Surviving war

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My mother in law, Maria Nikolaevna, was born in Lviv in the 1920s. In 1340 Lviv was part of Poland and later it became part of the Austrian Empire. In 1918 it ended up in the Second Polish Republic and in 1939 the Soviets invaded on took it over. During WWII, it fell into German hands and was eventually liberated by Polish and Soviet troops. After the war it ended up being part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union broke up, it ended up in Ukraine where it remains today.

Lviv was a major Polish and Jewish cultural center. In 1941, when the Germans arrived in the city, there were over 300,000 Jews living there, many of them were refugees from German occupied Poland. In 1943 about 800 remained. The rest were either killed or sent to camps. Maria Nikolaevna was 17 or 18 when the Germans took over. She recalls Jews being lined up in front of trenches and shot.

Maria Nikolaevna

Maria Nikolaevna was a linguist. She spoke Ukrainian, Russian, and German. She was pressed into service by the Germans to become their translator. At some point, and it is not clear how this happened, she was sent to Vienna to work for an Austrian General and his family. She was basically their slave. They lived in a large apartment on the fifth floor of an old building in the middle of the city. She loved Vienna but she was bitter about how she was treated. They did take her to the theater with them but she had to kneel in the aisle. When the bombing started and there was no water, she had to carry water up the stairs to their apartment.

The family had a country house outside the city and when things got bad they moved there. One day they just disappeared and Maria Nikolaevna was in the middle of Austria with nowhere to go and no money. A dairy farmer nearby took her in she worked on the farm for room and board.

She would walk to a small village each Sunday to attend church and became acquainted with a Russian priest who was living there. One day she saw Austrian troops on the road. They were coming home. The war was over. She was young and had seen a bit of the world and did not want to return to Lviv. Maybe it was too painful or maybe she just wanted a new start. The Russian priest offered to help her with passage to the US.

There was a large Russian speaking community living in New York City. The priest helped her connect with a family who would take her in. She lived with them and went to work in a factory. The conditions were so awful she only went once and never went back. She had done some sewing so she went to work sewing clothes. The conditions weren’t much better but at least it was tolerable.

The family she was living with knew a single man living nearby and suggested they meet. The man had been in the Russian army but spent most of the war in a POW camp in southern Germany. He knew it would be dangerous to return to Russia as Stalin was sending the POW’s to gulags. Stalin believed a soldier should always keep their last bullet for themselves rather than be captured by the enemy.

After dating for some time Maria Nikolaevna told Vasya she thought they should get married and he agreed. They were married by a Russian priest in a simple ceremony in New York. Vasya was an engineer and they heard there were jobs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They decided to move in search of a better life.

In Milwaukee they both found work and started a family. They bought a house and raised three children, all who attended college. One of them lived in Russia for many years and traveled to Lviv. Through him, the family was reunited.