xmas-russia

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December 1, 1944, was a dismal day for Captain Harold Jarrell’s B-29 crew in Tashkent, Russia. Thanksgiving Day, just passed, had been no different from any other monotonous day since our internment and the chances of getting out of Russia soon were mighty slim.

This is the story of how we homesick Americans brought Christmas to the middle of Russian Turkestan. It was a Christmas with as much meaning and faith as any I have ever known. It moved us and helped us---and I have a feeling it sank into the hearts and minds of some of the supposedly non-religious Soviets who witnessed it.

We had been hit by ack-ack over the Jap-held coke and steel ovens in Mukden, Manchuria, on July 29, and crash landed in Siberia.

When we arrived in Vladivostok, we figured the Russians would soon send us home or back to our outfit. As the days dragged on we became impatient and restless to be on our way. Then on August 31, we were put aboard a C-47. As we took to the air, navigator Frank Ogden roughly checked our course and figured we were flying to the north and later westward around Manchuria.

That was the start of a four-day, 4,000-mile journey across Siberia that ended at the more or less modern airport at Tashkent, the capital city of the Uzbek S.S.R. We were taken to an old Russian villa on the hilly edge of the city, where we met about 40 Navy fliers who had come across Siberia from the Aleutian campaign.

Tashkent, we eventually learned, was a large town of almost 600,000 people, dating perhaps to the fourth century before Christ. Our villa, a large, 20-room, “U-shaped” building of yellow brick, was ancient and decrepit. It had seen better days. The villa and two or three other buildings, which housed a laundry and living quarters for some 15 women workers, were surrounded by a mud and stone wall about 12 feet high. Our prison---for that’s what it was---totaled an area of almost a city block and a half.

The first few days in Tashkent weren’t bad. We spent our time making friends and talking over our adventures. But the novelty of the enclosure soon wore off. There just wasn’t enough for us to do. We didn’t have to do a bit of work. Besides the 15 women, who cleaned, cooked and waited tables for us, there was a Russian major, a mess officer, about 10 enlisted men, and an old handy man who kept the camp supplied with firewood. There was also Nonna Solovnogovich, our Russian interpretress. Nonna or “Mama” as we called her was an interesting woman in her early 40’s. Judging from the clothes she wore, at one time she had been wealthy. She lived in her own room in the villa and, in addition to her duties as interpreter for us, she took it upon herself to teach several of us the rudiments of the Russian language.

The weeks of September dragged into October and then November. The old question, “When are we going home?” kept nagging at us, but there was little we could do about it. Of course the Russians were not at war with Japan at this time and strictly speaking, should have held us for the duration of the war. We could hardly wait for it to come about. Frequently a new crew of fliers was added to our group. This always created a stir for a day or two as we listened to their stories of burning planes, running out of gas, crash-landing or bailing out, and the long trip across Siberia. By December 1, there were 170 of us, half Army and half Navy Air Force.

One day we were sitting around our large recreation room when someone got the idea for a Christmas party. Everybody immediately approved. Major McGlinn, our ranking officer, a B-29 pilot from Bellingham, Washington, went to ask the camp commandant for permission that very afternoon. The commandant wasn’t very enthusiastic, however. He remembered October 17, when the Russians had put on a big demonstration for Red Army Day. They had made the mistake of giving us too much vodka to help celebrate. Before the celebration had ended we had ripped almost every door off its hinges, and had broken nearly every window in our section of the villa. The Commandant didn’t want that to happen again, and said so in no uncertain terms.

Then, too, he knew that Christmas was a religious feast and he didn’t know how the NKVD, the Russian Secret Police, would react. Nevertheless, he promised to ask the officials at Tashkent about it. We were afraid that was the end of our party. However, he announced the next day that not only had permission been granted, but that special food rations would be passed out for the celebration.

Immediately we went to work on our plans. This, we realized, was to be a Christmas party different from any we had ever celebrated, or probably would ever celebrate again. Also, for some of the men, it was their first Christmas away from home. We planned to hold the party on Christmas Eve. We wanted to include all the religious elements possible to show Russians that Christmas in America has a very special meaning.

Sam Gelber, a Navy gunner from the Bronx, knew all the popular Christmas carols. So he organized and directed a 70-man choir that often practiced far into the night.

One night Leonard Karkosznyski, a Polish gunner from Dixon, Pennsylvania, appeared with a large white cloth under his arms. “I’m going to paint the prettiest Christmas scene you ever saw,” he promised. And that is what he did.

That white cloth became the center of our decorations. With a piece of charcoal Leonard sketched the figure of an American soldier kneeling at prayer with the Christmas star shining gloriously overhead. The rest of us got some colored paper and snipped out the usual yuletide candles, wreaths and holly.

George Hummell, a gunner on our crew who had been a baker in civilian life, obtained a special ration of flour and beet sugar. He worked a whole day, mixing up a delicious batch of cookies and cake. The Russians hadn’t restricted our plans in any way. They did look in occasionally to see that we weren’t destroying anything, but we figured their vigilance was more curiosity than anything else. Several days before the party, out of courtesy, we sent an invitation to the NKVD officers and they surprised us by readily accepting.

Christmas Eve arrived cold and clear. Sam’s choir softly caroled “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and other religious numbers by the flickering light of two dozen candles in a large candelabrum. With Leonard’s drawing dimly showing in the darkness, Major McGlinn stepped forward to read the Bible account of the First Christmas. When he finished no one said a word. I think all of us for a short time forgot where we really were. In our minds we were back at home with our families, gathered around a tree, shouting Merry Christmas and exchanging gifts.

I think we saw carolers riding through the snow, softly singing the message of that First Christmas---“Peace on earth to men of good will.”

Even the Russians sat in respectful silence until the explanations they whispered to one another brought us back to the present. The lights flashed on and the choir broke into “Jingle Bells.” We were shouting and singing when one of the fellows stood up with a paper in his hand. Seeing that he was about to make some kind of a speech, we all became quiet again.

He began to recite a little poem, poking fun at our Russian Commandant who sat sternly throughout the performance. When he ended with a particular gibe at the ignorance of Russian commandants our entire group roared with laughter. So did “Mama.” “Stand up and take a bow,” she told the commandant in Russian. The poem was for you.” Seriously, he smiled, and bowed from the waist. We howled with delight until dinner was served.

The menu was a pleasant change from our usual diet of rice and goat meat. We eagerly devoured roast chicken, potatoes, pickled cucumbers, green onions, bread, tea, and George Hummel’s white cake. When we had finished eating, the commandant stood up and motioned toward the door. In marched several soldiers carrying a half pint of vodka for every one of us.

Then came some more entertainment. Four of the gang sang some barbershop numbers. There was the usual poetry and amateur show jokes. Two of the boys put on a good exhibition of “jitterbug dancing” which amazed the Russians. They warmly applauded for several repeat performances.

We then broke up into small groups and more or less entertained ourselves. The Russians produced an old gramophone and played some tangos and polkas. We took turns dancing with the women workers who were present.

It was about this time that the younger Russians became a bit inquisitive. “What is this feast of Christmas of yours?” several of them asked. “Is it the birthday of one of your leaders?”

We tried to explain that it was the birthday of Jesus Christ. The commandant was eyeing us suspiciously. But we felt good, and wanted to talk. We weren’t making much headway, however, because of the language difficulty, when one of the NKVD colonels came to our rescue. To our great surprise, he fully explained our feast of Christmas, its origin, the exchange of gifts and other customs. Several of the older officers remembered such celebr

ations in their youth many years ago.

The young Russians continued to ask questions for quite some time until the commandant finally barked a short command in Russian. The soldiers came to attention and marched from the room.

The NKVD colonel who had explained Christmas for us had used the phrase, “Zabavnia Rojestvo Kristovo.” Just before the party broke up I slipped over to “Mama” and asked her what that meant. Very softly “Mama” replied, “Merry Birthday of Christ.”

And that’s what it was.

-by Jerome C. Zuercher, as told to Joseph F. Beckman, Jr
Compliments of Paul Myers