Two families prepare to escape Russia

Posted Dec. 26, 2010, at 7:12 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:54 a.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.

The only child of a Russian father and a German mother, Philomena Baker was raised Russian. She spoke only Russian as a child growing up in Odessa. By the time she was 10, she would be speaking a different language.

As was customary in Russia, her middle name was a feminization of her father’s first name: Philomena Wasylevna Semenenko. Her first name reflected that of her German mother, who was called Marousia but who was born Philomene.

“My mother loved the Russian language and culture,” Baker said, describing her mother’s appreciation of the colorful folk dances and joyful songs. “She loved speaking the language, hearing the words. She spoke Russian beautifully.

“She learned Russian when she was a child and stayed with her aunt, who ran an orphanage. She played with Russian kids there and learned the language. All of her family spoke German. Fate made her Russian.”

Marousia Semenenko was 30 when Philomena was born in 1934. It was a time in Russia when millions were dying under the rule of Josef Stalin.

“My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, people were dying of starvation in the streets of Odessa.”

Baker remembers her mother as a calm, strong woman.

“She was a woman of this age, thinking in ways we think today. She taught me not to be fearful, but to trust faith and follow its guidance. She was gentle, self-controlled, intelligent and always cheerful.”

Looking back, Baker can see how her mother prepared her for the rigors they would face together.

“We would imitate circus performers. I remember climbing trees and hanging from branches by my knees. I was good at acrobatics.” Their agility would prove to be a lifesaving skill.

By the time Baker was 6, her father had disappeared. He was drafted into the Red Army and, like many others, never came back.

“Russians felt no obligation to the families of soldiers. They made no effort to contact family members if a soldier died or was missing. My mother searched for him, but was never certain what became of him.”

Philomene’s sister Julia also lost her husband to the war. Left with five children, Julia was very close to Philomene, and their children were like siblings. Julia’s youngest son, Johnannes, was a year younger than Philomena. The others were Alfred, Viktoria, Josef (the oldest boy) and Angelika (the oldest girl).

After the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, they acquired housing for German residents of Odessa called the Deutsche Haus, or German House. Brick houses opened onto grassy courtyards with trees and bushes where the children played. Julia, Philomene, their children and an older aunt, also named Julia, lived at the Deutsche Haus.

“My mother and I had a little bedroom off a large main room with a wood cook stove and dining table. We walked to school and Viktoria would hurry home after school to tend the house and care for the younger children while Angelika, the eldest, and our mothers were at work.”

During the German occupation of Odessa, Baker’s mother was able to use her bilingualism to secure a position as an interpreter for the German army. She had evidence she was German and reclaimed Keller as her last name. Marousia Semenenko became, once again, Philomene Keller. And her daughter now had a new surname.

As the war progressed, Philomene was given a villa within the military stronghold on the outskirts of Odessa where she could be close to her work as an interpreter for the German army. Philomena remembers they could see the Black Sea from their new home. She quickly made new friends among the children of other military workers, and they would descend over steep rocks to play on the beach.

Baker never knew the significance of her mother’s role with the German military in the early 1940s. Only as an adult did she begin to piece together hints of the world her mother entered when she went to work each day — hints such as the little gold box.

“I was playing with my friends where my mother worked when a big truck rolled up and dumped a mountain of clothes and shoes on the ground. I had been told not to accept any clothes brought in by a truck. I obeyed, even when the truck driver said, ‘Help yourselves’ and people began to pick through the pile.

“But there on the ground next to the clothes and shoes was an object, not a piece of clothing, but a tiny gold box. I picked it up. It opened like a book. It was a little book with a cover of gold metal. Inside were tiny pages of very thin parchment with tiny, tiny foreign lettering on them. I was fascinated.

“It fit perfectly into my hand. I thought it was beautiful and took it home. My mother explained to me that it was sacred and I should honor it. I am sure she recognized it was a miniature Torah, but she told me it was like a Bible and should be respected.

“Could she have known that the people who wore those clothes were among the countless numbers of Jews who died in concentration camps like Dachau and Auschwitz? We never talked about it. I can only imagine what she knew. It still presses on my heart when I think of it.”

The success of the German invasion of Russia rose and fell between 1941 and 1944. The Red Army gradually reclaimed territories occupied by Germany — Kharkov, Kiev, Leningrad, bridgeheads on the Dnieper River — until by March 1944 only two places remained under German occupation: the Crimea and Odessa.

One morning Philomene rushed home from work early to collect her daughter, her sister, her sister’s five children, the older aunt, all the food they could carry and all the clothes they could wear. The Russians were advancing toward Odessa.

Because she worked for the German military, Philomene would be allowed passage out of Russia on a train carrying wounded German soldiers. She and her family would be able to ride in one of two boxcars added to the train for civilians. They would be among the last Germans to evacuate the country.

“We were to gather in a wooded area where the train would be hidden under the trees to conceal it from the low-flying Russian airplanes policing the vicinity,” Baker said. “The train would leave at sunset and travel under the cloak of darkness. We had to be ready by 3 p.m.”

The two families piled into a streetcar packed with anxious civilians. They arrived at the designated area where a crowd was gathering in the woods and the train was waiting. The doors to the boxcars slid open and people began to climb in. Philomena was the last to board.

“As I approached the train, I turned back and stopped, spellbound by the beauty of the golden rays of the sun,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I must always remember these varying colors of gold.’ And I have, to this day. When I turned around, everyone was on the train. I was all alone. I heard my name and grabbed the hand that pulled me into the boxcar.”

The big doors rolled shut, and Philomena became part of a massive German retreat from the advancing Russians that would end with Germany partitioned into four sectors controlled by Russia, France, Britain and the United States.

Next: Part 3: Tuesday, Dec. 28: Leaving Russia by train.

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