Chess and the Game of Life
George Fesenko-Navrotsky plays chess. In his studio, Studio St. George at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, he plays a lot of it. He’s been operating the place since 2004, an art and graphic design studio, and prints of his textile work hang on the walls, surrounded by Russian antiques and memorabilia.
There are at least three chessboards in plain view in this room with large windows, and whenever he gets the chance he lines up his soldiers for a game. Perhaps he likes chess so much because his life has unfolded much like a classic match. With a well-planned strategy imbued with a little luck along the way, George and his family started working their way out of Yugoslavia just as World War II was beginning, traveling through Germany in hopes of gaining freedom.
George was born in Gazko, Yugoslavia in 1935. It was the end of the reign of King Alexander and the beginning of that of Josip Broz, or Tito, the secretary-general for the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). In 1939 the Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact, which help pave the way for World War II. Tito largely ignored Germany’s invasion of Yugoslavia in 1940 because of this pact, but in June1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia there was fighting in the streets.
His father, Dimitri, was a district attorney who worked for the pre-Tito government. A strong anti-communist, he had given his allegiance to the White Russian army before emigrating from the Ukraine. At the age of 19 Dimitri joined the Czarist force, never to see his parents again. They were exiled to Siberia and the Bolsheviks later killed them both.
George remembers watching the street fights between the German army and Tito’s partisan guerillas in Yugoslavia from the basement windows of his home. When the fighting was over and the streets were momentarily clear he and his grandfather Alexander would walk through town and count the dead. Once they found a German officer hanged upside down for all to see.
German soldiers often practiced with grenades nearby and when they were finished George and his friends would pick up the ‘duds’ that were left behind and throw them. Most of the time they would go off.
‘“My mother would have killed me if she knew what we were doing,’” he says.
German soldiers, George says, had ‘“the heart of a human,’” but were forced to support the Nazi regime. Once, some soldiers from the German Africa Corps stopped in the town of Zayechar for rest and recreation on their way to Germany. They showed him their tank and gave him a periscope to play with. Although it was broken, George remembers that periscope making him the envy of all the boys in town.
In 1944 George’s family made their move as Tito prepared to consolidate communist control over the country. They were classified in communist Germany as displaced persons; he was put into an incarceration camp for boys while his only sister went to another camp for girls. His mother was forced to work in a factory. The year and a half he spent there was hard and bitter. He survived an extremely cold winter in the large, unheated camp and remembers when a friend once pulled a mouse out of his food, spoiling all their appetites for a while.
The boys in the camp tried to be human, he says, by inventing games to take their minds off the harsh circumstances. On Friday nights they counted the lice on each other’s heads, the winners having the most and least amounts. George says he doesn’t remember these as bad times; it’s just the way life was.
After the war George’s father and mother planned to meet up in Heidenheim am Brenz, in the province of WÃ¼rttemberg. When his mother came back to pick him up she didn’t have the proper paperwork. The den mother ‘— a large woman, he remembers ‘— refused to let George go and he remembers his thin-framed mother boldly confronting her until she relented. He couldn’t hear the conversation, but when they got in the car George asked his mother what she said. He recalls her saying she told the den mother she’d scratch her eyes out if she didn’t let George go.
He and his mother and sister made their way to Heidenheim am Brenz, hitchhiking along the way with anybody who’d take them. While traveling through Nuremberg George remembers a bomb going off near the Haupt rail station.
‘“It was the first time I ever pissed in my pants,’” he says. His family made light of the deadly situation, giving George a hard time about his ‘accident.’
‘“I had a hard time living it down,’” he says.
The family finally did make it to Heidenheim am Brenz, before the American liberation of the town took place. George recalls seeing the mother of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel working in her garden. Rommel, who was later accused of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, ended his life by taking poison to prevent facing court charges and to save his family from disgrace.
George’s mother was fluent in five languages: Russian, Ukrainian, German, French and English. This made her an asset to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Heidenheim am Brenz and she became an officer with the administration, filling out paperwork for people relocating to different countries after the war. For three years she did this while his father worked as a dispatcher for the US Army motor pool.
The UNRRA, formed in 1943 from a 44-nation conference at the White House and largely funded by the US government, gave George’s family the chance to move to the United States. At the age of 11, he and his family arrived in New York by ship to start a new life. The American Committee for Christian German Refugees (ACCR) helped by paying for a hotel room, food and other expenses, which George’s father agreed to pay back. The family was one of only 800 that the organization helped before its importance was diminished after the war and it became non-existent in 1947, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
George loved to read and two of his favorite books were James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder. From Cooper he’d learned what America was like, so it was only natural for him to ask his father where all the Indians were. His father bought him a six-shooter cap pistol and George spent his days playing cowboys and Indians.
George attended Fiorello La Guardia High School of Music and Art in New York City. But his interest in art didn’t begin there; it began back in Yugoslavia and Germany as a child, where he drew and colored pictures in a small scrapbook album that he still has today. His studies in high school and at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, an engineering, architectural and art college, only refined his skills and fueled his passion for art. This prepared him for a job at Paramount Studios in Manhattan where he painted cells for ‘“Popeye’” cartoons. It took 60,000 painted cells done by a team of artists to make a seven-minute cartoon. He also did freelance for ‘“Mr. Magoo’” and worked at a theatrical studio as a paint boy for Eugene Berman, mixing colors used to paint scenery.
His involvement in art was soon interrupted by a three-year stint in the Army beginning in 1955. The draft was taking place, but George enlisted and requested service in Germany to avoid grunt duty on the front lines in Korea. He trained as a medic and was stationed near Frankfurt, working as a Russian translator for Soviets who were crossing the border. But as fate would have it, George started working as an artist again, painting scenes at an American high school for children of US soldiers at the request of his general. His work elicited many compliments from this general, and also got him more time off.
While in the Army, George had the opportunity to visit Yugoslavia during Tito’s regime. On his way through Belgrade, traveling with some of his friends from the army, he met a man who claimed to own a shoe factory in Yugoslavia. But his story sounded a little fishy to George, who remembered that people couldn’t own businesses in the communist country. The man was interested in where George was from and what unit he was stationed with; it occurred to him that he might be under surveillance. Like a pawn moving into the enemy’s territory, he’d have to keep a careful eye on all his moves.
One night as their group sat in a bar, George got into a conversation with the director of a communist radio station. The director kept telling George how great it was to be in a communist country and what opportunity there was. The man was adamant about it, though George tried to tell him of his own experiences and his new life in America. Finally around 3 a.m., the man broke down into tears. He told George it was all a lie, how his children were being taught to embrace communism in school. The man, trapped in a life of despair, had been trying to make the best of his situation.
On another occasion George was invited to a Yugoslav family’s house for dinner. When asked what he would like to eat, he only requested bean soup, a meal he hadn’t had in ages and one he knew was easily attainable for his hosts. At dinner he learned that his hosts had waited in line for three hours to buy a small piece of meat just to treat their honored guest. The experience was humbling.
He didn’t get the chance to visit his childhood home, but the experience was nonetheless an eye-opening one. On the train back to Germany, he saw the same man who had questioned him on the first leg of his journey. George was glad to be an American.
In 1976, after 30 years out of the country, George’s father visited Yugoslavia and said that Tito had done a good job of keeping the country together. It surprised George to hear his staunch anti-communist father, who’d fought in the war against communism, say these things.
George also met his first wife while in Germany. They married in 1958. Upon returning to the States he resumed his art, working in the textile industry designing patterns for cloth. He worked for the Lowenstein Company, JP Stevens, and for BF Goodrich and Armstrong.
In 1978 he moved to Winston-Salem to work with Chatham Manufacturing, again designing textile patterns. Later he worked with Culp in Burlington where he did print design work and traveled to Russia to show fabrics for the company. In 1997 he retired from Culp.
At the age of 69, George now spends his days passing along hope and encouragement to others.
He is currently the president of the North Carolina chapter of the Congress of Russian Americans, an organization that strives to preserve the Russian spiritual and cultural heritage among Russian Americans. Among their causes is raising money for children in Russian orphanages.
He also strives to help local students become passionate about life through art. With art and music often being the first programs to be cut in schools due to funding, George works to bring art back into the schools. Every Wednesday after school he works with students at Cone Elementary. He dreams of starting a school of art and music that emphasizes creativity and isn’t touched by bureaucracy.
In his thick accent made up of Russian and Yugoslavian he says: ‘“This is what I think life’s all about: creativity, art, music ‘— that survives.’”
And with contented eyes and a broad smile, in his heart he can say about life, ‘“checkmate.’”