My grand­fa­ther fi­nally re­turned from the sec­ond world war in 1981

Katja Petrowskaja gained a grand­fa­ther when she was 10. He turned up af­ter an ab­sence of 40 years – but where had he been? And had he done or seen some­thing so hor­rific it made it im­pos­si­ble for him to re­turn? She re­solved to find out

The Guardian - Family - - Front page - Maybe Es­ther by Katja Petrowskaja is pub­lished by Fourth Es­tate on 8 Fe­bru­ary, £14.99

Ihad two grand­moth­ers with flo­ral names: Rosa and Mar­garita. They were too old to en­joy their re­tire­ment, and they were alone. What I didn’t have were grand­fa­thers. One had died on my sec­ond birth­day and I don’t re­mem­ber him. The other, Vasily, sud­denly ap­peared when I was about 10, out of nowhere, with the words: “I am back.”

Un­til that point, I hadn’t known about his ex­is­tence, so I was as­ton­ished, amused and happy to get a grand­fa­ther.

I spent my child­hood in the an­cient city of Kiev, the big­gest city in the Soviet Union af­ter Moscow and Len­ingrad. We lived in a 14-storey apart­ment block on the left bank of the majestic Dnieper river. Our en­tire neigh­bour­hood district was built af­ter the sec­ond world war and

seemed to have no past, only a shiny Soviet fu­ture. We al­ways said “the war”, as if it were the only one, and ev­ery­thing around us was about this war. No fam­ily was spared. The per­ished were our com­mon her­itage, al­most the only prop­erty we had, and each fam­ily story seemed to re­flect a tiny part of a big his­tory.

My fam­ily was small. I had al­most no rel­a­tives be­cause of the war. Whole fam­ily branches had per­ished. But there were many who had fewer rel­a­tives than I did. I had no rea­son to suf­fer. How­ever, I al­ways dreamed of a big fam­ily at a long ta­ble.

A few months be­fore Vasily re­turned home to his wife and younger daugh­ter af­ter a 40-year ab­sence, I re­mem­ber hear­ing a con­fused old wo­man ask loudly on a tram, “Has the war al­ready ended?” as if she was talk­ing about the next stop. She was not that wrong. My grand­fa­ther “came back” from the sec­ond world war in 1981.

The ex­pla­na­tion I was given at the time was that he had dis­ap­peared at the be­gin­ning of the war, dur­ing the en­cir­clement of Kiev in Au­gust 1941. He was cap­tured by the Ger­mans and spent years in their camps as a Soviet pris­oner of war. The fam­ily knew that he had sur­vived but, for some rea­son, he just didn’t come home. But now here he was, back fi­nally.

It was a very vague story, sat­is­fy­ing per­haps for a child, but dis­turb­ing later. I never asked him di­rectly where he spent these 40 years, or how he reached “home”. At the time, the fam­ily treated it as good news: the sec­ond world war was fi­nally over, now, at the be­gin­ning of the 80s, be­cause my grand­fa­ther had come back. It was a mir­a­cle of the sort I knew only from books.

As a child, I was in love with Greek mythol­ogy, with the Tro­jan war and the re­turn of Odysseus. The re­turn of my grand­fa­ther fit­ted in with these tales, and I was proud that my once beau­ti­ful grand­mother had waited all those years for him. Rosa had never re­mar­ried, or even let any­body get close to her – Pene­lope, Odysseus’s wife, waited only 20 years. I felt that my an­ces­tors were gods and heroes, or al­most.

My mother took Vasily in, and he spent the last year of his life at our place, sit­ting in an armchair and smil­ing. That armchair seemed to be the apex of his ex­is­tence. He was con­fi­dent and ra­di­ant in his si­lence, as if he had a dark se­cret and was happy that his grand­chil­dren were spared it. I have spent years since then try­ing to un­der­stand his si­lence, and his re­turn. Be­tween the armies near Kiev in 1941 and the armchair in our apart­ment in the early 80s, a black hole slowly grew.

He was a beau­ti­ful old man and I felt very pro­tec­tive of him – he was my newly born grand­fa­ther, some­how younger than I was, and I had to look out for him.

Years later, as I be­gan to search out his story, he cat­a­pulted me into the mid­dle of the war. I fol­lowed him, along with masses of sol­diers, from Kiev to Volodymyr-Volyn­skyi pris­oner-of-war camp north of Lvov. Then I fol­lowed him to an­other PoW camp in one of the most beau­ti­ful Aus­trian land­scapes near Salzburg, then to the site of the con­cen­tra­tion camp at Mau­thausen.

I was haunted by the idea that he had seen or done some­thing dur­ing im­pris­on­ment that was so in­hu­man that it had made his re­turn to his fam­ily im­pos­si­ble. I searched for a spe­cific point in his jour­ney, his “point of no re­turn” – some­thing that might ex­plain his ab­sence for so many years.

I was search­ing for him in the ar­chives, and even there he al­most didn’t ex­ist, as if he were a fic­tion. I found out that he was en­cir­cled, to­gether with a mil­lion other Soviet sol­diers, and be­came one of more than six mil­lion Soviet pris­on­ers of war, who were ex­cluded and erased from mem­ory. They were con­sid­ered traitors; they didn’t be­long among the “vic­tors” over fas­cism. Rather, they be­came dou­ble vic­tims of the Soviet sys­tem: im­pris­oned by the Ger­mans, be­cause they were so poorly armed and led, and then, if they sur­vived, im­pris­oned by the Sovi­ets. Sud­denly, I re­alised that his small story spoke of the fate of mil­lions and, in look­ing for him, I was car­ing for all of them.

My grand­fa­ther was lucky to spend only two or three years in Soviet “fil­tra­tion camps” fol­low­ing the war. I dis­cov­ered af­ter­wards that, in fact, he had come home from the camps, but only for a short time – he could not live with his fam­ily any more and so he left again. Why? Was it sur­vivor’s guilt? The im­pos­si­bil­ity of a nor­mal life?

The story might be sim­ple: he had an­other fam­ily – he was help­ing the widow of a friend who had died and stayed with her and lived for a time af­ter the war mov­ing be­tween two fam­i­lies, but my grand­mother threw him out. He then spent many years alone in a small vil­lage in western Ukraine, re­turn­ing to Kiev when he was old. He came back to Rosa at the end of his life and maybe it was too late. When I say that I re­mem­ber them kissing, my mother gets an­gry with me.

We have only one fam­ily photo that sur­vived the war: it is of my grand­mother Rosa (preg­nant with my mother), my grand­fa­ther Vasily and Lida, their el­der daugh­ter. It is torn in half, as if some­one sought to re­move Vasily, but then thought bet­ter of it. Per­haps it was done just af­ter the war, when he re­turned briefly, only to leave again. Rosa and Lida stayed to­gether and Vasily was cut off.

Then, four decades later, there he was, sit­ting and smil­ing, happy to be home, to be with us. His si­lence was some­thing I was not used to, be­cause all of us were talkative, en­er­getic, al­ways full of un­told sto­ries. It might sound like a joke, but Rosa and Lida and their an­ces­tors had, for some gen­er­a­tions, taught deaf chil­dren to

I felt very pro­tec­tive of him – he was my newly born grand­fa­ther, some­how younger than I was, and I had to look out for him

talk. It was the fam­ily vo­ca­tion. But Vasily was mute.

Vasily was the only Ukrainian in the fam­ily, all the others were of Jewish ori­gin, a thou­sand miles away from tra­di­tion, but it did not mat­ter in this war. With­out this grand­fa­ther, we lacked con­nec­tion to the soil.

He was the only one who had his own gar­den plot on the edge of town, so I got a grand­fa­ther and a gar­den to boot, al­low­ing me to experience a small fairy­tale at the end of my child­hood. My par­ents, and ev­ery­body we knew, had huge li­braries at home, their only prop­erty and joy. My grand­fa­ther had a piece of land, a dacha, which I vis­ited only a few times.

All his neigh­bours planted pota­toes and toma­toes, putting their prop­erty to some prac­ti­cal use, but Vasily turned his dacha into a par­adise full of roses, en­cir­cled by white rasp­berry, which I had never seen be­fore, and in the mid­dle of the gar­den stood one par­adise-ap­ple tree.

I re­ally don’t re­mem­ber him talk­ing, apart from a few words such as “yes” or “good”, but I do re­mem­ber the names of roses, and these are the words he left me: Dolce Vita, Oc­to­ber Stars, Chi­nese tea roses, Glo­ria Dei.

I don’t re­mem­ber his last days, but I do re­call him stand­ing in the mid­dle of his rose par­adise, cul­ti­vat­ing his gar­den.

Pho­to­graph by Chris­tian Junge­blodt for the Guardian

▲Katja Petrowskaja and, right, Vasily in the 1970s

Fam­ily photo of Rosa, Vasily and Lida, show­ing the tear where Vasily had been re­moved. Far right, Katja with her par­ents and brother

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