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In the midst of our stress and trauma dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to imagine what stories we will ultimately tell our children and grandchildren. This week’s Making Contact episode is about two strong women who survived historic trauma, and the stories they later told their families. During this time of social distancing, these stories remind us of the importance of being in relationship with our loved ones, and the healing power of sharing our experiences.
Image Credit: Photo copyright Helen Zia used with permission; (Left) Wilson Dairy Restaurant (Right) Helen Zia as a baby with mom.
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- Helen Zia – Helen Zia is a Chinese-American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights. She is the former Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine, and author of several books, including Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. As a Fulbright scholar, Helen interviewed over 100 Chinese emigres who were among the great exodus fleeing Shanghai in 1949. Her research led to the book Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution. Her mother is one of four main characters in that book.
- Katie Wilson with Chana Wilson – In this interview recorded in 1976, we hear Katie Wilson tell then-25-year-old Chana Wilson the story of her flight from Kiev. Mixed with this 1976 interview, the narration explores the multiple layers of secrets hidden and later revealed.
- Chana Wilson – is a radio/audio producer and host at Pacifica’s KPFA in Berkeley, CA. She is the award-winning author of the memoir, Riding Fury Home, has blogged on the Huffington Post, and published essays in numerous anthologies, most recently Headcase, LGBTQ Writers and Artists on Mental Health and Wellness by Oxford University Press. She is a licensed psychotherapist whose thirty years in practice aid her in facilitating interviewees to go deep and open up.
- Guest Producer: Chana Wilson
Making Contact Staff
- Executive Director: Jina Chung
- Senior Producer: Jessica Partnow
- Staff Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
Host: In the midst of our stress and trauma dealing with Covid 19, it’s hard to imagine what stories we will eventually tell our children and grandchildren. This week’s Making Contact is about two strong women who survived historic trauma and the stories that they later told their families during this time of social distancing. These stories remind us of the importance of being in relationship with our loved ones and the healing power of sharing our experiences. This week’s show is brought to you by guest producer Chana Wilson.
Chana Wilson: Welcome to Two Revolutions. Many Secrets. I’m Chana Wilson. In this show we’ll hear the stories of two women refugees. One fled Shanghai during Mao’s Chinese revolution and the other, my grandmother, escaped the Bolshevik Revolution and Ukrainian pogroms. Both had secrets they held onto for years until, in an extraordinary turn of events, they each opened up to their children and grandchildren.
As a kid, I would ask my mother, you know, mom, tell me something about growing up as a child. You know, in China. And my mother just would only say one thing. And that was that was war time. A bad memory. And that would be it. There would be nothing more.
Chana So what I want to know about, grandma is a little bit more like what your life was like when you were growing up in Kiev.
The first voice you heard was author Helen Zia getting stonewalled as a kid, asking her mother about her life in China. The second voice was my paternal grandma, Katie, from an interview I did with her 43 years ago. In 1976, I was 25 at the time and she was in her early 70s. Now their stories make me wonder when immigrants flee trauma and loss, what stories get told and passed on in families and what remains unspoken, kept hidden in silence. It was only late in life in their 70s that Helen’s mother and my grandmother opened up about their lives and the circumstances that caused them to become refugees to America.
Let’s start with my grandma, Katie. She was born around 1903 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire. She grew up in a well-to-do family of four brothers and one sister with a family business manufacturing electric fixtures. She was a teenager in the midst of the Russian Revolution.
Katie Wilson: When revolution broke, red army came in that [inaudible]. They took everything away, the keys to the store. They give everything, give it away.
We didn’t have anything to eat, to drink or anything.
Everything was moved away and they have no money to buy. And their money would change from day to day anyhow.
They took all the groceries in all the stores.
Chana: Here’s how she met my grandfather, Isaac.
Well, how did you meet grandpa?
Katie Wilson: He just came into the house. You know, he was in the Army, in the Red Army. It was a gang coming into this city. And he was there doing it. You know, when they come into the city, they would whoever was in charge of the gang, you know, they divided.
They put him in private houses and you stay you don’t want to go anywhere else.
Chana I thought Dad told me that he was a machine gunner or something on the roof of your house.
Katie Wilson: no, no, a musician. He was a musician. He was a violinist. And that’s what he came with a violin no clothes or anything.
Chana So you were like, how old were you then? How old were you when you met him?
Katie Wilson: Sixteen
Chana Although grandma’s family was impoverished when the Red Army stripped them of their livelihood, worse was yet to come.
The Kiev pogroms of 1919, when they were going through th city killing people, did you see any of that? Did you see any of the killing?
Katie Wilson: They came into our place. They almost killed my father.
Chana Really? What happened?
Katie Wilson: They beat him up. They wanted money and he gave them what he had.
But they still wouldn’t believe that didn’t have more than that. They killed my grandfather and grandmother.
Chana I didn’t know that.
Katie Wilson: didn’t say then. But they beat him up so much that he died. And she died on Sunday. And he died on Tuesday
Chana And I didn’t know this. No one in my family had ever said a word looking up that history. Now I learn that the Kiev pogroms of 1919 were orgies of looting, rape and murder of Jews throughout the Ukraine. In 1919, there were over one thousand three hundred pogroms in which between 30000 to 70000 Jews were massacred and half a million Jews were left homeless.
Here’s what grandma did in the aftermath of the murder of her own grandparents. She told her parents she was going out for a walk. In fact, she headed for the border with my grandfather.
How did you get out of the country? Didn’t you have to sneak out of Kiev? What did you do?
Katie Wilson: You paid somebody, you know. And we didn’t have anything to eat for a couple days . And it was hot. So we went from Russia to Poland, where we had to walk and sleep in that heat. They would catch you. They’d kill each one of them. But somehow we went so quiet. Wasn’t a.
Chana So I knew by now when you left, did you tell your parents anything?
Katie nothing. You just had to leave. They wouldn’t have let me go. So that’s what it was.
Chana That’s some story that you went through.
Katie Oh, I could never forget that.
When when we were on the other side, nobody could touches us. It’s a different country. But by the time we made that go on the other side, that you never knew that you were going to survive. Why? And I think I got caught into the barbed wire quite so high and i’m so short to step over that.
And then t I just hung on top there.
Well. That’s okay.
Chana When I played grandma’s tape for dad years later, he exclaimed. She left out what happened in Poland? What do you mean, Dad? I asked.
Your grandfather was earning money by playing his violin at parties. One time he was playing for Polish officers and as they got drunk, they ordered him to take off his clothes and keep playing while they shot their pistols at his feet and laughed as the naked Jew danced. When they got so drunk, they passed out.
He grabbed his clothes and ran out into the snow. Here was another stunning story that I’d never heard, my father heard it from my grandfather, but not until my father was an adult. Is it possible maybe grandpa never told my grandmother? By then, she was pregnant with my father and they were facing another difficult journey. They were undocumented in Poland. And in order to have the proper papers to emigrate to the United States, they had to journey back into the Ukraine for her to give birth and then for a second time cross the barbed wire into Poland.
Must have been hard to your parents. Did you feel bad about that?
You to do that or when you had when you had to leave them, when you were 16 and you just left and didn’t say goodbye?
Katie I didn’t say a thing. Nobody knew that I was leaving.
Chana Did you feel bad?
Katie What do you think? If you ask, would you feel good? You have to feel something. You don’t leave everybody behind that you were born and grew up with no trouble, with no heartache.
But then I wind up in the united states on account of the beating and killing.
Chana how Many brothers and sisters did you have?
Katie Four brothers and one sister. I don’t know what happened to them. One of was engineer one was a doctor and my sister was just beginning to go to college.
Chana Were you the youngest?
Katie I was second from the eldest. And then my brother wrote me that I shouldn’t write him from the United States because they figure you have relatives in the United States that mean that everybody is rich in United States.
And I didn’t have anything to eat. I didn’t want to get him into trouble. And meantime, since then, I never heard anything what happened.
So I stopped writing and I never find out what the rest of their life.
There’s something Grandma and I are both avoiding here. We both know there’s one possibility of what happened to her family, but I don’t push further. Ten years before at 15, I’d learned that possibility. Oddly enough, at a poetry reading. My parents were divorced and my father and his new wife invited me to hear the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
I’d never heard a poet read. Never thought of poetry as something related to my life. Yevtushenko first read in Russian, then English, his voice vibrating with intensity. Then he read the poem Babi Yar.
Over Babi Yar rustle of the wild grass, the trees look threatening, look like judges and everything is one silent cry taking my hat off– I feel myself slowly going gray and I am one silent cry over the many thousands of the buried. And every old man killed here. Every child killed here,
On the ride home over the chug of the engine, I asked Dad, what was Babi Yar? What exactly happened there? It was a ravine outside Kiev where the Nazis shot and massacred thousands of Jews. Kiev? Dad, what about Grandmama’s family that she left behind? We don’t know what happened. Grandma lost touch with them after she came here. I thought about this as the car curved along the dark wooded road.
How dad had never mentioned the possibility that his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were in that mass grave.
How there was so much the family didn’t talk about.
Ten years after that night of poetry, I interviewed grandma that day, she told me painful details of her past that I was learning for the first time. By then, I could appreciate her as a survivor, as someone who had incredible courage and will when she walked away from home at 16.
In the aftermath of brutal violence against her family, she left behind everyone she knew.
And I existed because of her bravery. And maybe sometimes survivors withhold these stories to give the next generation room to breathe.
Let’s turn now to author Helen Zia’s Story. Helen was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1952 to immigrants from Shanghai. She became a journalist and then author and published numerous works, including the book Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.
But it wouldn’t be until she was in her 50s that her mother would finally reveal secrets from her childhood in China.
Her mother’s story launched Helen on a 12 year journey, interviewing over 100 other Chinese emigres who were among the great exodus fleeing Shanghai in 1949 as Mao’s People’s Liberation Army approached the city. Her research led to the book Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution.
Helen Zia: Growing up in New Jersey, in a suburb of one of those cities, Philadelphia and New York, meant that we weren’t in the Chinatown. And so really there were very, very few other Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans that we grew up with. And we were like, we were Martians. You know, we were from outer space.
Everywhere we went, people would either stare at us… And because the Vietnam War was rising, I mean, I would walk into a place and somebody would look. A guy in fatigues – and like say, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? And it was obvious they meant, oh, the enemy is right here. Or growing up in that post-World War Two era where there were a lot of movies and Korean War and all these wars that were being fought in Asia. There would be movies and we kids would go to the movies, too. And if it was one of those, let’s bomb Japan into smithereens, there would always be that moment where the kids would rise up and say, kill them, kill them, you know, and when the lights would come on, we would be like, kill them.
So growing up in New Jersey at that time and being so alien, I mean, literally and legally being, quote, aliens, my parents, you know, they were not citizens yet. And the other thing going on was the McCarthy period. China was absolutely one of the worst enemies along with the Soviet Union. And my parents were so aware of it that they decided not to speak Chinese to us. So we grew up not speaking Chinese. At the same time. My parents were very proud of China, their homeland, and my parents taught us to be proud as Chinese in America.
And so, knowing the kind of things that my parents told us, like, you know, “gunpowder, fireworks, rocket ships, language, Chinese wore silk when Europeans were running around naked in caves,” and things like that were what we were taught as children. And I think that’s part of the narrative that every culture imparts on their kids to try to make them feel proud of who they are. And so as a kid, I wanted to know more.
And I would ask my mother, you know, mom, tell me something about growing up as a child you know, in China. And my mother just would only say one thing. And that was “that was war time. A bad memory.” And that would be it. There would be nothing more.
I just stopped asking or I just assumed there was nothing. And so, you know, from childhood. Then it was really not until I was in my 50s that I was having dinner with my mom and she was in her 70s. And, you know, as like any adult kid, it’s like, okay, how is your day, mom? What are your aches and pains? How are you feeling? And to try to have some other conversation, I just said, gee, mom, too bad you can’t tell me about growing up as a kid in China. Just that mantra that just popped into my mind and and that time she looked at me.
She put her chopsticks down and she said, “All right. You want to know? I’ll tell you.”
I was in total shock that there was something to tell. And then out poured this story, that was just a heart breaking, heart wrenching things that I had never known that my mother had lived through.
Starting from when she had been abandoned as a child of 6. And so at one point, I said to my mother when she paused. Gee, mom, your memory is so good. You know, really just it’s stupid thing looking back to say. But she looked right back at me and she said, I was six years old. I remember everything. It was the worst day of my life.
Chana: In Helen Zia’s New York Times essay, My Mother’s Secrets. She described what happened to her 6 year old mother that day in 1935. Her mother’s father took her by train to a city 60 miles away.
He brought her into a shop where the shopkeepers led her away and locked her in a dark storeroom while she screamed for her dad. When she was let out the next morning. A woman stood staring at her and told her, You may call me mama.
This adoption was the first of many traumas. Three years later, amidst war, as Japan invaded China. Her adoptive mother abandoned her as she fled the war zone, passing her on to another family.
Helen: One reason she never talked about it and she told me it was because, well, people would look down on her. There would be a stigma of having been abandoned, of having, you know, been adopted. And in those days, that’s how people treated folks. And even when she was little, she told me stories of being ridiculed and bullied by other children who were like, oh, you were given away. Nobody loves you. Nobody will ever love you. You know, who would ever want to marry somebody with no bloodline. Nobody knows what your family was like. And so she grew up hearing that. And. And for that reason, you know, she kept it in all that time.
Chana What was it like for Helen’s mom to finally let this out after all these years?
Helen I definitely feel like it was a healing process for her. In fact, even before she started telling me, she said, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise that you don’t tell anybody. And I said, no problem, of course. And then she told me everything.
I mean, we talked for hours. And then after that many you know, every time I had a chance to have a conversation with my mother, whether it was in the car or just, you know, shopping or whatever, I would ask her more questions.
That evening after my mother told me so many things that had happened, you know, her abandonment. And I had just promised her that I wouldn’t tell anybody. And I said, Mom, is it okay if I tell my siblings, your other children? And she stopped to think about it and she said tentatively, Yeah, okay.
And so, of course, I told you, know, I called them all up.
There are four brothers and a sister. So one by one, I called them to tell them. And so when I told my sister, she started crying on the phone and she said, I can’t believe mom went through all that. But it was a healing process because after I told my siblings, of course, they started asking my mother questions and I could see that every time she talked about it—You know, at first it was like stepping on ice and really not sure if it was going to crack and she would fall through. And so her telling would be very tentative–And then she became more confident in telling the story.
And I think having internalized that stigma for so many years, thinking if people know they’re going to despise her or look down on her, and to see that actually people thought, wow, you’ve lived through that, how strong you are and that they didn’t shun her. And in fact, you know, for me and my siblings, it just made us appreciate our mother even more.
And for her to, I think, begin to have a feeling that she was worthy of being loved. Of having a family that could love her for who she is, that she could have friends that she could even tell. And she had never told any of her closest friends. And so as she became stronger telling them.
The grandchildren, you know, they were in school and they would then interview grandma to write their little story for school. And it just made her be able to, I think, sit up taller and straighter and not feel that she had some deep, dark, horrible secret. But in fact, that she had something an experience that she could really share with people. And and I think it was really affirming and totally healing for her.
Chana Her mother told Helen how, as Mao’s army was approaching Shanghai, close to a million people began a chaotic mass exodus. Helen went on a quest to learn more. She received a Fulbright grand to begin research, interviewing survivors of that exodus, most of whom were now in their 80s and interviewed over 100 of them.
She discovered that most of them had never told their children the stories they now told Helen.
Helen Zia I could really feel a sense of relief in some ways. After the interview, because they had not told who knows, you know anybody for how many years. And because I appreciated them telling me their stories. I mean, there was also a sense of affirmation for them that there was some meaning and value to their personhood, you know, their full humanity as something that they had repressed.
At some point, I would say. Do your children know these stories? Have you ever told told them of what you went through, the near starvation, or the evading, you know, enemy soldiers or how you had to sleep on the ground or walk literally walk 500 miles?
And and they would say, no, I don’t think they’re interested. I don’t think they care. And then I would say no, I think they really would care. I think. But so that made me think, why wouldn’t they? Well, you know, of course, we know from other survivors of trauma of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans. Those are very well documented that they almost skip a generation because in a way, it’s too painful.
And then there’s a part I… you know, my reflection on it is I think parents, they want to instill a certain narrative in their children, one where the parents are strong people, that they didn’t go through suffering, vulnerability, terror. You know, they want their children to feel strong and that mommy and daddy can take care of them no matter what. So they wouldn’t be things that if they gave give the parents nightmares, they don’t want to give their own children nightmares. So they jump over all of that kind of like my mother would just say, oh, that was a bad memory. I don’t want to tell you.
And then as the years pass, like me, I thought there was nothing there. So I stopped asking. And what is a parent going to do? Or any person you know who experienced trauma just say, oh, hey, let me tell you about the time that this terrible thing happened. You know, it it’s not something that just springs up in conversation. And so I feel like I was just extraordinarily lucky that that day it just popped into my head to say, oh, mom, too bad you can’t tell me. And it kind of at a at a time when my mother was feeling like she could tell that I asked. And so, you know, when I talk to people, you know, at book talks or whatever, now I say, don’t stop asking.
Chana Unlike so many others, Helen did get to finally hear about her mother’s life as her mother let go of secrecy.
Helen It was so enlightening because it just added so much more depth and a way for me to understand who my mother was in a way that I had no concept of before — what she had been through–and, you know, it just kind of opened her up to me as as a whole full human being.
And in a way, I guess because she had kept it all in before and that it was all a secret. And she said nothing. You know, it was almost that, you know, I was missing all of those dimensions of who my mother was. And so it was it opened up a whole other world to me and my mom. I could see that my mother grew lighter with every telling. She grew lighter and stronger. And it was really like the burden would peel off layer by layer. And it was just beautiful to see her kind of be proud of of all the things that made her up as a person.
Salima Hamirani: You’ve been listening to two revolutions, many secrets. A special radio documentary on Making Contact, produced by Chana Wilson. Special thanks to Adi Givens and to KPFA Radio. Be sure to check out RadioProject.org for more programs like this.
Our Twitter handle is making_contacts and on Instagram we’re making contact radio project. The Making Contact team includes Monica Lopez. Anita Johnson. Aysha Choudhary. Lisa Rudman. Katheryn Styer. I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact. www.radioproject.org