Family is Brought Together by Letters

Voorhis, Dan. "Family is Brought Together by Letters." Wichita Eagle, 2 May 1999, 11.

The rediscovery of a Kansas family's lost past began with a strange telephone call.

Rick Reichel of Andover was awakened at 2 a.m. last October by someone speaking German. The only thing he recognized was the name of his grandmother, Lydia Reichel.

The mystery began to sort itself out a few days later when, with the help of a translator, Reichel discovered a whole side of his family he had thought long dead.

In the two weeks after Christmas, four of the missing relatives -Lydia and Andreas Batt and their son and Granddaughter, all of Frankfurt, Germany - crowded into the west Wichita living room of Reichel's aunt, Lucille Herrman, along with others from his large family to get re-acquainted and tell the grim tale of where they've been all these years.

The Batts are descendants of Philipp Reinhardt. Lydia Batt is his daughter. The Americans are all descendants of Philipp's sister, Lydia Reinhardt, and after she married, she became Lydia Reichel. Lydia Batt and Lucille Herrman are frist cousins.

The story begins in 1911, when 18 year-old Philipp Reinhardt emigrated to Kansas from an area near the Volga River in Russia.

Philipp was a Volga German, a member of the huge community of German farmers who emigrated to Russia's Volga River 200 years ago.

Two years after Philipp arrived, 16 year-old Lydia followed him to Kansas. Their father had died and the family struggled until their mother remarried. Both felt unwelcome in their stepfather's household, so they left for America.

The brother and sister lived and worked on farms around Bison, near Great Bend, in late 1913 and early 1914.

Then Philipp made the fateful decision to return to Russia in the early months of 1914 to marry his sweetheart. By August, Russia was at war with Germany and Philipp couldn't get back to Kansas. The communists toppled the government in 1917 and the era of suspicion and repression began.

Philipp had failed to file his American naturalization papers before he left, making his return To America impossible.

Philipp settled among his family in his old home, Neu Donhof, a small farming community near Saratov on the western side of the Volga River. He raised a family and wrote letters to his sister in far-away Kansas, telling about his daily life.

About a dozen of the letters were kept for decades in an upstairs trunk in the Reichel house in Bison, until they were rediscovered by her daughters after her death in 1977.

Philipp farmed and held a number of jobs in Neu Donhof. But in 1929, Stalin began to force all farmers into collectives, state-owned farms, severly disrupting village life and driving Russia into a decade of famine. Philipp's letters from the time often list acquaintances and relatives who had died from starvation.

"If it was only $15, that would get us through the year, we hope (various relatives in America) will open their hearts and think of us," Philipp wrote on a 1933 letter to his sister.

Lydia Reichel sent him a few dollars when she could, despite the always tough times raising seven children on the Kansas prairie during the '20s and '30s. After an especially desperate appeal in 1933, she sent him $10 to buy a cow. That, he wrote later, helped stave off starvation. The Batts said the Communists later shot the cow.

Lydia Reichel got the last letter from Philipp in 1934. She never heard from him again.

"We never knew what happened to him," said Lydia Reichel's daughter, Lavergne Parr. "He would write about the famine, and we just figured he died of starvation."

Philipp was taken away to prison in the first of Stalin's purges, the Batts said. Millions of prominent and not-so-prominent people Stalin considered enemies of the state were excuted or worked to death during the '30s.

Philipp was shot in 1937 probably because he was German and had relatives in America, the Batts said.

Lydia Batt's memories of her father are understandably dim -- he was led away when she was only 5.

"He was a very nice man. He worked hard," said Lydia, her eyes betraying the presence of a strong sadness she struggled to share.

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin decided to ship all of the Volga Germans to Siberia.

"The Communists thought we were all Nazis," said Andreas.

Seven million Volga Germans were loaded into boxcars and sent east into Siberia and often dropped off in the middle of nowhere along the Trans-Siberian railroad. Only 2 million later returned.

Lydia Batt remembers how incredibly desprate life was at first. They lived in tents and wooden huts during the bitterly cold Siberian winter.

To this day, both she and Andreas grow emotional as they recall those times and at times grew frustrated that the language barrier prevented them from conveying just how deeply scarred their experiences have left them.

One time, Lydia recalled, they secretly dug up potatoes they discovered in the frozen ground. Had they been caught, they would have been shot.

"They wanted to slowly kill the people," the junior Andreas said of the Communists.

The family worked on a state farm, and times were especially grim during the war. Lydia's eldest brother, Waldemar, was shot in 1943 by the police.

Lydia and Andreas met in Siberia and married in 1947. Andreas was later forced to work in a hydro-electric plant near the Artic Circle, where an accident cost him seven inches of his leg. Both before and after his injury, Andreas worked every day - no holidays - for 49 years, he said.

"It was very hard," the elder Andreas said of life in Siberia. "Many families lost children because they were hungry and it was very cold."

In 1960, under Khruschev, they were allowed to leave Siberia, but not to return home to the Volga because the rich land had been taken by Russians. They had to settle in the semi-desert of Kazakhstan.

In 1988, under Gorbachev, the Batts and 60 of their relatives were allowed to emigrate to Germany. The Batts live in Frankfurt, where young Andreas is an insurance salesman.

The American relatives offered to fly to Germany, but Lydia Batt wouldn't wait.

"I'm growing old and I had a great yearning to come," she explained.

Last week, the Batts drove up to Bison to visit another cousin and see the family homestead.

Many of the Americans say they will go to Frankfurt this summer to visit and continue catching up on old times.

It has been a reunion of surprising warmth, despite the unfamiliarity and a partial language barrier.

"Some of the things have been sad but we've laughed a lot, too," Lavergne Parr said with real warmth. "It's been a good time."

Sitting in Herrman's living room Lydia leaned forward, pressed her hands over her heart and tried to express how she has felt about her welcome from her long-lost cousins.

Lydia spoke one German phrase over and over. Heer granddaughter, Katya, reached for the German-English Dictionary and translated her grandmother's thought:

"I have come home."

Side Bar

Excerpts from letters written to Lydia Reichel

"Your mother is very sad since you have not written, and she thinks you should come back. She is very well and also her children. I want to let you know that I have found a wife and invite you to the wedding, also all of your friends."

Philipp Reinhardt
Oct. 21, 1914

"Please don't forget us dear brother George and dear sister Lydia and children. It is hard to write of all our troubles and sometimes one has to shed bitter tears."

Philipp Reinhardt
Feb.7, 1929

"At the time I was in America where I worked for those people, it didn't even seem like I was a servant. And those big wages and good meals that I got and were on the table every day of the year--the good meat and sausage and pie and cake and eggs and good coffee every day of the year."

Philipp Reinhardt
March 12, 1932

"I will not write everything, but 14 people have already starved to death during the last month... Some places I could hardly stand it in the house because of the odor from dead horse meat that the people had to eat. And some people have almost taken the clothes off their back to get food."

Philipp Reinhardt
March 12, 1932

"I have to tell you that our father is in prison (probably a labor camp) but we do not know what his work is. He has been gone for two months already and we have not heard from him so we do not know whether he is living or not... If you had seen our father the way we saw him when they took him you would have been really stunned. He looked like a dead person. His face was so drawn, like a hundred-year-old man."

Wildemar Reinhardt
Philipp's son, in letter dated March 31, 1933
Philipp was later released.

"In the early morning hours on Friday, your brother and brother-in-law Reinhardt "left" because times are so hard; but I will stay true to my Lord and Savior until my time comes."

Philipp Reinhardt
July 20, 1934, the last letter recieved by Lydia Reichel.

Reprinted with permission of The Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas and Emmons County Record, Linton, North Dakota

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller