NORWALK – Anatole Konstantin was a child when he saw his father for the last time, being dragged from the family’s home in Ukraine three years before the Nazis invaded. For the next decade, the boy and his brother and mother survived by luck and wits in Stalin’s Soviet Union, a story captured in Konstantin’s memoir, “A Red Boyhood” (Missouri University Press, 2008).
Andrei Codrescu, writer and MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, emigrated from Romania in 1981. In a review of Konstantin’s book, he writes:
“This is an engaging memoir of childhood in a dim, lost, and horrifying world that for all its dimness and horror did not destroy or paralyze the radiance of childhood. Anatole’s world is familiar, it preceded mine by almost two decades, but is so well written that I found even the things I knew renewed by this writer’s evocative skill. I also discovered things I didn’t know and that most American readers don’t but ought to. This memoir is a literary accomplishment, it could be a novel, but it is factually trustworthy as well, the best of both worlds.”
Konstantin will speak about his book and his life on Sunday, Dec. 19 at Temple Sinai in Stamford, sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Lower Fairfield County. He spoke with the Ledger about life during World War II under the oppressive Soviet regime.
Q: Why did you write your book?
A: My childhood was so different from that of my children and grandchildren and I thought they’d be interested to learn more about it. I didn’t want to sit them down and lecture them and watch them fall asleep. So, three years ago, I wrote the book. My children and grandchildren have read the book. When they ask me questions about it, they usually want details like what we ate, how we washed, what kind of car we drove, what was on TV.
Q: What happened to your family during the war?
A: We lived in a small town in Ukraine where half the population was Jewish and the other half was Polish. My father was a photographer and in 1938 he was arrested by the KGB and we never saw him again; that was the end of it. I was 10. My mother was a housewife and she had to support my one-year-old brother and me. We went through all kinds of trials and tribulations.
When the Nazis invaded in 1941, we managed to escape by freight train to Kazakhstan. We worked on a collective farm and had our share of problems, like a lack of food and hygiene. Through my mother’s resourcefulness, I was still able to attend school and read books. When the Germans were repelled out of Ukraine, we came back and found that most of the Jewish population had been killed. In Ukraine, unlike in the western part of Europe, the Nazis didn’t send the Jews to concentration camps, but shot them outside the towns.
My mother died in Germany while we were in the DP camp.
Q: How did you get to the U.S.?
A: We got out of the Soviet Union when the war ended and wound up in a Displaced Persons camp in West Germany. Instead of waiting for a place to immigrate, I went to the Technical University of Munich for three years, and graduated in 1949 as a mechanical engineer. That’s when the U.S. was admitting 200,000 displaced persons outside the quota system, which made it possible for us to come.
I first came to New York City and continued my studies at Columbia University. When I graduated, I couldn’t find work, so I moved to Ohio. I came to Stamford in 1953 to work for Pitney Bowes. I started my own company 40 years ago in Norwalk, manufacturing packaging machinery. Now my son is running it and I still work there.
Q: How did your family survive?
A: By luck and my mother’s efforts. Some of my mother’s relatives also escaped into Siberia when the factories were evacuated. Some survived, some died in the war. My father’s relatives were in Kishinev, part of Moldova. The Germans bombed the city and most of our family was killed. My grandparents escaped to Uzbekistan and died of starvation and typhoid.
When Gorbachev came to power, my uncle inquired about my father and got a letter from the KGB. My father was arrested because he had been corresponding with his parents, who lived in Romania. He was suspected of being a spy because corresponding with someone in a foreign country was considered a cardinal sin. He was convicted as a spy and executed, and by this letter he was being “rehabilitated” posthumously and therefore was not guilty of the crime.
Q: Have you ever returned to the former Soviet Union?
A: Twice. Once, I went back to the area I grew up in. Nothing had been painted or repaired since I’d left 50 years before; it was a total disaster. Any Jews who survived the war had moved to the bigger cities.
I still read books in Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. I also know some people here whom I speak with in these languages.
Q: Give us a preview of your Dec. 19 talk.
A: I tell the story about what happened to my family and how it happened, but I also tell why it happened, how the Soviet system allowed it to happen. You have to have an understanding of that system in order to understand. It’s strange that very few people know what happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin; there is no constituency for that history. So many people in the media were sympathetic to the Communists and were trying to hide the truth of what Stalin was doing, even if they knew about it. There are people who had full faith in Communism and now have to talk about the Communists as murderers.
What I emphasize in my talk is that political fanatics are no different from religious fanatics; they can be just as murderous.
Anatole Konstantin will present “A Red Boyhood: Growing Up Under Stalin” on Sunday, Dec. 19 at 9:30 a.m., at Temple Sinai 458 Lakeside Ave., Stamford. Info: (203) 329-0452.