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For the Ochsners, an Eventful and Harrowing Voyage to the U.S.

Ochsner, Ernie. "For the Ochsners, an Eventful and Harrowing Voyage to the U.S." Grand Island Independent, 18 February 2005.


Photo taken after Victor's arrival in U.S. and prior to his marriage to Melita Eisenbraun, which was around 1924. Victor born in Russia in 1900; died in Sutton in 1968.
Artistic, curious and a good student with an ability to learn language easily, Victor loved his life on the huge family farm, and often talked longingly of that more pleasant life prior to the madness of the necessary but misguided Russian Revolution.

The family holdings were extensive -- Grandfather Jakob and Grandmother Klara had about 2,500 acres. There was a brick factory with a unique brick color favored by the czar (Nicholas II), large grain fields, orchards, a horse breed that the Russian Cavalry used, pigs, sheep, fowl and milk cows.

Life was pleasant and all the needs were more than met. Everything was taught in German so the mother tongue wouldn't be lost; Russian was the common tongue used in the home and on the farm by all the Russian peasant workers.

Victor learned how to read and write not only German, but also Russian and French. He later he picked up Swiss German in Switzerland and English after his arrival in America in 1923.

I know Victor loved doing water colors as a young boy and was somewhat limited in his activities due to a serious bout with pneumonia as a child, which allowed him much time to dream. He aspired to the ministry as he began his confirmation studies, but the looming revolution and destruction of the seminaries ended that for him.

He never returned to this dream, though he continued on occasion to paint into his 50s. These usually took the form of small animal studies or imaginary sea and mountain scenes and were often done on discarded window shades.

Dad loved to read, and books on art, music and religious topics interested him the most. I would often find him after he came home from working as a custodian at the State Capital in Lincoln, sitting at his desk under a small lamp reading the Bible and then writing verse based on his thought at the time.

The revolution began to spread rapidly after the end of the First World War and the Russian peasantry, who had been denied the right to own land, turned on their landed German neighbors and employers. When Catherine the Great had invited the Germans to come and settle the areas in the Ukraine, she gave them land and rights, freedom of worship and language that was
denied to the peasantry. Although slavery was forbidden, many farmers used and abused the peasant workers, paying them little, working them hard and disrespecting them. The jealousies and hatreds that this caused were exploited by the Bolsheviks. The promises of common ownership and wealth sounded like heaven on earth after centuries of poverty, starvation and exploitation.

Victor Ochsner, my father, was born on Dec. 21, 1900, in the Ukraine region of Russia. He was the fourth child of seven and had a studious disposition.
The German settlers were targets of "special" treatment; their churches were confiscated, the seminaries closed, lands confiscated and anyone who resisted was summarily executed. After hearing of the execution of a relative who refused to turn over his farms keys, my father, his older brothers Arnold, Frederick and Erwin, and their father hid in the cornfields around theproperties.

Later, they all fled to the city of Worms, leaving my Uncle Arnold to keep an eye on the farm. He suffered from a birth defect that the family felt would protect him from violence, believing no one would harm a handicapped man.

Sometime in early 1918, a small group came unto the farm, claimed the land for the people and demanded the keys. Uncle Arnold called the keeper of the keys over and relinquished the properties to the new commissar. He then joined the family in Worms.

That phase in their life ended and the beginning of life as refugees began. The land, livestock and pride of ownership were stripped from the family, the rather large sum of money they had was quickly losing all its value and a once-wealthy family was on the verge of poverty and under the constant fear of death. My father, his parents and siblings were about to begin a journey common to millions of fellow travelers in the long history of humanity.

The year was one of hope that the communists would be overthrown, then a growing realization that all was lost. The revolution intensified, the czar and his family were butchered, and the German colonies came under increasing attacks from roving bands of Bolshevik armies, which grew in size and strength.

The German colonists who had the possibility of leaving did so; many of those who remained eventually perished. Grandfather Jakob and his brother Peter had attended school in Switzerland as young men and had established Swiss citizenship while there.

Jakob and Peter were reluctant to leave other family members who were unable to flee. But the dream that all would somehow right itself was quickly fading, as the First World War came to an end and options were limited.

The early summer of 1919 found my grandfather and family back in Worms after a lull in the hostilities led them to believe things were on the mend. This came to an end when the colonists found themselves under attack from a rag-tag army of roving revolutionary outlaws who continued to rob and plunder the small villages and countryside. A small group of farmers and a few retired army officers collected a cache of rifles and shotguns with the idea of protecting themselves from these mobs.

Arnold born in Russia in 1895; died in Sutton in 1990.
Victor, Arnold, Frederick and great uncle Heinrich, a retired army officer, joined a band of several hundred farmers at the railway station in Kolossowka, where they engaged the Bolshevik troops in combat. Some of the German fighters were killed and others wounded, with no record of how many Bolshevik fighters were killed or wounded.

Arnold's best friend was shot through the head right next to him. Victor was shot in the arm and leg, and Uncle Heinrich shot through the back of both thighs. The Bolsheviks, with superior troops and large arms, overran the defenders and burned the village.

My father and family then fled to Odessa with the understanding that the end had arrived and fleeing the country for Switzerland was now necessary. One morning, the red Bolshevik banners appeared on the courthouse flagpole in Odessa.

The fear of arrest and execution forced the family to make immediate arrangements for Grandfather Jakob and Great Uncle Peter to flee to Switzerland.

Jakob and his family went first, to be followed in 10 days by Peter and his family. Through Constantinople and Marseilles, France, they made it to Switzerland.

My father always talked lovingly of Switzerland. He was hospitalized for a short time due to infections and lice in his wounds. This left him somewhat crippled in his left arm and unable to do hard labor for long without experiencing severe pains.

Victor flourished in Switzerland, where he found others interested in the arts and joined a small band of street actors/avant-garde artists and working in a drugstore. He aspired to become an artist, painted watercolors and oils, and wandered about the mountains drawing and absorbing a landscape he always longed to return to.

I know Dad loved America and never felt remorse for being here. But I do know that he loved Switzerland more and always had a sense of loss when talking of not being able to return.

In 1923 our family decided circumstances were such that going to America was the only option open. Frederick and Victor were the two who would make the move and establish a place for the others to come.

Mr. Williweit, a former employee on the Ochsner farms, had already established himself as a farmer near Quinn, S.D., and agreed to sponsor and hire these two grandsons of his former employer, Peter Sr. The rest of the family wouldn't be allowed to emigrate until December 1927, so these two brothers attempted to establish some sort of farming operation that could support the family when they did arrive.

While working for the Eisenbraun family in the area, my father met my mother Melita. They married in 1925.

My sister Lucia was born in 1926, my brother Bruno in 1928, brother Werner in 1931 and me in 1944. The two brothers were both married by the time the rest of the family made their trip in 1927.

Their arrival coincided with the beginnings of the Great Depression and preceded the crash of the stock market by one year. Times were hard. The family tried to farm this merciless region without success. They moved to several areas and eventually failed at this endeavor.

Victor finally gave up all attempts at farming in 1946 and followed his brother Arnold and sister Lucia Lorenzen to Sutton, Neb. Here he worked for the town road department, ran several gas stations, and worked at the Hastings Ammunition Depot until it began layoffs in 1955.

He found work in Lincoln in 1956 and moved there until after his retirement, when he and Melita returned to their small, lovely place next to his brother Arnold in Sutton. Victor passed away at the age of 67 in 1968 and is buried with many of his family members there. My mother Melita
died in 1996 and is buried next to him, where she longed to be.

Victor's story continues in his children and their children; one granddaughter has even married a German and lives in Germany.

His story is also lived daily by more recent immigrants driven from their homes by war or want -- immigrants who struggle to find a place in a foreign land, not through desire but by necessity. The Laotian, Cambodian, Hispanic and Somalian peoples are Victor's spiritual heirs in ways that his children can never be.

Their fears, hopes and dreams are cut from the same cloth of experience and suffering, and their stories are written with the same blood and tears. They are all our cousins.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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