I remember the first time that I sat in a Starbucks in Frankfurt, Germany, I felt such a strange sense of disconnect. I was pregnant with my first child, and the Starbucks was a familiar refuge—one of the few non-smoking cafes available at the time. I sat reading amidst a hum of German voices, and I was struck by the fact that 50-years earlier, my grandparents had been in nearly the same spot, but in a completely different situation. My grandparents had been forced laborers during the WWII, taken from Ukraine to work as Ostarbeiter in Germany.
With the assistance of American Military aid, the Soviet army drove the Germans out of Ukraine near the end of the war. When the war came to a close, Ukraine stood in ruins. “No single country,” wrote journalist Edgar Snow, “suffered deeper wounds to its cities, its industries and its humanity.”
Whenever I felt lonely or overwhelmed in a situation where I didn’t know the language, I thought of my grandmothers. I left my home by choice, seeking opportunity and adventure. My husband and I tried new restaurants and took walks in the park. We eagerly planned trips traveling around Europe, even after our daughter was born. It was a slower lifestyle than in America, one that allowed for us to have more “family-time” with our baby.
My grandparents left home by force, ripped away from all that they loved. They lived through a war not knowing if their families were alive or dead. They never had the luxury to sit in a café and feel sorry for themselves because someone slammed a door in their face. It put my woes in perspective to think of their incredible strength and perseverance. I come from a strong line of women, and I felt close to them during those days, especially carrying my own daughter inside.
My husband and I knew that after two years, we would be returning to our loved ones in Chicago. We knew that they were only a phone call or an e-mail away. My grandparents felt as if they had no choice but to remain the Displaced Persons camps until they could immigrate elsewhere, possibly closing the doors on their past forever.
In 1948, the United States Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act that enabled Ukrainian refugees in Europe to immigrate to the United States. The economic and political persecution that awaited them in the Soviet Union after World War II left many Ukrainians with little choice but to immigrate from Stalin’s oppression in order to search out the “American Dream.”
Both sets of my grandparents chose to immigrate to America. In Frankfurt, I met some of the Ukrainians who chose to remain in Germany after the war. Just like my grandparents, they hold fast to their Ukrainian traditions, their cultural and religious connections. I have tried to put myself in their shoes, to think about what I would have done in that situation. Would I have returned to Ukraine? Would I have remained in Germany? Would I have had moved to a new continent, an unfamiliar country to seek a better life?
I know that people face dire consequences today that put them in precisely this position, and I thought of them as well when writing The Silence of Trees. How do you leave the past behind? Is there a way to reconcile the Old World and the New? What happens when the past resurfaces? What must you sacrifice? What will you gain?
With my novel, I have tried to honor those strong women who have given up everything in search of a”better” life. I have tried to give voice to those who have been silenced by history, war, and injustice. I hope that my inclusion in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Semifinals allows even more people to hear their voices.