Sixty-seven years later, Emma Sokolova weeps when she remembers the last time she saw her father. “ ‘Please take care of our children,’ he told mother,” said Sokolova, recalling that she was in her mother’s arms.
Michael Renner hugged and kissed the 6-year-old girl, her brother, Adolf, 4, and their mother, Lubov, and left them in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine in June 1941.
This week, Sokolova and her daughter, Svetlana Aseeva, are in the Inland Northwest, meeting members of the family they never knew they had until five years ago – the family Renner raised in America after he had given up hope of ever again seeing his Ukrainian family alive.
Sokolova, who is now 73 and still lives in Ukraine, sat in a North Side home Sunday and recounted how the family survived after Renner, the descendant of German immigrants, was forced to flee Soviet Ukraine on the eve of war with Germany.
“The biggest tragedy is my father was not here to know they were alive,” said Spokane resident Chris Renner, Michael Renner’s son with his second wife, Angela, whom he married in Germany before immigrating to the United States.
It was just one of many tragedies in the life of a man whose story begins in the upheaval of the Russian Revolution.
The scion of successful German farmers who immigrated to Ukraine during the rule of Catherine II, Renner saw adult members of his family executed and their property seized by Bolsheviks.
At 10 years old, he found himself in Kramatorsk, where the state trained him to be an electrical mechanic. He grew to be a respected member of the community and married Lubov, a Ukrainian. The Renners had two children, Emma and Adolf, who was called Eduard at school because a teacher could not bear to see the boy endure the scorn of his classmates during the war with Hitler.
Under Stalinist repression of the 1930s and early ’40s, German-Russians were being forced to relocate to Kazakhstan. Renner decided to emigrate, but Lubov, an ethnic Ukrainian, refused to leave the home that Renner had built for her in Kramatorsk. At last, fearing the same fate as his father and mother, Renner left his wife and children in the hope they would follow.
He took with him a photograph of his children, which he displayed on a wall in his home in Spokane.
“We were told never to forget them in our prayers, and we didn’t,” Chris Renner said.
Life in Ukraine during the war years would have been brutal even without a German surname. The hardship of being a single mother of ethnic German children was nearly unsurvivable.
“I remember how hard it was for her,” Sokolova said of her mother. “The KGB called on her all the time with questions. They wanted to send her to Siberia or Kazakhstan because of her husband. We couldn’t go. We didn’t have enough money.”
Aseeva has written about that time as recounted by her mother. Many of those memories focus on Lubov’s struggle to keep her children alive.
“No one wanted to employ a woman with the name of Renner,” Aseeva wrote. “If she did find work, she was fired as soon as it was discovered that her husband was German.”
Lubov scrounged for food and stole coal to keep her children alive. Often, she went without so Emma and Adolf could eat. She sewed, washed and shoveled out cow stalls for little money. At the risk of imprisonment or death, she collected grains of wheat left behind after harvest and coal that had fallen along railroad tracks. Emma and Adolf went to school at different times so they could share one pair of shoes.
Control of Kramatorsk changed hands several times between the Soviet and German armies, and the Renner home was searched and pillaged by both sides.
When the KGB told them they would be deported, Lubov told the agents to kill them and be done with it, Aseeva wrote.
“But shoot us all together,” she told them. “In a foreign place we are sure to die anyway. I was born and baptized here, and this is where I’ll die.”
The family was allowed to stay.
After the war, famine raged and Lubov was forced for a time to place her children in the care of an orphanage. Through it all she waited for her husband to return. Her letters of inquiry to the government went unanswered.
A neighbor said she had seen Michael Renner shot, but she could not remember whether it was by Russians or Germans. Finally, an official letter seemed to confirm this. It read “presumed dead.”
Meanwhile, Renner waited for his family in Germany.
“They never showed,” Chris Renner said. “Even after the war was over he waited. He assumed that they had all perished. No word came in or out of Russia.”
At last, Michael Renner met Angela, a German-Romanian woman, at a Bavarian refugee center. They had three children, and in 1952 immigrated to North Dakota, where they had another child. In 1954 they moved to Spokane, where they had two more. The children are Alex, Paul and Christian (Chris) Renner, Valerie Ingram, Angie Petticrew and Michael Renner.
“Time passed, and when the Iron Curtain fell, we asked our father if it was all right to look for his two lost kids and to our surprise he forbid us to look, still fearing the communists,” Chris Renner said. “If they had survived, he didn’t want them hurt.”
Michael Renner died in 1995. Angela Renner died in 2001.
In 2003, the family hired a German-Ukrainian woman, Valentina Evgenievna Fromm, to track down Renner’s family. Fromm found Emma and Adolf living in Kramatorsk.
That year, Ingram and Petticrew visited their father’s children in Ukraine. There they were shown a photograph of Emma and Adolf as children. It was the same photo that hung on the wall of their father’s home in Spokane.
Lubov Renner died in 1997.
Adolf Renner lives with his wife and daughter in the same home his father built in Kramatorsk. He has worked for NKMZ, an industrial machine company, for 50 years.
Emma Sokolova works as a sales clerk in a Kramatorsk store. Her husband and son have died, but she lives near her daughter and her two grandchildren.