For years I have been researching the lives of my Russian and Ukrainian ancestors, but I hadn’t gone back to where I learned about being Russian-American in the 1980s.
I went to Russian American Society’s summer camp in Rockland County, New York, for two or three summers. Kids who attended the camp called it Otrada. It looks like a funny name in English but it looks like a normal Russian name in Cyrillic- Отрада.
The camp lasted for three weeks and it was an experience I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have as a child. I was too focused on the strictness of the camp.
All the girls slept in the same large room in a building next the playground. A bed and chest of draws were lined up for each girl in perfect order. There wasn’t any sleeping in or staying up late. Forget get about sneaking outside at night. The wooden floors were so creaky.
We lined-up like ducks for our one-minute showers with the help of Russian-speaking camp staff standing next to the shower curtain. Having a long hot shower to wake up was a luxury at home.
Heaven-forbid you were caught speaking in English. I stood in the middle of the girls’ dormitory during play time for about a half hour for speaking in English.
I don’t recall doing the pledge to the American flag, but to the Russian flag. Looking back, it seemed as if I was transported to the USSR for a few weeks.
The only activities I enjoyed were playing, walking in the woods and swimming. I struggled to learn Russian, making it hard to enjoy so many of the activities.
For years, I have been looking at Otrada’s website, wondering whether the camp I remembered still exists. I was almost in tears going up the driveway for my summer camp two days ago because I didn’t know what I would see.
Here was my biggest fear, not being able to peek into the windows of my old dormitory. I bumped into an older woman who reminded me of a woman who worked at the camp and she told me the building burned down in 2011. Now a building with a prep kitchen, bathroom and large garage area sit where I had so many memories.
Then the condition of the playground was heartbreaking. The spirit of the camp was gone by the sight of the playground.
Even the stereotypical Russian bear for the camp hasn’t changed since I left for home from my last camp in 1985.
Meanwhile, the Otrada’s Russian Orthodox chapel and the pool look great.
I remember sliding into the pool and climbing up the pool’s steps when time was up. Sadly the original building where I would change into my swimsuit is gone.
The buildings where the boys slept are still standing and being used.
I still remembers boys yelling, “No girls allowed!” at me when I tried to visit my two older brothers.
Passing by, many people wouldn’t understand the importance of this place for many children of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.
My mother, uncle and aunt also went to Russian camps in New York and New Jersey. Sadly, many of these camps are stuck as memories as insurance liabilities have put an end to Otrada’s summer camps and others run by charities.