Everybody has a story to tell. Some stories are deeply moving, thought-provoking, or even life-changing. Sadly, as generations age and die, most of those stories disappear into a fog of forgetting and remain untold. Not so with Philomena Keller Baker, who will celebrate her 80th birthday in a couple of days. A few years ago, Philomena decided to share her remarkable history. She became acquainted with writer Kathryn Olmstead, who was so thoroughly enchanted by both Philomena and her story that she devoted several years to helping her get it into print. The resulting book, “Flight to Freedom: World War II Through the Eyes of a Child” just had its third printing. I sat down with Philomena and Kathryn last week to learn more about the motivations behind their shared project.
“I’ll never be the same,” Kathy said, referring to her acquaintance with Philomena. Philomena’s history, which began with her birth in 1934, spans tumultuous years of political oppression and upheaval in the regions of her life: Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. BDN readers might remember a serial publication about Philomena published in the paper in 2010. Since meeting Philomena, Kathy says, she has never thought about World War II in quite the same way.
“It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, war affects families in the same ways.”
That is the most striking aspect of this unusual tale – the realization that among regular people trying to live their lives well, the lines between enemies and allies are blurred. Allegiances may shift for the sake of survival, and citizens are persecuted or saved indiscriminately, based on the changing tides of political power and the nationality that appears on their identity papers.
Philomena’s mother was German, part of a thriving community of expatriate Germans living and farming in Russia during the early decades of the 20th century. She ended up marrying a Russian man who was drafted into the Soviet army when Philomena was very young. Philomena’s father never returned, but his Russian name protected Philomena and her mother from the random persecutions, exiles and assassinations against Germans under the ruling communist party. Later, when Germany invaded and occupied Ukraine, they changed their names again. Their reclaimed German identity became their passport out of occupied Russia. Philomena’s mother worked for the Germans, which likely saved her and her daughter, but it also gave her some disturbing inside information about more atrocities, this time perpetrated against perceived “enemies” of the Germans.
When Germany began to lose the war, being German once again put them at high risk. They fled Odessa, first on boxcars in a troop train, then on foot, across hundreds of miles of potentially hostile territory. Eventually Philomena and her mother found a tenuous safety in American-occupied Germany, where they miraculously reconnected with some of their scattered family and tried to move forward with their lives. Philomena completed her education and ended up working on an American military base. It was while working on the American base that Philomena met John Baker of Fort Kent, Maine. They fell in love, married, and Philomena moved to the US, where she has now lived for 55 years.
I asked Philomena about all the shifts in her national identity and her homeland over the years of her life. Does any place feel like home?
“That gave me the chills, that question,” she said to me, with a characteristic sweetness that permeates her presence. After a pause, she answered, “Home is everywhere. I feel at home everywhere.”
For Philomena, the telling of her story is not driven by an urge to share a historical perspective. Her primary purpose is to memorialize and honor her mother. When Kathy asked her why she finally decided to tell her story a few years ago, she said,
“Because I saw the strength of my mother, how she lived, how she raised me. I thought that was very important.”
Philomena’s mother knew a great deal more than she shared with her daughter during their years of flight and oppression. “She distracted me a lot on our journey to save me from fear.” At the same time, she taught Philomena to help those in need, always offering coins or a kind word to the wounded in the street. And she forbade Philomena to touch the piles of clothes and goods delivered to their town in Odessa, looted from Jewish victims of the holocaust. It was years before Philomena finally understood all the horrors of the war, and what her mother was sparing her.
“I wish my mother was here. She shared a lot with me.”
In a way, Philomena’s mother is here, as a part of her story. In sharing that story with the rest of us, Philomena has both honored her mother and left the legacy of her story for generations to come.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.