We all have regrets. One of mine concerns a 4 foot 11 inch powerhouse of energy and strength, a feisty, no-nonsense woman with an unbending personality – my mother-in-law, Luba.
Luba had an interesting and tragic back story that she usually kept to herself. It was too painful to share, the memories were too stark and deep, and only in unguarded moments – usually at the dinner table after bellies were full with borscht and perogies – did she dip into the past.
But what a story she had to tell….about the Nazis who plucked her from her home in the Old Ukraine in 1942…about the stifling, long ride to Germany in a box car packed with other teens ….about the concentration camp where she was interred after the Nazis mistakenly thought she was Jewish….about the ammunition factory where she ultimately worked as a slave labourer making bombs for Hitler…
There was more to her story and sometimes in the telling, Luba would roll up her pant leg to show the scar that snaked up her calf — a souvenir of the day the Allies bombed the factory and shrapnel found a home in her body. Hers was a story of tragedy and strength, of survival and hope, of sacrifice and salvation.
I’d often thought that I should write her story. It deserved to be captured on paper. It would be a tribute to her and a keepsake for the family. It might even make an interesting read for young people if it was published. But try as I did, I never got very far.
There were a number of reasons. Access to the information, for one. It was a two hour drive to her home in the country, making visits sparse and when they did happen usually other family members were present – hardly the environment for a one-on-one interview.
Luba was not one of those straight to the point storytellers either. Often she weaved other stories, past and present, into her own, all the while offering a running commentary on the state of the world that was peppered with colorful (blue!) language. She spoke with a heavy accent and mispronounced words. Having taught herself English, Luba’s spelling was literal, phonetic and often unrecognizable (for 40 years, she wrote my name as ‘Lery’ and we’re still chuckling over jars of preserves with curious labels like “pechs” and “pickl bets”).
Trying to capture with any accuracy the names of cities and people was a frustrating experience. Was it in Nuremberg or Neuerburg where a German family offered her sanctuary and tended to her wounds? Both cities exist. And was the family name Korbel or Kerbele or Kurbelle? Another mystery.
Aside from the difficulty of assembling the scattered pieces of Luba’s story, I encountered other problems when I tried to write it. I fumbled with the storyline and never quite made it past a few paragraphs. Words stalled on the page, fingers froze on the keyboard. I shifted approaches and tried to find the narrative thread of her story, but each time I faltered. Finally, I just gave up trying and added the experience to my heap of regrets.
Luba died three years ago this month taking with her the bulk of her story. There are no relatives or friends left to fill in the gaps, and even the name of the village where she lived as a teenager is a mystery. Even if I could find my writer’s voice, it’s too late now to tell her story.
Or is it?
Plenty of writers have dipped into the past to tell stories rooted in history. Carol Matas, a Winnipeg writer, has made WWII her specialty, embedding history into novels about young protagonists who struggle against overwhelming odds in award winning books such as Jesper, Daniel’s Story and Greater Than Angels.
Other writers have used a non-fiction approach to tell historically-based stories. Karen Levine is one example. In Hana’s Suitcase, Levine skillfully peels back time to unravel the mystery of a suitcase from Auschwitz that arrived at a children’s Holocaust education center in Tokyo, Japan in March 2000.
So maybe there is hope for Luba’s story after all. Perhaps there is a way of digging into the past to fill in the holes. Perhaps I can find a way out of the quagmire that stalls me every time I try writing it.
In the next series of blogs, I’ll be investigating my options and picking away at some of the decisions that writers of historical material face. I’ll be looking at how I might structure Luba’s story and acquire the facts to support it. I’ll be exploring styles and genres, and how I might weave the story into a compelling narrative.
If you have suggestions, I’d welcome them. We all have stories from the past to tell. Some are personal and our own. Some, like Luba’s, belong to other people. My hope is that we will emerge with a better grasp of how to write them, and I will find the sure footing I need to start again.