Family is Brought Together by Letters
Voorhis, Dan. "Family is Brought Together by Letters." Wichita Eagle, 2 May 1999, 11.
The rediscovery of a Kansas family's lost past began with a strange
Rick Reichel of Andover was awakened at 2 a.m. last October by
someone speaking German. The only thing he recognized was the name
of his grandmother, Lydia Reichel.
The mystery began to sort itself out a few days later when, with
the help of a translator, Reichel discovered a whole side of his
family he had thought long dead.
In the two weeks after Christmas, four of the missing relatives
-Lydia and Andreas Batt and their son and Granddaughter, all of
Frankfurt, Germany - crowded into the west Wichita living room of
Reichel's aunt, Lucille Herrman, along with others from his large
family to get re-acquainted and tell the grim tale of where they've
been all these years.
The Batts are descendants of Philipp Reinhardt. Lydia Batt is
his daughter. The Americans are all descendants of Philipp's sister,
Lydia Reinhardt, and after she married, she became Lydia Reichel.
Lydia Batt and Lucille Herrman are frist cousins.
The story begins in 1911, when 18 year-old Philipp Reinhardt emigrated
to Kansas from an area near the Volga River in Russia.
Philipp was a Volga German, a member of the huge community of
German farmers who emigrated to Russia's Volga River 200 years ago.
Two years after Philipp arrived, 16 year-old Lydia followed him
to Kansas. Their father had died and the family struggled until
their mother remarried. Both felt unwelcome in their stepfather's
household, so they left for America.
The brother and sister lived and worked on farms around Bison,
near Great Bend, in late 1913 and early 1914.
Then Philipp made the fateful decision to return to Russia in
the early months of 1914 to marry his sweetheart. By August, Russia
was at war with Germany and Philipp couldn't get back to Kansas.
The communists toppled the government in 1917 and the era of suspicion
and repression began.
Philipp had failed to file his American naturalization papers
before he left, making his return To America impossible.
Philipp settled among his family in his old home, Neu Donhof,
a small farming community near Saratov on the western side of the
Volga River. He raised a family and wrote letters to his sister
in far-away Kansas, telling about his daily life.
About a dozen of the letters were kept for decades in an upstairs
trunk in the Reichel house in Bison, until they were rediscovered
by her daughters after her death in 1977.
Philipp farmed and held a number of jobs in Neu Donhof. But in
1929, Stalin began to force all farmers into collectives, state-owned
farms, severly disrupting village life and driving Russia into a
decade of famine. Philipp's letters from the time often list acquaintances
and relatives who had died from starvation.
"If it was only $15, that would get us through the year, we hope
(various relatives in America) will open their hearts and think
of us," Philipp wrote on a 1933 letter to his sister.
Lydia Reichel sent him a few dollars when she could, despite the
always tough times raising seven children on the Kansas prairie
during the '20s and '30s. After an especially desperate appeal in
1933, she sent him $10 to buy a cow. That, he wrote later, helped
stave off starvation. The Batts said the Communists later shot the
Lydia Reichel got the last letter from Philipp in 1934. She never
heard from him again.
"We never knew what happened to him," said Lydia Reichel's daughter,
Lavergne Parr. "He would write about the famine, and we just figured
he died of starvation."
Philipp was taken away to prison in the first of Stalin's purges,
the Batts said. Millions of prominent and not-so-prominent people
Stalin considered enemies of the state were excuted or worked to
death during the '30s.
Philipp was shot in 1937 probably because he was German and had
relatives in America, the Batts said.
Lydia Batt's memories of her father are understandably dim --
he was led away when she was only 5.
"He was a very nice man. He worked hard," said Lydia, her eyes
betraying the presence of a strong sadness she struggled to share.
When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin decided to ship all
of the Volga Germans to Siberia.
"The Communists thought we were all Nazis," said Andreas.
Seven million Volga Germans were loaded into boxcars and sent
east into Siberia and often dropped off in the middle of nowhere
along the Trans-Siberian railroad. Only 2 million later returned.
Lydia Batt remembers how incredibly desprate life was at first.
They lived in tents and wooden huts during the bitterly cold Siberian
To this day, both she and Andreas grow emotional as they recall
those times and at times grew frustrated that the language barrier
prevented them from conveying just how deeply scarred their experiences
have left them.
One time, Lydia recalled, they secretly dug up potatoes they discovered
in the frozen ground. Had they been caught, they would have been
"They wanted to slowly kill the people," the junior Andreas said
of the Communists.
The family worked on a state farm, and times were especially grim
during the war. Lydia's eldest brother, Waldemar, was shot in 1943
by the police.
Lydia and Andreas met in Siberia and married in 1947. Andreas
was later forced to work in a hydro-electric plant near the Artic
Circle, where an accident cost him seven inches of his leg. Both
before and after his injury, Andreas worked every day - no holidays
- for 49 years, he said.
"It was very hard," the elder Andreas said of life in Siberia.
"Many families lost children because they were hungry and it was
In 1960, under Khruschev, they were allowed to leave Siberia,
but not to return home to the Volga because the rich land had been
taken by Russians. They had to settle in the semi-desert of Kazakhstan.
In 1988, under Gorbachev, the Batts and 60 of their relatives
were allowed to emigrate to Germany. The Batts live in Frankfurt,
where young Andreas is an insurance salesman.
The American relatives offered to fly to Germany, but Lydia Batt
"I'm growing old and I had a great yearning to come," she explained.
Last week, the Batts drove up to Bison to visit another cousin
and see the family homestead.
Many of the Americans say they will go to Frankfurt this summer
to visit and continue catching up on old times.
It has been a reunion of surprising warmth, despite the unfamiliarity
and a partial language barrier.
"Some of the things have been sad but we've laughed a lot, too,"
Lavergne Parr said with real warmth. "It's been a good time."
Sitting in Herrman's living room Lydia leaned forward, pressed
her hands over her heart and tried to express how she has felt about
her welcome from her long-lost cousins.
Lydia spoke one German phrase over and over. Heer granddaughter,
Katya, reached for the German-English Dictionary and translated
her grandmother's thought:
"I have come home."
Excerpts from letters written to Lydia Reichel
"Your mother is very sad since you have not written, and she thinks
you should come back. She is very well and also her children. I
want to let you know that I have found a wife and invite you to
the wedding, also all of your friends."
Oct. 21, 1914
"Please don't forget us dear brother George and dear sister Lydia
and children. It is hard to write of all our troubles and sometimes
one has to shed bitter tears."
"At the time I was in America where I worked for those people,
it didn't even seem like I was a servant. And those big wages and
good meals that I got and were on the table every day of the year--the
good meat and sausage and pie and cake and eggs and good coffee
every day of the year."
March 12, 1932
"I will not write everything, but 14 people have already starved
to death during the last month... Some places I could hardly stand
it in the house because of the odor from dead horse meat that the
people had to eat. And some people have almost taken the clothes
off their back to get food."
March 12, 1932
"I have to tell you that our father is in prison (probably a labor
camp) but we do not know what his work is. He has been gone for
two months already and we have not heard from him so we do not know
whether he is living or not... If you had seen our father the way
we saw him when they took him you would have been really stunned.
He looked like a dead person. His face was so drawn, like a hundred-year-old
Philipp's son, in letter dated March 31, 1933
Philipp was later released.
"In the early morning hours on Friday, your brother and brother-in-law
Reinhardt "left" because times are so hard; but I will stay true
to my Lord and Savior until my time comes."
July 20, 1934, the last letter recieved by Lydia Reichel.
Reprinted with permission of The Wichita Eagle, Wichita,
Kansas and Emmons County Record, Linton, North Dakota