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January 23, 2009

Dancing Under the Red Star

The Extraordinary Story of the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's Gulag
Karl Tobien - ISBN - 9781400070787

This book is riveting as it simultaneously damns, appalls, inspires and enlightens one of the darker periods in U.S. and world history, exposing a chapter which is hardly known to us common folk. But, then, neither Ford nor the U.S. government really wants to discuss it. Tobien's book demonstrates why.

Margaret Werner (Tobein) went with her parents to Russia 1932. Her father Carl, a master mechanic and employee of the Ford Motor Company, was encouraged by Ford to move there, along with 450 others, to implement production in a factory sold to Stalin to produce automobiles. Carl, a true (if only transient) believer in communism, left America in the midst of the Depression to move his reluctant family to the USSR, believing he was entering the new, new world.

That it was a mistake was immediately apparent, but he could not admit it. The families were promptly disenfranchised and assigned to live in their own bleak American compound (read ghetto.) Carl labored under the dismal conditions with a reluctant Russian workforce, criticism of which was unacceptable. Stalin's five year plan proceeded despite dismal quality control and incompetent workmanship, about which Carl complained bitterly. This resulted in his arrest and incarceration as an "enemy of the state." He died in prison within a few years, unbeknownst to his wife and daughter. For those several years, and many following, his family was kept within their compound with little upon which to depend, and no knowledge of the disposition of Carl, though they had their suspicions. Their search for information was constant and unrewarding.

Margaret was a good athlete, bright student, and committed American who was nevertheless "invited" into the Communist Youth Organization, a requirement of which was to renounce her father for his "treason." This she vehemently refused to do. This was not the acceptable, and she was thereafter barred and ostracized. Her name, no doubt, was recorded in a little black book. Had she known that her father was dead her course of action might have been very different.

After WW II her "crime" was resurrected. She was framed, convicted and sent to a labor camp for ten years. Her mother was left alone in this strange and bitter land. By then most of the American labor force had simply disappeared. Mom survived doing menial labor, keeping in contact with her daughter as best she could. There were often years between visits, and she sometimes traveled hundreds of miles by primitive rail just to glimpse Margaret. They once met in a foul latrine in order not to be seen on what was a clandestine visit. Mom had to stay there for hours before and afterward, to avoid capture.

For part of her incarceration Margaret was invited to become a part of a camp dance troupe, which was led by a Russian ballerina, also a prisoner. The dancers entertained their captors, their families and sometimes the prisoners (and offered the title of the book.)

Upon her release she married a recently released German prisoner who fathered their son, Karl. In 1958, thru stealth and trickery, at enormous risk, she was able to escape to West Germany along with her husband, their son and her mother. There her husband abandoned them, and they were again trapped, this time in the West.

The horror of her experience notwithstanding, the American Embassy would not assist her in returning to the U.S. because she was now, against her wishes and express intent, a "citizen of the USSR." Thus she was "ineligible" to return to her homeland; likewise her mother and her son, born to a German in Russia. (Jeez, it makes one proud of our country's bureaucrats!)

Finally she made it, after waiting in West Germany for three long years--thirty years after the beginning of this ordeal. She made a new life in her native land, and survived there as she had in the Gulag, by personal integrity, grit, determination, and an unfailing faith in God.

Even more abysmal than the actions of our State Department was that of the Ford Motor Company. Ford denied the entire series of events. Neither it, nor Washington, ever made an attempt to assist these people, or even to admit complicity. Few made it back to the U.S., though it is doubtful that it was for lack of trying. One man who did make it attempted to obtain compensation from Ford and was denied. Ford would not--and was not compelled to--acknowledge its role in these events. It is difficult to imagine a time when such events could be swept away, discarded and kept from the public.

Margaret and her mother were amongst the very few Americans who ever made it back. Margaret was the only American woman imprisoned in the Gulag who lived to tell about it. And she didn't really do that; her son wrote the book some years after her death as a testament to his mother and grandmother, not incidentally indicting the American Government and the Ford Motor Company.

The book is well written. The story is compelling. The treachery, deceit and abandonment of those unfortunate people was a universe removed from being merely despicable. It is a triumphant and moving story--damning as well--and it needed to be told.

I have not read anything as gripping in a very long time. Read it and weep! I did.

Posted by respeto at January 23, 2009 11:20 AM