A story on Russian immigrants in Hawaii prompts a reader's tale

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Marco Werman: Remember our story last week about the Russians who immigrated to Hawaii a century or so ago? Our friend Alina Simone told us that many Russians went to the island to work on sugar plantations. We have an update now. One of those updates that makes you realize how radio ain’t what it used to be. Radio does not have pictures, never did, but the online version of the story at PRI.ORG included a vintage photo of a Russian family, a couple and their teenage daughter, and when Michelle Konn Rai saw that picture, she thought she recognized the girl. Michelle is a professor at Pacific Union College in California. She investigated further and concluded the girl was, in fact, her great, great, grandmother. Long story short, Michelle contacted us and told us that the daughter of the girl in the photo is her great grand aunt, Olga. Olga Tracy is 94-years-old and a resident of Savannah, Georgia and she joins me now. Olga, how big of a surprise was this when you heard your picture was on our website?


Olga Tracy: Oh, very big.


Werman: So, your grandparents were Tatiana and Theodore Kovner, the couple in the photo. They’re the ones who decided to move to Hawaii from Russia. What do you remember about them?


Tracy: Well, I was only 7-years-old. All I know is that they went to Manchuria in 1909 and then took a boat from Manchuria, and then they went to Hawaii. The reason they left the Ukraine was because they were afraid of the revolution.


Werman: What about your mom? She moved to Hawaii with her parents. Did she ever talk about that?


Tracy: She was so little, but they put her in school in Kaua’i and she didn’t know a word of English, and she had a really tough time because they didn’t have ESL, English as a second language. It was just there you learned English. So, naturally she learned English and she spoke it very well without any Russian accent.


Werman: But when she’d come home, would you speak Russian with her? What was going on at the house?h


Tracy: She spoke Russian with my grandmother, who only spoke Russian. Of course, we knew a little Russian, but not many words.


Werman: Any Russian culture enter the house, like did you ever drink borscht?


Tracy: Oh yeah, because my mother called all soup borscht.


Werman: Even if it didn’t have beets in it, it was still borscht?


Tracy: Yeah. It usually had beef and some vegetables, and she called it borscht. Instead of beets, she used cabbage. We used whatever was available.  Because we were Chinese and Russian and Hawaii, we ate poi. Of course, all the Russian ladies would get something from San Francisco, like smoked herring, which you can’t get in Hawaii, and come and share it. There wouldn’t be more than three or four ladies, and they’d have herring and salmon eggs, and all the ladies rode automobiles, they drove them--in the 1920s, not many women drove cars, but they all did. Oh, another funny thing was there was a guy who had a steam bath, and occasionally he let these women go and use the steam bath. In Hawaii, it’s hot enough without a steam bath, but they kind of enjoyed it.


Werman: Just like the old world. You still remember any Russian today?


Tracy: Oh, sure. My mother taught me a couple of lullabies and some songs and some words.


Werman: Can you still remember any verses in Russian of those lullabies?


Tracy: Sure.


Werman: Can you share one now? I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I will.


Tracy: [Singing in Russian] That means “Go to sleep, God is near.”


Werman: I hope my memory is as good as yours at 94. You’re incredible. It was lovely to talk with you. Thanks very much for your time.


Tracy: Okay, are we over and out?


Werman: We are over and out, madam. Thank you.


Tracy: Don’t call me madam, I’m just one of the girls.


Werman: She really is. 94-year-old Olga Tracy speaking with us from Savannah, Georgia, sharing her memories of life as a child of Russian immigrants in Hawaii. We have a picture of her Russian grandparents and mother in Hawaii at PRI.ORG.