Memory of a bleak Christmas

Opinion: Columns

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By Fred Natkevi

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A bleak Christmas seems like an oxymoron. Bleakness is surely incongruent with the festive atmosphere and spirit of the holiday. But for my mother and me, the Christmas of 1944 was bleak indeed. In July of that year, my father had disappeared mysteriously in the turmoil of war. In August, we became refugees escaping from the Russian front. Our first Christmas in exile came at the worst of times.

As refugees from Lithuania, we escaped the imminent threat of deportation to Siberia by the Russians, but we came to Germany, only to find a country under siege. The nightly bombings of cities around us threatened our lives. Our levels of anxiety were as great here as the looming threat of deportation to the gulag. The impending outcome of the war also posed the grim probability that we still might fall prey to the Russians.

Our journey as refugees ended in Armstadt, a small town in Thuringen in Germany's heartland. We were housed in a rooming facility for Siemens factory workers. Although the colossal storm of war raged around us, Christmas mandated a distraction from the horrors. In our rooming community, people struggled to lift their spirits. At supper on Christmas Eve, we all joined in a brief prayer and sang "Silent Night." But for our crushed souls, the immensity of the gloom was insurmountable. Everyone was grieving the loss of a loved one.

In a separate but conspicuous place in a large mess hall, a small table was set with an empty chair. No one needed an explanation for whom it was reserved. We all knew, and no one could ignore it. Even today, many decades later, I have difficulty describing its impact, and tears well up in my eyes.

For my mother and me, the empty chair and table symbolized my father's absence. Contemplating our loss we could not suppress our grief and wept uncontrollably. We found only slight solace in each other's embrace. Eventually, our tears ran dry. The next day, Christmas dinner offered larger portions and cake for dessert, perhaps to sweeten our lives a little. But there was no peace on earth. The following week, New Year's wishes of happiness, sincere as they were, seemed hollow.

Fifteen years passed, and I was living in Chicago when I found out that my father survived the war. I learned that he had been released from a gulag prison and lived in a Siberian town called Inta. I recognized the name of the town and shuddered. I read about Inta in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel The First Circle. It described the life of gulag inmates. Each morning the prisoners were rousted at 5 a.m. Those who were able to work were marched at gunpoint to their destinations. Those too weak or too sick to work had their heads smashed with a wooden sledge. My father survived more than 12 years of such Russian brutality. It was half of his 25-year sentence for joining Lithuanian freedom fighters.

For several years we corresponded, and I sent him packages of food and clothing. As a naturalized citizen of the United States, I worked tirelessly trying to bring my father to America. My efforts were in vain. The Soviets did not release him and a few years later, he died in Russia. The memory of that empty chair at the holiday table continues to haunt my Christmas.

Fred Natkevi is a longtime resident of Oak Park.

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