American returns 68 years on to French town that helped him after WWII

He told The Connexion he met a childhood friend on the visit to the south of France where his family began to rebuild their lives on release from a Nazi labour camp

Mr Hadshinow in Caissargues in September 2023 and in a Displaced Persons camp in 1946
Published Last updated

An American has told how he returned, 68 years on, to the village of his childhood in the south of France, where his refugee family settled after being released from a Nazi labour camp at the end of World War Two.

The Connexion spoke to Valery Hadshinow, now 80, after his recent visit to Caissargues, near Nimes in the Gard.

“I still love the sound of the cigales,” he said. “Seeing the wild bulls of the Camargue and the vineyards, I love all of it.”

Today, there are 4,000 people living in Caissargues but only 200 were there in Mr Hadshinow’s day.

For seven years after the war, his family lived in an abandoned railway station outside the village, with no running water or electricity after being uprooted from their homeland in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

For Mr Hadshinow, the childhood memory is a fond one.

“There were a couple of boys my own age and we were always playing and riding the bicycle all over,” he said. “We had a well, an outhouse and plenty of land for chickens, ducks, rabbits and a goat for milk, life was good.”

Before moving to Caissargues, with its vineyards, sunny haze and constant cigale song, Mr Hadshinow’s life had been a harrowing tale.

Nazi invasion

He was born into perhaps one of the most difficult times and places in human history: Ukraine in 1943, then part of the Soviet Union, during the brutal Nazi occupation.

“I was around nine months old when the Nazis started retreating,” he said.

“They rounded up thousands of people, deported them back to Germany and put them under their control in slave labour camps.

“I don't know too much about daily life at the camp. My parents never talked about that time”.

Liberated by the Americans, Mr Hadshinow’s father did not want his family, who were ethnic Greeks, to return to the USSR during Stalin’s reign of terror.

They were taken to a displaced persons camp in the British occupation zone of defeated Germany, where his father worked as a labourer.

Read also: Should Nazi defences be preserved or forgotten along French coast?

Refugees in France

When the time came to move, the family chose to go to France. However, three-year-old Valery, malnourished and sick with tuberculosis, had first to go to a sanitorium in the mountains to build up his strength.

“After three years I recovered enough to be able to come home,” he said. “I hadn't seen my parents all those years and I had completely forgotten Russian. I could understand a little but I could only speak with them in French.”

Then came seven years of peace for Mr Hadshinow, living in Caissargues, playing with his friends and riding his bike. However, his family were not to settle there.

Read also: Last survivor of French D-Day commando unit dies aged 100

Settling in the US

His mother had been in contact with members of the Russian diaspora, and when he was 13, she secured sponsorship from a methodist church to let them emigrate to the US.

“I wasn’t told too much about it and I didn’t know too much about America. We didn't have electricity so I wasn’t very aware of the outside world,” he said.

“We had to go to Belgium and take a flight on the Flying Tigers line to New York. It took about 18 hours with a couple of stops. I was sick the whole time.”

In America the other kids called him ‘frenchie’ at first, then over the years he lost his accent. He worked, married and had children in New Jersey.

Now aged 80, he still works at the company he founded, ‘Designs by Val,’ whose motto reveals a typical American aplomb: “You sketch it, we etch it!”

He has been sketching, etching and engraving monuments and memorials from his workshop in New Jersey for a lifetime now.

“It started out as a hobby,” he said. “Before that I was an industrial draughtsman and then 35 years ago I started doing this, first working with stained glass, then moving into sandblast etching and gilding for the last 35 years.”

Monuments, memorials, sculptures, plaques have become Mr Hadshinow’s life’s work.

Returning home

Why at the age of 80 did he travel across the Atlantic to visit Caissargues?

“It was a case of ‘you can't go home again’”, he said. “And it meant a great deal to return to Caissargues with my son Robert.”

Together they retreaded the streets Mr Hadshinow had played on as a child, passed the houses where his mother worked as a washerwoman and saw the fields of the Domaine du Cambourin where his father laboured in the sun.

“Being so young, I enjoyed the freedom of being in the countryside here with my bike, but I didn't realise back then how hard my parents worked.”

They also visited the last of Mr Hadshinow’s childhood friends, Alain.

“I was so happy to see him again for what is probably the last time. He has been ill for a while. I’m glad I got to say goodbye.

“Returning to France I noticed a lot of changes, just like the changes in America,” he said. “Everything is getting overcrowded, overgrown and the whole world doesn't seem so peaceful anymore.

“After 68 years in America memories fade and cannot be revived.”

Back in New Jersey, Mr Hadshinow is already busy in his workshop, indefatigable, in his work memorialising in glass, gold, wood and stone all things of the past that cannot fade.

Read also

Britons lay crosses at Commonwealth war graves in south-west France

Hunt is on for American's family after WW2 bag found in French loft

From Nazi war camp survivor to fêted anti-poverty campaigner in France