New Jersey, 1944: Frieda rushed to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from her son, John. Since joining the Merchant Marines, he had sent accounts of the places he had visited, tropical islands in the Pacific that seemed very exotic to her. She worried about him being so far away but it was much better than him being drafted and sent to fight in the war, possibly against the family and friends they had left behind when they immigrated to the U.S. Frieda had spent many sleepless nights worrying that John would be drafted and sent to fight against Germany, their homeland. She was relieved when John had decided to join the Merchant Marines and happy to hear that he was going to Southeast Asia. While it was still dangerous, he wouldn’t be fighting against loved ones.
There was a letter from him. She opened the envelope with eager fingers and began to read:
I am here on the beautiful island of Singapore. The weather is hot, as hot as any humid day in August back home. The people here are friendly and the flowers are beautiful. I have befriended a young, Chinese boy and it turns out we have a surprising connection. His family was neighbors to the Ostroumoffs, the family you worked for so many years ago in Russia. Mr. and Mrs. Ostroumoff are still alive, unfortunately, their daughter Tatjana died in childbirth a few years ago. Sergey and Nikolia are both still in China.
Tears blurred Frieda’s vision. The letter dropped unbidden from her hand as her mind flooded with images of the Ostromoffs and her time with them. She felt herself drifting back in time, to a place far away from the small house in West Belmar.
St. Petersberg, 1912: “I will miss you, Gertrude,” Frieda said tearfully to her younger sister. Gertrude looked back and smiled through watery tears. “I will too. But Gatchina is not far from St. Petersberg. At least you are much closer than you were when you worked in Vilna. And the Ostroumoffs seem like wonderful people. I’m sure you will love looking after their children.”
Frieda hugged her younger sister and stepped on the train. She waved goodbye as the train chugged away until her sister disappeared from view. Sitting back in her seat, she reflected on her time in Russia thus far. She had left Germany with her sister Gertrude in early April in order to accept positions as Governesses in Russia. Gertrude had accepted a position in St. Petersberg but Frieda had gone to the countryside and had a wonderful time teaching German to two teenage Polish girls who were seventeen and twelve years old. They had spent the summer horseback riding, swimming and exploring the forest that surrounded their estate. It had been a wonderful summer but Frieda had been happy to leave so that she could see her sister. She was grateful that she had found a new position closer to Gertrude as she had missed her dearly over the summer.
Stepping off the train in Gatchina, Frieda shivered. Autumn had made its arrival in Russia. The cool breeze was a direct contrast to the warm reception she received from Boris and Xenia Ostroumoff who had come to the station to meet her. “Welcome to Gatchina! We hope you will enjoy your stay with us,” said Boris with a smile. “It is nice to meet you, Frieda,” said Xenia warmly. The Chauffeur smiled at Frieda as they piled into the back seat of the Ostroumoff’s car. The ride was short and soon they were in front of the Ostroumoff’s lovely estate. Before Frieda could exit the car, she was greeted by the arrival of three excited children.
“Meet our three children. We hope they won’t give you much trouble,” Boris said. His smile belied any concern. Sergey, a tall boy of twelve, shook her hand. Tatjana, a beautiful nine-year-old who looked a great deal like her mother, smiled shyly. Nikolia, an impish five-year-old, wasted no time with introductions and gave Frieda a bear hug. His wide smile broadened as he danced around his parents. Frieda heard a commotion and looked up to see two small dogs running out of the house. The fox terrier ran right up to her and jumped up on her dress. Frieda could see Nikolia looking at her anxiously, waiting to see what she would do. She responded by bending down and petting the small dog. The clouds on Nikolia’s face disappeared and the sunbeams returned as he smiled more broadly than ever, while petting Rock, their poodle.
Inside, the house was beautiful. Light streamed through thick glass windows. A large atrium on one side of the house was filled with palms and tropical flowers. The rest of the staff were friendly and seemed happy to meet her. She could tell they enjoyed working for the Ostroumoffs. Watching them, all of Frieda’s worries faded away.
The days passed in a dreamlike fashion. Sergey went to school in the morning so Frieda only had the two younger ones for the beginning of the day. They all slept late, waking up at nine and having breakfast mid-morning. They played outside after breakfast, roaming the estate or going to a nearby park. As the weather grew colder and snow began to fall, they would go skating or skiing. The street in front of the house was soon covered with thick ice and Frieda would skate up and down the street with the children. Once Sergey arrived home from school, he would join them and they would play outside in the snow until their noses and cheeks were bright red and frozen from the cold.
After a mid-afternoon dinner, it was time for the children’s German lesson. Frieda taught German to Tatjana and Nikolia together and then had a separate lesson for Sergey. After Sergey’s lesson, their roles were reversed as he would spend the next hour teaching Frieda Russian. Frieda’s evenings were free until she joined Boris and Xenia, along with Sergey for dinner at nine o’clock. The younger children were already in bed, usually with a bedtime story read by Frieda. The dinner conversations were lively as they filled each other on the events of the day. Boris Ostroumoff was in the Secret Service and usually had lots of tidbits about political affairs and events happening in the world. There was some concern about the ongoing war in the Balkans. The alliance between Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia was fragile. They were largely victorious in their battles against the Ottoman Empire but there was some concern that Germany would enter the war. Germany was officially a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire and there was some concern in Russia, which was backing Serbia, that it would enter the war and tip the balance of the war in favor of the Empire.
After dinner, Sergey went to bed and the three adults spent the evening together, talking, playing the piano or reading until the wee hours of the morning. They would bundle up and go skating on the street. Oftentimes, Boris and Xenia would give parties and Frieda was always expected to join in. It was clear that the Ostroumoffs saw her as a member of the family and Frieda felt like Xenia was the older sister she had never had. She began to think of them as her older siblings. Frieda loved being part of the parties, mixing with the government officials and members of Russia’s upper class. Despite their wealth, there was no snobbery and they eagerly welcomed her into their circle.
One night, Boris knocked on her door shortly after she had gone to bed. “Wake the children up,” he said. “We are going on a sleigh ride.” Frieda quickly got dressed and woke the children up. Once they were all bundled up, they went out into the crisp, cold air. Xenia and Boris were waiting for them in the sleigh, surrounded by piles of furs. They piled in and the chauffeur (now turned sleigh driver), flicked the reins. The world seemed magical as the moon lit their path, turning the snow into a shimmering winter wonderland. The stars littered the sky, turning the blackness into a sea of glittering diamonds. The bells on the horses tinkled softly as they trotted through the snow. The laughter and singing grew hushed as they were all taken in by the beauty before them.
Despite the laughter and joy that filled Frieda’s days, she became increasingly aware of growing unrest in the country. While the upper class spent their days in comfort and ease, the lower class largely lived in desperate poverty. Anger turned against the Tsar and the Tsarina and the government that fueled their affluent lifestyle. There was also suspicion against the Tsarina for her German heritage. As the peace treaty in the Balkans grew increasingly tenuous, whispers and rumors surrounded the Tsarina, with many people claiming that she was a German spy. Her association with the mystic Rasputin, a charlatan known for his manipulations and scandalous behavior, only fueled the rumors. Frieda grew worried whenever she visited her sister in St. Petersberg. Gatchina was largely sheltered from the protests and riots that were taking place in St. Petersberg among the peasants. Gertrude hadn’t wanted to worry her sister but reluctantly shared that she had experienced some unkind words and looks while out in public with the children. Frieda was concerned for her sister, aware that anti-German sentiment was growing. She talked over her fears with Xenia whenever she returned home from a visit with her sister. Though Xenia tried to reassure her, Frieda couldn’t shake the feeling that they were on the brink of conflict and nothing would ever be as it was before.
March 1913, Gatchina: Boris sat down at the dinner table with no trace of his usual smile. His demeanor was sober and his shoulders sagged under the weight of an invisible burden. “The alliance has been broken. Serbia and Greece have violated their agreement with Bulgaria. Though the Ottoman Empire seems to be losing this war, it is possible that war may break out among the former allies. If that is possible, the Ottoman Empire may gain the upper hand.”
Exclamations erupted around the table. Talk turned of war, with everyone asking Boris questions. He told them everything he could. He tried to reassure them but his eyes kept glancing over to Frieda with concern. She could tell that he wasn’t sharing everything. Before Sergey went to sleep, he urged him not to tell his younger siblings anything they had discussed.
After dinner, Boris asked Frieda to join him in his study. He looked at her with concern. “I didn’t want to speak about this in front of Sergey but with the alliance broken, it is likely that the Ottoman Empire will make a big push to reclaim lost territory and ramp up the fighting. In that case, Germany is likely to join the war. Russia has been a strong supporter of Serbia and if Germany enters the war, it will put the two nations in conflict. This may make things very difficult for you and your sister. You are like family to us. The children love you and Xenia loves you. You are like a sister to both of us and the children see you as a second mother. If you stay, I will offer you my full protection. But Gertrude is not likely to have that same level of protection in St. Petersberg. She will have to come to stay with us. You don’t have to make a decision until after you have talked to your sister. We would love for you to stay but I understand if you want to go home.”
Frieda looked at him and nodded. She felt the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. She loved the Ostromouffs but her concern was for her sister. She was quite certain Gertrude would not want to leave the family she was working for if she stayed in Russia. And if anything happened to her sister, Frieda would never forgive herself.
Frieda left for St. Petersberg the next day, sending a cable to Gertrude ahead of time. Gertrude met her at the station with a look of concern. She had told her employers that she had a family emergency and they willingly gave her the day off. Frieda and Gertrude went to the quiet side of a local park they had often visited together and Frieda quickly shared the news. “Boris Ostroumoff has extended his protection to both of us but you will have to come live with us. You won’t be working but the Ostroumoffs will provide for your needs,” Frieda told her sister. “I think it would be better to go home. I can’t stay here and not work. And what if the war lasts for several years? We would be trapped in Russia away from our family. If anything were to happen to Mama and Papa and Ernest while we were here, I would be devastated.” Gertrude looked at Frieda seriously and Frieda realized they needed to return to Germany. The sisters spent the rest of the day making plans to leave.
When Xenia picked Frieda up at the train station that night, she asked what Frieda had decided. Frieda realized that Boris had told Xenia the conversation they had in the study. Frieda gently informed Xenia that she would be leaving in two weeks. Xenia’s eyes filled with tears but simply said she understood. She hugged Frieda tightly. “We will miss you, greatly. You are like a sister to Boris and me and a second mother to the children. But I understand that you want to return home. God willing, this will all pass quickly and then you can return.”
The next two weeks seemed to simultaneously pass at the speed of light while dragging on for an eternity. Frieda dreaded leaving the Ostroumoffs but longed to see her parents and her brother again. She spent extra time with the children, letting them know how much she loved and cared for them. The children had burst into tears when she told them she was leaving, begging her to stay. Only Sergey understood and didn’t press her to remain with them. When it was time for her to leave, the entire family went to the train station with her. Frieda hugged each of the children and Xenia tightly. She shook hands with Boris. The children and Xenia were crying and even Boris’ eyes were red. Frieda found her seat on the train and leaned out of the window waving. She continued to wave as the train pulled out of the station and the family disappeared from view.
Frieda spent the night with Gertrude at her employer’s house. The two sisters fell asleep quickly, both exhausted from the day. They woke up early and after Gertrude had said goodbye to the family she had worked for, they headed to the station. The train pulled out of the station with a mournful whistle and Frieda felt certain they would never return.
June 1913, Germany: Frieda’s face was full of worry as Gertrude continued blithely packing her trunk. Anxious thoughts snowballed in her mind until finally, they rolled out of her mouth, smacking against Gertrude’s ear. “I don’t think you should be returning to Russia, Gertrude. It isn’t safe. The war in the Balkans may be over but it seems like there is a new conflict about to begin. If Russia gets dragged into a new war, you would be in danger,” Frieda anxiously spouted.
Gertrude turned to her sister and smiled gently. “Frieda, you worry too much. This new conflict has nothing to do with Germany….or Russia for that matter. It’s just a small disagreement and will likely be over soon. I will be fine. You should come with me. The Ostroumoffs have been begging you to return.”
“Yet, I have decided not to return,” replied Frieda. “Because you have opted to take a design course in Berlin,” returned Gertrude. “I have no such option. I didn’t get accepted into the course I chose. I looked for Governess positions here but I haven’t been hired. I miss working for the Bordovs and I miss the children dearly. And I miss living in St. Petersberg.”
Frieda saw that she was not going to change Gertrude’s mind and fell silent. She did not want to spoil their last night together with an argument. That night, Frieda had a nightmare. She dreamed that Gertrude was trapped in a city with bombs falling around her. Fire blazed up on every side. Frieda was standing outside the city on a peaceful hill, surrounded by green grass and blue sky. She tried to go to Gertrude but when she attempted to enter the city, an invisible force held her back. She watched helplessly as Gertrude cried for help and screamed in pain. Her heart was breaking for her sister but she could do nothing to save her.
Frieda woke up in a cold sweat. The sky was just beginning to lighten. She went downstairs and sat drinking a cup of tea. Frieda felt like the dream was an omen but just as in the dream, she felt helpless to prevent it. She waited until she heard the rest of the family come down for breakfast before going up to her room and dressing. Frieda was silent on the ride to the train station while Gertrude chatted and laughed. At the station, she hugged Gertrude tightly but didn’t attempt to dissuade her from leaving. Gertrude whispered, “I will be fine,” before traipsing up the steps on to the train. Frieda watched as Gertrude found her seat and leaned out the window, waving to her family. Frieda would dream of that moment often in the months to come, seeing her sister’s smiling face as the train pulled slowly away from the station, watching as Gertrude slowly disappeared from view.
*This story is based on my great-grandmother and her sister, German governesses who went to work in Russia on the eve of World War 1. While fiction, many of the events in the story actually happened, including my great-uncle meeting a Chinese boy in Singapore who knew of my great-grandmother’s former employers.