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Woman-Elder Misaila: Grandmother's Prayers
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Woman-Elder Misaila of Kursk

Prepared by Tatyana Shvetsova

We are offering you a narrative of Ludmilla Sokolova, granddaughter of Russian Orthodox woman-elder Misaila, about how her grandma's prayers and her own helped her survive the terrible years of World War Two. These are excerpts from a book entitled "Grandmother's Prayers", published in Moscow in 2005 by the publishing house "Otchiy Dom".

"One warm summer evening, before the war, grandmother summoned my sister Rita and me to join her in gazing at the starry sky. We were gazing our fill, when grandma suddenly said that Rita, when she grew up, would be working as a Nature study expert, while I would be going abroad. "Not for travel," she added, "but to work."
At the time I was really surprised, yet that is exactly what happened.
When the Germans occupied Kursk, they started dragooning Russian people in the occupied zone for work in Germany. My parents were just in time to take my elder sister Rita to a different town, while they were not all that concerned about me, since I was only 14, and the fascists needed adult slaves. So nobody bothered to hide me from them. As it turned out, this was a mistake.
I was seized, and found myself without any documents among thousands of other unfortunate girls, like a little fish caught in a vast net.
They brought me to a large and beautiful port city - Bremen. We reached it at night. It was raining heavily. We, slaves, were driven in trams over to the city outskirts, to a huge aviation plant and adjacent woodworking factory. It wasn't a hostel they had ready for us, but grim ugly barrack, with two rows of barbed wire fencing encircling it... Not a tree or bush in sight!..
Exhausted, silent and despondent, in 'threes' we entered our prison dwelling place. There were ten rooms in each of the barrack. Every room had 24 double-decker beds.
We were met by a certain sister Annie, dressed all in white. Hanging on a chain round her neck instead of a cross she had a huge steel man's seal ring. "This is my fiancé's ring, he is in Russia," she said, and then announced the daily routine to us. Turn out was at 5 in the morning, followed by breakfast, consisting of a cup of coffee with two teaspoons of sugar; in the daytime - turnip soup, and in the evening for supper - 250 grams of bread.
After gulping down the super we were given I claimed one of the top bunks and turned in. However, the moment I lay down on the straw mattress there was the sound of an alarm. There was nowhere to run: the windows were barred, the door locked. I pulled the blanket up over my head and cried quietly, addressing my thoughts to my grandmother. But then I told myself sharply: "Get a grip! You will have to have a lot of patience to survive this ordeal; nobody cares a whit for your tears, everyone here will have their share of them."
To begin with, together with the others I was sent to the kitchen to peal potatoes, but several months later German refugee women arrived and took our place. We were moved to a different task.
I found myself at the woodworking factory. The elderly master, whom I was supposed to call "Grandfather" in German, taught me how to tie sheets of dried wood with a sailor's knot. I was fortunate: the work wasn't too taxing, although there was a lot of it.
I was alone in the vast workshop, and I enjoyed being alone. I didn't want to see anyone. Memories assailed me, sweeping over me like a wave. And I gave way to tears. After all, nobody could see me, so I needn't be ashamed...
I wept and prayed... I pitied myself and my relatives, who were grieving for me. It was a loud childish complaint to the Lord. I shared my grief with Him, and this lessened the pain.
However, once, when I was crying and praying as I did my job in the workshop, some young people came in - I was so engulfed in my work I didn't notice them at first. As it later turned out, they were French prisoners of war. Three pairs of eyes silently stared at me: a girl in a white blouse and bright tunic dress, with long golden hair. Standing around for a short while, they left silently, so as not to disturb me. They only asked the Russian girl who had long been working at the factory, who I was and why I was weeping so bitterly. "She misses her Motherland,"replied the girl.
Our grim, hungry and chilly life dragged on. Not only did I stop laughing - I barely smiled. I shut myself away from others. I didn't share my thoughts with anyone, never complained that I was too young to work 12-hour shifts at the workshop, half-starved and half-asleep. And why would I bother saying anything to anyone? Everyone else was just as hungry and tired as I was, even though they were older than I. I knew that back home grandmother, father, mother and my sisters were praying for me.
There was steam coming up from the sheets of drying wood. In the cold workshop this steam made the skin of my hands crack. At times, when the alarm siren howled, the drying machine - the desiccator - was turned off, and I could climb inside and warm myself a bit.
I noticed that the trolley with wood was brought to my workshop by one and the same Frenchman. As I later discovered, his name was Jacques, and he was 26. Besides his own workload, he did what he could to help me. I never launched into conversation with him. However, once he told me in German, which I knew from school to some degree, "Liuda, do not grieve: your army is approaching Poznan." After this, whenever we met I would ask him the same question: "What's new?"
The factory boss demanded that every morning I come to his office to get my instructions for the day. Exactly at 6 a.m. I would be knocking on his door, and upon hearing "Come in!" entered, saying "Good morning!" I silently listened to all the instructions, asked if that was all, and upon hearing "Yes", I left.
What I found surprising was that the boss never gave me the instructions seated. He would always be standing at the window. Once he saw my hands, all cracked and blotched, and led me to the office and told his staff to apply medication to my hands.
Grandmother's prayers helped me, I knew that for certain. I would regularly encounter really kind people. For example, whenever I left the workshop, an elderly German by the name of Franz would approach me and ask me how was my day, slyly slipping a sandwich he'd hidden away for me into my pocket. He took pity on me, helped me in my work, and loved chatting to me. Perhaps, when speaking to me he recalled his own children... He said he'd spent a long time in concentration camp and got tuberculosis of the leg bones. He kept saying: "We, Germans, have no need of Hitler or Stalin". Afterwards, he stopped coming. I couldn't ask the Germans about him.
I was always so tired I was constantly drowsy. So nothing hampered me from dropping off to sleep the moment bedtime came. Once a friend of Jacque's, Emil, a tall 24-year-old Frenchman with Slavic looks asked me: "Liuda, what shall you do when you get back home?" and I replied "Sleep!"
Emil was kind and smiled a lot. At times he'd bring me an apple or bar of chocolate. I felt so much at ease with him, as if he were a dear old friend. While I must admit I was shy of Jacques. He had a piercing, appraising glance. It seemed as if he was a person of a higher caste: always smart, neat and serious. Small wonder: he had managed to graduate from two universities, was an officer. He had found himself a prisoner because he categorically refused to join the ranks of Hitler's army. I liked both Emil and Jacques. Their behavior was very noble.
Once, during an air alarm, I didn't go to the bomb shelter but decided to climb into the switched off desiccator to warm myself. But then Jacques appeared and offered me to sit alongside him on his trolley. Quite imperceptibly he drew me into a conversation, telling me about himself. It transpired he was from some town on the Franco-Belgian border, an only son of parents he greatly loved. I didn't even notice how I'd started telling him about my family. Jacques was the first person in Germany whom I was sharing such personal details of my life with. I told him how remarkable my parents, sisters and grandmother were, and how much I loved them...
Then Jacques got some warm woolen gloves from his pocket and said:
"Here, mother sent them - they are too small for me! You try them on."
I easily put them on and threw up my hands: "Why, they are so warm!"
"Wear them, dear girl," said Jacques, "so that your hands do not hurt so much from all that hard work."
That moment the all-clear siren went off, and Jacques and I went back each to his workplace.
The air alerts went off increasingly more often, not only in the daytime, but at night, too. It was becoming harder for us, almost children, to stand our way through the 12-hour long work shifts, considering that with the air raids we slept little at night.
I prayed more and more, going 'round to the other side of the barrack and saying my childish prayers for a long, long time. I never asked the Lord for anything for myself, but prayed that the war would soon end and all my relatives would come through it alive and well. I recalled how grandma used to say to me: "Whenever you feel afraid, just say a prayer to the Holy Mother of God. She will know exactly what you need; and also pray to Jesus." So pray I did.
"Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos! Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls!"
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
I prayed in bed, before falling asleep; I prayed on my way to work, and immediately I felt better. The Lord never forsook me, because my grandmother was praying for me. Even if it was terribly cold, we were half-starved and the work burden almost more than we could stand, the Lord sent us, six girls from Russia, to a quiet backwaters, where there were only three Germans, and we almost never saw them after they'd given us our instructions for the day. All the others were foreign prisoners of war - French and Italian. All our girls were well-behaved and modest, never dreaming of tainting their reputation and family name. Perhaps, this explains why all the men treated us with great respect and brotherly love.
I recall how, before the New Year, the work day finished early - at 2 p.m., and we, girls, went upstairs to the little room where we usually had lunch. Suddenly, we were approached by an Italian war prisoner who said: "Girls, I have no New Year gifts for you, but as I am an artist of Rome's Opera theatre, my gift to you is a song."
We froze there on the stairs, as he struck up the famous song "Mother". None of us knew Italian, yet the word "Mama" revealed the profound depth of the beautiful song...
The Italian's beautiful tenor resonated, as if his very soul was weeping. Tenderness, love, gentleness, warmth of the spirit - all came washing over us, like a great tidal wave imbued with poignant sorrow and love, and we were carried away by it to such an extent that we wept unashamedly. All the while the glorious voice carried across the workshop.
To calm us, the Italian immediately followed up with something in a more joyous and light-hearted vein, smiling and taking dancing steps; he succeeded in making us laugh, even though there were still tears glistening in our eyes.
At the very entrance to the workshop Emil came up and warmly wished me a Happy New Year, and that I might soon return to my homeland. He gave me an empty lamp-box filled with chocolate. I thanked his and said how sorry I was not to have a gift for him. I stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek in sisterly manner. He was very touched.
Later that night the English pilots showered their 'gifts' on us - first there were bombs, then they dispersed phosphor. Believe me, it's a terrible sight! Anyone who was ever a witness to it will never forget it.
The bombing raids were becoming ever more frequent. But there was no growing accustomed to them. I would only pray: "O, Lord! Have mercy on us, save us!"
Once, together with the girls I went out into the yard after an air raid and beheld a terrible sight. There was a huge crater taking up most of the yard, and everything around us was splattered in mud. When we went out the camp gates, making our way to the factory, we couldn't believe our eyes. There were no houses, no station any more - just piles of smoking rubble and brick; and one surviving church where they were carrying either the wounded or the dead. I remember seeing two men carrying a stretcher with a young, blonde-haired German woman, who had a 2- or 3-year-old infant nestled on her chest. Their heads rocked in time to the steps of the men bearing the stretcher. War always hits the ordinary common people the hardest. Barely lucid from fear, we reached the factory. But the thought would not leave me that I owed the fact I was still alive to my grandmother's prayers. I also prayed that the dreadful bloodbath end as soon as possible.
Once, I returned from work and immediately fell asleep. Then I had a remarkable dream:
Someone, I couldn't see who it was, was lifting the scales from my eyes...
I awoke with a light heart and tranquil spirit, and the world seemed joyous and radiant to me, despite everything. The fear had left me, and from that moment on I ceased to fear air raids.
Life, in the meantime, continued, just as hard as ever. The only thought that warmed our hearts and kindled our hopes was that the Soviet army was approaching the borders of Germany.
One day Jacques came up to me swiftly, began helping me in my work, as was his custom, and suddenly emphatically burst out: "Liuda, I love you! I fell in love with you the moment I first saw you: a little girl, crying her eyes out... I love your modesty and your tenacity. I can always feel your presence, even when you aren't there, the moment I close my eyes. You are always with me... I feel that I can talk to you about anything under the sun. Your parents have instilled so much that is good in you! I love you not just for your sweet beauty, but for your profound soul..."
I was deeply touched by this declaration of love. I thanked Jacques profusely for his tender sentiments towards me. While he replied that he'd never been in love before, and that all his time had been taken up with studies and sports; that he was already 26 and was quite capable of distinguishing real love from a fleeting fancy. His feeling for me was genuine love, he said.
Soon, he proposed to me. "The war shall be over soon," he said. "Would you consent to become my wife?"
I smiled and said: "Jacques, if you promise never to kiss me or even take me by the arm until the end of the war, even right until our marriage, then I agree."
He laughed, kissed my forehead, and said: "It's a deal. Now you are my bride, and in France a bride is as good as a wife, so you must let me take care of you. And another thing - we need to exchange addresses: after the war is over there'll be a period of such chaos. I will find you, wherever you may be."
Every meeting with Jacques was an opportunity to discover something new and wonderful about him. He was my light in all that dreadful darkness.
Once, I was feeling low and on the verge of tears, as I recalled my beloved family, my home, my happy childhood. Jacques said to me: "Everything that has been snatched from you I promise to return to you after the war. I know that I can make you happy!"
However, soon my meetings with Jacques came to an end. He only had time to dash over and tell me that the war prisoners had been strictly prohibited from leaving camp, since they had refused to sign an agreement on voluntary service in Germany. "I am being closely watched," he said. He planted a kiss on my brow and left quickly.
Some time passed, and Jacques contrived to meet with me again. He was very agitated:
"Liuda," he said. "Do not be upset if they take me away to concentration camp. I can take anything for our sake! I'll be back. Farewell! They are watching me!"
I didn't know that was to be our last meeting. Returning to camp, I discovered that the girls of our barrack were being transferred to the town of Nordenham. Everyone had already packed their belongings, handed in the bed linen. Weeping, I wrote Jacques a letter of farewell, slipping inside my only photograph of myself. I gave the letter to a girl who was staying on in Bremen and who might possibly see Jacques.
Jacques did get my letter. Some time afterwards I received a wonderful letter from him, the sort of letter that could only be written by someone truly in love. That same day I promptly sent a reply. I was happy to learn he was in Bremen, and hadn't been arrested. I was bubbling over with joy. His reply was soon forthcoming.
But all of a sudden his letters stopped coming. Then we girls were taken over to the Soviet territory by the English troops, who'd entered the town. I was able to reach home only in August 1945. A while later I went to the town of Kharkov and accidentally bumped into a girl I had worked in the kitchens with back in Nordenham. It transpired that after we'd parted she had found herself at an assembly point where she ran into Emil, Jacques's friend. Emil informed her that Jacques had died in an air raid.
I felt I was about to swoon... Abruptly I said goodbye to the girl and wandered off, not knowing where I was going... I wept, oblivious to all around me... Jacques had died! He was no more! No! It couldn't be! I refused to accept it! No!!!"
I do not remember how I reached home that day, it was all as if in a haze... Jacques' death had killed a part of me, too. A light had gone out for me. I had been living in the hope that he'd soon find me. "Maybe this is a mistake?" I thought, grasping at straws. "Maybe it wasn't my Jacques that had died?!" So I wrote a letter to Emil. The answer arrived soon enough: Emil begged me to be strong... He wrote that Jacques had never stopped loving me, that I would certainly have become his wife if he hadn't been killed. In the very last days of March, on the eve of the advance of the English army, there was an air raid alert. Jacques ignored it in the conviction that there wouldn't be any serious bombing. So, alone, he stayed on in the barrack, writing a letter to me. It was a direct hit...
Lord! I am so grateful to you for sending so wonderful a man as Jacques to me to encounter on my thorny road. But he could not remain on this sinful Earth; he was too noble, too good, pure and full of self-sacrifice. Quite possibly, I was not worthy of such a man. You gave him to me for a while, in the most trying moments of my life. Once things got better, you claimed him. I thank you, Lord, for giving me such a chance to experience genuine love - pure, unselfish and untainted, on this Earth...


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