He Always Found a Path Toward Life

Honoring Woldemar Schick on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Schick, Elvira. "He Always Found a Path Toward Life."Volk auf dem Weg, April 2011, 41-42.

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

Woldemar Schick, our beloved Father, Opa and Uropa [grandfather and great-grandfather], will be ninety years old on April 18, 2011. We congratulate him with all our heart, and we wish him the best of health and good fortune.

If today Father were to look back into the past, it might be difficult for him to believe that he was always able to find a path leading from hell toward life.

He spent his childhood in Ukraine, in the village of Georgstal, where several German families were living. The year he was born, 1921, was marked by a terrible famine. His parents had hardly a chance to save all their children. Every day was a tough struggle.

Still, the young Woldemar would later discover many interesting occupations. For example, he taught his five younger siblings the basics of writing and arithmetic. Paper was a luxury, so the newly designated “teacher” simply used chalk to write things on the door. 

When his mother went shopping, she was forced to spend her money very carefully and tightly in acquiring just the necessities for survival. One day, when she took the young boy along on a shopping errand, he happened to see a fishing hook, exactly the kind he had always wished he could have. His breath stopped, as if in a trance, while he admired that hook. His mother would dearly have liked to buy it for him, but since she had to buy so much else for the household, she was unable to grant his wish. However, the storekeeper quickly intervened and gave the much desired fishing hook to the young boy as a gift. One can easily imagine his great joy.

Wolder Schick
Wolder Schick (second row, center), pictured along with his friends at the Utsch-combine in Magadan. Shown above him is his best friend, Nikolay.

In school, Woldemar wrote poems, painted, and played at acting. He once got the idea of building a sled that could be propelled by wind power, but whatever he tried, the sled would not move. When he grew older, his father put together a radio set. This was a great step of progress, for from then on one could listen to the news.

Woldemar’s greatest wish, though, was to fly. He collected photos of famous fliers and sketched his own way toward success. He applied for flight school, and although all the proper conditions, including his health and knowledge, were satisfied, he received a shattering rejection in the mail. Even his letter to a high official requesting the reasons for the rejection was for naught. The decision could not be disputed. The real reason for the rejection, of course, was  Woldemar’s German nationality.

Then came the time for military service and thus his departure from our home. At the time, my father had no way of knowing that it would take a long time until he would see his mother again. After his stint in the army, the war [1939] began, and soldiers were not allowed to return to their homes.

Between 1939 and 1941, my father served in Mongolia. That was a tough time for him, but in hindsight he understood that without that period of very tough preparation he might not have survived later on. He was an excellent soldier and was therefore allowed to complete officers’ training courses.

However, at the beginning of the war [most likely, this time, when the German Reich attacked the Spoviet Union by surprise in 1941 – Tr.], all ethnic Germans serving were separated from the rest. At first, they wondered why just the ethnic Germans were given the order to gather at a designated place. Rumors arose, some indicating they might be needed as translators and interpreters. None could imagine that in reality these Germans were all headed into forced labor camps, or even death camps.

My father was young and filled with plans for the future. He never thought of dying, even when he and his comrades were counted among the candidates for death.  To this day he still remembers with great warmth and gratitude a White Russian by the name of Mshar, who saved his life when he was starving and dying. Mshar was living in the barracks housing the camp leadership. The mean learned that those barracks were actually heated and that there even was bread on the table. My father became curious and decided to inspect the barracks personally from afar. While doing so he ran into a man who asked him kindly, “Are you cold, my boy?” And the man asked him to come inside and gave him a piece of bread. Thus began their friendship, and Mshar proved to be an angel for my father.

Along with his good friend Hermann Steglitz, my father succeeded in escaping in Siberia. Exhausted and completely weakened, they were forced to leave the forest and enter a certain village, and consequently my father was taken to yet another camp in Magadan. There, one day was just like the next – slave labor, without real hope for a way out.  

But soon my father was transferred to a kind of school combine (utsch-combine), where the inmates were allowed to study, and so things got a little better for him.

Finally, by 1948, my father was allowed to travel by ship to rejoin his family, who had been dragged off to Kazakhstan.

There he was faced with yet more struggle. He worked during the day and studied at night. Pausing to rest was unthinkable.

Later my father became a teacher and for years taught German at school. Whenever he was faced with difficult boys in his classes, he thought back to his own childhood, when he also had some unusual ideas. He would then smile, wink, and “pardon” the “villains.”

[Translator’s Note: Unfortunately, this particular story ends abruptly, without telling us what later life was like for Woldemar, how he got to Germany, etc.  – AH]


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