BANGOR, Maine — Nearly 80 readers of a seven-part series published in the Bangor Daily News recounting Philomena Baker’s escape from Russia during World War II gathered at the Bangor Public Library on Thursday evening for a chance to hear more about Baker’s childhood ordeal. Another 250 listened and watched through a live Internet feed from the library’s Lecture Room.
Baker’s trek, mostly on foot, into the American-occupied sector of Germany in 1944 and 1945 was recounted for the first time in a seven-part series titled “Flight to Freedom: War Through the Eyes of a Child.” The series appeared in the newspaper from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1 and continues to be available online at www.bangordailynews.com, as will the video recording of the forum.
After an introduction, the forum shifted into a question-and-answer format, during which Baker fielded questions about her life then and in the years that followed.
Was she afraid? Was she homesick? Did religion play a role in the optimistic demeanor she and her mother maintained in the face of almost unimaginable adversity? What became of the family members whose names appear in the series? Given the food and fuel shortages that prevailed during WWII, was she ever hungry or cold? Was it difficult to obtain citizenship in Germany after fleeing Russia?
The audience included people who were moved by her story, who belong to families that had similar wartime experiences, who have visited the cities she lived in before moving to Fort Kent as a war bride, and some who were merely curious.
Despite a childhood some would consider traumatic and harrowing, Baker responded to the questions matter-of-factly.
She noted that her mother, who had been a schoolteacher, was a calming influence and provided a sense of normalcy through everyday actions such as continuing to teach her math and other subjects — even while the family was on the run.
Whatever peril lay before them was approached as “just another thing to go through, and I followed her. … To me, that was peace,” Baker said.
In response to a question about what role her childhood hardships played in her adult life, Baker said, “I found it gave me a lot of patience, a lot of humility and gratitude, and I think those are very important.”
One attendee was Art Makarow, who also fled Russia as a child and moved to Brownville upon his retirement. A descendent of White Russians who were persecuted when communism rose, Makarow wanted to meet Baker and Olmstead, who he hopes will help him tell his family’s story.
Participating in the forum with Baker were: Kathryn Olmstead, the freelance writer and retired University of Maine journalism professor who wrote the series based on interviews with Baker; BDN State Editor Rick Levasseur, who worked with Olmstead to bring the story to the reading public; and German native Anette Ruppel Rodrigues, an adjunct professor of German at UMaine who has agreed to translate Baker’s story into German.
Noting that Baker and Olmstead are collaborating on a book, one reader said Baker’s story also would make a good movie, one that he would like to see someday.