Geography of my Life

A serial continuation, the previous installment having been printed in Volk auf dem Weg, August-September, 2009, 42-43.

Becker, Heinrich. "Geography of my Life." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2009, 40.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

After that, Justa said we should use my sled to haul some beets from a field. Katrinchen, the younger sister, would remain with the children and fix some potatoes for the mid-day meal.

We took an axe, a chisel and a hammer and walked to the snowed-in field, where Justa led me to a large pile of beets. Using our hand tools we got to work breaking out beets, one by one, from the frozen pile. When we had filled one sack we trudged home.

Justa had quickly recognized the usefulness of my small sled and asked me to build one just like it for her and her sister. I was happy for the opportunity to contribute. I was also happy to be with “my people” again.

During the first days I tried to fix everything possible, for example, worn-out felt boots Katrinchen had brought from the village. As a reward, the owners gave us food.

The sisters kept asking me whether I could really make a sled, so I began that task after completing all those small repairs. My tools were not the best, so the work proceeded slowly, and due to delays from chores such as obtaining beets and firewood, I was still at it after a whole week and was not able to finish it until the end of March.

The frost finally eased, and in April the snow began to thaw gradually. From pieces of felt left over from repairs I was able to make felt boots for Katrinchen. It took me three days each to finish a boot. Katrinchen was overjoyed after that week to have her own felt boots.

Of course, by April these boots were not exactly suitable for the warmer weather. After the snow had all melted, we went to the fields daily to look for potatoes that were still to be found in the mud. Since the potato fields were some distance from the village, we had to get up early, getting home again only by late afternoon with just a bucketful of frozen potatoes. Although we were plagued by hunger and lice, astonishingly we never got any colds.

Toward the end of April, it would get rather warm on sunny and clear days. I often thought about going back to Novorozhdestvenskoye to visit my brother Alexander there, and then one morning I suddenly felt that I was ready to leave. When I told Justa and Katrinchen of my plan, they were sad at first, but then let me leave. As I left, we hugged, and Katrinchen gave me a kiss. I thanked them for everything, took my tools, and went on my way.

Chapter 10. Back with Parents

I reached Novorozhdestvenskoye toward noon and went directly to Jakob Rupel’s house.  As I came close to the house, a woman came toward me – it was my mother! She had been released from prison and was looking for us right there in Novorozhdestvenskoye.  We embraced, and initially I could not get a word out, from sheer excitement. Our joy was immense. I learned from my mother that Alexander had already reported to her about our adventures.

We went to Jakob Rupel’s house and talked about how we might proceed from there. We could not expect any assistance from the local farm collective, and so we decided to move back to the vicinity of the Tugan railroad depot. She was hoping to find shelter and work for us in the tannery of the village of Malinovka. My other siblings should remain in the children’s home, simply because we did not know what awaited us in Malinovka.

We took some food and took off on foot. We had to walk a distance of about fifty kilometers [thirty miles] before we would get to Malinovka. At the end of the second day we arrived there and walked to the local administration. Mother obtained work at a factory where felt is manufactured -- not at the tannery as she had expected. We were allowed to live in a factory hallway, where we slept on wooden boxes we had piled together in a corner. Mother received one loaf of bread, and that had to last us.

The entire production of the felt factory was designated for the war effort. After two weeks my mother was ordered to appear before the commandant, who informed her that as a German she could not continue to work there. Well, at least she obtained work at the tannery instead. 

For the times, the tannery was a relatively large operation. In the large hall you could see containers with liquids and stacks of hides of horses, cows, and sheep. The smell was intolerable. The workers were exclusively women. Since there was no other shelter for us, we had to sleep in that hall.

While in Malinovka we received the news from Moscow of the end of the war. We were happy about it and were hoping that our situation might now improve.

Mother actually received no pay for her work in the tannery. We had to feed ourselves from scraps of meat we found in some of the hides. Before cooking the meat, we could steep it in water for some hours just to free it of salt and suet that the hides had been sprinkled with.

As difficult and unpleasant the work was, we were glad to have a roof over our heads. During those years of 1945 and 1946 there was great hunger not only among deported Germans who had survived the war, but among the indigenous population as well. The Soviet Union was putting all available resources into reconstructing the European part of the country that had been devastated by the war. Only after 1947 was there a relatively sufficient supply of bread.

(To be continued in a subsequent issue.)

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

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