The first wave of deportations began in 1941.

Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, ordered his forces to deport tens of thousands of Moldovans from their homes. Moldova, a small (now independent) country in between the Ukraine and Romania, became a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940. Stalin deported legions of people deemed “anti-Soviet,” seeking to fend off trouble and unrest in his ever-expanding Soviet Union. Another wave of deportations in 1949 and lasted until the early 1950s.

They were sent to Kazakhstan and Siberia, far away from home, split from their families. Among them were the women of the Graur family, who were deported to Kazakhstan in 1951. Their father was an “enemy of the state” who fled to escape Stalin’s forces in the middle of the night; their brother joined the Soviet Army, the same military that was oppressing his family. In Kazakhstan, the Graur women, Ana, Pasha, Maria and their mother, Marusca, had to fend for themselves while hearing of dire conditions at home in Moldova.

“In 1953, after the death of the tyrant Stalin, we were not so harshly punished anymore,” says Pasha. The Graur women longed to return home to Moldova, to leave behind the harsh and stark landscape of Kazakh winters and summers and their impoverished life. But they had no money. In 1953, the principal at Pasha’s school urged her to train to become a lab technician, and gave her enough money to return home to Moldova to continue her training. Two years later, Ana, Maria and their mother saved enough money to return home. Like many others, they long kept silent about their history as deportees. To speak about one’s deportation was to call attention to the fact that you were, or had been, considered an enemy of the state. Hiding their former-deportee status allowed them to find work and return to some sense of normalcy.

Now in the twilight of their lives, Ana, 74, and Pasha, 78, share their story, along with archival family photos from the Soviet occupation and their return home. The sisters, after staying silent for so long fearing punishment if they spoke, want the history of this time to finally be heard.

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Pasha Graur, 78, is frequently moved to tears as she discusses her life. Pasha talks about the day she asked her sister, Ana, and her family to take her in. Pasha can no longer walk due to extreme leg pain and is confined to her room in the small separate house she shares with Ana’s family in Vadeni, Moldova.

Many members of the extended Graur family live all over the region; some in the Ukraine, others in Italy or elsewhere in Moldova. Their sister Maria lives in Floresti, a nearby Moldovan town.

A family portrait of Ana, Pasha, Maria, and their mother, Marusca, when they were deported to Crasnai Octeabri, Kazakhstan, in the autumn of 1951.
A family portrait of Ana, Pasha, Maria, and their mother, Marusca, when they were deported to Crasnai Octeabri, Kazakhstan, in the autumn of 1951.

“It was a cold and rainy autumn. Mother had come home from being on the road,” Ana remembers. “She had failed to pull the notch on the door and we heard knocking. From outside, we heard voices yelling, ‘Open up, or we will break down the door!”

They were taken away from their home by the Soviet military.

“In Moscow, we were locked away in barracks for three days and three nights and we were given only rotten cabbage and moldy bread,” Ana continues. Then the family was taken on another train. “When the train stopped, the guards, with their weapons, led us out of the train car and took us to a nearby building. We were told that we were to live in this place, that our mother would work here, and us, the children, would go to the school of this village. The two armed men left for somewhere else and we were told that every morning we had to report to the military work office. We were in Kazakhstan.”

Ana sits in the family kitchen as she prepares coltunasi, a traditional Moldovan dumpling. I ask her what she is thinking about. She responds simply with, “My sister, my daughter in Italy, my brother who died. I am remembering my family.”
Ana sits in the family kitchen as she prepares coltunasi, a traditional Moldovan dumpling. I ask her what she is thinking about. She responds simply with, “My sister, my daughter in Italy, my brother who died. I am remembering my family.”
An image of Ana and Pasha's father, Nichifor, who was listed as an enemy by the Soviet Union. He was caught fleeing to Romania in 1949, and deported to a camp in Odessa, where he died. The sisters do not know when or how he died.
An image of Ana and Pasha’s father, Nichifor, who was listed as an enemy by the Soviet Union. He was caught fleeing to Romania in 1949, and deported to a camp in Odessa, where he died. The sisters do not know when or how he died.

“One night, around midnight, our father, before fleeing to Romania, knocked on the window and gave us a box of sweets, saying to us, ‘Your father is going away alone, I don’t know where, but you must listen to your mother because she is staying behind to raise you.’”

Ana remembers their lives during the deportation, in Kazakhstan. “My mother would work the pigs; [she would cook food] in huge pots, she would clean, and do everything that the big bosses told her to. They wouldn’t give us much food. Poor mother would place some of the pigs’ food at the bottom of the pot and would cover it up with a layer of weeds and horse dung so that no one would catch on [that we were hiding] extra food. She’d tell them that the dung was for the walls. She would visit our house and set the dung and weeds aside so that we could eat to our heart’s content. Mom was glad that she could feed us somehow. It was really hard at the beginning. Then, we managed to slowly build our own little clay house with our bare hands and with the help of [our neighbors].”

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Portrait of Ana and Maria, their other sister, in Kazakhstan in 1952.
Many Moldovan men joined the armed forces the same Soviet military that was oppressing their families. Ana and Pasha's brother, Andrei, was no different. Andrei survived the war, and started a family of his own in Moldova.
Many Moldovan men joined the armed forces the same Soviet military that was oppressing their families. Ana and Pasha’s brother, Andrei, was no different. Andrei survived the war, and started a family of his own in Moldova.
Ana and I practiced spelling in Cyrillic on the foggy kitchen window. When she and her sisters where deported to Kazakhstan they had to study in Russian. Most deportees were forced to learn Russian after leaving home, and banned from speaking their native language.
Ana and I practiced spelling in Cyrillic on the foggy kitchen window. When she and her sisters where deported to Kazakhstan they had to study in Russian. Most deportees were forced to learn Russian after leaving home and banned from speaking their native language.
Pasha tends to the little ducklings and chicks. The work she can do is limited to what can be done inside her room.
Pasha tends to the little ducklings and chicks. The work she can do is limited to what can be done inside her room.

Pasha met her future husband, Vanea, back in Moldova. When Ana and her mother returned, their childhood home had become a primary school. Vanea helped them build a new house, and refused payment. Vanea and Pasha were married in 1957.

Pasha looks through old family photos.
Pasha looks through old family photos.
Pasha keeps an old photo of her younger self after her return to Moldova. Her children sit beside her. She uses this photo as a bookmark in her old Cyrillic Orthodox Bible.
Pasha keeps an old photo of her younger self after her return to Moldova. Her children sit beside her. She uses this photo as a bookmark in her old Cyrillic Orthodox Bible.
Ana walks next to her house that was erected on the foundation of her childhood home. (It has been converted from a primary school back into a private house.)
Ana walks next to her house that was erected on the foundation of her childhood home. (It has been converted from a primary school back into a private house.)
A photo of Ana’s granddaughter, Ioana, when she was a teenager.
A photo of Ana’s granddaughter, Ioana, when she was a teenager.

Through the latter half of the 1950s, Ana began to rebuild her life, too. She was married in 1959, and her new in-laws helped to build a house for the couple. Ana and her husband had two children, and raised them in their hometown, Vadeni.

Ana stands in front of a monument for the deported in Vadeni. Her name and the names of other families are inscribed on it.
Ana stands in front of a monument for the deported in Vadeni. Her name and the names of other families are inscribed on it.

Clary Estes

Clary Estes was born and raised in central Kentucky and got her master's degree in new media photojournalism from the Corcoran College of Art and Design. She is currently living and working in Moldova with the Peace Corps.