A Christmas Tale -- 1919
It's easy to complain in the midst
of a stressful holiday season. But my
family has a unique remedy: We remember one special Christmas in 1919
us the freedom and liberty we enjoy today. This will be the 89th
the year my father celebrated Christmas Eve deep in the snow-laden
Russia as he fled the Communist takeover of his homeland.
When I tell people that my father
was an officer in the White Army who
fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war, they usually look at me
disbelief, because I am only 49. But he married and started a family
life, after he lived through both world wars.
He had been an officer in the
Russian Army in World War I; after the
Bolshevik putsch he ended up fighting against them in the far north of
In 1919 he was close to the Arctic Circle in the port city of
where at the beginning of the year, six feet of snow fell and the
was regularly 30 degrees below zero.
The Allies -- the English,
Americans and French -- had put military forces
in Russia, including in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, in 1918. When they
in September 1919, the White Army forces faced dire peril: Their source
supplies, including arms, was gone. Many regular soldiers deserted en
As the situation deteriorated, my
father and his unit were surrounded. They
fought until very few supplies remained. By December, their commander
that they would soon be unable to continue to fight and that the
promised that surrendering White forces would be freed and sent home.
But my father knew that the
communists shot the officers they captured. The
only way he could escape was through the frozen White Sea on the lone
icebreaker in the port, which was not large enough to evacuate
everyone. Only a
small number of high-ranking White Russian officers eventually fled
One woman and 16 men, including my
father, decided they would try to get out
another way. In the middle of a very snowy night, they skied through
Bolshevik lines toward Finland. As my father later told his five
was an arduous and long journey. They had so little food that at one
were reduced to eating the beeswax candles they carried with them.
They soon ceased to count the
days. Time became amorphous as they traveled
through the chilling cold of an Arctic winter in the darkness of the
woods. Their singular goal was to avoid Bolshevik patrols.
On one of those timeless, dark
days, my father said, the woman in their
group reminded the men of something they had all lost track of --
would be Christmas Eve.
The next day they skied 'til the
beams of the sun turned the treetops golden
and the shadows in the forest became longer and longer. They stopped in
glade for the night, and my father cut down a small fir. They placed
their remaining candles on its branches and adorned it with blue
from a blouse the woman had carried in her knapsack.
With the dark veil of night
covering them, they lit the candles and their
small pine became a Christmas tree. The scene seemed almost mystical to
father -- 17 human beings sitting in the glow of a makeshift Christmas
the thicket of a primeval forest. They forgot about the frost of the
wintry night, their exhaustion, and their anxiety about the future.
No more hatred remained in their
hearts, my father told us -- only love for
God and men alike, friends and enemies. They said a prayer, sang some
hymns, and then sat silently, thinking about what they had lost and
leaving behind, including their families. (My father never saw his
his father again.) The candles burned out, and it became dark again
The next day they resumed their
journey. Once Christmas had passed, and they
did not encounter any Bolshevik patrols, my father felt they had been
Two weeks later, they arrived safely in Finland. They had skied
kilometers through the wilderness in the dead of winter.
My father died in 1988, just short
of his 93rd birthday. There is a lot more
to his story -- great drama, more danger, and adventures that he always
were better to recall as memories than to have lived through. He
immigrated to the United States with my mother, whom he met in 1946 in
refugee camp in occupied Germany.
So this Christmas, besides opening
presents and singing carols, my family
will observe one other tradition. We will drink a toast and give thanks
man who fled a murderous, cruel dictatorship and gave us a gift more
than anything else: the chance to grow up in freedom and to enjoy the
that is our birthright as Americans. Merry Christmas!
Mr. von Spakovsky is a
visiting legal scholar at The Heritage
Foundation and a former commissioner of the Federal Election
Commission. He is
a proud first-generation American.