Reunion in Leningrad

Separated for forty-seven years, Justyn and his sister, Pauline, were uniquely blessed by the Tabernacle Choir’s tour of eastern Europe.

I knew nothing of either Pauline or Justyn Pronckietis on that warm afternoon in mid-October 1990 as I walked into beautiful Philharmonic Hall in what was then known as Leningrad. I was one of a small group representing the administrative, technical, and musical staff of the Tabernacle Choir. Our purpose on this ten-day trip was to traverse the same ground the choir would cover on their three-week tour the following June. My particular responsibility was to evaluate the acoustics of the concert halls, examine their pianos and organs, and note any other features or problems that might have bearing on the musical success of the tour.

We had seen some wonderful concert halls during the past several days, but none more magnificent than this one. It was an elegant old hall that felt rich, warm, and comfortable. The physical and acoustical intimacy were ideal. I could visualize the choir on its stage and imagine their rich sound reinforced by the resonance of the room. Yes, this would be a concert to remember.

Not all the concert halls we had visited contained pipe organs, but this one did. The curator of the instrument met with us and let me play the organ. The man appeared to be in his early sixties, with sharp features and thick, graying hair. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Russian, but he was fluent in German, and I knew just enough that with the addition of some gestures we were able to communicate in a limited way. His pride in the instrument was obvious as he pointed out its various features. I listened to a variety of sounds and could see that the organ would work beautifully in accompanying the choir and, if we desired, as a solo instrument.

After our inspection and as we were saying good-bye, the curator mentioned that he had been born in the United States—in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! Needless to say, his revelation took us aback. Further inquiry revealed that he had a sister, Pauline, who he thought was living in the United States following their separation during World War II. He had not been in touch with her since the war and did not know her whereabouts, but wondered whether we might be able to locate her.

He took out an old, yellowed photograph of Pauline, taken when she was about thirteen, and a small scrap of paper with an address in Westfield, Massachusetts, where she had gone to live nearly fifty years ago. He had been unable to reach her through the mail, though he had sent many letters to that address. He did not know whether she had married and so couldn’t tell us what her last name now might be. He wrote down the information and his name, Justyn Pronckietis, and gave it to me. I agreed to do what I could to locate Pauline, but I felt the chances were extremely remote.

Following my return home, my conscience was pricked each time I came across that small slip of paper in my briefcase. Though my chance for success seemed slim, I knew that I very possibly represented the only means by which these two might be reunited.

Thus motivated, I learned with only a little research that Westfield, Massachusetts, lay within the boundaries of the Springfield Second Ward, and that the bishop was Ernest Burns. I wrote a letter to Bishop Burns explaining Justyn’s story, giving the information I had, and asking if there was someone in his ward who might be willing to do a little detective work.

Just twelve days later, Bishop Burns called, saying that Pauline had been found! The good bishop had personally taken on the task. He went to the city hall in Westfield, thinking that if Pauline had married in the area, there would be a record of the marriage. Knowing her approximate age, he asked that the records be searched beginning in 1950. His hunch paid off; the marriage record, dated 4 July 1951, was found. That gave him the name of Pauline’s husband, and the phone book confirmed that after all these years, they were still living in Westfield.

A few days later I spoke with a very excited Pauline on the telephone. She was at once anxious and cautious—anxious to learn all she could about her brother, but cautious about letting herself believe that the prayers of so many years were actually being answered. I could tell her little about Justyn at that time—only that he was alive and something about his work. Pauline later told me that everywhere she went, for the following weeks, she told the miraculous story of how her brother had been found, and the telling was always through tears of joy.

I spoke with Pauline several times during the following weeks, learning something of their early life together. Their parents, Veronica and Stasys Pronckietis, had immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. Veronica was of Polish descent; Stasys was Lithuanian. He was an organist and a piano tuner, she a singer. They settled in Pittsburgh, where two of Stasys’s brothers were already living. In Pennsylvania their two children were born—Justyn in 1927, and Pauline some three years later.

In 1933 the Pronckietis family returned to Europe and settled in Latvia. They had some happy years together before the outbreak of the war, but soon events would tear the little family apart.

Although Latvia had a long and stormy history of domination by foreign powers, during the 1920s and 1930s this Baltic state was an independent nation with a democratic form of government. In 1940, Russian troops occupied Latvia, and it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. A year later German forces invaded the country and temporarily wrested control from the Soviet Union. During the German occupation, Justyn, just sixteen years old at the time, was conscripted into the German army.

In 1944, when Russian troops again invaded and regained control of Latvia, Justyn was captured along with many other German soldiers. The rest of the Pronckietis family felt compelled to flee the country for fear of reprisal from Soviet troops. The Germans helped them escape and make their way to Austria, but they had to leave without their beloved Justyn.

The family fled by wagon to Riga, where they were eventually put on a German naval vessel. Pauline still vividly remembers the terror they felt as their ship was fired upon as it sailed the Baltic Sea toward Germany. Once in Germany, they were herded into freight cars with other refugees and taken to Mödling, near Vienna. The family was given a tiny room in which to live, but Pauline spent her days alone, as her parents went to work in a factory.

The next leg of the harrowing journey was one Pauline would have to travel by herself. With the end of the war in 1945, German troops occupying Austria were replaced by Allied forces. The Pronckietis family was able to seek assistance for Pauline from the American consulate in Vienna, since she was a U.S. citizen by birth. Arrangements were made for her to travel to the United States. Though lonely and frightened, fifteen-year-old Pauline was eager and optimistic about the new life she, and eventually her parents, would find in her native America, a country whose language she could not speak.

Pauline did not return to Pittsburgh, but rather went to Westfield, a small town in western Massachusetts, where she was taken in by friends of her parents. At age sixteen, she went to work in a needle manufacturing plant to help defray her living costs. A year later her parents were able to join her there, and they became naturalized citizens. Occasionally over the years, the family heard rumors that someone had seen Justyn or knew his whereabouts, but sources and motives were always suspect. While these rumors gave the family renewed hope that Justyn might still be alive, they could never be verified.

Veronica died in 1959, and Stasys five years later, never knowing the fate of their son, Justyn, whether he was even alive. As for Pauline, her warmth and outgoing personality won her many friends. When she was eighteen, she was crowned Miss Westfield. She met a young man and married, and together they raised three sons and two daughters; they presently have three grandchildren. Their home has been filled with laughter and tears, but there has also been an emptiness, symbolized by a cherished photograph that has occupied a place of prominence on the mantel of their fireplace. It is of Justyn at age sixteen, handsomely dressed in his army uniform—the last photograph taken before their separation.

After I had made contact with Pauline, the next challenge was to inform Justyn and establish communication between them. That opportunity came in early April 1991 when a change in the choir’s tour required that someone return to Moscow. The lot fell to Richard Savage, from London, England, who had been with us the previous October and had immediately developed a keen interest in the story of Justyn and Pauline.

Arrangements were made for Richard to take with him a letter Pauline wrote to Justyn. The letter, though quite short, was poignant. In it Pauline acknowledged the hand of a loving God in answering her humble petitions on behalf of Justyn. She also expressed concern about how they might now communicate with each other, since she had forgotten the five European languages they spoke in their home as children.

Carrying the letter, Richard went to Leningrad to confirm tour arrangements there and to see Justyn. Through an interpreter, Richard read Pauline’s letter to Justyn. Overcome with emotion, Justyn penned a response to Pauline. Within a few days the letter was in Pauline’s hands.

With the help of a translator, she read, “Dear Lina,” Justyn’s pet name for her. Then he added to hers his own acknowledgement of God’s hand in reestablishing contact, and he told briefly of his own life during the period of their separation.

After his capture in Latvia, Justyn had been taken to a Russian camp near Sakhalin, an island off the eastern coast of Siberia, where he was held for a year under difficult conditions. For five more years he served in the Soviet army. During that time, he was stationed in Estonia, and there he met Anastasia, a beautiful Russian girl from Leningrad. They fell in love, were married, and settled in Leningrad in 1952, following his tour of duty. Today, Justyn and Anastasia have two sons, Yurij and Sergej, two granddaughters, and a grandson, Stasys, named after his great-grandfather.

Justyn, in those youthful years before the separation from his family, must have developed an interest in and an aptitude for the work of his father. For more than thirty years he has worked as an organ technician, maintaining some of the most prominent pipe organs of Leningrad. He is now of an age when one might seek to retire, but he maintains that “in work there is life.”

The circle was now complete; Justyn and Pauline knew about each other and had corresponded, albeit briefly. Pauline was content just knowing that Justyn was alive and enjoying a happy life with a loving family. When I asked her whether she would ever consider traveling to the Soviet Union to visit her brother, her response was not enthusiastic. As much as she would love to see Justyn, she had reservations about returning to the Soviet Union. It took a call from Richard Savage to put her fears to rest and to suggest that if her trip to Leningrad coincided with the visit of the Tabernacle Choir, a number of arrangements would already have been made, and resources would be available to assist her. One of the airlines serving Leningrad became aware of the possible reunion and offered to provide transportation for Pauline. At that point, she could resist no longer.

The next few weeks were busy ones for Pauline. She decided that her oldest son, Edmund, should accompany her on this momentous journey. As she made travel preparations, Pauline also lovingly prepared a large scrapbook for Justyn. In it she placed his birth certificate (proof of his U.S. citizenship), photos and memorabilia from his childhood that their parents had brought from Europe, pictures of their parents taken from the time they left Latvia until their death, and a photo history of Pauline’s own family. Bishop Burns introduced Pauline to Sister Antonia Raguskus, one of his ward members. Sister Raguskus is of Russian descent and speaks Russian fluently. She offered to tutor Pauline in the Russian she once spoke. The two women met often and became very close as they laughed and cried together, speaking both Russian and English. Pauline now thinks of “Tonia” as a sister.

On 22 June 1991, Pauline and Edmund boarded a jet bound for Leningrad. The anticipation mounted as they slowly proceeded through passport control and customs. They emerged into the terminal’s waiting area, where Justyn was waiting to greet them with a bouquet of carnations for Pauline. Brother and sister, after forty-seven years apart, shared a tearful embrace and began the happy process of becoming reacquainted, exchanging the stories of their lives lived apart.

It was then that another miracle occurred. Pauline had worried that they might not be able to communicate and had done her best to regain some facility with Russian. As she and Justyn began groping for words to give expression to their thoughts and emotions, Pauline sensed words streaming into her consciousness. But the words were not Russian, they were Polish—her mother’s native tongue. Pauline thought she had completely forgotten it, but Polish words were rolling off her tongue, and when a particular word eluded her, Justyn anticipated what she wanted to say and supplied the word for her. The communication barrier she had feared was gone.

The next few days were incredibly busy as Pauline and Edmund met Justyn’s family, toured Leningrad, and celebrated their reunion. They laughed, they cried, they feasted, danced, and sang. There was little time even for sleep.

Pauline and I had spoken numerous times on the telephone, and I already knew a great deal about her, so when we finally met in Leningrad with the Choir’s appearance there, it was like meeting an old friend. By that time, she was physically and emotionally exhausted, yet shared with my wife and me all that had transpired during her four days in Leningrad and some of what she had learned about Justyn’s life and family.

That evening Pauline and Edmund joined the Tabernacle Choir for dinner. I had the pleasure of introducing them to the choir, all of whom had heard of this remarkable story over the past several months. Pauline soon learned that five hundred friends shared in her joy and excitement.

Later that evening the choir presented its concert in Philharmonic Hall. Seated in the audience were Justyn, Pauline, and Edmund. The performance was every bit as magical as I had imagined eight months earlier. After the concert, my wife asked Justyn whether he had expected that we would have any success locating Pauline following our meeting the previous October. He explained that while he had always maintained hope of being reunited with his sister, something had “prompted” him to approach us with his story.

The winds of change continue to blow across what we once knew as the Soviet Union. How these changes will ultimately affect the lives of these people only time will tell. In the meantime I am grateful that during the summer of 1991 a window of opportunity was open that permitted the Tabernacle Choir to sing their songs of praise and celebration to the people in Leningrad and allowed a brother and sister, for half a century victims of competing political systems, to find each other once again.

[photo] Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), with its impressive skyline, as seen from the Neva River. (Courtesy of FPG International.)

[photos] These photographs of Justyn and Pauline were taken around the time they were separated in 1944.

[photo] When they were reunited in the Leningrad airport, Justyn and Pauline were overjoyed at being together after so many years.

John Longhurst, Tabernacle organist, is a member of the Little Cottonwood Sixteenth Ward, Murray Utah Little Cottonwood Stake.