How the East Was Won - Part II

By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia

Edited by Connie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington

Regina (Mueller) Zacher and her daughters: Hulda Opp b. 1907, Klara Kehrer b . 1910, and Pauline Zacher b. 1909. Photo taken about 1946 near Stuttgart, Germany.

Turning to another family line, Eva Ehman (1832-1875), my great-great-grandma, was born in war-torn East-Prussia. The family was constantly on the move during their life in East Prussia. Constantly they were searching for a permanent place to settle, but it didn’t happen in Prussia. In 1839 the family emigrated to South Russia and finally found their place in Teplitz, Bessarabia. Eva’s mother gave birth to 12 children, but only five – all girls – survived. Eva was the second oldest. What a difficult time these folks had. But Eva wasn’t about to give up. The parents farmed their homestead until they died. Eva’s sisters married very young. Eva took a job working at a village close by to Teplitz. She started seeing a young lad, Jakob Michael Gerber (1833-1908), a well-to-do young man from Teplitz. They became romantically involved and soon Eva was pregnant. Having a sense of honor, the young couple decided to marry and went to see the Pastor. Eva took the blame on herself. The Pastor told the couple that the marriage could not be held in the church, but they could be married privately in his office. Eva was advised as to the penance that was required for her misdeed. As directed, Eva attended church dressed in black to face the congregation. Only then was permission given for the couple to be married in private. But the groom’s parents gave a handsome donation to the church’s charity fund to persuade the Pastor to bend the rules, and Eva and Jakob got their rightful church wedding. Jakob was 18 years old, and Eva was 19. Jakob Gerber was an ambitious young man and did well. Eva gave birth to 13 children, and eight survived to build their lives on the successes of their parents. But the shadow from Jakob and Eva’s romance remained with them to the day they died. Their unexpected first child, Regina Gerber (1851-1898) married Johann Erhard Müller and became my great-grandmother. After she married Johann Müller (1849-1908), Regina bore 12 children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Regina was such a good mom. She died of a gallbladder problem at the age of 46. Her life could have been saved, but she refused to go to Odessa to see a doctor who could have helped her. That much trust in doctors she did not have. My Oma Paulina Müller was 10 ½ years old when her mother died. Paulina Müller (1888-1971) married Simon Zacher (1879-1945) and they had four daughters, three of whom survived to adulthood. Their oldest daughter was my mother, Anna Hulda Zacher (1907-1998). My Oma Paulina Zacher was talented in music and needlework, in addition to being an excellent cook and hostess. She strongly supported both education and culture for her daughters.

My mother Anna Hulda Zacher (1907-1998) married Andreas Opp (1902-1949) in 1929. During the first years of their marriage, mom and dad did well in Teplitz. Mom gave birth to five children, of which I was their firstborn and my brother Oskar was their third-born. One baby died in infancy in Teplitz and two more infants were war casualties in Europe. Before their marriage, dad was in the wagon-making business in Teplitz, and owned his own home. All went well until 1936 when Dad came down with rheumatic fever, the aftereffects of which he never overcame. With Dad not able to continue in the trade work, the family hit a financial wall. When in 1940 we were offered the resettlement program to return to Europe, it was felt that this would be a solution. It was not to be. The Trek and resettlement was the beginning of the end. The downhill path led not to settlement in Germany, but to resettlement in Poland amid hostile neighbors in a country occupied by Germany. Both common people and occupiers were blind to morality – they were in a fight for survival. At the end of the war, we Germans in Poland took the brunt of the hostile feelings of the Poles toward their occupiers and we were exposed to brutal retaliation. Our family paid a heavy price. Dad was arrested in 1945 and taken to a labor camp in the Ukraine where he was worked to death under starvation conditions. Mother, four months pregnant, was taken into custody with two-year old Inge (b. Sep 23, 1942 Suchary Poland) and in 1945 was placed into a detention camp near Bromberg [Bydgoszcz], Poland with inhumane conditions and starvation rations. Inge became severely malnourished and was taken away to the hospital - we never saw her again. My brother Oskar (age 9) and I (age 15) were taken into custody and were forced to work on a farm outside of Bromberg. Mom got a break from the Soviets who arranged her freedom since she was a German born in Russian territory. My brother and I got a break and escaped to join our mother. Together with other “Russians” we miraculously got out of Poland and made our way back to Germany – East Germany. There, mother gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. Mom was badly infected, weak and helpless – she came very close to dying. She fought back gallantly to stay alive for us. When the Soviets decided to partition off East Germany, we made a dash for West Germany. We arrived homeless, dejected and poor. But we had our mother, grandmother, and aunts, and slowly they nurtured us back to life. Mother would not have survived if she had not inherited her feisty pioneer spirit from our ancestors. With our backs against the wall, we learned to fight for our life as our ancestors had. What a God-given strength that is. Escaping from hell and getting to freedom is an experience so deep that at times it is difficult to explain. You truly come to feel the power of God combined with your human strength. When Mom, Oskar and I settled in Canada, we were able to rebuild our lives. To this day we are thankful for life and the ability to share that gift. Mom had a good life here in Canada and was with us to the end. During her dying days we were very close. As we had said so often, we again said at the moment of her passing, “Thank you, Mother.” She didn’t have to answer – she knew. God bless you, Mother, and rest in peace.

By Alfred Opp
Edited by Connie Dahlke


Alfred Opp is the author of "Pawns on the World Stage" - the memoirs of his childhood in Teplitz, Bessarabia and the experiences of his family in war-torn Europe (Poland during 1941-1945 before they fled to East Germany in 1945, then the reconstruction of West Germany 1945-1955).

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