Friday, June 24, 2005


I wasn't sure whether I wanted to share this, the sadness is still rather overwhelming. But I'd like you to know.

Anna Ostapenko was born in Ukraine in 1928, in the village of Lubovychi in the Zhytomyr region northeast of Kyiv. When she was a child, her father, Josip, a landowning peasant, or kulak in the Soviet pejorative, was sent to a Siberian forced labor camp for resisting Stalin's collectivization of Ukrainian farms. Anna, her mother Jarina, her brother Serhiy and sisters Nadia and Dunya were ejected from their home and forced to beg for food and shelter. Their neighbors and the people in their community were forbidden by the Soviet authorities from helping them, and eventually the family had to be broken up. Anna was taken in secretly by a woman, and her sisters and brother were placed in orphanages.

In 1941, Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union. As the Germans moved eastward, Stalin began emptying out his prisons and transferring the inmates to the western front to serve as cannon fodder in an attempt to stall the German advance. Josip escaped from a railroad car while en route to the front, and was able to track down his wife Jarina, and his daughters Anna and Dunya. By 1944, the Germans were in retreat from Soviet territory. Josip decided that the family would have a better chance of survival under the Germans than the Soviets, so they fled westward, staying just ahead of the retreating German lines. They were unable to locate Serhiy or Nadia, and had to go without them.

Many years later, during d├ętente in the late 1970s, Anna was able to locate Nadia and to arrange the first of several visits to the United States for her. Anna never again saw her brother Serhiy; he cut off all contact with the family and eventually became a Soviet prosecutor in Leningrad.

When the Ostapenkos arrived in Germany in 1944, they were placed in a labor camp in Anspach. After the Germans surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Anspach came under U.S. administration, and Anna and her family were reclassified as “displaced persons,” or refugees. Had they the misfortune of ending up in a Soviet-controlled zone, they would have been immediately shipped back to the gulag. They lucked out. In the camp, Anna met Kiril Duss, another Ukrainian refugee who had fled with his son, Slavko. Anna and Kiril married in 1949. My father was born in 1950, and Anna named him Serhiy, after her lost brother.

The Dusses, along with Anna’s parents and sister Dunya, arrived in New York in 1952, and made their home in the Slavic immigrant community of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She had two more children, daughters Eileen and Natalie.

Anna was diagnosed with cancer this past January, and declined somewhat rapidly in the subsequent months. I made a trip to East Brunswick, New Jersey to see her in February, and that was the last time that I was with her. Her three children were at her bedside when she passed away on June 8.

I called her Babsha. Who she was is an inestimably huge part of who I am. The events she lived through and memories she shared with me were instrumental in awakening my interest in history and politics, and her love for music (she was a singer and guitar player in her younger days) and poetry (the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was her favorite) were also very important. I can barely describe how much she meant to me.

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