By Pamela Dozois
Many of us recall stories that our parents told us as children about family history. One of the stories author Karen Jensen recalls is about her mother and her mother’s family escaping from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, which she has written about in her first book, “Never Come Back.”
Although Jensen no longer lives in the valley, she grew up in Solvang with her mother Agatha R. Larson and her father H.G. “Swede” Larson, attending kindergarten through high school in the area. She was planning to visit Solvang from April 22-28 and attending the 59th annual Santa Ynez Valley High School reunion luncheon on April 27; however, the COVID-19 has postponed this event to a later date.
“Never Come Back” tells the story of Jensen’s mother, who, at the age of 4, left Petropavlovsk, Siberia, with her family to move to their ancestral village in southern Ukraine, and then, at 6, moved to Russia.
“Growing up, I repeatedly heard an absolutely amazing story about my grandfather giving a loaf of bread to some prisoner he couldn’t see behind the bars of the window in a train box car. Much later when he, as a German Mennonite pacifist who had become a White Russian soldier, then had to surrender to the Reds, to the Bolsheviks, he ended up surrendering to the same person to whom he had given that loaf of bread,” recalled Jensen. “That Red officer was so grateful for that loaf of bread saving his life, he made my grandfather a high-ranking officer in the Red Army and gave him the papers he needed to safely take his family from their home in Siberia back to their native village in Ukraine. It not only saved my grandfather’s life, but saved the lives of his family members, including my mother, who had been born in Siberia. The story intrigued me and I wanted to know more.
“Over the course of my early adult married life, I audiotaped multiple times interviews of my mother, my grandmother, my mother’s oldest sister and her husband telling their remarkable story, over and over again,” continued Jensen. “Also, I did extensive research into the historical and cultural background of those events: memoirs, biographies, diaries, histories, even atlases, and cookbooks. My goal in this biography, was to present my family, warts and all. They were a fairly godly people, but not a perfect people. And some were less perfect than others.”
“We need to know history, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. History presented in context of stories full of drama and pathos makes for more compelling reading,” she said. “‘Never Come Back’ is the factual account of my mother’s family during those terrible times of the Bolshevik Revolution, the same time period as ‘Dr. Zhivago.’
Jensen goes on to explain that most people today do not realize that under the progressive farming techniques of the Germans living in Ukraine, before World War I, Ukraine was very prosperous.
“It was the No. 1 food producer providing all the best wheat for the best bread in all of Europe, and for the best pasta throughout the Mediterranean,” she said. “Ukraine has never recovered its food production or its remarkable prosperity, since the Bolshevik Revolution, under Communism.”
Further, Jensen said that most people do not realize that there were actually three armies involved in the Bolshevik Revolution: a White Army fighting for the czar, the Red Army of Bolsheviks or communists, and the Black Army of anarchists, “lawless bandit groups that were left unchecked.”
“Although I had been collecting family memoirs on audio tapes and scanning pictures throughout my life, it took me about a decade dedicated to digitizing those audio tapes, transcribing them, organizing them into a timeline,” she said. “I also read extensively regarding the cultural and historical background to flesh out the full story and write the finished manuscript.”
Sharing a little of her history, Jensen explained that her father built their first home in Solvang behind the Solvang Elementary School, next door to the Bethania Lutheran Church pastor’s home on Laurel, and the family moved there in time for her fourth birthday. She attended nursery school in a little home on Alisal Road, carpooled to kindergarten at College School in Santa Ynez, since Solvang had not yet established a kindergarten. She walked to Solvang Elementary School when there were only four classrooms at first, then attended Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, graduating with the Class of 1961. The family’s home was purchased by the Solvang School in 1953 for use as a kindergarten until it was demolished and the gymnasium was built in its place.
“My dad built our next home in Solvang at 2517 Janin Way, the 10th home to be built in Janin Acres,” Jensen continued. “My mother, Agatha, known by her Russian nickname Gonja in the book ‘Never Come Back’ became the teacher and principal at Ballard’s Little Red Schoolhouse in the late 1950s into the 1960s. Gonja’s hobby was taking oil painting lessons from the Brandt-Erichsen’s at Elverhoj.
“Some of my fondest memories of the Valley are participating in the Danish folk summer school at Atterdag College, and participating in Viggo Tarnow’s gymnastics, and folk dancing during Danish Days,” she recalled. “I even appeared on a couple of postcards sold throughout the valley and in the July 1963 issue of Women’s Day Magazine, page 25, as a folk dancer during Danish Days.”
Jensen’s aspirations are to write an abridged version to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Race of ships filled with immigrants into New York Harbor, trying to beat the filling of the quota of immigrants from their country of origin on July 1, 1923. She would also like to write a child’s version of “Never Come Back” and a sequel to her new book “Beyond Hope, Those Who Were Left Behind.”
Jensen lives with her husband of 53 years and three cats in Arizona and loves the history of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp and hiking among the beautiful scenery in the area.
“Never Come Back” can be ordered through Dorrance, the publisher, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.