Saturday, June 8, 2013

Life Story of Tamara Miller is a Testament to Survival

Life Story of Tamara Miller is a Testament to Survival
By:  Michael G. Lander

A family photo of Tamara with her father, Alexei Nivniea and mother, Epistemia, circa 1925
in Kiev, Ukraine.

Tamara Miller is a survivor.  Her life seems like something out of a novel with harrowing escapes and tales of survival.  Her quiet life in Germantown, Tenn. stands in sharp contrast to what she experienced many decades before.

Miller lived her early childhood under an oppressive, totalitarian government, later experiencing the threat of starvation during a famine, was captured and endured years of forced labor, and often thought she would die when bombs rained down in a war that took the lives of millions around the world. 

She was born in the Ukrainian city of Kiev as Tamara Nivniea in April 1923.  She was an only child whose father died when she was seven years old.  Shortly after this tragic event, life became a struggle for her and for many others in the Ukraine as they suffered and struggled through famine.

In her book, "My XXth Century Rockets, Bombs & Christianity," Miller recounts these turbulent years of her life.  In it she wrote, "The turmoil of history that shook and shattered the world in the mid-20th  century also robbed me of my childhood and youth..... Deprivation, starvation, and terror were my constant companions and have been embedded in my memory forever."

Miller described the famine that she lived through in the Ukraine as having been orchestrated by Joseph Stalin in order to control and subjugate a people who would otherwise be difficult to control. 

The famine, she wrote, was the "final solution to eradicate the independent spirit of the Ukrainian nation."

 "Five to seven million Ukrainians perished from this famine and that included my uncle and cousin who both starved to death," Miller said.

Miller attributes her survival to her mother who would try to pass a piece of fish or potatoes though a window where she worked.  She also got her placed in a trade school which provided one meal a day to its students.  When this ended, she was then fed a lunch meal each day at a clinic that was eventually set up by the government to try to save some of its children. 

In spite of all this, she was often so  desperate for food, she wrote that  "I used to lick my fingers with the moistened tips to pick up all the old crumbs which were left in the cupboard.  Sometimes I found bigger pieces left by the mice."

"Even to this day, it has never left me," Miller said.  "I don't waste anything.  Starvation leaves a mark on you that never goes away."

A 16-year-old, Tamara, with her mother, Epistemia, in 1939.

Several years after the famine, in the summer of 1941, when Miller looked forward to graduating from high school, the Nazis began their invasion of Eastern Europe and the Red Army was assigned to defend Kiev.  It was within the ranks of the Russian Army that she met a young officer who promised to help her and her neighbors evacuate the city. 

Instead, when he found Miller alone, he attempted to rape her, an act that was only interrupted when someone happened to show up at the door.  While Miller said that this incident did not leave a permanent impression on her, it did bring an element of distrust into her life and a sense of loss that she felt in a home that was no longer a safe refuge for her.

Later, when World War II had started, Miller attempted to travel to see family and was captured by the German Schutzstaffel (the SS), interrogated by the Gestapo, and taken to jail.   

"I didn't think about the possibility of being tortured or killed," Miller said.  "If I had been much older, I'm sure that I would have looked at this all differently."

After she had been in jail for almost two weeks, she was put on a train and sent to a labor camp in Germany.  In her book she wrote, "I was one of 2,196,166 people who had been conscripted and put to work.... We were branded as Osarbeiter, meaning 'Eastern Worker.' We had to wear a special insignia, 'OST.'" 

In reflecting on being taken away and put to into forced labor, Miller said  "I never had any fear or apprehension about any of this.  It was my life.  I thought about surviving each day and I did not think about the next." 

Miller described her years in Germany as "bomb attacks, sleepless nights, and long workdays."

She, and others, experienced the sound of endless sirens and allied bomb raids that indiscriminately killed anyone unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  She shared many close calls that she had in her book and mentions some of those who did not live through the bombardment. 

"There were many times that I was convinced that I might die.  You never knew and you just didn't worry about it," she said.

Robert and Tamara Miller married in 1947 and had three daughters, Gloria, Sima, and Tammy.
Eventually, after the war was over, Miller met an American, whom she planned to marry, and came to where he lived near Memphis, Tenn.  Ultimately, the relationship did not last, but she eventually met another man, Robert Miller, married him in 1947, and had three children. 

Later, after her children were older, Miller realized that without a formal education there was no way to obtain a better life.  It was then, in the mid-1960s, that she started college and eventually taught Russian at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State University). 

She went on to earn her doctorate and was instrumental in bringing world-renowned writers and poets from Russia to speak in Memphis.  Her goal, she said, was to expose American students to Russians and to Russian culture.  She also established language fairs for children, among other things, and became an executive committee member of the Slavic Studies of the U.S.

Miller said that she always wanted to teach and found it very rewarding to see how her influence touched the lives of her students and to see what they were able to accomplish for themselves.

Tamara Miller always welcomes friends with a smile and is described by many as having never met a stranger.
Longtime friend Dr. Natacha Mann said Miller is a woman of "countless qualities and endless achievements.  Her life is a monumental accomplishment when you consider the formidable challenges this extraordinary woman has met head on and admirably surmounted.  It is an inspiration, and should serve as a model for anyone in despair, facing a hopeless situation.  Her optimism and resilience are simply astounding."   

Mann also sees Miller as having unbounded generosity, as being both a rationalist as well as a mystic, as possessing beauty and dignity of complete self-confidence, who has a pure joy of intellectual pursuits, a passion for life, and a true appreciation for the arts and all the beauty that surrounds her.

Another friend, Lenka Bartel, has known Miller for about 50 years.  Bartel said Miller is someone who she knows as having enthusiasm that is irresistible.  She is also someone, she said, who is courageous, and who is extremely  generous.  After the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, she said that Miller collected money and even organized a group of doctors to travel to the Ukraine to help people there.  She traveled with the group, acting as a translator.  This was just one of many such efforts that Miller was actively involved with over the years.

Tamara is interested in many things including what all can be done on cell phones.  She regularly
corresponds with many of her friends via her home computer.

Stephen Luttmann, a University of Northern Colorado professor of University Libraries, and University of Memphis alumnus, agreed with Bartel about Miller's enthusiasm and generosity.  He first met her as a student in one of her Russian language classes.  He has always seen her as being encouraging and cheerful. 

"She has an inner strength that has been tested but never defeated by growing up under both Stalin and Hitler," Luttmann said.  He also felt that she is a "woman of strong opinions, but even stronger sympathies, capable of sympathetically teaching the poetry of devoted Communists and not afraid to change her mind on an issue when Christian charity.... inspired her to do so."  "She loves almost everyone she comes in contact with, and hates no one," he added.

Tamara has many interests, which includes reading, gardening, and art.  This is a
painting that she did of her mother, Epistemia, who, through the efforts of Tamara,
immigrated to the United States in 1960.  After that, she was known to everyone as
"Babushka," which translates to "Grandmother."

Miller's daughter, Gloria Ohta, said her mother provided her "with guidance, encouragement, and a belief that I could do anything.  She taught me that success was about exploring and trying out the world and pursuing my dreams.  Failure was fine; what wasn't fine is not trying," she said.

In looking at her life, Miller said, "Nothing has ever stopped me."  In her book she expressed her philosophy of life by writing, "Life is a journey.... we cannot avoid failures, disappointments, and dissatisfactions.  Living through wars and hunger taught us to accept problems as they came day by day with the conviction that a better future lay ahead.... being guided by God's simple rules brings peace and contentment in the end."

Tamara leads a quiet life, but it is one that is often punctuated with visits and phone calls
from the many friends that she has made over the years.  Her home is decorated
with many things that remind her of her native Ukrainian homeland.

For Miller, it would seem that she brought even more inspiration and enrichment to the lives of others by her indomitable spirit, her unwavering faith, and her sheer determination to make this world a better place for herself and for others.  Despite the challenges that she often faced throughout her life, she seems to have always been able to triumph and to prove that she is truly a survivor.


  1. Dr Miller is a fine woman who made my life in Memphis worth living to the fullest. My late mother, Maribeth,fully shared my love for her as well.Love you, Dr Miller.

    John Bass

  2. What a precious tribute to an amazing lady. I love the painting of Babushka. Good journalistic work here, Michael!!

  3. Tamara is the most positive person I have ever met in my life. I treasure her friendship, although it is only by phone since we live far away from each other.

  4. Tamara is gorges and wonderful woman with amazing spirit and generosity. Долгих Вам лет жизни и крепкого здоровья. Марина и Валерий Левитанус

  5. Mrs. Miller is hands down the most amazing woman I have ever known. I met her at age 6 when we moved next door. The Millers over the years became family to the Dodds, not just neighbors. She has figured in all the important events of my life. I have paintings she gave me, a 39-year old plant, china, jewelry, books - but most of all I carry the love I had for her and she had for me in my heart till the end of my days. We lost her yesterday, and the void is ummense. But all the pain is so worth it to have known such a remarkable woman. RIP, my "Mom."

  6. Our heartfelt condolences, blessings and prayers to the family. Though our journey on this earth may be brief the lives she has touch and inspired will go on for generations. She has now passed the torch of love and appreciation for all things to her grandchildren. May her memory be forever etched in the hearts and minds of those who knew her. May God bless her soul!