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Chelyabinsk -- On the Trails of Persecution

Tscheljabinsk: Auf den Spuren der Verforlgung

Heim, Pastor Christial. "Chelyabinsk – On the Trails of Persecution." Volk auf dem Weg, January 2005, 22-23.

Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


The church in Chelyabinsk

Two and a half years ago, when I was asked to take over pastoral care of the Germans from Russia in Unna Massen and in the Archdiocese of Paderborn, I barely knew anything about the history of the Germans from Russia. I began to read and, even more so, to listen to people's stories, and so entered more and more into a history that was so full of suffering, yet very moving and highly eventful. Soon I felt the urge to travel to the areas of exile in order to be able to touch and to see what "my people" were speaking about.

With the support of my Archbishop, Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn, this path, which I considered as a search for a trail, became reality. Also of important help were my contacts with the Catholic community in Chelyabinsk in Russia [just east of the southern Ural Mountains, Tr.], particularly with Father Reinhard Franitza, a priest from the Hidlesheim area [Germany], who eleven years ago went to Russia in order to rebuild the Catholic community there.

I am pleased to provide this excerpted report on my travels, and I hope that many "Locals" might follow such a path in order to understand more deeply this history of the Germans from Russia and, thereby, to be able to contribute more to their feeling at home here in Germany.

I am looking forward to the time ahead. While flying east across large distances, my thoughts are on the next four weeks. I wish to encounter, with a mind that is open and willing to learn, this other world at the intersection between the European and Asiatic continents. I have a great wish to let this upcoming experience be a gift that will move me deeply -- allowing the kinds of "eye to eye" contact, which characterize our work within this project of the diocese, to accompany me on my journey.

Father Reinhard picks me up from the airport at the edge of the city. Chelyabisnk is one of those cities that was built "on top of German bones, as I was told recently by a German woman from Russia. The church, as I soon find out, stands on the site of barracks housing the Trudarmy. A memorial site for the dead is being constructed there.

Residing in the same house with Father Reinhard are Christoph Teichert, Father Wilhelm Palesch, and the Curate Markus Nowotny. The large Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception is a landmark that is visible from long distances and has become an "official" part of tours of the city. People from the nearby and more distant surrounding area often come here, or they enter because of the "open door" welcoming attitude and subsequently wish to learn more about our faith, about God, and about the Church. Some return, wishing to become a permanent part. This church plays an immensely important role here, as a sacred building as well in service to the poor, who receive meals here; or as a place where members of minorities or of other disadvantaged groups can meet.

I have become used to the place, and my contact with the youth seems successful. Only my Russian lessons appear to be a chore, but I need to take them -- after all, I came here in part to learn the language a little better.

Soon I am able to manage taking Communion to the sick in a village 50 kilometers [30 miles] away. But I am being accompanied by my Russian teacher and her husband. They are familiar with the sick and also with the way to get there.

In Korkina there is a house of prayer for the Catholic community, and it is thus an established outpost of the parish. Korkina must have at least 60,000 residents and is considered to be among the small cities here, but it also claims one of the largest open-pit (hard) coal mines in the world. Brown coal and marble have also been part of the city's history as well. However, its products are much less in demand these days, so that related businesses go under and people move away to the larger cities, where, my hosts tell me, they'll have a chance to find work. Korkina is thus becoming a city of the elderly and of those who have found their own niche there.

We are visiting five German-Russians who are too ill to attend church on Sundays. With all of them I talk and pray in German, and they are very pleased and happy to see me, but at the same time they have been marked by their fate. A Sunday later I return to the community to celebrate Mass with them

The memorial during construction

And finally I get the opportunity to see one of the large field of graces of the Trudarmy members and thereby to make room for a very sad chapter of history. Piror to my departure from Germany I read the book "Zone der totalen Ruhe [Zone of Total Rest]" by Gerhard Wolter, in which he deals with just this painful way of the cross of the Germans.

Around 40,000 Trudarmy members died here in Chelyabinsk. In Germany, I have frequently met older Germans from Russia whose father or mother died in Chelyabinsk. The government had big plans for the Trudarmy in Chelyabinsk. They were given the enormous task, the so-called Bakal Construction [Project]. By as early as 1942, the first production runs of war materials were being delivered and, gradually, production of armaments really got going. The site we are visiting today, the field of graves in which the dead were barely covered with dirt, now lies behind mountains of slag from the fabrication of steel. The dead are in part covered by these mounds of slag. On the way to the site we pass the steel factory. Might it perhaps have been built by these people [who have been lying dead here]?

About 50 feet behind a mound of slag we reach a beautiful, summer-like meadow. Except for a modest stone memorial, nothing reminds one of what lies beneath us. Even the metal memorial plaque has been stolen. What irony history provides us with! Deeply moved, I take in the atmosphere of this locale. We are all silent until we finally find words of prayer, in our car.

The memorial inside the city will be completed only after I leave. It consists of a Christ figure 2.5 m [about 9 feet] in height, presenting the onlooker with the image of the Resurrected One. Surrounding the figure is a giant crown of thorns about 6 m [20 feet] in diameter. This crown of thorns fashioned from metal -- no material could be more appropriate for Chelyabinsk! -- and each thorn is about 40 cm [16 inches] long. The path to the memorial and its background are red, Christ is white. The following saying by Christ appears on the red marble: "I am alive, and so you shall be!" There is an indention at the bottom which is to contain bones exhumed from the field of graves -- to find a final place of rest in representation of all the others buried behind the piles of slag from the steel plant. An altar, clad in metal, is to be placed over this indention and will serve for various services.

To me, the entire project seems to be a coherent design and appears to have been discussed with and fully agreed to by local organizations. The site already appears to have the requisite dignity and maturity for an official memorial to the Trudarmy members. And even though no memorial can bring back even one of the dead, this memorial will give expression to pain, suffering and helplessness, and to condemnation of injustice. At the same time, all the pain also expresses the words of the Risen Christ: "Yes, I am alive, and you shall also live," thereby reminding us that only reconciliation and peace will provide a path toward the future.

So at the end of this first sojourn I do notice that during these weeks in Russia I have indeed gained an initial deep insight into the lives and thoughts, the history, and the present of Russia's people. It seemed to be right not to have spent the time crisscrossing the area, but to stay instead with the people, in one place, to learn from them, and to experience a part of their everyday lives. For me, this country now has a face, and many of the people I met here will remain "keys to understanding" this country. By their stories and their experiences, I will take them back to Germany with me.

Celebrating Mass with Germans in Korkina

At the same time, I have one again been struck with the tragedy of the hi story of Germans from various states of the former Soviet Union, and it has become a part of me. Personally following the erecting of one of the first memorials to the Trudarmy members and being able to go on the trails, still alive, of the Germans, left a deep impression on me. All of these facets also imply an even more intense responsibility to living and working for reconciliation, for communication, and for understanding. Of no us will be mere blind accusations, or staring at past suffering, or a helpless surrender to the fate of "those who simply arrived too late" -- rather, what may be beneficial is active concentration on working in the present, genuine encounters, eye to eye, exchange as equal partners, and the knowledge and self-assurance of Germans from Russia in the fact that they are indeed an enrichment and a treasure for this country, for our civil and our ecclesiastical communities.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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