It took 30 years for Anatole Kurdsjuk to keep the promise he made his “papa,” Jacob. Kurdsjuk’s father urged him to share their story of miracles and surviving Nazi labor camps, the Holocaust and finally making it to freedom in America.
“I’m going to tell you a story about my family,” he told a large crowd at Hodges University’s Fort Myers campus Wednesday evening. “A family full of hope and miracles. If it weren’t for God, I would be pushing up grass, not walking on top of it.”
His father and mother, Olga, were married in 1923 at the age of 19. They had two children – a boy and a girl – before they were exiled to Siberia, where they lost their children to illness and starvation. After their death, Jacob escaped with gold buttons his wife had sewn onto his jacket. He made it to Moscow, where he was arrested and thrown into an infamous Soviet KGB prison.
“He was beaten and tortured,” Kurdsjuk said. “He suffered a heart attack at 31 years old.”
Surviving the heart attack, he once again escaped in the forest, where he spent the night in a tree and took papers required for traveling from a deceased man. He found his way to an elderly woman’s home, where he was fed a good meal.
“Things too numerous happened afterward,” Kurdsjuk said about his father’s journey back to where Olga was hiding.
Once the couple was reunited, they traveled to the Ukraine. Jacob found work and, due to his ability to write and add, was quickly promoted. He was once again given an amazing opportunity to write universal passports demanded by Joseph Stalin. Jacob, who was ambidextrous, created passports for Olga and himself.
“The world was now open to them,” said Kurdsjuk.
His parents did well until 1941, when the Second World War reached their front door. Women dug 9 feet deep trenches to stop the tanks, but had unwittingly dug a mass grave for thousands of casualties. Kurdsjuk and his parents were captured by the retreating German SS in 1943, when Anatole was just 10 years old. They were forced into death marches — 300 miles in 30 days with no shelter and little food.
“If you stepped out of the column, you were shot. No questions asked,” he said.
They were loaded into box cars that took them to near the Polish border. When they stepped out of the box car, people were divided – the adults to the right and children to the left. His father told him to stand tall on his tip-toes and the three of them were sent right. Their group was told they were going to be “disinfected.” They were made to strip and enter a large room.
Fearing they were about to be gassed, Kurdsjuk’s father apologized for bringing him to this type of death. A yellow mist spewed into the air for what seemed like an eternity to young Kurdsjuk, but it was DDT. Afterward, they were herded back into a cattle car with 40 to 50 other prisoners. They arrived in north Germany, where they worked for 10 to 12 hours a day in the German slave camp Wurgendorf.
Kurdsjuk and his family spent two-and-a-half years in the camp surviving on bread, sawdust, cabbage and rotten pumpkin. His parents were forced to work in the factory, while children like Kurdsjuk cleaned the equipment. In March 1945, they were liberated by General George Patton’s Third Army.
“It was euphoria,” he said about seeing the American tanks roll through the fences. “I ran and cried.”
In the chaos of the American arrival, Kurdsjuk was separated from his parents. The nightmare had not quite ended for this family that had already lost so much. Kurdsjuk spent six weeks in a “displaced persons” camp until he was able to search for his parents. Through a series of small miracles, he was eventually reunited with them. However, they still did not have precious freedom.
“My papa wrote a dozen letters tracking down his cousin in New York,” Anatole said.
It took five years for the family to immigrate to the United States, but in April 1949 they stepped off the U.S.S. General Black onto American soil. Kurdsjuk was 14.
“Finally, we were in America. We were free,” he said with his arms in the air.
Kurdsjuk completed his education and served in the U.S. Air Force. Upon his discharge, he worked in the information systems industry with domestic and international corporations as a systems designer, manager and executive. Retiring in 1997, the Fort Myers resident sat down to fulfill his promise – writing his family’s history as a legacy for his two sons.
Encouraged by those who were touched by the story, Kurdsjuk transformed it into a historical memoir and his first book, “The Long Walk Home.” It recounts the motivating story of Kurdsjuk and his family as they faced the unimaginable. It was through a mutual friend, Rosemary Arway, criminal justice professor at Hodges, who learned of Kurdsjuk’s astounding story and his book. She welcomed him to the university.
“He is a survivor of terrorism and has a fascinating story to share,” Arway said. “After hearing about his book, I thought our students might gain a tremendous insight by being exposed to ‘living history.’”
Kurdsjuk shared a Powerpoint presentation with colorful maps and photographs buried in a pouch and retrieved by his father. Kurdsjuk’s moving story was followed by a standing ovation from the audience.
“Cherish this land,” he concluded. “Many Americans don’t realize what we have.”