Geography of my Life

Becker, Heinrich, “Geography of my Life." Volk auf dem Weg, February 2010, 42-43.

Serial continuation. The previous installment was published in Volk auf dem Weg, January 2010, 42-43.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Soon we found paid employment with the railroad. From an acquaintance I learned that workers were being sought for a warehouse for military goods. Appearing there for an initial interview and introducing myself with the name Becker, I was asked about my nationality. When I replied that I was German, I received the immediate rejection: “Germans are not to be employed here.” Afterwards there came to mind the words of our commandant about those equal rights I was supposed to be enjoying …

A bit later went to enroll in a course for tractor drivers, and on completion of the course, I received a position as tractor driver in a road construction organization. The largest project I became involved in as a “tractorist” was a stretch of road 150 kilometers in length [ca. 90 miles] across a marshy area in the Tomsk region.

The days were filled with much work and passed quickly. Even though by now I had a regular job and was no longer hungry, I was not satisfied with my life in Siberia. Being a young man, I dreamed of being able to get all the way to Odessa on the Black Sea. There I wished to offer my services as a ship’s hand and thereby to go out into the world. I was imagining that I would use the first opportunity to go abroad and to find a way to reach Germany.

Part 3. Kazakhstan

Chapter 11. Westward

In March, 1957 I learned of a large construction project in the vicinity of the railroad station Shingurlau not far from Uraslk. I saw this as an opportunity finally to be able to leave Siberia. At the time I owned about 200 rubles, of which I spent half just for the ticket. I took leave of my parents and siblings and rode westward from the Tomsk depot. The journey by train took about three days.

After introducing myself to the administrators in Shingurlau I was given lodging and promise of a job. The place I was to live in was a relatively old barracks, where the rooms contained simple, iron beds with mattress bottoms made from wire mesh. There were no mattresses, though, and no blankets. The most unpleasant thing was the smell of tobacco smoke, because there was much smoking, and most of it in the rooms.

The furnace did not work. In a corner I found the remains of a stone oven, and when I asked for another oven, no one knew what to do. So I asked for some water and clay and promised to put together a tile oven within an hour. Nobody believed me, but I was given a bucket of clay nevertheless. I made some mortar and on the base of the former oven I built a new one with the left-over tiles. Since the old cover plate was still functional, I was able to fit it on top of the new oven. After an hour my project was finished. Without waiting for the new oven to dry, wood was gathered, and only a short time a fire was burning.

The word spread quickly that we now had a heating oven, and by late afternoon the residents of the other rooms were gathering in our corner. I sat amidst the gregarious group and listened to all sorts of stories people were telling. After we had all warmed ourselves, we went to the company canteen to eat our supper.   

It so happened that during that same evening recruiters were present for another construction site in Kazakhstan. After dinner I went to the official to inquire about that work, which was part of a very large project also near Uralsk. Working conditions and living places were good, according to the official. Additionally, 150 rubles of transition money was being offered.

Without thinking all too long, I had my name entered in a list of recruited workers. The next morning I obtained my papers from the current administrator and completed the necessary formalities with the recruiter. By noon I and a small group of recruits were on a train going in the direction of Uralsk.   

During that first evening we were given lodging in a Uralsk apartment house and were to await further instructions. Only eight days later did a representative of a firm from Aktyubisnk arrive to tell us that we were all supposed to work there, and that same day we rode to Aktyubinsk.

Chapter 12. Aktyubisnk

The city of Aktyubisnk is located in the Northwest of Kazakhstan, not far from the Russia-Kazakhstan border. After our arrival we were given a room in the old part of the city. A few more days passed until we were finally taken to our work site. I was assigned as an assistant to the driver of an excavation machine. The first day was filled with plenty of work, but I was glad finally to have a steady job again. During that evening my foreman gave me the address of my new place to live. I was to reside in Room #5 at Kutusov Street 12.

My first acquaintances in Aktyubisnk were my roommates, four young men of Ukrainian origin. When they learned that I was German they wondered about how Germans ever came to the Soviet Union. Only few people in the Soviet Union actually knew of the existence of the Volga German Republic even before the war. During the next years I often had to answer questions about the origins of Germans in the Soviet Union.      

My Ukrainian roommates and I got along well. I appreciated their calm and pleasant nature. None of them drank to excess, and none smoked. We often spent our free time together. The city had a cinema, a swimming pool and a theater.

My next assignment was the overhaul of a used excavator that was in rather bad condition and thus had been sitting idle at a construction site. The mechanic gave ma a few replacement parts, and it was my task to manufacture the missing parts by whatever means I could. This kind of procedure was rather common in the Soviet Union of the time. Another assistant was assigned to me for the repair work. Together we could, of course, complete the work more quickly, and thus we were able to complete the repairs by the appointed deadline.

After a few weeks in Aktyubinsk I came across other German Russians – young people who during the war had been dragged off to Kazakhstan with their parents.

During that time I also met my future wife, Eugenia Geilfuß, during a birthday party I had been invited to accompany a German Russian acquaintance. Eugenia was born in 1932 in the German village of Selz near Odessa to the family of a musician and organist. During the war she, like other ethnic Germans, had been taken to Konin in the Warthegau [Poland].

By the time the Red Army a marched into that area, those Germans from Russia who had meanwhile been naturalized by the German were dragged off to Kazakhstan. Eugenia, her mother, her grandmother and her elder sister Brunhilde had been assigned to work at a horse breeding operation near Aktyubinsk. When we first met in 1957, Eugenia was living with her mother in Aktyubisnk and was working in a tailor shop. 

After one year I went on vacation so that I could visit my relatives in Siberia. The train passed through the Kazakhstan steppes. Here and there I could see small settlements lying near the railroad tracks. The Kazakhs lived in small, low-slung huts built on clay from the marshes. At railroad stops we were able to buy food from the locals. As the train passed through Aralsk the wind blew white, salty dust into the air, and one could clearly taste salt on one’s tongue. It penetrated mouth and nose, and everything was covered with salt dust. Somehow the white dust reminded me of something very old, something long forgotten. I felt like a traveler into the past. When the train started off again, I tried to get some sleep.

In Tomsk I had to change to a train going in the direction of Assino. After only a short ride, I arrived at the Tugan stop and continued on foot toward Malinovka. Arriving at the village I came across Filip, an old acquaintance, from whom I learned that my parents had moved and built a house in a new development. Filip did not know the exact address, so I was forced to ask my way through the entire village.        

(To be continued in the next 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