The Story Behind Ekaterina
I knew Ekaterina. When I was old enough to understand, my grandfather's second wife told me stories about her life. Many of those anecdotes comprise scenes in my tale. These include: cherishing her Russian heritage; loving classical music and fine clothes; living in Harbin and Shanghai in the 1930s; having an affair with a Japanese businessman resulting in an illegitimate child; surviving by “doing what was necessary” in Shanghai; getting engaged to a French Army officer who subsequently died in the war; departing Shanghai shortly before December 7, 1941 and disembarking at Manila; watching her best friend die in the bombing of Manila; spending the war years in the Philippines, including time hiding underground in the mountains; doing “whatever was necessary to survive” again in Manila after the war ended; meeting and marrying an Army officer in Manila not long after he was widowed; being shunned by his family in New Jersey; moving to Atlanta and ultimately, into a senior care facility with Russian speaking attendants; being extorted by her husband’s senior military officer for not providing him with sexual favors; being highlighted in a major Atlanta newspaper; living in a southeast Atlanta neighborhood that shifted from pleasant middle income homes, to one with break-ins, drug deals and untended properties; being active in the church at Fort McPherson; being fearful of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; believing she and her Russian friends were being watched; and, sadly, becoming more distrusting, and afraid of Blacks as her neighborhood changed.
During my research, I learned Ekaterina could be aloof, stern, and set in her ways. But I also discovered she had always expressed love and thanks to Charles. She never remarried and never moved again until her dementia required full-time care. Her long-term neighbors said they liked her and never thought she was a communist. In real life, Ekaterina had a long relationship with Peter after Charles died. He was Russian, a university professor, and eventually moved to Hawaii. Upon her death, she bequeathed her car, dresses, music, and financial holdings as described, although the amount was somewhat less, it was substantial. The beneficiary in Siberia indeed, surprised everyone.
As for Ekaterina's origins, I chose to have her come from Valday, setting the stage for the journey across the continent and adding a background to the lives of the thousands who were sent or who fled East. I used several sources for the trans-Siberian train ride, including An Adventurous Journey: Russia-Siberia-China, by Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, London, 1929, an enjoyable travelogue by a popular travel writer of the day. However, it may be more likely that the real Ekaterina was born in Harbin, but this remains a mystery.
The exodus of Europeans and Americans from Shangai in the years before December 1941 is well documented. Ship registries, such as Lloyds, also show which vessels were lost, where, and when. The SS Tjipawan never existed, but during the Pacific War, numerous commercial ships were lost with all hands, and incorrect reports were filed. The SS Capillo, owned by the United States Shipping Board, was bombed in Manila harbor on December 8, 1941, and others were destroyed off Corregidor on December 29.
The rise of communism precipitating the Red Scare of the 1950s, supported by Senator McCarthy, resulted in many people being sentenced to prison and ruined numerous other lives. The Berlin Wall, Soviet control of Eastern Europe, the assassinations of the 1960s - blamed to some extent rightfully or wrongly on communist influence - and the war in Vietnam compounded the concern of millions of Americans that far left-wing politics and philosophies needed to be held in check. One way to do so was “keeping watch” on foreigners, a policy and practice common under J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Similarly, many examples of police corruption continue to occur throughout the United States, allowing people such as the willfully ignorant Elsa and the greedy and uncaring JJ Fuller to live and thrive.
Lastly, the world is blessed by venues such as Carnegie Hall that serve as bastions of musical, operatic, and theatrical performances. More to the point, young voices, such as Laura Bretan of Chicago, Jordanian-American Emanne Beasha, and Jackie Evancho of Pittsburg, offer aficionados and those less familiar with classical music captivating talent worthy of every significant stage. So why not Ekaterina's great-granddaughter, Sasha Danilova?
Thomas H. Brillat
January 13, 2023
Richmond, Rhode Island