Category: Book

Chapter 1 Excerpt

Born the First Week of the War

First Date

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My father had three daughters before me. My father wanted a boy. He told my mother that if she had another girl, he wouldn’t even take the baby home from the hospital.

On June 22nd of that year, Stalin came on the radio and announced to the Soviet people that the USSR was at war. The German fascists had invaded Russia. It was just eight days before I was born when my father was called up to serve in the army and had to leave Moscow. My mother was then left with her two daughters and the new baby, me. What irony. “Another girl!”

During the first couple of months of the war, the citizens of Moscow were in a panic. Word went around that the Germans would take Moscow in no time, and would do terrible things to the people.

My father’s whole family lived in Moscow. He had one sister, who was the eldest, and eight brothers. None of them went to war except my father and his youngest brother Uri, who had no children. Nevertheless, none of them offered to help my mother with her children, so she felt very much alone and in danger. She had a friend in a similar position, whose husband had gone to the front leaving her with their two children, a girl of thirteen and a boy of eleven. The two women decided to leave Moscow before it was too late.

The only help my mother got from my father’s family was through his eldest brother David, who had an important post with the Ministry of Transport. He provided her with access to a railway car, the kind used to transport animals. It was all he could manage since almost all the passenger trains had been commandeered by the army.

The wagon was hooked up to another twenty or more cars of different kinds, carrying animals, machinery, chemicals, and thousands of refugees heading east. The whole railway system was in total confusion. There were delays and long stops, endless days and nights spent on sidings, cars hooked up and then disconnected, sudden changes in orders, trains rerouted at the last minute, and sometimes whole trains literally going around in circles.

My mother and her friend often had no idea where they were going or where they were. It took them more than two months to reach Bugulma in the Tatar Republic, a little more than a thousand kilometres from Moscow. There, they were told they could settle in one of the nearby villages.

My mother became very ill on this long journey and of course, there were no doctors on the train or in the villages where they stopped. The army had called up most of them as well. She was getting worse and worse, and by the time the two women arrived in the village about fifty kilometres outside the city of Ufa, she was in terrible pain and could no longer walk.

Her friend did her best to look after her and all five of the children. As soon as they were settled in the village, she decided to take my mother to the hospital in Ufa but the problem was transportation. There were no cars or trucks, only horse-drawn carts but no horses, which along with nearly all of the men, had been taken by the army. The villagers provided her with one of the carts and also collected a little money for my mother. She started on her journey at about four o’clock in the morning, pulling and pushing the cart by herself with my mother unconscious most of the time. It took them until midnight – twenty hours – to get to the only hospital in Ufa. A clerk at the front desk told my mother’s friend, “No beds!” slamming the little window shut in her face. The poor woman didn’t know where to turn. She offered money to some of the nurses, but they said there was nothing they could do; there were just no beds available. She would have to wait her turn, and the waiting list was a long one. Some people had been waiting for as long as two months she was told, so they couldn’t possibly make an exception for my mother.

What was she to do? Should she take her back to the village and let her die there? She herself was exhausted, hungry and at her wit’s end. Suddenly, an older woman who had been washing the hospital floors and up to now had seemed to pay no attention to this woman with her dying friend, put her mop down and came up to her.

“Listen to me!” she whispered. “Leave your friend here on the floor and go! I’m sure they will find a bed for her. Don’t worry! Just go!”

And that’s exactly what she decided to do. She hung around outside the hospital for a few hours to make sure my mother was taken care of. When she went back in, there was no one in the hall where my mother had been left. Sighing with relief, she started back to the village, pulling her cart the fifty kilometres. Five children were waiting for her and she had to get back to them. She thanked God that her two children were at least old enough to help with the three younger ones.

When she returned, the first problem to deal with was me. I was barely three months old and needed the most care. There were a couple of mothers in the village, breastfeeding their babies. One of them agreed to feed me as well, especially after the villagers offered extra bread and food to help feed her own children. So I was placed with her immediately. One problem solved.

Shortly after that, my mother’s friend walked back to Ufa to see how my mother was doing. She found that she wasn’t getting any better and nobody seemed to know what was wrong with her. On top of that, someone had stolen all her money and so she couldn’t pay for the extra attention she needed. She was, in fact, dying. The two friends had what they knew was to be their last conversation. They talked and cried, and then my mother’s friend had to trudge the long way back to the village.

The next time she went to visit my mother, she was told that the patient by that name had died. Nobody knew anything more than that; not even where she had been buried.

Two other families in the village took in my two sisters.

My mother’s friend never returned to Moscow after the war.

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Amazon Reader Review

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This should be required reading for all high school students which would give them a clear picture as to what life in Russia was all about. I found the book to be easily read and I enjoyed the diary like quality. It kept me interested and at the same time opened my eyes to the harsh living conditions in her country. I strongly recommend this book to all.

Dr. Dennis Harper
Amazon Reader Reviews

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Online Book Club Review

This book speaks to every person who has left their country of origin.
Nomi Griffin

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Zhanna Sosensky was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and into the wrong family. The place was the Soviet Union. The time was 1941, only a few days after the German invasion began. The family consisted of a dying mother, a tyrannical and abusive father, and two quarrelsome older sisters. Her memoir, I Never Met My Mother, details the challenges she overcame in dealing with her dysfunctional family, coping with postwar shortages of essentials, and – most difficult of all – navigating her way through a society in which every detail of daily life was censored and controlled by the Communist Party.

Determined to build a better life away from her abusive family, Zhanna left school at 14 to work at a sausage factory. A quick learner, she helped to improve processing procedures, receiving awards, and better earnings. As her skills in building relationships improved, she moved on to much better positions at Gosplan USSR, the central planning institution for the entire country.

Better jobs with higher salaries allowed Zhanna to socialize with friends, to attend concerts, and to host dinner parties. Cooking was her passion from early years at the orphanage, where she ended up from the street, suffering from starvation. She continued to take night classes toward her most important goal, a university degree, even after marrying and giving birth to a son. When Zhanna finally received her diploma, she and her husband decided to seize a new opportunity and emigrate to Canada with their seven-year-old son. Thus their life in the USSR came to an end. 

I Never Met My Mother paints a revealing and appalling picture of life in the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. Extreme food shortages led to long lines whenever there was any food available to purchase. Housing was in equally short supply. As many as eleven people might share an apartment, sometimes without heat, hot water, or indoor plumbing. The complete absence of birth control, causing many women to have multiple abortions, would horrify most modern women.

Equally revealing of daily life in the USSR are the book’s frequent descriptions of the strategies Zhanna – and most other Soviet citizens – employed to cope with bureaucratic rules, a complex system of record-keeping, and constant surveillance. For example, when the elderly woman who rented the bed in her tiny room to Zhanna was accused of illegal subletting, Zhanna told the police that her friend was lonely, had invited her to stay just for the companionship, and had not asked for any payment. Zhanna also acquired a few nice outfits by placing orders with Gosplan employees who occasionally traveled outside the USSR. And she learned to bring a gift of expensive chocolates for the record keepers when requesting personal documents.

I Never Met My Mother has earned 4 out of 4 stars for its fascinating revelations about life in the Soviet Union. It is a superb portrayal of a woman who forged a path to success and happiness in the face of extreme adversity. The narration flows smoothly, and the sequence of events is easy to follow. The book is also well-edited, with only a few minor typos that do not cause any problems. Readers who appreciate unusual personal stories or who have an interest in Russian history will be sure to enjoy this book.

 Online Book Club Reviews

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Kirkus Review

Sosensky, in her debut memoir, describes her life in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1974.

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Truth, wrote Mark Twain, is stranger than fiction. It’s also often more interesting, as this memoir of Soviet life shows. Its author was born in Moscow in July 1941, just nine days after the Soviet Union entered World War II on the Allied side; she lost her mother to illness just three months later. With her father in combat, she was at first cared for by a woman in a village some 800 miles away. By age 5, however, she was living in an orphanage near her hometown; oddly enough, the orphanage became the source of her happiest memories. Eventually, her abusive father returned to claim her and his strictness made her life torture. At 14, she ran away from home to work at—and live in—a meatpacking plant, and that’s just the beginning of this woman’s extraordinary story. Her memoir is filled with details that will be familiar to readers with firsthand knowledge of Communist countries: her school days as a “pioneer”; the drab concrete apartment blocks; the rigid bureaucracy and endless shopping lines; and the lack of staples, such as toilet paper, that made contacts in the black market a necessity. Her request to emigrate to Vienna entailed enormous risk. The author also includes personal experiences, from her first kiss to a freak accident that put her in the hospital for months. Quite a lot happens here to engage readers, who will likely admire the author’s courage and determination.

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CreativeSpace Review

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After reading her story, it is no surprise to me that she is such a good writer on top of all of her other talents. Zhanna’s ability to paint a picture for her readers and to make her emotions become real is outstanding. She knows just what details to pick. Her memory is excellent—I cannot get over how many specific details from her childhood and on that she remembers so vividly. She presents the whole story so economically—including just what is essential and nothing extra. That makes her story so powerful.

Overall I was absolutely impressed with Zhanna’s writing talent, but, more than that, I was moved by her story. She is an inspiration! How did someone raised in such a place, in such a home, with so few role models for success or even for kindness rise up as someone with such ambition, such intelligence, such hope, and such a sense of love and justice? She has every right to be bitter and sad, and yet she emerges as someone who shows only mercy, optimism, and determination. Thank you so much, on behalf of your readers, for sharing your story. It truly is a journey of the human spirit. It will inspire so many people to keep pushing for what is right, keep dreaming despite their adversity, and keep working to better themselves every day. Your hard work, your honesty, your love makes you a heroine. I will remember your story.

Zhanna’s tone and style is so perfect for her story and so powerful in its simplicity. If someone tried to tell the same story in a more grandiose style or with a lot of description, the story would lose its power. She chose which details to include so well that we are shown the very essence of the meaning, of the people in her life, of the setting in which she lived, of the emotions she experienced. Very well done using such simple language—every word is so well chosen, and nothing extra distracts us.

Her honesty is remarkable. From sex to her complicated emotions about her father from her desire to be loved and to belong to her descriptions of her cold room, her honesty shines through. Her story would not be as full and textured without these many layers of her experiences, and she tells all these layers with such candor. Her readers will trust her, love her, feel for her, cry for her, and celebrate with her.


CreateSpace Editor

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Clarion Review

I Never Met My Mother: A true story dedicated to each and every child who was deprived of love, who was abused or simply ignored by their parents—and what one can do in life in spite of it.
Zhanna Sosensky

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This powerful memoir provides rare details about the realities of life in the former Soviet Union.

Born in Moscow in 1941, a mere eight days after Germany declared war on the USSR,
Janna Sosensky seems destined to face difficult times ahead. Her memoir, I Never Met My Mother, tells the heartbreaking story of her life in the USSR from a most inauspicious beginning through her emigration in 1974.

Some of Sosensky’s earliest memories are of living in an orphanage during World War II. Tellingly, she is nostalgic about the orphanage, “the place [she] secretly considered [her] real home.” Life there, even with a communal bath and clean clothes only once every two weeks, is better than what came before or is to follow.

Even school is a challenge. “Brainwashing began from kindergarten,” with mandatory membership in Communist children’s organizations starting at age seven. Initially, Sosensky wears the required red star; when she is nine, she graduates to the red tie of the Pioneers. The goal is eventual membership in the Communist Party, “for all intents and purposes a ticket for better future positions and careers.”

Teachings are rigid, and punishments severe: “Religion was repudiated…We were told that to go inside a church would be as bad as committing a serious crime.” A curious child, Sosensky sneaks into a church and is reported. Called before the entire school, she is stripped of her red tie, expelled from the Pioneers, and ostracized.

The author describes unwittingly signing a three-year work contract at fourteen, committing to a job at a massive meat plant. She writes of renting the only bed in an elderly woman’s single room in a sixth-floor walk-up, of fleas and lice, of starvation and privation. In Moscow, where virtually anything is available to those with means, Sosensky is limited to what she can purchase through the company’s own store and layaway plan, further binding her to her employer.

Sosensky’s personal story is devastating; its setting within the USSR during a time of suppression renders it even more horrific. She speaks openly about propaganda, education, working conditions, and social life. Even the smallest elements of her stories are revealing. Every mention of a “valuable tradition,” like the customary celebration of the New Year, or of “certain things that were supposed to be done by everybody—no exceptions,” offers insight into a society that has long remained a mystery to much of the world.

Topics range widely, from the control maintained by centralized offices in Moscow over industry “in every republic of the USSR” to the treatment of homosexuals: “The minimum sentence for any homosexual activity was twenty years in prison.” Stories of love and marriage are particularly unsettling. “There was no birth control whatsoever,” she says. “Abortions were the only alternative available…There was hardly a woman who hadn’t had several. Five abortions were the average.”

That Sosensky survived and ultimately escaped the constraints of her youth serves as a testament to her convictions and fortitude, and I Never Met My Mother stands on its own as a well-written memoir. Its greatest impact, however, comes from the historical detail and perspective it provides. Sosensky’s revelations about life—particularly life for a young woman—in Soviet Russia during WWII and the Cold War years are not only unusual but impressively dynamic and decidedly enlightening.

Cheryl Hibbard
Clarion Reviews

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I Never Met My Mother

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My life long search for a reason WHY I survived after my mother’s death when I was just three months old has been the driving force behind most of the major decisions and changes I have made at every step of my life’s journey.

For many years while back in the place of my birth, Moscow in the former U.S.S.R., I struggled. While working by day from a very young age, I also attended University by night so that I could make something of myself and become “Somebody”.

Eventually, I graduated from Journalism (interesting occupation in a Communist country where freedom of speech didn’t exist at the time) only to find out that the field that I thought would allow me creative expression held no interest or excitement for me, let alone creative possibilities.

In 1974 I emigrated to Canada, at the age of thirty-two, with my seven-year-old son, hoping that a fresh start in a country with freedom of choice and expression would be just what I needed.

i Never Met My Mother

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