The Yalta Conference: When They Knew

Because of the anger and fear I’ve experienced  as our nation goes through so much upheaval, my thoughts have gone back  to the Yalta Conference of 1945, what my parents knew about Yalta and when they knew it. Here’s why:

My brother was 12 and I was 10 in March of ’55. We were accustomed to hearing the 9 pm news from WHO, Des Moines, Iowa. Loud and clear over the Montana prairie we’d hear Gabby Heatter’s classic opening line, “There’s good news tonight, folks!” even when there wasn’t. Radio, with Fibber McGee and Molly on Saturday night, was the center of our world on short winter days.

As we flew through the kitchen after pounding up the stairs that particular March morning, the unusual daytime scene of Dad and Mom standing in front of the kitchen radio listening intently didn’t register. So along with our clatter, we chose that moment to do our version of “Did not!” “Did, too!” Mom’s angry glare quickly silenced us. Seeing our parents listening to the news in the middle of the day (and being openly angry toward us) was foreign ground. A little frightened, we just stopped and stood there.

May I describe to you some of my mother’s Mailboxes and Old Barns? Being aware of what they were may soften the edges of this Portrait of Angry Mother.

In 1915, when she was ten years old, her Danish-born mother tried to explain to her why the Turks were murdering the Armenians and told her that the Danes were trying to help them. She cried because it scared her. A year or two later, her one older brother (in a family of 11 girls and two boys) came back from the trenches of France after being gassed by the Germans ~~ he was never the same again.

Grandfather (the only emigrant from his Danish family) died of heart failure near the end of the depression after losing his homestead farm and land because he couldn’t pay the taxes: no rain/no crops/no money. My Granny, also the only emigrant from her Danish family, lived through the anxieties of silence, slow news and slow mail on the Montana prairie during the war, waiting for a once a month or so letter from her family: Was Denmark still safe? No, it wasn’t. Would Hitler’s armies come? Yes, they would. In April of 1940, the five year occupation of Denmark began, and they waited for scarcer news: were Grandmother and Grandfather’s families in Denmark safe? Have you heard anything? Are they still safe?

In the early 1940′s when my three oldest brothers were in their teens, the older sons of other farmers went off to fight in the Pacific and in Europe. Then Dad and Mom attended the funerals in the little country church for three of those farm boys who didn’t come home. My childhood church memories include a small dark blue banner hanging in the little church. It’s bordered with red fringe and displays one gold star for each of those three farmboy lives. Then my oldest brother served as a combat photographer during the Korean War from 1950-1953. So Mom feared for his life when I was 6. And 7. And 8.

The 1945 Yalta Conference had opened as Germany lay open before the advancing Allies: the Brits and the U. S. Army from the west. The Russians from the east. So the Big Three (Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill) met at Yalta, a resort on the coast of the Black Sea, in Soviet territory, to carve up the pie called Europe.

Franklin Roosevelt’s foolish confidence in Stalin, that “…if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything” ….failed the test of events almost immediately. By 1946, Churchill had famously described Stalin’s behavior after Yalta as “dropping an Iron Curtain across Europe”…. and so the Cold War began, Stalin’s murders continued and the exhaustion of Eastern Europe went on until 1991~~all a part of the catastophe called Yalta.

The results of the Yalta Conference were held in tight secrecy until, as reported in Time Magazine in the March 28, 1955 issue, “In a sudden, historic move the U. S. Department of State last week released the text of official documents relating to the ill-fated meeting of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in the Crimea. The documents were crammed with illuminating (and often appalling) details of the mood and manner in which the Big Three sliced up the world.”

Several days before that Time Magazine issue would have showed up in our rural mailbox, a summary of Yalta is now to be broadcast~~thus my parents are “listening to the news in the middle of the day” and now they hear it: Eastern Europe is legally… internationally…intentionally… officially… abandoned. Now they learn that during the very same hours in 1945 that Polish soldiers had been cheered as liberators in the streets of Italy’s Piedimonte, Ancona and Bologna…their homeland had been signed away to the Soviets. Now they know that the plight of East Germany is open-ended. Now they know that Stalin actually did get away with murder.  (Gen. Władysław Anders and Gen. Harold Aleksander are talking in a Polish camp in Italy amid soldiers from the 2nd Polish Corps, 1945)

Their worst fears are confirmed…and my brother and I understand nothing. As the broadcast ends, the two of us are still standing there as Dad grimly goes down the stairs and silently returns to his farm chores. The screen door at the bottom of the stairs closes behind him and Mom snaps at us, “We’ve waited years to hear about Yalta and then you had to make noise!”

The harshness of her comment stuck with me. All I remembered from that day was “We’ve waited years to hear about Yalta….” As an adult I pieced together the historical events, but not until this past week did I go back and put it all in the context of her Mailboxes and Old Barns and now I see what happened: She was wondering….how many more lies? She was tired. She was angry. And she was afraid.

We aren’t the first generation to walk with a certain courage, but get worn out anyway;

we aren’t the first generation to have bad memories of things gone wrong;

we aren’t the first generation to be lied to by national leaders;

we aren’t the first generation to be sickened by confirmation of things we already know;

we aren’t the first generation to feel fear and anger because of these things;

but by the grace of God, neither will we be

the first generation to fail to fight

for what is good and true and right.

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