Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Living in Gratitude, with Gusto

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Living in Gratitude, with Gusto

Article excerpt


Tanya Kukrecht was a skinny, blonde 9-year-old when Hungary occupied her native Yugoslavia. A "shiksa mit Yiddishe kop" -- a non-Jewish girl with Jewish smarts ("kop" means head) -- she remembers the sights, sounds and fears of the time as if it were yesterday, not seven decades ago. The splotches of red on the snow, the disappearance of prominent citizens in her native Novi Sad, the stories of bodies floating in the River Danube.

"I remember it all," says Kukrecht, now 83, sitting in the styling chair in the back room of Tanya's Chalet, her Sarasota wig and breast prosthetics business. "Unfortunately."

When she was 19 and her brother two years younger, the family was sent to a displaced persons camp in Trieste, Italy, granted permission to leave the country but with "no place to go." Because her father was originally from Siberia and there were few Russians in the camp, the wait to be part of a Soviet "quota" allowed to leave for the U.S. was just two years. As long as Kukrecht was under legal age, she could go along as a dependent. But as a native of Yugoslavia, once she turned 21 she would be required to wait another five years.

In the camp, the family of four shared a 20' by 12' cabin, with community bathing and meals. Kukrecht took classes in English, Italian and hat-making. But as the time to her 21st birthday dwindled, she felt increasingly panicked that she would be left behind when her parents emigrated. In desperation, she wrote a letter to the American Consul in charge of the refugee camps. In turn, she received money to make a trip to plead her case in person.

"I will never forget," she says, remembering the moment she arrived. "I can see the vice consul coming toward me, extending his hand. 'So you are the girl born on the Fourth of July,' he said. 'In America, everyone will celebrate your birthday. You probably don't even know what I am talking about, but soon you will find out.'"

With assistance from the Tolstoy Foundation, the family was on a plane just days before Kukrecht's birthday. They celebrated with a cake baked by an aunt in Philadelphia, with whom the family stayed for their first month, and her first fireworks display.

Two years later she married another immigrant who had just joined the American military. Oddly enough, though he had lived in Novi Sad, she never met him until he showed up in Trieste at the urging of a mutual friend. But she had heard of him as a young girl; he was known as "Robbie the mountain climber," a handsome, athletic fellow, the object of many a pretty girl's lust. Later he would say he fell in love with his feisty 85-pound wife -- who was scrubbing the floor when he came to the door and made him sit with his feet on a chair - - because "you were the first girl who didn't chase after me. …

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