As minorities in Nebraska, Russian Americans Jennifer Garza and Valentina Petrusev shared their family experience of coming to the United States and connecting their culture and life with Nebraskans.
Garza, associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a third-generation American in her family.
She talked about her family history with fellow Nebraskans to bring more Russian cultures to the Nebraska American Historical Society of Germans From Russia. She wants to improve Nebraska’s diversity and inclusion.
“My grandfather’s family had been Volga Germans,” Garza said. “They were descendants from those Germans who had been invited to Russia by Catherine the Great.”
She said her grandfather, Eduard Wynotski, who was a lawyer, was drafted into the Soviet army during World War II, like most young men.
“My grandfather was married and had an infant son,” she said. “However, he fought at the front and was taken as a POW in 1942.”
Garza said her grandfather spent the rest of the war as a POW and then was sent to Germany as a foreign worker.
She said her grandfather heard about the Nazi invasion of Belarus and how Mink had been destroyed during the fighting.
“My grandfather asked about his wife and son, but no one he talked to had any news of them,” she said. “So, he assumed that they perished during the fighting.”
She said in 1943 her grandfather met the woman, Evgenia Meshkoff, who would become her grandmother.
“As it happened, she was from Mogilev also and had been taken prisoner and sent to Leipzig to be an Ostarbeiter as well,” Garza said. “They fell in love, and my father was born in 1943.”
Garza’s grandmother was working as a nanny for a German family, and they took in her father.
“Most infants born to Ostarbeiter were killed,” she said. “But my father was blonde and blue-eyed and deemed worthy of ‘Germanization,’ so that was why he was spared.”
In 1945, Leipzig was liberated by the Americans, and Graza’s grandparents and father were moved to a displaced person camp in the American zone, near Baumberg.
She said neither of her grandparents wanted to return back home, as they both knew that they would be jailed or killed for “allowing” themselves to be taken prisoner, especially her grandfather.
“As it turned out, most of my grandmother’s family had survived the war and had emigrated to Canada,” Graza said. “My grandfather’s family had defected before the war and was living in the United States.”
She said her grandfather’s brother arranged for the family to come over, and by 1948, her dad and his parents were living in their new home in New Hampshire.
“My grandfather had looked long and hard for his original wife and child, and hearing nothing, assumed they were dead,” she said. “So, he married my grandmother in the camps and went on with his wife. They had two more children in the United States and lived long and prosperous lives.”
Her grandfather died in 1992. The Soviet Union had fallen in 1991. In the meantime, the Soviet archives became available, and people began researching their history.
“My father was a Russian and East European historian at Florida State and had given some local interviews about the fall of the Soviet Union and its historical significance,” she said.
She said later that year, her father got an email from Volodya claiming to be his half-brother, and he enclosed a picture of him and his mother.
“My grandmother is still alive and confirmed this is most likely my grandfather’s first wife and son,” she said.
Graza said after Volodya came across her father’s name and picture on the internet, he was struck by the resemblance and the name.
“He and his mother had survived the war and ended up in Moscow,” she said. “So, I decided to fly over with my dad the following year, and they finally met.”
She said, unfortunately, her grandfather went to his grave, never knowing what happened to his first family and accidentally being a bigamist.
“If people are interested in more stories about Nebraska Russians, I would recommend them to Nebraska AHSGR to learn more,” she said. “It has a collection of Russian stories and cultural heritage in Nebraska because many Russians brought their memories and stories to here, just like me.”
Petrusev, owner of the Samovar European Deli, a store that emphasizes Russian and Eastern European delicacies, has owned and operated the store for seven years in Lincoln.
“Like most immigrants at that time, my family also immigrated to the United States because of history and war,” Petrusev said.
She said she was separated from her parents in the Transnistria War in 1992 for four months until the war ended because her father got a visa before the war really broke out, and all kids in the area were sent six hours away by train to be taken care of by strangers.
During the Transnistria War, Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol was destroyed and never really recovered.
“Because of this war, a big chunk of the population emigrated to look for work,” Petrusev said.
She said her family from Moldova moved to the United States as refugees in 1996, and it was sponsored by a family in Sacramento, California, for 11 months.
“We finally decided to move to Nebraska from California because of the lack of jobs in California at that time,” Petrusev said.
She said her father, Valery, found a job as a worker and truck driver for Kawasaki in Lincoln. He is now retired. And her mother, Lyudmila, co-runs the store Samovar European Deli as a silent partner.
“Most of my father’s side of the family mostly lives in California, Missouri and Washington now,” Petrusev said. “My siblings and I spend a lot of time together with our parents. For example, we always go to our parents’ home every Sunday to cook.”
She said she was married Russian husband named Oleg, who is from Yekaterinburg and has a brother and sister.
“My husband came to Nebraska for work the summer when several tornadoes ravaged the land,” she said. “Now, he serves in the Army National Guard and is a firefighter in Omaha because he enjoys helping people.”
Petrusev said to open Samovar European Deli, she saved up 10 years by running a trucking company and serving as a broker and dispatcher.
“We bake local European deli with a large variety of European delicacies in Nebraska, and we hope people living in Nebraska will like our products,” she said.