist area. There were times when I would be scared and embarrassed because of my need for food stamps as a jobless refugee when I first got to the US. Eventually, I was able to know where to apply for jobs, got married, had kids, was able to do night school, thus earning a nine year degree for Computer Science and also now am working at Oracle as result. I do mosaics too!”
Her facial expression of a leader showed. “About advice to give,” she declared, “I believe that while it may be hard to grasp, as my kids have shown me by ignoring it like it’s any other story, my words can be relayed to later generations via the things I have gone through. People these days in the US are very spoiled and take things for granted. Their lives were so smooth when raised up while I had to struggle to build from scratch, building from the very bottom. Our generation had to work very hard, sometimes harder than this one due to the disadvantage of not having the amazing technology we now have these days. My whole trip, starting from the moment I left Vietnam via the boat (being known now as Boat People), has definitely shifted my life to a better one (the more I go on in life). I thank God for that and for all the deeds he has given me. I learned the importance of freedom too, how it can affect one’s life via lack or attainment of human rights, and more.”
Thanking her, when I went in the car to go home, I took into account all the things Ms. Ho said, and started to reflect. I felt that her pride to not stick with food stamps and all was a good thing too because it helped her motivation grow to be like the rest and work hard to get her to the good living she is living in now, and I feel that I should do something similar to that too later in my life. I reflected on all the concepts and things I have taken for granted in my life. What would happen if I was placed in a different situation? If I had no life with freedom, no human rights given to me? Would I survive? Would I make it as well as Ms. Ho was able to do? This interview bore witness to a human’s rights event, for the crisis Ms. Ho was placed in was because of a lack of human rights, the right of freedom, one of the most important of all human rights. For me, this situation that she was in is very important to record, for, as history plays out, people will tend to forget these genocides, tortures, and even despotism that took place in the past. Things that can be very useful resources to look back for possible future leaders. To make a better future, one must know and remember all the traumas, the victories and successes of events in the past. The Vietnam War effect was a big one and should not be forgotten. One of America’s losses in war, losing to the Communist Viets. The Vietnam War was meaningful for both Ms. Ho and for witnesses of her story, for it affected Ms. Ho in a positive way by cause of a negative reason. Due to the lack of freedom and the vast corruption in Vietnam, she fled and ultimately found paradise in America after years of hard work. Truths that this testimony revealed were that hard work pays off, freedom is an essential necessity to the happiness and success of an individual, communism and despotism defy many human rights, and being a witness, while it may not be directly you in the picture, does indirectly take you into the events that show what happened, almost like a memory placer. The value of this testimony is that it is one that should be remembered; it is essentially a witness journal. I believe that while it is very important to know of famous stories of the struggles of, say, Malala, we should also keep account for those who had to go through difficult and traumatic experiences too that got them to their paradise. For Ms. Ho, her enemy, Vietnam, took away her freedom, yet she fought and persevered and was able to reach her paradise of freedom, in America. We must keep into account these things. We must give respect to those who had to work equally hard to get to where they are now. Let us stop being the running targets of our fear and enemy and let us strive for excellence by surviving and telling them to others to let their wisdom grow and learn from our mistakes and fears.
“I never felt desperate.” As my maternal grandma said this to me about her experience as a refugee during the Second Sino-Japanese War, I really admired her optimism and strength after fleeing thousands of miles from her place of birth to another completely different city twice.
I had heard from my mother about my grandma’s experience as a refugee. Starting from July 7, 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War lasted eight years. During those eight years, my grandma fled with her family twice in order to avoid the invasions from Japanese, witnessing a lot of refugees’ tragedies caused by the war. Knowing the difficulty to survive during the war, I was afraid of this interview at first, fearing the interview would make my grandma’s sad recollection come back. During the winter break in 2015, I went back to my home, Shenzhen, China, and saw my grandma. She is called Ying Liu, a retired college professor of history in Wuhan, China. She always lives in Wuhan but Chinese New Year brought her to Shenzhen. I saw her when I came back from the airport. She is a short old woman with nearly grey long hair and a smiling face. I wanted to mention the interview several times but I withdrew it because I did not want to remind her of the memories during that hard time during the jubilant Chinese New Year. Finally, with the support from my parents, on February 20, 2015, I asked my grandma after dinner.
“Grandma, would you like to have an interview with me for my English assignment?”
“Wow, this sounds really fun! What is your English class about?” she asked with excitement.
“My English class is called Literature of Witness, which is the literature about life experience during war, genocide, etc.” I lowered my voice when I mentioned the word “war.”
“Oh… about war… sure, I can share my experience as a refugee. Let’s begin.” She was so clever that she understood the intention of the interview before I told her.
We sat down on the couch in the living room with red decorations of Chinese New Year around. She began to talk.
My grandma was born in 1934 in Jinan, a northern Chinese city near Beijing. When she was four years old, the Second Sino-Japanese War began. Several months later, the Japanese bombed Jinan. My grandma’s house was destroyed entirely. “The roofs collapsed and the wells were sealed by the bombs. We had no place to live,” said my grandma. “So my father decided to flee south to Changsha, a city near his rural hometown.” When her family was on a train on their way to the south, my grandma recollected what she saw on the train. “There were so many refugees that the train was crowded with people both inside and outside. The top of the train was filled with people while Japanese planes were throwing bombs to the train. I saw flying hands, arms, and legs through the train window… and… and the grass outside became red…” My grandma lowered her voice. Her pauses made me feel her nervousness of the scene. “When we walked, some babies were left on the road, crying loudly. Their parents left them because the adults wanted to survive. Also, I saw a lot of luggage left on the road. People had to throw things away to increase their speed. I can still hear the sounds of people’s running footsteps and babies’ crying now,” she said.
After a month of fleeing, my grandma arrived in Changsha and settled down. She thought she could have a rest. But she was once again pushed to flee away. In 1938, because the Japanese army succeeded conquering Wuhan, a city north of Changsha and was going to invade Changsha next, the government applied the scorched earth policy to burn the whole city of Changsha. “Hearing this announcement, I did not say anything and started packing,” said my grandma. “We then fled to a rural village that was about 200 miles from Changsha on foot. We ate wild grass and slept in the bush.”
“Did you know about that rural village before you went there?” I asked.
“No. The village was so poor that you could barely find a good bed to sleep and a good meal to eat. The most serious problem was the lack of salt in the village. After eating meal without salt for a month, everyone was swollen and lacked energy. So we dug into the walls of bathrooms because the walls contained saltpeter, which could separate sodium chloride after stewing.”
“So you just ate food with bathrooms’ walls?” I asked with astonishment.
“Yes. That is how we lived during that hard time. There was no other choice. Survival was our first choice.”
“During that hard time, did you ever feel desperate when you were fleeing?”
“No, I never had that feeling. My elder sister and her husband were anti-Japanese teenagers at that time. They organized teenagers to fight back against the Japanese while helping my family move from Jinan to Changsha. I was inspired by their optimism and confidence during the hard time and their love for their country. They were not distressed by the war so how could I feel desperate? Later, nine people from my family attended the war and some of them became high-ranked leaders of the troops. Their attitude to life was the source of my survival. I had waited in the poor village till the end of the war for the following seven years.” My grandma answered firmly and confidently. I was surprised when she answered. I could not believe a four or five-year-old girl who experienced the life of a refugee did not ever feel hopeless when eating wild grass and meals with bathrooms’ walls. Meanwhile, I thought I was so fragile that I always felt angry for trivial things.
“How did you think your experience changed your life and your view of your country?” I asked.
“Those years of fleeing and hiding made me love and treasure my life more and love my country more. When I became a teacher, I always taught my students to love their country because without the endeavor of our people and government we would not live in such a happy life. My experience made me love my country more. I really thanked my country. It resisted Japanese for eight years! It was so poor and weak compared to Japanese at that time but it won the war! I really love my country.”
“Have you ever thought about forgiving the perpetrators?”
“No! No at all! They caused a large number of destructions to both China and Chinese people! Besides, they have not faced up to their crimes until now. They should learn from German people. They should apologize to Chinese people and promise they will not invade any country in the future!”
I was proud of my grandma and I was so glad that I got a chance to interview her and share her experience. I felt depressed at the first half of the interview when I heard the tragedies of the refugees and my grandma’s life, but my attitude changed at the end of the interview. I was moved by my grandma’s optimism and striving spirit during those hard years. She even did not complain once about her hard life. Instead, her experience helped her love her country and life more. Her optimism and confidence helped her overcome the hard time. I did not feel awkward anymore for asking my grandma about her experience during the war because I knew even the worst war could not defeat her.
Portola Valley, California— It was a sunny Wednesday morning and I had just taken the routine break that was given to all Priory students after the first class that day. I was walking up the hill and past the art building to the monastery when I saw a car pulling up towards me. It was Father Maurus pulling up and coming back from a doctor’s appointment with Father Pius. He parked the car, stepped out and greeted me warmly with a handshake. He then showed me into the Monastery and into his office. He was wearing casual clothes that day and not in his usual monk attire. His office was welcoming and cozy. He offered me a chair and something to drink. I was glad for the drink and thanked him.
“How are you doing?” he asked me.
“Good,” I replied. “Thank you so much for letting me interview you.”
“I’ll do my best,” he responded. With pleasantries covered, we launched into the interview. I had only been in the Monastery once before and I was once again struck by quiet, solemn atmosphere. The Monastery has a long hallway with a living room and offices at one end. Bedrooms or “cells” as the monks call them are at the other end of the hall. Each monk has their own room that consists of very minimal furniture, a twin bed, table and dresser. I continue to be amazed at Father Maurus’ dedication of his life to God and the Priory.
Born in a small village near the Austrian border in Hungary, Father Maurus went to high school just before the Hungarian revolution broke out. Also, at the time during the revolution, Soviet Russia viewed going to church as a criminal offense. Hungary was under the Communist rule of Soviet Russia at this time. Communist Russian Rule started in Hungary after the defeat of Hungary during World War II when Russian forces took the capital city of Budapest on February 13, 1945.1 Russian forces would remain in Budapest until Allied forces liberated the city on April 4, 1945.2
“So, James, you’re a senior this year, does this mean you’re eighteen?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I was your age when I fled my home country. But, I couldn’t just leave. I had to say goodbye to my family and friends first.”
Father Maurus said goodbye to his family, which included his mom, dad, and his younger sister who was eight at the time, and started the journey to the Austrian border. Just after crossing the border into Austria, and approximately twenty-five miles from his hometown, Father Maurus was placed into a refugee camp and given temporary asylum in Austria. He was then given a choice as to where to eventually end up and start a new life.
With the goal to eventually get to the United States, Father Maurus chose Canada as his final destination at the time since the United States had already filled its quota of refugees for that particular year. After a week’s time on a boat, he finally landed in the Quebec Province of Canada. But, that was not Father Maurus’ final destination; he wanted to get as far west as possible. So he hopped on a train, “a nice sleeper” as he called it, and rode the train all the way to Vancouver and arrived in June of 1957. While in Vancouver, Father Maurus participated in various job settings, two of which were the most interesting. During the non-winter months, he worked in the railroad industry making repairs on various parts of the railroad in order to keep the trains and the passengers safe. During the winter months, he worked as a lumberjack in the cold Canadian North miles away from any big city such as Vancouver. He told me that he enjoyed doing various jobs in Canada. But, he was always focused on his ultimate goal, to eventually get into the United States.
Father Maurus came to the Priory on August 10, 1963, but had to work hard in order to get to the Priory. Since arriving in Vancouver, he had been in constant communication with Father Egon around the holidays. Father Maurus contacted Father Egon by phone through a mutual friend and asked for help with their Hungarian Christmas celebration in Vancouver. Father Egon gave him help and sent Father Leopold to Vancouver to help in the Hungarian Christmas celebration, specifically with the Christmas mass services and celebrations. This went on for the next couple years and after the second Christmas was held in Vancouver, Father Maurus was invited to come to the Priory. When he arrived, Father Maurus immediately loved the campus. He joined the Priory community that very day. After joining the Priory community, Father Egon asked Father Maurus if he wanted to go back to school in the United States. Father Maurus took the offer and graduated from St. John’s University in New York in 1968, studying Biology and Philosophy. After graduating, Father Maurus went to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and graduated in three years. Upon his return to the Priory, Father Maurus became the Biology teacher and Science Department Head for 25 years, relinquishing his role in 2008.
Since his arrival at the Priory, Father Maurus has become the spokesman between Priory and a number of Catholic schools in Hungary and he goes back to Hungary every year to recruit possible students for the next academic year.
“This allows community expansion,” he says. “It is a change for Hungarian students in that they get to experience American culture and lifestyle.”
At the end of the interview, I asked him whether or not he forgave his oppressors during the time of the Hungarian Revolution. He responded with just a simple sentence.
“Not to forgive is hurting no one except the person who refuses to forgive, and to forgive is to also be free.”
Father Maurus did eventually get to see his family again. Thirteen years after the Hungarian Revolution had ended, he went back to his hometown to visit. Since he had left, his sister had grown up and become a teacher but she suffered oppression from the government due to the fact that he had escaped during the revolution. Father Maurus feels that he has a scar from his escape that “wouldn’t cause bitterness or regret” and that, “it was God’s will for my escape.” He views this event in his life as “a miracle from God himself” and he is deeply grateful that he was able to escape from Hungary at the right time.
Looking back on the interview, I think that this was a good experience to get the chance to interview a refugee from a significant event in world history. Father Maurus provided the intellectual insight that helped to educate me about the Hungarian oppression during the time of the Soviet Union and Communist Russia. He also provided understanding into his own life that I had not previously known about in my entire time at the Priory. It is important for researchers to study this event because it marked the break-up of the Soviet Union during World War II and contributed to perhaps one of the most major events in American History. I believe that smaller events within bigger ones such as World War II go unnoticed by the public eye most of the time and doesn’t give those who suffered traumatic events during those times the opportunity to share their stories. Father Maurus’ story is one of these cases.
I knew him as Markus the upholstery man, as I often visited his upholstery shop as a child in San Francisco. He taught me how to use a nail gun, the coolest toy for a ten year old, and always had Kopobka (a Russian candy) for me to eat. Before this last month, that is all I knew Marcus to be, Marcus the upholstery man who had a funny looking tattoo on his left hand. I had no idea that his story was a representation of the thousands of Ukrainian and Russian refugees still in America today. The Ukraine after WWII was a place many avoided. A volatile government matched with communist ideals warded off American policy makers and citizens. A place where, even though it was more progressive than Russia, Jews still feared to live in. Marcus Miretsky, a Jew who found refuge in America, came from the Ukraine after his experiences with persecution.
It was a typical San Francisco Saturday morning as I exited the 101 at Vermont Street. Fog blanketed the city, and eager drivers sped past me as I tried to find my way to Marcus’ shop. It had been a hectic morning to say the least. My phone had broken, leaving me without my interview questions, recording device, or navigation. I desperately tried to remember the way my grandmother had taken me to his shop. I had exactly ten minutes before my interview, and I was sweating. I could not call anyone for help, nor could I Google the location. I pulled off the road and exited my car. The cool San Francisco air revived my mindset and calmed my nerves. As I began driving I started to remember certain buildings. The McDonalds across from the supermarket was where I remembered it, one block from Marcus’ shop. I turned left on Florida Street and there it was: A tall three story industrial building with Belmar written at the top. I made it.
The room was warm. Dark mahogany wood engulfed the walls, and soft fabrics lined the chairs. I sat there worried. I had no recording device, only a piece of paper and interview questions in my mind. The two double doors I had entered through swung open, and without warning a bellowing voice rang through my ears.
“Tyler! My boy! You’ve grown!”
Marcus always wore wingtip shoes, quite possibly in the brightest color he could find and always dressed well. He was by no means the tallest Ukrainian refugee out there as he stood looking up to me.
“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today,” I remarked.
“Of course! I remember when you used to come through my shop and play with the tools. We made a chair together. Do you remember?”
I remembered my time in Marcus’ shop vividly, and after catching up with both him and his wife Bella, who was working nearby, I asked my first question. “What was your experience with persecution?”
He quickly replied in broken English, “Well, for example, when I was little and my grandfather wanted to take me to synagogue, ok, it has been warning by Ukrainian government not to take children to synagogue. Just they kept for the old people. They wanted to eliminate the new population from believing in something more than government. Another thing, when I was teenager and I got Beatles and Presley, because I’m 60s, and when they caught you with the record they put you in jail. That why I always kept my room closed tight when I played the rock or boogie in my room. Another thing, if government catch you with American jeans or shirts they bring you to militia and shave your hair. Then everyone point and laugh at you and call you “American.” I thought and wish one day that I could be there.”
The feeling of government control was obvious and not something I experience today. It was new and surprising to me to hear these things. I asked my next question, “How did it make you feel when you tried to go to synagogue. Was there fear?”
“No, when you kid it’s not fear. You don’t understand fear. It’s like a game that you are playing. Your grandpa hide you in his cape and the fear was from my grandfather in fear. I was playing a game to hide. For me it was not fear.”
I noticed the tattoo on Marcus’ hand as he scratched it. I wondered what it was as I never knew.
“What is that on your hand?” I eagerly asked.
“It is tattoo from when I was in military service to protect my beautiful country, to protect the communism in my country.”
I had not realized he was in the army, so I asked a follow up question. “How did you find yourself in the army?”
He replied with a smile, “It was mandatory of course, as it is now in Putin time. And in my time if you come 5-15 minutes late they can arrest you as you stand in the line.”
“What was your role in the army?” I quickly interjected.
“To tell you the truth I was a soldier. You name it, I shoot AK-47, I ride in the tank, I almost saw combat. I was in a plane in 1968 to go to Prague but God saved me, I think he loves me, because I was in KGB service. The KGB service protects me because I was soldier in KGB.”
Before he was able to go any further, his wife Bella interjected, “I came to say good bye and they kept us whole night outside with no food and didn’t let me in to see my husband before he went to war.”
“It’s all a high secret” Marcus added. “You don’t know where you are going or why.”
It was a lot to take, especially finding out he was in the KGB, but I continued my questions. “How did you find yourself in the KBG? Was it automatic?”
“No, they send you at random to be a sailor or a special office. I was just picked to be soldier in KGB army. I was in college before but they pull me out to be in military. I was studying to be a vocalist.”
“You left Ukraine. When did you leave?” I asked.
“I left in 1969. The army would shorten service time based on certain criteria. It was if you had a wife, they shorten one year. If you have children, they shorten year. And if you have a sick parent they shorten again. I had all of those things, but they would not let me go home. They told me that you Jews are story tellers and these things are not true.”
“So they separated you from the Russian population just because you were Jewish?” I blurted out.
“Yes, so I served more years. I already served two years.”
“Tell him how the officers beat you,” Bella added.
“Yes, 23 officers beat me with chairs because I was Jew. Luckily, they turned off the lights, and I grabbed this and hit someone and broke their shin and I jumped out of two story building into trashcan. This is how I survived. I spent two weeks in military hospital because I had bruises and broken ribs…. You don’t want to be a Jew in military for Russia. From first day they separate you. The General made a meeting and told everyone, ‘There is a new type of people, the Jews, they are not good people,’ and one guy said, “Who are these people?” and the General said, ‘They are among us.’ My friend turned to me and said, ‘Marcus, who are these awful people?’ and I said, ‘Nicholas, it’s me,’ and he said, ‘No, no, not you Marcus.’”
As a Jew I recognized his pain, and it hurt me to think of such brutality just because of someone’s religion. I continued the interview. “How did this make you feel?” I asked.
“At first you want to take your AK-47 and shoot them. Bang! Bang! Bang! I get up one night because I could not sleep and go to the pyramid. Pyramid holds all the guns and bullets. I tried to get into it, but God help me it was locked and the key locked in officer’s room. I want to just take 30 bullets and kill all the people. But when I woke up and was outside, I got fresh breath of air and thought to myself, ‘No, this life is worth more than this garbage, and I want to be in America one day and I have to be patient so I waited.”
“How did you then get to America?”
“It was time of Jimmy Carter,” he replied. “He fight for human rights, and in 1959 he exchanged thousand Soviet Jews for bread and meat. But Russia did not know of this, and America did not know of this. I got here from Carter’s exchange. And they sent me to San Francisco with a work permit because I was in upholstery business and San Francisco good for upholstery.”
Curious about his experiences recently, I asked, “Have you ever gone back?”
“Yes, nine years ago to Kiev. It was beautiful. We were supposed to stay two weeks, but I could only stay six days. The mentality is too different. It was waste of time. I went back to military barracks and remembered what I went through.”
Finalizing the interview, I asked Marcus if he had any resentment towards the people who wronged him in the past.
“You cannot go through life with anger. I try to keep my head calm and my heart warm. You cannot keep the anger. The biggest fight in your life is with yourself, not with others,” he said with a sense of enlightenment.
As the interview closed, both Marcus and his wife Bella smiled and looked at each other.
“We have been together since we were 19 and nothing has separated us. That is my joy.”
Marcus has found success in America and is grateful for his experience and the opportunities he has been given. His outlook gives me a sense of understanding how lucky I am to be born here without these struggles.
As I exited the three story building, I reflected upon the conflicts I have in my life and began to forgive. Entering into the interview, unsure of the outcome, I left with a new outlook on life. I realized the importance of witnesses and the role they play in society. Without first-hand witnesses like Marcus, I could not be as thankful for the small things in my life. My freedom is more important to me now than it has been in the past, and I recognize the cruel and unfair life of some people. Now, after all of these years, I found out what that tattoo on his hand represented. In Russian it read “Bel-Mar,” short for Bella and Marcus. The name he gave his business. As I drove home I remembered what Marcus said, “The biggest fight is with yourself, not others.”