A Geography of my Life
Becker (Heidelberg), Heinrich. "A Geography of my Life." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2009, 38-39.
Becker, Von Heinrich. "Geographie meines Lebens."Volk auf dem Weg, March 2009, 38-39.
This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
When the weather began to improve in the spring, my mother and I were able to earn a bit of food as auxiliary hands on the fields of the collective. At times, at the end of a work day, we would be given one or two bucketfuls of potatoes, and at noon there was always a meal on the field.
Before we came to Novorozhdestvenskoye, the owner of the house we would then live in was allotted an extra piece of land to be worked on the side, and we were allowed to make use of this piece of land. First it had to be plowed. Mother went to the supervisor of the collective and asked him for assistance. He promised help only under the condition that Mother would work solely on the collective's fields. Mother agreed, and from that day on she would receive from the food pantry of the collective a daily ration of a loaf of bread, which she dealt out to us at home.
Finally, after two weeks, after Mother had once again spoken to the supervisor, we were sent a worker who plowed our piece of land with a plow pulled by a single horse. We got our seed potatoes from a local woman who agreed to give us five bucketfuls of seed potatoes in exchange for our two down pillows. It was very difficult for Mother to let go of the last two pillows, for which she had gathered down feathers for two long years in the Volga region. However, these two pillows were the only valuable things we still had, so we had nothing else to offer for the seed potatoes.
Following the end of seed time, it became more and more difficult to get day work. Again we were hungry, and Mother had to beg again, but except for potato and beet skins she got nothing.
We had to remind ourselves again of the survival skills practiced by Tchuvashi. When we were still living in Tugan, those Tchuvashi taught us which plants of the region were edible, and how to snare birds. For example, they also had shown us which part of the lower layer of the birch rind we could actually eat. To get as much food as possible, we divided up the tasks as follows: Mina and Peter would scrounge potato and beet skins from the trash area of the collective, while Alexander and I searched for edible plants outside the village. In the woods near Novorozhdestvenskoye we collected toadstools, boletus, and other kinds of mushrooms. There was one plant the locals called putchki. The long stems of this plant contained a soft, sweet kind of marrow. We also cooked nettles and "melden." We also gathered berries, moss berries, cranberries, raspberries and others. Adults were always warning us not to go too deeply into the woods, because there were also bears present.
Our situation changed again by the time of the rye harvest. My mother, Alexander and I worked on the collective's fields, and the end of a work day we each got 300 grams [ca. ten ounces] of bread, giving us a total of 900 grams of bread [nearly two pounds], which we divided among the seven of us at home. If we got a bit too hungry during a day's work, we might surreptitiously pick a few grains off the ground and chew them raw. Mother always tried to bring home at least a half a kilo [just more than a pound] for our small siblings. She kept going to work even when she was swelling from hunger. Because we had four small children and two youth at home, she would dare to risk to bring grains kernels home to us form the field.
One evening, Mother, Alexander and I were going home from the field. In her apron Mother was carrying the grains of rye we had saved from the field. As we came past the house of our neighbor we were suddenly faced by her children, a boy and a girl, both of school age. The boy tore the apron from my mother as the grains rattled to the ground. Then he ran to the village administration to denounce us. A few minutes later the commandant appeared. He had the grains gathered up and taken away, and the next day my mother was sent home from work with the order never to step on the fields again. A team leader told me that she would later face some sort of punishment for the kilogram of grains she had gathered without permission.
On that day, Mother was in very bad shape. She remained in bed all day and was unable to get up the subsequent day; and she had been swelling even more from hunger. Next to her lay Ella, Waldemar, Peter and Mina, who were also bloated from hunger and could not get up. At the time, Alexander was twelve years, Ella was ten years, Waldemar seven years, Peter five years, and Mina one year old.
Alexander and I were doing better than the others. The whole time we were trying to think how to acquire something edible. The saving idea came from Alexander. During our searches for useful plants he had observed that there were guarded grain bins at the edge of the village. He suggested that we observe these grain storage bins some more and perhaps to get some grain from them.
Arriving there, we did not see any guards. A sign written in large lettering on the locked gates said, "Everything for the front!" Nobody among the villagers dared to get even close to the storage bins without serious cause. But we two no longer had anything to lose. Without food, our mother and siblings would not survive that autumn.
On the outside wall of one bin we located a place where the boards were loose. With great care we undid one of the boards, and I slipped inside and filled all my pockets with grain. Then we refastened the board with its own nails, which we pressed into their holes by hand, and without making too much noise.
At home, we tried to beat on the grains and to cook them. The resulting mush proved to be edible. During the succeeding days we made sure that each of us got some of that mush. After a few days our mother got back some of her strength and was able to get up again.
Some local families who had some extra private land to operate were looking for help in harvesting hay. My mother accepted this work, so she was once again able to earn a bit of food. Since the potato "bushes" had dried up on the land of our house, we went about digging the ripe potatoes out of the ground. The result was a pretty modest one. For the long winter it was too little. So we attempted to earn more potatoes working as day workers in the collective's potato harvest.
Shortly after the harvest, we got some more really bad news. The collective administration gave permission to the owner of the house we were living in to tear it all down, save for one room. Within just a few days the wooden home had been taken apart. With dismay we watched as our former residence was torn down. In the end, there remained only one bedroom, which was covered by a flat roof. This room was about 3 by 4 meters [ca. 13 by 18 feet]. In the room there stood a wooden bed with two straw mattresses and an old blanket. In the middle there were a table, two chairs, and a bucket. In one of the corners there was a tiled heating stove. Cold air streamed through slits and the small window. Before winter came, we tried to secure the lower walls by piling up dirt from the outside. Of course, the administration of the collective never offered us a substitute residence or even room in barracks.
Chapter 6: Without Parents
We could not know that we would soon be visited by another stroke of fate. During late autumn of 1942 our mother was arrested by the settlement's commandant and put into jail. She was accused of stealing grain and was to serve two and half years in a forced labor camp. Mother was able to take along merely a jacket when she was picked up. Before being transported away, she took another glance back at us and then went to the wagon. Crying, we all clung to each other as we began to realize that we were to be separated. I had never heard Mina or Peter cry as hard as this time. The commandant ordered Mother to get onto the wagon immediately. We had to use force to tear Mina and Peter from her.
To this day, whenever I remember that feeling of such terrible helplessness that I experience at that moment, I can't hold back the tears.
During the following night we were repeatedly awakened by the Mina's horrible cries. She would sit up in bed and, crying, beg us to open the door to let Mother in.
Although the village administration was well aware that we were now without any parents, no help was offered. And we in turn did not dare to ask the local state authorities for assistance, mostly because we knew that in the view of the locals we were simply those "Fascists."
The one room we had been left with after the house had been torn down did not provide sufficient protection during the winter. We were aware that we needed a lot of heating wood to survive. And as long as there was no snow, two or three times a day we would drag wood in bundles on our backs, from the forest, to make sure we had a timely supply.
In the "cellar" hole directly under out room our mother had kept a bag of wheat, which she had received for her work. Whatever was left did suffice for a only few weeks. Alexander and I once again had to think about how to supply our smaller siblings with nourishment through the winter. Constant hunger, ongoing uncertainty, and our responsibility for our younger, helpless siblings had taught us that supplies needed to be secured ahead of time.
(To be continued in the next issue.)
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.