Leaving the Country, 1929
We received the following contribution from Anna Warkentin of Bielefeld, archivist for the Evangelical Church of Westphalia. Here are her accompanying remarks: "During my work on the archives of the Evangelical Church community of Warburg (county of Paderborn) I happened upon a report by one of our country folk (the specific name is not mentioned) which describes the emigration of Germans leaving Russia in the year 1929. The report carries the title, 'Experiences of a teacher ...from the colony ... in Western (the word 'Western' was struck out) Siberia during his escape from Russia. (Reported and transmitted by himself via P. Kienecker, Pastor Hamm i. W.)' I discovered this report among papers of the Gustav-Adolf-Society. I was unable to determine whether the report was ever published."
...As early as 1921 I was beginning to wish that I might be able to leave Russia. Times were very hard. Famine and inflation raced through the country. Thousands starved during the year of 1922, even as thousands and tens of thousands of pud of wheat were rotting. (This is how things are when Communists are in power!!!) It was as if a curse had been pronounced on the country. The same curse seemed to be felt even years later as God's hand seemed to rest heavily on people and the land. Even where there were no bad harvests, several severe illnesses seemed to be spreading. All of this, plus the ever more stringent measures taken against the Church, evoked in me a strong awareness that Russia was hurtling toward a catastrophe, one that can only be designated as horrible.
During the past year (1929), all over Russia one noticed increasing activity by the "Society for the Godless," all in cooperation with certain government organs. People who were seemingly possessed by the devil were forming groups everywhere and unleashing such a degree of persecution that many who were still believers were often close to despair.
They were especially interested in directing their activities against children and adolescents. Subjects of instruction called "anti-religious propaganda" were being introduced into the school curriculum. The so-called Red teachers, all members of the Society for the Godless, now had unlimited opportunity to do as they pleased and to turn innocent creatures away from God. Those teachers were ruthlessly tearing down whatever religious matter parents had been able to impress on their children. People came near despair as their children would come home and complain, "Papa, everyone in school laughs at me because I believe in God. The teacher says there is no God and that our parents who are trying to 'poison' us would be brought to justice. I am not going back to school."
One can imagine the capricious cruelty of children who no longer believed in God and the difficult suffering of those children who still believed. Thus I often struggled with the question, "Should I watch quietly when children are carefully inculcated with atheism? When gradually all those doubts over God's existence grow every more strongly in those children and when children are indoctrinated with anti-Christian mores?" I had to tell myself, "No, I must not. My own conviction stands in direct contrast with the education of children after the new method, and it is not out of the question that one day my own children will say, 'There is no God!'" That was the horrible image I saw before me day and night. It is remarkable that, particularly beginning with June 1929, I felt myself needing to beg God ever more frequently and more intensely to lead me out of Russia. And lo and behold, the Lord heard my prayers.
It was on September 27, 1929, that my father-in-law J.S. from the village of U. in Siberia, together with his family, traveled to Moscow in order to request permission to emigrate to Siberia [Translator's note: the writer really means "emigrate from Siberia," as the entire story centers on]. My brother-in-law F.S. and my uncle S.F. joined in as well. After a long time I received a letter in which my brother-in-law wrote that we should stay put for the time being.
Another long pause ensued, and I was beginning to accept the idea that my relatives had left Moscow. Finally on October 25, I received another letter in which my brother-in-law gave me the joyous news that permission for emigration had been given, and that we should hurry and come to Moscow, the first group being scheduled to leave Moscow on November 5.
We hurriedly attempted to sell everything we had, often at ridiculously low prices. I was employed in a company that began each fiscal year in October, and so in my position as bookkeeper I was still obliged to provide a year-end report. Consequently we did not leave Slovgorod until November 5. Meanwhile I had been blacklisted, since I was still attending church services and believed in God. Therefore I was to be the first to be swept out as part of the cleansing by the Soviet apparatus. Our leaving was painful, of course, but the thought that we might finally be able to be stripped of the shackles on our liberty, helped us to think past all such difficulties.
The city of Slovgorod is situated on a branch line of the Siberian Magistral railroad. The station where the branch line originated was called Tatarka, which we traveled to first and changed trains. About 100 families were already there, and because Tatarka had no depot building, they had already been loaded onto dirty, cold rail cars. Following a 20-hour wait we also boarded, our first goal being Omsk, where we had to change trains again. There our tickets had to be stamped for the privilege to get onto a train for the continuation of our trip. To acquire the stamps we were forced to pay the porter 1.5 rubles per ticket.
Finally the train arrived and with it the horror as well. Children were kicked to the ground. The weaker passengers were pushed back and run down by the stronger ones. People boarded the train while wildly running and walking over boxes, baskets and people who had been pushed to the ground. Portions of families remained behind, their baggage and sometimes the father of the family being on the train, and vice versa. Children, too, were left behind all by themselves and then sent for afterwards.
Among those lucky enough to board was our group, i.e., my family and I; we had hired a porter. And now we took off straight in the direction of Moscow, where we arrived happily following a four-day ride. Brother-in-law F.S., who had just arrived in Moscow himself, received us there. It took only a few more minutes before we were on a roomy local train, steaming joyfully and gratefully toward the town where our relatives lived. On arriving there we rented a place where seven families totaling about 35 people had to share one room with 33 square meters of space.
At first we got along quite well in K. Nobody bothered or cared where we were from, why we had come there and who we were. The cooperative (consumer group) issued each of us a bread card so we could buy bread daily at a reduced price. Sugar was also available via these cards, perhaps even too much of it. We were very happy, felt quite secure there and did not foresee the disaster that stood before us.
The morning of November 16 brought news of the first arrests. This was totally unexpected, and the terrible news struck like a bolt of lightning. An entire storm would follow. Every night cars were running around, grabbing harassed people. When night came we were filled with terror. The poor children clung closely to their parents, especially their father, each time they heard one vehicle after another buzzing ever closer.
Ruthlessly, amidst wild confusion, children and baggage were thrown onto trucks, followed by the adults. Then they were driven through the dark of night to the rail station where the families were forced into freight cars without heat or light, all to be transported back. No pleading helped. People who have no God are without compassion. Several children were crushed to death; many adults suffered broken arms and legs. Three women who did not willingly obey the order to board the trucks were forcefully dragged out of their houses. These women were pregnant, and one of them gave birth immediately upon boarding the freight train, another one [delivered] on the way. The births turned out to have been premature.
Thus it went for two long weeks. As soon as we woke up in the morning we would ask about who still remained. In addition to the arrests of entire families, there were those of individual fathers only. One can imagine the horror felt by all family members when someone banged on a window at night, the police entered and read the names of those to be arrested. Mother and children would run toward the father and cling to him with all their might. There were heartrending cries whenever fathers were dragged off with nothing but complete uncertainly over their destination.
The terror was actually to become even worse. Refugees were hearing rumors stemming from the cellars and underground cells of the GPU [secret police] of countless tortures endured by those who had already been arrested. At this point I wish to describe briefly the torturous route of some of the refugees. Refugee Konrad was arrested on November 20. Two policemen, armed from head to toe, accompanied him to the truck that already contained 14 prisoners. At the time of his arrest he was merely told that he was being called before the town council to answer a few questions. Just a few minutes earlier, though, another refugee from the same house had been arrested. Automobiles to Moscow continued to buzz through the dark of night.
On arrival Konrad was taken to a space where 414 others who had been arrested the same night had been taken as well. They were called up individually, were forced to undress, and all of their papers and valuables (money, watch, etc.) were taken. Then the arrestees were assigned to specific cells -- cells that normally might have held 50 people but were now stuffed with 100 to 120 people. Witnesses have testified that the arrestees had to take turns sitting, sleeping and standing. Those who had arrived early on November 21 had to wait another day. The food they were given to eat would barely be enough for a child.
On November 22 Konrad was taken to interrogation where he was posed the following questions:
1. Who is the organizer of the immigrations?
2. Who were the first to arrive in Moscow?
3. How often have German representatives been in K., and what was discussed?
4. Have negotiations taken place with Russian shipping companies, or are there other prospects?
After the answers were given, all sorts of inhumane threats were used to extract a signature testifying that the arrestees agreed voluntarily to return to his former place of residence. The agents of the police declared that the government was ready to give 500 rubles to those returning voluntarily, to give back all goods that had been sold, and for that which was no longer obtainable they would be given long-term loans by state businesses.
When certain arrestees refused to return voluntarily, they were led to a room that had been steam-heated to 50-60 degrees [Celsius -- 112-121 degrees Fahrenheit, tr.]. Here these poorest of all had languished for three hours. Sweat would come out of all pores, and even the floor had been heated so that one could not stand still for more than a second. At the door there was a guard whose only duty it was to give a little bit of water to an arrestee who might be passing out, so that he could recover only to be tortured again. These things occurred only during the night.
When the three hours had elapsed, the arrestees would once again be taken for interrogation in a room where six officials of the political police were sitting and using indescribable tortures in order to extract the arrestees' agreement to return "voluntarily."
After all this process of "working on them" (as it was called) failed to achieve its desired result, or one or another arrestee under threat of a pistol agreed to give up his plans to emigrate, they were all led back to their cells. Even though the latter had been told they would be freed in three hours, it was all merely deception and lies -- all of them had to remain in prison.
After a five-day stay in prison, about 400 men under heavy guard were loaded in cars during the night and stuffed into freight cars. To make it difficult for the arrestees to escape, they were first brought to a rail station 15 kilometers outside of Moscow, where they would be unable to get oriented. When they all had been put on the train (none of the cars had heat or lighting), the train set out into the unknown. Doors and windows had been locked up.
The train stopped at a large log building inside a forest about 20 kilometers from Moscow. The arrestees were to stay here until their families were transported back to join them. A few took advantage of an opportunity to escape when the doors were opened and actually succeeded in getting away. Among these was the colonist Konrad mentioned above. The other refugees were never actually reunited with their families and were transported back without them.
There were some cases when arrestees had to spend as many as six to eight hours in the steam room. A few were able to save themselves by sticking a cigarette mouthpiece through a small crack near the window and thereby able to gasp for a bit of air, or they might lie down on the floor and attempt to catch some air through the cracks in and around the door.
The prisoners were allowed to visit a toilet at most three times a day, and everything in between had to be taken care of in the cell. Everything legal and illegal was attempted in order to persuade the refugees to return. There was no lack of public propaganda effort. A Russian appeal to the German farmers was being spread among the refugees in Moscow via thousands of copies of a flier designed to persuade them to return to their former places of residence. The headline read as follows: "The Soviet Government Rushes to the Assistance of the Working Farmers Who Have Been Plunged into Emigration Misfortune." It read further, "Measures are being taken in your old home places to protect the goods and properties you have squandered." An alleged letter from a working farmer was cited: "The editors of the Deutschen Zentralzeitung [German Central Newspaper] have received from farmer Franz Voth of Prigorye (in the Cherson region) the following letter to be forwarded to his brother Johann Voth, who is currently in the camp for emigration-happy Mennonites:
'Dear Brother Hans! I am writing these lines to you, completely uncertain whether this letter might even reach you. We're all in good health. Things in our farm business are as usual, and we haven't sold anything. Many have sold things, but their buyers have to return them in case their owners might return... The goods don't even have to be picked up, they will be delivered. Whoever sold his cow to the milk association or his flour to the cooperative will get them back. In N14 farmers' properties are still in the same condition as before. Militia people are guarding things so that they're not stolen. Everyone here is hoping you'll come back, then everyone is supposed to get all his things back, and everything will be forgiven. Those without bread will be given some so that they do not stay hungry.
Now I've told you everything the way it is here. You can let your neighbors know and also tell them that here all doors remain open for those who strayed away, and that they will not be punished. We are feeling quite cozy next to our stove. We have plenty of bread, as you know, but we have begun to take stock of all reserves, and those who don't have enough will receive some.
Sincerely, with warm greetings from us all,
Your Brother Franz Voth.' "
How wonderful that all sounded! How friendly the Soviet government wished to treat the refugees! But in the camp of the "emigration happy," how were things there? In Moscow 35 autos were constantly available to transport the "strayers" ever closer to their "beautiful homes." At some places refugees were being deceived by promises that they should pack quickly, for they would be going to Leningrad and from there to Germany. They would ride off happily, but their joy could come to a horrendous end. Meanwhile the refugees cried out to God every night, and the "True One" kept His word and heard their prayers.
On November 30 we were informed by men of the militia that we were to hand in applications for the issuance of passes for foreign travel. At this point, I need to mention something that I will never, ever forget. I went together with my brother-in-law and two other men chosen by the refugees in order to find out what we could from the "administrative department" of the Moscow "Gov. Executive Committee" concerning the time of departure. To avoid being noticed by the secret police, we separated into two groups of two each and took off for the previously mentioned officials. Looking for our companions around a street corner, we noticed that they had disappeared. We waited for a long time, went back, but not a trace of them was to be found. On arriving at our destination, we waited once again for a long while, but without success. They did not come. A few days later we learned they had been arrested by the political police. Our faithful Lord did hold His hand over us, and we were able to learn that the Lord did hear prayers, because prior to going off I had asked God for protection. Thanks be to the eternal, almighty, merciful and compassionate God forever.
Having filled out the forms that were required for obtaining passes for foreign travel and having paid the requisite fees, we were given the passes. Yet here, too, the Soviet government had taken care to fill the refugees with worries and sadness. Twelve families were arbitrarily denied their passes without any reason given, even though they had already been prepared for them. With deep sadness, they were forced to stay behind.
Filled with trepidation for fear of being arrested at the last minute, we arrived at the railroad station N. After waiting six hours, partly under the open sky, partly in the unheated waiting room of the rail station, we finally boarded the train. A great sigh of "Thanks be to God" came from our lips as the train finally started to move off. However, fear and horror might not be over for any of us, for we could never trust the Soviet government.
It was midnight when we arrived at the Baltic rail station. After a short wait our train once again started to move. Dead silence in all of the rail cars. The only thing noticeable was that lips were moving, and tears -- tears of joy, mixed with dread -- were running down everyone's cheeks. Anyone who has never experienced the feelings that came over us will find it hard to imagine them. It could be likened to a weight scale where joy and fear alternately outweigh each other. It took hours till things became a little livelier, yet everyone spoke very softly, for it was always possible that a secret police representative might be listening in... The consequences were all too well known to us.
Meanwhile the train kept rolling toward the border. Customs officials came by, rummaged through everything, stole money and anything else of value, looking especially for American dollars. At the border station of Sebesh we had to give up any money that was still available (small sums, perhaps five to seven rubles per family, were not being taken away), so that no "Russian treasures" would be taken abroad.
Sebesh became yet another but final point of terror for us, for here all the passports would be checked. Again there was a long wait, filled with dread over whether one or the other family might still be transported back. Nothing can describe our happiness when we were given back our passports, along with the promise that we would be allowed to cross the border undisturbed! Jubilation and great joy filled our hearts when the killers of all freedom left the train and all of us, with tears streaming down, were able to greet the Latvian customs officials. Hurriedly, we packed all the things the other customs men had tossed about wildly. After just a few more minutes, we were allowed to leave the Russian rail cars. I was the first among our entire transport allowed to board the train, and my very first action was to sink to my knees and to thank God who had proven so glorious to us. After everyone had finally finished changing trains, a resounding chorus of "Now Thank We All Our God" was intoned. The singing, though, lasted only perhaps through half of the second verse when it was replaced with general sobbing. Only a few continued singing through the third verse, then everyone sat down wrapped in their own quiet thoughts. Every one of them praised the One who had led us out of darkness.
The Red Cross provided us with coffee and white bread -- yes, white bread, which we hadn't seen in years. They also thought of the children. Nurses and doctors from the Red Cross were careful to get everything taken care of, and they turned their attention to the children. How different it was from Russia, where from all street corners one could always hear great declamation over the importance of our children's happiness, but here they were actually given assistance in word and in deed! Even in our wildest dreams we could not have imagined this situation -- everywhere there were friendly faces and sincere empathy and understanding for our misery.
We reached Germany after crossing Latvia. Everywhere we met with friendliness and empathy that simply cannot be described. Gifts of all kinds, clothing, money, and so on were frequently provided. Tears of gratitude flowed freely. People whom no one had seen crying for years were now seen sitting quietly and crying, all filled with the awareness that God, only God could have been the One to help us so greatly. We were experiencing the meaning of the saying, "God's mills grind slowly, but ever so splendidly fine." For such a long time we had been feeling fear and terror, and now we were to taste an even deeper solace. Our greatest joy was that now we would finally be able to praise God without any sort of hindrance.
We were received very warmly on arriving in Eydkuhnen. After the welcomes we all took a bath, and that occasion was used to disinfect our clothing. We arrived in Hammerstein on December 5. Retired Major Fuchs welcomed us in the name of the German government and people, and we were invited to enter a dining hall that was adorned with evergreens, flags of the German Reich, and a picture of Hindenburg. We all took in a breakfast meal and were then led to some barracks. Following a brief time of quarantine, we finally came to a town called Prenzlau and were housed in barracks formerly used by the Reich's Army.
There we were able to spend many joyous days. Especially -- and forever -- memorable for all of us was the welcoming ceremony and Christmas celebration. Those were true holidays, the likes of which we had not known for a long, long time.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.