The late summer of 1941 was hardly the time for 17-year-old Anna Babken to bear her first child. Advancing through Russia, the Nazis had annihilated her hometown of Luzhsky, 60 miles south of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Anna’s house had burned to the ground, and the shells of surviving buildings seemed on the verge of collapse. So she and her mother, Tatiana, sought safety in a foxhole and waited for the contractions to intensify. There, with gunshots ringing nearby, her daughter Ludmilla was born on Sept. 10. “God,” Anna says, “was with us.”
Their good fortune turned for the worse on Christmas Eve of 1942, when the Germans separated Anna from her mother and hauled her off to a labor camp. “I don’t know who took my daughter from my arms,” she says. Only later did she learn that she herself had been sold into slavery for a few pounds of sugar by her husband, Ivan. “To save his own skin,” she says with disgust.
Anna would survive the war, remarry and emigrate to the U.S., settling in Cranston, R.I. She would also have two more children. Still, she remained haunted by the memory of the firstborn ripped from her grasp. Did Ludmilla live? If so, where was she? For years, Anna placed an empty chair at the dinner table, hoping that one day her daughter would come home. “I couldn’t allow myself to think she was dead,” she says.
That time finally came. Though Anna learned in 1963 that Ludmilla and Tatiana had weathered the war and still lived in Luzhsky, it was not until this past Nov. 2 that Ludmilla Ulyanova, now 57 and a grandmother of four, walked off a plane at Boston’s Logan Airport to hug and kiss her 74-year-old mother. “She called me Mamitchka, ‘Little Mama,’ ” says Anna. “I just cried.”
“Everything feels like it’s supposed to be,” says Ludmilla, who will visit for two months, then return home. “It feels natural.”
Though 56 years have passed since Anna first lost touch with Ludmilla, her memories of the quest to find her remain razor sharp. Shortly after her daughter was taken from her, Anna was shipped to a labor camp in Koenigsberg, Germany, walking part of the way barefoot in the snow while mocking Nazis marched beside her singing “Silent Night.” Sent to the Dachau death camp in 1943, she cleaned latrines while waiting to die in the ovens. “I was only 19 and all my teeth were knocked out,” Anna says. “I’m 50 percent deaf from beatings. My face was so swollen I couldn’t open my eyes.” After two years the nightmare ended when the Americans liberated the camp. “One morning we heard the sound of tanks and the gates were open,” she says. “Everybody started walking—they’d walk two steps and fall down. Some would die. We looked like skeletons in striped suits.”
Carrying a mere 85 pounds on her 5’8″ frame, Anna wandered from town to town through Bavaria, not knowing if her mother and daughter were still alive. Told—erroneously—that her husband had been executed for treason, she married Armenian-born Sawen Arabian, a fellow inmate at Dachau. They had a daughter, Katharina, now 53, and son, Alexander, 51, and lived in camps set up in Germany for people left homeless by the war. Thinking Ludmilla might also have been brought to Germany, she visited local post offices that displayed photos of children freed from camps. Seeing nothing and having heard that thousands of Russians returning home after the war were being executed by Stalin’s regime, the Arabians moved in 1950 to the U.S. Anna became a jeweler and her husband a sheet-metal mechanic.
For years she wrote to the Soviet government for information about her mother and daughter, to no avail. Then in 1963 she gave their names to Maria and Volodia Studentstov, Russian émigré friends from New Haven who were moving back to their homeland. The couple drove to Luzhsky in search of Ludmilla, only to have their car get stuck in the snow. Amazingly, the man who came to their aid turned out to be Anna’s brother Nikolai. He was followed by a woman—Anna’s mother. Living with her grandmother, Ludmilla, 21, was working as a painter and plasterer in Leningrad. “I told my friends, ‘I have a mother!’ ” she says. “It was such a breath of relief.” Thinking Anna dead, the family had placed a black ribbon around an old picture of her. Ludmilla sent a letter with her current photo; Anna applied to get her a visa, but was denied.
During the next three decades, Anna and Ludmilla exchanged many letters, most of which were censored by the Soviets. Anna told of her 1968 divorce, her two children and three grandchildren. Ludmilla wrote of her first husband’s death, her remarriage to painter Yuri Phillipov, her three children—Alexei, 33, Vasily, 30, and Natalya, 24—and four grandkids.
When Russia’s travel restrictions were lifted, Anna and her daughter Katharina began sending money to Ludmilla for visa costs and plane fare to the U.S. Katharina’s Russian Orthodox church in Kingston, Mass., raised another $800, and finally last month Ludmilla boarded a plane to Boston. “As the flight started, I was kind of calm,” says Ludmilla. “But as time went on I started to get nervous—my stomach started to get nauseous.” Meanwhile, Anna lay awake all night. “My God,” she says, “my stomach was spinning.”
After the reunion, the family dug into a traditional Russian meal of stuffed cabbage and nibbled on chocolates Ludmilla brought from her home in the city of Luga. “We’re having a wonderful time,” says Katharina, a loan processor. “We’re as playful as two kids growing up.” She has so far taken her sister to the mall and to her Weight Watchers class. “I was really surprised,” Ludmilla says, “at how many fat people there are in this country.”
Thus far, Ludmilla has not been seduced by the Land of Plenty. “I have a family and lots of people in Russia,” she says. For Anna it is enough to embrace the child she brought into a war-ravaged world. “My empty chair is filled,” she says. “I always said it would happen.”
Joanne Fowler in Cranston and John Varoli in Luga