The French children forgotten in the Soviet Union

When she set out on a boat for the USSR with her family some 70 years ago, Yanina Stashko had no idea she would never see her native France again.

The French children forgotten in the Soviet Union
Photos: AFP

Like millions of others, mainly from continental Europe but also Britain and the United States, Stashko's family was tempted “home” to the Soviet Union by a post-war propaganda drive. 

But when they got there they lost their previous nationality, found themselves impoverished at best and victims of political repression at worst.

“Of course I could have done much more in France than I did here. But obviously it is too late to go back,” the 88-year-old told AFP at the farm where she lives in the west of Belarus.

In the 1920s, Stashko's father had moved from what is now western Belarus to France along with his wife.

There he worked in the mines in the north of the country which at the time were crippled by strikes.

“In France we lived well. We had a house that my father was given from the mine,” said Stashko, who was born shortly after her parents' arrival in the country.

– Millions like us –

But after World War II, her father lost his job.

The region from where in Belarus his family originated had become a part of the USSR — at home, they would read Soviet newspapers, which were full of propaganda, and talk about what life would be like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

At the time, the Soviet Union was on a major repatriation drive with immigrants, exiles, “White Russians” who had opposed the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, as well as other refugees from the conflict encouraged to come back.

Soviet statistics from 1952 say as many as 4.3 million people returned from around the world.

“In the end, my father said that he wanted to go 'home'. But nobody asked my opinion,” said Stashko, who was a teenager and working as a seamstress in France.

In 1948, the family set out from the French port of Marseille to Odessa, southern Ukraine, with around 2,800 others, according to only child Stashko.

“We travelled as workers, in third class. The people in first and second class took cars with them, their belongings, some of them were leaving behind their businesses in France.

“There were doctors, engineers, teachers,” the now widowed mother-of-two remembers.

But when they arrived, the passengers in the top two classes were immediately confronted with the realities of Joseph Stalin's regime.

“They were arrested and their belongings were confiscated,” Stashko said.

Her own family saw their French passports confiscated and they were transported in cattle wagons to Belarus.

There, her father began work in a Kolkhoz, or collective farm, but he was sentenced to a year in prison for “subversion” after an argument with the leader of the collective.

“During that time, we tried just to keep our heads down. I used to send letters to France but then I stopped because we were scared.” 

– One last journey home –

Thanks to a sewing machine brought with them from France, which they were miraculously able to keep, the family earned enough to survive on meagre post-war rations.

Up until the 1970s, Stashko would make dresses in the French 1940s style.

In 1973, the French state tracked down her father and gave him a comfortable pension for his work in the mines, which then passed to his wife when he died.

But after the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, the link to France was lost again.

In January this year, the Belarussian press picked up the family's story, and in the summer, Stashko was invited to the French Embassy in Minsk with a dozen other “children of France” and their descendants.

The ambassador promised the former seamstress one last journey to the village where she was born in the north of the country.

But, at almost 90, there is no guarantee Stashko will be able to make the trip.

“I would love to go back to the country and find our house again. And maybe see Paris — I've never seen Paris,” she told AFP. 

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.