I Heard My People Cry: One Family's Escape from
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Drawing from intensive interviews and diaries, Lenci-Downs tells
the story of Lise Huebert Toews Gerig (1930-). Lise, with her family,
lived through the time of collectivization, purges, and World War
II deportations in the Ukraine. They escaped to live in the west.
The story, told in part with flashbacks, begins before Lise's birth
when her Mennonite family, fearful of what World War I might bring,
moved via train from Troitskayain, northwest of the Sea of Azov,
to a village called Taganrog in the mountains of the Crimea. The
pioneering journey to Taganrog was but the beginning. The extended
Huebert family traversed an incredible series of wanderings and
relocations. Only through wise choices, street smarts, and sheer
luck or the grace of God did any of them survive and live to emigrate
to Canada after World War II. A love story enters the account as
Lise loses then reconnects with Walter Toews, a childhood friend
who became her husband.
The Huebert family had been among the thousands of Mennonites who
went to Moscow in 1929 hoping even then to emigrate to Canada. But,
though their papers were all in order, the revolutionary government
slammed the doors and they were sent back to Taganrog. The terrors
of revolution and communism swept through even this backwater village.
Since the family was defined as wealthy, as were almost all Germans
in the colonies, they were branded kulaks and were vulnerable to
deprivations and persecutions. This though they had formed themselves
into collective farms without as much protest as occurred elsewhere.
In the latter 1930s, men of the large Huebert family, accused of
nebulous offenses, were arrested in the night, and some, including
Lise's father, disappeared forever.
When the remaining family, some 180 persons, were put into boxcars
headed to Siberia, their train got caught in a battle between the
German and Russian armies. The family left the train and walked
westward toward the multi-village colony of Molotschna, where they
hoped to find others of their faith who would help them survive.
The family settled in one of the empty villages of Molotschna and
set about farming the land. When the Russian army pushed westward,
the Hueberts moved yet again, traversing in winter a treacherous
pass across the Carpathian mountains. Once in Germany, Lise, her
mother, two sisters and young brother were assigned to a farm from
which Poles had been evicted. In the waning months of World War
II, when it was clear that the Russian army would thrust into Germany,
Lise and her family made yet another terrifying trek westward, going
as far as Holland. They narrowly escaped being sent back to Russia.
Eventually they were able to obtain visas and emigrate to Canada.
The book contains some especially powerful images:
-There is a virtual pioneering guidebook in the description of
how Lise's family prepared for a pioneering venture when they moved
to form a daughter colony in the Crimea.
-The reader senses the terror people felt when they saw cars, the
black mariahs, coming into their village.
-As a young child, Lise and her siblings accompanied their mother
in visits to her father, who clearly had been tortured, in a Russian
-In what may be a one-of-a-kind, first hand description, Lise remembers
encountering village after abandoned village, with but a few Russian
families camping in the homes, as her family walked across the steppe
after their escape from the deportation train. The inhabitants of
the villages had left hurriedly, forced aboard northbound trains..
-The atrocities of which the Germans were capable become evident
when the Hueberts identify a mass grave.
-Lise's mother did what she had to do to care for her children
and survive, but she needs to be recognized for heroism beyond the
imagination of most persons today.
-Lise and Walter laugh as they watch off-duty American and British
soldiers play ball, marveling at the sight of adults playing.
Though Lenci-Downs worked conscientiously to keep the characters
delineated, their large number and similar names are sometimes confusing,
but this is not a serious flaw. The story of Lise Huebert and her
family is told with as much drama as the most absorbing mystery.
Even if readers have read the stories of others who have had similar
experiences, they will be well rewarded for the hours they spend
walking in Lise's shoes.