WHEN Anglo-Australians think of World War II battle zones, the natural tendency is to list only those in which our own servicemen fought: Southeast Asia, the Pacific, North Africa, Western Europe. The unimaginable destruction that occurred as Hitler’s army swept across Eastern Europe is overlooked.
For a generation of immigrant Australians, however, the realities of life before and during that ‘other’ conflict were transported along with their meagre belongings when they fled to an adopted country on the opposite side of the world.
Olga Chaplin’s parents were among the many thousands of displaced Ukrainians who managed to regroup sufficiently to forge a contented, prosperous future in Australia. Her beautifully worded, fictionalised account of their experience has the ability to warm a reader’s heart one minute and summon tears the next.
The story of Petro ‘Peter’ Pospile opens in December 1929 in Talalaivka, a tiny administrative town in far-northern Ukraine.
Following the death of Russia’s socialist dictator Lenin, control has been seized by totalitarian tyrant Stalin. Stalin is pillaging Ukraine’s rich black-soil farmland, confiscating its produce to feed Russians while millions of Ukrainians starve.
A veterinarian, Peter is considered marginally more useful than the typical local worker, yet not even this can save his family from horrendous suffering under Stalinist rule.
After more than a decade of deprivation, he accepts the arrival of German soldiers in June 1941 as just one more chapter of a never-ending ordeal. He cannot foresee that he and Evdokia will soon be sent to labour camps in Germany, Peter to fight Allied-bomb blazes in Berlin and Wilhelmshaven and his wife to manufacture munitions on an assembly line.
Eventually peace is declared but the couple’s long-entrenched distress is not easily banished: as homeless, stateless refugees, they continue to fear the Soviets’ reach and struggle to create a stable new existence for themselves.