By Robert B. Drynan
In 1762 and 1763 Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia, issued manifestos inviting Europeans to immigrate and farm undeveloped Russian lands. The immigrants were promised privileges preserving their own culture, religion and language and freedom from military service. The greatest response came from Germany in the first five years. Most settled in the lands bordering the Volga River. They became known as the Volga Germans. In the last years of the nineteenth Century and early twentieth, the imperial government of Russia began to rescind the promised privileges and many Volga Germans immigrated to America, particularly pacifist Mennonites. At the time of the Second World War and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Stalin rounded up the remaining almost half-million Volga Germans as potential subversives, stripped them of their lands and homes, and transported them to forced labor camps. Less than one third survived.
He stumbled, fell against a sapling, bringing down a shower of loose snow. It cooled the terrible burns on the left side of his face and on his hands. The rest of his body shook from frigid immersion in the icy waters of the forest swamp into which his burning aircraft had crashed.
A month before, Yuri Yurevitch Kreschenko, called Jerry by his West Point classmates, had been sweating in the tropical skies over Guadalcanal. Now he found himself on Christmas Eve of 1942, lost somewhere in the frozen forest of northern Kazakhstan. Because of his fluency in Russian, he had been sent to train Soviet pilots to fly the American-made P-39 Airacobras against the Nazi forces occupying Stalingrad. It seemed ironic that he should return to die in the wilderness from which his Russian father and Volga German mother had fled twenty years before during the civil war that ended in Bolshevik Russia.
Jerry staggered forward, not knowing where his path led, but still struggling against what he felt was his inevitable death. He could even hear the sweet song of an angel echoing through the forest: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht . . . The voice of the angel seemed so near! Did that mean that death was already upon him? He felt acceptance of the approaching end, but still . . . No! Not now!
The singing ended! He fell to his knees in the snow. Then he felt arms around his shoulders . . . the angel? He heard murmurings! His mother’s tongue, her Volga German dialect! He began to weep . . . what an unmanly way to go, he thought.
Jerry slowly came back to consciousness; his face and hands clothed in soothing coolness, and the terrible freezing chill of the soaking in the swamp was gone. Is this death? He smelled the smoke of a wood fire. Opening his one good eye, his vision swam into focus; he stared into the dark, serious eyes set in a cherubic face. He spontaneously spoke in Russian, “Who are you? Where am I?”
“Lina,” answered a childish voice, “you are in my bed.”
Jerry absorbed the simple beauty of the small child, but he needed more information. Finally, he managed, “Lina, where do you live?”
“Here . . . in this house,” she responded. Her eyes never left his. “Does your face hurt?”
“No, it feels cool.”
“It looks terrible. Your hands, too,” she added.
“Are you alone, Lina?”
“No,” she said in childish exasperation, “Mama and Opah.”
“Where is your mama?”
“In the forest with Opah. I stay and take care of you,” the child said proudly.
Jerry Kreshenko’s slow recovery from his injuries lasted almost an entire year. Nicolai Steinauer, and Natasha, the widow of Nicolai’s son who was gunned down resisting internment by Soviet soldiers, and her daughter, Alina had fled the round-up of Volga German descendants that followed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, finding refuge in the forested European Steppes of Kazakhstan. They had built a small log and mud dwelling. In the frozen winter they survived on the few turnips and potatoes ‘Tasha’ had planted the previous summer, berries she had scavenged in the woods, the small forest animals Nicolai trapped and the occasional elk he shot with his World War One relic rifle.
Jerry told Nicolai and Tasha his story: while training the Soviet colonel of the squadron to be equipped with American aircraft, they were attacked by a far-ranging German fighter patrol. The colonel was in the control seat, still getting the feel of the airplane, when they were sent flaming into the forest swamp, the Russian to his death.
Apart from the disfigurement caused by the burns to his face and hands, Jerry suffered a broken collarbone and dislocation of his left arm and a crushed wrist leaving his left hand useless. In the early days of his recovery, Natasha spent much of her mornings attending to his injuries. She used cold, damp cloths to soothe his burns and bathed and cleaned his lesser lesions to avoid infections. When Natasha left to gather wood, search for nuts and assist with Nicolai’s trap lines, Alina remained by Jerry’s side and they soon developed a series of childish games to amuse her. He told her stories he remembered from his own youth, invented others and told her of the wonders of the world that was America. In the evenings he related his stories to Natasha and Nicolai. Often Alina fell asleep in his arms by the warmth of the fire.
By the springtime Jerry’s wounds no longer required Natasha’s constant attention, but she continued to spend her mornings in his company. Soon, as the weather warmed, he and Alina began to accompany her on her expeditions into the forest to search of berries and herbs. Then Natasha found excuses to leave Alina behind with small tasks in the cabin. In the warm forest afternoons, Natasha and Jerry became lovers.
October of 1943 arrived. Sufficiently recovered, Jerry decided to make his way to British occupied Iran so he could return to the United States. In Iran he believed he could sponsor the immigration to the United States of Nicolai, Natasha and Alina. He was sure that the history of the Volga Germans and their present persecution in the USSR, supported by their care and sacrifice on his behalf, would be adequate to assure their acceptance. If he returned to Soviet jurisdiction, there would be no such chance.
Jerry did not reckon with the changing world of alliances against Nazi Germany. When they arrived at the Iranian border, British soldiers at the checkpoint crossing would not allow the Steinauers to accompany him any farther. Jerry refused to cross without them and turned back into Kazakhstan with his benefactors. Natasha and Nicolai argued and begged Jerry to return and cross without them, taking Alina with him. If they could not find refuge in America, they wanted Alina to have a future filled with the promise that Jerry had described to them.
Tasha wept and held her daughter, finally thrusting her into Jerry’s arms. “Take her with you, make her your daughter and love her as your own.” Surely, even the diplomats would not abandon a child with no other sign of adult support.
His own identification and his disfigurement won the sympathy of the British sergeant in charge of the border checkpoint. The sergeant allowed Jerry to pass with Alina despite Jerry’s patently false claim that she was his natural child, admonishing him that it would be up to him to find a way to get her through the diplomatic red tape in Teheran. At the end of November, Jerry and Alina arrived at the US Legation in Teheran. Nobody had time for refugees, especially at the moment. A very special diplomatic event was about to take place and the life of a four-year-old little girl was an annoying distraction.
The rising fury of the American Minister Plenipotentiary was evident in his voice. “I don’t care who you are, Colonel Kreschenko. I want you out of my reception, now!”
“Sir, this will take only a moment of your time.”
“Sandra, call the guards. I want this man placed under arrest.”
Within the minister’s private office a man, glancing apologetically at another who remained seated in a wheel chair, moved toward the door, as the diplomat began to sputter, “And get that guttersnipe, out of here.”
“Where to, sir,” his secretary Sandra, pled?
“Send her back to Russia. Let the Soviet border guards decide what to do with her,” the minister now spoke with hard coldness in his voice.
The door to the minister’s office opened and Averill Harriman, who had the month before been appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, stepped out. Harriman blanched when his attention fastened on the fire-ravaged face of the American officer in a leather flight jacket and ragged trousers. His eyes wandered to the small child clinging to the man’s only serviceable hand. “Your child,” he inquired?
This was the critical moment and Jerry chose honesty, “She adopted me... I adopted her. Yes, she is mine,”
Harriman glanced at the junior US diplomat to Iran, “Louis, I suggest that you escort the colonel and his daughter into your office.”
Harriman returned his gaze to Kreschenko, “Colonel, I’d guess it has been a long time since you’ve had a cup of coffee,” he shifted to Sandra, “would you please see to it?”
Sandra glanced at the child in relief, “Hot chocolate?”
“Shakalahd?” Jerry, placed his arm around the child’s shoulder and pulled her against his leg. “She doesn’t know what it is. Yes, please, I think she could use a treat.”
The 1960 Christmas Day Festival at the Conservatory featured a new voice, Alina Steinauer Kreschenko, a scholarship student from Michigan. The director of the school, when he introduced her, noted that in her first year at the Conservatory Alina had demonstrated a vocal purity and range of unusual quality. In his introduction of Alina he said, “This young lady has a very special story apropos of tonight’s celebration. I have asked her to relate it to you in her own words.”
A slim beauty with sparkling dark eyes and shiny black hair, dressed all in white, came onto the stage. She spoke in a gentle voice, modulated by quiet sadness. “I wish to dedicate this song to my stepfather, the only father I have ever known. Yuri Yurevitch Kreschenko, an American soldier, rescued me from the Soviet Union when I was barely four years old. He was a downed American aviator in Russia during the darkest days of the last war. My grandfather and my mother rescued him from death in the Russian winter of 1942. He brought me across the border to Teheran, but my mother and grandfather were refused passage. They have disappeared forever.”
She held up a faded document encased in a black frame. “My father’s furious insistence with the bureaucrats at the US embassy in Teheran seemed hopeless when he demanded to bring me with him to the United States, until another man overheard his loud demands and came to our rescue. That kind, gentle man gave me a letter of reprieve and enabled me to become an American citizen.” She pointed to the barely visible signature at the bottom of the framed letter, “It is signed Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President of the United States took the time to do this for a little girl while he, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin decided the fate of the world at the Teheran Conference of 1943.”
The lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the angelic young woman. It surrounded her figure with an ethereal glow. “Yuri Yurevitch Kreschenko adopted me, raised me as his own, and guided me through my youth to this moment in my life. This song has a very special meaning to me, to my father and to my mother of whom I have only the vaguest of memories since I left Russia.”
She paused for an eternal instant, “My father wanted so very much to be here with me tonight, but he fell ill and has been in the Veterans’ Hospital in Iron Mountain, Michigan for the past two weeks. I am here tonight at his insistence. This morning I received a telephone call. My father passed away last night, Christmas Eve, exactly eighteen years from the day he entered my life. I want to dedicate this to my father and to my mother who loved him.”
And she sang . . .
The words caressed Jerry’s spirit, enveloped him. Two voices, in harmony, a duet, voices like two angels: his daughter bidding him Farewell and her mother welcoming him home.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft, eisam wacht...“
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