On an Adventurous Mission to the
Auf abenteuerlicher Mission bei den Russlanddeutschen
About the Author
Father Eugen Reinhardt was born on June 5, 1935, in Strassburg near Odessa. His father was shot in 1938 by Soviet "agents." His family arrived in Warthegau [Poland] in 1944 and, after an adventurous escape, to Waiblingen. Subsequent to receiving the Abitur [the German educational system's exam taken for qualification for university studies, tr.] in 1957, Eugen Reinhardt entered theology studies in St. Augustine, USA, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1964. After he had served for 25 years in pastoral care in the Philippines, the German Bishops' Conference appointed him as their official representative for the spiritual care of the Germans from Russia. In 1999 he was named "Ecclesiastical Visitor."
Pastor Dr. Johannes Florian Mueller (died March 7, 2000) and Prelate Hieronymous Menges were both born in 1910 in Karamurat in the area of Dobrudscha/Romania. Both were professors at the Catholic Theological Academy and in the priests' seminary in Bucharest. Subsequent to the strong earthquake of December 10, 1940, the seminary was moved to Untertoemoesch near Brasov/Kronstadt. They were both Germans born in Romania and in 1941 volunteered for a pastoral mission to the German villages in Ukraine.
In 1981 Dr. Johannes Mueller, a loyal friend of the Germans from Russia, privately published the book Ostdeutsche Schicksale am Schwarzen Meer [Eastern Fate of Germans in the Black Sea Area]. An excerpt follows from the book, beginning on p. 208.
Serving as Backpack Pastors in Russia
Prelate Pieger in Odessa, 1942
Toward the end of August of 1943, Menges and I, together with the seminarians, arrived back in Toemoesch, dog tired after a hike in the mountains. In front of the seminary stood Father Pieger¹ deep in conversation with Archbishop Cisar and Seminary Director Durkovitsch. As we passed them, Father Pieger called out, "Your Excellency, here are two young priests. Let them come with me to Russia." Then he began to talk, with his natural enthusiasm, about German Catholic communities in the Odessa region in Ukraine that had not had a priest for fifteen years and now, as the German Wehrmacht was moving eastward, were eagerly waiting for German priests to serve them. Father Pieger's description of the spiritual poverty in Ukraine and his own enthusiastic words convinced us: Menges and I volunteered for "backpack pastoral service" in Russia. The Apostolic Nuncio in Bucharest, Andrea Cassulo, provided us with the requisite authorization papers, and via Marshall Ion Antonescu we acquired special permission to serve in the rank of captain in the war zone.
On December 21, 1943, we took a fast train from Bucharest to Kishinev, where we were to introduce ourselves to the high command of the Romanian Army, so that we would be permitted to enter the war zone. We arrived at a hotel in Kishinev late in the evening. The hotel had neither heat nor water. Everything had been frozen due to the extreme cold. But we were happy to have a bed to sleep in, because the train had been filled past capacity with soldiers on their way to the front. And so we had to pass the entire 17-hour trip either standing up or sitting on the floor in the train car corridor. We went to bed with our normal clothes on, plus overcoats and felt hats. In the morning, due to Marshall Antonescu's recommendation, we received our military papers right away and took the first train to continue toward Odessa. In the evening we arrived in Tiraspol, a small city on the Russian side of the Dnjestr River. The city was filled with German and Romanian soldiers. We looked up the local military commander and asked for quarters. However, nothing was available for staying overnight. So we walked out to the train station, which was located three miles outside of town. We were hoping thereby to get on the first train to Odessa in the early morning. The night was clear and very cold, down to minus 40 degrees [that happens to be the same in Fahrenheit or Centigrade, tr.]. In an attempt at keeping relatively warm, we marched in quick tempo on the way to the rail station. Suddenly there was shooting at the cemetery. We threw ourselves into the snow and awaited fearfully what might happen. Three soldiers suddenly jumped up from behind the cemetery wall. Brandishing machine guns, they shouted at us, "Hands up!" I answered immediately in Romanian, "Don't shoot! We are Romanian officers." They approached us and demanded papers. Upon finding that we were priests in the rank of captain, they saluted smartly. Then one of them asked whether we had weapons. I told him we each had only a cross and a rosary. With great astonishment, he made a huge sign of the cross and said, "You need to know that there are many guerillas in the area. We have just shot five Russian partisans at the cemetery. Had you come five minutes earlier, you would both be dead." He then told us that the train station was "up there" nearby and that we should report to the German sentry there. The station was full of soldiers and civilians lying around on the floor.
In the train station there was a train for Odessa. With great effort we were able to get into a cattle car that was already overly full with Romanian soldiers. After several hours we reached the so-called "liman," i.e., several small, interconnected lakes northwest of Odessa. We knew that this was the area in Ukraine where we would find the German villages. We got off the train at the next station and marched off in God's name. After about five kilometers we reached a long, stretched-out village. Its layout and the large farmers' homes indicated that this must be a German village -- it was Strassburg. We walked on the long street toward the church. As we passed, people looked at us in wonder. We entered the church of Strassburg. It was largely empty, but clean. In the choir area there stood a table, on which there was a Christmas tree and a large photo of Adolf Hitler. The SS commander had announced a "German Christmas celebration" for 7:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Several women and adolescents were busy getting things ready for it. We entered the vestibule, knelt down and prayed. The onlookers gaped at us as if struck by lightning. Then we made the sign of the cross, got up and approached them. "My dear people, we are Catholic priests and have come to you to celebrate Christmas with you." Relieved and with great joy, they kissed our hands, which were wet from their tears. Anton, a 75-year-old but robust man, knelt down in front of me and began to kiss my feet. When I tried to stop him, he spoke tearfully, "Father, please let me kiss the feet that brought you to us who have not had a priest for ten years."
Menges was taken by pony-drawn wagon to the community of Kandel. I was provided with quarters in a farmer's home near the church. We informed the people that we would celebrate Christmas Mass at 10:00 p.m. in Strassburg and in Kandel on Christmas Eve. Riders were sent out in order to take the happy news to neighboring German colonies. After a bit of rest, I went to the church at 10:00 in the evening and found not only the church, but the entire churchyard filled with people. I was barely able to make my way through the throng of people toward the choir area of the church. So on Christmas Eve 1943, another Holy Mass was celebrated after ten years without one. I could not believe my ears when during Christmas Mass those faithful folks began to sing our traditional old Christmas songs. The singing was done with great enthusiasm and ended in loud sobbing. It was an experience that cannot be put into words. The happy news of God's saving message, which Christ brought into the world during that Holy Night, was fully experienced here.
During Christmas Day I also celebrated Mass in the village of Baden and in the afternoon in Neu-Elsass. Menges conducted Christmas services in the large church at Selz and in Mannheim. The German colonies in this region were all very large communities numbering 2,000 to 3,000 souls. Everywhere we went the churches were filled beyond capacity with people who were so happy that after so many years a priest had visited them again. During each day of the following two weeks we celebrated Mass in a different German community, and we baptized the children. Menges conferred baptism on 320 children; I baptized 270 children in those two weeks. With everything we needed for Mass packed in our backpacks, we moved from community to community, celebrated Holy Mass, conferred baptism and brought solace to the those who were sick or suffering. The SS, who administered the German communities of Ukraine, became alarmed at the throngs of people who were attracted to our divine services. Menges was ordered to appear in Selz before the highest SS officer in the area. Upon explaining his churchly assignment, the SS commander told him, "We have no use here for such heavenly comics. But as long as you stick to your churchly hocus-pocus and do not get mixed up in politics or with other matters, you can rest easily."
Soon, however, the SS were noticing more and more the strong influence by the Church on the German Catholics in Ukraine, so that orders were issued from the SS central command in Landau that the activities of the Catholic priests were to be halted.
The pastoral care of Ukraine was centered in Odessa under the administrative office of Bishop Markus Glaser, a German born in Russia in the diocese of Saratov-Tiraspol, and Prelate Nikolaus Pieger. We had duly informed Odessa of our arrival in Ukraine. However, due to our constant meandering among the various localities, our contact with Bishop Glaser had been lost.
Just after the Feast of the Three Kings, we took the opportunity on January 14, 1944, to hitch a ride to Odessa on a truck. Four kilometers outside of Odessa the truck became stuck in the snow. Darkness had fallen, and Odessa was an area feared for the presence of partisan guerillas. We left the truck and continued on foot. It was slow going on the icy road against a strong wind from the East. Menges and I walked ahead, behind us the sexton from Strassburg. Suddenly I heard that the sexton was talking excitedly with someone in Russian. I turned and asked, "What does that guy want?" The man hurriedly jumped behind a wall and disappeared. The sexton, visibly shaken, said, "Father, you just saved our lives. It was a guerilla partisan, who demanded at the point of his loaded pistol that I follow him. When you turned around, he became startled and decided to flee, because he must have thought he could not easily prevail against three people." We were quite aware of the danger and knew that a number of partisans would be awaiting us around the next buildings. Hurriedly we turned toward a westerly direction and walked into town in a long, roundabout way.
The snow was deep, and the wind was icy cold. Yet we continued to stomp through the snow; fear of the Russian partisans drove us forward. Shortly before 10:00 p.m. we finally arrived at the house we had hoped to reach. I peered through the iced-over windowpanes and saw Bishop Glaser sitting there, obviously worried, while Prelate Pieger was pacing back and forth. We knocked on the door and informed Father Pieger about our identities. After we entered the room, covered with snow from head to toe, with icicles on our foreheads, noses and beards, Father Pieger exclaimed, "My, oh my, you look like polar bears!" Then he opened a bottle of Crimean champagne, and so we celebrated with great relief the meeting we had longed for, since both he and Bishop Glaser had begun to fear that we had been shot dead by partisans.
In the summer of 1944, Menges and I again returned to the Ukrainian communities, this time for a duration of three months. During his spiritual service in the German colonist communities of Ukraine, Menges baptized 3,800 children, witnessed the ecclesiastic marriages of 1,700 couples, led 900 youth to their first Holy Communion and gave the sacraments to many sick and many old people.² Today we must both admit: it was the most beautiful time of our pastoral activities as priests.
¹Prelate Nikolaus Pieger became special representative of the German Episcopacy for the spiritual care of the Catholic Germans from Russia. He preceded Fathers Peter Macht and Eugen Reinhardt in that office.
²In his own modesty, Mueller credits Menges for all their achievements, but in reality their successes must be ascribed to both.
A Personal Note by the Translator
I was especially touched by this article, because my family came in contact with Father Nikolaus Pieger, both while we were still living in Ukraine under German occupation and also in Germany after the war. By means of Father Pieger's witness through written affidavits, based on his personal acquaintance with our family, we were able to reestablish identity papers that became of utmost importance during the process of our immigration to the United States in 1953. I personally remain in possession of a carbon copy of such an affidavit letter by Father Pieger. It may well be that our family even came in contact with Fathers Menges and/or Mueller during their "backpack pastoral care" in the German areas of Ukraine, but I cannot attest to that because I was too young at the time. And there is no evidence of it in either of my parents' written memoirs. A. Herzog
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.