A Family Reunion Resulting from Ancestral Research

[Also see the related article “A Family Reunion after 200 Years”]

Flaig, Armin. "A Family Reunion Resulting from Ancestral Research." Mitteilungsblatt, February 2011, 16-18.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

NOTE: This is the second of two related articles, introduced ahead of the first article, in this February, 2011 issue as follows:Toward the end of the 2010 we received two reports from Armin Flaig, a reader in Kempten [Germany], regarding an unusual family reunion: “Our families met on June 22 in Kempten. The impetus for this was a number of trips to Bessarabia. In 2006, Dietrich Holzwarth and I were visiting Wittenberg. At the end of that visit I had given the local school mistress, Mrs. Reul, a brief report on village life and on the school around the time of the resettlement of 1940. The report, in German and in Russian, can still be seen at the school in Wittenberg [in Bessarabia], which Herbert and John Flaig of the US visited in 2009, and where they discovered photos and that report of mine. On returning home, they received my address from Carolyn Schott of Seattle, US, and a lively correspondence ensued, which in turn led to a visit in Mönchweiler and Kempten.”

In his own article, John Flaig described how our family reunion came about. I would like to add that this was certainly not a foreseeable event. After all, I had limited my ancestral research to collecting family history that I knew from retellings and from personal experiences. Only later did I begin to complete the family tree, and for that work I relied primarily on results from ancestral research done by Klara Bollinger. The extensive list of ancestral names in the Wittenberger Heimatbuch exists solely because of her dedication to that research.

My interest in my ancestors was awakened early on through my grandmother Maria Flaig, nee Künzler. As a seven-year-old I often sat on a small footstool while she told me stories from the illustrated family Bible and also told of Bessarabia. That land must have been something special.

The histories of the Flaig family branches in the US and in Germany are rather similar. Emigration to Prussian Poland, further emigration to the steppes north of the Black Sea, resettlement [of the Bessarabian Germans] caused by the Hitler-Stalin pact, settling in West Prussia, escape, and search for a new homeland.

That fact that my own family branch remained in Germany was merely due to the circumstance that in 1953 my father, due to injuries from action in the war, was not allowed to emigrate to Canada. In the battle for Leningrad he had been shot through the stomach, and the bullet had lodged in his back. Doctors did not feel secure in attempting to remove the bullet, for fear that, with high probability, he would have become a complete cripple.

At first, our family was separated after the war. I was living in Denmark with my mother, her sister Magdalena Gunsch (nee Biederstädt), and the latter’s step-daughter Maria. My father’s trek had reached Schleswig-Holstein, from where he then joined relatives in Mecklenburg [in the East German zone occupied by the Soviets]. As part of a land reform project called “Junkerland in Bauernhand [Squires’ Land into the Hands of Farmers]” he was granted a farm operation. It was not until 1947 that our family was reunited. My father tried to make the best of the given opportunities.

Escape from the “DDR” [“Deutsche Demokratische Republik,” the official Communist regime’s name for East Germany, “German Democratic Republic” in English – Tr.]

We would likely have remained in Mecklenburg, but things happened differently. The policy aimed at shaping the DDR’s agricultural system into one like the Soviet one led to nationalization of all farms and to dispossession of all farmers. My father did not wish to live as a servant on his own farm, so we deiced to escape, and by 5 AM on October 5, 1953, which happened to be my father’s birthday, we made it into West Berlin territory.

During a while thereafter we lived in various camps in West Berlin and in Bavaria. And that was the time frame when my father wished to emigrate. After his failed attempt to fashion a new life in Canada, my father tried to emigrate to Paraguay. A possible destination was the Grand Chaco. Provost [Pastor] Baumann scouted out the situation at the site, and his announcement was not very encouraging. He reported, for example, that at times it might take up to three years before the next good rain. Mother finally convinced father to stay. “We’ll make in Germany, too,” she said to him. 

Life as an untrained laborer did not come easy for father. Often, after his regular work he would often toil even more as a laborer in construction unloading railroad cars filled with slag, and all for very little money.

A Schrebergarten [garden plot outside of town] became our second home. We raised small animals (rabbits, chickens and ducks) for our own slaughtering. Later on we leased 2 pieces of land, each one morgen in size (2500 square meters [or ca. 28,000 sq. ft. – Tr.]), on which we planted strawberries.

The strawberry harvests earned us some extra cash, and eventually my parents used that income to buy a townhouse, and so seven years after our escape we had our own home. In 1974 my parents built another home in Wiehl near Gummersbach, which I was to move into.

Bessarabia in 1989 and in 2006

I definitely wanted to get to know Bessarabia. In 1989 I, along with my father, was able to go there for the first time. We booked a trip organized by Edwin Kelm, taking us to Moscow, Kishinev and Bessarabia. We would have loved to visit Bessarabia directly from Kishinev, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Some from our travel group tried to go without permits to visit their home villages by taxi, but they were apprehended, and the police held and interrogated them for several hours. After a few days of worrying and hoping, we were finally able to take a small bus to Alt-Posttal and Wittenberg.

Before we drove into the valley of Wittenberg, we stopped the bus in front of the town sign. My father was now finally able to see the village again. The ditch adjoining the street had been filled. The church, the largest building in town, looked like a giant barracks. The bell tower had been removed, and the outer walls had been taken down a level.

We then drove into the center of the place and stopped in front of the school. School children were standing around nearby. The lady mayor welcomed us, but seemed a little distrustful. A former village resident, whom my father still knew from his youth, then approached us. They were both very happy to meet again and conversed rather excitedly, in Russian, as I stood next to them not understanding a single word. Then the lady mayor came by, said something to the man, and he disappeared like a beaten dog. Later my father explained to us: “He had just slaughtered a lamb and wanted to invite us, but the lady mayor sent him away saying, ‘What do you want here? See to it that you leave right away.’” At the time, most of the village residents were still thinking that we Germans were really there to reclaim our former homes. They were curious and distrustful.

Finally we came to the ancestral home. The well in front was still there. The little home of my grandmother was no longer there, its building materials having been used for another purpose. Missing also was a large storage building in which grandmother had stored the grain she would sell for seed in the spring. Parts of the stables had also been removed, but the little summer house with the kitchen, the cellar, and small wine bar were all still there.

The owner was very friendly and invited us inside. There was no language barrier, because my father easily communicated with him in Russian. On the floor of the loft sat an old iron that was once my grandmother’s. The man gave it to me as a gift. Even the old Putzmühle was sitting on the floor of that loft. [This device, roughly the size of a modern small cement mixer, was used, after threshing, to separate chaff from grains – Tr.]

In the cemetery, among brush, trees, and long grass, my father looked for his father’s grave. First he discovered the grave of Barbara Flaig (nee Schmied), mother of Gotthilf Flaig, then he located the gravestone of Joseph Flaig, my grandfather. This was a very moving moment for both of us. Unfortunately we had to get moving on immediately. As it was, we had already passed our departure time by half an hour.

Even though we had not experienced the village in the shining way my father had left it in, we were still grateful that much was still standing. Yet one could not overlook that this village had little in common with the Wittenberg village the Germans had lived in. As we were driving off, my father said to me, “Armin, I have seen my homeland once again, including our house. That was my life’s greatest wish. Still, this village is no longer our village.”

For my second visit to Wittenberg and Odessa, in July 2006, I traveled with Dr. Dietrich Holzwarth, his son Friedhelm, and our interpreter Nina Veprik. We had organized this trip ourselves and presented Mrs. Reul, the school principal in Wittenberg, with a donation for the school. We stayed with Simeon Sarioglo for three days. His wife cooked for us, and it was definitely a strain for his family to house four extra people. Wittenberg had changed yet again, and so another symbol of the old village had been down its very foundation. This had been the old school, once a large, sturdy building that had lost its stability through an earthquake and was then dismantled, stone by stone, which would be used elsewhere, likely for building a home.

Before departing we visited Mrs. Reul at the school, and I promised to send her a history of the life of our forefathers.

And now the circle closes in direction of John. It was he who read my history in the Wittenberg school and, by the backdoor, as it were, thus came to obtain my address. In the meantime, a bond has developed that reaches as far as Milwaukee in the United States.

What was left of the former school
The former Flaig property in Wittenberg

Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of these articles.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller