Faith through Hardship: Anna’s Story, by Andrea Idso

Anna sits on a brown leather sofa in her granddaughter’s home and keeps an eye on two of her great-granddaughters. Fourteen-year-old Diana pushes baby Jessica around the room in a computer chair. The eleven other family members present laugh.

Chernichénko has always had a large family, but her life hasn’t always been as joyful as it is today.

She was born Anna Samusénko into a family of seven children, and grew up in the Ukrainian village of Kanevchséna. When she was 10 years old, her country faced a severe famine. Stalin exported much of the country’s bread and cut off communication with most other countries.

“We ate herbs, grass, and what we grew in our garden,” Chernichénko said. “We would go into the fields and scrub the ends of the wheat together to eat, and it tasted good,” she added, rubbing her stomach with her hand.

Chernichénko’s father, Timothy, was a hard-working, generous Christian and a boot maker by trade. Communist soldiers told him that he needed to give up his land and livestock so that everyone in his village could be equal. Timothy refused. The soldiers stole almost everything of value from his home – his livestock, his boot-making equipment, and his wife’s fabric, clothes, sewing machine, and flour grinder. Then they destroyed his large new barn.

Timothy took any job he could find to help feed his family. When his youngest daughter, Vera, grew deathly ill, he made his first of two trips to Russia to sell the family’s precious goods so he could get money for food. Everyone in Chernichénko’s family managed to survive the famine.

Chernichénko is 87 now, but her light brown eyes are as expressive as a child’s when she describes her family’s struggle. She wears a floor-length brown skirt and a traditional headscarf. Her weathered hands flit about the air as she continues telling her story.

When she was 18, Chernichénko was taken out of school and forced to work in a Berlin factory, where she made weapons for the war. The workers wore rigid uniforms and had their hair cropped short. Their daily breakfast was black coffee and a thin slice of bread. Lunch consisted of soup made with spinach and potatoes. If the workers refused to work on Sunday, they didn’t eat until the next day.

One day, bombs exploded all around the factory. As she hid in a bomb shelter with the other workers, Chernichénko remembered her mother reminding her to pray.

“I told them, ‘Girls, the only one who can save us is God,’” Chernichénko said.

 Some of the girls weren’t Christian; nonetheless Chernichénko led them through the Lord’s Prayer. Their factory was never bombed, though the ones nearby were destroyed.

On May 9, 1945, a date later known as Soviet Victory Day, Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union. Russian soldiers freed Chernichénko and the other factory workers.

“We were all celebrating and crying,” Chernichénko said. “We were so happy to be alive. We never thought the day would happen.”

After three years apart from her family, she finally was able to go home – but her home had changed. Nearly every family in her village had lost a man in the war. Her father died of starvation when Stalin cut off food donations from the Red Cross, and her uncle’s three sons had been killed. Her brother lost both of his legs.

Chernichénko’s future husband, Vasiliy, lost a leg during the war. All 10 of his siblings died during the famine because his father spent their money on alcohol instead of food. They married when Chernichénko was 27.

The Chernichénkos had three children, Nicolai, Nadia, and Katerina. The young family’s home and garden were often burglarized, so they moved to Mariupol, Ukraine, to live near Chernichénko’s sister. They stayed in Mariupol until her husband’s death.

When she was 72, Chernichénko, her daughter, and her sister moved to the United States. She now lives in Spokane, Wash., with her daughter Katerina. Her other children stayed in Ukraine, but they come to visit. She lives close to her four granddaughters and eight great-grandchildren.

“I’m very glad America accepted me,” Chernichénko said. “When Stalin came to power you couldn’t worship. I’m so glad America lets you worship freely and pray freely.”

Chernichénko says she praises God for many blessings in her life: that she is still living and able to walk, that she has money, a house, and family. She even considers cell phones a blessing, because during the three years she spent in Berlin she was never allowed to call her family.

 “When I was young I had a dream that I was in a very thick forest,” Chernichénko said. “There were no forests like that in my village, so my mother said that meant I would travel to a new place.”

Since that dream, Chernichénko has lived in Ukraine, Germany, and America.

“God pulls you through so much,” she said. “I’ve had an interesting life.”