Geography of my Life
Serial continuation, a previous installment having been published in Volk auf dem Weg, December, 2009, 40-41.
Becker, Heinrich, “Geography of my Life." Volk auf dem Weg, January 2010, 42-43.Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
After working four weeks at the construction site I experienced a pleasant surprise. Coming to work one morning I recognized my own father among a group of men gathering in front of the site. He had been released from the “Work Army” and had located us here in Siberia. Mother had earlier given the commandant in Malinovka a request to search for him.
I informed my construction leader and accompanied my father to register with the police. There we were told that I could now go back home with my father. We immediately went off toward mother and Alexander in Malinovka.
It was the summer of 1950 when we finally had come together again. As father told us, conditions in the Work Army were so difficult that people died there daily. Three times a day the “Trud Army” members, who were constantly performing the most difficult labor, were given a thin soup, and occasionally some bread. Not even during winter did they have adequate work clothes. Many died of exhaustion, in work accidents, as a result of infected wounds or even by freezing. Father had lost any hope of finding us.
Mother was not at home when we arrived in Malinovka. Our home by now was an eight-square-meter room [just under 700 square feet] in a barracks. The other rooms in the barracks were also for single families. Our room contained a bed, a table, a bench and a bucket. While father stayed behind, I went to the fields to get mother. When I located her I told her that someone was expecting us at the barracks, but I did not tell her who, for fear that she might get a stroke right there in the middle of the field. When we arrived, mother and father embraced for a long time without talking.
During that same day father registered with the local village council and was given work as a carpenter in the collective. Once again I worked with Fedya with the tractor, transporting tree trunks from the forest to the saw mill. Alexander worked in the hay harvest, and mother stayed home from then on.
One day I noticed a large wagon pulled by one ox standing in front of the barracks. Inside the barracks the commandant was talking to my mother. “You must move out of here, we have a different job for you,” he was telling her.
Father tried to have the commandant reconsider: “Comrade Commandant, we just renovated this room, built in some insulation, and furnished it better.”
“No matter. At your new place there are also rooms and work for all of you,” the commandant replied, and then he asked me: “Andreiy, why did you leave the construction site?”
I told him about the orders given to us at the police station.
“All clear,” he said, “we’ll talk about that some other time. And now, put your things onto the wagon and leave!”
We gathered our belongings from the barracks and put them on the wagon. The commandant and the young woman driving the ox rode in the wagon, and we walked. We went through the main road through Malinovka, and as we left town, the wagon headed in the direction of the Tugan Station. There the commandant called to the girl driver, “Take the road toward Moskali!”
We arrived in the afternoon at the village administration building of Moskali. It was a small village that was under the regional administration of Tomsk. We were introduced to the chief, who to our surprise congratulated us on joining the collective.
Immediately after that we were taken to an old house at the edge of the village. We were given a loaf of bread and some flour. From the girl who accompanied us we learned that only three men of the entire collective had returned from the war, so there was a great lack of workers to get the necessary work done. Only during hay harvest, seeding time and the actual harvest had they been sent temporary help from Tomsk to assist in the most important work.
The house we were to live in was old, but in good condition. It had two rooms, one of which contained a Russian stove and a cooking plate. During the first night we were not able to sleep much, due to the recent excitement.
Early the next morning we all went to the office at the collective. There we were assigned to a group of four men and three young women to mow grass on the collective. Each of us received a scythe.
Not far from us, prisoners of war, Germans, were working on the collective. There was no possibility to get into any conversation. Nosy as I was, I kept trying to move as close to them as possible. They did look emaciated and were wearing shabby clothes, but all in all they made a good impression. They worked fast, conversed in a lively manner, and laughed much.
One of the prisoners of war by the name of Heinz was clearly taller than the others. His clothing was in particularly bad condition, for apparently it was not possible to find adequate clothing for a man of his stature of more than six feet. His comrades sometimes called him “Langer Heinz [Long Heinz ].” There was another Heinz among the prisoners, and I remember two other names, Kurt and Horst.
Later on I was assigned to a tractor driver as his assistant. We worked in long shifts and spent the night on the field, where a covered wagon with wheels was provided for our use. In the morning we were given a piece of bread, and that was it. In the evenings we roasted wheat. We continued to have to check in with the commandant at regular intervals.
During the winter of 1953 I once again met prisoners of war at the collective. Here “Long Heinz” was working as a wood feller. His job was to provide the collective with firewood. With temperatures at minus 30 degrees [Celsius – ca. minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit] he had to work wearing thin rubber boots. Some German Russians felt sorry for him and occasionally gave him some potatoes, or rags for his feet. At times people even gave away an old jacket or old pants. Each gave what he could, even though it was not much, because we were all miserable ourselves.
All families of the village were obliged to report regularly to the village council concerning the state of their house animals. For this purpose an official would come from the city to join the local administrative officials. Anyone who had a cow, chickens, geese, pigs or sheep was obliged to pay regularly a tax in kind and to report about it.
In early March, loudspeakers in the village announced the news of Stalin’s death. On that day I was working on tractor repairs in the collective yard. The announcement was followed by long speeches of mourning, and all the village residents were gathered at the village center. For days we all would still be gripped by feelings of fear and insecurity. No one knew to any exact degree what Stalin’s death might bring for us all.
On the day of the funeral, the village residents were again called to gather at the village center, where they had to listen to a voice speaking on the radio. Many cried, that is, they at least acted like crying, because that was expected of them. When the chief saw us standing there indifferently, he came toward us and asked us quietly why we were not crying, then commanded us, “You will cry immediately and show your mourning!”
Thus intimidated, we tried to make the impression that we were crying. To this day I don’t know why the chief asked us to cry. Perhaps he was trying to spare us future reprisals.
In September of 1955 we learned from an acquaintance in Tomsk that German Chancellor Adenauer was visiting in Moscow. We tied his visit to some vague hope for improvement in our situation. Indeed, during the first part of 1956 our commandant announced that we were henceforth allowed to write letters to relatives in Germany and even receive packages from them.
Two months later, the prisoners of war also received packages of clothing from Germany. They soon sold most of the clothing or traded some for food.
In 1956 we also received the news that we were no longer under the supervision of special commanders. We received certificates which we were to use to apply for Soviet citizenship. Together, Alexander and I went to the registration place. “What nationality should I enter in your Soviet passport?” asked us the woman clerk. We said we were German, and so this nationality was actually entered in our passports. While handing out my passport, the commandant said, “Now you are a Soviet citizen like everyone else, and you will enjoy the same rights.”
(To be continued in the next issue.)
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of these articles.