German-Russian Sisters’ Reunion Sparks Interest

Hendrickson, Lucille. “German-Russian Sisters’ Reunion Sparks Interest.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 1B.

In 1976, Lydia Deutscher of Bismarck traveled to inner Siberia for a reunion with her 85-year-old sister, Christine, whom none of the family had seen for more than 60 years.

Her amazing 6,000-mile odyssey into that highly restricted area of the Soviet Union made her something of a celebrity.

Lydia said that after her return from Russia, and The Tribune’s publication of an account of her journey, she was besieged with requests to speak before church and other organizations and received inquiries from people in and out of North Dakota who wanted to know how to go about making such a trip.

Like Lydia’s family, many of those people had left loved ones behind in the German communities of the Soviet Union when they migrated to America.

And like Christine, many of the relatives left behind had been herded onto trains during World War I and sent to the remotest regions of the Soviet Union, there to survive as best they could. Some were never heard from again, and others only sporadically.

Lydia’s maiden name is Neuhardt. When the newspaper article about her trip showed up in Hawaii, it was read with interest by a Lutheran missionary there. On making contact with Lydia, it was learned they are cousins.

The cousin, the Rev. Dennis A. Kasten, has since compiled a huge genealogy of the Neuhardt clans in the United States, whose members spell the name a variety of ways. The most illustrious member is the television star, Bob Newhart.

Among the many people who contacted Lydia was a Canadian couple. They journeyed a thousand miles from their home in Lacombe, Alberta, to talk with her in hopes of learning how they could visit a brother and sister in Russia.

Family ties are still very strong among the Germans from Russia, Lydia noted.

It was her own deep feeling for family, her strong religious faith and a German stubbornness that prompted Lydia’s decision to search out her sister in Russia, and that enabled her to surmount the difficulties of such an undertaking.

Lydia, now 67, was the youngest of 14 children when her family left Russia in 1914.

Christine, then in her 20s, remained behind because she was married and her husband had been conscripted into the Russian army.

The Neuhardt family settled in North Dakota, later living in Montana. A long time went by before they heard from Christine and then only rarely. They learned that her husband had been taken away for about 12 years, a time when she struggled alone to raise her children. He died in about 1969.

Since then, Christine has lived with a daughter in Astrakunka, a tiny village about 120 miles from the Siberian city of Tselinograd, some 3,000 miles east of Moscow.

Lydia’s eyes fill with tears when she recounts how she decided to make the trip to seek out her sister.

"There came a time when I kept thinking about her all the time and it just seemed as if God was telling me I should go," she said.

Not knowing how to go about it, she wrote to then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. A letter from Kissinger told her how to begin.

It took almost a year before she was issued a passport. She had no birth certificate and her parents were deceased. She finally obtained a copy of her school registration bearing her father’s signature, which was verified by a brother in Minneapolis and accepted by the U. S. Immigration Service office in St. Paul, Minn.

It took another year before she was granted a visa and air passage.

A Viking Travel agent said Russian Embassy officials repeatedly asked suspiciously why Lydia wanted to go to Siberia and who she wanted to see. It was learned that no Soviet airline guides list an air service from Moscow to Tselinograd and that even Russians must get authorization from the government to travel to that area. She finally got air travel authorization through the intervention of former U.S. Sen. Milton R. Young of North Dakota.

It was getting dark and the weather was snowy when she arrived in Moscow on March 31, 1976. A German-speaking security officer met her plane and took her to Metropole, a government agency. After filling out papers there, she was directed to go to the offices of Intourist. She nearly became lost on the dark Moscow streets and finally located the offices in a building with no sign and one dim light at the entrance.

Security people there took her by car to the huge Domogegovo Airport about 80 miles from Moscow. She was escorted onto her plane by an entourage of security men and no one else was allowed to board until she was seated.

On her arrival in Tselinograd, she was taken to police headquarters and from there to a bus station, where she boarded a bus for Astrakunka. A police car followed the bus, stopping it periodically to check on the American passenger, and departed only after escorting her to the door of her sister’s home.

The family later told her that the police had made an inspection of the home several months before her arrival.

Lydia said that despite the official visit and her letter saying she was coming, her relatives simply did not believe it would happen. The emotion they all felt when she entered the home was indescribable, she said.

Visiting there, Lydia said, was like stepping backward in time to pioneer days on the North Dakota prairie. She was shocked by the drab, hard life of the villagers.

People live in small, whitewashed earthen houses with no central heating or indoor plumbing. Cooking was done at a fireplace with a brick oven for baking the coarse dark bread that is their staple food. Meals invariably were potato or rice soup and bread with an occasional bit of meat.

The people have no refrigerators or ice boxes and no canning equipment. The vegetables they raise are pickled and stored in large crocks.

The one modern piece of household equipment in her sister’s home was a small electric washing machine.

Lydia said she tried to tell her sister and family what America was like but they couldn’t comprehend the freedom of life and the abundance of food and other material things.

She said the villagers had money but there was little to buy, and because there were no books, magazines or newspapers they knew little of the outside world.

The village schoolteacher invited Lydia to her home one afternoon, apologizing because she could serve her no tea or coffee. "I have money but there is none to buy," she told her guest.

Lydia, who works in the Super Valu bakery and makes fancy cakes as a hobby, had brought a cake decorating book with her.

Pointing to the colored photos, she told her sister "I make cakes like that."

The elderly sister grasped her hands, looked at them and said in wonder, "You must have hands of gold."

The villagers, Lydia said, were equally incredulous when told most Americans own at least one car and one or more television sets. In the entire village there were two cars and two television sets, she said.

Lydia learned from her relatives that Tselinograd was an important space launching site, which apparently accounted for the suspicions about the motives for her trip and for the police guard.

As the time neared to return home, her nephew expressed fears that she would not be permitted to leave.

I was rather fearful myself, Lydia admitted. When she went to bed that night, she prayed very hard that she’d get back safely.

“While I was praying, I saw a shadow on the wall and I fell three taps on my shoulder. I can’t explain it. I only know that after that my fear left me,” she said.

As she prepared to depart, she left everything she had brought with her except for a few necessities and the clothes she was wearing. The family and friends were distressed that they had so little to give so important a guest. One woman gave Lydia the best gift she had to offer - a handful of polished snail shells.

Reflecting on her trip and the obstacles it presented, Lydia said, "Christine was 85 years old. I could have gotten there and found her in such poor health she couldn’t talk to me, or even dead. She’s 90 now and I still hear from her."

She drew out the genealogy book prepared by her cousin.

On its cover is a verse from the Old Testament book of Malachi.

It reads: "And He shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers."

Lydia, in her deep spiritual conviction, believes God willed and guided her incredible and successful mission of love.

Despite many obstacles, Bismarcker Lydia Deutscher finally was able to visit her sister, Christine, 85, in the tiny Siberian village of Astrakunka in the Soviet Union. Christine, right, and her daughter, Helen, bake bread in their modest home.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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