Alex Panasenko, "The Long Vacation: A Memoir" (Iris Press, 2020)

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NB: This interview contains material about wartime experiences that may be upsetting to some listeners.

When Alex Panasenko was born in 1933, his native Ukraine was devastated by Stalin’s program of mass starvation; millions were murdered and, soon after, millions more removed in Stalin’s Great Purge. In 1941, when Panasenko was eight years old, Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded and he was deported with his family for slave labor. As the tide turned against the Nazis, Panasenko, now separated from his family, tramped westward with the retreating German army. The Long Vacation is Alex Panasenko’s war memoir, remembering the formative, often harrowing experiences that shaped his character.

In this conversation, Mr. Panasenko discusses the extremities of life, death, terror, lust, and hunger from a child’s perspective, and with a child’s canny reactions aimed at survival, even when the prospect seemed most unlikely. With things falling apart around him—laws, governments, the conventions of the adult world—Panasenko came to rely only on himself. Consequently, as an adolescent in the chaotic period following the war, he became an astonishingly successful black marketeer in the liberated Bavarian town of Memmingen. Finally, Mr. Panasenko reflects on his life in the 75 years since the war, including his forty years as a biology teacher at Berkeley High School in northern California.

Krzysztof Odyniec is a historian of Early Modern Europe and the Spanish Empire; he had the privilege of being one of Alex Panasenko’s biology students in 1993-94.

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