Erma Odrach

Today’s guest, Erma Odrach, has now completed a translation of her father’s  novel, Wave of Terror, and has begun work on another, tentatively titled On the Road.

Shelagh: Erma, please give us a little information about yourself and your work.

Erma: I am a writer/ translator living in Toronto, Canada. At present I am focusing my attention on translating the works of my father, Theodore Odrach (1912-1964). My father wrote novels and short stories in the Ukrainian language, and his works were published in Buenos Aires, New York and Toronto. Wave of Terror, recently published by Academy Chicago Publishers, is his first novel to appear in English.

Shelagh: What is Wave of Terror about?

Erma: Well, I think one has to take a brief look at my father’s life to really understand what Wave of Terror is about. My father was born in Belarus (then a part of Czarist Russia), and in 1939 he became caught up in Stalin’s world. Studying at the university in Vilnius and watching the Soviet tanks roll in, he decided to head south, back to his native Belarus (by then a part of eastern Poland). Securing a teaching position just outside the town of Pinsk, it is really during this time that Wave of Terror began to take root. There he witnessed first-hand unspeakable atrocities committed by the Soviet regime, where innocent men, women and children were routinely persecuted, tortured and slain. Deemed an “enemy of the people” himself, my father became a man on the run, changing his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach in the hopes of protecting the family he left behind. Eventually, my father managed to escape into Slovakia by way of the Carpathian Mountains. After roaming around Europe, marrying, and living in Manchester, England for 5 years, in 1953, together with my mother, he settled in Toronto Canada.

Wave of Terror is about the Red Army invasion of Belarus in 1939, as seen through the eyes of Ivan Kulik, a young schoolteacher. People are randomly deported to the gulags, tortured in Zovty Prison, or murdered. It loosely follows the life of my father, and many of the events are eye-witness accounts. But the novel is not all doom and gloom. There’s a fair amount of humor (though dark), and at some level it’s also a love story, as Ivan has eyes for Marusia, a green-eyed, whimsical young woman.

Shelagh: When Wave of Terror was started, what goals did your father want to accomplish? Is there a message he wanted readers to grasp?

Erma: When my father wrote Wave of Terror, he meant it as an exposé on Soviet oppression. He wanted to make known the horrors in his part of the world during that awful time. But he ended up an expatriate writer living in Canada, and, unfortunately, his readership was limited to a very small number of Ukrainian-speaking immigrants. In addition, his books were banned in the Soviet Union. So, as you can understand, as a writer, he became literally trapped within his own language. Completely cut off from the English reading public around him, he lived his life in relative obscurity and his work remained forever in limbo. My father knew his only way to be heard was through translation. But during his lifetime that was a very remote possibility.

Shelagh: Wave of Terror was written in the early sixties. It’s now 2009. Where has the book been for almost fifty years?

Erma: Actually, it was published posthumously in Ukrainian in Toronto in 1972. My father barely finished it before his death and he left numerous loose ends. Since 1972 it’s been floating around a few places here and there, however, mostly it’s been sitting on the bookshelf in my living room, but not forgotten, at least not by me. When I started translating it a number of years ago, I sent excerpts to literary magazines as a trial, and reception was great. A chapter appeared in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change in Madison, WI and another in Flipside (California Univ. of Penn). In 2008 the novel got picked up by Academy Chicago Publishers.

Shelagh: How did your father develop his characters and setting?

Erma: As far as setting is concerned, history provided that for him; he found himself thrust in the heart of WWII, and there was drama at every turn. He was a keen observer of people and events. Most of his characters are actual, though fictionalized to some extent. For example, Dounia, who is an oversized, oversexed fishmonger, in reality sold trinkets in the marketplace and was later promoted by the regime to schoolteacher, even though she was illiterate. My father loved people, he loved studying them and interpreting them. His prose style is spare but quite controlled with touches of irony and humor thrown in for good measure. Wave of Terror could easily be read as a document to his turbulent heritage.

Shelagh: Who is the most unusual or most likeable character?

Erma: The book is really filled with ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Ivan Kulik, Headmaster of School Number 7, is the eyes, ears and heart of the novel, and it is through him that the reader experiences and witnesses much of everything that is happening. Ivan Kulik in many ways could be seen as the author himself, as both are caught in a world turned upside down and both have to learn the politics of survival. Fishmonger Dounia, however, remains my favorite character because she proves the most resourceful and most equipped to deal with all that comes her way: she is the ultimate “new Soviet woman”. But her character is also functional in that it provides much-needed comic relief. My father loved to observe women as much as men. In the introduction to Wave of Terror T.F. Rigelhof writes:

“Odrach has much to tell us that hasn’t been reported in this way by anyone else about how the coming of the Soviets affected the sexual identities of women along the outer edges of the USSR …”

Shelagh: Share the best review (or portion) that Theodore Odrach had.

Erma: The best one came from the Times Literary Supplement:

Theodore Odrach is that rare thing, a political novelist who is also an artist of the first rank.

For my father, politics and writing always went hand in hand. He needed to write about politics but he also wanted his words to endure. Had he read all the wonderful reviews written about Wave of Terror thus far, and after so many years, he would have been truly overwhelmed.

This is a review of the translated version:

The novel begins with the Red Army invasion of Belarus in 1939. Ivan Kulik is the newly appointed headmaster of School Number 7 in Hlaby, a rural village in the Pinsk marshes. Through Ivan’s eyes, the reader experiences the impact and effect of Stalinist domination, including the capricious seemingly random acts of cruelty by those in power. Ivan struggles to make sense of this new world and of his personal life.

This is a powerful novel: both the setting and the characters make it so. Mr Odrach’s characters are human rather than suprahuman or subhuman with all of humanity’s concomitant strengths and weaknesses. During the story, I could feel individual hope being extinguished as grinding reality overcame fragile optimism. The changes wrought on individual and community life by the emergence of the Belarusian Soviet Social Republic make very uncomfortable reading. In many cases, authority was vested in individuals whose capacity to misuse such power was only exceeded by their inability to realise the dehumanising effects extended to them as well as to their victims. It would be easy to illustrate this by the use of good and bad stereotypes but Mr Odrach manages to avoid doing this.

At the end of this novel, I wanted more. I would like to think that the story of Ivan was the story of Mr Ordrach himself and that he managed to escape from an uncertain place to make a better life for himself. Whether this is true or not, this is a novel that will no doubt remain with me for a very long time.

I thank Ms Odrach for bringing this novel to life by interpreting her father’s work into English and pursuing publication. I hope to read more of Mr Odrach’s writing.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Shelagh: Did your father live to see you translate at least some of his works?

Erma: No, because he died in 1964 when I was a child. I never really knew him. And Ukrainian was and still is a difficult language for me. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I started tackling his books. Using a Ukrainian-English dictionary, I literally had to look up every second word, and still it sometimes didn’t make sense. Luckily, my mother knew his work inside out because he had read her all his manuscripts. In short, it was a very laborious process. And somehow slowly but surely his pages started to come to life — there were people living inside them, there were great panoramas, history was in the making.

Shelagh: What are your current projects?

Erma: I’m working on more of my father’s books – short stories and novels. I’m just finishing up a novel that takes place right after the Yalta Conference, when Eastern Europe is being handed over to Stalin. There are feelings of betrayal and abandonment among the characters. Another moment in history is captured.

Also, on another note, I’m happy to say with the fall of communism, my father’s books are finding their way into Ukraine and Belarus, and there is growing interest in his life and works. I have also secured a publisher in Ukraine, and they are set on reissuing all his works there.

Shelagh: Where can folks learn more about Theodore Odrach and Wave of Terror?

Erma: You can learn more about my father at:


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29 Responses to “Erma Odrach”

  1. J. Conrad Guest Says:

    A fascinating interview, Erma. I enjoyed the backstory on the novel. I put Wave of Terror on my reading list some time ago. Winning an inscribed copy would ensure a place for it at the top of the list!

  2. Marcia Fine Says:

    i read this interview with great interest because it echoes my experience writing a novel about family history and the challenges of language, history and interpretation. My novel, PAPER CHILDREN–An Immigrant’s Legacy, shows the shock in Poland from the Sept., 1939 invasion by the Nazis. It’s my grandmother’s story; however, my grandfather, the key to her survival hated the Communists too.
    I spent a few years having the letters my grandmother gave me , her Paper Children, translated from German, Polish and Yiddish. Same kind of laborious project!
    I have such respect for the author’s father making an effort to record what he was witnessing. It’s like the novel, Suite Francais, where the author’s daughter found the manuscript in a suitcase 60 years later.
    Marcia Fine

  3. erma odrach Says:

    Hello J. Conrad Guest,

    Thanks so much for your interest and for your kind words. It’s safe to say, translating my father’s work has been a labor of love. I checked out your site — very interesting.

  4. erma odrach Says:

    Marcia, Paper Children is set during the exact time as Wave of Terror. As the Nazis invaded western Poland, the Bolsheviks invaded eastern Poland. Your family was in the west, mine in the east. What a terrible time in history. Paper Children looks very intriguing. It’s important to keep personal stories alive, especially for historic documentation.

  5. Susan Whitfield Says:

    I enjoyed the interview, Sheila and Erma. As difficult as writing can sometimes be, I can’t imagine translating a novel from an unknown language into English and from a period before your time. A labor of love, indeed. I’m sure your father is smiling down on you.

  6. erma odrach Says:

    Thanks Susan, your words made me smile. It’s strange but growing up I always had translating my father’s books on my mind, even before I knew what they were about, even before I knew I could actually do it.

    Love the backdrop to your books — Blue Ridge Mountains, Crystal Coast. I visted them a number of years back and really beautiful. My eye caught Killer Recipes — will be watching out for its release.

  7. aleksandrvoinov Says:

    Strange, how we only now start coming to grips with all the horror–this echoes my own experiences at the moment, I’m writing about the German side in WWII, and, in part, my own family history, the flight from Eastern Prussia and the experiences of my grandfather in war (he was a Wehrmacht NCO, a flak commander). But touching that material is excrutiatingly hard, much harder than I thought at first, and then to imagine translating that…I can only commend you for it and good luck with the book.

    Aleksandr Voinov

  8. Roger Cottrell Says:

    Wave of Terror is a moving and very human account of the events and processes by which the second part of the 20th Century were fashioned and by which they can possibly even be judged. Taking as its backdrop the fall out from the Yalta Conference it reveals the consequences of Europe’s partition and reality of Stalin’s rule through the subjective eyes of this provincial schoolteacher who becomes our Virgil and guide. I’ve been reading a lot of literature from this period, about Eastern Europe, of late, including Zygmunt Zaremba’s factual account of Stalin’s betrayal of the Warsaw Commune of 1944 to the Nazis – that destroyed any semblance of a genuine socialist mass movement ahead of the consolidation of Stalin’s tyranny. The difference in Belyruss, as distinct from Poland, is that Geireck’s counterparts in the smaller country so no need to buy off the working class with concessions that only ran dry in the late 1970s (hence the birth of Soliarity). For those who saw Edward Zwick’s excellent movie, Defiance, Wave of Terror tells us what happened next. Better than Solzynetsin, even before his sorry degeneration into slavophile reaction and right wing extremism. A must read for those who wish to re-found history at the heart of our literature.

  9. erma odrach Says:

    Aleksandr, yes, I agree, it’s very difficult to find material from that era, and it gets more difficult the farther east you go. And there are so many incredible, untold stories out there. Thanks so much for your generous words.

  10. knightofswords Says:

    What a wonderful opportunity to get to know your late father better through his works, while finding them a wider audience in both English and Ukrainian.

    Best of luck with the translations.


  11. erma odrach Says:

    Roger, thanks so much for your perspectives and for so accurately setting the political backdrop. And yes, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig, is set in the Pinsk Marshes in southwestern Belarus (the largest wetland in Europe), exactly the same place where Wave of Terror takes place. Because of the forest’s density, there was much plolitical activity going on in there during the war, and from all sides. Thanks for your generous words.

  12. erma odrach Says:

    I’m hoping Wave of Terror will be ultimately recognized for its historical contribution; it certainly captures a very specific moment in WWII. I feel very lucky to have gotten to know my father through his works, and to be honest, in the beginning, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would find.

  13. Marsha Skrypuch Says:

    Dear Erma,

    I would love to get a copy of this book. Will it be available in Canada?

    Fyi, I also write about the lesser-known horrors of WWII. My more recent novel is Stolen Child, about the Lebensborn project.

  14. Doina Says:

    This is a great and touching interview! I believe that what you are doing with your father’s work is a wonderful job. Books like “Wave of Terror” should be read not only by the ones who really experienced those times (I am Romanian. I was born in 1988 so communism is not something that I lived but I have heard and read so many stories from those times).
    I would love nothing more but to have this wonderful book in my hands. Congratulation for the great job you’re doing.

  15. erma odrach Says:

    Hello Marsha,

    I have to say, I’m familiar with your writing and really enjoyed Kobzar’s Children. I will definitely look out for Stolen Child.

    Wave of Terror is available most online places such as Amazon, Chapters and so on. Also, depending on where you live, it might even be in your local library.

    I appreciate your interest.

  16. Marsha Skrypuch Says:

    Just found it at, Erma. Thanks!

    (can you email me through my website? I would love to connect you up with a group of writers who pursue similar topics)

  17. erma odrach Says:

    It’s very familiar territory for you, Doina, even though you were only one when the Romanian Revolution occurred. The very conservative number of victims in Romania due to Communist repression is 2 million. It’s staggering just to think about it! These types of numbers make for terrifying fiction. Thanks for your interest.

  18. Amanda Says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to translate this work. I can’t even begin to imagine the process of delving into the world of your father, and delivering this gift on behalf of him. Pieces such as this are always on my reading list, and I love having a book to look forward to picking up. This is definitely one I’ll look for.

  19. Nancy Kelly Allen Says:

    What an interesting life your father wrote about. And now you’ve continued his work. Nice!

  20. erma odrach Says:

    Thank you Amanda and Nancy, your words truly mean a lot to me.

  21. Darcía Helle Says:

    Erma, I loved your interview. Your father’s life sounds both fascinating and terrifying. In a way, translating his book must have given you tremendous insight into his younger years. Wave of Terror is going right on my list of books to read. Thank you for bringing his work to us all.

  22. erma odrach Says:

    Your words are so sweet Darcia. I’m glad you liked the interview, and I have to thank Shelagh Watkins for being such a great interviewer. It’s true, deciphering Wave of Terror and then translating it really allowed me to get to know my father. For this I’m grateful

  23. Sol Says:

    I enjoyed the interview. Sheila and Erma have done a great job.

    I have never read Mr. Odrach’s books. Over 50 years I lived in the Soviet Union and witnessed a lot, but many things I didn’t know and couldn’t read the truthful books about the Soviet regime. Even possession of such books was a severely punishable crime. I am very glad that the book has been translated and published.

    Thank you, Erma for the work you have done.


  24. Bertille Allahar Says:

    When I read this interview I experienced the meaning of the now common phrase – global village. I was born in 1939 – the year the novel begins – in the WI island of Trinidad and recall my childhood in which my parents held hushed discussions of the horrors of WW11 when they listened to the BBC news on radio.
    My father was a highly respected primary school headmaster in a rural village at home and and I feel a kinship with Ivan Kulik although he is from a different continent.
    That the author allows us to view the experiences of Belarus Soviet Social Republic through ordinary people is compelling since that is the category into which the majority of us who feel the effects of political leaders fall, regardless of which country we live in.
    Finally, emigration, both voluntary and involuntary, has always intrigued me as it forms part of the historical reality of my and other parts of the globe. It leads to multi-cultural societies which in themselves add a valuable dimemsion to our exciting world.

  25. erma odrach Says:

    Hi Sol,

    Thank you so much for your encouraging comments. Yes, it did take a long time to get into English – 46 years to be exact. But it’s better late than never.

    I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for you to live in the Sovier Union, and for 50 years.

  26. erma odrach Says:

    That’s a really interesting viewpoint, Bertille, that we all in some ways and due to somtimes uncontrollable circumstance have contributed to the creation of multi- cultural societies. It’s so true.

    Ivan Kulik (and my father), like yours, was a village teacher/headmaster, and even though his world was being turned upside down, still, somehow there was comfort in knowing that he was just that, a village teacher.

  27. Geraldine Wierzbicki-Roach Says:

    You write (your father writes)eloquently of suffering. My genes respond. I am Polish-American, my grandfather having left Poland after he was drafted into some European war and when released walked the miles back to his home in Poland because the officials simply herded the troops into a train and dropped them off somewhere to find their way. He crossed the ocean in a sailboat because the steamers were all full. I remember my uncle recounting the terrors of the sea-journey for my grandfather and him praying aloud on his knees that if God got him to America alive, he would never smoke or drink again.

    I remember my uncle recounting the day my grandfather became a citizen, that after the oaths were taken he arose from his chair and spontaneously spoke from his heart of how he loved America, how good America was and how God gave him the gift of being here. As was your father, my grandfather was a handsome and stately man. He mesmerized the people in the room by speaking about how different life was here and how in the “old country” a man had nothing and owned nothing, in effect, lived as a slave. The new citizens and the judge all listened silently, some nodding their heads. The old Europe was never good to the common man, even before the atrocities that were to come just after my grandfather left. Many Poles died in labor camps, and the fate of Polish Jews, of course, is unspeakable.

    Through your father you recount the great suffering endured by those who remained in eastern Europe. I am underscoring that in a small way by thinking of my ancestors

    You are pondering multicuturism and I am also. My grandfather (who never smoked or drank again) married a German girl, lived through the Great Depression and saw four sons serve in the U. S. navy for twenty years, one as a paramedic at Pearl harbor. Their wives were of various nationalities and all the children fully integrated. Witnessing horrors, leaving eastern Europe for the U.S., Canada or Britain or Australia is the story of our eastern European ancestors and a large part of the stream that became the “melting pot”. Thankfully this generation coming of age is more tolerant and accepting of diverse cultures and races. Perhaps America will eventually fulfill the dream that it is.

    But remembering and honoring the suffering that was endured and recorded by some is a mission of honor and I thank God for all those so engaged. Through your fatherYou have written history. You are ennobled by giving that gift to us. History such as you recount and I faintly recount, must be treasured by us, should be primary in our school curriculums. Or we will lose part of ourselves

    I say that because I heard a heart-jolting rumor that high schools in the United States were considering the the discontinuation of the subject of history. History! Our blood and the blood of our forefathers.

    My contribution is small, but I am just beginning. My novel Thus Bound:The story of Tadziu and Marysza tells the story of immigrants and the hardships they endured. It takes place in Buffalo, N.Y., a city where many Poles settled, my city and the city of my Polish people. Your book draws me like a beckoning hand into the subject I have always loved: history, the suffering of the real people who live it and the literary skill of those who witness and record it. All my admiration and gratitude. Geraldine Wierzbicki-Roach My book blog is

  28. erma odrach Says:

    Geraldine, thank you for your heartfelt post.

    When my father wrote Wave of Terror in the late 50’s early 60’s, it was meant as an exposé on Soviet terror, but now it seems to be falling into the category of historical fiction. The idea of eliminating history from the school curriculum is unthinkable. How will we be able to learn and come to terms with our past if we don’t know it? (And what a story your grandfather had to tell!)

    Poland suffered greatly during the war and from the very start, attacked by the Nazis and Russians both at the same time. And from the eastern borderland (Kresy), many, many were either killed or sent to the gulags in Siberia. Millions of people and from many ethnicities suffered unimaginable atrocities and their stories must be kept alive. Now that in Russia there’s a movement to “humanize” Stalin and starting with the very young in the school system, this is all the more important.

    I checked out your link for Thus Bound about the Polish-immigrant experience and it sounds very intriguing. Also, I have The Endless Steppe (about a young Polish girl shipped to Siberia to a forced labor camp during WWII) on my to read list.

    Once again, many thanks!

  29. 2010 in review | Literature & Fiction Says:

    […] Erma Odrach February 2010 28 comments 4 […]

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