Monday, January 22, 2007

Wait for Me

On the rare occasions on which I watch TV, I’m happiest if I happen to come across the Russian program Zhdi Menya (Wait for Me). This was a program I also liked watching years ago in Siberia. Then, when my Russian skills were less developed, it was one of the only programs I could halfway understand – that and Posledni Geroi (the Last Hero), the Russian version of Survivor.

People from across the former Soviet Union, and sometimes even Germany, the U.S., Africa, and other places where people had connections with those in Russia come to find people they lost. Unlike U.S. talk shows that often feature people from the outliers of society, the people on Wait for Me span the range of society – with children in orphanages, grandmothers, and everything in between looking for lost parents, children, relatives, friends, first loves. The host has been the same calm, avuncular, middle-aged man for the past several years, who inspires trust and hope in the viewers.

Over the years, they seem to have built quite a database. And sometimes they are able to pair people up just by receiving letters from both of them. But more often, they either get tips from viewers after showing the stories, or they go to quite a bit of work to locate the lost person, then reunite them on the show.

Tonight, three adult children came on the show looking for their lost father. Almost ten years ago, he went to Moscow to look for work. He sent a letter saying he loved and missed them, then they never heard anything again. The daughter especially seemed heartbroken at having lost her father.

“He misses you too,” the host said, as the daughter took a sharp inhale at the sign that contact had been made with him.

Wait for Me showed a video-clip of her father. They found him in a small village, eking by on doing odd jobs. He barely had any teeth left. He said that his daughter had needed $1000 to go to Israel to work. So he’d taken a loan at 10% (monthly?) interest. The sum owed kept building up, so he went to Moscow to look for work to pay it off. He was cheated and deceived there. Feeling unable to return without the money, he lived I this village, pained with loneliness at living almost ten years without family.

“We paid back the debt a long time ago,” the daughter said through tears, after seeing the video. “You don’t owe anything. You should have just come home.”

Then they brought her father out live to greet his three children, all but one son in tears.

“Will you go home now?” the host asked the father.


And they handed him a free ticket to Moldova. The father and daughter thanked him profusely.

An elderly woman in the audience with carefully coiffed hair stoically told the story of how she was arrested, interrogated and sentenced to hard labor for anti-Stalin school activities. She was not even 16 years old. She spent six years in the taiga, working in the cold, enduring “unimaginable things.” She recalled how they jumped with joy and danced around a cedar tree upon hearing of Stalin’s death. And waited for a long time with hope for an eventual release.

She wanted to find the three other young girls she’d been incarcerated with. Wait for me found them and showed two videos, one from Poland and one from somewhere else. Then they brought out an elderly woman who they’d invited from Lithuania. She had also been one of the group. This was the first time they’d seen each other in fifty years.

The woman looking for her friends crossed herself, then went onstage, taking herself out of her daughter’s grip.

“Oh, what a beautiful girl you were,” she cried upon embracing her former friend. “We were just girls. And now we’re old.” She talked constantly as the Lithuanian cried. “Don’t cry,” she continued. “We lived. That’s the important thing.”

She was right. They lived through the horrors in which millions upon millions died, no less than 2.7 million, according to The Gulag by Anne Applebaum, most likely a multiple of that. Even the host, immune to these kind of reunions, wiped a tear from his eye. Here were reminders of the horrible past, the past so many Russian participated in, yet prefer to deny, to forgot. Here, amongst the comparative wealth, prosperity and development, were reminders of the horror and the madness.

Amidst all the stories of pain and loss, there are enough reunions and redemptions to give people hope, to make them feel good. And that’s why I like the show. I like learning about other’s lives. And I like seeing them cry true tears of joy.

No comments: