Caught between Hitler's troops and Stalin's: How one family escaped

The Zalisko family included a daughter my mother's age, and a teen son who had been blinded when he found an unexploded hand grenade. The girls made a happier discovery: an orphaned fawn they named Ricki. The deer followed them whenever they hunted for mushrooms and berries to trade with farmers for food and milk.

"I'd put the milk in a dish and put two fingers in, and the fawn would suckle my two fingers," my mother recalls with a smile. "He became a friend, and he followed this girl and me wherever we went." Her smile vanishes and she fights back tears as she tells me about the day Ricki was trailing far behind them while they walked to trade foraged mushrooms. By then the U.S.

Army had arrived in Bavaria, and as a truck full of soldiers was passing by, a shot rang out and the deer fell dead. The girls screamed and ran to their dead pet as the truck drove away. Later my mother learned that a local farmer, certainly hungry in those lean times, had taken the deer away afterward and eaten it.

"At certain moments it all comes back," my mother says, surprised by the force of her memories. "It's like there's some secret key, and suddenly what happened--what feels like a hundred years ago--feels like it's happening now."

Where is home?

After the German surrender, my mother's family moved into Dingolfing until 1946, then on to a refugee settlement in Regensburg, where they stayed for two years. Returning to Kiev was out of the question, for it would mean certain death. Where to go?

They applied to immigrate to Argentina, which needed farmers, but an immigration clerk looked at my grandfather's hands and knew right off that he'd never farmed a day in his life. A chance encounter with a distant relative garnered an invitation to Nebraska, and the Church World Service helped the family gain admission to the United States. In September 1948 they left the port of Bremen bound for Ellis Island.

My grandparents found work as hospital janitors in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my mother started school without knowing a word of English. In the early 1950s they learned that the San Francisco Bay Area was home to a large population of Russian speakers, so they pulled up stakes and moved once more. In 1957, when the Soviets launched the world's first artificial satellite, called Sputnik 1, my grandfather's engineering degree was suddenly in demand.

He found work with the city of San Francisco engineering streetlights.

Reversal of fortune

As I reflect on my mother's years as a war refugee and the outcome of my family's long journey, I feel profound gratitude that I still have her.

That if I dial her home in Arizona, she's still there to answer my call, even if I can't fly to her now.

That even if she has a child's fuzzy memory of dates and events, she can still remember stories. (Meet the forgotten 'wolf children' of WWII.)

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