Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Fort Myers News-Press

THE NEWS PRESS – February 19, 2006 By Roger Williams – Special to News Press

Fort Myers News-Press

Fort Myers News-Press

Anatole “Tony” Kurdsjuk and I sat talking over plates laden with the traditional food of Russian hospitality: dill pickles, herring and bread as he reminisced about his late parents who remained silent but present in the room, both in photographs and spirit. “They are always with me,” he says. Jacob Zacharyevich and Olga Stepanovna Kurdsjuk, born in Belarus roughly a century ago, are the rockets that propelled Anatole Kurdsjuk’s new book into print. Intense, warm, voluble and seemingly laced with melancholy restrained only by his joy of life, Kurdsjuk, 72, is a white-haired bear of a man. He can talk with equal energy about five-day family weddings fueled by vodka brewed by his grandfather in Stalinist Russia; golf, music; the U.S. Air Force, of which he is a veteran; computer systems and design; or his beloved wife of 44 years, Linda and their two grown children and grandchildren. He can also talk about fear, and the sight of men and women shot or hanged by German soldiers right in front of his 9 or 10 year old eyes, their bodies sometimes left for days on the gallows.

“Because of what he‘s suffered, he has a tremendous amount of gratitude, and love not for ‘humanity,’ but for people,” explains Father Hans Jacobse, rector of St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Naples, and a friend. That’s because he realizes how sacred and precious life is. You see the recognition in anyone he encounters. On one occasion, his family was herded off a train, forced to strip and marched into a large building with many others for a “disinfecting process,” Kurdsjuk writes. They thought they would be gassed. “Papa …clutched me to his naked body and said, ‘Forgive me my son, I did not mean to bring you to this death.” Just as he said it, an acrid mist descended from the shower heads in the ceiling. All held their breath. But the Germans had not killed them, only sprayed them with DDT, like cattle, on the way to a Slave Labor camp in Wurgendorf near Cologne, where during WW II for two plus years they manufactured dynamite at Arbeitslager, No. 4936, an Alfred E. Nobel Dynamitfabrik.

“Am I bitter?” Kurdsjuk now asks rhetorically. “No. My Mama taught me to forgive; she taught me that God wants us to forgive. I try to do that every day. Have I sometimes imagined exacting revenge for the horrors they (both Germans and Soviets) caused? Yes, Yes, I am Human. You see, my family also suffered under Communism, during Stalin’s collectivization in the 1930’s, when they were exiled to the GULAGs of Siberia, just bellow the Arctic Circle, because they refused to join the collective. Out of seven family members, only Mama and Papa survived; they escaped. I am the youngest of their five children. I never knew my brothers Michael, Sergei and Victor or my sister Anastasia.”

Ellis Island -- Gateway to Freedom

Ellis Island -- Gateway to Freedom

His Cousin, 83-year-old Anne Poniatowski, has known the family since 1949, when they came to the United States through Ellis Island. She describes him from her home in New York. “What you see is what you get- he’s hardworking, almost a perfectionist. They were very religious all the time and I think it played even a bigger role in Anatole’s life.”

Tom Smoot, Jr., a friend and author of “The Edisons of Fort Myers, ”calls Kurdsjuk, “A splendid man….I think his early experiences shaped him as probably one of the most patriotic Americans I’ve ever run into.” But there are many patriots with stories – why bother to read this one? Father Jacobse has an answer. “Because all of us are drawn towards good, towards creativity,” he insists. “And when you see a man who has endured what he has endured drawing good out of it, it calls the good out of us. So this story is a calling. Since the suffering was imposed on him, it compels me to live my life, which has great privilege, with more clarity and comprehension. I was deeply moved when I read it.”

Kurdsjuk’s story is as American, say, General George Patton’s – and part of it too. It was Patton’s 3rd Army tanks that swept into the German slave-labor camp where Kurdsjuk’s family was huddled on March 29, 1945, liberating the camp in one afternoon. “Those GIs looked ragged compared to the German units, but they were so tough and capable,” Kurdsjuk recalls. “And generous – really good guys. When they saw the emaciated camp population they began to pass out chocolate bars and other rich food. Many of us got sick from the calories suddenly flooding our system. For two plus years we survived on ersatzbrot (bread made from spoiled flour and sawdust) and rotten vegetables soup. Hundreds died or were killed.” The day after the camp was liberated, the Germans counterattacked and Anatole was separated from his parents. “For six weeks I stayed with the GIs, ” he recalls. “They took care of me. They gave me everything they had – food, blankets, shoes, a hat – everything “

And now Anatole (Tony) Kurdsjuk is trying to give back an American story – the history of his family through lectures in schools, libraries, churches or community centers – anywhere people want to learn about a past that’s also part of the present.