The old woman moved slowly up the red-brick walkway to the federal courthouse here today, the last steps home after half a lifetime in the Soviet Union.
Her jaw was set, as it must have been many times during her half-century ordeal -- when she fled America in the Depression year of 1931 to join her husband who had found work in Russia, when she arrived in Moscow with her young son only to discover that her husband had died, when she was sent off to a concentration camp in Siberia for eight years of hard labor.
For much of that time, the woman's relatives in the United States had assumed that she and her son were dead -- victims of Nazi Germany's invasion of Russia in World War II. But today, at 79, she was very much alive.
Her eyes sparkled as she was ushered into a courtroom, her 55-year-old son at her side. She raised her right hand in front of a federal judge and softly pledged allegiance to the principles of the United States Constitution.
With that, Etta Cohen Johnson, born April 1, 1900, in New York City, was again, and at long last, an American citizen.
The story of this woman who had to be naturalized in her 80th year began on a Monday in April of 1931 when she bundled up her son and a few belongings from her New York apartment and boarded a German steamship that would take her on the first part of a journey to join her husband in Moscow.
Aboard the steamship, she met a woman who made predictions with cards. "She laid the cards out in front of her," Johnson recalled in a recent interview. "When she did it with me, there was a death in the family. She didn't want to tell me."
On that day, at least, the cards were right. When Johnson arrived in Moscow, she discovered that her husband was dead. He had died of blood poisoning one day after she and her son, Albert, had left New York.
Stranded in a foreign land, Etta Johnson decided to CAPTION: Picture, ETTA JOHNSON . . . spent eight years in Siberia; Picture 2, AlbertJohnson, 55, now lives in Beltsville, Md., with his mother, 79, who spent seven years and eight months at hard labor in Stalin's Siberian camps. By Ellsworth Davis - The Washington Post write home for advice. Her father-in-law in Trenton, N.J. urged her to stay in Russia because there were no jobs in the U.S. "The old man Johnson told me 'You stay there and let Albert get a higher education,'" she said. "They felt that if I came home, it would be a burden to them. So it was understood that I became a Soviet citizen." On Setp. 10, 1934, she became just that.
To earn a living, she went to work in Moscow as a proofreader for a Soviet English-language newspaper, a move that required her to join a Soviet trade union. She worked as a proofreader for 14 years until 1949, when Etta Johnson asked the Soviets to let her return to America.
Instead, they sent her off to Siberia.
"I remember it very well," her son, Albert, now says of the day his mother was arrested by KGB agents in Moscow 30 years ago. "I was met by a well-dressed man when I got home. Then the KGB came. They were searching all night. The room was a mess."
It remains unclear why Johnson was sent to Siberia. Immigration officials here say the Soviets may have suspected her of being a spy, or they may simply have taken offense at her requests to leave. Her son has records that show she was interrogated for six months and may have been suspected of "potential treason".
She remembers it this way: "After six months, they said, you see, we have taken off that spying statute. But they asked me the question, if we let you leave, would you come back? Like a child, I said of course not. So they had another statute -- traitor."
Nowhere in Etta Johnson's life is her endurance more evident than during the eight years she spent at Tayshet, a concentration camp in the Siberian uplands some 2,500 miles east of Moscow. Johnson spoke in great detail of these years during an interview as she sat at the dining room table of her Beltsville, Md., home a few days before her naturalization today.
At the concentration camp, the 4-foot-10, 98-pound woman helped build an east-west spur of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in weather so cold and snow so deep that now the only description she can offer for it is "hell, a nightmare."
"I helped build that railroad," she said, thumping the table. "We came out of Moscow in cattle cars. It took three weeks. Every time a passenger train used the tracks we pulled into a siding. It was so cold the walls on the inside of the cattle cars were covered with ice. There was no place to lie down on the train because we were packed too tightly."
In Siberia, a land bigger than the United States and Mexico combined and which for centuries has been a universal symbol of misery. Etta Johnson cut trees to make railroad ties. "We sawed with manual saws on trees so big you couldn't see who was on the other end of the saw." She also cut and laid sod in the summer months along the steep banks of the railroad bed to prevent summer rains from eroding and destroying their rail work.
When the waist-high snows came, usually by October, the women of the camp were bound together in chain gangs plodding toward areas where trees would be cut. "The bigger, heavier women," she recalled, "usually led because their size and strength let them make a path for the rest of us."
For nourishment, the female prisoners in the land Dostoevski called the "House of the Dead" were given bread and watery soup.
"I was nothing but skin and bones, much worse than now," said the frail woman. "But we smuggled the men some of our bread because they worked so hard. For the men it was terrible." In exchange for bread, the men of Tayshet gave the women mugs and cups.
In the winter, temperatures dropped to 70 degrees below zero, sometimes freezing faces and bursting eardrums. But to Etta Johnson, the Siberian summers were worse. The land she worked turned to swamp.
"We wore nets over our heads and had to lift the nets to put food in our mouths. Soup was still all we had and the little tiny insects would get into your eyes and your ears. They sucked blood. My cheeks swelled up so, and my arms. That was the worst part."
Etta Johnson no longer remembers just how long she was at the camp near Tayshet, nor does she remember where in Siberia she was when, as a reward for her productivity, she was shipped to an agricultural camp.
There, she harvested potatoes. "Mostly potatoes, sometimes picking grains. There were sometimes strong showers and we were just drenched, but we couldn't leave the fields until our daily quotas were met."
Her voice turned to a whisper as she continued the narrative. "When I was in camp, I lost all of my teeth, because of the scurvy. So I had to eat with my gums. But they had nothing to chew anyway." Her bottom gums shriveled up so that no denture can be made to fit them, even today.
In 1952, three years after his mother was sent to Siberia, Albert Johnson rode the same railroad to find her. He was, by then, a thoroughly Russian young man who had been trained at the famed Timiryazev Agricultural Academy. He knew very little about the America he left as a toddler, or about his dead father.
But he knew and loved his mother, and he set out to find her. He volunteered for three years of service in the farms of Siberia as an excuse for getting to the places he believed his mother had been sent.
For 18 months, Albert Johnson looked in vain.
"Stalin was still alive then. I saw the camps. So many people, like ants in an ant hill moving around. But I didn't find her. There were hundreds of miles of barracks and searchlights all along the tracks. It looked like Fifth Avenue in New York City."
The son gave up his search in 1953 and moved 3,000 miles west, to the Ukraine. He was working on a collective farm there when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1956. Etta Johnson was one of thousands of prisoners freed from the horrors of Siberia during that period. She had been in hard labor for seven years and eight months. Now, anemic and "very tired", it was time for her to find her son.
It happened quite by accident.
Etta was in the city of Kovel, drawn there by a letter she once received while in Siberia that informed her that her son was in that part of the Ukraine. There were dozens of people on the train platform of Kovel that day in 1957. She was at the ticket window, waiting for it to open. He was getting off a train, returning from a business trip. She saw him from the back.
"I hollered, 'Albert,' and he turned around."
After two years at a collective farm with Albert in the Ukraine, Etta became restless. She was a woman of the city. "Why," she recalled, "should I be on a collective farm when I could be in Moscow? The intellectuals were in Moscow."
She applied for a pardon from her crimes and permission to return to the capital city. Both requests were granted. She lived in a small room and returned to her profession, proofreading literary journals.
Albert stayed in the country, experimenting with seeds at cooperative farms. It was the only work he knew. But after 11 more years on the farms, Albert grew tired of it.
In 1963 he applied for permission to join his mother in the city. The Soviets first refused, but later relented when an influential friend intervened on his behalf. Today, bitterly, he says: "They gave me permission to live with my own mother. I decided then I would leave the Soviet Union."
Once in Moscow, Albert found work at an agricultural library. He also began making contact with foreigners, and asked one of them to call his uncle in Trenton. He had never forgotten the address.The uncle was reached, and he then contacted a sister in St. Augustine, Fla., who was shocked to learn that Etta and Albert still walked the earth. She had been told by the Red Cross back in 1943 that mother and son were dead.
Twice in the early 1970s, Albert applied to Soviet officials for a visa to visit America. He was rejected in 1971 and again the next year. "So, I was naive," he shrugs now. "Then somebody gave me advice. I should apply for permission to leave permanently."
It was during that period that U.S. and Soviet officials were negotiating "favored nation" trade agreements, which the U.S. wanted linked to freer Soviet emigration policies. The Soviets never signed the agreements, but hundreds of people were allowed to leave.
Albert Johnson was one of them.
Etta Johnson stayed behind as her son arrived in St. Augustine on July 1, 1973, with his books, his slides of the Soviet countryside, and his Siberian cat, Barsik. Quickly and efficiently, Albert and his aunt worked to bring Etta home. All it required, they learned, was a hand- delivered letter to the U.S. State Department from the aunt formally inviting Etta Johnson to this country.
The aunt took the letter to Washington. The State Department validated it.The Soviets accepted it. And within four months Etta was back in New York, the city of her birth.
Mother and son then came to Washington so he could look for work. "In the Soviet Union," he explains, "when you look for work, you always go to some official place. So I came to Washington. They said I needed clearance. But who could check for me? I lived my whole life in the Soviet Union."
"You are an American," Etta corrects her son.
"By name only," he responds. "I'm Russian."
Albert took the civil service exam six times, and finally landed a job in the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, where he indexed Russian farm literature. Etta applied for citizenship, and was told it would take five years.
"I didn't think there was any doubt she would (get it)," said Bruce Barrett, the naturalization attorney who investigated her case after she applied on March 20 of this year. "You don't expect someone who's 79 years old to be subversive."
Etta spent most of the last five years at home, reading voraciously, waiting for this very special day to come. She ventured out into the streets of her new home in Prince George's County only now and again. And, often, she thought about the life she had left behind on the other side of the world, mostly horrible, a little good. She missed the fresh vegetables, homemade cottage cheese and sour cream she could find in the markets of Moscow, but not here.
For the last six months, the old woman waited for immigration officials to confirm her story that she joined the Soviet trade union 47 years ago, thus abandoning her Amiercan citizenship, only because she had to do it to get a job. During those six months, she practiced the Pledge of Allegiance over and over again.
Last week, a stranger telephoned and said she would be naturalized on Sept. 28 at the federal courthouse in Baltimore. Etta Johnson cried then, but three days later her eyes sparkled as she said her own joyful epitaph.
"Now I can die in peace."