Loading the Volga Column Hanaba Welch


Ukraine. So far and yet so close.

The disturbing scenario makes it difficult for me to write with my usual levity. But my friend in Poland, ready to welcome refugees, said she needed comic relief.

Molly teaches English and the Bible at a religious complex near Gdansk. They are expanding the space for the refugees by moving ten bunk beds into the basement and adding a shower, water heater, washer and dryer.

Molly is from Mississippi. She has lived most of her adult life in Poland. Her late husband, Mike, was Polish – a responsible man who led relief efforts when Poland broke away from the Soviet Union.

He is greatly missed, but his capable daughter, Annabelle, is his sidekick and helper no matter the challenge.

My only experience with Ukrainian refugees is through Molly. Except it was 1972. Anyone fleeing Soviet rule was called a “defector”. We were in old Vienna.

I was her guest, working on my own project, and Molly worked for Christians who used various means to get Bibles and other Christian literature behind the Iron Curtain. Cloak and dagger at its finest.

The Ukrainians who were entrusted to us temporarily were from Kiev. First misstep: we gave them Russian Bibles. They firmly told us that they were Ukrainians. We gave them Ukrainian Bibles instead. Lesson learned.

They were high-level defectors who needed a place to hide until they could find a new country. (I think they ended up in Australia.) The patriarch was director of the Kiev Opera. His wife and sister were talented singers.

The teenager was a pianist; his little brother was a budding mathematician, or vice versa? The other guy was an artist. We thought he was married to one of the sisters, but later found out he was in on it.

Molly got one of the artist’s charming paintings; I did not do it. But it was she who volunteered her time to teach them English. I would name everyone, but I would probably make mistakes.

There was also the grandmother. We called him Babushka. It’s Russian. Instead, we should have said Babusia. After the error of the Bible, they must have gotten used to us being wrong.

We hid their car in our yard. It is not easy to hide a voluminous sky-blue Volga.

One evening, we went out into town with the adults. At the Danube Canal Bridge, we met Orthodox Jews. Imagine beards and stove hats. They had to walk to the Stadttempel for the Sabbath Eve service. Maybe we should have joined them.

Our destination was a classic old cafe. How did this bottle of vodka come about? I remember the sisters, their arms tied, harmonizing as they sang Ukrainian folk songs as we walked home over that same bridge.

Then the Ukrainians invited us to their apartment for a “typical Ukrainian breakfast”. We imagined something fiery. We had cold blintz and chicken aspic! We did our best to pretend we liked it.

Molly, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re smiling.

Hang on.

Hanaba Munn Welch is a correspondent for the Times Record News who divides her time between Abilene and a farm north of Vernon. Its columns, in homage to the Childress Engine 501, still contain, surprisingly, 501 words.


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