M E R I D I A N M A G A Z I N E
LDS Havana Babushka
By Larry Day
Havana, Cuba—Two 8-year-old boys stand arguing on the sidewalk of a Havana suburb. One boy shouts an insult. The other adds expletives, escalating the war of words. The boys wear the red bandanas of the Young Pioneers, Cuba’s communist youth organization.
A gray-haired woman, carrying a frayed shopping bag, stops on her way to a vegetable stand half a block away. Heeding a call to duty, the woman crosses the street and stands in front of the two combatants.
“What a shame,” she says quietly. “What a shame that I should hear such awful words from the mouths of two Young Pioneers. Don’t you boys know that you are the hope of tomorrow? It pains me to see you arguing and using such language.”
The boys, chins on their chests, scuff their toes on the cement sidewalk.
“We’re sorry, Señora,” says the one who used the expletives, gazing at the sidewalk.
The other looks up. “We ask your pardon, Señora,” he says.
The woman reaches into a pocket and brings out two pieces of cellophane-wrapped candy. “Well get along with you then,” she says, “And please try to remember who you are.”
Irina Vasilievskaya has heeded many calls during her extraordinary life. Some of the calls, like this one, involved little more than a stern look or a kind word. Many other calls to duty came when Irina was a child in the Ukraine amidst the ghastly scenes of death, destruction and the inhuman cruelty of World War II. In the 1940s clashing German and Soviet armies virtually obliterated Irina’s birthplace, Odessa, the historic cultural center of the Ukraine.
Much later in life came a call that Irina describes as redeeming and life-changing. That call came in April, 1995, in Odessa, when Irina saw two young Americans who wore badges identifying them as missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Between her miraculous survival from the war, and her baptism in the Church, came events that took Irina to Cuba and many more calls to duty.
Although she was a little over two years old, Irina remembers how the devastation began with the German bombardment of Odessa in June, 1941: “It was evening when the bombing began. My mother was bathing me. She wrapped me in a towel and ran from the house looking for a place to hide. As she ran with me in her arms I looked up and saw explosions in the sky and heard the bombs exploding all around us. The earliest memories I have are memories of the day war came to my homeland.”
Two and a half months of deprivation followed the first bombing as German ground forces fought to crush the Ukrainian resistance. Irina’s father died in the last battle for Odessa. With military occupation began another horrific phase of Hitler’s mad scheme of world domination—the systematic exploitation and destruction of the civilian population. According to Alex Alexiev, who wrote about Soviet nationalities in German wartime strategy, “German occupation policies in the Ukraine represent the best example of German political failure in the East.” The Germans opted for coercion and brutal repression to reach their goals of economic exploitation of the area. Before the war the Ukraine had been badly treated by the Soviets. A captured Soviet official put it this way: “We badly mistreated our people; it was almost impossible to treat them worse. You Germans have managed to do that.”
For little Irina and her mother, these weren’t matters of political and military strategy, these were matters of survival. The Germans, who had ceded the Ukraine to their Romanian collaborators, ordered the execution of Jews, Communist party members, and any civilian who cooperated with the Ukrainian resistance forces.
Irina’s mother was a member of the Communist Party and a target for execution but Irina’s grandparents, neighbors, and friends who valued her kindness and humanity, helped keep her from being detected and arrested. Ironically, it was an act of religious compliance that almost got her killed. Irina’s mother took her daughter to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. A woman who had been asked to participate in the ceremony, denounced Irina’s mother to the authorities.
The two were on the run again. This time they fled to Odessa’s catacombs—a series of tunnels and caverns that had been left when rock was quarried to build the seaport. Irina and her mother lived in the catacombs, along with other refugees, for a year and eight months. They survived on food that Irina’s grandfather and others smuggled into the hideout.
Of that time Irina recalls: “My mother helped tend the sick and wounded down there in the catacombs. There was no medicine, almost no food. We could only go out at night to look for the things we needed. We looked for aloe to help heal the wounds. During that time I never saw the sun. I didn’t even remember what it was like. So I called the moon the sun. My mother would wash bandages and hang them up. When they were dry, young as I was, I rolled them and stacked them so that she could put them back on the people’s wounds. I started working when I was very young.”
After nearly two years Irina’s mother went above ground, but authorities sought to take her life again. They would have succeeded except for a miracle of love. Irina relates how the soldiers and police began sweeping Odessa neighborhoods, arresting anyone on the wanted list—Jews, partisans and communists. In one of the roundups, a squad of Romanian soldiers grabbed Irina and her mother. They marked Irina’s mother for execution, and led her away with Irina clinging to her neck. The soldiers herded Irina and her mother into a group of other prisoners who were being taken to concentration camps.
Tears fill Irina’s eyes and her voice chokes as she relates what happened next. Word spread through the neighborhood that Irina’s mother had been arrested. As the soldiers led them away, people came out of their houses, ignoring threats, and pleaded with the soldiers to release Irina’s mother. Then people came with valuables—jewelry and coins—and offered them to the soldiers for the release of Irina and her mother. The soldiers seemed to ignore the offers, but somehow, before the group reached the rendezvous point where trucks were waiting to take the prisoners away, Irina and her mother were free and the soldiers were pocketing the valuables.
For the rest of the war Irina and her mother hid out with other fugitives in the basement of a bombed-out factory building. Irina relates the events of that period of her life with a combination of humor, poignancy and gratitude. Odessa was liberated from the Germans in late 1944, and the war ended in May, 1945.
“Sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the years…” Irina remembers growing up in postwar Odessa as an adventure. As a party member, Irina’s mother got a job as an official in a government-run factory. Because Irina’s father had fought in the battle of Odessa, Irina and her mother were given a small, but comfortable, apartment near the factory. In the months right after the war, Irina hoped her father would come home. Some of Odessa’s defenders were captured and transported to Germany. But the family eventually learned from a friend of a friend that he had died in battle. As Odessa recovered from the war, art and culture returned to its theatres and show places. Irina’s grandfather, who was an opera lover, bought tickets for a performance every month and took Irina. While she enjoyed culture and the arts, Irina loved and excelled in sports and academic pursuits, particularly languages, which is how she eventually arrived in Cuba.
After graduating from high school and the University of Odessa with a major in languages, Irina worked at a variety of language-related jobs and then was assigned to teach Ukrainian as a foreign language at a military school. Most of the students were from countries within the Soviet sphere of influence. Denis Arias was a young military officer from Cuba. It was a time when Cuba and the Soviet Union had strong political and economic ties. Denis and Irina fell in love, got married, and moved to Havana.
The early years were hard. Denis worked long hours and was often on assignment overseas. Irina didn’t have a job, and was grateful for the birth of their daughter Natalya. As the years went by and Natalya grew, Irina moved back into foreign language teaching and became a professor of languages. Denis advanced in his military career and became a senior officer. Natalya grew into a beautiful young woman with a gift, like her mother, for languages.
As the 1980s melted into the 1990s, the Soviet Union and its satellites abandoned communism and moved to develop democratically-oriented governments with free market economies. Cuba relied on its socialist allies for much of its economic sustenance in the face of decades of unwavering hostility from the United States. That hostility included a powerful economic embargo and tight travel restrictions for Americans wishing to visit the island. With the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, economic aid to Havana slowed to a trickle. As the people of Cuba underwent serious economic hardships, Fidel Castro maintained tight control of the government. Cuba remained, and remains today, a socialist state. One element of the socialist ideology is its rejection of God and religion. Despite centuries of life as a strong Roman Catholic country, Cuba since the revolution, made the practice of religion a onerous, and sometimes dangerous, activity.
In recent years, especially since the visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II in 1998, the sanctions on religious activity have been lifted or lightened. Celebration of mass, once covert and sporadic, has become open and frequent in churches in Havana. Protestant religions, once harassed and spied upon, have been given leave to function almost normally. Religious restrictions remain in place, and the government retains control over who can and who cannot openly practice religion.
That’s why Irina and her daughter, Natalya, two of only a handful of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cuba today, represented such an important link for the Church to the outside world. after they were baptized in the Ukraine in May 1995. Mother and daughter were in Odessa on an extended visit with family and friends. They met Elder Knighton and Elder Christopher early in April.
Irina says she was touched by the spirit from the first time she saw the two young Americans walking along the street. She stopped and talked to the Elders and they invited her to attend church. She and Natalya took the missionary discussions and were baptized less than a month later.
After returning to Cuba, Irina and Natalya contacted church members in Provo, Utah and Salt Lake City. These contacts were followed by visits by church members from Mexico, where the U.S. travel ban doesn’t apply. From time to time Church leaders from Mexico and members of the Church who had authorization to visit the island, came and participated in the Sunday gatherings. All were welcomed by Denis and Irina and Natalya. The baptism in 1998 of Dr. Luis Andres Verrier (see “Havana Saint” in Meridian Archives) gave a brief impetus to the Church, and attendance increased markedly for awhile. Dr. Verrier, however, received an overseas assignment from the government and is no longer in Cuba.
Natalya completed a degree in languages at the University of Havana and taught French for the Allianza Frances. She joined the Cuban foreign service and recently received a two-year assignment to Vietnam. She is currently studying Vietnamese and seeking contacts in the Church in that socialist society.
Meantime, Irina, now retired from her academic assignments, spends time at home where she welcomes friends and provides hospitality for visitors from overseas. She walks with guests through the neighborhood and proudly shows them the garden where she and Denis grow an abundance of fruits and vegetables..
Thus Irina Vasilievskaya, wartime survivor, church member, and neighborhood Babushka, continues to respond to calls to duty, large or small, that come her way.