Yakov Grichener chuckles and shrugs when he recalls the day his then 12-year-old grandson made an urgent request. For a history assignment, Alex needed his grandfather to share some stories from his days in Russia's Red Army during World War II.
"He came in all dressed up in his baseball uniform, with his hat and bat and said: 'OK, Grandpa, tell me ..."
Alex fidgeted as Grichener urged him to take a breath, sit down, have a can of pop. Alex said he had no time; his playoff game was coming up.
"I said: 'You know what? You go and have fun, and I will tell you another day,' " Grichener said. "That was it. He never came back.
"The new generation just doesn't want to listen to our war stories."
Today marks the 64th anniversary of Russia Victory Day in World War II. When the Nazis surrendered, Grichener was in a Russian army hospital, nursing a shot-up shoulder.
Victory Day, though, is only the second happiest memory of the war for Grichener, 85, a retired math teacher who lives in Plymouth with his wife of 63 years, Klavdya. He is one of about 150 Russian World War II veterans living in the Twin Cities.
His happiest day came in the otherwise brutal winter of 1943. And it came with a distinctive Minnesota flavor and aroma.
'Comrades, help yourselves'
Born in Romania, Grichener was conscripted into the Russian Army at 17 and stationed in Leningrad. The city was starving from a two-year Nazi blockade. U.S. merchant ships formed Arctic convoys loaded with food, medicine, weapons and Studebakers to help the cut-off Russians.
Enter Grichener, who commanded a boat of 18 soldiers shuttling the U.S. aid from anchored supply ships to the northern port of Murmansk. Waves were steep one day and Grichener feared he wouldn't be able to tie up.
"The Americans were very smart and they just opened iron doors in the side of the ship and we sailed right in," he said.
His eyes grew wide as he saw sacks and sacks of flour "with the American eagle and the inscription: Made in the USA."
As he waited with his men for orders, an American sailor stepped up with a big can and cut off the lid with a knife.
"The aroma came out and our mouths started watering."
The sailor cut the Spam into small pieces and hollered: "OK, comrades, go ahead: Help yourselves."
Grichener and his men were confused. He had studied English back in Romania. "So I knew what 'help' meant, but 'Help yourself?' I didn't know that meant: 'Go on and grab something.'"
His men asked what the sailor said and Grichener responded: Help. So, they offered to help. But how?
The young American sailor smiled, put a piece of Spam in his mouth and gestured for the Russians to do the same.
"We didn't wait for any other explanation," Grichener said. "We attacked. One hand in the mouth, the other in the pocket."
The sailor laughed and pulled out another can.
"Many of the Russian soldiers started to cry," Grichener said. "And no wonder: We hadn't seen meat in two years."
When he emigrated to Minnesota in 1980, he realized Spam was a Hormel product made in Austin. He sent Hormel a letter, and they invited him to the Spam Museum.
"Anytime I see in the store a can of Spam," he said, "it takes me back."
And reminds him how thankful he is for the largely forgotten U.S. Lend-Lease program that sent more than $11 billion in aid to Russia via those Arctic convoys. That would add up to about $150 billion in today's dollars. The shipments included vehicles, planes, food, medicine, guns, tires and, of course, Spam.
"Most Americans have no idea," Grichener said. "You people don't like to praise your own country, and the Russians hide this because they can't stand to teach that American capitalists are good people."
Those supplies "were a life ring to a drowning person," Grichener said. "A hungry soldier is no soldier. We started eating, and we were good soldiers."
He looks at his medals pinned on an old sports jacket and wonders what would have happened if the Americans hadn't ferried in those supplies through frigid waters. Of the 1,400 ships that took part in the Arctic convoys, Germans sank 85 U.S. merchant vessels and 16 British warships.
"I'm not a historian," said Grichener, who taught math at Minnetonka High School for 12 years and has been honored by Jewish Family Services as a longtime senior volunteer companion. "But the outcome could have been different and the war might have lasted longer."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767