The “Poison Powder”

Dariya Zelenko was born on September 1, 1914 in a small village in the Ukraine.  Not much is known about her early life except that her maiden name was Dariya Kozel and that her parents were farmers.  She apparently did not have any siblings and received little to no formal education at all, instead helping her parents on the farm as she grew up.

When World War II broke out, the family was rounded up by the Germans and taken to a labor camp in Germany.   At the camp, Dariya was somehow separated from her parents and tragically never saw them again.  She was put to work on a remote farm and there met another prisoner, Kliment Sewick, with whom she eventually fell in love and “married,” though whether it was really official or not is unknown.  Dariya had a baby, Simon, but shortly after his birth, Kliment was shot and killed by the Germans.  Dariya was never sure why.  Dariya grieved for Kliment, but later met another man on the farm, Martin Zelenko, and married him.  Martin had befriended the German guards and was able to considerably lighten Dariya’s workload.  He was also able to get them some extra food from time to time.

After the war was over, Martin immediately applied to come to America, and, finally, in 1951, he and Dariya and Simon arrived in Chicago looking for work.  Martin found a job as a machine operator in a factory, and Dariya worked in a laundromat.  Simon says that his mother had no hobbies besides gardening.  She did not make any friends and did not ever really like to leave the house.  She was very much a loner her whole life, Simon reports, and spent her time obsessively cleaning the house, sometimes scrubbing the floor three times a day.  Simon believes this was the only thing his mother had that made her feel happy or worthwhile.  Often she would say, “I never went to school, but I’m not stupid!”  She was anxious, he says, unless she was working or constantly doing something and was perpetually trying to prove her worth through work.

Apparently, Dariya and Martin were never very close and argued frequently.  Martin would often want her to go out with him, even just for a picnic on Sundays, but Dariya would always refuse, saying that she had too much work to do.  Simon thinks that the reality was that she had an actual fear of leaving the house.  She refused to even go to church, though she would get angry at Simon if he didn’t go every Sunday.

Finally, in 1974, Martin left Dariya and filed for a divorce.  Simon had long since moved out and gotten married and says that the divorce didn’t really seem to faze his mother.  He says that while his stepfather had his faults, he could see that as the years went on, Dariya became more and more unreasonable and withdrawn and that his stepfather had finally had enough of it.

After the divorce, Dariya remained alone, content to stay at home, cleaning and gardening.  Things continued this way until 1991, when Dariya fell and broke a bone in her spine and had to go live with Simon.  It was at this point that she began to rapidly decline mentally.  Simon says that his mother then became extremely paranoid and began accusing him of trying to poison her.  She would scream constantly at the top of her lungs, saying that Simon was putting poison in her food and throwing “poison powder” on her.  She developed a persistent itch and subsequently took to hiding her clothes so that Simon wouldn’t throw poison powder on them.

Wanting to help and reassure her, Simon installed a lock on her bedroom door on the inside, so that she could lock herself in and feel secure.  It didn’t work, however, as she then accused him of spraying the powder under the door.  No matter what Simon did to try to alleviate his mother’s fears, it seemed to backfire.

Even when he was at work, Dariya thwarted him by going out into the yard and screaming at the neighbors, accusing them of also trying to poison her.  She would shout that she knew that Simon was paying them to do it and would then throw mud on their windows.  Dariya even chased her own grandson out of the house once because she was convinced he was part of the “plot” as well.  This continued for three more years until Dariya fell and broke another bone, this time her leg.  At that point, Simon decided it was a good opportunity to place her in a nursing home.

Simon feels guilty about putting his mother in a nursing home and stops by every night after work to check on her, but he is relieved as well, as it was just too difficult having her home.  For her part, Dariya is not making a smooth transition.  She seems not able to speak in a normal tone of voice and is instead always screeching and screaming at both the staff and the other residents, frequently shouting “shit!” as loud as she can.  This disrupts the other residents, who in turn usually start shouting back at her or simply leave the current house activity to go back to their rooms.

The staff are trying to work with Dariya one-on-one, as an alternative to having her disrupt the other residents, but she appears very confused and unable to hold a normal conversation.  Even though she can speak English, she will only answer questions asked of her in English with a response in Ukrainian or sometimes Polish.  She seems unhappy most of the time and can usually be found trying to wheel herself up and down the hallways, wanting to keep moving, and becomes agitated if left alone in one spot.

(Originally written: July 1995)

If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:


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