Geography of my Life

Becker, Heinrich. "Geography of My Life." Volk auf dem Weg, April 2009, 40-41.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Continued from issue Volk auf dem Weg, March 2009, 38-30.

The only place where we could get to any kind of grain, were the grain storage bins of the collective. During the day we would observe from a safe distance all the goings-on around them. During the evening a guard would arrive, unarmed and without a guard dog, making his rounds about the seven bins throughout the night. Since each bin was elevated on wooden posts about 60 cm [about two feet] off the ground, this would provide us with the opportunity to drill from below into the wooden bottoms of the bins.

Our drill we were able to make by using a file from father's tool chest on a piece of heavy barbed wire we had found near the machine shop.

When we finally finished the drill, on the evening of a cold, and during a heavy rain fall, we decided to approach the bins through the ankle-deep mud. The loud cough and the glimmer of the guard's cigarette allowed us to keep ascertaining his position.

We discovered that the wood support of one of the bins had a rotting piece, which we were able to push inward, and through the resulting hole we crawled into the empty space beneath the bin. It did not take long until we had drilled a hole into the bottom. All the while, one of us kept watching for the guard, so when he came closer, we would be still and motionless. After a few kilos of grain [a kilo consists of just over two pounds - Tr.] had trickled down into our cloth bag, we closed up the drilled hole with a wooden stopper we had brought along, put back the rotted pole, and disappeared into the dark.

At home we then chopped up the grains, let them swell up in water, cooked them and distributed them among our siblings. Seeing at that time how quickly our weakened siblings had soaked up the grain porridge, I did not feel we had done something "wrong."

Every evening we obtained some grain in this same manner. From other bins we took buckwheat and oats. We hid our small supply in our straw mattresses, and each day we took out a bit of straw and shook the grain out. To cut up the grain we used a contraption we had put together according to instructions my mother had provided and which was fastened to a board 20 cm by one meter in size [about eight inches by just over three feet]. The "mill" consisted of a round piece of wood surrounded by two layers of roughed-up tin, between which the grains could be rubbed down.

To make sure of not being caught, we hid the mill and the chaff under the floor planks. Taking the chaff to the collective trash heap seemed too dangerous. The whole village was full of hungry people who could have seen us. We cooked and ate the grain only during the night.

We slept across the narrow side of the bed because otherwise it would have been too tight for four children and two half-grown guys. We had exchanged food for a blanket, and this thin old blanket had to suffice for covering us. Since we had no changes of clothes, we would soon be plagued by lice. The only salvation was to put our clothes outside in the frost overnight, and during the day we placed the blanket outside. So once a week we slept naked under the blanket while our clothes were being worked on by "Father Frost." During the night I often had to get up to put more wood into the tiled stove.

For the winter we had only two pairs of old felt boots, and for all of us we had only three ragged jackets and homemade gloves that had to be mended constantly.

Our neighbors apparently felt some guilt over what their son had done to us. They would visit during the day to look after us, but they never brought us any food. Somehow they got to the point of asking us how we were surviving without any obvious means of nutrition. At first we simply did not trust them, but one day they indicated that they might be able to cook for us if we could supply the grain. Hunger trumped fear, so I took a bucket of oats to the woman. She filled the bucket with water, let the oats swell up, and put it all into the oven. After the swelled oats were dried out, we crushed them with a mortar and separated the chaff from the kernels. Then we cooked the oats, and the meal was done.

In January, when the temperature went down to minus 30 degrees [Celsius, about minus 22 degrees F.], we had to fight against the frost in our living quarters. The more we heated the place, the more water drops would come off the ceiling, and icicles would form on the ceiling and on the floor,. We removed them with an axe every day. Some days we  would stay under our blanket all day, and I would get up only briefly to get more firewood.

Toward the end of February a horse had died in the collective, and the news spread very quickly. By the time Alexander and I located the dead horse, other villagers were already cutting it up. However, we were able to secure a large piece of meat for ourselves.

 A month later the chair of the village /soviet /[council] and another official came by our place. They were going from house to house collecting donations for the front. Folks gave gloves, socks, warm underwear, and felt boots. When they knocked on our door, I got up and opened it. The chairman and his colleague forced their way inside the door, which was difficult to open due to a standing icicle.

They looked around, and the chairman said, "Well, children, you're all still alive and well! What do you live on?" They stood in front of us and looked at us as if we were some kind of exotic beings,. The other man discovered a gap in the cellar hole. He placed the boards aside, reached underneath and brought out a handful of chaff. Then the two carefully inspected the cellar. The chairman finally came to our bed, lifted the blanket, gave me a strong pat on the shoulder and said, "Good lad, keep it up!" By this time I understood a little Russian and was able to grasp what he said.

 From then on we did not dare to get more grain from the collective's bins. By now the guard had a gun, and he was accompanied on his rounds by a guard dog.

We spent the spring in bed. When the snow had melted, we gathered clods of potatoes that had been left over in the mud from the last harvest. Before the spring seeding work, hunger drove us literally to the trees.  From birds' nests we gathered eggs, sometimes a whole bucketful. Then in May we were able to hire out for day jobs and thus earn some food. During the summer we gathered edible plants, berries and mushrooms, and in the fall we were paid with food for our work in the harvest.

Today, when I think back to the experiences of those times, I do not harbor any grudges toward Russian people. The indigenous population. too, was forced to experience the gruesome deeds of the Communist regime and the difficult consequences of the war, and many suffered under them just as we did. People's attitudes and thinking in those days were influenced by Communist ideology and manipulated by Party functionaries. Any critical affront to the political line of the Party would lead to expulsion from society and eventual destruction.

Chapter 7: Children's Home

At the end of the hay gathering time, we were visited by the president of the collective. He informed us that during the next day they would take us to a children's home in Tomsk. So the next morning we got up, and the first thing we did was to take our birth certificates, out parents' marriage certificate, and other papers to an acquaintance of our parents, who was to keep our papers safe for us. Jakob Rupel had not been inducted into the work brigades because he had a strong limp.

Toward noon a driver came with his wagon and picked us up.  Alexander and I were to walk and our siblings rode in the wagon. I remember the emaciated horses pulling the wagon. The driver was unable to make them go faster, simply because they did not have the strength. The road had been softened by much rain, and a few times the wagon got stuck in the mud. A few hours alter we came to a halt, and the horses were unhitched. The drivers made a fire and cooked something for themselves. We received only water during the two days' travel to Tomsk.

 When we were let off at a medical office, we were so weak that we could hardly stand up. A member of the military ordered the personnel to give us something to eat right away. They brought us a half bucketful of sauerkraut soup and some bread.

The next day we were taken to a children's home in Tomsk, where we were observed with much curiosity by the personnel and the children. We were taken to a room which was then locked. In the center of the room there was a single piece of furniture, a chair, and from the ceiling above it hung a wire with an electric bulb holder. But we did not know at the time how electricity worked, so I received a strong shock and fell from the chair as I was trying to find out what was inside the open holder. Only later, when a female staff member, who brought us something to eat, screwed in a light bulb did we understand the function of its holder. After we finished eating, the light bulb was removed.

During the next day, under the supervision of a staff member, our hair was cut down to its very roots, after which they took us to a municipal bathhouse, where our shabby clothes were removed and we were allowed, after several years, to wash up with soap.

At that moment, some women were allowed to enter the hall for bathing, and when they saw us, they scolded the bathhouse employees because they were embarrassed. One of the employees yelled back at the women with the foulest Russian curse words and locked the door, so we had to wash up in the same room along with the women. One of them women noticed that we were speaking in German, and she approached us and asked us who we were and how we had come to Tomsk. Then she said: "Always remember your names carefully, and never forget your mother tongue!"

(To be continued in the next issue)

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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