Growing up in Seattle in the thirties the fear of polio always put a crimp in summer. Often pools and lakes would be closed. My younger cousin, Blanche, got it, as did some classmates. This week Bill Gates declared polio his top priority, donated more of his millions to the cause, and vowed to challenge world leaders to finish the job before the disease roars back. Its scary that it has now reappeared in Nigeria, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan for we once thought it was eliminated forever.
In both environs Helen is surrounded by Russian memorabilia, like the samovar above. In recent years she finds herself drawn back to the Russian Orthodox church, though she is not quite sure why.
I first met Helen in ’55 when we both worked as Girl Scout professional workers. I don’t remember if I thought it strange that a crippled woman would be a resident camp director, but there was no doubt it was her calling and her passion.
Like so many other Russians, her parents, unknown to one another, fled Russia for the safety of China prior to the revolution in 1917. Both families were probably on the side of the Tsar. Helen’s mother’s roots were in the Volga region (White Russia). Like so many of us, parts of the real story were withheld from the children because of family secrets. This much is known: there was a great grandmother who was of some wealth, distinguished because she owned and operated many fields of wheat, an incredible feat for a single woman. She was known in the village as the STRONG woman. Helen attributes much of her power of character to this distant unmet relative. At some point this woman grabbed up her grandchildren, then about three and four, for their parents had both died. There had been some scandal. Perhaps they were even kidnapped.
Part of the story revolves around the Trans-Siberian Railroad for Helen’s Mother and younger sister soon came to be adopted by an uncle, Alexander, who was a contractor on the last leg of the railroad construction, which ended in Harbin, China. Life was good in Harbin, which is to say they had means and servants. . Eventually Alexander took in three other children. All went well until the wicked step mother came into the picture. Around age 12 Ludmilla and younger sister Tonia and the other children were sent to a Catholic convent in Shanghai, where they were given the best of classical education, including speaking four languages. Helen’s mother, a promising pianist, was sent in 1924 to America to study at Julliard (which she secretly never planned to do but did not reveal). Ludmilla had already met Helen’s father and had eyes for love, not music. She soon won the heart of Helen’s father, whom she had met in Harbin.
Helen’s father grew up in Siberia (Nikolisk). The Kravetsky family also fled Russia for the safety of China, living in various cities there and finding comfort in small Russian communities wherever they went, including Harbin. As a young man he yearned to study Business but because of his language deficiency ended up graduating from UC as a civil engineer.
While attending school, he was employed as a night watchman in a book bindery in Oakland. As it turns out, this link to the night watchman job became an important factor in Helen’s survival. Starry eyed, her parents were married in ’25 at the Russian Orthodox church in San Francisco.
When she was born Jan. 15, 1926, in what was then called Alta Bates Sanitarium, Alta Bates herself ,the famous founder of what is today Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital, admimistered drops of brandy to the wee premature babe. It was not an uncommon therapeutic measure in those days, but Helen’s mother, a Russian immigrant, though of a wealthy and well educated class, worried all her life that Helen would become an alcoholic. Thankfully that never came to be. Had she been able to see into the future however she would have worried instead that her beautiful only child would become lame. Polio struck Helen between age two and three.
The owner of the book bindery, on learning of Helen’s illness, took from his pocket a calling card. He explained that he was a member of the Shriners, and from here on out the struggling young immigrant family would have no medical concerns: the Shrine Hospital would care for her Helen.
Both legs and one arm became paralyzed. Eventually the movement came back to all the affected limbs except the left leg. Helen still remembers her father cradling her in his arms as they rode the ferry to San Francisco to see the Russian doctor, because of course no American doctor could be trusted.
This story is a little long but compelling, so I’m choosing to continue it in the next installment.