Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Lost Children of the Urals

After writing of the Czech Legion, I would be remiss not to mention an obscure historic incident involving a group of children lost in Siberia. As a young, underpaid, yet energetic analyst, I spent many nights in my organization's library pouring over volumes dealing with Russian culture and history.  One of the books that really caught my attention was Floyd Miller's Wild Children of the Urals
Floyd Miller's Classic Story
In his book, Miller relates the epic odyssey of nearly a thousand Russian children, who in 1918, boarded trains in Saint Petersburg for their annual excursion to summer camps in Turgoysk, Siberia and destiny.  The children, ranging in age from two to sixteen, were accompanied by several dozen young teachers and medical staff.  As the summer of 1918 progressed and revolution spread throughout their land, the children found themselves cut off from their homes.
Children boarding their train for Turgoysk
Faced with the prospect of hunger and a Siberian winter, the children's counselors organized scavenging parties to obtain food and shelter.  Since Turgoysk is in the Chelyabinsk-Zlatoust region  where my story takes place, I arranged for the lost children to play part a role in Slogans: Our Children, Our Future.
* * *

The oldest could not have been more the twelve and the youngest probably four.  The three boys stood outside Akulina's door asking for food.  “Please, Tetka―Auntie, we are hungry,” the oldest said.  “If you could just spare some bread or perhaps some old beets and cabbage we would be eternally grateful.”  Akulina looked down at their basket and saw a few crusts of bread and wilted vegetables.  “Please, Tetka.  It is not just for us.  We have little sisters who are too weak to beg.  But with your help she will regain her health and the Lord will truly bless you for your compassion.”
* * *
The story of the wild children rates high in the truth is stranger than fiction category, as they become the target of an American Red Cross worker named Riley Allen.  Riley located the children and together with the Czech Legion guided them safely to Vladivostok and beyond.  The story of Riley's quest captivated American newspaper readers just as Stanley's search for Livingstone through Africa had enthralled an earlier generation.  It was these emotional news reports that prompted Massey to become involved.
* * *
"A few of the children returned home but the civil war left most stranded.  The camp officials fled leaving about eight hundred children behind.  They were just two to fifteen-years old.”

“So what?  We have problems enough without them.”
“Ah,” Locko replied.  “We may not solve their problem, but they might solve ours.”  Now he had their attention.  “An American went to Russia last fall searching for the children and found them.  The rumors were true.  Now American newspapers are interested in following the actions of this Riley Allen and what they are calling, 'The Wild Children of the Urals.'  I propose we change our name to the Urals' Children Fund.”
* * *
Massey and his fellow expatriates eagerly followed the children's travails as they traveled east across Russia to safety.
The Lost Children head east to Vladivostok
Finally the children reached Vladivostok and were taken by sea to San Francisco. From there the Red Cross proposed to transport them by train to New York. 

Red Cross Ship
Upon hearing the children would be traveling through the Midwest, Massey organized the Rockdale Seven to form a reception to welcome the children's train before it reached Chicago.  He planned to embrace them as he would his own sons.
* * *
Massey foresaw standing alongside the tracks as the train stopped in Joliet.  He would be holding two baskets full of food and well wishes.  They would not just contain his gifts, but from many others in Rockdale.  Sam’s wife volunteered to bake klotchie and potisa; Marko planned buying tarts from Smith's bakery, and Massey would fill the remainder with fresh fruit and sweets.  Massey's baskets, however, were not intended for just anyone.  Surely among the hundreds there were two brothers the same age as Stefan and Ivan.  Massey would search the railcars and find two boys leaning out their windows and reaching for him with outstretched arms.  Massey would smile, give them the gifts, chat and be thanked profusely. 
* * *
However, politics and disunity among Russian refugees derailed the Red Cross plan and the children were force to continue by sea to New York and eventually Russia.
Russian boys arriving in Helsinki
* * *

Following the children’s departure from New York, Massey's baskets remained leaning against the wall for several weeks.  They, like his dreams of seeing his boys, would remain empty.
* * *
Two and a half years after leaving their Saint Petersburg homes, the children were reunited with their families.  They had circled the globe on foot, train and ship. Unfortunately for many in 1921 Russia, the children's past hardships were but a prelude to what lay ahead. 

The Children's World Circling Journey

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Tsar's Lost Gold

One of the many things I like about writing historical-fiction is the ability to connect my characters to even the most obscure historical events.  Such is the case of the Tsar's lost gold.  Supposedly, during the Russian Civil War a train load of Tsarist gold was lost somewhere in Siberia.  There have been books, articles and television shows speculating on the whereabouts of the treasure.
A 15 ruble gold coin from the reign of Tsar Nicholas the Second
Since the gold was lost in Siberia and Slogans: Our Children, Our Future takes place in that region, it was not much of a stretch to have my characters involved.  Much of the story revolved around a military organization know as the Czech Legion, a unit composed of Czech and Slovak prisons of war who fought in the Russian Army during the First World War. To tell the story of the Legion I created a character named Domek Pazaryk.
* * *

By himself Domek Pazaryk frightened no one.  Even in his native Moravia, a region of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire not known for powerful giants, he was a considered a small, frail man.  By the spring of 1918, however, Vladimir Lenin, new head of the Soviet government, had good reason to fear Domek Pazaryk and the 45,000 like him.  Domek Pazaryk was a rifleman in strongest, best-disciplined fighting force now threatening Soviet Russia―The Czech Legion.
* * *

Members of the Czech Legion
The story of the Czech Legion is an epic in itself.  After Russia signed a truce with Germany in 1918, the legionnaires were labeled deserters by the victorious Germans and sentenced to death.  Rather than face firing squads, the Legion commandeered armed Russian trains and attempted to escape Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Czech Legion aboard a captured Russian train
The Legion's first battle occurred outside the city of Chelyabinsk.  In my novel it was during this battle Stepha protected Vanya from the bombardment.  Later in the story Kataya witnessed the battle's effects.
* * *

For a moment, Florence held her breath.  “These men,” she said sweeping her arm across the wounded, “are coming from Chelyabinsk.”

“Who …?  What happened?”
Doctor Farnsworth knelt down next to a stretcher and lifted a bloody bandage to reveal a festering wound.  “The Czech Legion and Kolchak's Whites.  These men were to disarm the Legion and this is the result."
* * *
As the Legion's train traveled east past Chelyabinsk, Private Pazaryk made an history changing discovery.  There in a forested siding, he and his rail clearing crew discovered several abandoned boxcars.
* * *

Private Pazaryk placed his bar into the first car's lock and pulled.  It took three attempts before the straining bar snapped the door open.  The car's inside was stacked a third of the way to its roof with small crates.  Private Pazaryk hoisted himself into the car and studied one.  It looked like an ordinary military hardware crate but was too small to contain rifles or ammunition.  Running his fingers across the top he felt rather than saw the embossed emblem of Imperial Russia.  Putting aside his bar, he attempted to lift the crate and nearly sprained his already tired back.  It felt like a crate full of lead or maybe…?
* **
Abandoned railway engine
The Legion used the gold to buy safe passage from the Bolshevik and reached the safety of Vladivostok.  How much of the gold remained behind is still the subject of the mystery.

My research into the Czech Legion brought me full circle to my hometown of Joliet, Illinois.  A news report from the 1918 Joliet Herald told of a Canadian military officer recruiting local Austrian-Hungarian men who had been interned after the United States entered the First World War.  The men, primarily young, unmarried Slovaks from Joliet's east side, were to be part of the Czech Legion being organized for action on the Western Front. 
Newly formed Czech Legion in France
The article did not say how many, if any, of the young men enlisted.  If they did, there was a good chance they would have seen duty in Murmansk, Russia as part of allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.  But that's another story.