December 12, 1928 – May 28, 2020
Irene Selsky, 91, of Bailey's Crossroads, Va., passed away on May 28, 2020, in Bailey's Crossroads.
She was truly a woman of the world. Born in Vladivostok, Russia, to Valentina and Peter Jernakoff on Dec. 12, 1928, Irene was carried in her mother’s arms to Harbin, Manchuria, as a toddler to escape Stalinist repression. Peter had gone ahead to Harbin to arrange for the family’s arrival but before he left he split up a pair of gloves, taking one and telling Valentina that he would send it along with a messenger to let her know the messenger was legitimate. After a tense wait, one “messenger” arrived, but with no glove. Finally, a legitimate messenger arrived with the glove, and Valentina, her son George and Irene set off for Harbin, mostly on foot. On the way, they were abducted by "khunkhuzy"-- bandits -- and were released only through their guide’s negotiations. The trip was so arduous that Valentina suffered a nervous breakdown upon their arrival in Harbin, but recovered.
The Jernakoffs left almost everything behind, including beloved relatives whom they would never hear from again. Irene described Harbin as a bit of heaven in the middle of China for Russian emigrees. The city was built by Russian railroad engineers in the late 1800s as an important center on the Chinese Eastern Railroad. There were Russian schools, Russian theater, hospitals and businesses.
Irene remembered a wonderful childhood there. But, after the Japanese occupied the city, it took a downturn. Rumors abounded that stateless young men, like Irene’s brother George, may be taken into the Japanese army. George was hustled off to the United States to live with his uncle and aunt in New York. Soon afterward, the rest of the family made arrangements to join him.
Leaving most of their possessions behind once again, they departed in the spring of 1941, traveling for three weeks in comfort (“a far cry from our escape from the USSR,” Irene noted) on a Japanese ship, the Asama Maru. The shipped stopped in Japan and in Hawaii, where the family visited Pearl Harbor only months before it was attacked by the Japanese. Irene had escaped with her family just in time. Full-scale war began in the Pacific in December 1941. "After that there was no way we could have left,” Irene noted. Harbin was later occupied by Russian Communists. Some Russian emigres were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, some to labor camps where death under brutal conditions was common.
Irene’s second cousin, Olga Yokoyama, also grew up in Harbin, after Irene’s family left.
“I grew up seeing the photo of a cute girl Lyalya (as Irene was called in Russian) with blond bangs and a big bough ... on the Yamaha piano in uncle Kolya’s house,” Olga remembers. “Aunt Maria, his wife, would call me Lyalya and tell me that I have replaced the real Lyalya for her, while the real Lyalya went away, leaving her piano and her doggy with aunt Maria and uncle Kolya. The first time I met Lyalya in person was in Bend, Oregon, half a century later. I wish we had met earlier.”
Irene arrived in America speaking no English. The Jernakoffs lived in San Francisco for a time before moving to New York City. Irene’s brother served in the U.S. Army during World War II, including in the Battle of the Bulge where he was awarded a bronze star.
Peter found a good job as an accountant in New York. Irene continued her education in American schools and learned English quickly. She was a talented artist. She met Oleg Selsky, whose parents were Russian-Americans. They were married in New York City on Oct. 1, 1950. Irene graduated from Hunter College in 1952.
Soon after graduating from Columbia University, Oleg began a career with the U.S. government. They had a son, Paul. When he was still a baby, the couple went on their first temporary assignment, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soon after returning to the Washington area, they had a second son, Andrew. Next came a five-year assignment to the Netherlands, where Irene gave birth to twins, Ellen and Laura. All the while, Irene painted, with her art now decorating the homes of her children. While abroad, Irene also took temporary assignments with the U.S. government.
Over the next two decades, the family lived in Madrid, Santiago and Paris, with Irene expanding her knowledge of languages to Spanish and French. In between the assignments, they lived in their home in Annandale, Virginia. In 1978 they finally settled there, though Irene went on temporary assignments for the government to Singapore and Nairobi.
When Oleg warned Irene that “the wolves are at the door,” meaning they needed more income, she took a full-time job with the U.S. government in the Washington area, in which she helped some Russian immigrants settle in the United States.
She loved being with her children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and travelled around the world with Oleg. He passed away in 2007.
Irene was also preceded in death by her brother George.
She is survived by her children Paul and his wife Patty, of Carmichael, California; Andrew and his wife Zoe, of Salem, Oregon; Laura Kalcheff and her husband, Michael, of Chantilly, Virginia; Ellen Sawitzky, of Fairfax, Virginia; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Irene’s family wishes to extend our sincere thanks to the staff and caregivers of Goodwin House in Bailey’s Crossroad.
- She is survived by her children Paul and his wife Patty, of Carmichael, California; Andrew and his wife Zoe, of Salem, Oregon; Laura Kalcheff and her husband, Michael, of Chantilly, Virginia; Ellen Sawitzky, of Fairfax, Virginia; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Thursday, June 4, 2020
Thursday, June 4, 2020