|War Costs More than Money
- Part I
Anna and Johannes W.
By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia
Edited by Connie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington
Anna was 22 years old when she and Johannes W. were
joined in marriage. The “Brautpaar” settled
down at his parent's place. The family did well making
a living from their small farm and a trade. Not long
after the wedding, Russia began mobilizing the nation
for war. When the news came of the conscription underway,
the community was horrified. Able-bodied men had to
report for military duty immediately, including Johannes.
The men selected were given three days to get ready.
On the day of departure, a meeting was called for
the villagers to say their good-byes to the troops.
Bystanders and friends were all in tears. The pastor
did his best to console the crowd, but the scene was
heartbreaking. As the line of wagons carrying the
men began to move away, Anna ran alongside the wagon
carrying Johannes, holding onto his hand until she
could no longer keep up. The last words the men heard
were from the Pastor - "In love we part until
we meet again."
Standing by was the recruiting officer, who told
the crowd not to worry. Russia had the advantage and
would make short work of this war. Everyone, including
Anna, went to their homes to pray for the safe return
of their loved ones. Daily chores soon demanded the
attention of the villagers, and life resumed its routine.
Weeks passed, and then letters from the men began
to trickle back to the village. The news regarding
some of the men wasn't all that good. Anna received
a letter from her husband saying that his unit had
encountered the Austrians in a bloody battle. He expressed
his sorrow that so many of his friends had been killed.
He assured Anna that he, however, was fine and hoped
to soon be coming home.
After that first letter, Anna received no more letters
from Johannes. However, she continued to write to
him faithfully. Soon she told Johannes that she had
just discovered she was pregnant with their first
child. There was no response from Johannes. Eventually
she wrote Johannes that their baby boy had been born
and she had named him Johannes after his father. Still
there was no answer. Anna became very worried about
Johannes, as did others, but life must go on. Then
they heard the war had turned ugly and Russia was
loosing everywhere. The Russian government began to
blame its own citizens who were ethnic Germans for
their failure in the war. Hatred of the Germans in
Russia began to be felt from the highest government
level on down. The German villagers felt they were
hemmed in on all sides. With the war going badly,
communications from the front became nearly non-existent.
On top of the war in Europe, Russia was being torn
apart by a revolution at home. Everything seemed in
disarray. The German villagers tried to be patient,
but when they heard nothing about their loved ones
in the war they became very concerned.
Eventually some death announcements arrived by wire
at the village community hall. No word was given about
the missing or wounded. Then the news stopped coming.
From the highest levels of the Russian government
the German settlers were being accused of spying for
Germany and sabotaging the war. German villagers who
kept pigeons were fined. The Tsarist regime was weakening
and the Bolsheviks were gaining in strength. The common
people were tired of it all and wanted the fighting
to end. Russia ended her involvement in WWI by signing
an armistice agreement in 1917. But the revolution
in Russia raged on. Soldiers who had been fighting
on the Russian side in Europe were faced with a dilemma.
Some ventured to try to come home despite the revolution.
Others had to wait in Europe until the war was over.
Those who made it back to their homes in Russia were
the healthy ones. Johannes did not show up. Anna asked
every one she could for news about Johannes, but no
one could tell her anything about her husband. Johannes
was not the only one missing. The reported dead and
those who had returned did not account for everyone
who had left. There were reports that at least four
of the men from the village were seriously wounded
or sick. The stories the returned soldiers told revealed
how bloody the war had been. Anna didn't know what
In 1918, Russia gave up Bessarabia to end the war
with Rumania. When the treaty with Rumania was signed,
our ties with Russia ended. Joining Rumania was a
benefit to the Germans in Bessarabia. Our new landlord
made some adjustments, and so did we.
Anna also had to make adjustments to get her life
back in order. Her in-laws, who had stood by her all
this time, had to make changes as well. A younger
brother of Johannes stepped in to handle the business
affairs of the family. Now a widow on paper, Anna
moved back to her parent's home and took up sewing
to earn a living. Anna was in no hurry to seek a new
relationship for herself, not yet.
One day a farmer came to see Anna. His name was Jakob
and he was a well-suited widower with three children.
He came to ask Anna to be his wife. Anna told the
man she wasn't ready to make such a decision yet,
but she said she would give it some thought. Jakob
was a kind, older man. The next time they met, she
said "Yes." They got married and had two
children together. Anna and her oldest son, Johannes,
both took the surname of Anna's new husband. The two
families blended well into one family.
When Russia took back Bessarabia in 1940, everything
changed for the Germans of Bessarabia. The Germans
knew they had to leave. Instead of being settled in
Germany, we were taken to German-occupied Poland.
We didn't know what to think, but settled in as best
we could. Anna and her family also were resettled
in Poland. Johannes Jr. became engaged to a young
woman, but before the wedding could take place he
was conscripted into the German SS and was sent to
the Russian front.
World War II went from bad to worse. People in the
east fled westward in droves to get away from the
Soviets. Anna and her family did the same. After weeks
of travel by horse and wagon, the family managed to
reach South Germany. The family lost contact with
Johannes Jr., called by the nickname of "Hans"
was wounded while on a reconnaisance mission. The
medics patched him up and sent him to the rear for
further treatment. He was taken to a military hospital
in Germany where emergency surgery was needed to save
his life. By the time he was released from the hospital,
the war was all but over. The military released him
to go home, but Hans was in no shape to travel. Despite
his frail condition, his mind was fine. He kept his
wits about him and made no mention that he had been
born in Bessarabia. This kept him from being sent
back to Russia.
The military found a recovery camp in the Alps, located
in a small Austrian town. This is where Hans was sent
to recover. When the Allied forces arrived, the camp
was disassembled. Everyone was told to leave, and
most took off toward home. Hans still was in no shape
to go very far. He was lucky to find a family in town
where he could stay until he could locate his own
family. The people gave him a warm welcome, and felt
they saw in this young German soldier a little bit
of themselves. Hans was still not well. The people
took care of him as best they could. They asked him
about his family and where he came from. Still he
revealed nothing about Bessarabia or Russia. He told
the people that he was a farmer's son from West Prussia,
and his father's name was Jakob M, his mother's name
was Anna. He was one of six children. The family he
was staying with were farmers also, by the name of
Hannes and Maria W. The family had two boys in the
army and a married daughter who lived in their town.
Hans' condition worsened, and adequate medical care
was not available. The couple took turns taking care
of him. Hans grew weaker, and one day he passed away.
The couple were saddened to see him die, as they had
come to look on him nearly as a son. They laid Hans
to rest in the local graveyard. With a wooden cross
on his grave, and an official death certificate the
chapter on Hans came to a close.
Anna in the mean time made contact with the Red Cross
to find her son. She received a report from the Red
Cross stating that Hans had died, and listing his
place of burial. Anxious to go pay her respects to
her son, she found travel to that area was not yet
allowed. As soon as travel restrictions eased up,
she made the trip. Anna arrived at the specified town
late in the afternoon. Not knowing a soul in town,
she took a room for the night in the local Inn. The
proprietors of the Inn gave her directions around
town, and told here where she would find the graveyard,
and who to see for more information regarding her
Early the nextmorning, Anna walked over to the graveyard.
When she got there, she was surprised to find the
grave neatly decorated with plants. Anna sat down
to think about Hans. A considerable time passed. Then
she decided to visit the home where Hans had died.
Arriving at the home, she knocked on the door and
met the lady of the house. Anna introduced herself
and explained who she was and why she was there. The
lady of the house was all smiles and said, "I'm
Maria. Please come in." Anna was ushered into
the comfortably appointed parlor and both women sat
down to talk. It was an emotional time for Maria as
she told Hans' own mother about Hans' last illness
and death. Then Maria excused herself to go prepare
Anna, alone in the parlor, began to look around and
the appointments and knick-knacks. It was then that
she noticed a framed photo of a couple hanging on
the wall. On closer inspection, she recognized Maria
in her wedding dress with . . . Oh, God, No! . . .
It can't be . . . Johannes her husband. When she recognized
Johannes she felt like she was falling into a deep
hole. Anna was so stunned she didn't know what to
think. She remembered her frantic worrying when she
heard no word from Johannes, the pain she and the
family had gone through. How could this happen . .
. Why? Anna had to pull herself together - this was
no time to be overcome with emotion.
Maria came back into the room to set the table for
lunch. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, she
told Anna that her husband had gone out on an errand,
but would be home soon. Soon both women sat down to
eat lunch. Anna steered the conversation into broad
areas - talk about children and life in general. Anna
managed to keep herself calm.
Up to that point, not much had been said about marriage.
The conversation again came back to Hans. Maria mentioned
how much they had come to like Hans. She went on to
say that her husband had cared for Hans as though
he was his own son. Anna then said, Hans is his son.
What did you say? This can't be true Is it? Oh, yes,
it is. Anna then told Maria the story. Maria sat there
for a few moments, collecting her thoughts. Emotionally
touched, Maria reached out to Anna, took her by the
hand, and both women began to cry. At that moment,
Johannes walked in the door, said Hello, and asked
What is this all about? Maria calmly said, The lady
here has something to tell us. Anna stood up and faced
Johannes squarely; unsure, he looked at her. Anna
then said, "I am Anna - the young man you buried
was our son. I am pleased to know that his soul was
touched by his father - one he didn't know he had.
I thank you for all that you have done. May peace
be with you both." She then said Good-bye and
began to leave. Johannes stood there, stone-faced.
As Anna walked to the door, Johannes followed to have
a word with her. Anna stopped, and told Johannes that
she is now in peace; he should not take that away
from her again. Then she left.
Anna went back home to her family and never returned
to the town where her son was buried. She outlived
both of her husbands, and died of old age. My grandmother
knew Anna from her school days, before she moved away
from our village. After the war, she learned of the
story at one of our first Bessarabian reunions in
In wartime, some families manage to hold onto each
other, but other families are torn apart. Living through
the horrors of war while separated from one's home
and family is hard. The war dealt heavy blows to peaceful
people who tried to carry on. Some were successful
- all were changed. Most people can adjust to losing
the material goods of life. To lose a family member
is often too deep an injury to heal in one lifetime.
So often the war took away the sense of humanity,
and even the sense of bond with one's family. This
was the ultimate loss. So many children today are
being destroyed by a different war. These wounds linger
Both my mother and my grandmother talked
about the ravages of wartime on everyday people. Each
story may have different details, but the overall
effect is the same. It is a sobering thought that
wartime can disturb one's soul to such a depth. It
takes courage to get up and resume life.
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).