Reminders of her Decade of Horror Remain for Sawyer
|Mrs. Liebelt shows her husband family
pictures from the time she was growing up in Russia.
Lund, Leonard. "Reminders of her Decade of Horror Remain for Sawyer Woman." Minot Daily News, 9 February 1974.
|A series of tragedies befell the John
Mattheis family in the years after they gathered for their picture
in the Ukraine in the 1930s. John Mattheis, the father, was
forced to leave his family in 1937 and was imprisoned by the
Soviet regime never to be seen by his family again. With his
wife in the front are, from left, Ida, Ernest and Daniel. Behind
hem are another daughter, Erna, with her husband, Boris, and
Martha, now Mrs. Theodore Liebelt of Sawyer. Ernest, between
his parents, particularly shows the effects of malnutrition
from a Russian famine.
SAWYER--Now recuperating at her home four miles
south of Sawyer from varicose vein surgery, Mrs. Theodore Liebelt,
nee Martha Mattheis, believes that her health problem stems from
her experiences in a refugee camp in Germany during and after World
War II. In fact, her decade-plus of horror dated back to 1937.
Born into a German family in South Russia, she was displaced by
the fortunes of World War II with the reoccupation of Russian territory
after the fall of Stalingrad.
Separated by the war from her first husband, Alexander Grosse,
never to see him again, Mrs. Liebelt, with her two children, Elvira,
10, and Reinhold, 7, left Nikolaev (Nikolajew) in the Ukraine in
1943, with another sister, Erna, and her two children, Robert, 5,
and Valentina, 2-1/2; her mother; another sister, Ida, 19; and two
brothers, Ernest, 13, and Daniel, 17.
The three sisters with the children of two of them, their brother,
Ernest, and their mother finally reached Schwaig, between Regensberg
and Engelstadt, Germany, where they lived from May 1945 for four
years or more.
Schwaig, in those days, is described by Mrs. Liebelt as "like
when Jesus was born" for "there was no room in the inn."
After being liberated by the Americans, the family of John Mattheis
(who had disappeared in 1937 under an order of the Soviet regime)
found themselves without money and with only the clothes on their
They went from door to door to ask farmers for a bundle of straw
to lay on a floor.
Nine members of the family lived in two small rooms, furnished
with only a cook stove. There was no bed, no table or chairs.
They eventually got steel beds from burned out or wrecked trains
which had been left behind by fleeing German soldiers.
Some people gave them utensils which had been discarded by the
Mrs. Liebelt and her family were forced to beg for food for things
were in such chaos they could not even buy a loaf of bread.
For fuel the family cut an allocation of wood from the forest.
Unaccustomed to such work, Mrs. Liebelt believes her varicose veins
started during that unhappy time in Bavaria.
In order to survive, the family washed clothes for Americans who
gave them discarded clothing which were made into clothes for the
"We didn't throw away anything," remarks Mrs. Liebelt.
She said the family eventually became acquainted with local people
who were kind enough to help.
"It was always the poor people who helped you, not the rich,"
she adds. "We were hungry many times."
During that period of turmoil, the family remembered that their father,
before he was forcibly removed from his home and taken to prison,
had written to a sister in one of the Dakotas, but they could not
remember whether it was South or North.
|Before being parted from her father,
Mrs. Liebelt attended a teachers college in Chortiza, shown
above, for three years and later taught school.
Mrs. Liebelt became acquainted with another refugee from South
Russia, Henry Klassen. She asked Klassen for help to locate her
aunt in America before he left for Canada to work under contract
with a lumber company for a year.
On reaching Canada Klassen placed information in a German paper
in Canada about the Mattheis family and it attracted the attention
of a Mrs. Wagner, who had come from the Mattheis' home town of New
Danzig, not far from Nikolaev.
Mrs. Wagner sent Klassen the address for Martha's cousin, Lydia,
Mrs. John Bender, at McClusky. (She died last month at Underwood.)
Mrs. Bender contacted her brothers, Ed Mathis at Max and William
Mathis at Sawyer. William and his wife agreed to serve as sponsors
for Mrs. Liebelt to come to America.
Without knowing a word of English, Mrs. Liebelt arrived in New
York November 30, 1949, with her two children and they reached Minot
December 2, 1949, on the train.
While looking for someone who could speak German, the conductor
came across a woman who got on the train at Towner. She talked to
While on the train she also met Mrs. A.W. Pankow of Minot, now
in the Milton Young Towers, and her son Jack, l5, who tried to teach
the children to count.
Since the train was late, arriving in the evening, there was no
one to meet Mrs. Liebelt, but a woman explained that William Mathis
should be contacted at Sawyer. With only one telephone in town,
word eventually was relayed to Mathis, who came to Minot to pick
up the new arrivals.
For the next three months they lived with Mathis and his wife and
Mrs. Liebelt helped them build a house while her children were enrolled
in school at Sawyer.
Mrs. Liebelt wanted to get a job to support herself even though
Mathis had to sign an agreement that he would support her and the
children for a year.
Through Mrs. Alvina Gardner, Mrs. Liebelt got a job as a waitress
in the luncheonette at Ellisons in Minot and that also proved valuable
for learning English.
While living at Sawyer Mrs. Liebelt met her second husband. They
were married in March 1951 and have since lived on their place south
In addition to her children, the Liebelts have three other children,
Ralph, who works for Custom Floors in Minot; Richard, with the U.S.
Navy in the South Pacific, and Jeanette, a senior at Sawyer High
Reinhold Grosse, her son by her first marriage, is married and
lives in Sawyer, and Elvira, Mrs. Peter E. Gray, resides at Ganbrills,
|Almost four decades later Mrs. Liebelt
gathers with her American family. With her husband in the front
row are Jeanette, left, and Richard. Behind them are Peter and
Elvira Gray, Ralph Liebelt, Carolee and Reinhold Grosse. Elvira
and Reinhold, pictured with their spouses, are children by Mrs.
Liebelt's first marriage in Russia. They accompanied their mother
on the long trek to North Dakota from South Russia.
Mrs. Liebelt was born just after the Russian revolution into a
family which had formed a new settlement of New Danzig in the Ukraine
from Danzig, Germany. Her great-grandfather had gone to Russia before
Originally Lutheran, the family later became German Baptists.
One year after Martha was born, in 1921, there was a terrible famine
in Russia, she says, but John Mattheis and his family had between
100 and 150 acres of land and were able to scratch out a living.
In the late 1920s their land, located in the country, away from
their home in New Danzig, was made part of a collective farm. Mattheis,
like other farmers who lost their land, was forced to work for the
They received no payment for land, cattle, horses or equipment,
according to Martha.
She says many farmers, especially those who had worked hard to
build up their places, were sent to Siberia.
She recalls that her mother's parents had developed a large farm
near Steingut, eight miles from New Danzig, and had to give up their
John Mattheis, a mail carrier, was in disagreement with the Soviet
government and said that a government "built on lies and broken
promises" cannot exist.
About the only good Martha could see in the regime was that it
afforded persons with ability a chance to get an education.
Martha attended a teachers' college in Chortiza for three years
and began teaching before she was 18.
While she was teaching at Halbstadt in 1937, the Russian secret
police (NKVD) knocked on the door of her parents' home at New Danzig
in the middle of the night.
When the father opened the door, the police said they were looking
for a diary which Mattheis had kept for many years. Mattheis, who
refused to tell, had hidden his diary under the mattress where his
sons were sleeping.
Without being permitted to say goodbye to his children, Ida, 13;
Daniel, 10, and Ernest, 7, Mattheis was forcibly taken from his
home and was never seen again by his family.
Ida awoke and was crying when police took her father. One of the
secret service men yelled, "What are you bawling about?"
When the brothers awoke, they ran down town in a desperate search
for their father.
Their mother asked about her husband at the prison but was told
there was no one there by that name.
Martha claims that "thousands and thousands" of people
met the same fate as her father.
"They always said, `We don't want you old people, if you can't
change, but we want your children one way or the other.'"
Martha says the Soviets took the middle aged men and left the old
people and the mothers.
"People were interrogated and made to sign statements that
they had spied or committed acts against the government," according
She reports that her father may have aroused suspicion by writing
to his sister, Mrs. Louise Mathis, at McClusky for money during
the famine of 1932. With foreign money, Martha says the people in
Russia could by anything.
While the relatives at McClusky were people of modest means, their
sons worked in the coal mines and all pitched in to send money to
Mattheis, who had corresponded with his sister, in 1928 had sold
everything in hopes to go to the United States but his daughter
reports that "Stalin dropped a curtain" and wouldn't let
anyone leave the country. Mrs. Mathis had gone to America in the
Martha Jelfinow, who had been Martha's first grade teacher, was
in prison with Martha's father and in later years told Martha that
she saw him during interrogation in early 1938 in Nikolaev.
Later sent to Karaganda, Siberia, Mrs. Jelfinow was reunited with
her husband and son in Canada in 1962.
Mrs. Liebelt learned of Mrs. Jelfinow's whereabouts four years
ago through her sister, Ida, who had gotten Mrs. Jelfinow's address
from a cousin in Siberia.
Mrs. Jelfinow came to Sawyer about three years ago at Christmas
for a visit. She died in the summer of 1970 from cancer.
Alexander Grosse, Martha's firs husband, was first employed as
an interpreter in the German army and later was inducted into the
Martha explains that the Russians rejected all persons of German
descent for military service. With the fall of Stalingrad in 1943,
Grosse was left in Nikolaev with the German army. Martha searched
for him for years without success.
She had corresponded with him in March 1944 in Nikolaev when she
was in a refugee camp in Steinberg, Austria, but all the letters
were later returned with a notice that they could not be delivered.
When the Russians had retreated from the area while under German
attack, all the able-bodied men, including Boris, husband of Martha's
sister Erna, were taken with the army. Erna never saw her husband
After the battle of Stalingrad, Martha reports the Germans were
retreating and persons of German descent and others were ordered
to leave on freight trains which were provided for them.
Martha's mother, Ida, Ernest and Daniel, ill with tuberculosis
of the hip joints, left New Danzig for Nikolaev to join the rest
of the family, including the two other sisters, each with two children.
People were packed into 100 freight cars and they were told to
take food for 10 days for a trip to Poland which actually took 17.
Martha says the family ran out of food before reaching Poland,
where they were run through a delousing center at a public bath
in late November 1943.
Men, women and children were ordered to remove their clothes and
take baths at the same time, according to Martha. She says their
clothes were disinfected in ovens.
Most everyone got sick. Measles, chicken pox and whooping cough
were the lot of the children while the adults came down with the
grippe or flu, Martha relates.
Four or five days later the train reached Vienna, where Martha
and Erna with their children, who had been riding in one car, were
separated from the rest of the family whose car was dispatched in
Martha recalls that people rode on two levels in each freight car,
top and bottom, and could sit but not stand.
From Vienna the sisters' car was routed through Yugoslavia to Steinberg,
Austria, to a camp which had served as a cloister for nuns. Others
in the family were near Vienna. They were reunited at Steinberg
six weeks later.
For six weeks Martha says those in the camp were under quarantine
due to the possibility of disease and were unable to go into town.
They were fed a diet of "ersatz" food provided by the
In April 1944 the family was transferred to a different camp at
Marienthal in the Black Forest. Ida obtained work in an ammunition
factory and was able to provide a one-room apartment nearby for
her mother and brothers.
Erna also worked in the factory after her children were enrolled
Martha stayed in the camp until late 1944 or January 1945 before
joining the rest of the family. Erna and her children lived with
another family near the factory.
When the Russians were pushing into Germany Martha and others in
the family joined refugees at Easter in 1945 for a ride on German
trucks to Bavaria where they stayed in a schoolhouse for many days.
With the Russians continuing their advance, the family moved on
In the meantime Daniel had gone with a truck in a different direction
and was separated from the family until July 1947.
He was found lying on a street in Austria and was taken to a hospital
where he spent 18 months following successful surgery on his hip
Ernest's life had a tragic ending at age 17. He was gassed while
working for a Germany company which had a contract with the United
States army to destroy bunkers at Munich.
While waiting in Schwaig for a chance to go to America, Daniel
became impatient and left for Australia in 1949. He worked for General
Motors for many years and later operated a restaurant near Melbourne.
Daniel sent for his mother in 1951, for Erna and her second husband,
Nick Fylak, and family in 1952 and for Ida and her husband, Valdemar
Rychalsky, in 1956.
Mrs Liebelt flew to Australia in 1960 to visit her mother and the
rest of the family.
Erna died of cancer in 1966 and her husband was killed two years
later in a car accident.
Mrs. Liebelt's mother, now 84, lives with Ida in Blackburn.
Daniel came to Sawyer for a visit last year, while Rychalsky was
in Sawyer two years ago. Daniel is married to an Austrian girl and
has a daughter born seven days before Mrs. Liebelt arrived for a
Through correspondence of her sister, Ida, Mrs. Liebelt has learned
that she has a male cousin in Winnipeg.
His sister in Siberia, working through the Red Cross, was attempting
to locate their sister, also named Erna, and came in touch with
Ida in Australia.
On writing to Siberia, Ida learned that the cousin had a brother,
John Mathis, who went to Canada from a Mennonite colony in Russia.
He paid Mrs. Liebelt a visit last year. She learned that her cousin's
wife had been taught by Klassen and that Mathis has a sister, also
named Martha, who is missing.
To make the world even smaller, Mathis and Klassen, the man who
did so much to bring Mrs. Liebelt to North Dakota, now live only
a block apart in Winnipeg!
Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.