Lee and I were freshly married and just beginning our life together in Frisco, Texas. We’d been in town for one week when we got together with a couple whose names I do not remember, nor do I recall how we were connected with them in the first place. I just remember going to lunch and telling these strangers that I needed a way to keep practicing my Russian language so I didn’t lose it.
“Oh, I know the perfect place!” the strange lady said. “There’s a gymnastics academy here in town run by Russians. You should go in an talk to them, and see if there’s a community here to get involved in.”
The next day, I visited the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy for the first time. Sometimes, I chuckle at my tenacity. I walked in and told the receptionist I was looking for someone who would speak Russian with me. She looked at me as if I had two horns growing out of my head, then led me into the gym and introduced me to Valeri Liukin and Evgeny Marchenko.
“I want to practice my Russian,” I said. Valeri cocked his head to the side slightly and smiled.
“Do you know anything about gymnastics?” he asked.
It just so happened I had been a competitive gymnast as a kid, and had coached on and off through high school and college. I nodded my head and he looked at Evgeny.
“Do you want a job?” he asked.
And so it was that I began working at WOGA not because I was looking to be a coach, but because I was looking for Russian speaking community. For two years, the coaches at WOGA took me under their wing, inviting me to parties, answering my incessant questions, helping me understand the nuances of the language I loved, and so much more.
They were my people, and it was them I was saddest to leave when we moved away.
The year after we moved, I contacted Evgeny with yet another odd request.
“I’m going to Ukraine to interview veterans for a book I want to write. Do you have any contacts there who can help me?”
It so happens, Evgeny’s mom lived in Vinnitsya, Ukraine, and within a week it was all set up for me to spend a few days with her.
A pregnant, sick Kelli, with Victoria and her table full of food!
Victoria Marchenko welcomed my mom and I into her home with open arms, and a table brimming with food. I was sick when I arrived, having picked up a terrible cold on the trip, and she immediately took it upon herself to cure me with tea and vereniki (think dumplings filled with meat – yum!).
Victoria was a true gem. She mothered me for the next two days as she took me around town, introducing me to some of the most fascinating people I would meet in all my travels.
She took me to the home of her friend, Elizabeta Semenova, a woman who worked as a partisan and whose experience became central to the story of Luda.
Me, Elizaveta, my dear friend Sveta, and Victoria in Elizabeta’s home.
She took me to a group of veterans who were one of the liveliest bunch of men I’ve ever met. They told their stories one at a time, and Victoria sat in the corner taking it all in. You could tell she was respected and admired within her community, and I felt a sense of pride just being in her presence. Somehow I knew I’d found a very special lady.
Victoria also told me about Vervolfy, Hitler’s underground bunker built just on the outskirts of Vinnitsya. Now just a meadow with no seeming significance (though the site has never been excavated, which gives it a mysterious quality), Victoria made sure I understood the gravity of what occurred at that place. Her description was so vivid and passionate that when I finally visited the site in person, I felt a hallowed awe for the men and women who died there.
This book wouldn’t have come together the way it did if it weren’t for Victoria Marchenko.
It wouldn’t have come together at all if I hadn’t been to audacious to walk into that gym so many years ago and just ask someone to talk to me. I mean, really – WHO DOES THAT?!
What a lovely thing it is to see the tapestry of this project woven together for such a time as this.
Speaking of the book, it’s time for another GIVEAWAY!
In 2003, I packed a small bag with a few changes of clothes, and my mom and I (and my 5-months pregnant belly) boarded a plane for a month-long adventure in Ukraine.
I had this dream, you see.I dreamed of writing a book – of telling the stories of the men and women whose history captivated me when I was sixteen years old. I wanted the world to hear their words, to glean the wisdom for living that these people could offer, from a perspective that was completely unique.
We landed on March 16, 2003, and for the next month, we toured through Central, Southern, and Western Ukraine. Each city we stayed in offered a new group of World War II veterans, of former partisans, and of survivors who happily met with us. I soaked in the fascinating stories of survival that these men and women offered.
For reasons that are too numerous to list, I was not able to compile all of these stories into one book like I wanted, but they became the backbone of my novel. They are the voices that I hear when I read my book, and they form the current that drives the novel from beginning to end.As I continue to push forward toward publication, I feel like it’s time to share some of these stories with you all.
These stories are more than just interesting recollections. They are ripe with wisdom for life. They dance with the bravery of a people that refused to give up, refused to be steam-rolled. Most of the people I spoke with were children when the war began. They were teenagers dreaming of the future.
I hope you can feel the power of their words, and appreciate the beauty of the human spirit. Sometimes I sit back in wonder at these first hand accounts I was given. These men and women, most of whom have since passed away, trusted me with their stories so that I would tell the people in the coming generations to come that life is truly a gift. It is to be treasured.
For the next four Mondays, I will be giving some of these stories to you. Today I share with you the courage, bravery, and spunk of a woman named Elizabeta Yepifanova:
The war began in 1941. Here in Ukraine, we were raised with a definite air of patriotism, much like Americans. There was a national hatred of those who wanted, and were trying, to occupy our Motherland.
When the Germans occupied our city (Vinnitsya), they took away all forms of communication from us. We had no radio, no newspapers, no way of receiving news from the front. But there existed many secret organizations, and those who smuggled radios listened and wrote out newsletters by hand and distributed them.
There was a library in Vinnitsya at that time named “Krupskaya Nadezda” after Lenin’s wife. A secret organization formed at this library under the leadership of Ivan Bevza. Because the organization worked undercover in the library, those of us involved had to make sure that we always walked in and out with a book in our hands. But instead of going in there to read or study, we were talking to Ivan Bevza and he would tell us the times and places where operations would take place. So the library was our partisan meeting center.
The Germans were very afraid of the partisans. We were unpredictable and well protected. They never knew where we would strike next…
I remember a certain episode in my many years as a partisan when my friend, Sophia, and I met two German soldiers who thought we were quite pretty. We worked out a plan that seemed so simple at the time, but now I realize that it was quite dangerous.
We invited the two Germans to our apartment and they readily accepted. We prepared some food for them and when they came, we immediately had them take off their coats and get comfortable. I guess they naively believed that women weren’t a threat to them because they left their guns in the foyer with their coats.
Not long into our evening together, I excused myself to go to the neighbors to borrow something. Instead, I grabbed one of the officers’ guns and left, quickly racing across town to the meeting place.
After a few moments, Sophia excused herself saying she was going to get me. She grabbed the other gun and also left, but she was afraid she wouldn’t make it across town fast enough so she went to the top of the building and hid.
A few moments later, the Germans came running out of the building – frantic. This incident earned us positions of leadership in the partisan camp. We participated in numerous operations such as that one, where we played on the foolishness of innocent young German boys. It was great fun.
What I want young people today to know and understand is that this life is a gift. It can change in an instant. You must know what you believe, and why you believe it, and when the time comes to defend the ones you love, it’s okay to be afraid. Courage is always victorious over fear, and it comes in the moment you least expect. This is what I want young people to know.
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