Tell Me a Story, Babushka, by Carola Schmidt

Holodomor.  Голодомо́р. Derived from морити голодом, ‘to murder by starvation’.

When I put this website together not so very long ago (I was certainly old enough to know better) I described it as celebrating difficult and dangerous writing.

I went on to say (fending off a few battalions from the army of authors who want reviews), I won’t be reviewing stories about wistful heroines with wide grey eyes or handsome heroes with finely chiselled features . I probably won’t be reviewing children’s books. Then I added, as an afterthought, because I thought it was rather quaint, though children’s interests are often darker than we think, so you could always try me… 

How naïve.  How patronising. As if children were not as much touched as I am by the difficult and the dangerous. As if their dark interests are no more than a surprising curiosity. And as if, to survive, they did not need dark stories as much as I do myself.

Tell Me a Story Babushka, with its sweet illustrations and gentle colours is a five minute read for an adult like myself, who has suffered very little, all things considered.  But it’s not written for me. It is a story for little children about surviving terrible times.

It touches on one terrible time, but the story is universal.

Holodomor, an epoch in the recent history of Ukraine and Soviet Union, is generally described as a man-made famine. Its human roots are clear, though its driving motives are disputed. Under Soviet rule, peasant farms in the Ukraine were being forcibly taken over by large state collectives. Peasant farmers  who resisted collectivisation, as many Ukrainians did,  were transported to Siberia without means of survival.  The remaining farmers were required to plant novel crops – beet and cotton – as well as the usual grain.

Harvest were poor and such grain as was harvested was transported to Soviet cities, as a sanction for failing to meet targets, leaving nothing for rural families.  All personal food was requisitioned by the state; hoarders – even children trying to collect wild food from the countryside – were executed. By the end, there was no food in the Ukraine. People ate grass, leaves, pets, tree-bark.  Millions starved – perhaps as many as were killed in the Holocaust.  Starvation is a slow process, but by the end the bodies of starved people lay in the streets, rotted in houses: the starving have no energy for conducting burials. Some were eaten.

Some choose to see this famine as an unintended consequence of poor central decisions, poor management, neglect. It is more widely accepted, however, that it was really a genocide, carried out by the Soviet government in 1932 and 1933, against the people of Ukraine as a punishment for their nationalism and resistance to collectivisation.  Cock-up or conspiracy make little difference to the starving, however, especially children. 

Tell me a story Babushka is presented as a tale told to a little girl by her grandmother, her babushka, a refugee survivor of Holodomor.  It describes in simple, accessible terms, a little of what happened to the grandmother and her family. Hunger, resistance, the arrival of terrifying strangers, deportation to Siberia, the threat of death, rescue of the children, flight by train across unknown countries, arrival in an unknown world, orphaned. 

Most refugees bring almost nothing to their new country except memories, some ragged clothes, and if they are lucky a few poignant, precious mementos. For the little girl, it is a Matryoshka, a little set of wooden dolls, one inside the other, nothing else.

The story is told from the safety of distance, of time, in an adopted country which has been good to the little girl. Now an old lady, warm and comfortable and baking bread, she tells the story to her granddaughter.

This is the story of one place one time.  But all over the world there are children who have witnessed trauma, shared in it. Those who survive terrible times are permanently marked by it.  Research into the families of holocaust survivors demonstrates that the impact of such horror scars personal development across the generations.  “The research emphasizes the transference of emotions, fears, and loss through conscious and unconscious processes that inform the construction of descendant identity… psychiatric and psychological studies of first-generation descendants described children of survivors as suffering from nightmares, guilt, depression, fear of death, sadness, and the presence of intrusive images.” 

Often in an attempt to protect the children – even those who may remember the trauma but certainly those in subsequent generations – the terrible events are not spoken of.  But in the attempt to silence them, to erase them, to protect the next generation , they become subject of “deep emotional silences”.  These silences do not protect. They give no space for recovery, but preserve and transmit the untold story, through unnamed feelings and emotions that permeate the emotional climate of the survivor household, not just for the children of survivors, but onward through generations.

A better strategy, it appears, is to tell stories.  Research suggests that the telling of stories about terrible times, without taking away the trauma or banishing its effects, does better for the children and grandchildren of those who survive.  It gives space for survival to be celebrated at the same time as tragedy is acknowledged.  Stories are a point from which broken worlds can be reframed if not recovered. 

Perhaps all this sounds as if Tell Me A Story Babushka – so clearly part of this tradition of telling stories about terrible times – will be a heavy or sad or frightening book.  It isn’t.  Although some of the scenes are frightening, they are framed by the comforting presence of the grandmother, beautifully illustrated with her shawls around her, giving her an appearance as rounded and comforting as the wooden dolls she brought with her.  She is making bread.  She is surrounded by her family.  The frightening reds and blacks of the scenes of terror are counterposed by the soft kindly hues of the children’s ragged clothes, and by the bright certainty of the little doll, itself a symbol of continuity, of worlds nesting inside each other, of new lives opening up.

This little book confronts the horror of societal trauma, but also, quite gently and matter-of-factly, the possibility of moving on, of personal renewal.  There will be children who have experienced war or flight or hunger or displacement to whom it will particularly speak.  There will be others descended from those who have had such experiences, and who know these events from family stories or have sensed them without understanding, in the gaps of unspoken silences.  But stories like this are not only for them.  All children have contact, at least tangentially, with the possibility of disaster, and many of them worry about it.  Sooner or later all children realise that their parents will not live forever, that there are bad people, that bad things happen, that the world is not wholly safe.  Offering the platitudes of reassurance will often be kindly and helpful, but we also need to help children to face the terrors of the world, to understand that losses can be bitterly real but that survival is possible.

When I drafted my About page, along with my rather dismissive comment about children’s books, I also wrote ‘I want to use these pages to celebrate dangerous writing in any genre: writing that challenges, that goes to dark or unexpected places, that doesn’t repeat the familiar platitudes’.  I think perhaps this innocent little book, with its cute childish images and its five minutes worth of text, meets my brief rather better than others I have reviewed more recreationally.  

I am humbled by this brave little book.  Every children’s library or school classroom should have books like this. 

Carola Schmidt, Tell Me A Story Babushka is available on Amazon as an e-book or paperpack

Carola Schmidt is of Ukrainian descent and lives in Brazil. She is a paediatric oncology pharmacist and has also written scholarly articles and several books for children being treated for cancers.

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