|In the Shadow of Time
By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia
Edited by Connnie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington
For nearly a century, the German colonists in Bessarabia
were under Russian rule, Then in 1918 the territory
was handed over to Rumania and we carried on our life
as Rumanian citizens for 22 years, until 1940. The
world around us moved on in time and in development.
The history of the world continued to be written.
We knew of events taking place outside our country,
but viewed these things as not affecting us. This
also seemed to be the viewpoint of Rumania at large,
not recognizing that events in Europe and elsewhere
in the world could impact us. We were accustomed to
a life that we had inherited from our ancestors. We
maintained our customs and way of living without consideration
of the possibility of imminent change. The life of
our people changed gradually. From a lack of education
back to the pioneer days, we caught up to a pace where
most of our people could read and write. That in itself
had an impact on our economy and our ability to participate
in the trades, in commerce and marketing. We must
ourselves take some responsibility for not pushing
ourselves further to reform to modern ways.
My dad had a wagon-making shop and my grandfather
Zacher had a smithy shop. The workshop ("Werkstatt
")was part of the "Einheitshaus," the all-in-one German
longhouse that was the family home with extensions
for storage, work and barn areas. The work in the
family shops of Teplitz was done entirely manually,
using long outdated tools and equipment. Labor was
plentiful and cheap. We had a lumberyard in town and
a mechanical sawmill of which the trade made little
use. The method my dad used was typical of how others
performed their work. To make the wagon wheels, my
dad would buy steam-bent oak rims from the local lumber
dealer. Spokes he made from oak wood stock shaped
by hand with a pull-knife and plane. To save money
on precut lumber, Dad and his men split hardwood logs
manually with a longsaw. The log was positioned with
one end on the work bench and the other end on a stand.
The men went to work, one standing on top of the log
pulling the longsaw up, the other man laying on his
back pulling the saw down. In this manner they split
the log into boards. Each log was good for five boards
- these were again cut to size with a narrow-blade
saw to get wood pieces with the required curvatures.
All the pieces were later cut into their final shapes
with a pull-knife and plane. To make the wheel hubs,
Dad first shaped a chunk of the wood with a shave
ax, then put it on a lathe that was activated by a
six foot wheel and rope belt connecting the lathe
pulley. This apparatus was run by human power. It
took a strong man or two females to power the wheel
and pulley mechanism that turned the lathe. Drilling
and chiseling were also done manually. To keep the
hubs and spokes from splitting, the wood had to be
completely dry before the wheel was assembled. For
this purpose, the warm bake oven in the kitchen was
used whenever Mom's bread was finished baking. An
oven full of wood parts went a long way to supply
Dad with the inventory he needed.
The wagon and all needed accessories were produced
in the shop. This included the undercarriage, the
wagon box, the seat, high and low sideboards, the
extension beam to make the wagon longer, the shaft
and an inside tool-box for each wagon. These items
were made from various types of solid wood, not from
plywood or laminated materials. The finished wagon
went on the market without a paint job unless so ordered.
In Grandpa's smithy shop, things were no different.
To shape an axle from a 3" x 3" by 6-foot
iron stock required the efforts of three men. One
end of the stock was suspended by a wire loop, the
other end was on the anvil. After the stock had been
heated on one end, two men pounded it with a large
hammer to shape it, with "Opa" working on finer details
with a smaller hammer. Drilling, filing, and making
nuts, bolts and threads were all done totally manually.
Cabinet makers worked the same way. So did tailors
and shoemakers. There were no power tools or power
machinery to work with.
Once we were back in our ancestral homeland in Germany,
we noticed that trade-work followed similar steps,
but the work was done using power-assisted equipment.
This had been the state of things since the turn of
the century -- nearly 50 years! Fewer men and less
time were needed to get the job done. In Bessarabia
it took us a month or more to build one wagon. In
Germany, the same work was done in about a week! In
Teplitz, due to land shortage, half the population
was employed in the trades. One could easily see how
the trade had its struggles to stay competitive. Prior
to World War I, Teplitz did well by selling their
wagons to the Russians in the East. But after WWI
the trade took a dive. Shops in Teplitz had to work
literally day and night to make any headway. As can
be seen, a change was needed in the entire system.
Our ancestors hung onto their methods as long as they
could, and even at the end were reluctant to let go
and make changes. The only life we knew was one of
hard work. Nothing was handed to us to make life easy.
Only God gave us the strength to survive that type
Even with the differences in equipment used, the basic
process in the trades was the same whether in Teplitz
or in Germany. Once we arrived in Germany in 1940,
our tradesmen were immediately employed in the work
force. Our people fit right into the German system
with remarkable ease. They found that a trade once
learned is an asset - to change tools is not a handicap.
Wherever the Germans lived in Russia, the fruits of
their labor shaped the land and society. They left
a legacy that enriched the lives of many people, Germans
and Russians alike. The history of the lives of the
Germans in Russia cannot be ignored by us or by the
world. We know the sweat, blood and tears of our people
left a permanent mark in Russia that is there forever.
God knows, and so do we. Our remembrance of this history
provides a bond with our ancestors that remains with
us today. We thank God for the feelings of pride and
dignity our ancestors passed down to us.
Alfred Opp is the author of "Pawns
on the World Stage" - the memoirs of his
childhood in Teplitz, Bessarabia and the experiences
of his family in war-torn Europe (Poland during 1941-1945
before they fled to East Germany in 1945, then the
reconstruction of West Germany 1945-1955).