MAMA ALWAYS SAID that our people are travelers. I suppose that means my career in the Foreign Service was encoded in my genes long before I came into the world.
For me, travel means anticipation and excitement. It’s an opportunity to see new places, engage with different cultures, and challenge my preconceived notions about how the world works. Traveling provides moments to learn and to grow. On occasion it gives me a chance to spend time with family members scattered across the globe.
But for my parents and their parents before them, travel wasn’t a professional privilege or a leisure pastime. It was an act of survival: a series of stress-filled journeys to escape the tyranny and oppression that defined so much of the early twentieth century in the unfree world. And it was, in its final form for Mama and Papa, a leap of faith, an act of hope, a gift of love to their children—one that brought us to this country and enabled me to turn what had been a necessary activity for my parents into not just an avocation but a vocation.
MY PARENTS, Nadia and Michel, met in Montreal, Canada, in 1957, both seeking refuge and opportunity in the New World. Each had roots in Russia. Papa had been born there, in Chita, to a Russian mother and a Serbian father. My paternal grandparents, George and Maria, met while George labored as a POW in Siberia, the unfortunate end point of his service in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. Just a couple of years into Papa’s life, the Soviets allowed foreigners to leave Russia because of widespread famine. George took his family back to Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia. Tragically, Papa was orphaned within a few years of the move, when first his father and then his mother died. Papa either didn’t know the cause or blocked out those sad times. All he told us was that their difficult circumstances no doubt contributed to their ill health and untimely deaths.
In a stroke of good fortune, the Russian expatriate community in Yugoslavia took Papa in. He lived as a charity case, eventually ending up at the Russian Imperial Cadet Corps, a military boarding school established to replace the one the Bolsheviks had closed down in St. Petersburg. Papa’s cadet school classmates became his family, one with a common dream of one day helping to liberate Russia from the Communists and restore the czar to the throne.
Papa rarely spoke about his childhood. But one story stuck with me, because it illuminated so much about his character and the values that he wanted to instill in his children. Papa recalled a night when the cadet school’s director stormed into the boys’ sleeping quarters, angry that one of them had committed some infraction of the school’s strict code. He lined up the pajama-clad boys in the cold, dark hallway and demanded to know who was at fault. If the boys gave up the perpetrator or themselves took responsibility for the act even if they didn’t do it, they could go back to bed. As the night wore on and it got colder, boy after boy apologized for a deed he had not committed. Except my father. He wasn’t a tattletale, but neither was he going to be bullied into apologizing for a wrong that wasn’t his. He spent the rest of the night standing with his back against the wall, all alone.
Years later, my father was still proud of the strength of character that had enabled him to stand up to the powerful director. He raised my brother and me to believe that if we were presented with such a challenge, we needed to do the same.
MAMA SHARED MORE about her childhood than Papa did. When I heard her stories as a child in the comfort of our 1960s Connecticut home, I frequently felt that I was listening to a work of fiction; her childhood and the world she grew up in were that inconceivable to me. But the older I got, the more I came to understand how painfully real her experiences had been.
Mama was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, to a Russian father who had fought and then fled the Bolsheviks and an Indonesian-born, half Dutch, half German mother. My grandparents met in church: the gold-domed St. Elizabeth’s Russian Orthodox Church on the outskirts of Wiesbaden, where my Opa Mikhail served as choirmaster and my Oma Louise sang in his choir.
Their marriage produced seven children, with my mother, Nadezhda (Nadia for short), arriving second, in 1928. But their union also eventually brought something less welcome: shared statelessness. As Mama explained it, Opa Mikhail lost his Russian citizenship when he refused to go back to almost certain charges of treason in what had become the Soviet Union, and Oma Louise’s marriage to a foreigner cost my grandmother her German citizenship.
At first the family’s lack of citizenship and their Russian surname—Theokritoff—didn’t seem to matter too much, at least not to the children. Their lives centered on the church, each other, and the hard work it took to survive without much money. They shared with three other families a house on the church grounds with no running water, no electricity, and no gas. Opa’s chickens out back often served as dinner, and shopping for food or coal required a long walk or sled ride down the steep hill to town—and a challenging slog back up with a full load. All the children were expected to pitch in, but as the second oldest, Mama bore a disproportionate responsibility for helping with the housework and raising her younger siblings.
Despite the challenges, Mama recalled those early days as happy ones, because the family had what mattered most: love and companionship. But like so much else in Weimar Germany, it was not to last.
As the Nazis assumed and then consolidated power, the realities of fascism began to come home for the Theokritoffs. The government confiscated the church in 1934, and Opa lost his job. The family was allowed to stay on in the house, but my grandfather, a highly regarded composer and choirmaster, was forced to take whatever menial jobs he could get to feed his family.
My mother and her siblings soon learned what it meant to be viewed as inferior in a society that devalued anyone not a member of the so-called Aryan race. Other kids bullied and teased the Theokritoff children, and when Mama started school, she found that she had to struggle against her teachers’ low expectations for their “Russian” student. But Mama loved learning and yearned for an education. Against the odds, she managed to keep an optimistic attitude and stay in school for most of her childhood, living up to the Russian meaning of her name: “hope.” Even then Mama knew that education was the ticket to a better future.
When World War II started, the Nazis sent Opa to work in a factory 125 miles away. The family had to leave the church house and move into an apartment in the center of Wiesbaden, seeing Opa only when he came home on weekends.
Even as a child Mama knew that something was wrong with the world in which she was growing up, though she was too young to understand it all. She recalled receiving treasured books from a Jewish friend whose family suddenly left Germany in the prewar years. The next day Oma was called in by the school principal and reprimanded for receiving so-called Jewish books. Mama couldn’t understand why the principal was angry about the gift of books.
Decades later she still remembered one particular incident with both anger and anguish. Early in the war, nighttime air raids dropped bombs that blew out the windows of the family’s apartment building. Mama fled, shoeless, but didn’t make it far after broken glass bloodied her bare feet. A Jewish neighbor came to the rescue and carried her to the bomb shelter door, knowing that he himself would not be allowed to enter. The shelter warden rebuked the man for even touching Mama before shutting the door and leaving Mama’s neighbor to fend for himself as the air raid continued. When she told the story so many years later, Mama’s sense of gratitude for her neighbor’s selflessness remained—as did her distress that nothing could rectify the wrong done to this honorable man.
Reared in a world controlled by the Nazi propaganda machine, Mama found it difficult to understand what was going on. Her stateless parents wouldn’t discuss the bomb shelter incident or any others. Already in a precarious position, they didn’t want to risk having their children innocently repeat any criticism of the Nazis.
Still, they repeatedly took another risk—a big one. In the evenings Oma and Opa, if he was there, would post a child at the door as they secretly listened to British radio to get reports on the fighting. In Nazi Germany, listening to the BBC could have gotten the whole family detained or even imprisoned, so my grandparents did not share the news with their children. I always wondered what it felt like for Mama and her siblings: caught in the Nazi era, sensing the threat, seeing the cruel actions, hearing the lies, but having no broader context or true understanding of events enveloping them.
As the war years wore on, life got tougher for Mama and everyone else. Most of the family eventually moved to join Opa nearer his factory town, but Mama stayed with an elderly couple in Wiesbaden so that she could continue her high school education. Her time there ended when an Allied bomb hit their house. Everyone survived, but the couple did not want to take responsibility for Mama anymore and sent her back to her parents.
In wartime that was not a simple—or safe—proposition, especially for a fifteen-year-old girl. Wiesbaden was still in flames when Mama set out to reunite with her family. She literally ran through a street on fire as she headed for the train station. The police kept buckets of water at street corners, and Mama plunged a blanket in the water, covered herself, and ran down the street, darting around small fires and falling debris. She made it to the closest train station, but Allied bombs had arrived first, so she walked to the next station. She eventually made her way onto a train, but low-flying Allied bombers soon approached. The train stopped so that passengers could seek safety by hurling themselves into a ditch. Sobbing with fear, Mama tried to calm down by telling herself that she was too young to die. She survived that terrifying night and eventually found another train to take her to her family. Her education, however, did not survive. Mama never returned to high school.
Near the end of the war the Nazis came for Mama’s family. With ranks so depleted that even men well into their fifties were being called up, the German army was considering drafting Opa. But first the secret police had to determine his race; apparently they believed they could verify whether Opa was genetically desirable by examining each family member. Fearful that a visit to Gestapo headquarters could end with the family separated or worse, Oma had a family photo taken. She put the resulting photograph in each child’s pocket to help the children find each other if the family was split up. The picture shows a grim-faced Oma, a resigned Opa, and seven happy children apparently unaware of the gravity of their situation.
Mama never learned what the Gestapo decided about the Theokritoff genes, but the whole family was allowed to go home after the examination and was not contacted again. Fortunately, the war came to a close soon thereafter, without Opa having to take up arms. While the fighting ground on elsewhere, March 28, 1945, marked the end of the war for the family, by then living back in Wiesbaden. Mama recalled standing on the side of the road as an endless column of brightly painted American tanks roared by. Just like in the movies, the soldiers threw candy to the kids—and just like in the movies, Mama and her siblings eagerly caught the sweets. The entire family had survived the war. It was nothing short of a miracle.
LIKE MAMA, PAPA spent the war years struggling to survive. After graduating from the cadet school, he attended the Yugoslav Military Academy, just months before the Nazis invaded. The Yugoslav army collapsed almost immediately, and Papa found himself deported to a POW camp in Germany, Stalag XII-F.
The prisoners received only subsistence rations, and Papa was hungry. But he was also resourceful. Like his future father-in-law, Papa was an avid churchgoer and gifted singer. He formed a choir of fellow prisoners to sing Russian and Serbian patriotic and liturgical music. When the Nazi guards heard the music, they commanded the choir to perform for them, but my father refused until he received extra food in exchange for their song.
Here’s how I imagined it as a kid: David against Goliath, with my father and his faith winning. Undoubtedly that’s the lesson he wanted to convey. As an adult, I wonder whether the Nazis really would have brooked such insubordination from a prisoner. Was this more a matter of my father being forced to sing and receiving scraps from the Nazi table as a “reward”? By the time I asked myself this question, my father was gone, so I’ll never know the answer—and perhaps by the time I knew him, my father didn’t either.
In any case, soon Papa and his friends started making plans to escape, with the help of two local boys they had befriended while working at a construction site in the nearby town. The local boys smuggled them some civilian clothes, and when the scheduled day arrived, Papa and two friends put them on underneath their prison uniforms and waited patiently until nightfall. Having figured out the sequence of the floodlights raking the dark field outside the camp, they timed their breakout to avoid detection and, as Papa put it, “ran like the wind.” Somehow all three evaded capture.
The trio eventually made their way to Paris, where the Russian expatriate community again came to Papa’s aid. He spent the remainder of the war working as a hired hand for the daughter of the famous Russian composer Sergey Rachmaninoff. It was not always easy. At one point the Gestapo arrested him, beat him, and interrogated him. Good fortune again intervened, although the nature of the intervention later became a matter of good-natured dispute. As Papa’s friends told it, they secured his release by bribing one of the guards. But Papa told a different story. He proudly insisted that his singing won his release. Papa said that one Nazi guard, a drunk, told him that anyone with a voice like Papa’s couldn’t be all bad and let him out of the jail. Either way, Papa was free.
In August 1944, American troops liberated Paris. Papa was there, jubilantly waving an American flag with his Russian émigré friends. I wish I had a photo of that, but I can see it in my mind’s eye. And right next to it I can see Mama, months later, catching the candy American soldiers were throwing as they advanced through Germany.
MAMA WAS GLAD the war was over, but back in Wiesbaden, the Theokritoffs still struggled to put food on the table. Mama and her sisters stepped up and found menial work at the large military base the U.S. had opened in the city. Ironically, having once been harassed by German schoolchildren because she was Russian, Mama was now viewed with some suspicion by her new employers because she was German. But the family needed to eat, and the girl who had run through a burning street to rejoin her family was not going to let them down now.
Through a brother who had fled Russia for London decades earlier, Opa arranged to emigrate to England and made plans to take the rest of the family over as soon as possible. Once he was sufficiently settled, he was able to send for three of the older children, but Mama stayed in Germany to help Oma until Opa had saved enough for everyone to reunite. As the family’s main support in Wiesbaden, Mama worked constantly and had no friends. The three years she spent waiting to go to England were among her saddest.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1949, she set out for her new life. Reuniting with her father and siblings in London was a joy, but with the double burden of a German accent and a Russian name, she found that the British capital presented its own challenges. Still, Mama’s drive and abilities ensured that she soon prospered in a series of jobs. Even more importantly, with Opa back working as a choirmaster, Mama rediscovered the church. She joined his choir and developed a faith that would form the strongest part of her for the rest of her days.
As much as she loved her family, Mama began to chafe at the familial responsibilities that seemed destined to continue indefinitely if she remained in London. She wanted to build her own life. So, in a bold move for a single woman in the 1950s, Mama convinced her employer, Lloyd’s of London, to give her a job in Montreal. In March 1957 she left London for a new start in Canada.
It’s hard to imagine today, but when Mama sailed to Canada, an ocean away from her entire family, she thought she would never see any of them again. She was twenty-eight, all alone, and on her way to the New World.
WITH NO STRONG TIES to France, Papa too had decided to try for a better life away from war-torn Europe. Canada was taking in people displaced by the war, so Papa gave it a try. By the time Mama immigrated, he was working by day as a draftsman on the Montreal metro project and studying for a master’s degree at the University of Montreal by night. He spent his free time in church, singing in the choir and developing an interest in choir-directing. And when Mama arrived and joined his church, he also took an interest in her.
Less than a year after they first met, on February 2, 1958, Mama married Papa. She looks radiant in the photos. Papa, as ever, looks serious, but there is definitely a smile at the corners of his lips.
I arrived nine months later, almost to the day, and was baptized Marie Louise in honor of my two grandmothers. Mama worked until I was...