In the Russian Orthodox tradition, a week of memorial services concluded last month for Elizabeth Kudrin, a woman whose family says her legacy is that of a “great survivor.”
Kudrin died just a few days after her 82nd birthday. She was born on Attu, a tiny island in the far Western Aleutians in 1941 — the same year that Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. In June of 1942, more than a thousand Japanese soldiers invaded Attu.
Elizabeth was just a baby, the youngest of seven children, when she and her parents, Olean and Lavrenti Golodoff, along with her family, were taken captive.
In September, the Golodoffs, and the rest of the islanders, were taken to Japan as prisoners of war.
About 40 arrived in Otaru on the northern island of Hokkaido, where they were housed in a big, shabby dormitory. About half of them died by the end of World War II, including Elizabeth’s father, two brothers and one sister.
Kudrin’s husband George says his wife’s passing marks the end of an era. He calls her “the matriarch of matriarchs, the last mom from Attu.”
Her death leaves only one survivor from Attu, her older brother Greg.
Although Kudrin and his wife were a close couple, he says she never talked about the war, partly because she was too young to remember what happened — and what memories she did have were too painful to dwell upon.
Elizabeth’s older brother, Nick Golodoff, described the hunger and starvation in his book, Attu Boy. He said the daily ration, near the end of the war, was only a quarter of a bowl of watered-down rice.
Rachel Mason, a National Park Service historian, says the timing of their evacuation from Attu, which came after the summer fishing season, turned out to be key to their survival.
“The Japanese told the Attuans to pack as much as they could of their subsistence foods, so they brought dried fish,” Mason said. “And that I think saved them, because at least until their fish rain out, they ate fairly well in Japan.”
Mason said Elizabeth’s mother did what she could to keep her children from starving.
“She was reduced to finding orange peels on the ground to feed her children,” she said.
Those who survived the war were not allowed to return home to Attu, which today remains uninhabited. The federal government resettled Elizabeth, her mother and three brothers in the neighboring island of Atka, where her husband George grew up. He remembers stories about how people were puzzled to hear mysterious sounds from this newly arrived four-year-old girl.
“She used to sing Japanese,” Kudrin said. “She used to go under the table and sing Japanese.”
But Kudrin says his wife had no memory of that.
Ray Hudson, a historian who has written extensively about the Aleutians, says the people of Attu are now lost to the footnotes of history, but what happened should not be forgotten.
“These were American citizens and subject to a very high death toll,” Hudson said. “So really, the capture of the Attu people in 1942 sealed the fate of Attu Island in many ways.”
Hudson says prior to the Japanese military invasion, a number of Aleutian villages had disappeared, but Attu was a thriving community.
“The villagers would trap fox, go fishing and made a good living,” Hudson said.
The women, he said, still made the tightly woven baskets that the Aleutians are famous for. But the war changed everything.
“People like Elizabeth are the victims of forces really beyond their control,” said Hudson, who said he was always impressed by her unfailing graciousness. “People like Elizabeth showed amazing courage and resoluteness to start over.”
Hudson said when Elizabeth was taken to Japan, she had to deal with people who didn’t speak her language, Unangam Tunuu. And when her family moved to Atka, she had to learn a new dialect.
“So there’s always this constant reinventing of yourself. And I think Elizabeth showed that resolve and a spirit of renewal that is really in the Unangax people.”
Elizabeth’s family says her life was full of hardships. She lost her first husband in a boating tragedy and outlived four of her five children.
“Anĝaĝinam iĝamanaa,” George Kudrin says in Unagam Tunuu. “She was a good person and she just loved you.
Elizabeth’s husband George says he marveled at Elizabeth’s ability to channel hardship into kindness and compassion for others.
Her daughter-in-law, Crystal Dushkin, said she became a role model to young women in Atka.
“Seeing her example of strength and resilience, in all that she endured in her lifetime, was a real inspiration,” Dushkin said.
Dushkin believes she was also an important tie to the past, whose struggles have helped the younger generation understand the impacts of historical trauma, and how even today, the fallout from war continues.
Dushkin says she grew up hearing adults talk about the war.
“From a young age, I remember knowing that there had been a war, hearing about the war,” she said. “Everybody would always talk about before the war. That was kind of how stories started.”
She says some of these stories frightened her.
“Anytime I heard the plane flying overhead over our village, I would run inside the house, because I thought the plane was going to drop a bomb on our village, because that’s what I grew up hearing about — that planes dropped bombs,” Dushkin said.
Crystal and her husband, Bill Dushkin, love their life on Atka, but as today’s Russian fighter jets — and most recently, a Chinese spy balloon — have crossed into Alaskan air space, they say Elizabeth’s story serves as a reminder that far-flung places like Atka and Attu are still vulnerable, that they could once again be caught in the crossfire between nations. Attu is the only place on American soil that has been occupied by a foreign country since the War of 1812.
“It’s just amazing that it even happened back then, that one of our islands was taken over by a foreign country,” Dushkin said. “But yeah, it could happen here again. You never know.”
Dushkin is Elizabeth’s son, whom she gave up for adoption. It’s a complicated story, one that he began to understand when she gave him a book for his 30th birthday — one that had her picture on the cover — the little girl, who would later become his mother, a prisoner of war, with the number 30 on the front of her dress
Elizabeth’s husband George has two words to sum up his wife’s life and legacy.
“Ayagam Kayutuu,” he says in Unangam Tunuu. “Strong woman.”
It was Elizabeth Kudrin’s strength and resilience that made her a part of Alaska history, which passed with her on Feb. 19 — a woman with a story that few Alaskans, and ever fewer Americans, know.
Editor’s note: Michael Livingston, an Unangan historian, contributed to this story.