Geography of my Life
Becker, Heinrich, "Geography of my Life." Volk auf dem Weg, December 2009, 40-41.
Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
A serial continuation, the previous installment having been published in Volk auf dem Weg, November, 2009, 40.
By fall, mother had acquired two chickens, which provided us with eggs. In the evenings the chickens would join us in the tannery, where they had their own little corner. During the fall Alexander and I were going into the woods daily and nearly always brought back half a sackful of mushrooms.
We two got the idea of building a woodshed near the tannery, which was close to the forest. Although mother was against it, we started working on the project. As far as tools go, we only had an axe and a saw. The size for our woodshed, 3.5 by 4.5 meters [ca. 11 by 15 feet] was directly dependent on the length of the tree trunks we were able to get from a stand of aspens. With winter nearing, we also built a stove.
One day we took in a homeless mother and her child. The women provided us with big help in getting firewood.
During the ensuing spring, a farmer was building a large house near our shed. By that time the villagers soon called the path leading to the shed “Becker Street.”
During the summer of 1964 the tannery bought two horses, which Alexander and I were supposed to watch in the meadow at night. I did not like this job, became bored, and passed the time dreaming about working in some kind of technical job.
By request, mother received a different job as an unskilled worker in a nearby auxiliary operation near the tannery. Cows and pigs were being bred there, and the workers received better care. From then on we again got bread, potatoes and, at times, a bit of milk.
Mother worked there mainly as a milkmaid. Together with Alexander and two other boys I was supposed to watch the cows and sheep. The days passed rather monotonously for me. In the morning we would take the animals to the grazing meadow, and late in the evening we would return. During late summer we got our very first rubber boots, and we were very happy for that. Finally we could work with dry feet, and on the fields the boots protected us from injuries.
With the start of winter our tasks changed again. Now we were responsible for hauling fodder for the animals from storage places in the woods to the “auxiliary factory.” We loaded the fodder on wagons pulled by oxen.
One evening, as I was resting in a nook of the factory hallway from the day’s work, an acquaintance came and showed me an article from a Tomsk newspaper. It dealt with a technical school in Tomsk that was looking for people to train for a career as captains for inland shipping. With great interest I read the article over and over. The distance from Malinovka to Tomsk was about 30 kilometers [ca., 18 miles], so it seemed realistic to me to go there and to introduce myself.
The next day I told a couple of local boys about my plan, but they did not take me seriously. But I did not let that discourage me, and during the next few days I kept talking about this until I convinced my buddies to come with me and to register together for the training course. I did not dare to travel to Tomsk by myself, because I feared that, especially as a German, I would be punished for leaving the animal herd.
So one morning we drove the animals to a fenced-in field, locked the fence gate, and took off to visit the village council. There we told the female secretary about our plan, upon which she wrote down all the personal information of my companions, but when she came to hear my last name, she asked me whether I was German. When I replied affirmatively, she said, “Please come back with a permission slip from the commandant, then we’ll talk further.”
We went back to my mother’s work place, and the other two boys informed the brigadier [work supervisor] that they would leave in two days to study in Tomsk. They were relieved of their work responsibilities, but I was left to wait for the commandant’s permission. Two days later the boys left town, and I found out a little later from their relatives that they had been accepted into the technical school.
I finally got the opportunity to see the commandant. I entered his office and explained my intentions to him. He smiled and said to me, “Have you ever met a captain of German origin who is working in inland shipping routes?” And then he added: “You are a German, and so you may not work as a captain in the Soviet Union. Stay where you are.”
Following this brief conversation, I returned to mother’s work place, convinced that this place held no future for me. The ensuing spring did bring a change in my life. The operation where my mother worked had obtained a used tractor, but none of its employees was familiar with running such a vehicle, except for Fedya, a man with war-time injuries who was therefore unable to operate the tractor himself. He came to me and suggested that I work with him. Overjoyed, I accepted the offer.
Aside from receiving a loaf of bread per day, there was still no pay for the work as a “tractorist.” Still, I felt that I was finally able to do something I seemed called to do. After a week, a second used tractor was put into operation, and so we managed to make one well-functioning tractor out of two defective ones. Certain missing tools and replacement parts we were able to fashion in a smithy made accessible to us.
In a week’s time we were finished with the repairs and started the engine, which seemed to run well. During the next few days we plowed several fields, and even though there were repeated minor repairs to be made, we finished the work on schedule.
A few days later I was ordered by the commandant to end my work with the tractor and instead to assist in the construction of a service building for the local militia of the nearby county seat. He personally drove me to the construction site and “handed me over” to the director.
Following a brief orientation session, I was told to put my meager belongings into my room in an apartment complex. The latter proved to be an old, bed-bug-ridden hovel in which three employees had already been housed. We would sleep on wooden besteads, without mattresses or blankets.
Toward noon a wagon appeared at the construction site, delivering bread. I got in line, but when it came my turn, I was not listed on the worker roster, and so I did not receive any bread that day. In response to my question to the construction boss asking whether he might have at least a piece of bead for me, he simply shrugged and left.
Working at the construction site were Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. I was the only German. All were experienced masons and plasterers who were very quick at their work. I learned a great deal from them. Our day’s work lasted ten hours. During weekends I became homesick and therefore always went on foot to Malinovka, fifteen kilometers [ca. nine miles] away.
(To be continued in the next issue.)
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.