Yevgenya Yakovlevna Ivashchenko, the author’s mother, has always been on the wrong side, but the portrayal of her daughter is poignant. “If you had seen what I saw”, repeated-she to her child. And it is from this blinding light of maternal memory that Natascha Wodin brings out dramatic historical pages. Evguénia was born into a family “capitalist”, in the Ukraine of 1920 ravaged by civil war. Under the Nazi occupation, the lost and starving young woman was employed – probably – by the German administration. When the Red Army announces itself, she leaves with her husband and a cohort of Zwangarbeiter, forced laborers, for a life of slavery in Hitler’s arms factories. Evguénia wears the “OST” badge for «Eastern workers», which indicates its membership in the “Slavic sub-race”. The following year, when the war was over, she could not return to the USSR; the forced laborers who had left for Germany were considered to be traitors there: they let it go and did not prefer suicide. Yet she will remain the Russian, representative of a hated power, in the camp for displaced persons where she lands in Nuremberg.
“White hands”. All the while, homesickness is eating away at the young woman. No news from his family from Mariupol, his hometown near the Sea of Azov. The world before has been swallowed up: not the slightest sign of life from Lidia, her sister, sent to the gulag in the 1930s, nor from her mother the Italo-Russian Matilda, nor from her brother, the opera singer Sergei. Evgenia is alone in a hostile country, despised by her husband, who makes fun of her “Little white hands” of bourgeois daughter. She does not know how to take care of her household, her eldest daughter, Natascha, born in 1945, is untenable. With each prank, she only knows how to deliver it to the father and to the blows of the belt. When the latter moves away, she constantly threatens to drown in the nearby river with her two little daughters. Which she will end up doing, but alone. Natascha is 10 years old, her sister 4.
The existence of Yevgenya Yakovlevna Ivashchenko is only one among the millions of lives crushed by the dictatorships of the XXe century. But his daughter, then brought up by a father who never spoke of his wife, preserved the trace of the love brought to her mother, even if in her memory, “She was no more than a shadow, a feeling rather than a memory”. What the drowned woman had left would have fit in a small bag: a precious icon representing the saints of the Russian pantheon, quite useless to someone decked out with such a bad star, a few photos barely captioned from the time of Ukraine, a marriage certificate concluded in 1943. One of the photographs is represented on the cover of the book: it is Evgenia, young, beautiful and melancholy, in the time of Mariupol, a loose scarf on her hair. A portrait that she will leave torn on her bed the day of her death.
Good star. A little girl made precocious by misfortune, Natascha Wodin wondered about maternal oddities, she wanted to understand her, to reach her. But which thread to draw? How to find witnesses of what was his mother? The novelist and translator established for twenty-five years in Berlin has not chosen the path of fiction. The opening of the Soviet archives, the formidable possibility of investigating remotely thanks to the Internet, will push her to work as some archaeologists lead: to reconstitute very old art objects from a few shards. And it’s a whole family of ghosts and living beings that reappears. Natascha Wodin can then understand: “It was not in Germany that she had been transformed into a sub-man, she had already been in Ukraine, my poor little mother gone mad, who came from the densest darkness of the twentiethe bloodthirsty century. “
In her research, the author is accompanied by a lucky star. She meets a certain Konstantine on a site concerning the Greek community of Mariupol. This man will prove to be an outstanding bloodhound. He and Natascha Wodin exchange up to twelve emails a day. They send virtual bottles to the sea, encourage each other. We must not neglect any track. Forums refer to addresses, often dead ends, but sometimes to telephone numbers. Voices arise from the past: Lidia’s grandson, a «homo sovieticus» typical, his son, an old man living in Siberia, the exuberant daughter of Sergei. An opera recording in which the singing uncle performed is exhumed. Other photos pop up. The author’s false image of her mother gives way to reality. She believed that Evgenia came from a miserable family, so this is not the case. The faded sepia past takes on color: there is the great-grandfather Giuseppe, originally from Naples, naval captain then trader, the aristocrat and Baltic great-grandmother, the grandfather opposing the Tsar relegated to the Siberian cold. The family tree is growing.
Then drama: Lidia’s notebooks are found, sent by post, almost getting lost. Their content occupies one of the four parts of the book, and filtered by the voice of Natascha Wodin, constitutes a modest stone in concentration camp literature. At one point, the author imagines that her aunt is one of those unburied ghosts of the gulag, whose portraits nailed in the forest sometimes recall the memory. No, she could have known Lidia who, survivor of the camps and died at the age of 90, lived near Moscow: in the 70s, she went for her work as a translator-interpreter in the Russian capital. It is one of those cruel crossroads in history.
She was from Mariupol: in search of a lost family in the Soviet Union
Translated from the German by Alban Lefranc. Métailié “Document”, 336 pp., 23 €.