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Interview with Adam Ketterling (AK)

Conducted by Lloyd L. Ketterling (LK)
19 September 1996, Bad Neustadt, Germany

Transcription by Lloyd L. Ketterling, Rochester, Minnesota


This is a translation of an interview video taped in September 1996, of Adam Ketterling who was born in Kassel and today lives in Bad Neustadt, Germany. He relates the story of his childhoos in south Russia, his abduction, being sent to Siberia, his escape to kasachstan, and then his final journey to Germany.

LK: Your name is?

AK: I'm named Adam Ketterling, I was born November 8, 1925, in Kassel. My father was Gottfried Ketterling; my mother was Maria Ketterling nee Mehlhof.

LK: Now as a child, what things do you remember? What was it like?

AK: As a child? -That my parents had to work. I can remember that until 1928 the land was still owned (privately). My father and mother had 12 hectares land.

LK: How much land is 12 hectares?

AK: That is 48 acres; there we worked. The new administration had not started yet.

LK: How many horses did you own?

AK: We had two horses.

LK: And you of course went to school.

AK: Yes, for eight years, until 1933. There was then a great famine.

LK: Why was there a famine? Poor crops?

AK: Oh no, there was a good crop but it was "put away", one would say. The people were not supposed to get any of it. It was the right time when in 1928 it was said, "So, no one owns anything, it will be put together. We are now one family." Like Stalin wanted, the politician said, "All will be put together". "We will all eat out of one kettle,” they said.

LK: Out of one kettle!

AK: Yes. And then, we were three small children at this time. Yes, three small children. One morning our father had to put a leash on the cow and take her away. The politicians were not there yet. But those who were rich were sent away. They were expelled. Then cow barns, horse barns, swine barns were made. Yes, the town was large so it was made into four sections.

LK: You were showing me on this town plot.

AK: Four parts, yes. The upper section, to the pastor's residence, the communists called Machsheld (?). And the second part of the upper section, the name given it was Rot Fronte (?). The lower section, this part was called Gellman (?). The leader of these communists was from Germany. And the other part of the lower section was called Wagner. But it was said that he was a "peoples betrayer". This name must be changed. Wagner must go. They then gave it the name Karl Marx. Karl Marx, the leader of the people. This was what came to their minds.

LK: And this was now in 1938?

AK: In 1928, 1929, 1933.

LK: That early?

AK: Yes, then.

LK: And when did the deportations start?

AK: The deportations began in 1936, as I remember it. Nights, a wagon would come. We would say the "black crow" came.

LK: Black crow?

AK: Yes, you know, the black bird, the crow. The NKVD came and would say, "In the name of the people, we are taking you. You have done something wrong". And these people then took many like that. We would never hear what happened to them.

LK: What had they done wrong?

AK: Nothing. It was an excuse. I want to tell you, the young people, well, the ruling party could be so bad- they had a dance once in a house. There was a picture of Stalin (hanging) up. The lights went out, the picture fell on the floor, and they continued to dance. They then said they were dancing on Stalin, on the picture, you see. There was one among them who had the responsibility for this. They came and took him away too. They said, "You are to blame that they danced on Stalin".

LK: Danced on Stalin?

AK: Yes, danced on Stalin. That’s how it was in 1933. There was this great famine then. By us it was not quite as bad, but in the Volga many starved. By us they didn't starve but there was not much to eat either. There was maize, a flour; we cooked a Marmalita (?) gruel. I was the oldest; father and mother were away working, so I went to get the maize, then returned home. I don't want to say the name of this man now, but he took it away from me, our portion of food. Mother and Father came home to nothing to eat.

LK: He took it away from you? Where?

AK: From the kitchen where I got it, before I got home.

LK: Oh then. Yes, these were certainly bad times. The deportations, they actually started in 1938 then.

AK: Yes, 1938. That was the height of the deportations.

LK: That was when the wagons came by during the night.

AK: Yes.

LK: Then were you also taken like that?

AK: Well, I was only 13 years old then. They took mainly the people who seemed to be more prosperous, those who owned a thresh machine or those who were richer.

LK: When were you taken then?

AK: Us, you mean? It went on longer with us. I stayed in school, the 8th grade. Until 1938 we learned in German. One morning it was said that you could not learn in German anymore, everything must now be in Russian.

LK: Everything? In Russian?

AK: Everything. Not a word in German.

LK: German was forbidden?

AK: German was forbidden. Our elders, mothers and fathers said, "How can that be"? Everybody in town is German, except for two Jewish families. Then they answered, "Learn in German? There is a German Republic on the Volga. You should go there if want to learn in German."

LK: Well, how far was that?

AK: It was 2000 kilometers.

LK: Were there teachers who could teach in Russian?

AK: Yes, some Russians.

LK: Russians?

AK: Yes, they were Russians. They had to then translate.

LK: So you were then 13 years old.

AK: Yes, 13 years old, when the war started there. It didn't take long. It was one and a half months, then the Germans came into town.

LK: In 1938?

AK: No, it was in 1941.

LK: 1941?

AK: From when the war started on July 22, on August 6 the troops came to Kassel.

LK: So quickly?

AK: Yes, so quickly. One and a half months.

LK: These were then German soldiers.

AK: Yes, German soldiers.

LK: The Kasselers, were they for the German soldiers at this time?

AK: Yes, one could say we looked on them as liberators.

LK: Liberators?

AK: As liberators. Yes.

LK: Liberators from the Russians.

AK: Yes, from the Russians.

LK: What happened next?

AK: From August 6, 1941 until March 19, 1944, we were under German occupation. We could vote for a mayor, we were given food. And the land was re-divided for us again in the town. Uncle Friedrich was in on this; he was record keeper or bookkeeper.

LK: Bookkeeper?

AK: Yes, bookkeeper. Also land-measurer. There were two or three of them. They divided the land.

LK: Divided it like it was before?

AK: No a new division of land now, each got a part.

LK: The Germans were there until March 19, 1944?

AK: Yes, until March 19, 1944.

LK: Then?

AK: The German troops were always going backwards. Hitler was still saying the Germans would win, but all the Germans were leaving. All. Only one stayed behind. We heard that the Russians shot him. All. All. All.

LK: So?

AK: Yes, all the rest, 2300. All.

LK: Children. Women.

AK: Yes, children and women. With livestock.

LK: Also taken along?

AK: Our cow, I took her along. I had a rope to lead her.

LK: She gave milk?

AK: Yes, she gave us milk. But the rest had to be left behind, house, everything. One can say when there are six children and older, mother was weaker, what could one take along. We made a roof over the wagon.

LK: A roof? Over the wagon?

AK: Yes like the Americans did.

LK: A schooner.

AK: Like in the west, like that.

LK: And two horses pulled it.

AK: Two horses pulled it. The children had to walk behind the wagon.

LK: How far did you travel in a day?

AK: In one day? We traveled maybe 40 or 50 kilometers.

LK: A long way.

AK: The way went like this. We left Kassel through Gregoripol. The first day we also went through Tiraspol. That was the largest town by us. I don't know why, us Kasselers were called Deutschen from Tiraspol. March 19 we crossed the Dniester, on the other side we were by the town, Bendery. That was 40 kilometers in Romania, an agreement was with Hitler where he gave them Bessarabia. At the end of the first day we all gathered around in a circle in an open place.

LK: A big circle?

AK: Yes, a big round circle. The elders took blankets and pillows out and there we slept in the open air.

LK: Inside the wagons?

AK: No, on the ground. It was March 19.

LK: Was it cold?

AK: It was quite cold. On that night, March 19, there was a heavy fog; fortunately by morning it was gone. The next morning we went on. We had a German officer who accompanied us.

LK: Just one?

AK: Yes, just one. So we went on, the 19th of March until about July 15.

LK: What was there for you to eat?

AK: To eat? What we had taken along and we had preserved meat, twice provided by the Bulgarians, in tin containers. We had no flour with us. We had a colt, we traded it for flour.

LK: How much flour for one colt?

AK: One half a sack of flour, in Bulgaria. That was quite good. We went on to Kabul, on the Moldau side.

LK: Kabul?

AK: Yes, Kabul. There we stayed for half a month. All at once it was said, you can't go across there, from Kabul to Hungary. You must go back 30 kilometers to the Danube. A ferry was there. We had to all go on with our wagons; we couldn't all go on at once.

LK: Only one wagon at a time?

AK: No, many wagons.

LK: How many wagons on the ferry?

AK: It was very large. On the front of the ferry was a puller, so they pulled us across the Danube to the Romanian side. Dobruschia in Romania. So they brought us across, we stayed overnight. We were afraid.

LK: A gypsy life!

AK: Yes, a gypsy life. What was interesting, as we got to the German area, we had to report to EWZ, the letters, Ein Wander Zeguener. Our leader said, "Ewiger Wander Zeguener".

LK: Ewiger Wanderer.

AK: Then on the Danube we went from one end, by the ferry, to the other end where Bulgaria and Romania are together, by the town, Wide (?). They took us back over again with a ferry.

LK: Back again?

AK: Back to the Romania side.

LK: How long a time had elapsed?

AK: A few weeks it had taken.

LK: Back again, and going on.

AK: Yes, then on again. We went past the Danube where there were many rocks, water was rushing, it was narrow. We were afraid.

LK: The water was going fast?

AK: Yes, very fast. Very large hills on both sides. After we got past the hills we were in Yugoslavia. We went on further for two days with the wagons. Then there was a train, like a freight train. All went in. From there they brought us to Wartegau.

LK: Wartegau was in Yugoslavia?

AK: No, that was now in Poland, two days already. As we were going along the train stopped, someone said "air raid". The American airplanes were over us. We all hid. All of us. Until the planes were passed.


LK: Did any bombs drop?

AK: No, they were looking for larger towns. We got back on, went on to Wartegau.

LK: Was everyone very frightened?

AK: Actually we were not very afraid; this had left us. There we were in a camp in Wartegau. As we arrived there were signs, "Welcome. The Fuhrer has brought you home to freedom".

LK: But this was Poland?

AK: Yes, Poland.

LK: And now it was Germany?

AK: No, now it was Poland.

LK: But then it was Germany?

AK: Yes. Then it was Germany. We were in the camp a month. They gave us a small house; it was from a Pole. Where he went we didn't know. Our family of eight was put in it. They gave us cards, we got sugar and flour, they gave us money.

LK: Better times.

AK: Yes, it was late in July.

LK: Too late to plant any crops.

AK: There was no thought of crops. There we were, father, mother, younger children, Jacob and I were put to work, making embankment. If the Russians were to come we could go in and soldiers could shoot from there.

LK: You did the digging?

AK: Yes, my brother and I. There was something interesting; there was a large valley by this small town, Wiessenthal. There was a valley, 30 kilometers long, 1 kilometer wide, with a small river. They wanted to dam this small river, this valley, 30 kilometers long, 1 kilometer wide, so that in the spring as the snow melted it would be all water so the Russian tanks couldn't get through. But by January they were already there. Work for naught.

LK: There was the dam -

AK: For in the spring, the river water and snowmelt would be dammed up. Made from wood, we hauled the dirt with wheelbarrows. So high, two meter wide and one kilometer long, to make this dam. All for naught. They had broken through by Warsaw and by January 20 they were here. The Russians came. We had left from there before this. There was bombardment all over. The German leaders left. All went west. To the west.

LK: You followed them?

AK: My brother and I, yes. Until we were in the real Germany.

LK: Your entire family went?

AK: No, just my brother and I. Father, mother, and the small children were still at the same place. We thought they were also on the road. All that were German had gone on the road. We had joined with those who were fleeing. When we came to the real German border, we were among the last to flee. A man came by then and said he had driven through our village in Poland. He said many were there, some Poles. We had a small child, 6 months; they didn't leave. What could my brother and I do? We returned through the Russian occupied areas. We had a paper on which it said, "We are Russian refugees". When we came to Poland it was held up by us right away. We said, "We are returning home". Then when the Russians came we pretended to not understand them, even though I had been to Russian school. We would say we were Polish. When we returned the family was really still there.

LK: All of them? Parents and everyone?

AK: Yes. It was late in January when we returned.

LK: Did you have adequate clothing?

AK: The Germans gave us jackets, used things, used shoes. On March 5 the Russians came to us. "You refugees", they said, "you have ruined our land". They took us, I was 19, my brother was 17, father was 45, took us away from the family.

LK: Father was Gottfried?

AK: Gottfried. They took us to Kalisch (?), Kreistadt, in German, brought us to a camp.

LK: And the mother and the children?

AK: Oh no, the mother and the children stayed. The Pole returned, chased them away, out into the open sky. Three or four families joined together. Near by was a village. There was a wooden roof over a tent. There they went to live. A shelter from wind, snow and cold. In February.

LK: It was cold.

AK: It was cold. In May the Russians took them back to Russia, they said, "Repatriated them". First they said, "you will return to your old homeland". But when they said this is not the way to Kassel, they said that they would never return to Kassel. They would go to Siberia.

LK: That is the homeland!

AK: Yes, that is the homeland. Siberia. There they arrived late in May, in Balkash (?), Kasachstan. Now, how was it with us? From the camp in Kalisch, we were taken to the main camp by Posen, a large town, headquarters. We were there for about two days. There was a big railway center. They loaded us up, 40 to a car. For wastes we had one pail. Such a smell. We were locked in. One end of the train was soldiers; also on the other end were soldiers.

LK: How many cars? Or People?

AK: 2,400 were there. We left March 10, arrived in Koletzbingen (?) March 21, at the coal place. We went into a camp. Some went 3 kilometers further on to another camp. I, my father, and brother, stayed.

LK: You are now in Siberia?

AK: No, in the Ukraine.

LK: Oh, the Ukraine.

AK: Ukraine, coal group. There we were in a camp from March 21, 1945 until August 1946. How long is that? One year, maybe one year and 5 months we were in the camp. We worked there, returned to the camp nights.

LK: Did you eat well?

AK: Food? Here our father starved to death in front of our eyes.

LK: It was here that your father died?

AK: Yes, he starved here. It was a terrible death. My brother and I were just 17 and 19 years old; we were able to endure better. He was 45 years. He had to die, we couldn't help him.

LK: There just wasn't enough to eat?

AK: Not enough. The broth they gave us each day, the overseers would take it away and eat it themselves.

LK: But hard work.

AK: Hard work. We arrived with 2400, left alive were 1200.One half.

LK: One half died there then?

AK: Yes, one half died. That I can vouch for. I knew the language. I was in the records department. When one couldn't work anymore, he had to come in; there was a nurse there. He was asked if he couldn't work anymore. The next day he would already be dead. But if you could work at all, you had to work. I was the one who would write it all down. I knew the language, you see. German and Russian. You had to ask names. Of the 2,400, there were only 80 of us, the rest were from Germany and from Poland.

LK: Only 80 of you?

AK: Yes, the rest were from Germany and Poland.

LK: Then the 80 of you were from South Russia.

AK: Yes, from South Russia.

LK: the Black Sea area?

AK: Yes, Black Sea.

LK: All the others were from Germany or Russia?

AK: No, from Poland. Yes, I saw this with my own eyes. And that so many died from hunger. As witness I can say it. I had to write them off, 7 or 8 would die during the night. They would bring them out in the morning, my father was among them. They would wrap them up, make a large hole, throw them in, then cover them over.

LK: One grave for all.

AK: Yes, every morning there were 7 or 8. Then I would write on this paper, "This man died. His name was so and so". Now I can tell you an incident. The nurse that was there, she flirted with, -not with the overseer, but with his helpers. I came into the office and a man was smoking my records, which he had rolled up for cigars. You understand? There was no tobacco, stems were ground up, we called this Magorski (?), take a stem chop it up, it was very strong. My God! He was using my records. He had no shame, records of people's deaths! The records were of the dead! "You are using this for smoking!" He said nothing. I was usually not there when they got together. They were using up the records for smoking. The mothers and children would never know what happened to their fathers.

LK: There was just one large grave?

AK: Yes. In August 1946, the Germans from Germany left camp. It was said they were going home, but we don't know if that was so. We don't know. But the Russian-Germans were sent to Siberia. Novosibirsk. There we were again locked up in the camp. Soldiers were there in railroad cars.

LK: 1946?

AK: 1946. August.
LK: How long were you underway?

AK: Oh, it was a long time, at least a month.

LK: Locked up in railroad cars!

AK: Yes, locked in railroad cars.

LK: And this was in August. It must have been hot.

AK: Yes, it was hot. When we arrived in Siberia it was quite cool. They let us out then. "You are now settlers", they said, "You are now free". What does this mean, free? We were not in Russia.

LK: You were free to return home to Germany or -?

AK: Germany? We didn't even mention it in 1946. Well, my father had died. There was my brother and I. It was very bad. I said to my brother, Jacob, "I am going to run away." He said, "If you can get through". We had no money.

LK: Where would you go?

AK: To Kazakhstan. We had heard by this time that the family had come to Kazakhstan in May 1945, mother and the children. I would run away to Balkasch, maybe its better.

LK: You went then?

AK: Yes, I ran away.

LK: Ran away?

AK: Yes, I went to Balkasch.

LK: Well, how far was that?

AK: How far? 2000 kilometers.

LK: On foot?

AK: No, not on foot. On the trains there are these steps, rungs, I hung on there. When we arrived in-I can't remember the town, it was 35 degrees colder. I thought I would freeze my hands. But I made it through. I came to Balkasch. It was not much better there, but it was better. Less need there. Not so cold. (The interviewer will add here that Adam showed me his left hand which he could only partially open. He had very limited mobility with fingers due to injuries from the cold and exposure during the 2000 kilometer train ride.)

LK: To go through something like that!

AK: Yes, go through that. And the town, Balkasch.

LK: You finally arrived there.

AK: I arrived March 7, 1947.

LK: 1947!

AK: Yes, it was 1947. I said, "Here I am."

LK: Did you find your mother then?

AK: Yes, right away, Ketterlings, there they were. They had room in a barracks. There were three families living there. 12 people living in such a small room.

LK: All in one room?

AK: Yes, in one room. And I was the thirteenth to join them.

LK: Was there even room?

AK: Yes. Balkasch. I spent my entire life there. 44 years.

LK: What kind of work did you have to begin with?

AK: At the beginning?

LK: Or was work hard to find?

AK: Oh, there was work. But first I had to register. I didn't have any papers. So I went and I told the truth.

LK: You told them you ran away.

AK: Yes, I had run away. "Do with me what you want"! They said that they would make inquiries with Novosibirsk. In a month or so they received a reply. Yes, an Adam Ketterling had run away there. He disappeared. Where he is they didn't know. He is a runaway. "Lock me up if you want to!"

LK: Send you back or whatever?

AK: They gave me no information, to send me back or anything.

LK: You did stay there though.

AK: Yes, there for 44 years. There I married.

LK: Your brother stayed back there?

AK: He stayed in Novosibirsk. He married there. From there he came to Germany with his family. All my brothers are in Germany.

LK: Does he have a German wife?

AK: Yes, a German wife.

LK: When did he immigrate?

AK: He came in 1991, like us. In February, but we came in November.

LK: He went to Austria?

AK: No here in Bayern.

LK: What is the town?

AK: Heilbronn.

LK: Oh, Heilbronn.

AK: Yes, Emil is in Bayern.

LK: That was a long, long, road.

AK: A long road. So it went. It took one half a year, then I got a one month visa. Then in one half a year I was registered in the town. Then I went to look for work. "What can you do?” they asked. "I am a farmer's son", I said. "I have no trade." This was the large business where copper was processed. "Alright, you will work with the rail-road", they said. I came to the rail yard, went to the foreman of the station. "Now where can I assign you? I will put you on as switchman". You know what that is? When you switch cars from one track to another? I worked there one year. Then I became wagon master. When the train arrived I examined the cars for their condition.

LK: One moment, please. Now we will go back to Kassel. To Old Kassel.

AK: Old Kassel, yes.

LK: Did the German people have any idea at all that the Russians would take their land away?

AK: Do you mean after the Germans had come?

LK: Yes.

AK: No, we thought that they would never return.

LK: Now, in 1928?

AK: Before when I said they wouldn't come back, that was in 1941, 42. In 1928, yes.

LK: What happened in 1928?

AK: In 1928, 1930, they said it was collectivism, the new experiment, made by the Communists. Everything was put together; they took away cows, horses.

LK: Land?

AK: Yes, the land was taken away, everything taken away. And where did they take all this, the cows and horses? Those people who were rich were sent away and their houses became cow and horse barns. And they made collectives. Our town was quite large. It was divided into 4 parts. The upper part, Machsnell, the second Rot Fronte, next Dellman, and Wagner, later named Karl Marx. How was life at first? They had taken everything away. The children had no milk or anything.

LK: That was the start.

AK: The start. The land was taken away. Nothing was left. We had to work. Mornings they came, you and you must work here, and you and you must work there. They had work records, for equal time. They made lists. "I, Ketterling, worked here on this day". They installed this to show I was there. When the year was over, they added it all up. He who had more time received more.

LK: Would you receive money?

AK: No, not any money. Nature things. Wheat, to be ground into flour, sunflower seeds, to make oil. But we received very little. It was given to the state. You had to haul it away. It was a good deal for the government. They left little. Later on they would take everything. In 1933 there was such great need, people were starving. And there was such a good harvest. People had nothing.

LK: Hauled it away to where?

AK: To the loft or granary. To town.

LK: Where did the crop go? To Moscow?

AK: To the _____?

LK: What kind of clothes would a person have? Did you make them? Buy them?

AK: We didn't make them. Whatever clothes we had would be patched until there was nothing left.

LK: Nothing but patches.

AK: If a person would get a new shirt, everyone would remark, "Oh, he has a new shirt". Our Adam got a new shirt once and they said, "He is so stylish."

LK: Where did he get the new shirt from?

AK: I don't know. We got things in the store, but not for money. With us you got up early during the night, at 12 O'clock, to stand in line to get something. In the store there were two Jews. There was no money. You had to trade off for eggs.

LK: Or grain?

AK: Not grain. That went to the state.

LK: Eggs? Not chickens or anything else?

AK: Only eggs.

LK: And for shoes. Did you make your own shoes?

AK: Those who had shoes. My uncle August, my brother Adam, they were shoemakers. We had it good.

LK: You made your own shoes?

AK: Yes.

LK: Of leather?

AK: Yes. If they were torn, you patched them again. So it went. Summers we went bare-footed. We knew nothing of shoes then.

LK: I also went bare-footed summers, when I was young. Now, foods to eat. You would get up mornings. What would be on the table?

AK: Well, what would there be? For breakfast, when they took away our cows, we would have water in our soup.

LK: for breakfast?

AK: Yes, water. There was no butter at all. Turnip soup. Simple turnip soup. Later when we had a cow again, we had milk in the soup. We could churn butter.

LK: And for midday meal?

AK: For midday meal, dumplings, strudels.

LK: Sounds good.

AK: Or potatoes put them in the oven. Borscht. This was Russian food. This was very often eaten.

LK: And the evening meal was lighter?

AK: Yes, the evening meal was lighter.

LK: Still the same food?

AK: Yes, the same. Again, turnip soup, like mornings, turnip soup.

LK: Now as a young man, what were the choices? Would every young person have to become a farmer?

AK: Well, everyone had to work. The same for all. You went to school. Maybe you could go further. I can't really say, from Kassel. If you learned well, you might work with books. You could say you were intelligent or become a teacher.

LK: Could you go to another school, further your schooling? Like returning to Germany for schooling?

AK: Not to Germany. If you learned well, a possibility may be you would go to Odessa. There was high school there. There was also a town school until 1938 in German.

LK: Now you are a young man. What do you do for fun?

AK: Fun? As poor as we were, there was always fun.

LK: You still had fun.

AK: Yes, for lathe young people. What should I say, -

LK: Dancing?

AK: Evenings. When evening arrived, as hard as we had to work, we met with girls.

LK: With the girls?

AK: Oh yes.

LK: It’s that way in the whole world. And what would a young couple do? Were there movies?

AK: There was movie. There were silent films. This was the latest times; the dance hall was now in the church.

LK: So a young man could go to the movies, go for a walk, go dancing?

AK: Yes, when one is young, even when poor, you still had fun.

LK: Thank you very much.

AK: I thank you. That you came over to Germany.

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