Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Local Author Robert Frimtzis traveled across Europe with his family to escape Nazi devastation. His new memoir, 'From Tajikistan to the Moon,' details his brave account of World War II.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The idea that America is the land of opportunity, the last hope of refugees fleeing from a world steeped in war and injustice is often seen as part of our history rather than our present. But one man's story validates that America can still be a beacon of freedom not just from conflict and poverty but from discrimination as well. It's the story of a young boy, who barely escaped the Nazis during World War II, endured anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and escaped to success and accomplishment by contributing his skills to the United States space program. Robert Frimtzis joins me now to talk about his incredible life and his new memoir “From Tajikistan to the Moom: A Story of Tragedy, Survival and Triumph of the Human Spirit.” And, Robert Frimtzis, thanks for joining us so much.
ROBERT FRIMTZIS (Author): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now tell us why you decided to write this memoir.
FRIMTZIS: Well, actually I’ve written the memoir as a result of the solemn promise that I made to my mother at the age of ten, mind you. During falling bombs, every time we survived another attack, she’d take me aside and say, now, you must promise to tell the world, to write a book to tell the world what happened to innocent people so it would not be repeated. Yes, mama. Of course, first we must survive, though.
FRIMTZIS: And that was really the reason. Of course, it took me about sixty years later to end up writing the book.
CAVANAUGH: But that, of course, is a kind of a promise you don’t forget.
FRIMTZIS: Right, right. I’ve also, in the introduction, I say that wherever her spirit looks down upon me, she’ll know that I kept my promise. I feel good about it.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about you and your family before World War II. Where did you live?
FRIMTZIS: Well, we lived in a city of about 100,000 at the time in a region called Bessarabia. It is the furtherest western region part of the Soviet Union, at the time. Actually, being those regions in Eastern Europe are always unstable, when I was born actually, it was under Rumanian occupation. It was always a Soviet region. So my mother tongue was Russian, and at the age of five when you first come out to play with kids and go to kindergarten, you realize that in kindergarten they teach Rumanian. I don’t know a word of Rumanian. The neighborhood, everybody speaks Yiddish. I don’t know a word of that either, so I write in the book that I was a foreigner at the age of five in my own hometown. The city is the northern part of that region of Bessarabia. It’s now Moldova, an independent republic. The capital is Chisinau, which is more known. We lived in a very comfortable area. My father was a banker, a white collared worker. The neighborhood was very much settled with small stores and the like, and it was a very, very comfortable life.
CAVANAUGH: And in many ways, your childhood ended, though, on June 22nd, 1941. You were ten years old. Tell us what happened on that day.
FRIMTZIS: At exactly – at slumber at four in the morning, we woke up to some noises and earthquakes. Excuse me. And we assumed it’s an earthquake because a year earlier we had a tremendous earthquake. Everybody runs out into the street for fear that our homes will tumble on you and as the sun comes out, we started seeing airplanes in the sky. We witnessed a dogfight. We still were not aware of it because we sort of assumed that the Soviets have some maneuvers. Well, it was until twelve noon that Molotov, who was the Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the time, of the Soviet Union, made the announcement that we were attacked by Germany. So here we are, eight hours before the announcement, we were already attacked, our city. And within three days, three to four days, we had tremendous bombardment and our whole neighborhood, including our home went up in flame. And we witnessed the ten year old on the outskirts, just about three, four blocks away from there, the whole night long, whole neighborhood, everything that I knew until then, all my life, went up in smoke. And, of course, we realized sort of in the morning the finality of it all. The – I don’t know how to thank my father because it was his foresight that really saved our lives. Early in the morning, he made a statement that we will be leaving. We’re not going to be sitting and waiting for the Germans to come and occupy us. Eleven members of our family, for one reason or another, couldn’t leave and they were all destroyed, they were all murdered by the hands of the Nazis and their sympathizers. We fled by foot, literally walking from early morning until late at night, sleeping on the cold, wet ground, walking in the heat and in the rain and all that. Hunger was the major problem. And the people, we walked through Ukraine. Again, the region is very narrow so as we’re walking east, the main objective is to walk east, we’re subjected to bombardment and strafing by any German plane, the Luftwaffe, and every time we survived. That’s when I made that promise to my mother. And we kept on going for over six weeks that way. Winter started approaching. Well, when you’re in Ukraine and it’s September, it’s getting cold and rainy. Starvation, we ended up with some horses and a wagon that was falling apart. So my father decides to take the railroad and, against his better judgment, knowing that the railroads are even more bombarded than people, and we continued. I say railroad, you don’t exactly buy a ticket and you go to the railroad station, you just wait at some railroad tracks until some trains slows down, any car, any kind of train whether it’s a platform or whether it’s a boxcar, and we’ve traveled in all of those, and you just jump in as long as it goes east. That’s what you do.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Robert Frimtzis about his new memoir called “From Tajikistan to the Moon: A Story of Tragedy, Survival and Triumph of the Human Spirit.” Now, as you say, you and your family faced incredible hardships as you traveled for months eastward, trying to get away, one foot ahead of the Nazis at times. Where did you end up for the remainder of the war? Where did you settle?
FRIMTZIS: We went as far east, over 3,000 miles, all the way to Tajikistan.