A Childhood in Siberia of Refugees, Wolves and Kirghiz
Herzog, Johannes. "A Childhood in Siberia of Refugees, Wolves, and Kirghiz." Heritage Review 35, no. 4: December 2005, 31-41.
Translated by Alex Herzog
I was born in 1925 and spent the first eleven years of my childhood in the village [of Vikentyevka] that I wish to write about.
The village was in the middle of the steppe, and the area was "as flat as a Reibekuchen (potato pancake)," as they say in the Rhineland, my current home. Most of the small houses were built of mud. More precisely, straw was added to mud to keep it from tearing apart, people kneaded it by stomping in it with their feet, and then the mixture was put into forms to be dried in the sun. Summers actually lasted only about two months, but during that brief time, the sun burned mercilessly from the sky and made the mud tiles as hard as rock. Mud was also used for the mortar and for a kind of stucco, but in this case it was mixed with sand and lime. Houses were covered with reed that grew in abundance on the shores of lakes and ponds in the steppe. Naturally, all the homes were single-level structures.
The gable of a home invariably faced the village street, and a low wall and a small garden usually separated the home from the street. Every summer all the homes would be whitewashed so that they always looked fresh and neat. Even the low, walled fence, similarly made of the muddy mixture, would be "stucco-ed" and whitewashed.
Khutor settles near Nadezhdinsk. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prokudin-Gorskii Collection)
The interior of the homes nearly always consisted of four spaces: a front and a back room separated by the kitchen and a hallway. The two rooms were heated from the kitchen fire, and a furnace-like structure that reached to the ceiling extended out into those rooms. Anyone coming inside during the cold winter would first go to the furnace/oven to warm his hands before sitting down. Inside the kitchen, a stove was permanently attached to a hole in the furnace. There were no moveable metal stoves.
Fuel for heating and cooking consisted of straw and dried cow dung. The dung was kept in the backyard all winter long, and in the spring it would be spread out there and rolled flat with a six-sided stone roller pulled by horses. After it was dried at least partially, it was cut into slices, akin to peat, and these were spread out covered to dry completely.
Except for the church and the school, there were few if any buildings in our village that were made of stone. The church and school were built side by side in the center of the village, and in front of them was a spacious "plaza" on which we would play a game we called Schlagball (rounders) on Sundays. Our two village streets, very broad and of course unpaved, were connected by cross streets. Between the parallel streets were some large gardens, which as a rule were not fenced in.
The village was founded at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its residents had come exclusively from German colonies in the Black Sea area. My father came from Krasna, my mother from Landau, both in the Odessa region of Ukraine. They were not deportees—instead they had been attracted to move there by the Russian government in a move to get the virgin lands there settled. My paternal grandfather, a widower, moved to Siberia along with seven of his eight children, while the eldest, already married, remained behind. The first leg of the trip was made by train, all the way to Kustanay, the end of the line. The rest of the way, well over a hundred kilometers [sixty miles], across rocks and brush, had to be managed by horse-drawn wagon. Even in my time, there were no real roads, merely beaten tracks which, due to the sandy soil, were always deeply rutted.
Those new settlement areas were part of Siberia until the 1920s. Its resettled residents consisted of Russians, Ukrainians and Germans, while the native Kazakhs, whom we called Kirghiz, mostly lived as nomads who roamed through the steppe along with their herds of cattle. In our village it was said that the Kazakhs were serious horse thieves. In fact, I personally know of a case when, during the time of collective farms, some Kazakhs tried to rustle horses at night and were pursued, caught, and beaten half to death before being handed over to the police.
The residents of our village were predominantly descendants of original immigrants from Alsace and the Palatinate and therefore spoke Alsatian or Palatinate dialects and were Catholic. Only one man in our village spoke what seemed a very strange German to our ears. My mother, who did not speak Russian, said, "He is a Beschenzer," which, as my father explained, was a corruption of the Russian word byezhenets, meaning "refugee." During World War I, the Russian government had indeed deported Germans from Volhynia to Siberia, but all except one had returned to their original home villages after the war. Because these people were all Protestant, several more who had stayed behind in the region decided to live in the neighboring Protestant village of Maryinskoye. From this observation the reader can see that the Volga-Germans, who in 1941 would be deported en masse by the Soviet government, were by no means the first to meet such a fate. In other words, Russia already had a tradition of mass deportations.
Among my earliest memories, I can see myself and my brother, who was two years younger than I, in knee-length pants held up by suspenders, wearing red "Kirghiz" hats, stomping hand in hand along the sandy village street that was lined with Vogelknöterich (an ornate, flowery brush plant up to about twenty inches in height), and our mother, short, heavy-set, and round as a ball, yet very agile, watching our progress. We were walking to school, where we had unlimited access, despite the fact that neither of us was old enough to attend. Our father, you see, was the teacher at the school—at the time merely a single-room institution that indeed had only one large classroom. As many as eighty pupils were crowded into the rows of school benches, the little ones in the front and the bigger ones in the back. Fourth grade was the final grade of compulsory school attendance in those days.
Despite the large number of little people in the room, it was very calm—each group was busy with its own assignment. We sat down on an empty bench and each received a piece of paper and a pencil to draw and scribble on. Three windows on each side of the room made it airy and bright. The walls were covered with pictures and illustrations of animals and plants, including also some scenes depicting people performing seasonal farm work.
A large map was hung behind the teacher’s desk, and right next to the door was a very large, high furnace that was fueled from the hallway. A cupboard containing chalk, blank writing booklets, books and a wooden pointer completed the furnishings. Jackets and coats were hung on hooks in the hallway.
Pupils were clothed very simply: long or knee-length pants, single-color shirts for the boys, knee-length dresses and aprons for the girls. During winter, the children, just like the adults, would wear, if they could get them, sheep’s pelts or fur jackets and the requisite caps, also wool-lined jackets and hats with ear flaps, sheep’s leather mittens lined with fur, and felt boots or—in imitation of the Kazakhs—leather boots with wide leggings that were usually covered with felt. During the spring thaw, boots would be covered with rubber galoshes. Women suffered from the cold much more than the men, for one thing because wearing long pants was taboo for them. In place of a coat, they would wear a large shawl draped about their shoulders. Although made of wool, the Großhalstuch (large head scarf) still did not provide sufficient protection against the cold.
During summer, children and younger people invariably went barefoot, and the calluses on the bottoms of their feet would become so thick that even the blazing hot sand would not bother them. Adults wore leather shoes, often made at home or at best by the village shoemaker. On the one hand, they simply did not trust the durability of city-made products and, on the other hand, there was no money for them, except perhaps for city shoes some women wore to church on Sundays.
The climate was always extreme. Summers were short, dry and hot, and winters were long, very snowy and very cold. Since there was not a single thermometer in the entire village, temperatures were simply not measured. Sometimes, though, spit would actually freeze in mid-air. During winter, the men had icicles on their eye brows and moustaches, and it was very important to make sure that one’s ears and tip of the nose were rubbed with snow lest they froze.
Children were taken to school on a horse-drawn sleigh, but otherwise no one left the house unless absolutely necessary, perhaps to water the animals or to go to the well to haul drinking water (which we called Karamsel—a word that stems from the Russian word koromyslov). At times, snow storms raged with such intensity that you could not see your hands in front of your eyes. It was not unusual at all for people not to leave the house for days at a time. And because the barns were across the yard from the house and the way there might be blocked by high snow drifts, the animals would get several days’ of feed supplied at each feeding.
Sometimes we felt like bears during hibernation. There was only the howl of the storm, and there was very little daylight—mostly because either the shutters were closed tight or the snow banks reached all the way to the eaves. As soon as things calmed down outside, we knew that the storm was over, but now you literally had to shovel your way to the outside. Once you left the house, you could immediately sense the clear, bright winter day with its "three suns"—our people’s term for the reflections from the atmosphere that invariably occurred when it was extraordinarily cold and dry.
Life on the street reawakened, sleds glided across the snow, and horses emitted high clouds of steam from their nostrils while trudging along with long strides. There was no fear of breaking through the top of the snow—it was simply frozen too hard. At last the animals could once again be taken to the village well, the well handle went up and down again, and bucket by bucket the water flowed into the long trough. The entire area was covered with a thick layer of ice, and people and animals had to tread carefully to avoid breaking a leg.
During the coldest of winter nights, villages would occasionally be visited by wolves that gathered in packs during mating time and naturally sensed the availability of something to eat inside the villages. But since all domesticated animals, including dogs and cats, spent the night inside, the wolves more often became victims than animals of prey. Usually a barn had an opening to the back through which the animal dung would be thrown outside—it was the so-called Mistloch (manure hole). During the winter, however, that hole would be stuffed with a full sack and rammed tightly shut from the inside. On hearing wolves howling near the village, the farmer would place pieces of meat on the outside manure pile, open the "manure hole" and wait inside the barn. Of course, sometimes they waited in vain, but oftentimes the wolves, driven by hunger and guided by their extraordinary sense of smell, would approach the Mistloch closely enough to become an easy target for shooting.
In any case, wolves became enough of a problem for the government that it issued monetary rewards for their kill. In reality, to most people the wolves became a danger only during the winter and when they came around in packs.
My father, who not only taught the children of the village, but also did anything and everything that required the ability to write and to keep books, including those in neighboring villages, two or three times a week, would leave the house in the afternoon and not return until late in the evening. During the winter, my mother was always quite troubled about this, even though she knew that he carried a loaded shot gun in his sleigh. There were stories of men who had been followed by wolves and torn from their sleds, so their guns would certainly not be of any use. Still, my father always returned home safe and sound.
Domesticated animals had more to worry about from the wolves. For example, one rainy fall evening, one of our roaming pigs was missing, only to be discovered the next morning, back in its pen, but covered with blood and with one ear torn off. That ear was found a few days later in someone else’s yard, thus making it apparent that the pig had tangled with a wolf.
On another occasion I was awakened one summer morning by a horrible squeal coming from a pig. I went outside and saw my father, hunting rifle in hand, walking toward the garden. Suddenly he let out a loud scream and waved his gun in the air. Right away the squealing stopped as our neighbor’s sow, a piglet in tow, was running in a "pig’s gallop" across our own yard. Father laughed and recounted that he, too, had been awakened by the horrible squealing and, as he reached the garden, he discovered a wolf trying to drag the pig off by its ear while the little pig was simply following behind. At first the wolf had not reacted to the sight of a person, but as soon as he saw the rifle, he took off. Later that same day a few men decided to look for the wolf, and they soon discovered it on an abandoned piece of land and shot it. It turned out to be an old, sickly animal no longer capable of hunting properly.
The sheep fared the worst from the wolves. Except for some of the stronger rams, the wolves found easy prey among the sheep. On the other hand, horses and cows, which were usually driven to pasture—horses by night, cows by day—usually found a way to defend themselves. They would form a circle, taking foals and calves into their midst, and show any approaching wolves their hooves or even their horns. The circle would break up only when a wolf somehow succeeded in getting inside.
At dawn, the cows—even after collectivization one could keep a private cow—whether part of the collective or not, were driven to pasture in the steppe by a cowherd, who used the crack of a whip or a prodding stick that had metal circles (like a key ring) attached to its end. The cows stayed in the pasture till evening. Before being gathered to pasture, the cows were milked, and whenever my mother had overslept that ritual, I was the one who would drive our own cow, sometimes through the entire village, so as to catch up with the rest of the cows. When the cows returned in the evening, the village street was filled with dust and with the sounds of loud mooing. Each knew its own place, and usually the woman of the house was already waiting for it, gave it water and then milked it again.
Children would stand at their front gate, ready to run because they feared the community bull, which also returned home with the cow herd, at times standing still, raising dust and growling loudly. The bull respected only the cowherd’s stick, and anyone coming too close might be lifted up on its horns. The bull had injured a few people and had even attacked the cowherd, yet it was always forced to accompany the herd. After all, the cows had to be serviced. The farmers gave the cowherd strict instructions to keep an eye on any cow that seemed "ready," so that they could predict the approximate time for calving. Modern animal husbandry and especially artificial insemination were completely unknown, and a cow that was ignored by the bull could bring considerable loss because in the subsequent spring there would be neither a new calf nor milk. As it was, in the winter, cows remained "dry" for several months, that is, they produced no milk.
Just to make sure they would have a certain amount of milk on hand during the dry spell, as soon as the first frosts came during the fall, farmers would set buckets of milk out in the open to let them freeze. The frozen clumps would then be stored in an unheated space, and pieces could be broken off as needed. The freezing method was also a favorite procedure for setting out provisions that might be needed for travel during winter. Stores of what we called Maultaschen and the Russians called pelmeni, that is, pockets of dough filled with ground meat, would be cooked ahead, frozen outside, and then stuffed into clean linen sacks and stowed into a sleigh for the trip. Then in a travelers’ inn, which provided only overnight stay and tea, the pelmeni, after they were boiled in water, would provide a hot meal. Travelers also packed bacon fat and bread.
Our only means of transportation consisted of horse-drawn wagon or sleigh. Whenever my mother, who originated from the neighboring village of Nelyubinsk, began to miss her parents’ home—which seemed to happen a lot during winter—she would ask for a horse to be harnessed and hitched to a sleigh, and then she would put me, heavily wrapped, on the sleigh, grab the reins, and from there she practically would have nothing else to do. The old mare, one of our three horses prior to collectivization, blindly knew the way to my grandparents’ home. As soon as she stopped moving, we knew we had arrived at our destination.
Except for the extreme cold, travel conditions were actually more pleasant in winter than in summer. On the fairly smooth snow, a sleigh did not shake and rattle nearly as much as a wagon or carriage on the deeply rutted roads, and there was no dust. But as far as I was concerned, any journey whatever had its positives, especially if it lasted reasonably long. One day my father took me along on a trip to the county seat some seventy kilometers away [over forty miles]. It was the first time I was able to see the forest with its tall, dark conifers, which seemed quite mysterious to me. Along the way we came upon some woodsmen and some men burning coal, and my father stopped to converse with them. There was a distinct odor of resin and smoke, there were dogs barking, and I had the opportunity to climb around on stacks of logs.
Toward evening, father unhitched the horses, tied them to the wagon, cleaned out a box and put hay in it for the horses to eat. We used pelts and blankets to prepare a place under the wagon to sleep on overnight. The night was clear, stars appeared in the sky, the horses snorted, and the hay crunched audibly between their teeth. I think you will never sleep as well as you can under the open sky.
The following day we reached the town we had been heading for. It was merely a bunch of arbitrarily scattered wooden houses. We stopped at the home of a Russian family, were welcomed and treated to warm hospitality. While my father was making his errands in the town, our host’s children and I went swimming in the town pond. It was in the center of town, and not only the children swam in it, but also geese, ducks, horses, cows, and pigs. Nobody had any concerns about that. Neither did I, and it was that pond I missed the most after returning home.
We had neither a pond nor a waterhole, but only a few kilometers from our village there were several lakes that had silty banks with lots of reeds growing on them. Many species of animals, especially water fowl, made their homes there. Among them, ducks, geese, snipes, and plovers were brooding in such large numbers that it was very easy for a child to find some eggs. Taking them from a nest was not considered reprehensible, whether the eggs would be for eating or not. Sparrows in particular were treated as nothing but pests and were hunted by young and old alike. In contrast, swallows were fairly well protected and, to keep us children from doing the swallows harm, we were told that cows would give red milk if a swallow’s nest were destroyed or a swallow were killed.
On the other hand, we had free reign to hunt what we called Springmäuse (spring mice), which had their holes not only in the steppe and in grain fields, but even in the village itself. They would emerge in the evening and would leap away in long, kangaroo-like steps when pursued.
During the spring, just before the larvae were about to hatch, we always went to the moist areas near the lakes in order to seek out the ubiquitous grasshopper eggs—they looked just like grains of wheat—which would then be sprayed from a keg filled with a liquid to prevent their further development. I cannot remember whether this was of any help, but I do remember how much damage migrating swarms of grasshoppers could inflict as soon as they were able to fly.
Just as the summer grain seemed to reach its green and juicy condition, there would be the terrible news of "grasshopper swarm approaching!" Even dozens of miles away, they spread fear and terror before them. All the men in the village would be notified, all other work would be abandoned, and any and all wagons would be loaded with straw and taken into the steppe where the grasshoppers were expected. Even those stone rollers I mentioned earlier were taken to the fields. The wait began, sometimes for naught because the grasshopper swarms, made up of thousands and thousands of small animals just an inch or two or more in length, at times would suddenly change their course or would be forced elsewhere by the prevailing wind.
But when they did arrive where they had not been expected, there was a sudden, hurried rushing activity. The grasshoppers approached in a dark cloud, making a big buzzing noise, and the men knew that they might attack a grain field. As soon as the swarm settled in a field, the men would take the straw to that field, spread it over the feasting insects, and then set fires at all ends of the field. A sea of flames would erupt against the sky, and grasshoppers died by the thousands. Where the straw could not reach, stone rollers were driven across the grasshoppers to squash them. And still, all that effort sometimes seemed like a mere drop in the bucket—a lot of grasshoppers remained untouched, and after they lifted off to new flight after a few hours, the field was completely bare. Many other fields would be stricken before the truly Egyptian plague had passed.
Sometimes it happened that a swarm of grasshoppers would even attack an entire village. That meant shutting all the windows or going out to trample the pests. Whatever was unable to withstand their gnawing—leaves, vegetables, lettuce—became a quick victim. Chickens tried to peck at the grasshoppers, but they, too, would soon turn away in frustration. Once the grasshoppers had departed, their oozy remains were swept into the back yard, and the chickens would have at them again the next day.
A fear similar to that of grasshopper swarms was that of wild fires in the steppe. They were equally difficult to combat. I can still well remember such a fire because it brought disastrous consequences to the family of my aunt Annemarie. The incident took place during the time of the collectives. The grain harvest had begun; horse-drawn wagons were standing in a long line at the thrashing site to be loaded with wheat that had to be taken many kilometers away, to a collection site designated by the state. They did not return until the subsequent day, and with them came the terrible news, "The steppe is burning!" Every man had to join the firefighting effort, and so even the harvest work had to be interrupted. On a high tree in front of our house I was able to see high columns of smoke. Only after a few days was the fire put out. Allegedly it had been started by a smoldering cigarette that, as witnesses reported, had been tossed aside by Josef Gerhard, the husband of my Aunt Annemarie. He was picked up by the gendarmerie, taken to court and, despite professing his innocence to the end, was sentenced to ten years of forced labor. For my aunt and her five children this sentence meant nothing but abject poverty. Only a year later, when an appeals court actually exonerated her husband due to lack of evidence, she was dead.
By 1929, the collectivization of agricultural enterprises had begun in earnest. It went hand in hand with de-kulakization, that is, the expropriation of property and deportation of all farmers who were considered to be rich. In our area, this included anyone who had a few head of cattle and a few more horses than the average farmer, whose homes were covered with tin instead of reed thatch, and some of whom employed a farm laborer and day laborers during harvest time.
My uncle Viktor was one of the first designated to be expropriated, but before the state was able to act, he had sold his animals and farm equipment—at laughably low prices, of course—had stored the furniture with relatives for later sale, had taken his family of seven and had left for his former home, Ukraine. His brother-in-law, Uncle Emanuel, in similar peril, left along with Viktor, and so did my aunt Marianne and several children. Her husband had already been branded a kulak and had been incarcerated by the Bolsheviks, and the family had already suffered expropriation, only forced expulsion from the village awaiting them.
They had barely left when, one night, her husband surprised us by knocking on our door. He looked dirty and full of lice, but he had escaped prison and had fought his way all the way to his village, hoping to reunite with his family. With the help of my parents and other relatives he was provided with papers and money, and he followed his two brothers-in-law, who had settled down in a tiny Ukrainian town in the steppe, where nobody knew them. At the time there was no such thing as "picture ID," and cooperation between various "organs"—as we called the different organizations that had been given police power by the state—had not yet become effective, it was still possible simply to "disappear." But by 1937, fate caught up with all three. Uncle Viktor—someone had likely informed on him—was picked up by dark of night. The other two, while on a Sunday excursion to visit relatives, had the great misfortune of having their horse die on them, possibly from colic, and for this they were accused of sabotage, and each was sentenced to ten years in prison. Nothing was ever heard of any one of them again.
My maternal grandfather, a farmer and community scribe in Nelyubinsk, seven kilometers from our village, had to employ a farm hand, for one thing, because he had little time to spare for his farm and, for another, because his own son was too young to manage the operation. My grandmother, a very resolute woman who walked only with the help of a cane as long as I can remember, and who kept tight control over everything, including her husband, supervised the farm hand, who managed the place as if it were his own. He was never exploited, and in some ways he was more of an administrator than a mere farm hand. But none of that mattered—anyone who employed someone else was considered an "exploiter," and that made the threat of expropriation very real in this case as well.
Grandmother was the first to sense the real danger, she insisted on leaving and finally prevailed. During a very hot summer day, the draft animals and the cattle were auctioned off. How the news of this kind of auction made the rounds, I fail to understand to this day, but gathered in our yard were dozens of lookers and buyers, all from the surrounding area. A really exotic impression was made by the Kazakhs in their padded or fur-lined coats, their fur hats and their wide high boots from which felt lining could be seen protruding. Their wives and girls were dressed in billowy, flowery pants and red, blue and green byeshmets, a kind of half caftan with long rows of silvery buttons and dangling gold and silver coins. Long, black braids draped over their chests or their backs, all the way down to their knees. One young female Kazakh was sitting on the wall-like fence and was scratching her head with all ten fingers, all the while crying out with pain. She had head lice which, in this heat, must have been especially active and were torturing her to the point of bleeding. Wagons were lined up on the broad, dusty village street, and next to them lay their camels, casually chewing their cud, with heads held high in the air.
In the afternoon, after everything had been sold, our people began to prepare for leaving. Two horses that had yet to be taken to Kustanay for sale there were hitched to a fully loaded wagon. Then came the tear-filled good-byes from the neighbors and from second-eldest daughter Mathilde, who, along with her husband, was to move into the family home. I—about four or five years old, the eldest grandchild and spoiled by grandparents, aunts, and my eighteen- or nineteen-year-old uncle—was determined at all costs to go on this trip into the wide world. I was allowed to go ride up on the wagon, and I was even promised that we would go around the Russian village of Pavlovka, where (I don’t remember why) my parents were living. But I soon noticed that no one intended to keep that promise, because after only about an hour’s travel we reached the first few houses of Pavlovka.
Kazakh camel driver. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prokudin-Gorskii Collection)
Russian villages were different from German villages, both in the way they were laid out and in the way the homes were built. There was the usual broad village street with its large plaza and the church and school, but the houses were scattered in a haphazard manner and were generally accessible only via small footpaths. Most of them were closed off to the outside via large wooden gates that made it impossible to peer inside the yards. In front of each house there was a wooden bench on which the babushki, the grandmothers, usually warmed their old bones and kept an eye on the little children. Several village dogs kept announcing our arrival until we turned into my parents’ place. That was the end of my grand journey! Any resistance and crying on my part came to no use at all—I had to stay back.
It was especially difficult for me to say good-bye to my youngest aunt, the fourteen-year-old Andelina, who was particularly close to me and who, since she helped out a lot at our house, seemed more like an older sister to me, although she always insisted that I call her "Bas Andeline" (Bas is a dialect word for "aunt"), she was otherwise a good buddy to me. I was actually to see her again seven years later, when my father saw himself forced to leave Siberia, too, to avoid getting thrown into jail for political reasons. The closeness between us had not changed, and to this day my aunt insists that it was she who raised me.
As far as I can remember, we spent only one summer in Pavlovka, but I remember the place very well. I do not remember what kind of work my father did there—I only know that we had many get-togethers with the family of a physician’s assistant (except there was no physician), who was the sole medical person far and wide. He and his family lived in a large wooden house that was surrounded by a neglected, overgrown garden and had neither a fence nor a wall facing the street. A swing (kacheli in Russian) that was suspended between two trees got much attention from us kids.
Firmly implanted in my memory as well is how the Communists removed the cross from the top of the dome of the local Orthodox Church. Observed by a throng of onlookers, a man climbed the dome and hammered on the cross to loosen its base. Then he tied a long and thick rope around the cross, and down below several men kept shouting "raz, dva, vzyali" (akin to "heave-ho") and pulling on it until it toppled to the ground with a loud noise and a great thud. The throng of people remained generally silent, but many women were crying, and in the end the dome looked as if it had been orphaned.
Toward the end of summer, we moved back to Vikentyevka, this time into the home that had been left empty by Uncle Emmanuel. Although it only had a front and a back room, a kitchen and a hallway, all the rooms were larger, and the obligatory Vorhäusel, a kind of enclosed front entry hall, seemed light and friendly and large enough for a small table and few chairs, and sitting there in warmer weather was very enjoyable. Across from the house there was another building that contained the summer kitchen, a feed storage room, and a horse barn that had stood empty since the beginning of collectivization, since no one was allowed to keep horses privately. In the backyard there was a barn, likewise empty. Attached to the home was a stable for cows in which, since collectivization, at most two cows and a calf could be kept and fed privately.
Soon, during the first winter after our return, there was an initial attempt at breaking in through the cow barn. The number of cattle rustlers had grown since the collectives had been established, and every theft was generally blamed on the Kazakhs. Upon intensive consultation with the neighbors, my father made a hole through the wall between our back room and the cow barn and put a long pole through it that reached all the way to the barn door and its suspended locks. With the addition of a bell at the end in the back room, a greater measure of security had been obtained; but thefts of cows, calves and sheep still occurred.
Like so many in the village, my father was an enthusiastic hunter. In the winter he would shoot wolves and rabbits, and in the summer it would be wild ducks and snipes. The latter, after being plucked and gutted, would be kept in a bowl of buttermilk to remove the strong taste of wild game. During the fall it would be mostly Trappen, birds related to cranes that reached as much as three feet in height and which at that time of year had found their way from the Siberian steppes into friendlier environs. Their places of gathering prior to migration were well known to the hunters, who needed only a bit of patience and good camouflage. Hunting was not conducted in a very professional manner or in accordance with good hunting principles, but it was usually very successful, thanks to the generous availability of game.
Father would occasionally take up shooting practice. With charcoal he would draw the outlines of a duck on the wall of the old barn and then shoot from various distances, and count his successful shots. I was allowed to watch, and I believe he enjoyed showing off his skills to his offspring.
One cold winter day, my father, already dressed warmly, was sitting on a chair in the front room waiting for a hunting companion. With a book in hand, I had sat down next to him. Behind the stove was the crib with one of my younger siblings in it and my grandfather, who was completely deaf, sitting right next to it and using his foot to rock the crib and at the same time letting the beads of the rosary glide through his fingers. My father was holding the shotgun between his legs, with its barrels pointing to the ceiling, and I happened to ask him to explain to me how to shoot that gun. He put it on his knee and explained how to cock and pull the trigger, but he had apparently forgotten that there was a cartridge in one of the barrels. A shot went off, and even our deaf grandfather reacted with a start; the infant in the crib began to wail, and dust was dribbling down from the ceiling. Father laughed, with some embarrassment, but his hunting partner soon took off with him. He was probably very happy to leave, because during the initial excitement he would certainly have had a lot to hear from my mother, who was very impulsive and could curse with the best of them. The paper hull of the cartridge would decorate the ceiling for some time, at least until it was removed during the Easter cleaning.
Life became very difficult during the early 1930s. The year 1932 presented the Soviet Union with a severely failed harvest that had similarly severe effects in our area, where in May there still were patches of snow lying around, and the first frosty nights came as early as September. Potatoes, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, even tomatoes, pumpkins and melons seemed to be in good supply, but no fruit ripened on any bushes or trees. Only certain kinds of berries resisted the hard winter. To make up for some of the damage, folks would leave a bit of a poisonous nightshade plant growing during weeding of the potato plants because it would grow ripe berries (we called them Schattebeerle—shade berries) that were sweet and tasty and could be eaten raw or cooked, or used as stuffing in baked goods such as knöpfle or in kuchen.
During the same year, not much grew, except grains—wheat, rye, barley and millet—but of the little bit that was actually harvested, "the Plan" (target quota) had to be "satisfied" first, that is, a certain amount had to be delivered at heavily reduced prices set by the State. Bad harvest or not, the Plan took absolute precedence, and the shabby leftovers would then be distributed among the farmers according to a complicated process that mainly counted "days worked." In winter, the women would bake bread with pumpkin mush and millet. As a State employee, my father received three pud (about a hundredweight) of wheat flour per month. In school I often traded my white wheat bread for the slightly sweet, mushy bread of the farmer children.
During the summer of 1933, the entire Soviet Union was starving. Father, for whom things were getting “hotter” by the day, journeyed to the Ukraine during summer vacation, where he wanted to visit friends, but also to "feel out the lay of the land." In order to help our meager daily menu, he had the man who took him to the train station in Kustanay bring back a bag of barley, which was a real luxury the entire village was envious of. This kind of "luxury" was available in State-run stores, but only in exchange for jewelry, precious metals or foreign currency. He must have squirreled away some meager savings from better days, or perhaps a relative from America had sent us a few dollars—something, by the way, that, if found out, might suffice to get someone sent to prison for ten years. In any case, at least we now had our nightly milk soup with grains of barley.
The general availability of milk helped all of the other villagers to weather that summer of famine. It was especially the farmers who were starving, simply because the government seemed to be of the opinion that before "satisfying the Plan" they must have secretly stashed away aplenty, and so for that reason, they did not deserve any support. In the cities, people were given food ration cards—in other words, the "worker class" was given preferential treatment.
On returning from his long trip, during which his suitcase had been stolen, my father felt determined that he could not stay here much longer. But in those days and times, moving was not as easy a matter as might appear. Freedom of movement within Bolshevik Russia was pretty much a "foreign concept," especially for villagers. Farmers in particular were bound to the collective like slaves. For government employees it was somewhat easier to get away, but if particular officials declared specific persons as indispensable and refused to grant them the appropriate work permits, they usually had no choice but to move without those papers and to look for a different occupation. The scarcity of teachers was rather severe in our area, and of the few there were, one or the other would eventually land in jail as a "traitor of the people." Naturally, my father’s status was considered indispensable, and he was consequently denied the appropriate papers.
However, using one’s connections could always lead to get something done. I believe my parents attempted to influence a particular Party member from the rayon center (county administration) who would come to our town regularly— I don’t remember in what capacity—and who invariably stayed with us. He was a German by the name of Schmidt, and his visits invariably stirred up a remarkable state of anxiety in our household. Apparently he had a great deal of power, and relying on him was therefore not without danger.
When Schmidt was around, the evenings in our front room were very lively. Many people were there, and Schmidt usually drank more schnaps than might have been good for him, and he would then pressure my father to join the Party. Father would try evasion and excuses, but since he was well aware that he had to deal with Schmidt with some caution, he always promised to think about it. In contrast, my mother would remark dryly that, as long as the Party consisted of such boozers, her husband would likely not join it. This, in turn, would cause my father to complain to her the following day that her rash statements would eventually get him jailed. She, in turn, assumed that, after drinking so much, Schmidt would forget the next day what might have been said the night before. Whether that was actually so, or whether she might just have enjoyed a certain measure of leeway from Schmidt, he would always be given good hospitality, and there were never any consequences.
This state of affairs continued for about three more years, and when we finally "traveled," Father still had no papers. Later on, in the Ukraine, he would work as an accountant, and only during the occupation by German troops did he finally return to teaching.
Except for Tovarishch (comrade) Schmidt, we rarely had "official State visitors," but much more often we had people from the village come over, all with their various requests that were usually accompanied with written materials or other documents they needed to have translated into Russian. The church had been shut down, and our Pater—which was what we called our pastor—had fled a while back, so coming to our front room even became a substitute for Sunday Mass, at least for the men. That does not necessarily mean that they were engaged in prayer or singing. On the contrary, they talked mainly about politics, about agriculture and about everything under the sun, and I would naturally listen carefully, and it would be very difficult to pry me away from that front room. The tendency toward denouncing people [one that was otherwise very common in the Soviet Union] must not have been very strong in our village, because the adults would otherwise have talked very carefully, at least with children around. It is probable that in our village at that time there may not have been even one single Communist!
At times we had overnight guests. Since we did not have enough beds, we would simply prepare makeshift bedding on the floor of the front room. If there were Kazakhs staying with us overnight, my mother would send them to sleep in the kitchen. She had good reasons for it. They preferred to sit on the floor, which they covered with blankets or pelts and, they had hardly sat down when they would break out a samovar in the middle of the kitchen and drink their tea. Gradually, they would shed layers of their fur-lined or cotton-stuffed clothing and talk and talk loudly amongst themselves. The drinking of tea would last late into the night, and that samovar had to be refilled. Sleeping would therefore have been nearly impossible had this taken place in the front room. My mother also feared—not without justification—that the Kazakhs had lice. In general, they were friendly and cheerful—we just couldn’t understand them. One of them taught me how to count in Kazakh: "Bru, yegou, tartu (one, two, three)," which I have remembered to this day.
One day another Kazakh man left a box at our house, and once I peered inside to satisfy my curiosity, I discovered that it was filled with books; but they were all in a foreign, indecipherable language, and the pages were numbered from back to front. The mere idea that Kazakhs might read books made me rather curious, since I had always heard that they were "wild" and could neither read nor write, whereas all of our people were capable of both, even if only haltingly!
Looking back now, I detect among Germans in Russia a certain measure of arrogance toward non-Germans. For example, because the Russians wore their shirts outside their pants and fastened them with a kind of a belt, they were dubbed "the belted ones." A German always stuffed his shirt inside his pants and held them up via a leather belt with a buckle. German harnesses were always made of solid, thick leather, whereas Russian farmers (due to poverty, possibly) often used ropes; a German carriage was never allowed to squeak, because the axles were always well greased; the Germans’ horses were always larger and stronger than those of the Russians; common traits of diligence, orderliness, punctuality and thrift were synonymous with being German, even among the Russians—"thrifty like a German!" All these were characteristics that gave the Germans confidence and their occasional conceit, but among the Russians they engendered strong respect, and even envy.
Marriages between Germans and Russian occurred "as close to never" as can be imagined. Young people of the two nationalities simply did not get to know each other, except perhaps for the men, who might meet for business transactions. Mutual prejudices were carefully maintained. Both the Germans and the Russians felt superior toward the Kazakhs, and they let it be known. Today, the price for that attitude is being paid in full, especially by the Russians, who are fleeing Central Asian republics by the thousands simply because they face pure hatred everywhere.
Because our family, even if only for a short time, lived in a decidedly Russian village, and since my father did not hold any prejudices toward the Russians, I also had a different opinion about them. I have particularly good memories of our friend, the physician’s assistant, who gave me inoculations against smallpox, and even though that "operation" gave me a few days of fever, he very likely saved my life. During the winter of 1930–31, a smallpox epidemic raced through our village, but since smallpox inoculations were not yet mandatory, my mother, possibly due to my complicated reaction earlier, had not had my siblings inoculated, and people in our village did not generally do anything about prevention anyway. For a long time, smallpox had not seemed to be a serious peril, and so things came to pass as they were bound to. Both of my siblings came down with smallpox. My brother actually died of it, and my sister’s life was barely saved. The disease struck nearly every family via the death of a child. I, on the other hand, was there at other people’s sickbeds, not having been infected, a living example of the benefits of inoculation.
Medical and veterinarian care was a very serious matter in itself. There were neither doctors nor hospitals, the physician’s assistant in Pavlov was overextended in every way possible, the mending of fractures had to be left to nature or to the care of elderly women, who would "attack" the problem with herbs, salves and Brauchen (rituals with incantations), in other words, they “talked to” the wounds or illnesses. At times their rituals might even work amazingly well. For example, if a person had warts—not a rare occurrence for kids always walking barefoot—they were removed in a rather simple manner: One of the elder ladies would tie as many knots into a piece of yarn as there were warts, and then the yarn was hidden under a manure pile or under the pig’s feeding trough. Custom had it that the warts would be gone by the time the material had rotted. Indeed, they had usually disappeared after a few weeks. Had faith helped out?
For severe burns or in the case of other accidents, means might at times be employed that could bring more harm than good. Still, it can be said that "care" by the so-called "experts" that would later be loosed upon the public after they had just finished training in mini-courses within the Soviet system probably did no more, perhaps even less, good than the actions taken by the elderly women. At least that was my experience concerning the healing of domestic animals taken ill.
On one occasion, one of our pigs just started to lie around apathetically in a corner of the yard and refused to take any feed. A man with the resounding title of "veterinarian" was called to the scene. He looked at the animal and ran his fingers across it, and his finding was a swollen throat. He gave the pig a shot, but when there was no improvement the next day, he examined the pig once more and discovered that a potato had been lodged in its throat. So the poor animal was pulled from its wooden structure—during the summer the hogs were kept in wooden sties that were supported on poles—it was stretched out on the ground, and the rest of us had to hold it down while the "veterinarian" put a board under the pig’s throat and beat it with a hammer with all his might, just hoping to dislodge the potato. The poor pig squealed terribly and thrashed about and ran as fast as it could, as soon it was released, back to its pen. The procedure, in fact, had no effect whatsoever. The pig remained sick and soon had to be slaughtered.
In our household the principle was "each man to himself, or each woman to herself." Mother milked the cow, fed the pigs and chickens, whitewashed the house inside and out, sewed dresses and pants for the entire family, spun, knitted, mended, and took care of the planting and harvesting of the garden—all in addition to her normal household chores, like cooking, baking bread, laundering, milking, and whatever came up on her agenda. Father, for his part, would resole shoes, tan furs, make cooking and baking forms from tin, and did the slaughtering chores—not the kinds of things a teacher would normally do.
Slaughtering was done in the winter, generally shortly before Christmas. The pig was supposed to have been killed before daybreak, put into a brine inside a wooden trough, and its skin cleaned. Then it would be suspended, with its head down on a ladder, and gutted, upon which it would be left hanging outside in the yard for several hours, to cool down. Meanwhile, the lungs, the liver, the heart and pieces of meat intended for making sausage would be cooked and put through a grinder. Depending on the kind of sausage, various spices might be added liberally. There were thick slabs of bacon fat, and lots of garlic—all of which could thoroughly spoil my appetite. My own favorite was boiled pork—lean and tender. The cleaned-out pig’s stomach would be filled with ground meat, and then it would be cooked before it was put between two boards that were kept together with heavy stones. Our people called this Schwartemagen, since the Schwarte (rind) and Magen (stomach) had been processed right along with the rest.
Father also took charge of making the various sausages. He would use a cylinder-like Wurstspritze (sausage stuffer), a form about twenty-five inches in length, fill it as much as possible with sausage material, and stuff the material down into the form with a kind of potato masher that fit snugly into the form, like a piston. Then he would carefully take one of the intestine skins he had just cleaned carefully and washed several times in warm water, pull it over the sausage form, and push the meat into the skin. Once the sausage was long enough, it was cut off and tied up. Several sausages were then tied together into a bunch and hung over a piece of wood. All sausages were smoked and then hung in a cool chamber, with obvious care that mice could not reach them. Usually we prepared liverwurst, blood sausage, and bratwurst, but durable kinds of sausage, such as salami, which I would discover in Germany later on, were not familiar to us.
The fresh meat would first be placed in salty brine, left there for several weeks, and then smoked and hung up just like the sausages. Considered a real delicacy were two-inch thick slabs of bacon fat, which was usually cut into slices and salted on all sides (called Salzspeck—salty bacon), placed in wooden boxes and saved for later—it was not consumed until months later, and by then the salt had made it yellow and tender.
If one is to believe the stories of the elders, at least until the 1920s, people celebrated often and extensively. Besides the Christian feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, weddings and name days in particular were also observed rather festively. I do not recall any divine services, simply because our church was closed by 1930, right after the cross had been removed, and it was later used as village club house. Still, some Christian customs did continue for several years. For example, between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday, some of the older boys would still go around swinging wooden Rätschen (rattles) over their head and making a noise like the rat-a-tat of a machine gun. Of course, we continued to color Easter eggs, and around Pentecost the village boys committed all sorts of impish tricks. For example, they would put straw all over the path between the homes of courting couples, they might place on a farmer’s roof a harrow he might have forgotten to drag home from the fields, or they would empty the housewives’ cream container that had been left in their free-standing cellars. These kinds of cellars were carved out of the ground and certainly had a door, but they were never locked, just as house doors were never locked, even if the owner might be away on a trip.
I remember presents at Christmas only from my mother’s stories. Saint Nicholas did not play an important role in our set of customs, but the Christ child certainly did, particularly in the role of a threat to children. It would appear in the form of a white female figure accompanied by Belzenickel (Beelzebub), a rather shaggy male figure with soot-blackened face, a switch in one hand and a chain in the other. I still remember that after I had been told to recount my "bad deeds," he hit me with the switch. He kept rattling a chain and seemed intent on stuffing me into a sack until I promised, amidst loud wailing, to mend my ways.
I also remember traditional stories, that during the first Christmas night, the animals received the gift of speaking like humans; and one story in particular, that during such a night, a specific farmer once heard his horses talking about taking their master to the cemetery within the week. Horrified, he told his wife about it, and indeed he died just a few days later.
New Year’s, which was not suppressed by the State due to its “civil” nature, usually was welcomed with blasts of gun shots. Late at night we would be awakened by these shots, the parents would arise, light a kerosene lamp, and open the door to the house. Some young men would come inside, recite a particular saying, receive a shot of schnaps and a bite to eat, and leave again. I can still remember the saying which, translated into standard language (spoken in dialect, of course) was: "We wish you a blessed New Year, a roll as big as a barn door, a kuchen as big as a wagon wheel, so that the whole family will always have plenty."
I should note that, after there were no more priests, grandmothers or aunts would administer "emergency baptisms" to infants, and crosses would still be affixed to graves.
By summer of 1935, I had completed the elementary school grades in my home village, and I was to attend the next higher level of school. However, the closest German-language middle school was in the village of Nadezhdinsk (in English, Place of Hope), a mere 180 kilometers [about 110 miles] away. Attending the school alongside me was to be my friend, Franz Zerr, a boy of small stature and with a hunchback, who was a year or two older than I.
Tobol River. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prokudin-Gorskii Collection)
In August, his father and my mother and the two of us boys took off in a horse-drawn carriage. All day long we rattled across the steppe before reaching the River Tobol, where we decided to spend the night on its banks. Neither of us two had ever seen a real river, and we were quite amazed over the clear water, the fish and the river crab, which one could simply grab with the bare hand. As was the custom, we slept underneath the carriage. Very early the next morning we continued on, first crossing the Tobol, which at that point was narrow and shallow. We reached Nadezhdinsk that same day.
Once enrolled in the boarding school, I found myself on my own for the very first time in my life. Suddenly I was responsible for making my own bed, brushing the dust off my clothes, and somehow scrounging for my own breakfast and evening meals, whereas lunch was always served at the school itself. We had silentium (quiet time) every afternoon, and on Saturday evenings we had dances in the school’s assembly hall. Having learned to play on the harmonium (a reed pump organ), I was the one who had to play the piano while the other school boys and girls danced to my meager repertoire. To keep me happy, some of the girls would at times haul me away from the piano to teach me the proper steps for the waltz or the polka while a string duo consisting of mandolin and a guitar played during my absence from the piano.
School was enjoyable and, as far as I can remember, there were no Pioneer or Comsomol (Communist youth organization) meetings, not even a demonstration on the occasion of the anniversary of the October Revolution. My early routine was sadly disturbed only by the fact that my friend Franz was taken home after only a few weeks of school. His fragile nature was not able to take the rigors of the unusual lifestyle at the boarding school.
The village lay next to a river, and when it had frozen over as early as November, a skating rink about a kilometer in length [more than half a mile] was prepared. Nobody had factory made skates—most skates were homemade with a piece of wood and a piece of heavy wire at the bottom, but such "minor matters" did not detract from the enjoyment.
Around New Year’s time, a vacation period was scheduled, the boarding school was closed, and the students went home. I had arranged by letter to my father that in December he would travel to Kustanay and wait for me there. There was neither a train nor a bus connection for me, so I had to scrounge for a way to get there. Unfortunately, I no longer have any memories about details of that horrendous trip, but I still recall spending several night hours in the open cargo area of a truck in bone-chilling cold and arriving as a clump of ice at the travelers’ inn where my father was staying. Hot tea revived my body and spirits, and in the morning we drove home by sleigh.
My schooling in Siberia effectively ended right then and there. Heavy snow storms prevented a timely return to the boarding school, so after a few weeks of sitting around doing nothing, I went back to my village school in order—as my father said—to try not to forget everything I knew. We were quite surprised when the eighteen-year-old daughter of the school principal in Nadezhdinsk, Regina Schönfeld, came to visit us one day! She told us that her father had suddenly been "hauled away," arrested and, like so many others, deported without benefit of any court proceedings. I assume now that her and my parents had known each other. How else would she have been able to reach our village and, in particular, our family? Subsequently she was—on the recommendation by good friends, I assume—assigned to my father as a teacher’s aid.
The ever-present threat of being grabbed by the GBU (the political police organization) and the need for finding secondary schooling for their children confirmed my parents’ intent on turning their backs on the village of Vikentyevka and on Siberia as well.
Still lacking work papers and therefore dependent on pure luck, my father began to prepare for our departure, and on August 6, 1936, we said our good-byes to our village and, with whatever of our belongings we were able to take along on the back of a truck, we drove toward Kustanay. From there we traveled by train for five long days—including three changes of train, which for a family with four children was not a simple matter—and finally we reached Landau in the district of Odessa/Ukraine, where we happily embraced grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Now we had a kind of new life, with entirely new impressions, and with them our small village in Siberia soon began to recede into a faraway, unknown distance.
In Landau, we lived under Soviet rule for five years until, on June 22, 1941, the murderous war began between two pitiless dictators who had rather different goals, but neither lagging behind the other in horrendous atrocities. During early August of 1941, German troops moved into Landau, followed a month later by the SS, which established its headquarters here "for the protection of ethnic Germans within Transnistria, the Romanians’ "Region of Interest" (essentially the area between the Rivers Dnyestr and Bug).
That the Third Reich viewed the occupation of Ukraine as "final" became rather evident by the mere fact that they established two teacher education institutes to satisfy the requirements of the German population. One was in Khortitsa, the other in Selz. I attended the institute in Selz for nearly two years before our area would be included in the "victorious retreat" of the Wehrmacht and the onset of the evacuation of ethnic Germans. The students of the LBA (Lehrerbildungsanstalt) (Teacher Education Institute) were simply told to join the portion of the Great Trek that took the population of the village of Selz toward the West. Via Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, I ended up in Bavaria, and then back in Poland, where I was reunited with my family.
During January of 1945, we escaped to Potsdam-Grube, I became a member of the Luftwaffe, and two weeks later, I was assigned to the Netherlands for basic training. Following action at the front and a stint as prisoner of war, I ended up in the Rhineland region and was able to settle down there. But that is yet another whole story.
About the Author and Translator
Subsequent to serving in the German armed forces and his capture by the British, Johannes Herzog was released and lived in Königswinter near Bonn on the Rhine. Here he continued pursuit of his studies in education and undertook a teaching career. He later married Anneliese Meyer and together they raised a family of four children. Eventually, he rose to the rank of principal. He retired in 1989. Johannes is fluent in German and Russian and has produced several translations from German to Russian.
Alex Herzog is a second cousin of the author. He was born in 1938 in Lichtenfeld/Kuchurgan/Ukraine. He and his family also were evacuated to Polish territory during the German retreat of 1944, when his father was inducted into the German army. Alex’s mother managed to retreat with the family to Berlin and eventually to West Germany. The family was reunited and in 1953 emigrated to the United States, thus avoiding the fate of many other relatives who were deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1945. Alex completed his education in the U.S. with advanced graduate studies in mathematics. After a long career with IBM, he retired in 1993 and began work as a freelance and volunteer translator, primarily from German to English. Most of his translations have been published by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, and a few articles have appeared in AHSGR publications. He lives with his wife Dr. Nancy Herzog, in Boulder, Colorado. They have three children and seven grandchildren.
Reprinted with permission of Alex Herzog and Heritage Review.