In the shadow of a retaining wall - Buried to be forgotten
By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia
Edited by Connie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington
Christian S. was an honored member of the Teplitz community. He had built a good name and reputation by practicing wisdom and kindness. Christian was also well-known to my Opp family, being related to my paternal grandmother Regina (Erfle) Opp. My mother's dad called him a friend.
Christian grew up the only surviving child in his family. He was given the unusual opportunity to get an education beyond the school years in the village. He made good on the opportunity and became a Schreiber - a clerk. A Schreiber was highly respected for his clerical work in the community. He showed expertise not only in language and grammar skills, but also in penmanship. His writing was well-executed and every pen-stroke was placed in an appealing way. Christian made good on his education and excelled beyond the usual.
Christian recognized the need to improve wine culture. In his vineyard he developed a new variety of grapevine that was better suited for the Bessarabian soil. The new variety showed improved production both in quantity and quality. In 1911 Christian wrote a book on his studies so that everybody could benefit from his work. His father had been a farmer and part-time merchant. Christian was very much of the same mold. He made good on his family heritage, was prosperous, and received many honors.
One day Christian was visited by an old friend who came to ask him for a favor. The friend needed a guarantor's signature on a loan, before the deal could be ratified. The friend explained to Christian that this deal was too good to pass up. Trusting his friend, Christian signed.
Time passed, and one day Christian received a summons to appear at the Hall on a warrant to come up with some money for an outstanding loan. He was surprised, since he had not taken out a loan for such a large sum of money. On checking further, he found that his friend had taken the loan money and then disappeared. He was nowhere to be found. Christian had to pay up. In the process, he lost everything to his name. Now he was poor.
Christian could not bear the shame and disappointment he had caused for his family, so he committed suicide. His body was laid to rest, at sundown, in the section of the cemetery reserved for "sinners." The service was presided over, not by the Pastor or even the Kuster-Lehrer, but rather by a village Elder. Only family members were in attendance. This was the custom of the times. In the eyes of the church, a person who committed suicide committed a great sin. The "sinner's" section was on the sundown side of the graveyard along a retaining wall, away from the graves of the God-fearing. In the "sinner's" section were the people who took the life of another, intentionally or not, those of a religion other than Evangelical, and the remains of those of unknown identity. And those who committed suicide.
Christian had served the community well, with honor and dignity. In the eyes of our ancestors and of the church, the loss was his. But despite his death, his work and honor could not be entirely denied. The community continued to produce fine wine, both in quantity and quality, until we left in 1940.
I remember walking by those graves of the sinners when I was a child. I was distinctly afraid of the devils that might be present there. In later life, I now wonder why we thought those people had no soul.
Also resting at the wall was a human being who did nothing wrong. He was a farm worker starting on a job. Teplitz at the time was a place where the train stopped only briefly for people to get on or off. Riding the train to Teplitz, this fellow jumped off while the train was still slowing to a stop. He fell awkwardly when he hit the ground, then fell under the train, which ran over and killed him. His body was taken by wagon to the Hall, where the Gendarme made a report to give the next-of-kin the news. It was a very big thing at the time, and so tragic. I remember it so well, how can one not?
At that time I was staying with my grandparents not far from the Hall. Every one who heard about it was running over to the Hall-yard to have a look and see. However, children and pregnant women were not allowed to look at such a gruesome-looking body. Mom told me later that women who were expecting might get a schreck (literally a schriek) - a schock from seeing such things that could lead to a failed pregnancy or an abnormal birth. I ran down to the neighbor's place that was across the street from the Hall, to get a glimpse, but was only able to see the dead man's feet sticking out from his covered-up body.
They buried the dead man that same day at the same site Christian S. was buried. It was a place to rest and be forgotten. We had no funeral home to keep or preserve a body. We did have a Leichen Haus at the graveyard - it was a little building where digging tools and two coffin carriers were stored. It was large enough to keep a body in, and maybe they did at one time or another. The honorable way for our people to treat the dead was to keep the body at home until the funeral service.
Religious rules and customs as to how to treat the dead may have their roots back to ancestral times. A dead person doesn't know, of course, but it must be so sad for the survivors to live not only with grief, but in some cases with guilt, shame and disappointments.
My younger brother Helmut was buried in the Kinder Friedhof - the children's section of the Teplitz graveyard. This section was not far from the sinner's row. When Mother went to visit Helmut's grave, she would not look over to those sinner's graves, having a fearful feeling that she couldn't explain. I only dimly remember looking at those graves. What I do remember seeing is that many, if not all, showed little care such as a plant or flower on them. I am convinced, however, that God knows how these people felt in their final moments and will give them His understanding.