A story on Russian immigrants in Hawaii prompts a reader’s tale

The World
Updated on
Kovner family photo

You know the saying "It's a small world?"

Well, we ran a story by Alina Simone last week about Russian immigrants who moved to Hawaii in the early 1900s to work the island's sugar plantations. The story included a vintage photo of a Russian family — a couple and their teenage daughter. And when Michelle Konn Rai saw the story, she thought she recognized the girl in the photo. 

Rai, a communications professor at Pacific Union College in California, contacted her father, who confirmed that the girl was her great grandmother. Michelle contacted PRI's The World and told us the girl in the photo had a daughter named Olga, who's still alive today.

Olga is now 94 years old and living with her family in Savannah, Georgia. She remembers that her grandparents, Tatiana and Feodor Kovner, left Russia in 1909, four years after an workers' uprising dubbed "Bloody Sunday."

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Olga says her family quickly assimilated in their new country. They made friends with Chinese, Hawaiian and Portuguese workers. Her mother, Mary Kovner, learned English at public school and later married a Chinese man named Henry Konn. Olga was one of their three children.

She recalls eating borscht, the Russian beet soup, though she admits "my mother called all soup borscht, and instead of beets she used cabbage" — even if the soup was Chinese.  

Olga also recalls her home was a gathering place for Russian women, who would bring over herring and salmon eggs they brought back from trips to San Francisco. The women also drove cars. "And this was the 1920s, not many women drove cars. But they did," Olga says.

Olga doesn’t speak much Russian these days, although she's happy to lull you with a Russian lullaby. "Go to sleep," she sings. "God is there." 

During numerous conversations with Olga, our producer, Traci Tong, even discovered a family link with Olga's Chinese side. It's a small world, indeed.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the relation and college of one family member. Michelle Konn Rai, a professor at Pacific Union College, is a great granddaughter of the woman in the photo.

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