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Alex Panasenko and I were faculty-mates at a bay area high school for decades. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and he was one of the most popular teachers on the staff.

He’s an eccentric cuss who doesn’t much care whom he offends, but still keeps himself likable. His appearance and accent are, to me, vaguely East European, maybe Russian, but I never got him to talk to me much about his background. I didn’t pry too hard. None of my business. After reading The Long Vacation¬†I believe I understand a bit about his reluctance to dwell on the past. It was brutal, and in this memoir he tells the story beautifully.

We start in Ukraine. Alex’s (abusive) father teaches science, his mother keeps the house. They are poor but more or less comfortable even though Stalin is in charge. Then things go downhill. I’m going to skip over, even distort, much of what follows so as not to spoil the book for you readers, but I hope to deliver the flavor anyhow.

Stalin institutes one of his famous 5-year plans, which is really a project designed to starve Ukraine into submission so the vast, rich land can be handed over to Russians. (Sound familiar?) Then the Germans invade, and Alex is conscripted and the family is basically sent to war along with everyone else. Alex is separated from his parents and siblings and forced to hook up with some Germans for protection. This seeming shelter puts him in more peril because one of Stalin’s decrees is that any Russians (Ukrainians count for Brother Joe’s purposes in this instance) who conspire with Germans are subject to being shot on sight. The boy has to do a lot of dodging.

Most of us know the broad historical outlines here. The German invasion, the Russian slaughter, the German retreat, the horrid, bitter cold, the excruciating suffering–Alex the child was in the middle of it all.

Perhaps one anecdote will serve to illustrate. I’m thinking of the one about the exhausted mother on the train who fell asleep with her newborn in her arms, then awoke to find a frozen corpse in her lap. Bad enough. But then the agonizing guilt and shame drive her mad. She climbs off the train and starts walking in the direction where her child as been discarded in the snow miles earlier. The Russian guard on the train can’t allow her to “escape.” A single bullet takes care of her.

Alex leaves us when the Americans arrive. It’s been years since he’s been to school. He speaks Russian and a bit of German. End of “The Long Vacation.”

How he gets from Germany to the U.S., gets educated, ends up speaking fluent English and becomes an accomplished American science instructor I don’t know and find it hard to imagine. Anything I’ve suffered in my life is not worth a stubbed toe compared to this.

Aside from my personal attachment to Alex and his narrative, I find this a priceless piece of twentieth century history. Apparently, it took some doing to get him to write it. The world is richer for it. Nice going, Alex.

 

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