Flight to freedom: War through the eyes of a child

Posted Dec. 24, 2010, at 12:09 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 06, 2011, at 3:35 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles based on interviews with Philomena Baker, 76, a Bangor-area portrait photographer and Reiki master, about her flight from Russia with her mother during World War II and their long journey, mostly on foot, into the American-occupied sector of Germany in 1944 and 1945.

Philomena Keller Baker still hesitates when asked where she is from. The inclination to be vague about her origins lingered long after World War II, when telling the truth would have been dangerous.

Once she accepted in recent years that it was safe to share, her stories came pouring out, running this way and that into a multitude of remarkable experiences. The 76-year-old Bangor woman — known throughout Maine for her long career as a talented portrait photographer — has come to realize the value of the personal history she has carried within her for years.

“So many people have expressed an interest in the story of my flight from Russia as a 10-year-old during World War II, I have decided to record my recollections,” said Baker, who now practices and teaches Reiki, a Japanese technique for relaxation and healing. “Mine is a story that ends in Maine where I am reminded daily of the blessings of freedom and peace.”

It is a story that begins in Russia — a tale of a 40-year-old mother, Philomene, and her 9-year-old daughter, Philomena — set in the midst of World War II. It is also the story of two sisters, Julia and Philomene, widowed by the war, determined to shepherd their children to safety and to shield them from the danger surrounding them. It is a story of cousins, now in their 70s and 80s, who continue to marvel at the extraordinary circumstances that kept them connected through their remarkable flight to freedom.

The two families were swept from the Russia that had been their home, into Germany, the home of their ancestors, and ultimately to the safety of the sector of Germany occupied by the Americans.

So successful were the efforts of the two mothers to protect their children from the fear propelling their escape, that today Baker struggles to reconstruct the events that led them to safety. Periodically, she calls her cousins in Germany to piece together details. As they blend their memories, they recognize their place in history and the good fortune that kept them alive to tell their story.

Philomena Baker’s mother

Philomene Keller was descended from Germans who migrated to Russia from the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany in the 18th century. They had accepted the invitation of Catherine the Great to create their own communities near the port city of Odessa by the Black Sea. After generations of wars between Germans and French over Alsace-Lorraine, life in a new territory must have appealed to the German farmers who formed colonies along the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. The German colonies prospered on Russian soil. Most of the settlers cultivated the land into productive vineyards.

Their good fortune ended with the rise of Josef Stalin. Private ownership of land dissolved, and those who resisted collectivism were captured and sent to work camps in Siberia. As the Russians moved to reclaim the land that had been given to the Germans, farm families were forced to escape into the city of Odessa.

Born in 1903 in Selz, Ukraine, Philomene Keller was the youngest girl of eight children. Too young to work in the fields with her parents and older siblings during the day, Philomene stayed with an aunt who operated an orphanage for German and Russian children. She and her aunt became very close, and her schooling at the orphanage included the Russian language.

She became so fluent in Russian, in addition to the German spoken in her home, that she could pass for a native of either country and eventually was able to become a teacher in a Russian elementary school. Years later her fluency in both languages would enable her to save her whole family during World War II.

Philomene was a teenager during the Russian Revolution. She was 21 in 1924 when Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin died and Stalin began his reign of terror, liquidating those who obstructed his path to power. Her youth was a time when Germans lived in constant fear of capture and relocation to labor camps where they worked for nothing, like slaves, in forests and mines.

Philomene’s memories of those times now live in the stories of her daughter, Philomena Baker.

“One of my mother’s brothers hid from the Russians in a chimney,” Baker says. “Another one escaped through the backyard. He broke a big branch from a tree and hid behind it, slowly removing himself from the yard to safety.

“One day my mother saw one of her brothers on the street in Odessa. She called to him and they were chatting when they saw another brother. It was such a coincidence they decided to have their picture taken together. That was the last time she saw either of them. I have the picture.”

Baker’s uncles just disappeared, like millions of others in Russia at that time. She tells of another of her mother’s brothers who returned from Siberia marked by the emotional effects of torture. He was never the same.

Philomene’s mother, Theresia, was still living on the family farm when the Russians came for her. She had been ill and was bedridden.

“My mother told me they carried her mother from her room, mattress and all, and threw her into the back of a truck.”

Philomene was still young and unmarried, working as a teacher in Odessa. Unlike her older sister Julia, she did not have the responsibilities of family. She could act on her outrage — she could devise and execute a plan to rescue her mother. The story has been told and retold in the family for decades.

“Somehow my mother learned where and how her mother was being held,” Baker says. “The compound was located in the country. Perhaps it was a place where the infirm were held until they were strong enough to work. It was constructed like a prison, monitored by Russian guards. Inhabitants slept on the floor and had no water, but once a day they were led on a walk to a river behind the building where they were allowed to wash up and drink water.”

Philomene planned every detail. When she had everything she needed, she boarded a train for Siberia. Among her provisions for the trip were apples and a few packs of cigarettes. Food was scarce, and cigarettes were a precious luxury. These items could be useful in gaining access to her mother. A modest young woman, she dressed so as not to attract attention, but her beauty still may have been an asset.

“She found the place where her mother was held. It was surrounded by a wall. She could see the heads of the Russian guards and climbed up the wall enough to get their attention. Using her cigarettes as a reward, she persuaded one of the guards to tell her when the people confined in the compound would be making their daily trek to the river. Of course, she spoke perfect Russian.”

Then she must have withdrawn to a spot near the river where she would be able to see the procession. When the gates opened for the day’s outing and the inhabitants filed toward the river, she was part of the shrubbery, concealed by branches she had broken off for her disguise.

“She must have made some signal that enabled her mother to identify her and to slip into the bushes with her. Together they stood silently, then inched away from the others. They would move a few steps, then stop.”

After the group returned to the compound without the two women, Philomene guided her mother to the station to await the train back to Odessa. Once on the train, she instructed her mother to huddle next to the window and feign slumber. Her broken Russian would reveal that she was German if she spoke.

“As the conductor moved down the aisle toward her and asked for their tickets, Philomene said, ‘Oh, she’s just an old woman. Let her sleep. Here, have an apple,’ and she stuffed one of her precious apples into the mouth of the surprised conductor.”

Apparently, the conductor was impressed enough with this attention to move on down the aisle without further questions about the old lady sleeping against the train window. The pair was not interrupted again. Philomene took her mother to the home of her older sister Julia in Odessa, where she lived until her death in the late 1930s.

Philomene returned to her rented room near the school where she was teaching in Odessa. But she was not out of harm’s way.

“One day my mother was too ill to go to school to teach,” Baker recalls. “She could not even rise from the bed when she heard footsteps on the stairs outside her room and a knock on the door. She fell back to sleep. It was late in the day when she awoke and her landlady told her that Russian soldiers had come for her and left when she did not answer.”

Philomene did not wait for them to return. She left her room for good. No one knows exactly how long she had been hiding, perhaps a few days, when a young Russian man found her in a cornfield near his home where he lived with his parents. It is known that she took refuge with his family long enough for the two to fall in love.

Wasja Semenenko was tall and good-looking with curly hair. They eventually were married, and Philomene acquired a new name that concealed her German identity. Wasja called her Marousia (pronounced Marousa), Russian for Mary. Their daughter, Philomena, was born June 6, 1934, in Odessa.

Next: Part 2, Monday, Dec. 27 — As the Red Army pushes the Germans back, two families prepare for escape

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