Was it mutual misunderstanding?
Might be. It’s hard to say exactly but in my view, they belonged to two different generations, with different mentalities and simply had no time to get to know each other. But as the first phases of mutual misunderstanding were gone, they opened their hearts to each other and built this church together. The construction of this church was the evidence of their friendship; otherwise they would have failed to accomplish it. When I found myself in Florida, I couldn’t tell exactly which of them represented which wave, they were so much alike! None of them was angry and unfriendly; they quieted down after the war, after what they had lived through. Besides, given our warm climate the adaptation process went easier for them, they were happy to have their own church and live as one small community. It was here that I first met my future husband Fr. Daniel (Kenneth McKenzie before conversion to the Orthodox faith). He is American, first time came to our service. On the kliros were midgets Mania and Basil Filins. They were very old by then, around 80. Mania tiptoed to read the Hour Book, it was a very touching scene. The midgets were the last ones in the community. But when the church was being built, there were plenty of Russians. Among them was Raissa, the nicest woman I’d ever known. We didn’t know much of her life. After her husband’s death her closest friend was George Tiajoloff. Shortly before death she bequeathed him all her family papers including the photos of the midgets that she kept after their death.
George Tiajoloff was born in Petrograd in 1917. His father was a Russian War Ministry official in charge of arms procurement. He had many contacts all around the world. When the little George was born, his father decided to leave Russia as he already felt that terrible things were going on. He offered his co-workers to leave Russia inconspicuously but none of them agreed. He took his family out to New York and saved them from death – when the revolution broke out, all other officials were killed.
In New York, he was approached by Kolchak who was recruiting an army in Siberia. George’s father accepted his proposal and left for Vladivostok. By that time, his second son was born in New York. In Vladivostok, he joined Kolchak and was soon killed in action. His family got to Sebastopol where Wrangel was preparing his troops for evacuation. So they joined him and found themselves in Britain. Thanks to the British Red Cross, they found out that their grandmother was in Tunis. They left for Tunis to visit her and stayed there for twenty years. George Tiajoloff learned French, became an engineer and finally moved to the U.S. He was one of the first church-goers. When we moved to Florida, he was not an old man, about forty or fifty. He was one of the last ones. But he loved the midgets, Raissa, buried them, himself was buried two weeks ago.
The first services were held in a tent. The future bishop Ostali (Savva) Rajevsky was one of those who built the church, you can see him on the photos, the one wearing glasses. Before him was Fr. Theodor. Savva was taken over by several priests, after them was Eugene Selitsky, he served here for 20 years…
The door knocking interrupts our interview. “Is Fr. Daniel in?” “What do you want?” asked Matushka. “The guy is feeling bad, we urgently need a priest.” At first, I thought a dying man wanted a priest for the last confession. It turned out, however, that it was a drug-addict, whose friends or relatives took to the church obviously assuming that only an Orthodox priest could save him from addiction. Matushka went out of the room to call Fr. Daniel, who despite the late hour, came out to meet the visitors. In about fifteen minutes Matushka comes back and we continue our conversation.
There was a very interesting gentleman named Alexei Delden, he was of about the same age as George, from the second wave. He was a native of Petersburg, but his ancestry, Danish, had lived in Russia since Peter the Great. Peter I recruited shipping masters abroad. The Deldens became Russianized and owned workshops in Russia. Before the outbreak of the war Delden lived in Leningrad. He was drafted to the army, taken prisoner and deported to Germany, where he met his future wife. Everybody knew that Russians would be handed over to Soviet authorities. Delden miraculously avoided the repatriation to the Soviet Union. One day he heard that an American general was seeking a clock master. His old watches, a family relic, broke. But Delden was a man with golden hands. Without any instrument he repaired the general’s watches. When the general got his watches back, he asked Delden: “What can I do for you?” Alexei said: “You are seeking a cook for American field kitchen, aren't you? I could well do that job.” “Can you cook hamburgers?” asked the general. “Yes,” said Delden. By saying so, he meant Russian cutlets. So he cooked many cutlets and immediately won respect of the U.S. military because his cutlets were much tastier than hamburgers. He was allowed to work as a cook in the U.S. zone. He would come to the American camp every day, cooked there and shared some spare food with Russians. As the repatriation date was nearing, the general said to Delden. “The Soviets will come for you soon. I’ll arrange for you to leave with us.” The general kept his promise and saved Delden’s life. Alexei Delden was in our parish for many years, he made a living by painting houses. His wife was cautious and didn’t have children. She cooked dinners and held parties at her home.
Are you the only one who was familiar with Raissa?
No, I was not the only one. Batyushka remembers her better than I do. I remember her as a nice, tender and friendly woman. George used to often remember Raissa and so we did at our commemoration services. So, we have a community of the dead and alive.
Please tell me about the midgets.
The idea to found a midget theatrical company was born in Russia before 1914. It was not so easy to find them as they were very few in number. Some of them were very good-looking. They were absolutely normal people, well-built, nice but very small. Maria and her brother Vassily (Basil) were descended from a peasant family and lived in a village. One day a stranger approached Maria’s and Vassily’s parents (Maria was about 14 then) with a proposal to recruit her in a midget theatrical company promising her a bright future abroad. It was not a circus but a real company that staged pieces of Chekhov and other authors. The parents wouldn’t let her go but Maria said to her mother: “What shall I do here? I won’t have any future if I stay here. This man has made a very interesting proposal to me and I am willing to be engaged in this business.” The parents agreed and let their children go. So it was a large company, of about 20 people, they performed together and gained international prominence. Before the Bolshevik revolution they even performed for Chiang Kai-shek. When the Bolsheviks came to power, they were performing abroad and their relatives warned them against returning to Russia, so they stayed overseas. I am not quite sure but they seem to have lived in China for quite a long time. When they moved to Florida after World War II, the construction of the church was underway. In Florida, the midgets founded a small town, Sweetwater. One of the female midgets married the town’s mayor, she was apparently not as small as the other midgets. But they didn’t have children. The town administration recognized the midgets’ contribution and even created a park in their memory.
There was a first wave emigrant Dmitry Sherugin. After the Bolshevik turnover he found himself in Cuba, he had to flee several times to save his life… Some of our parishioners first fled to China from the Bolsheviks; when communists took over in China, they had to flee China… So he lived in Cuba when life was quite peaceful there. But at a certain point he felt that Russians would get into the same trouble they once had in Russia. Russians managed to flee Cuba because they felt this spirit – the revolutionary red communist terror.