'I Still Believe in Guardian Angels': Through
Turmoil and Wars, John Goeres' Faith Endures
Johansson, Jean. "'I Still Believe in Guardian Angels': Through Turmoil and Wars, John Goeres' Faith Endures." Metro Lutheran, 8 March 1996.
John Goeres' earliest memory is of his grandmother's death, when he was six. It had been her task to care for him, his sisters, and his cousins while their parents worked in their Bessarabian farm fields.
Goeres (rhymes with Harris) remembers looking through his front fence with one of his cousins and saying, "Our good Grandma died; what shall we do now?" Ten years later, world events set in motion a delayed answer to his question that would dramatically impact Goeres' life.
It's a story of a people moved across national borders by political forces beyond their control, like that of peoples today in former Yugoslavia. Or like that of the Hebrew people 3,000 years ago.
John, who now lives in Minneapolis, was born in 1924 on a farm in northern Bessarabia. A small eastern European land, bordered by the rivers Prut and Dniester, Bessarabia was wedged between what were then the Soviet Union and Romania. Goeres' ancestors were Germans who had accepted the invitation of Russian Czar Alexander I to populate that territory following the emigration of the mostly Turk population when Russia acquired Bessarabia in 1812.
In 1918, following the Russian Revolution, Romania occupied and incorporated Bessarabia. Goeres recalls with fondness his childhood with his parents and two sisters. "We had a nice, comfortable farm; just like a paradise."
But World War II changed all that. In 1940, the treaty between Hitler and Stalin returned Bessarabia to the USSR. Bessarabian Germans (93,318 by official count) were resettled in then German-occupied Poland.
John's parents were devoted Lutheran Christians. "My mother, every Saturday, prepared us for church," he recalls. "In 1939 I was confirmed, with the last class before the Russians closed our church."
German authorities told the Goeres family in 1940 to leave their farm and move to Poland. But it was a circuitous route. They lived for a time in Yugoslavian camps, then in Austrian castles, not reaching Poland until 1943. To make room for the Bessarabians, the Germans ousted Polish residents of certain communities, putting older people in camps and shipping younger Poles to Germany as laborers in the war effort.
In 1941, while in Austria, Goeres had become a member of the Hitler Youth, which sought to train Germany's future leaders. He remembers the organization's propagandized indoctrination, and recalls being taught that Jews were evil.
In Poland, Goeres was put to work farming. A 1943 harvest was brought in, but by summer 1944 the Russian army was in Poland and the Bessarabians were moved further west, to camps near Lodz.
Drafted into the German army in 1944, Goeres was in communication corps training until April 1945. "I was 21, the oldest in the group," he notes. "The others were mostly 16 and I was like a father to them." He recalls a petition being circulated, asking trainees to renounce their Christian faith, but none of them signed it.
The last month of the war, Goeres was assigned to service with a division in Austria; it surrendered to American troops near the Italian border. He then spent two years in British prison camps in Italy. "We were treated fairly well," he says, "but there wasn't enough to eat and the climate seemed tropical to me. I caught malaria and my weight dropped to 110 pounds."
In 1947, Goeres escaped from his prison camp in Rimini, Italy, by hiding in a mailbag on a train headed for East Germany. He worked there for a year on a farm. After a night-time border crossing into West Germany, he worked in a steel factory and construction for several years.
Around Christmas 1948, John discovered his father, sisters, and a brother-in-law (his mother had died in 1945) were living in southern Germany's Bavaria.
"When we saw each other, it was unbelievable. We had gone through so many horrible things in the war. They thought I was dead and I thought they were dead. It was like being born again."
John had relatives who farmed near Walhalla, ND, and in 1952 they agreed to sponsor him for entry into the U.S. After five years of work on his cousin's farm, Goeres came to the Twin Cities, where he attended Lutheran Bible Institute and a vocational school.
Goeres became a U.S. citizen in 1958. He worked for Thermo-King for 33 years, retiring in 1990. After four years of marriage, his first wife died in 1964, leaving him with three small sons. He remarried in 1965; his second wife died in 1989.
Despite the turmoil he endured during World War II and its aftermath, plus the deaths of two wives and a son, and recent health adversities, Goeres has maintained a cheerful attitude and an unshakable faith. He is a longtime member of Diamond Lake Lutheran in Minneapolis.
John shows a visitor a small, black devotional book, with text in beautiful Gothic script and the thorn-crowned head of Christ embossed on the cover.
"Whenever I get kind of down, I pick up this book. My mother used to say, `Never be too tired or too lazy when you go to bed to say a prayer.'"
It is Goeres' faith, he says, that "has gotten me through all those times" of upheaval. "When you believe strongly in God, no one can hurt you. You're a free person. You're in God's hands all the time. I still believe in guardian angels hovering over me."
Goeres has visited his surviving sister Elizabeth, now 83, in Bavaria several times. But he has never been back to Bessarabia. Its southern part is now in the Ukrainian Republic. The northern part is the independent country of Moldova. John Goeres often wonders what has happened to the farm "like paradise" where he spent his first 16 years of life.
Reprinted with permission of the Metro Lutheran, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
John Goeres with his sister Phyllis: photo taken at camp in Austria, 1940.