“Picture a child that is eight years old, surrounded by love, and then thrown into a dormitory and issued a number,” says Helen Chernoff Freeman.
That child is then allowed to see her parents only twice a month, through the strains of a chain link fence. In the winter, her parents would drape a blanket over the fence and their young daughter, to shield her from the harsh New Denver weather.
This was Freeman’s life for three years and eight months, in the years 1955-1959. She was one of about 200 Freedomite children placed in a forced assimilation, prison-like dormitory school.
“We survived a terrible time in our lives … I saw my parents twice a month for one hour, that was it,” she recalls. “The chain link went up, we were on side and they were on the other.”
She was girl #85, and she’s written about it in a book that will be launched on Sunday at the Agassiz Harrison Museum.
Girl #85 – A Doukhobor Childhood took decades to write, she said. It was spurred on by her children’s questions through the years.
“I started keeping notes years and years ago,” she says, and often would refer back to life growing up — both as a happy child with her parents, and unhappy in the dorms.
“My children, with their questions, that prompted me to write it down.”
And then, she started mentioning the project to others and a plan started to form. Through connections made with other New Denver survivors and a documentary filmmaker, she met screenwriter Mark Brown. He helped edit the book, and Chernoff decided to self publish to avoid changes that may come with a publishing house. While the book was finished two years ago, she’s just received the books and is ready for her launch.
“It was very emotional,” she says, of finally finishing the project.
And while her time at the New Denver school was fraught with terror, bullying and worse, there were also good times. And the experience has helped make her the woman she is today.
“I know girls that were only in for a couple of months, and the were traumatized,” she says. “People ask how I can deal with it. I don’t know. You learn to stand on your own two feet. I have never claimed to be anything other than what I am, and that is a Doukhobor, always.”
She is proud of where’s she from, what she’s lived through, and where she is today.
“A Doukhobor is one who is always at spiritual peace with one’s self,” she explains. Freeman has helped authenticate the Doukhobor exhibit at the Agassiz Harrison Museum, lending some of her clothing for that purpose. She was one of the many Freedomites who arrived in Agassiz 50 years ago, an important time in local history that has been re-chronicled in the Historical Society’s Echoes from the Past column running in this paper.
Freeman will be at the museum signing her book from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8. They are $20 each, and will be available for purchase in various stores in the future, and through Freeman.