My grandmother’s friend, Svetlana Ahijevych, was born in Russia in 1938. She lived with her parents, Mykola and Maria, and her brother in a one-room home. Svetlana recalls the family garden, her mother scrubbing their clothes by the river, and her father working on the farm and working as a carpenter and blacksmith. Their family had a pig, a cow, and chickens. She and her family were servants to a farm. “They were happy times. We had a comfortable living.” Svetlana recalls.
All of that changed in 1942 when Germany invaded Russia when World War Two first started. Soldiers forced the family and all their neighbors onto freight cars to be taken to German work camps. Svetlana was only four years old at the time, but she remembers the night well.
“There was straw on the floor of the train and there were so many people in there. It smelled bad because there was no place to go to the bathroom-just the straw and they’d shovel it out and put new straw in,” Svetlana remembers, “Sometimes you’d hear guns and they’d stop the train and search.”
The Ahijevyches were housed in barracks, with several families in one room, in a work camp near Hanover, Germany. Svetlana’s family members that were old enough to work were sent to work from early morning to late at night in an ammunition factory. Svetlana and her brother were left alone every day with the other kids too young to work. Svetlana’s brother was so young, that her mother was afraid he would wander off. Maria tied one end of a sheet around his waist and the other around the bed frame so Svetlana could watch over him.
At noon each day, Maria could come back to the barracks and take her two very young kids over to the next building for lunch. The meal was generally turnip or cabbage soup and rarely a piece of bread. It was their one meal of the day. “We were so hungry,” Svetlana said. “There were guards all the time around the camp, but sometimes my mother would try to sneak under the fence into the nearby communities and we would ask people for food. If she had us with her, sometimes they felt sorry for her.”
“One time, we were coming back and a guard saw us. He asked my mother for her name and number. She dropped to the ground on her knees and begged him not to turn her in. She kissed his hands, and he let us go.”
The camp was intense. The family was fearful and they couldn’t trust anyone outside of the family. They had to restrict what they said for safety reasons. There was some violence because of alcohol. Svetlana and her family members were constantly afraid that they’d be called to take a “shower.” If prisoners escaped, dogs were sent after them, probably to kill them. Soldiers were everywhere. Guns and barbed wire were used to make sure nobody left.
The days in the camp slowly turned into years. Svetlana’s mom gave birth to another baby boy, named Anatole. Svetlana’s grandfather passed away.
In 1945, when Germany surrendered, the Ahijevych family and other people living in the camp were liberated or set free. The Ahijevych family decided to immigrate. Only America, Australia, Venezuela, Canada, and Argentina had opened their doors to immigrants at the time. They originally were going to move to Argentina but the grandmother fell ill. Back then, you couldn’t immigrate while ill and when you got somewhere you had to prove you could work. After the grandmother became well, the first ship was going to America.
God clearly wanted Svetlana and her family to come to America. “The night before we arrived in the United States, I remember seeing a way in the distance the harbor lights and the skyline of New York City, big buildings, a new world. The next day, we saw the Statue of Liberty, the lady that welcomed people to America that we had heard so much about.”
A few years later, eighteen-year-old Svetlana stood before the judge of New Philadelphia, Ohio. Her left hand was on top of the Bible and her right hand was raised. She spoke the words of the oath of citizenship. She had memorized those words for months in advance. Soon after, the judge shook her hand, welcoming this new American citizen. “It was the highlight of my life,” Svetlana says. “I was so happy and so proud.”
If you couldn’t work, you needed to be sponsored by a family until you could work again so Svetlana and her family were sponsored by a Mennonite family. That family taught Svetlana and the other Ahijevych family members English, how to cook, and other skills you need to have in America. Svetlana learned English in one year!
After World War II, Svetlana purchased a passport and was appalled to find that the passport company put her first name, maiden name and married name on the passport. She decided not to travel to Germany or Russia for fear someone would see it and tell her former owner at the servant farm she used to live in.
Svetlana is extremely grateful for our beautiful country. A few days ago was her sixty-sixth anniversary year of being a citizen here and my grandparents took her to La Fonda, one of her favorite restaurants, to celebrate. Svetlana wore red, white and blue attire. She wore a flag scarf, red, white and blue hat with a feather in it, and she carried around a miniature flag which she waved at everyone, telling them that it was her sixty-sixth anniversary of being a United States of America citizen.
Svetlana was four when her family was taken to the labor camp. That was seventy-six years ago. Svetlana and her two brothers still live in Arizona. A few years ago, Svetlana and her brothers went to Russia. They saw the remains of the farm their parents worked at. A guide took her to her father’s birthplace. The guide took some dirt from the location, put it into a baggie and gave it to Svetlana, telling her to put it on her father’s grave. When she came back from the trip, she did just that.