The Shot that Set The World On Fire

(Uncle Pete's story)




Bonnie Wayne McGuire



Many years ago I was looking through an old file in which I’d stored interesting stories accumulated over the years. What caught my eye was the front page headline of the July 29, 1934 San Francisco Chronicle: “World Laughed at War Rumors After Assassination of Archduke.....Shot that Set Globe Afire Forgotten by Press in Week While Powder Box Sizzled…Europe Hate, Fear Led to Bloody Bath...” Included was this picture of the Archduke and his family. What fascinated me most about finding this (and deciding to write about it) was that last century’s European wars apparently began and continued in and around Serajevo, Bosnia until President Clinton's United Nation's intervention. According to the article, it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (nephew of the Austrian Emperor and heir to the throne) and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg (June 28, 1914) that ignited the political fires of the holocaust.


Looking back I feel fortunate to have personally known people who lived in Europe during that period. Uncle Pete Gossman's "holocaust escape" story surfaced during Thanksgiving dinner many years ago. He surprised us when he asked, "Would you like to hear about the best meal I ever had?"

Uncle Pete (88) at the Heward family reunion August 2002.

I don't think any of us imagined what he had in store for us. His story began around the time when the Russian revolution was just starting. Two of his father's older brothers...or Pete's two uncles lived in America, but Pete lived with the rest of the family on a farm near a little village by the Volga River. There was very little communication with the rest of the world and it was his father's custom to buy a newspaper and catch up on the news whenever he took his produce to the city down river. During one of these trips (in 1918) he read news that the tsar's family had been murdered. This made him uneasy, along with the fact that the value of paper money was dropping. He felt that some bad things were about to happen, so made plans to leave Russia as soon as possible. He began selling everything they owned The last thing he sold was the family cow. The money had become so worthless that it filled a big sack he carried home over his shoulder. Pete's mother made herself a heavy burlap/ canvas type dress, and sewed the gold dust into the large hem at the bottom. Then they all dressed in layers of clothing to protect themselves from the bitter cold during the long journey ahead.


When they finally reached the border they were detained by German soldiers, who insisted they have physical examinations to see if they were healthy. The idea was to declare the youngest child "sick" as an excuse to keep them there long enough to make them spend all their money while waiting to leave. Finally, they were released and loaded onto a boxcar with many others leaving the country. The children were placed in the back by the wall. Pete said it was so cold that every morning his mother would gently break their clothes loose from where they had frozen to the wall. Periodically the train would stop for wood to fuel the engine. The adults would leave the train to relieve themselves, and the train would start up and begin moving...with many running to catch it. Some had frozen limbs and eventually died before reaching their destination in Poland.


When the train reached the Polish border, it stopped, the doors were opened, and a long line of soldiers faced the length of the train. Everyone was forced to undress and be searched. Everything of value (including the women's combs in their hair) was taken as "booty" by the soldiers. These were hard times, and all those affected by the revolution were prey. No one suspected that there was gold safely sewed in the hem of Pete's mother's ugly dress. Satisfied, the soldiers finally let the travelers dress and leave.


During the journey, all they had to eat were hard crusts of bread they sucked on before going to sleep. Pete's mother would cover their heads with a cloth so that the rats wouldn't hurt them. However, they could hear and feel them scurrying over their bodies looking for food.  He remembers that the best meal he ever had was after they got to Minsk. His mother managed to get work and bought some small potatoes and lentils, from which she made a stew. The hot, meager meal was delicious, and something he will never forget. In 1923 the family reached England, where they were able to book passage on a ship bound for America...thanks to the efforts of the two older sons already living here.


Needless to say, Uncle Pete's story was riveting. He couldn't have picked a better time to tell it. Our Thanksgiving had more meaning in that it made us conscious of how precious life is, and how circumstances can suddenly change when political ideologies become violent. Uncle Pete had experienced the best and worst or two worlds.

~Epilogue ~


During the 2002 Heward reunion we met some new family members visiting from Russia. As you can see, Anna and Valere were fascinated by the abundance enjoyed by ordinary citizens in America.

"Only in Amerika."

Valere is an engineer and Anna is a teacher. It was interesting to hear Uncle Pete and Anna (who is more fluent in English) discuss the old and modern Russia.



Uncle Pete passed away June 5, 2010.