Distant Promise: A New Beginning &
The Last Bridge: Her Own Story: Elvera Ziebart Reuer
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Reuer, Elvera Ziebart and Glaphry Duff. A Distant Promise: A New Beginning. Abderbeen, South Dakota: Quality Quick Print, Inc., 1998.
The central character of Elvera Ziebart Reuer's story is Eva Ziebart,
the mother of the clan whose story is told in these books. Eva,
who began life as a shy young orphan, lived in several villages
and buried two husbands and five children in Russia. Her stern practicality,
courage, astute perception of human nature, unrelenting work ethic,
faith, and aggressive planning saw her family through unimaginable
wartime hardships. The books trace the familys journey from
Bessarabia to America.
Eva, Elvera, 18, and the other members of the Ziebart family lived
in Arzis, Bessarabia, which had been part of southern Russia settled
by German farmers at the invitation of the Russian government more
than a century before. In 1918, without encountering resistance,
Rumanian soldiers walked into the agricultural community and
simply claimed it as spoils of war. The Ziebarts housed and
fed an officer who set up his headquarters in their once-pristine
parlor. The Rumanians were followed by Communist soldiers on May
15, 1940. The Russians, like the Rumanians before them, were permitted
to treat the people as they wished, and physical and psychological
abuse generated pervasive fear.
Plainclothes visitors from Germany arrived in Arzis as early as
1938. They held special events such as games and dances, reignited
the people's sense of German identity, and excited them about the
possibility of a proud future in Germany. So it was with dread of
Russian occupation mixed with anticipation that on June 25, 1940,
Eva Ziebart and her family of teenagers, Albert, Elvera, Gertrude,
Alma, and Linda hurriedly gathered essentials and got on a crowded
train and left for Germany. Eva's stepsons, Gerhardt and Bruno,
who remained behind to bring in the harvest, made their way to Germany
later, and were inducted into the German army.
In Germany, the family found themselves encamped in a former schoolhouse
and in other crude, minimal shelters. Always they feared bombs dropped
by the Allies, so nighttime blackouts and hurried rushes to the
cellar were the norm. The conditions in all places were crowded,
and food, which consisted mostly of thin vegetable soup, was short.
After many months, they realized why they had been brought from
Arzis. The Germans were summarily evicting Polish farmers from their
farms and replacing them with ethnic Germans, who were expected
to raise food to feed the German army. Eva demanded and achieved
the return of the Polish family that had lived on the farm assigned
to her--a mother, father and three sturdy sons--saying she was but
a widow and needed their help for the work. Few were less helpless
than Eva, but only her children knew that. They set about cleaning
the farm and its buildings, acquiring food and draft animals, raising
grain and vegetables, and reaching out to the many hungry and destitute
people around them. In the midst of war, the older children married
and gave birth to children. The younger children went to school
and weekend camps, where their susceptibility to Nazi ideology was
muted by their mothers careful warnings. Her proximity to
Germany meant Eva could care for Gerhardt when he was wounded, and
sometimes the girls could find jobs, as did one who cared for injured
men in a hospital.
As the war ground on, the family sensed that Germany was losing.
Then they heard that the fearsome Russian army was moving in from
the east. Eva and her family loaded necessities into the wagon she
had so carefully kept in good repair, and headed west. The trek,
which culminated with their ending up in the American zone, is as
tense and frightening an adventure as one would want in ones
lifetime. They stumbled into several areas of active fighting, witnessed
heartrending atrocities, and crossed bridges just before explosives
detonated or the bridges were finally closed. Again and again, Evas
careful foresight made the difference. As an example, When she observed
men painting some wagons with a red X, she guessed that they were
tagging wagons for return to Russia. She bribed a soldier with food
and was allowed to continue west. Later, when Bruno was being separated
from her, she told him to get a job in a kitchen if he could. This
advice served him well. The story of how Brunos wife, three
small children in tow, traveled overland for over a year, after
the war and appeared in rags at Evas door is an astonishing
story, of itself worth a whole book. Through all this, they clung
tenaciously to their faith in God.
In the postwar years, life was difficult for the people who came
to be called displaced persons. Resourceful Eva traded her horses
for a cow, the girls found jobs, and she located her family members,
all of whom, miraculously, had survived the war. Some 134 packages
sent to them from relatives and agencies in America (CARE packages)
provided food and clothing and items that could be sold for other
necessities, and the family never ceased to marvel at the generosity
of the Americans. Elvera's skill with needle and thread meant clothing
and money for the family.
At the invitation of American relatives, Eva, Albert, Gertrude,
and Elvera, emigrated to Bowdle, South Dakota in 1949. There the
work on farms was also demanding, but they were welcomed wholeheartedly
into an extended family and it was possible to prosper. Eva returned
to Germany to live out her life with the family that remained there;
Elvera married and lives in Arizona today, where she enjoys the
company of her children and grandchildren.
These books are reviewed together because their stories overlap.
"The Last Bridge" especially is told in a good, fiction-writers
style, and ends when they first stepped onto American soil. "A
Distant Promise" has, as its pattern, Elvera answering her
grandchildrens questions about how she got from Arzis, Bessarabia
to America. Both have some pictures, but "A Distant Promise"
has many more, which were taken at points along the journey and
today. Both books are worth reading. Elvera recalls details somewhat
differently from one book to the other, and the second writer has
a distinctive style. Details that are not clear in the first book
come into focus in the second. Both books needed an editor who could
have shaped up punctuation and usage details. Elveras story
is one of great personal courage and sometimes miraculous deliverance
experienced by people caught up in World War II. It is also one
of the few that tells the story of Bessarabian Germans who were
sent to live on the farms of Poland. The books are important to
the Germans from Russia experience.