By: Michael G. Lander
|A family photo of Tamara with her father, Alexei Nivniea and mother, Epistemia, circa 1925|
in Kiev, Ukraine.
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.
"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.
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.