By Tiana Leonard
My mother was born in Crimea in 1906, the youngest of six children in a family of German Mennonites. The Mennonites were a pacifist Christian sect whose communities moved around Europe trying to escape conscription. Catherine the Great invited them to settle in Russia in the hope that they could teach the Russian peasants their farming practices. But my grandfather was an unsuccessful farmer. Each place he settled, locusts or drought brought disaster to his crops. When he finally gave up farming and started a mill in Pavlovsk, a town on the Don River in Ukraine, he became prosperous immediately. My mother was four then, and, until the collapse of the monarchy, the family lived a comfortable life although my mother barely survived a series of childhood diseases – diphtheria, whopping cough, and a episode of scarlet fever that left her deaf in one ear.
The family became Russian subjects and my grandfather was even elected to the Duma-the city council. Since there was no Mennonite colony in Pavlovsk, my mother went to a Russian school. She spoke German at home and grew up bilingual and multicultural. Her mother cooked German, Tatar, and Ukrainian dishes like meat Borscht with Peroshki and sour cream. They celebrated Christmas with German cookies and Russian Orthodox Easter with smoked fish, caviar, Sernya Paschka and Kulich. She read James Fennimore Cooper, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Continue reading