Until this year, my knowledge of World War II came mostly from history books, tours of historic sites in Europe, movies, literature, lectures, and stories my parents told me about air raid drills, ration coupons and victory gardens.
World War II meant people such as Eisenhower, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Anne Frank, John Hersey and Edward R. Murrow. I experienced a divided Germany in the 1960s when I was detained at Checkpoint Charlie on a tour bus of students passing through East Germany for a visit to Berlin. I felt the reality of the Holocaust on a tour of a concentration camp.
But from this year forward, I also will think of World War II from the perspective of a German civilian, thanks to Philomena Baker, one of thousands of German refugees who fled from the Russians between 1944 and 1945. I met Philomena through a former student who was helping Philomena improve her computer skills at the Hammond Street Senior Center in Bangor. Philomena had written a short autobiographical essay to be submitted for a radio broadcast of personal stories.
She was given a time limit for the radio script, and my student guessed correctly that she had much more to tell. She urged Philomena not to wait until she had mastered the computer to record her story. We met for the first time at Bagel Central in Bangor.
“You will recognize me by my bright red hair,” she said. Oh yes — I could not miss the lady beside the window with hair the color of saffron. She presented me with 2½ pages of memories hand-written in pencil and titled “The War, seen through a child’s eyes.”
That exchange initiated more than 50 hours of conversation, in which layers of recollections unfolded.
It is not an easy story to assemble, and the process continues. She was 9 years old when she and her mother boarded a freight car attached to a German hospital train that would take them from their home in Odessa, Ukraine, into German-occupied Poland ahead of the conquering Russian army. Philomena’s memories are vivid snapshots of scenes and episodes with indistinct connections among them. But piece by piece, it is coming back.
“I am like a computer,” she said. “It is all stored, and I am retrieving it.”
Philomena had been married two years before her husband knew she was Russian. They had met on a U.S. Army base in Germany 10 years after she had replaced her Russian heritage with her mother’s German ancestry rooted in Alsace-Lorraine.
“He never thought to ask questions, because he did not know there were questions to ask,” she recalls. Besides, things got busy after John Baker brought his bride home to Fort Kent, Maine, in 1959. Two years later, they were the parents of two daughters, and by 1962, Philomena had opened a photography studio on Main Street, launching a 45-year career.
The story of her year as a refugee, walking with her mother most of the way from Poland to West Germany, just got buried under her life as a portrait photographer, racewalker, Reiki master, wife and mother. It began to resurface during a ride from Portland to Bangor, when Zev Myerowitz, son of her second husband, asked her about her origins.
“It just started pouring out,” she said. “I talked the entire way from Portland to Bangor, and he didn’t say a word.” But he did show interest, and so did others with whom she began to share pieces of the odyssey. They said she should write a book.
“But I’m not a writer,” she lamented. Years passed. Motivation intensified. A meeting in the bagel shop led to many meetings, some in the second-floor library between Java Joe’s and BookMarc’s in Bangor. Meetings led to manuscripts, version after version, as she added details to the story.
Then, I asked whether she had any old photographs, and we ended up in her Bangor home with photos dating from the early 1900s to the present spread across her dining table.
It is not surprising that Philomena became a photographer. Her mother cherished her photographs. When illness or war threatened the lives of her loved ones, she saw to it that photos were taken of them. When forced to leave Odessa with only the things she could carry, she carried her photos. When she anticipated that the pictures might be damaged during their long walk to freedom, she left them with a woman who had given her and her daughter shelter along the way, promising to come back for them later.
They portray her husband, who disappeared into the Red Army, and two brothers who disappeared into Siberia, never to return. Generations of her family gaze from a 1908 photo of a 50th anniversary celebration that shows the prosperity of Germans who cultivated land in the Ukraine until communism erased private ownership.
These and many other photos made the journey chronicled in a series of articles to appear in the Bangor Daily News beginning Saturday, Dec. 25. We can examine them today because they were precious to Philomena’s mother.
It also is not surprising that Philomena became a champion racewalker, capturing gold medals in national and international competition in the United States and Europe. After all, she walked halfway across Germany at the age of 10.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.