Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Sarah Bordetsky - Forget Russia


Many families have an unlikely hero—someone who quietly saves the family, so quietly that perhaps most in the family don’t even know the story of her courage.  Sarah Bordetsky, born in 1906, in the small Jewish shtetl of Gornostaypol, Ukraine, was one such person.  She suffered tragedy at a young age—when she was around fourteen years old her mother Zlata was raped and murdered in a pogrom in 1921.  The Ukraine was an extremely unstable place to be after the 1917 Revolution since the Civil War was fought there.  For a while the Bolsheviks lost control of the Ukraine and warring factions of Ukrainian Nationalists and other factions opposed to the Bolsheviks vied for power and control.  In 1921, when the Bolsheviks were able to vanquish the White army and its many factions, the defeated armies, as they retreated went into the Jewish shtetls, murdering and pillaging anyone they could find. Sarah’s mother, Zlata Oushomirsky, lost her life during one of these pogroms. 

Sarah’s father, Lazer Oushomirsky, had already deserted the family.  Years before, he had left for the US, and remade himself as Louis Shumer, an elegant and talented tailor.  He had promised to send for his wife and daughter as soon as he could, but instead, years later, he mailed Zlata a letter of divorce and a five-dollar bill. After her mother’s brutal murder, Sarah must have felt like an orphan. An uncle who owned a store took her in and tried to locate her father in America.  Eventually, Sarah’s uncle found him, and she journeyed alone on the SS Samaria ship to her father in Boston.  In recounting her journey, many years later, she said so many were sick on the boat and there were many pregnant women.  When Sarah got to Boston, Massachusetts, her father had remarried, and Sarah discovered she had a half-sister and a half-brother.  Her new step-mother did not welcome her. She complained she didn’t want another mouth to feed.

Within a year, Sarah had married Barnett or Barney Bordetsky, another Russian Jewish immigrant seventeen years older.  Barney had come to America in 1909.  Like Sarah, he too had a parent, his father, murdered in Russia as part of an anti-semitic hate crime.  Barney was a master cabinet maker, who longed to return to the Soviet Union to build the Revolution.  In 1931, at the height of Depression, he and Sarah and their two daughters, ages five and three, returned to Leningrad.  Barnett was excited to be part of a Revolution that had promised equality to all.  He and Sarah were part of the ten thousand Americans who went to the Soviet Union in 1931 to escape the brutal reality of the Depression.  Life in Leningrad was also very harsh.  Famine raged in the countryside of the Ukraine.  Starving peasants filled Leningrad, seeking to escape hunger. Most people lived in communal apartments, a railroad apartment of up to twenty families, each with a room or two of their own, and all of them sharing one bathroom.  Sarah, Barney, and their daughters, sick with whooping cough, only stayed in Leningrad nine months.  If they had stayed any longer than a year, they would have lost their American citizenship and never gotten out. They would have surely been murdered or imprisoned during the height of Stalin’s purges in 1936 -1938, or they would have died during World War II, during the siege of Leningrad.  Because of Sarah, the family returned to America before it became too late to get out of Russia.

Sarah Bordetsky died in 1995. In her last years, she spent many hours humming to herself the Russian love songs from her girlhood, songs mainly of unrequited love from a country that had not been kind to her.

In the historical novel, Forget Russia, author Lisa Bordetsky-Williams, explores three generations of family history—the short and tragic life of her great-grandmother, her grandparents’ journeys back and forth from Russia to America, and her own experiences in Moscow in 1980 when she met  Soviet Jews, many of them Refuseniks, whose grandparents had been Bolshevik leaders and sympathizers, murdered or imprisoned by Stalin.  Forget Russia explores the interlocking connections between people across three generations, across space and time. It looks at the nature of destiny and the ways women in a family seek to transcend inherited trauma. 


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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Mary Perkins Olmstead - Landscape of a Marriage

Mary Perkins Olmsted was born on March 26, 1830. Orphaned at the age of eight, she was raised by her grandparents on Staten Island. As a young girl, she loved to play the piano and sing. When she was 21, she married Dr. John Olmsted. They honeymooned in Italy and over the next five years, she gave birth to three children while living in Europe. John died at the age of 32 from complications from tuberculosis and Mary returned to New York with her children. A year later, she agreed to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted in order to provide a secure future for her family. 

Her new husband was involved in a plan to turn 800 acres of Manhattan swamp land into a public park. Tempted to quit a number of times, it was Mary’s wise counsel and support that kept him focused on their joint goal ‘to create a beating green heart in every urban space’. Fred and Mary had four more children, only two of whom survived infancy. Fred’s career as a landscape architect took him away from the family for long periods of time as he worked on projects including Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, the grounds for the Chicago World’s Fair, the park spaces at Niagara Falls and Yosemite National Park, as well as dozens of urban parks, college campuses and private estates.

More than her husband’s greatest fan, Mary organized the firm’s business operations, fine-tuned many of the design projects (as many as 50 different projects were on the books at any one time), paid the bills and kept track of the company’s finances.

After Fred died in 1903, Mary became more involved in philanthropic activities, leaving the Olmsted Brothers’ operations in the capable hands of her sons John and Rick. 

She died on August 23, 1921at the age of 91, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

Mary's life story has been immortalized in the novel, Landscape of a Marriage, written by Gail Ward Olmsted, a distant relative of Mary. 

Gail Ward Olmsted

Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a full time basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a distant cousin of her husband’s, and his wife Mary.


Monday, August 31, 2020

Boudicca - Rage Against the Dying Light

Boudicca was born in around 25 A.C.E. The only known writings about her are the following. We have The Annals of Tacitus written about fifty years after her death which covers in a few paragraphs her uprising and battles against the Roman invaders of her beloved British isle. She is also mentioned in a history of Rome written one hundred years after her death by Cassius Dio. Both are accounts written only about her battles against the Roman invaders. Those accounts also include the battles between Venutius a foster prince of a Celtic tribe and Cartimandua, the vicious queen of a large Celtic tribe who married Venutius and then betrayed him. Both were her contemporaries. Both accounts are written from the Roman point of view.

Boudicca was married to Prasutagus a much older king of a large and wealthy British Celtic tribe the Iceni in a politically matched marriage. When Romans invaded Briton Prasutagus made a pact with the Romans to lay down all tribal arms and only use them in defense of the Romans in return for a pact that would save his people and his wealth. When Prasutagus died the Romans broke that pact overrunning the Iceni palace, taking slaves, publicly flogging Boudicca now queen of the Iceni and assaulting her two young daughters.

Boudicca enlisted thousands of Celtic warriors to lead them into battle with her two young daughters beside her in a chariot to avenge their assaults upon her daughters and upon herself and free her beloved isle from Roman tyranny. Her epic battles are the most celebrated in Celtic history making her the first known woman warrior.

Many poems have been written about her and many paintings have celebrated her courage, along with a statue to her memory that overlooks the Thames in London with Big Ben in the background. A rehab facility for women army veterans from the Iraq war considers her their inspiration and patron.

There are still many groups around the world who meet and celebrate her memory and her courage as well as a Facebook site which features her that has had millions of hits.

Written by Jan Surasky 


Barnes & Noble


Of all the women warriors in myth and legend few are more storied than Boudicca, the fierce redheaded queen who, in the first century A.C. E. led the most celebrated Celtic rebellion in history. Until now books about her have been based on the only written records that exist—ancient Roman writings. But, Rage Against the Dying Light tells the story from the Celtic point of view.

At first a carefree young princess who revels in friendships and the beauty of her land, Boudicca learns the ways and rites of her Druid tribe. She prepares for the day she will be queen, wife and mother. Soon after her politically matched marriage to the much older king of a large and wealthy tribe, however, her world turns dark. After the death of her husband Roman invaders intent on conquering the loosely allied Celts attack the palace breaking a pact that would have saved the tribe from doom, taking slaves, publicly humiliating Boudicca and assaulting her two young daughters.

Betrayed and outraged Boudicca does not back down. She nurses her daughters back to health and with them beside her in a chariot she leads thousands of warriors in an epic battle to avenge her daughters and rid her beloved homeland of Roman tyranny.

Rage Against the Dying Light is the story of history’s first woman warrior and a symbol of courage inspiring paintings, poetry and a statue in her honor overlooking the Thames in London.

 Author Jan Surasky

Multiple award-winning author Jan Surasky has worked as a book reviewer, movie reviewer and entertainment writer for a daily San Francisco newspaper. Her many articles and short stories have been published in national and regional magazines and newspapers. She has also taught writing at a literary center and a number of area colleges. She is a graduate of Cornell University with graduate courses in English literature at the University of Rochester. She lives in upstate New York. Her first novel Rage Against the Dying Light was a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards. Her website is

Monday, August 24, 2020

Martha Graham's Cold War

Martha Graham, sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of modern dance”, was the first dancer to perform at the White House in 1937 and travel abroad as an officially launched Cold War cultural ambassador. Representing every seated president from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan, Graham performed politics in the global field for over thirty years during the Cold War, through to the fall of the Berlin Wall with a planned tour to the USSR under George H.W. Bush, which was never completed. Her contributions to US cultural diplomacy efforts and ability to forge human connections make her a fascinating figure in both political history and dance history.

Although Graham worked with the men in the White House, she relied on the power of the women in the wings. Starting with Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited Graham to perform for her husband and their guests and then wrote about Graham for her nationally syndicated column, to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ladybird Johnson, Betty Ford and Barbara Bush, Graham’s relationships and intimate friendships supported her diplomatic work. In addition, Graham forged great works with the financial support of female philanthropists including BethsabĂ©e de Rothschild, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and Lila Acheson Wallace. Although she defiantly proclaimed, “I am not a liberationist” and refused to participate in feminist movements, she relied on powerful women like herself.

After beginning her training at the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the 1910s and becoming integrated into the school as an instructor and then as a dancer in their touring company, she moved on to create her own foundational dance technique, which remains one of the staples of modern dance training today. Born as a product of the global modernist impulse in the early twentieth-century, Graham’s technique used the pelvic contraction – weeping,

laughing, breathing in ecstasy – as the source of all movement.

By 1926, Graham had formed her company of women, and in 1930 took center stage as

an American modernist with her piece, Lamentation. She then went on to find a distinctly

American dance, mining the power of the West with her work Frontier (1935). Along with the iconic work of what the State Department called “Americana” with Appalachian Spring, many works from the 1940s were based on Greek myths, with strong central female characters, such as Oedipus’ Jocasta in Night Journey. She expressed the deepest of human emotions and joyous love in Diversion of Angels. With this combination of works, Graham became a representative of the nation and showed its sophistication as she tapped into “hearts and minds” to win the Cold War.

In 1956, during the Cold War, Graham embarked on the first of many international tours as a cultural ambassador for the US government. Bringing along dance works with strong themes of frontiers and classic Americana, she performed for the elite classes in “domino nations” and promoted American ideals of freedom and democracy. These works were all instilled with her unique dance form, which was completely different from the classical ballets the Soviet Union was sending for international performances. Thus, US scholars asserted that modernism could have emerged only from the “land of the free,” and not from totalitarian states such as Germany or Japan, and certainly not the Soviet Union. Although Graham herself claimed to be apolitical, she became a valuable export for US cultural diplomacy for many years.

Graham continued traveling and performing for US administrations until the Cold War began to come to a close in 1989-1991. Although there was a tour planned under President Bush to the bloc nations (Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia), it never came to fruition. Martha Graham passed away in 1991, the same year the Berlin Wall came down. Her legacy, nevertheless, continues today in the form of the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York City, which continues to perform Graham’s works all over the world, honoring her many contributions to modern dance and cultural diplomacy.

The above bio on Martha Graham was written by author Victoria Phillips

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Aloha Spirit - The Life of Carmen Dolores Jaime Medeiros Rodrigues

My husband’s grandmother, featured in my new novel THE ALOHA SPIRIT,  was an amazing woman. She loved to laugh, and she loved family. Her home was always open to anyone who wanted to be there. I know that if I ever arrived for dinner with ten strangers, she would make room at the table for all of them. That spirit of giving and loving has always embodied the aloha spirit for me, especially after learning of her early life.

Carmen was born on Kauai in 1915. All that remains of her birthplace now is the U.S. Post Office in Mekaweli. Her parents had emigrated from Spain. In Hawaii, Carmen’s father was a dairyman. She had an older brother, but her mother passed away in childbirth with her third child. When Carmen was still small, her father moved the family to Honolulu. Sometime after that, he decided to take his son and go to the mainland to look for work. He left Carmen with a large Hawaiian family. Her children and grandchildren were never told much about her time with this family, only that she was treated poorly.

As soon as she could, Carmen went to live with her friend, Rachel Galedrige. Rachel had a lot of sons, so Carmen became somewhat of a sister and a daughter. The two women remained friends for the rest of their lives.

When she was sixteen, Carmen married Manuel Medieros, a man she’d met on the beach at Hanauma Bay. Manuel was the youngest child of Joe and Jessie Medeiros, emigrants from Portugal who had eleven children. Joe had left his wife and family, but Jessie owned four houses in the Punch Bowl area of Honolulu. The entire family gathered at Jessie’s house for lunch every day. What a raucous crowd that must have been! Carmen, though, had lived with a large family before. From the Hawaiians, she no doubt learned Hawaiian superstitions and customs just like she learned Catholic superstitions and customs from her husband’s family.

Carmen’s life still wasn’t settled. Her husband had a good job as a power plant engineer for Hawaii Electric, but he had a violent temper. Carmen’s oldest daughter says Manuel abused his wife and became an alcoholic. By the age of 23, Carmen had three daughters. As a Catholic in the 1930s, she could not divorce. Help came from another source.

Earl Rodrigues was her nephew. His mother was Manuel’s oldest sister, which made him close in age to Carmen. He teased her by calling her Auntie, which she said made her feel old. Earl had an irrepressible sense of humor. He was a free spirit who often cut school to surf Waikiki, climbing palm trees to get coconuts to eat, or buying pipikaula, Hawaiian beef jerky. Earl protected Carmen and her daughters, and she fell in love with him.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Earl was at work as a shipfitter. Carmen and the rest of the family watched from their home in the hills of Honolulu as the harbor burned. Carmen must have been frantic for Earl as well as scared for her daughters’ safety. Six months after the attack, Carmen and her daughters left Honolulu for California. They zigzagged across the Pacific Ocean on a Navy ship. Arriving in San Francisco, they lived for a time with Carmen’s brother and his wife. Manuel sold their things in Hawaii and joined them in California a few months later. Those months as a single mother, without the support of the extended family she had in Honolulu, must have been hard. Even so, Carmen must have learned she could manage independently.

Manuel, Carmen, and the girls settled in San Jose. Manuel returned to his drinking and flitted through jobs. After the war ended, family from Hawaii visited constantly. Earl’s parents came to visit with Earl and his siblings. Earl was once more where he belonged, protecting the woman he loved. He built himself an apartment in back of Carmen’s house when the rest of his family returned to Hawaii. They must have discussed a future together, but both were still bound by her marriage vows to Manuel in a Catholic church. Manuel drifted in and out of their lives like another visitor.

I’m going to stop there because to tell you any more would ruin the novel for you! The basic outline of Carmen’s life is all I had to go on when I wrote The Aloha Spirit. My goal was to explore how she could endure constant setbacks yet still emerge with a heart full of aloha. I hope you enjoy her story.

Linda Ulleseit


Author of Under the Almond Trees

 Coming soon from She Writes Press: The Aloha Spirit

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