Like many trauma survivors, Annie Gottlieb's husband couldn't put the past behind him until he faced his memories head-on. She bears witness to his amazing transformation.
When I was 25 and about to meet the man I would spend my life with, I imagined happily-ever-after with hippie trimmings: a rock 'n' roll romance, a barefoot wedding, babies with names like Sky and Savannah. Was I in for a surprise! Whatever our dreams of love, life finds a way of shattering them to make room in our hearts for something larger.
In my case, literally larger.
The friend who took me to Jacques Sandulescu's apartment warned me that I was about to meet a giant. The man I looked up at was like a character from a fairy tale—the scary but secretly kind ogre, perhaps. At 6 foot 3 he was a foot taller than I and weighed twice as much. He was also 18 years older. He had a rich, unplaceable accent and a boxer's small head with a snub nose and high Slavic cheekbones. His ring name as a pro heavyweight had been the Babyface Killer. Since then, he had owned two flamenco coffeehouses and a jazz bar called Jacques in Greenwich Village, running them with an easy authority. I would learn later that his ancestors—landowners, magistrates, military commanders—had run their little corner of Transylvania (the mountainous heart of Romania) for, oh, about 800 years.
To my absolute terror, almost as soon as I walked in the door, this force of nature fixed me with a look that said "You're the one." Me? There had to be some mistake. At 25 I was drab on the outside—hidden behind shapeless clothes, glasses, extra pounds—and tied in knots on the inside, picking at them in therapy. I wasn't so much attracted to him as I was overwhelmed. And yet I saw him cradle a kitten in his huge hands, hinting at a nurturing streak I hungered for. We had a love of books in common—his place was full of them. In fact, he'd had a book of his own published. As I left, he thrust it into my hands. It was titled Donbas. What's that? I thought. I soon learned that it was a place—both on earth and in Jacques's psyche. There was already no turning back from the journey that would take me there.
"I was arrested in Brasov on my way to school," Jacques's autobiography began. He had been 16 years old when the Soviet Red Army invaded Romania late in World War II. In January 1945 they rounded up some 9,000 people and shipped them in cattle cars to the Donets River Basin (Donbas) coalfields of Ukraine, a three-week trip; once there they would build their own slave labor camps in the snow. The Soviets, unlike the Nazis, weren't out to kill their captives—only those who attempted escape got a bullet in the neck—but they were perfectly willing to work and starve them to death. Despite the kindness of some Russian civilians who sneaked food to prisoners, thousands died. Even before Jacques started mining coal, his hands were hardened from digging graves in frozen ground.
Jacques was strong enough to do singlehandedly a job that normally took two well-fed Russians: riding a three-ton iron car to the top of a rickety tower and tipping it over to dump its load of slag, the stony black waste from the mine. His captors gave him the Russian nickname Vanya, along with extra rations, and even offered him the chance to marry a Russian girl and become a Soviet citizen. Longing for home and freedom, he dared to refuse, a defiance that banished him underground, to the most dangerous part of the mine. Weakened by hunger, his massive frame down to 120 pounds, he was buried alive in a cave-in. His best friend and fellow prisoner Omar dug him out, but his mangled legs became gangrenous. Threatened with amputation, Jacques escaped—into the searing subzero cold of a Russian winter. As badly as he needed his parents, he made the wrenching decision not to head home, where the Soviets now ruled, but to try to reach the Americans occupying western Germany.
Vanya survived, just barely, as did his legs, the gangrene beaten by naked will and last-ditch medical help. But had his spirit? The man I was now "dating"—it was more like going under a huge Atlantic wave—was guarded and bitter, overprotective, capable of sudden rage that scared me to death. Yet I was touched by glimpses of his imagination—he told me he'd been a great reader as a kid, and the adventure stories in his memory had helped him stay sane in the prison camp. And I sensed an ocean of sadness dammed up behind his formidable facade. Two or three times a week he'd jolt awake from nightmares so real it took him many minutes to believe he wasn't back in Russia.
True survivors, whether they are dragged from home by war or violated by a more intimate enemy, know that merely staying alive isn't enough. They must brave the journey back through the treacherous tunnels and sealed-off horror chambers the mind has constructed for its defense. To recover, therapists say, a survivor must do three things: open up to at least one other person; bear witness—tell the world what happened; and, if possible, return to confront the source of trauma.
Of these three, the most difficult and essential is to expose the psychic wounds to someone else. It's hard because all survivors, however innocent, hide deep feelings of shame and guilt: shame at their degradation (Jacques, a boy from a better than good home, arrived in the West homeless and filthy, begged for food, and got spat on); guilt not only for what they may have had to do to survive but also because to be guilty at least makes sense of their suffering. It's too frightening to live in a random universe where you can be arrested at gunpoint on your way to school just because you look like you could do a day's work; where you survive while your older sister, captured days later and taken to a different camp, does not.
Writing his own "adventure" story—Donbas was published in 1968—had been Jacques's first stab at testimony. But now Donbas was out of print, and he felt almost as unheard as before. If survivors find it easiest to confide in those who share their experience, I was a lousy choice. While he escaped in an open coal car, struggling not to fall asleep and freeze to death, I had been warm in my crib in Chicago, 9 months old. Yet he had a hunch I could be trusted, a compliment I struggled to deserve. I was so far out of my depth that at times all that kept me from fleeing was my sense of his loneliness.
In 1975 Jacques came down with a frightening illness: terrible back pain, fever. After two months of searching for cancer, his doctors diagnosed a spinal infection, most likely from germs trapped in his body ever since a Russian guard shot him through the chest for target practice. The toxins of the past, physical as well as emotional, were surfacing now that he had someone to care for him. Seeing him through sickness bonded us powerfully, and yet, like him—or a pale shadow of him—I sometimes wondered, Why me? Why had I been chosen to share the weight of someone else's suffering when my contemporaries were living carefree lives of self-discovery? I was young and didn't know yet that there's no such thing as a carefree life—and no surer way to discover yourself than through cares and caring.
After recovering from surgery, Jacques entered a period of vitality that was a joy to share. His nightmares faded. We visited his mother every year in Transylvania (his father had died in 1961, before it was safe for him to go), and I got to know Omar, who had slaved beside Jacques and saved his life. Jacques and I wrote to senators, who helped friends and relatives get out of communist Romania, for it was important to him to be the rescuer he'd never had. On the lighter side, he began to have an acting career, playing cameo roles in Moscow on the Hudson and Trading Places.
There was just one sore point: Jacques didn't want children.
For some survivors, having kids is the ultimate life-affirming act. For Jacques it was the ultimate vulnerability. His worst fear was to be in his father's shoes—unable to protect his children. I think, too, that he knew his own healing was all he could handle. For me, it was as all-consuming as motherhood—and, I consoled myself, as life-giving. I could bring a child into life, or I could love this man back to life, not both. So his cats and mine had kittens. He cooked. We laughed. We delighted in our friends. He introduced me to karate and we worked out together. He seemed almost free from the grip of trauma. I didn't realize that he was gathering strength to look it right in the face.
Jacques had often talked of wanting to return to the Donbas with Omar. That was not to be. Omar died in 1991, plunging Jacques into something even deeper and darker than grief. The one person on earth who had shared his worst memories was gone. Hesitantly, Jacques began sharing them with me. He became capable of tears, which he'd never allowed himself before for fear they'd never stop. We got through it, but I learned that an experience that extreme is something you never "get over." It's always there, and the best you can do (like Jacob with the angel) is grapple with it till it yields its blessing.
The chance to do that finally came in 1999, when Jacques was invited to a karate tournament in Kiev, Ukraine. The breakup of the Soviet Union had left the Donbas coal region, with its capital city Donetsk, in southeastern Ukraine—just a two-hour flight from Kiev.
I kept a journal:
5/19/99 I realized how I feel about this trip: the way I have felt being winched up the initial slope of a roller coaster—artificially calm, slightly breathless.
5/21 J can hardly believe it: The Ukrainian authorities just glanced at his U.S. passport and waved him through! He half expected to be arrested for escaping 52 years ago.
5/25 Yesterday we got hold of a driver and set out to find the mine where J worked. We had to drive a good three hours east of Donetsk. When J saw the first slag tower, he said, "my heart did a double take." We kept stopping to ask people about Mine 28, where J had labored—and getting answers we couldn't understand. J, the only one of us who knew any Russian, was confounded by the fact that he was so close, yet recognized so little.
We spent the next day finding an interpreter to go back with us.
5/27 At a mine called Schachta Luganskaya, we met a lovely Susan Sarandon look-alike named Lyudmila, who told us that Mine 28 was shut down years ago, and pointed out its old slag heap, sprouting vegetation, becoming just an old hill. The mark J made on the earth is still there. As is the mark he made on women's hearts, evidently.
J mentioned names of Russian girls he'd worked with, and everyone agreed that at least one of them, Dusya, was still alive. So we went to find Dusya's house. Jacques remembered her as beautiful, fiery, and young. Out came a little old woman with very few teeth, merry blue eyes, and high cheekbones. As soon as they told her who J was, she picked up her apron and wiped tears from her eyes. She crowed, "Vanyushka, Vanyushka!" and babbled to him in Russian.
J's little remaining Russian deserted him completely. He took refuge in beneficence, giving Dusya a $20 bill ("What's that?" she wanted to know) and asking through our translator what she wanted from New York. "A lot!" she shot back. "A washing machine!" So now he looks forward to coming back and giving her one.
5/31 At home in New York, I find that the trip's effect on J has been releasing. Donbas is no longer a private wound. It's a place on earth, with a life that has gone on. While that robs it of some of its dark power, it has also lessened the dread and isolation.
Many prisoners, J told me, hated all Russians. He never did. He hated only those who enforced a brutal system. I see now that he not only loves the extravagant Russian soul, he has one.
The Donbas became a powerful magnet for Jacques. A year later, we returned—and this trip was rougher.
5/15/00 At Donetsk airport our cab driver, Sasha, said he was a coal miner, too. He and J struck a deal for him to take us to the mines. A young man we met last year, also Sasha, will come along to translate.
5/16 We found Lyudmila again. She said that when word had gotten around of J's return, his shift supervisor, Marusya, had come forward. J's reaction: "Oh my God."
Lyudmila guided our car through mud ruts and gullies to a splintery wood fence. The woman who came from behind it had a beautiful face carved with deep lines, a gold tooth surrounded by missing ones. She took one look and said, "Vanya!" They embraced and began talking—in fluent Russian! It was eerie, because J's Russian is rusty at best. Marusya chattered away, full of memories; he responded in a trancelike way. I didn't realize till later that he was in the grip of a full-blown flashback.
Marusya invited us in, warning us that she'd given up housekeeping, since her husband was senile and wandered around at night wrecking things. J decided on the spot to get her a washing machine, too. There's a special kind for places without indoor plumbing—you pump and heat the water, and the machine does the rest.
Marusya's house was small, sagging, and crookedy. Through a doorway we could see her husband lying on a bed in empty-eyed misery. Terrible as her situation is, I was prevented from feeling too sorry for Marusya by her absolute lack of self-pity, her hard vitality. She has an almost aggressive quality, as if the only way to keep such a life from flattening you is to push back harder.
5/18 Last night, J started to cry harder than he ever has. It was natural and necessary, but it wasn't easy, and it didn't give him ease.
In the morning, he was sick—dopey and confused, and so weak that our driver, Big Sasha, had to help him into the cab. We stopped at Dusya's to unload the washing machine we'd promised her, and she invited us to stay for dinner.
J was silent while everyone else laughed, ate, and drank vodka. Halfway through dinner he needed to sleep so badly he almost keeled over. We stumbled inside and lay down together on a bed. J was breathing too rapidly. Was he having a heart attack? He fell asleep almost immediately while I anxiously watched over him. After a while I understood with relief that what he had was a fever. I was pretty sure he was just reacting physically to seeing Marusya, the hardest emotional hit he'd taken since Omar died. Around 4 A.M., back at our hotel, his breathing slowed, and from then on he was fine.
Soon after we came home, something miraculous happened. Jacques got an e-mail from a 13-year-old boy named Josh Overton in Springfield, Oregon—one of the towns traumatized by a school shooting. Josh was looking for a fresh copy of Donbas for his teacher, Steve Hess, who was about to retire. Mr. Hess's copy was falling apart—understandably: He had read Donbas aloud to his classes for 28 years. "Vanya's" story of survival had gripped Josh so powerfully that he'd gone from failing grades to enthusiastic A's.
Getting in touch with Josh and his teacher transformed Jacques's life as much as returning to the Donbas had. Finally he knew he had been heard. "This is the most popular book I've ever read to kids," Steve Hess told him. I realized something new about Jacques: His story, more than his genes, is who he is and what he needs to pass on. He'd longed for children, but not of his body—children of his story.
Into our life they came in a rush. In September of 2000, we flew out to Oregon and an overwhelming welcome. Three more teachers at Hamlin Middle School were reading Donbas to their classes. The kids unfurled a banner saying WELCOME VANYA & ANNIE, signed with dozens of messages, from "Stay cool, dude!" to "This book gives me courage to keep going even when it looks impossible."
Life is so much wilder and wiser than our fantasies. Looking at my sisters and friends, whose journeys started out closer to home but led to equally unexpected places, I see that I could have married the boy next door and woken up next to a stranger. (Plenty of rock 'n' roll romances have ended in divorce in the 30 years my stranger and I have been growing closer.)
We've gone back to the Donbas twice more. In fall 2000 we brought winter coats to Dusya and Marusya (whose husband had died) and we found Nina—the Russian girl Jacques had been offered a chance to marry. Nina sobbed as she remembered the pity she had felt for Vanya, and the sunflower seeds and cornbread she'd slipped him behind the guards' backs.
Last February, Jacques's wish to brave the Donbas winter had to be deferred when a snowstorm made the drive to the mines impossible. Gifts for his old friends had to be left with the two Sashas. But the sight of a rusted old coal car in Donetsk once again tore a hole through time. Right there in the capital city, "J insisted on going to McDonald's," I wrote in my journal, "with a childish stubbornness that exasperated me." And then it dawned on me: "He was grasping for a piece of America to pull himself to safety." Stepping under the new golden arches spanning then and now, here and there, him and me, together we took the starving Vanya for a Happy Meal.
For more photos and information, log on to Donbas.com.