She was Baba. She was Mama. She was the matriarch of a family of strong-willed survivors. She was a survivor herself.
She was Anna Treflimovna Zukowska Pletin Didenko (although not entirely her full name, as I do not have the surname of her first husband). She was my babushka, my babusia, my bubbe, my grandmother.
She was Baba.
Anna was born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on February 17, 1922 to Treflim Zukowsky and Maria Zukowska. She had a brother, but she never mentioned his name. Perhaps it was her way of sharing deep dark secrets of her life without feeling the full burden of what she had witnessed and ultimately experienced.
Anna’s first known hardship in life came at the hands of the Red Army when they stormed into the Ukrainian SSR in 1932, when she was only 10. USSR President Joseph Stalin had ordered a mass destruction of the crops and livestock of the Ukrainian people. While the main initative is still being debated to this day, what is clear is that Stalin wanted to wipe out an entire nation of people by intercepting imported goods, restricting transport within the SSR, and ration food items in people’s homes. This order, which growing up I knew it as “holodom,” or “hunger,” was later discovered to be known as Holodomor. Anna and her family suffered greatly amongst this order by Stalin and his troops; she and her parents would survive, however her brother would parish, according to a chat with Anna in 2015.
One of the most terrifying accounts of Holodomor I have ever heard was when Anna shared with me in the same 2015 chat was about her childhood friend and neighbor. Anna’s neighbor was about 3-4 years younger that she was, but they played in the steppe near their homes, picking up flowers for fun and grain for their mothers to make bread. Anna said that she saw her neighbor friend go out and play out in to the fields, but didn’t join her as she had chores to do. The neighbor’s mother went outside calling for her daughter to come home, when she had spotted a fawn grazing nearby. Without hesitation, Anna said, the mother ran back inside and grabbed a knife. She ran out into the fields, caught and slaughtered the fawn, skinned it, and returned the carcas into the house. The mother had put her prize catch into a pot with boiling water when she went back outside, this time calling for her daughter again. However, there was no response. Anna heard the mother’s cries and went outside to assist in calling for the little girl, but the fields were quiet and empty. Anna and the neighbor’s mother went inside the neighbor’s home, and the neighbor’s mother went to the pot of boiling water to show Anna the fawn she caught and was preparing to have for supper. When the mother opened the lid, there was a scream heard unlike any other; the mother realized that the fawn that she had caught and slaughtered was not a fawn at all. It was the little girl, her daughter, Anna’s friend. The famine was so severe, it caused delirium from a lack of food to make a proper distinction between a baby deer and a 6-year old human girl.
Anna’s second known hardship in life came when Nazi airplanes began bombing her oblast, or state or province, in 1943, when she was pregnant with her second child, at just 21-years old. According to family legend, her first husband died while fighting the Second World War as a pilot for the Red Army, and she married her second husband shortly thereafter. But her second husband didn’t stay home often; he was recruited by the Schultzstaffen to join the Ukrainian Auxillary Police around 1941, a nationlist militia whose main objective was to board Jews, Poles, and “other unlikables” onto trains heading to concentration camps, such as Sobibor, Babi Yar, and Warsaw. It was several weeks before the birth of Anna’s second child did her second husband, along with about 5,000 other officers, defect from the 100,000 strong UAP. When the news of the small defection reached Berlin in 1943, Adolf Hitler ordered a campaign to find the defectors, to kill them and their families on sight, and to destroy the village where they were discovered. This prompted Anna to leave her first child, a 4-year old son, with her parents so that they could survive. Meanwhile Anna and her second husband took off and evaded the Nazi blitzkrieg, never to return.
In the next post, I will cover the second half of Baba’s life, including her migration to the United States and the reunification of her past and her present.