'I Still Believe in Guardian Angels': Through
Turmoil and Wars, John Goeres' Faith Endures
Johansson, Jean. "'I
Still Believe in Guardian Angels': Through Turmoil
and Wars, John Goeres' Faith Endures." Metro Lutheran, 8 March 1996.
John Goeres' earliest memory is of his grandmother's death, when he
was six. It had been her task to care for him, his sisters, and his
cousins while their parents worked in their Bessarabian farm fields.
Goeres (rhymes with Harris) remembers
looking through his front fence with one of his cousins and saying,
"Our good Grandma died; what shall we do now?" Ten years
later, world events set in motion a delayed answer to his question
that would dramatically impact Goeres' life.
It's a story of a people moved across national borders by political
forces beyond their control, like that of peoples today in former
Yugoslavia. Or like that of the Hebrew people 3,000 years ago.
John, who now lives in Minneapolis, was born in 1924 on a farm
in northern Bessarabia. A small eastern European land, bordered
by the rivers Prut and Dniester, Bessarabia was wedged between what
were then the Soviet Union and Romania. Goeres' ancestors were Germans
who had accepted the invitation of Russian Czar Alexander I to populate
that territory following the emigration of the mostly Turk population
when Russia acquired Bessarabia in 1812.
In 1918, following the Russian Revolution, Romania occupied and
incorporated Bessarabia. Goeres recalls with fondness his childhood
with his parents and two sisters. "We had a nice, comfortable
farm; just like a paradise."
But World War II changed all that. In 1940, the treaty between
Hitler and Stalin returned Bessarabia to the USSR. Bessarabian Germans
(93,318 by official count) were resettled in then German-occupied
John's parents were devoted Lutheran Christians. "My mother,
every Saturday, prepared us for church," he recalls. "In
1939 I was confirmed, with the last class before the Russians closed
German authorities told the Goeres family in 1940 to leave their
farm and move to Poland. But it was a circuitous route. They lived
for a time in Yugoslavian camps, then in Austrian castles, not reaching
Poland until 1943. To make room for the Bessarabians, the Germans
ousted Polish residents of certain communities, putting older people
in camps and shipping younger Poles to Germany as laborers in the
In 1941, while in Austria, Goeres had become a member of the Hitler
Youth, which sought to train Germany's future leaders. He remembers
the organization's propagandized indoctrination, and recalls being
taught that Jews were evil.
In Poland, Goeres was put to work farming. A 1943 harvest was brought
in, but by summer 1944 the Russian army was in Poland and the Bessarabians
were moved further west, to camps near Lodz.
Drafted into the German army in 1944, Goeres was in communication
corps training until April 1945. "I was 21, the oldest in the
group," he notes. "The others were mostly 16 and I was
like a father to them." He recalls a petition being circulated,
asking trainees to renounce their Christian faith, but none of them
The last month of the war, Goeres was assigned to service with
a division in Austria; it surrendered to American troops near the
Italian border. He then spent two years in British prison camps
in Italy. "We were treated fairly well," he says, "but
there wasn't enough to eat and the climate seemed tropical to me.
I caught malaria and my weight dropped to 110 pounds."
In 1947, Goeres escaped from his prison camp in Rimini, Italy,
by hiding in a mailbag on a train headed for East Germany. He worked
there for a year on a farm. After a night-time border crossing into
West Germany, he worked in a steel factory and construction for
Around Christmas 1948, John discovered his father, sisters, and
a brother-in-law (his mother had died in 1945) were living in southern
"When we saw each other, it was unbelievable. We had gone
through so many horrible things in the war. They thought I was dead
and I thought they were dead. It was like being born again."
John had relatives who farmed near Walhalla, ND, and in 1952 they
agreed to sponsor him for entry into the U.S. After five years of
work on his cousin's farm, Goeres came to the Twin Cities, where
he attended Lutheran Bible Institute and a vocational school.
Goeres became a U.S. citizen in 1958. He worked for Thermo-King
for 33 years, retiring in 1990. After four years of marriage, his
first wife died in 1964, leaving him with three small sons. He remarried
in 1965; his second wife died in 1989.
Despite the turmoil he endured during World War II and its aftermath,
plus the deaths of two wives and a son, and recent health adversities,
Goeres has maintained a cheerful attitude and an unshakable faith.
He is a longtime member of Diamond Lake Lutheran in Minneapolis.
John shows a visitor a small, black devotional book, with text
in beautiful Gothic script and the thorn-crowned head of Christ
embossed on the cover.
"Whenever I get kind of down, I pick up this book. My mother
used to say, `Never be too tired or too lazy when you go to bed
to say a prayer.'"
It is Goeres' faith, he says, that "has gotten me through
all those times" of upheaval. "When you believe strongly
in God, no one can hurt you. You're a free person. You're in God's
hands all the time. I still believe in guardian angels hovering
Goeres has visited his surviving sister Elizabeth, now 83, in Bavaria
several times. But he has never been back to Bessarabia. Its southern
part is now in the Ukrainian Republic. The northern part is the
independent country of Moldova. John Goeres often wonders what has
happened to the farm "like paradise" where he spent his
first 16 years of life.
Reprinted with permission of the Metro Lutheran, Minneapolis,
John Goeres with
his sister Phyllis: photo taken at camp in Austria, 1940.