Geography of My Life
Becker, Heinrich. "Geography of My Life." Volk auf dem Weg, June 2009, 42-43.
This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Notes by a German from Russia (Continued from Volk auf dem Weg, May, 2009, pages 38-39)
Katharina Kirchkessler (Madchenname Katja Altenhof), geb. 1927, Dresdener Str. 31, 35745 Herborn, Tel.: 02772-582489, sucht die auf dem Bild (aufgenommen 1946 im Artel Koschchimik, Petropawlowsk, Kasachstan) zu sehenden Personen (jeweils von links; sie selbst ist vorne als 2. von rechts zu sehen): - vorne Maria Leideger, Olga Alberg, Irma Raisch; - hinten: Margareta Gosvater, Musi Gosvater, Elvira Keksel, Elma Keksel.
Hunger drove us to keep going. Nastya's potatoes were soon consumed. We walked through the village and begged. In two yards were given something to eat. We asked for directions and then left the village. During late afternoon we arrived at the village of Petrovka near Novoroshdestvenskoye, which we knew from the time we had begged there earlier. Folks recognized us, and some women brought us a piece of potato bread. After we told them our story, they were astonished that we had escaped from the children's home.
Toward evening we arrived in Novoroshdestvenskoye. The village dogs began their loud barking and we were suddenly surrounded by a whole pack of them. We decided simply to stand our ground, trying not to make a move. From a home at the edge of the village a man met us and took us to his yard. We were allowed to stay overnight in the sauna where the family had taken their baths just a brief time earlier. Finally we had a roof over our heads! It rained the whole night.
The next morning we were awakened by the daughter of the family and were given hot potatoes. We sat on a bench in the yard to eat our breakfast while the girl watched us with curiosity. We were given hints that we could not stay there any longer.
We then went to see Jakob Rupel, who was safekeeping our family's papers. When he asked us why we left the children's home, we kept the truth to ourselves and told him we had become homesick. He sent us to see the chairman of the collective.
The man received us fairly roughly and yelled at us: "I have no need for you!" and he ordered us to be led outside.
Again we were on our own, earning our meals as occasional laborers in the gardens of collective members. The locals were allowed to keep small plots of land to complement their earnings, and many of these included vegetable gardens.
When the harvest was over, we moved around the neighboring villages again as occasional laborers, performing various work we were assigned. We were allowed to sleep in the barns.
In one of the villages we obtained temporary stay with a German woman who with her five children lived in an old wooden house that was literally falling apart. The door consisted of boards that were held together with a horsehide. The floor of the single room was covered with wood, but only in half. In the other half a stoveoven rose straight out of the ground. It was a [typical] Russian stove that had had a stone surface on top, on which two adults had enough room to sleep. Next to it there was a small metal stove. The shutters on the two windows were nailed shut, so that the only light came from the stove.
During afternoons the entire family went to the forest to gather wood for heating [and cooking]. The woman, who worked in the community animal barn, had one saw and two axes. Without these tools the family could not have survived, since the collective was not obliged to provide food or wood for the exiles. From the community animal barn she would secretly bring home some animal feed. Sometimes it included cabbage, at times beets or even potatoes.
The woman and her children were in such a weakened state that they were able to split wood only by combining their forces. When the woman took us in, we took over the wood gathering and wood splitting. In return we got cooked cabbage or beets from the family's cooking. During the evenings we all gathered around the small metal stove. Our conversations were rarely happy, because the continuing hunger, the cold, and our tiredness gave us very little reason for cheerfulness.
Alexander and I slept on two benches. The sounds of the burning wood and water dropping from the ceiling helped us fall asleep. We were able to spend the coldest months in this house. In the spring we went back to Novoroshdestvenskoye and to Jakob Rupel, who at the time was employed as a helper in the cow barn of the collective. His first wife, who had died a few years back, had given him three children -- Elsa, Jakob, and Peter. With his second wife he had one other child. Thus his family now numbered six people. He took us in, and we were able to stay there at least temporarily. In the fall we again worked as helpers. Whatever we earned we contributed to Jakob's household.
One day he told us that among our family papers he had found a receipt for the animals we had given up in the Volga area, and our parents were accordingly to be entitled to receive material assistance from the collective. Well, many German families received such certificates, but they really did not do anyone any good. They received neither assistance nor animals from the collective.
Jakob suggested that we present the certificate at the collective and to use it to pay back some of his debts. The collective had demanded money from him for a horse that had died early that summer, allegedly through his fault. At the time he had taken two emaciated horses to a meadow at the edge of the woods to keep them there overnight, because there they could find fresh grass. As was the custom, he had tied their legs together so that they could not run off during the night, and he let them eat grass there. When he went back the next morning to take the horses away, one of the two horses was dead. Apparently it had stumbled over its tied-up legs and accidentally hit its head on a stone.
Found guilty by an investigative commission, he was sentenced to pay damages to the collective. Of course, Jakob had nothing to pay his debt. But, as usual, there was some bickering, and he reached an agreement with the village administration by which he could pay his debt if he provided the certificate [we mentioned earlier]. In return, he had to declare that he was prepared to take Alexander in permanently. We agreed [that our certificate could be used in this manner]. Thus Alexander remained with the family, but I continued to wander through the area in search for work.
Time of Wandering
I left Novoroshdestvenskoye later in the fall. My packing consisted of tools, which I transported on a small sled. On a frosty day I reached the village of Petrovka, where Alexander and I had done occasional work before. I wandered through the entire village, from house to house, asking for work.
Finally I came to a small property in which I could discover a straw pile as I peered in from the street. One could not overlook that no cleaning up had been done here for some time. Half of the gate was lying on the ground. Suddenly the door to the house opened up and I saw a woman who was supporting herself on a cane, and she asked me what I wanted. "I am looking for work," I replied. "I can saw and split wood, keep the yard clean, feed and care for the animals, milk the cow ..." She interrupted: "Good, you're alone?" "I am moving about all by alone," I answered. "Help I can use. Come inside," she said, and I followed her.
Inside the house I sensed the aroma of fried potatoes. And it felt nicely warm inside. The woman pointed her hand toward a chair, and I sat down in it. "What can you tell me about yourself?" she asked. With a bit of worry, I looked out the window for my sled. "I would like to bring in the sled with my tools. All I have is on that sled," I said to her. "I would advise you to do that. Good tools don't last long lying around in these parts," she replied.
(To be continued in the next issue)
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.