“Good Experiences with People”
The Life Story of Walter Taranko
(Interviewed February 23, 1995)
Walt Taranko is a 51 year old Russian‑American male who lives with his wife. Donna and three children Nick, Andy and Amy in Readfield, Maine. His life began in the shadows of the Holocaust living in Poland and Southern Germany, before coming to America as a refugee at age seven, with his parents.
Today with a graduate level education he continues to work a full week and then some, but is looking forward to the days of retirement when he can focus more on travel and less on work.
Walt is in good health with the exception of his diabetes which came about within the lastrew years. With a controlled diet and exercise ke has kept this disease from progressing any further. During the summer months he continues to be active with his gardening as well as other related chores around his small farm.
The following is a transcription of Walter’s Interview.
I was born in a place called Slonim Poland, which at that time was Poland. But today is Russia, because the borders had shifted right after the war. I was born in 1943 which was right in the middle of the war. This was during the Nazi occupation of Poland at the time.
My parents were kind of well to do in that community, and my father held some positions of prestige in the Polish government. So, in essence, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and the usual things and interrogated. He was finally released because some people in town went to bat for him, and said that he was not going to be harmful to them, or something of that sort. So any way, just before the Germans retreated back to Germany because the Russians were moving in 1944, I think they wanted, they needed some laborers; and so they gathered up ;lbled bodied people, put them in cattle cars, and shipped them to Germany.
I heard very recently of some people who were on those trains, that rumors spread that the laborers were all going to go to one of the extermination camps. Fear just gripped everybody, because they were told they were going to labor camps, and that there were going to be jobs, and that things weren’t going to be that bad. Then all of a sudden, somehow, rumors started that they weren’t going to the labor camps. ‘I’hey were going to extermination camps because the Germans didn’t like the Slaves. They were a step up over the Jews and Gypsies which they had no use for, but the Slaves were an inferior race to them, and they didn’t care for them.
We arrived in Southern Germany when I was onlv vne or two years old, I can’t really remember. Those days, it’s just what my parents have told me. We were in a labor camp, a work carnp type of setting. My father, I remember him telling stories about shoving coal in a factory where they made things. I presumed it was an ammunition factory or something that had to do with a war related thing. They went in there and worked twelve hours a day seven days a week. It was that kind of situation. My mother worked in the potato fields digging potatoes. We stayed in that situation and those camp barracks until the allies came through and liberated the camps.
My parents found themselves in what, after the war, became known as the French Zone. It was occupied by the French. It was very close to Switzerland, and my father use to talk about going to Switzerland and picking up a few things, because they were now under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Relief Organization, which was called UNA. It was a place for displaced persons, because in those days there were people who did not technically have a country, because in many countries the borders shifted, like between Poland and Russia. Russia took over a lot more of Polish territory because Poles were considered inferior to the Russians, and so they took over more.
By the way, my parents were Russian not Poles, even though we lived in Poland, it was on the border. So you have to realize that the town we grew up in was probably 30% Pole, 30 % Russians, 30% Lithuanian and 10% Jewish, and thars about the population breakdown; and everybody lived in their own little ghettos to speak.
But anyway, getting back to Germany. This is where I start remembering things. I can remember the old camp barracks. They were probably a former labor camp or some sort of place, and families lived in a one room type of place. There would be a barracks that may have twenty families in it. It was an agricultural camp, because my father used his college degree that was in Agronomy, which deals with scientific agriculture of that day. Which meant that he went to school and college, and he had a degree in how to best use soil in large capacity. So he worked at that, and he became like the director of that camp. They use to produce food for the other displaced persons camps in the area. And so he had a fairly nice position in that way, and it was all supervised by the United Nations Relief Organization.
Around 1950, he was offered an opportunity to go to another country, becawse the Communists were taking over the area where they used to live. The question was asked, I’do you want to go back?” and of course they said, “no way;” or, “do you want to go to Argentina, Australia, Canada, or the lJnited States?” and my parents choose the United States. So in 1950~ on July 4th, I stiU remember the date. IlI tell you why that rerninds me of when we boarded a ship to come to the IJnited States.
Well, an interesting stoly last year on the day of Remembrance, which is the rememhrance day for the Holocaust victims. H is held every year here in Augusta, usually in the Blaine house. This year we did it at the University of Maine at Augusta, because it had grown so large. We usually have a speaker who was a survivor of the Holocaust in some fashion. This time the Messerschmidt’s, a husband and wife team who live in Pordand spoke, and who have a son Mike, who is an attomey and the President of the Holocaust Center. Now the Messerschmidt’s, he is a cantor in a synagogue down in Pordand. Well, they told their story of the Holocaust, and what happened. He was one of the, like, 900 people that were freed from a concentration camp; and that he was the only one to survive, because they were attacked by bandits or something of that sort. So it was a very wrenching type of story, and they always asked why did he make it; but the bottom line was that he remembers the most important date in their lives which is July 4th. They said that this was the day that we left for the United States, and when I heard them say that they boarded the (~eneral Maxwell Taylor troop ship, my hair just stood on end. Because on July 4, l950, that’s the day the troop ship that we boarded also, and so we were on the same ship and didn’t even know each other. But here we are in Maine, and in fact, that is the only family that we have been able to meet that was on that troop ship. Because once we entered the IJnited States we were scattered all over the place. They went, according to their story, to Porland, Maine and that was where they settled and he became a cantor. He had already married his wife in Germany, so they started their family and have done 4uiet well.
We went to Indiana, to a little town called North Vemon where there was a big farm looking for somebody with an Agronomy degree. The idea was that my father would work for him to pay for the passage, for the ship and train ride, and all those things. So we went to North Vemon; and it was a really out in the hoonies community, a real charming community, a lot of corn fields and that kind of stuff, and nobody spoke our language and we were just lost.
One of the sponsors, because you always have to get a sponsor to come over, one of the sponsors was the United Methodist Church, which was kind of interesting. They kind of looked after us in a way, that we sometimes, like at Thanksgiving, would get a basket. They brought clothes because we didn’t have any clothes to speak of, because we came with what we had on our backs. We had no money, absolutely nothing. We did have a few bags of odds and ends that we could carry. The other was a foundation in New York that also sponsored us; I think a Jewish organization that sponsored refuges coming to the United States, because we were Russian Orlhodox. We started attending the Methodist Church because these were the people that were helpful to us, and there was no Russian church with in probably a couple of hundred miles. We attended there for about a year.
My father worked for a man who owned all kinds of farms, lots of f’arms; and he was almost a conglomerate, in a sense, because he had farms that had soybeans, some had corn, and actually, one was a chicken farm. And he had people who ran these farms. So my l’a~er helped; out and he rejuvenate farms that were not producing, and was buying from people that were going out of business, and they would redo the farm to whate~/er the market was.
He did this and we lived on the farm, and it was a good ten miles out of town. It was way out there and we were the first bus run stop, and the bus would come like around 6:00 in the morning. I would have to get up and walk 2‑3 miles to that bus stop, because the bus couldn’t drive into that farm.
So anyway my father worked there. After a year’s time he approached the guy and said, “Well when is my time up as far as my paying off my passage and all that stuff?” He said? “I have worked for you for a year. All you have given us is twenty dollars a week for food. Do you know a time I should be able to go free, and on my own way?” And the guy says, “No way, you owe me for the rest of your life.” About which he didn’t know quite what to say, “Or words to that effect and referred to the fact that he still owed him a lot.” My father then approached the Methodist Church and said, “Look, we are being taken advantage of. We may not know the laws of United States, but I think this is a form of slave labor here. This guy is really taking advantage of me. ” Because my father was quite knowledge in this agricultural thing and knew what this guy really wanted him for.
So the minister of the church called him in, because he also happened to be a member of the church, and said “Hey, this isn’t the Christian thing to do. What are you doing to these people.” And so they had him sign off on everything, and asked maybe if he would stay. We will pay you money. But my father said no, because it is not a place to bring up kids, because it was out in the boonies and there were no other ethnic groups there. He just felt that this kind of place was too isolated, and in the mean time, made contact with some other Russians who were in either camps or in the same location where they came from. There were also some in the United States and one of the families was in Springfield, Mass.
In fact there were several families there that had moved to Springfield, and they wrote letters and said, “look there are really good jobs here and we can make room for you. Really big money, working in some of the factories, and you can get yourself on your feet. They have great apartments with all kinds of possibilities, and there are Russians in this area, and we are even going to build a church.” My father got all excited and said, “this is great.” So we moved to Springfield. Well, you know that letters are always more glossy the … he did find a good job there. No question abvut that, and my mother got a good job too, but the apartment w~s in a “Black Ghetto”. I mean it was…. I mean we were one of two families that were white in the whole big type of ghetto area.
In these big apartment houses, big brick buildings 5‑6 stories high, that didn’t bother our parents because they felt that we were in the same boat type of thing; and we were never bothered in any fashion or rnistreated or anything. Like the only problem my f’ather ever had was that there was a lot of bars in the area, and you would see drunks lying right in the middle of the road. So every time you would have to go out, you would walk over drunks that were in the waY. In fact, I remember as kids we used to do something, because we knew where the drunks would some times sleep it off before they went home. There was some lots, some empty lots, buildings that had been vacated or burned out buildings, and we knew where they slept because you could always go there and find lose change. It would roll out of their pockets. And when these guys were gone we would come in and pick up fifty cents here, twenty five cents there and that was our spending rnoney.
But that always bothered my parents, because it was not a good atmosphere to bring kids up in; but for them, they felt they were making good money, because they were making money that they could save because what they wanted to do was buy their own home.
They did build a church because there were enough Russians to start a community, and while building the church~ they continued to go to the Methodist church because it gave us a connection from Indiana to Spnngfield. I remember when we went, because it was a church way out in the boonies, in the suburbs, the lily white, because we went by bus and it was a really nice church; and they were very fnendly. They also, kind of, took care of us because, I guess, this minister wrote to the other mir~ster in Indiana, you know; because we would always get a turkey at Thanksgivin~ and that usual type of stuff just very very helpful .
I remember singing in the little children’s choir, and my parents are very faithf’ul and went every Sunday until the Russian church got built. Then we kind of spilt, because my father always felt a cornmitment to the Methodist Church but still he ah …. sv one week we would attend the Russian Church and another week we would attend the Methodist Church. There were a lot of nice things about the difference between them because the calendars were always different, because Christmas was two weeks after the American Christmas. So we would get to celebrate that Christmas, so we basically had two Christmases. Easter was most of the time different, other holidays were different and stuff, so it was good, because it was good to experience.
While my father was there, he was looking for a place for them to buy, because they had discovered Massachusetts was quite expensive to live, and wanted to buy a place. So they went to Vermont, New Hampshire, New York State and Maine, and they had read an ad from a fellow who lived in Pittston, who’s name was Baron Von Pushintal.
He was a Russian baron, but he had some good Ger~nan title, and he had been here in the United States for a long time. He came from way back, I think, after the revolution he escaped and he had made out quite well in property owning in Florida, and up here in Maine. He kind of brought Florida property that wasn’t worth anything, and then sold it for developments and made out quite well. ‘I’hen he started doing the same thing up here in Maine, and he had bought out a lot of abandoned farms. Figuring that Maine would go through a boom shortly. He bought these farms because of the big fire that went through the State of Maine, through Richmond, Fryburg area, and burned out half of Mount Desert Island. But what happened was that it burnt these places out and a lot of people just abandoned them and turned them back over to the banks or soldout for next to nothing.
So he was advertising these farms. A lot were in Richmond, Dresden, Pittston, places like that. My father saw these ads in the Russian newspaper, which was published in New York, that all the Russians would subscribe to. It was like a kind of connection l’or all of the thousands that escaped from uver there. So anyway, he and another friend came to Richmond and got fed lobster, and in those days lobster was worth twenty‑five cents a pound, and all other kinds of seafood. They said this must be a heaven type of place, and so the guy showed them the property. It was like a 40 acre piece of land with a huge two, or three kinds of barns, huge house and for two thousand dollars; and both of them bought the same property and shared rather than splitting it in hatf .
One took part of the house, white each took one of the barns, and they split the land in hatf; and its something that I would never advise doing again, because you can never split anyting equitably in half; and they always fought. I can remember the disagreements they had, because we had a common drive way. We had common well, and who would take care of it and this would always occur.
Fventually my father sold back to the fellow the property he had, and we moved into town. Because the new land was out in the country it was realty nice land, because it was like, only, like half a mite from town. We literally waLked into town or we drove on our bicycles. We eventually picked up a pick up. a 1946 Dodge pickup. I can still remember that because I drove it around every place, and because I was the only one that learned to dnve and could speak English, along with my sister; but in the Russian culture, the male always dominates. So I was always kind of pushed forward to do all the interpreting and that sort of stuff. Which I didn’t particularly care for, and I asked my sister to do it and she wouldn’t.
My parents did a subsistence existence there. We had a cow, chickens, pigs and my father raised vegetables, and then would sell them to a fellw in town. I would drive him, and used my bicycle when I was younger, and sell whole milk by the gallon and eggs . My father fished a lot, and he would catch fish in the old livers and sell it, because Richmond was becoming a Russian town. Several thousand people had moved in, and it became known as a Russian colony. People began to settle all over, like Gardiner, Litchfield, Dresden, Richmond. Some of them started up farms.
rhey had three churches going, two Russians and a Ukrainian one. They had a social club which would have Russian movies. It was a real active type of thing, but a lot of the people were older and as the kids grew up, they went off to school. They spread out all over the land and disappeared, so the old community died off. There is probably only a hundred left in that whole cornmunity, with one church that still exists and keeps going. They have a priest who is an Arnerican, and who learned Russian, who is doing the preaching there now.
In fact, I just saw a newspaper article where he is trying to build an old folks home, because there is still a few of the old Russians left and he would like to get them a home where they could all be, kind of, together. A lot of them have lost their wives or husbands and are all alone. For many, their families could be in California, Florida, Alizona, so something like this would really be great because they don’t want to leave Richmond, so they would have a good place to be.
I myself moved away too. I went to college at Gorham State Teachers College, which is now the University of Southern Maine, for four years; and then after graduation I went off for two years into the service, and spent a year in Vietnam. Right after I got back from Vietnam I went for three years to Indiana University, and did my graduate studies. I went full time, and got a couple of degrees out of Indiana, and during this time I got married.
When school was over I didn’t move back to Richmond, and that’s what happened to all my old friends. I hear from them, time to time, or run into them. A good friend of mine is an airline pilot for Pacific Air. We will see each other once in awhile, when he is home to see his mother, type of thing. We chat. Another guy is a salesman for a cardboard company, and he is one of my best friends, and he is now living in Wells. He has moved back to Maine, but a lot of people are out of state. Some are totally lost forever. Mostly, all the kids that came out of there went to college, because that was one of the big things that was stressed in the community, that to make it in this world you got to get an education. That was probably stressed time and time again, I really don’t know of anyone that didn’t do it. They all went, and every year there were 3‑4 Russian kids graduating and going off to some college some place. Even some of the kids that are still left now are still going off to college.
After I graduated from Indiana my first job was working at USM teaching in their institute program they had during the summer, but what I really needed was a real job, because I had been in school for seven years. rhe military had paid for the last three years basically, because I had the G.I. bill. So I applied to Duke, Cornell, Northeastern and one place in Maine. It was some new program starting up in 1971, called Project Lodestone in Calais.
It was a brand new program, and I said, what do I have to lose. So I filled out an application because the money seemed to be equaling. Basically I had been prepared to work at a college or university, and that’s where I had applied. But some of these places were slow in responding. After having gotten to a couple of interviews, and having people tell me, we will tell you in a week or two type thing. Well, in between that time, Calais called me. Yes, Ozias Bridgeharn called, and I still remember that and he said, “we have looked over your application and credentials and are very interested in having you come and have an interview.” I said, “Well, great, but how do I get to Calais.” And he said, “Well let me see, do we send you down the dirt road or do we send you by boat~” Then he said, “I am sorry, but route nine just got paved,” with a big hearty laugh. So he said, “go route nine because that will be the fastest way. Now you won’t run into any dirt roads now, because she’ll all be paved now.” And 1 thanked him for that, so Donna (my wife) and I wenl to Calais.
I still remember walking into the elementary school, into one uf the classrooms with about fifteen people sitting there interviewing. When my time finally came, they hit me with a ton of questions. I said, “Oh gee I wonder if I am going to make this one,” but I kind of liked the place, and they explained more about the area, and what the project was going to be about. That it was brand new and being supported with federal funds, and that I was going to start from scratch. So when the interview was all over, they said “we will get back with you.” I said to my self, that I’ve heard that one before. So Donna and I headed back to Gorham where I was teaching, and not long after I had gotten home, I got a phone call from Ozias. His words were, “that the committee has decided, and you are it, and when can you start. ” I said, “let me talk it over with Donna, ” because I wanted to make sure she wanted to go, because I didn’t want the position if she didn’t want to go. Because it is quite far away, but it’s intriguing and next to Canada. I was very irnpressed with the people, and they were very nice and I felt very safe up there, and the offer was about what I would have been getting at some of these big places. So we called him right back and said “that we are going to make a commitment. We just needed to finish my time out at Gorham. ” So we were packing in a week’s time, and in that same time I got two calls from others places that offered jobs also…
I had no regrets about going to Calais because I thought it would he an interesting place to be in Maine. We would still have contacts, because my parents still lived in Richmond which made it quite nice. l knew a lot of people who had friends here in Augusta, who were working at the department of Education and other places. These were people I had gone to school with so there was a lot of pluses. So we moved to that place on Lincoln street in Calais. I still remember the place because we gol a real nice deal on it for about a $11,000, and we loved the experience of being there. Donna loved it, because we made a lot of close friends including the Baylisss, through the church. It was great because we were building something from scratch, and this was great. There was a service that needed to be done, and I was able to deliver it the best way we could, and I liked that.
Then when I came back to Augusta one day, in fact Maranacook was just opening up and they had called, because someone in the department of Education recommended that I corne and talk to the Maranacook teachers before the building actually opened, and talk about using media in the classroom. Maranacook was going to pay my way to do the two or three day workshop with the teachers, which I did, and it went great. I stayed at my folks home in Richmond, and commuted every day for the time I was there; and it was extra money. It was really great; and I took some vacation time and came to the state library to visit with all my friends who I knew here, at the time, which was Jack Boynton who was here and Pam Tetley who was in the position that I am in. She called me into the office and she said, “Walt I’m leaving to go to Connecticut for a job I have,’l and she said, “I am going to recommend you for this position if you want it,” And I said, “well l have to go back and talk with Dotma to see if we are ready to make a move, because it had been about five years that we had been in Calais. And I said “maybe it is time to make a move, because it would be an advantage in living in Augusta. Because I would be closcr to my folks house where they are living and I could kecp an eye on where they are living because their health is dropping down fast.” My father died within a week or two of that time. Anyway, I went back and talked with Donna~ and we agreed it was time to move on as we had two kids (Nick and Andy) with us, and Donna’s parents lived in Kittery which we only see at Christmas time; and now my mother was alone in a big house, so I wanted to be closer to stay more connected. So I put my application in and got the job.
I lived for about a month with the Shafto’s, Bob and June, as June and Donna were very good friends in Calais, I wasn’t much of a friend of Bob, but knew him through June while we were in Calais. We were always at parties? of people I worked with, on Friday and Saturday nights where we would have a potluck supper at someone’s house, and sit around and chit chat. And we did some hiking together with the Shafto’s, in which some fishing was involved, because he knew where all the good spots were. So we were guaranteed to find some holes that nobody else knew.
So anyway, we found a place in Readfield, and we have been there since 1976. We have lived in the same place pretty much since then, and I have contiMled to be active in the Methodist Church like we were in Calais. From time to time, I go to me Richmond Church, I have gone on holidays just to make the contact, but I am not as excited about the minister there.
He is a convert, and whenever anyone converts to another religion they almost become a zealot. They become worse then the real thing. In other words, they belicve evcrything that they say. For me, I don’t take it that seriously, and I just feel that, after hearing him preach a couple of times, I wa~sn’t too excitcd about the things he was talking about. But I still go to New Jersey to visit my godfather and friends, and I go to the Russian Church. I really ~ind a lot of satisfaction, and it is a totally different atmosphere then what you would get in a Methodist church, not that Methodist Church is bad, because they are both good.
When 1 was in Indiana I did start school there. Well I started school in Germany, for one year, in a kindergarten type of situation, and the only thing that I remember about that was it was a huge classroom. With probably sixty kids in the class, and you kind of got lost in the shufile; and I can remember the discipline was very, very strong. You didn’t blir~c an eye, because the teacher was walking around with a ruler, and would whack you. I remember it was a negative outlook on school, because you were always uptight about it. Then, when I went to Indiana, the first year there, which was the first grade I think there was a one room school house, and all these grades were in one big room. Again, it was a large room with probably forty kids. There were some upper grade and lower grade kids. I can remember the upper grade kids helping the lower grade kids, and il seemed to be, and felt like a good experience.
I didn’t feel any kind of ~liscrimination or anything of that sort. Kids seemed to know that I didn’t know the English language, but that I was trying to learn, and they seemed to be very helplul. I think half the school came from one family, which was kind of interesting, because this family had about twenty kids. It was the largest family I have known, and we use to talk about it afterwards, thinking it must have been some kind of record for the number of kids they had, because the mother had a kid every year. They had grown‑up kids, and they had kids who were still in diapers.
When we came to Springfield, the elementary school name was Hooker, I still remember the name, but it has been torn down. It was an entirely inter‑city type of school, totally inter‑city, totally black; but surprisingly, had white teachers, which surprised me. There were a few black teachers, but most of them were white; but the kids were black. There were a few Puerto R;can’s and a couple of us white Russians kids, which was me and my sister, besides three kids from another Russian family. I don’t ever remember any negative experiences during that time. 1 played with some black kids and went to thcir house, to their apartment. Found it to be gnngy, dingy, with cockroaches, which was just like our place so it was no different for us.
We all played in the alleys, on rooftops, these ilat warehouse types, and other places that were more dangerous; but mat was what we did. After the sixth grade we went to Richmond and there I started the junior high school, and me seventh and eight grade, and went to Richmond High School.
This is where I lirst ran into, some of my first, discrimination was in Kichmond. That Game from other kids that pointed out that we were Russians; and was cornered by a bunch vf other kids with snowballs. They thought it wa~s real funny, and that’s the only tirne I can say I felt any kind of discrimination. was in I~ichmond. I still remember the lamily that those kids were from, because they were a very poor lamily, and very ignorant. I am sure they didn’t know what they were doing, but they thought h was l~m to pick on someone.
I ~lid meet one of kids from the fanuly later on, and in f‑act, 1 knew him quite well, because he played softball, and we recognized each other. He was also an assistant soccer coach, when I think about it, at Maranacnok. He was one of these people who was hot tempered and was constant~ getting kicked out, and eventually Maranacook fired him, and said we don’t want ynu bacl~ because you are just too hot tempered.
So anyway that is one of the reasons that I think I got involve in the Holocaust Human Rights Center7 not on1y ~because) of what haltpened in the old country, but also about these things with picking on people because they are di~erent. I was being picked on hecause I was different, and an immigrant and from away. It happens all the time unfortunately, and its not right, because its a scar that is left. It may not be a physical scar, but it is a mental scar.
When timc came for me to start dating, the fact 1 dated girls who where not of Russian decent, this didn’t bother my folks at all. First of all, they always were, or wanted you to find a good Russian girl, but there never seemed to be one of the right age. So I made very good friends with American kids. A lot of kids use to come over all the time. For some reason they would like to spend time at our house, almost constantly. To a point where nly father would say, “you have to do your chores, and if you want your friends to be here, they are going to have to help you, ” that was the bottom line.
So these kids, I don’t know if they were unhappy in their own homes, but they seemed to come to our house a lot, and we didn’t have much to offer. I mean, we didn’t have candy loose on the table or anything like that, but we lhad animals that we would play with. And we had a huge hayloft, and that use to be a big gathering place. We would ha~ a slide type of thing, because it was lose hay not baled hay. We would go out and bring in our own hay, ourselves, because we were doing it by our wits and it was all lose. But we used to have a number of local girls that would play with us in the hayloft, for fun, nothing of any serious consequences, but good clean fun. We just enjoyed ourselves, and had a good time as kids. My parents always encouraged what they considered good healthy relationships. I had male friends, and female friends, but none of any serious consequence. My sister had a really good girlfriend, and I still stay in touch with her to this day. I went out with her for awhile, and she was an American, and she would spend all her afterschool time at our house. She was not happy with her home life l guess. Because she was a lonely child, and her parents were vely happy to have her with us, because they knew where she was. I said, I did go out with her for a bit and I understood she had a big crush on me. I still see her, ;md in fact I am a godfather to one of her kids. And now the godchild has kids, and they live over in Wiscasset, that I need to ViSit.
When I went off to college I was pretty serious with my studies, because my parents taught me the importance of getting that collegc education. You have got to get that degree, that’s going to make or break you. So I went there with a very serious attitude, and didn’t really socialize that much even though I joined a fraternity. I wasn’t the party goer, oh, I attended a few. I dated may be 3‑4 girls at the most, up until my senior year. They were like short‑term times~ where we would go out two or three times, and that would be it .
It was in my senior year that someone introduced me to Donna. We had seen each other, because she had supported our fraternity. In those days in Gorham, the fraternities had a following of guys and girls, mostly because that was the whole social life in those days. It was a small campus, and it wasn’t connected to Portland at the time. Gorham State Teachers College had less than a thousand kids on campus, eight hundred I think, and it was a very close knit group. In fact, I kne‑w pretty much everybody in school, and everybody pretty much knew me.
And we were like three camps because we had three fraternities. One was Alpha, one was Kappa, and Beta, the minor or the lessor of the three; and we had ad campaigns where we would throw parties, and people would come, and that was part of the social life on campus. I knew a lot of people. In fact I know two people who work at Maranacook that were in one of the other fraternities. We aren’t real close friends, but there is a lot of respect between all the members of the fraternities, along with the revelry. And I can go all over the state, in any town and I can find someone that graduated from there, that I knew, or that knew me. So my senior year, a friend of mine introduced me to Donna, who I had known from before, because we had had classes together, and we started going out for about a year.
Then I graduated and I got a job at Bowdoinham Elementary SChooL as the assistant principal, and also as a classroom teacher. What that meant was that I taught three or four periods a day. The rest of the times pulled office duty because the principal was in another building. He was the principal of two buildings, so I was in charge of one of these buildings and he had the other building.
I thought this was a real great job, and got to go to a few meetings. When I got my letter from the draftboard and it said you shall report. So technically I never really set foot in the school, because I only had summer time meetings with the teachers when 1 was called by the draftboard to go to Ft. Dix.
After I got to Vietnam, and it was pretty lonely again, I started communicating with Donna again. In fact, I started when I was in California, in letters. Then I came back on vacation a couple of times. She was now teaching in Framingham, Mass. In Vietnam a lot of the fraternity brothers would send care packages a lot of the time, and that was really good.
I continued to comrnunicate with I)onna and I told my parents this. They had met her and thought she was a nice girl. They didn’t encourage or discourage me, at this point, about our relationship. Even though they said that we would like you to have a nice Russian girl, but that they were not that many arownd. Sometimes my father would say thal the Russian girls are worse than the Arnerican girls. You need to find the right one for you, and that was the attitude he always took. So when I came back from Vietnam in the surnmer of l 968 and got ready to go to Indiana University for graduate school, I got engaged to Donna. During that year she came out a couple of times, and we got married the following summer which was ’69. Then she spent two years with me.
We had an apartment where I was an assistant head counselor for one of the big high rises, in what they called the cooperative dorms. It was interesting work, because what I did was counseled kids during the old “Hippie ~ra”. We use to have the Black Panthers on one wing, the KKK on another, and it was quite interesting. We had our own little apartment and DoIma taught for a couple of years out there.
Get~lg back to my adolescence, I didn’t have any problems with my parents point of view as far as having any relationships. They always use to say that you know who you want and you’re going to be stuck with them. So if you make a mistake you are the one who has to live with it not us.
Well7 my Russian church root~s have a lot to do with my spirituality, as did my growing up on the farm in the countryside. It also gave me a lot of where I am now. I would say that those would be the two basic things.
I get a lot of peace when I go to the Russian Church, and its not like it is in the Methodist Church. I don’t have anything negative to say about the Methodist Church, because a lot of times there is so much interactivity going on that you don’t have the time f~r meditation opportunities. The Russian Church seemed to ~ve you that spintually along with the incense and tradition when you go there.
I have always had that feeling about the farrn, countlyside, open spaces and woods. My parents must have ~iven me that, because it’s always something that they always enjoyed.
When we lived in Springfield, it wasn’t the unhappiness of living with a race that they were not familiar with, that’s not what bothered them. They missed the openness. They missed the opportunities to walk in the fields, to go into the woods to smell the roses, so to speak. I have always looked for that, and that’s why I always wanted a place in the country.
I never looked for a home in Augusta when we moved down here, because I knew I didn’t want that. I was somewhat not satisfied in Calais~ because we were right in downtown . Because, before we moved down here, Donna and I had started looking to buy a house out in the country, bef~re we moved. Like in Alexander, and a few other places or something with land. If we had made that move, I probab~y wouldn’t have accepted this position, here in Augusta. And probably would have stayed right there. Because that was the missing piece in Calais. But, not knowing how long my position was going to last was another issue too. So we needed to think about it too.
My sister and I still make ~ussian cookies. We still go to the midnight service down in Richmond, and to Easter service, which we waLk around the church three times. And its a real interesting time and experience in itself . We do somethitlg with the kids like the l ord’s Prayer in Russian. We still have icons from my parents in our house, and they are still very valued treasures. What surprised me was Andy when he was going offto New York, right after he bought his car, to visit my godfather and spend Chtistmas, a Ruxsian type, with them because he remembered celebrating some when he was younger, that we were involved in. He wanted to feel the flavor of it again, because down there their Russian community is strong and can do it the way it use to be done.
One of the things he said when he got home was that when we would sit down to a meal we would all hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer. We hadn’t done that in a few years, because of kids going off to college we stopped doing that, so that was a traditiun that he brought back. We have other things that we do, but I can’t say that they are traditions, but part of our nature, about how we do things. Now that the kids, Nick and Andy are off to college, and Amy is about to go, we continue to take advantage of any Russian opportunities we can with the kids; but now they have their own lives, and what they will put into it is up to them.
In Nick’s case, while he has been at Middlebury (he) has joined the Russian choir. He doesn’t speak Russian, but he loves to sing. He joined the choir, and worked at it until he became a valued member. E‑le went to Russia for three weeks with the choir, and he loved it. He said they went and sang at some churches, colleges. This choir was made up of all Amencan kids, singing in Ruxsia to Russians, and the Russian were just flabbergasted at how good they were.
Nick told me a StOly about this lit~e old lady, that they call a “Babuska”, that came up to him and singled him out of everybody. She took him by the hand to the front of the altar, in front of the whole choir, and said I want to bless you, and that was a real experience for him. She blessed him and he went back to his seat, and she didn’t do it to anyone else. She also told him that he had some Russian, which I thought was vely perceptive. This is a big honor, for a grandmother to take a stranger and to have them blessed in this way, an~l this was one of the first things he told me when he got back. So he has g‑ ne out and bought several Russian things.
Andy has wanted to go back to New Jersey to see what the Russian community is like7 but Amy hasn’t expressed anything like that yet, but she has always had the inleresi She does get involved and let us know when some Russian kids are coming to Maranacook so that gives me a chance to use my Russian, otherwise I would forget it.
As for my future, I would like to (be) retired, sitting out on a fishing boat in, probably Lake Maranacook, pulling in a few Bass. Yes, I see myself retired in fiftRen years, because I am 50 years old. In fact, I will probably be retired be‑fore 15 years from now. I see mysell doing some gainful things, not totally sitting and fishing.
I still plan to continue my gardening, because that is very important to me, and part of my openness. I would like to do some traveling. I have done a lot of traveling in my life and I want to do some more of it. I want to see different people, meet different people, I might even be doing a small job of consulting or teaching. I had a lot of opportunities in my life for despair; but I view it with a lot of integrity, and that it has a lot of meaning for me.
I think that when you st~t your life in the low point of humanity, like in W.W.II and living amongst that and coming out of that; and living the years after the war, which were just as bad as the war years, because we didn’t have the fighting, but you had starvation and the lack of food, lack of identity, lack of cohesiveness, lack of what is going to happen to you~ in life situations, I have always had the faith that things would get better.
I can still remember my parents saying that education got us through, education got us through and it will get yow ~uys through too.
What I most enjoyed, and most feel good about is the experiences that I had with a lot of good people. Having met thcse people and shared experiences, and you are now ]iVitlg some place else, mavbe another country, and I see you again we are still good friends. That to me is a very, very valuable thing in life. I still cherish this, because I can go anywhere in Maine, and run into somebody I know, and say, ‘Ihi fnend, nice to see you agair~ ” and 1 see t~at as a valuable part of my life.
While I was conducting this interview, I couldn’t help but remember the thousands of lifeless facts that I saw in films, books, periodicals and newspapers, when I did a research paper on the Holocaust as a class assignment. It was over twenty years ago when I did that paper, but the images are as fresh today as they were when IJirst wrote tt. Some were of the living, while many were of the dead. As Walter talked, it was hard not to visualize the camp pictures and wonder what it was like for him. I dtdn’t ask about il because I felt it was better to get his whol.e story an,d use reflection to understand, rather than focusing on one area.
There were several themes that came to mind as I reviewed Walter’s life story. The first was education. It was stressed many times within the Russian community that he grew up in, as well as, coming fr om his parents. What is also unique is that the Sharrow article we readfor class, on the Klimenokfamily, sh~rwed that they shared the same vaiues when it came to education. Russian’s believe that with education a person can survive, which I think is a very important value. Another theme was language, how important it is for everyone to continue to use it, becaus~e language is part of the signature of who they are. With the beginning of a life in America, language tended to get lost as did the opportunity for individualization.
For me, the most important part of this interview experience was hearing T~alt talk about how his life started witk nothing, and that the only way was up. At one point he began to talk ahout how he started life in near sta7vation, no homeland and living in conditions we can only imagine. This was a very hum1~lin~ experience, because the world at several times in my life has not given me whaf l have wanted, as an adult, and ~ would get upset. Yet here is a person, who at age 51 still has 7nsight and warmth towards others despite what he started life with, what wouldfit into a pape? bag. Also he is able to look bac~ over his life and view it with satisfachon, rather than despair. He is someone we all can learn from.
I think many of us are ~uick to forget that there are others in this world who don’t have the opportunities to fulJill their dreams as we can in this coMntry. And even that is being threatened as our economy worsens and the gap widens hetween the rich and the poor. The meaning that I got irom this, and that I hope others can, is that we need to be attentive to others needs. Because, like most people, 1 get caught up in my own world of problems and fail to see that there others far worse off than ~. We need to remembeJ to look around and see others that are in more need then ourselves. Then our situation will not seem as devastating. I tend to forget that at times, t7ying instead to blame others rather than offering assistance.
I met Walt seven years when I first moved into the Readfield area, and over the years we have remained goodfriends. During that tzme 1 was able to experience a Russian F,aster Service that he and the Klimenok family made reference to in their stories.
Many people come into our lives as we walk along the path of life with messages for better understanding. ~alter is one of those people. I am glad to have been observant enough, when the opportunity presented: itself to me, to take advantage of it. because, by our meeting, my life has new meaning.