Robert Ochsenhirt of Williamsburg was flying recently from Richmond to Kansas City, reading the book, "The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia," written by Tim Tzouliadis, a British documentary filmmaker and television journalist.
"It was one of the most fascinating, yet troubling books I have ever read," Ochsenhirt said in an interview with the Gazette.
This declaration, coming from him, is significant. Ochsenhirt, trained as a mechanical engineer, served with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for 37 years as an executive. He traveled to all 50 states and spent time on every continent except Antarctica. He also earned a master's degree in Economic Geography and after retiring from Goodyear, became an adjunct professor at the University of Akron, in Ohio, and Park University, near Kansas City, teaching courses in economic, cultural and military geography.
But what makes Ochsenhirt especially qualified to pass judgment about books dealing with history, is his fascination with historical facts and his devotion to check them out. He has a private library containing more then 1,000 volumes, mostly on history, and no "alternative facts" satisfy him.
According to Ochsenhirt, Tzouliadis's book gives a full account of those described in "The Forsaken," including the gullible Americans who paid for their naiveté with their lives.
Historical records show that during Stalin's rule as many as 30 million Soviet citizens were held in prison camps or executed. Among them were several thousand American workers, engineers, and doctors, who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, during the depression. Most left for promised jobs, not ideological reasons.
A few years latter, writes Tzouliadis, as the Stalinist purges took hold, the Americans found themselves stateless, trapped inside the Soviet Union, passports confiscated.
"By 1937, the NKVD, the secret police, were arresting people and sending them to prison camps, as 'enemies of the people' by picking names from he telephone directory," he wrote.
A review of the book in Russia Profile, a BBC News program, notes, " 'The Forsaken' draws the reader inside the inconceivably horrific nightmare of secret police, nightly disappearances, famine, gulags, mass butchery and show trials, from an unprecedented perspective. This chilling tale unleashes an unseen chapter of American and Soviet history that makes the blood run cold. Exceptionally researched, the book does not merely relay information on seven decades of the Soviet Empire, but provides scintillating in-depth analysis of events and individuals, particularly of the psychology of the twisted dictator."
According to Ochsenhirt, all this was augmented by the willingness of the Roosevelt Administration "to bend over backward to accommodate Stalin," and the distorted reportage of the American press, from Moscow.
Indeed, as Tzouliadis writes, "U. S. Ambassador Joseph Davies ... was sent to Moscow to win the confidence of Stalin. His insensitivity toward the emigrant's plight may have been orchestrated by Roosevelt out of strategic need to enlist the dictator as an ally. This may explain why the ambassador and his wife spent their time rummaging for Russian art rather than helping their countrymen."
After I read Ochsenhirt's copy of the book, I realized that I was familiar with many details of this chapter in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. This is in sharp contrast with the knowledge many otherwise well informed local residents have about the forsaken Americans. An informal survey revealed that none of those I queried, ever heard about the American emigrants who were trapped and perished in the Soviet Union.
No wonder Ochsenhirt wrote to one of his colleagues, "Not sure how many of the other guys in Akron have read the book, but I strongly encourage them to do so."
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and amazon.com.