Juliana’s story begins with the incredible meeting of two Russian prisoners of war in Franconia, Bavaria in the turmoil of 1943. This is a story that many of you know and many of you have heard me tell. But because we have just been to Neustadt, seen the brewery, found the schloss, met the Baron and trod where Juliana’s small feet trod as a child, I will tell you the story again, in the words of my mother Juliana, as she told it to me.
Valentina Busarova, my Grandmother, was a beautiful 18 year-old student from Novorossisk in Russia, near the Black Sea. She was not only beautiful but clever too. She had won a scholarship to study at the University of Krasnodar. But Operation Barbarossa was already underway. She left her home town in 1942 to travel to her university and a few days later her mother and brother were killed in an air-raid in Novorosissk. She rushed back but her mother had already died, hit by shrapnel at the entrance to the air-raid shelter and her brother Sergei died a few days later. Novorossisk fell and Nanna was captured by German troops and taken, along with many other able-bodied Russian women, to work in the German factories and farms.
She fared better than most. She had studied German at school and was able to speak to one of the German soldiers, a man by the name of Hans Burkart. She reminded him of his younger sister, Maria. He wanted to help her and told her that his family owned a brewery in Bavaria, in Neustadt an der Aisch – the largest such brauhaus in Mittel Franken, no longer brewing since 1998. He said that she could go and work for them and pretended that she was Volksdeutsche (German diaspora) to arrange for her to be transferred there.
Nanna lived with the Burkart family and worked for them as a domestic. They treated her well and she ate with them at the same table. She became friends with Maria, whom she corresponded with until Maria’s death a few years ago. Hans sadly did not survive the war, he survived the fighting but died on the retreat back from the Russian front.
Meanwhile my Grandpa, Fyodor Rusakov, was an officer in the Red Army. He too had been captured and with other Russian prisoners of war had been sent to work as a farm labourer on the outskirts of Neustadt. Here he met Nanna in 1943.
It being a Russian officer’s duty to escape capture or fight to the death, my Grandpa and a comrade escaped. Both, however, were recaptured and sent to the infamous Flossenburg, a concentration camp on the Czech border. By this stage, unbeknownst to my Grandpa, Nanna was already pregnant with my mum, Juliana.
Nanna was then sent in 1944, when Juliana was only a few months old, to work for a Baroness in a schloss called Sommersdorf, more than 50 km south of Neustadt.
Nanna worked for the Baroness Von Crailsheim in Sommersdorf Schloss through the bitter winter of 1944 until the end of the war. Circumstances at the Schloss dictated that she hide Juliana in a small bathroom while she cleaned and served each day. Juliana was a tiny, malnourished baby. Nanna had little food to eat and because of this was unable to breastfeed. Juliana was on the verge of starvation until the local nuns suggested that my Nanna feed her crushed apples.
When the war ended Juliana was just 16 months old. With no family and no home, Nanna picked her up and walked all the way back to Neustadt. (This was a journey that we have now retraced some 66 years later, albeit on our bicycles).
Back in Neustadt, some months later, she found my Grandfather – or he found her, with Juliana in her arms. He had been liberated from Flossenburg by the American army. By an extraordinary coincidence, the US army division that liberated my Grandpa comprised one of my Dad’s great uncles – Sonny Corrigan – from the Irish side that had long ago emigrated to the US.
After the war Nanna and Grandpa lived with Juliana and then Nina too in Neustadt until 1949. In an effort to make ends meet, Grandpa drove trucks for the American army and Nanna found work in a lemonade factory. They planned to return to Russia but were warned against doing so by those who had heard that POWs, considered traitors by Stalin, were either shot at the border or taken to the Siberian gulags.
So instead they remained with Juliana attending the local kindergarten and witnessing the birth of her little sister Nina. The family continued to scrape together what funds they could, as Europe began to reshape. Eventually the family had enough to emigrate to Australia. Mum recalled Grandpa cycling from Neustadt to Wurzburg to organise their papers (bicycles are a recurrent theme!).
At age 5 Mum boarded the Wooster Victory, an old British troop carrier, in Naples along with her sister and parents – I think Nanna was by now pregnant with Aunty Vickie. Mum remembered Nanna pointing out the walls of Rome to her from the train, eating watermelons and the red fezzes of the Suez canal.
It has been an extraordinary pilgrimage to undertake as part of our bicycle adventure. Thank you, wonderful Abby, for coming all the way down from Berlin to Neustadt and Sommersdorf to visit us and for helping us find Maria Burkart’s cousin, the Baron and the schloss. We would not have managed without you. Maybe Sam would have sniffed out the old Brauhaus, but that would have been it.
Many of you know that my mum died in December. I know she would have loved to have heard our tales, maybe even to have accompanied us at some point (although certainly not on a bicycle!) and I so wish we could tell her about our adventures now.