For years at The Equiery, we have batted about the idea of a story (or series of stories) entitled “The Secret Lives of Maryland Horse People.” Horses certainly define the parameters of life for a large percentage, if not the vast majority, of Equiery readers, and it is through horses, or because of horses, that many of us connect with each other. If it were not for our horses, we might never have the opportunity to meet. School bus drivers ride side-by-side – and on equal footing – with titans of industry, each often never fully aware of what the other does when un-mounted. There is a certain democracy embodied in the horse world – as well as a certain anonymity.
Over the years, we have learned of the fascinating non-equine related lives that many of our readers have, that one would never have suspected given their discipline or job. The fastidious hunter princess who likes to go wild turkey hunting, and even dresses her own birds. The farrier who is also a violinist with a major city orchestra.
And so it is – or was – with a stalwart of the local dressage scene, Sigrid Thomas, who died of complications related to cancer on Monday, October 22, 2007, as we were getting ready to write this article. Thus the confusion in present and past tense, Sigrid would understand.
Horse people both in and out of dressage knew Sigrid Thomas as one of the powerhouses of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association. She was the reliable editor of their newsletter, the faithful chronicler of its history for thirteen years. When we started The Equiery, she was one of our early, faithful supporters, and a personal mentor to this publisher. She occasionally honored us with an article or photos, and – as she was a former photo editor for Life magazine, it was always a great pleasure for this publisher to talk with her.
One day, she mentioned she was writing a book about her childhood in Europe. Oh, how interesting – would you please send it to us when it is published? This summer, Sigrid mailed to us: “Goodbye Stalin – A True Story of Wars, Escapes & Re-inventions.”
Before Sigrid was our Sigrid, she had another life – an extraordinary, bone chilling, mind boggling life running, first from Stalin, again from the Red Army, and then again from East Germany.
Who knew that our Sigrid was the daughter of deposed Estonian nobility, who lost their holdings during the Russian Revolution? After the Russian Revolution, her father gamely made a new life for them on a small parcel of land they were able to retain because it had been deeded in his mother’s name, and only that land deeded in the names of males had been seized (because, theoretically, the women had no holdings to seize). Through ingenuity and hard work, her father established himself as one of the first successful greenhouse farmers in the unforgiving climate of Estonia. When Stalin and Hitler seized and divvied up the region, and Stalin claimed Estonia, Estonians of German heritage (despite the fact that they had been in Estonia over 700 years) were given refuge by Hitler – so long as they fled Estonia in time.
And thus begins a “back story” of World War II to which few of us have perhaps ever given much thought. We, of course, know the horror story of how Hitler stormed through country after country, rounding up and exterminating anyone of Jewish decent, or anyone not of pure Aryan blood.
The human horror is so overwhelming, one gives little or no thought to the homes, the farms and the businesses that the Jews left behind. Not so the Nazis, who could be chillingly pragmatic. What did become of their homes, businesses and farms? Well, the Nazis installed displaced “German nationals” into those farms and businesses with the instructions to produce revenue or products for the Nazi regime. When Sigrid’s father was offered the “opportunity” to run an estate in Poland, he was not really given the option of saying “no” to Hitler. Eventually, the Nazi hold on Poland collapsed and once again Sigrid and her family were fleeing, first in horse drawn wagons and then on foot, trekking almost 500 miles, finally making it into what would become East Germany, with the Nazis blowing up bridges behind them (with no regard for those on the bridge at the time, be it their own troops or their own citizens) in order to stop the advancing Red Army. The von Bremens were among the “lucky” ones, as the Russians slaughtered or sent to work camp all those they overtook, while others perished on blown up bridges or died from starvation.
Not unlike Stalin and Hitler, the Allies carved up the Eastern bloc and Germany itself, and Sigrid’s family had the misfortunate to end up in communist East Germany.
After coming of age in post WWII communist East Germany, Sigrid made the courageous decision to strike out on her own, to leave her family and escape to the West – which she did, again, on foot, with nothing but the clothes on her back, as her traveling companions were shot and killed as they bolted across “no man’s land.”
Goodbye Stalin, despite its difficult content, is a fast and gripping read. Sigrid’s husband, Rich Thomas, notes with spousal pride what an accomplishment this book is for someone who did not learn English until she was an adult. In addition to her own memories, Sigrid incorporates bits and pieces of her father’s and grandmother’s diaries and letters as she recreates for us another life, in another world, far away from this time, and this place or wealth, opportunity, security and relative peace.
We should all know.
You may have had the pleasure of meeting Sigrid during her life, or reading either her equine-related or horticultural related articles. But did you know Sigrid?
Get to know her, and honor her, and all who endured what she endured, by buying – and reading – this incredible book.
– Crystal Brumme Kimball