Escape from the USSR
1928 - David Flegel
By Arthur E. Flegel, Menlo Park, California
It was during the Fall of the year 1926 when David Flegel, aka David Ivanovitch, resident of the village, Marienbrunn in the North Caucasus of the Soviet Union, came to the realization that he was being systematically dispossessed by his Soviet officials. Born1867 in Kulm, Bessarabia, and later a successful farmer of the Kuban River area in the Caucasus to where his father, Johann Flegel, had brought the family in 1883, and having survived the 1917 Russian Revolution, he had become confident that he was in best of relations with the Soviet authorities. Now, in spite of the fact that he was a Russian citizen, fluent in the Russian language, had served as vice- mayor for the village, Markosovka, and had been instrumental in establishing the new village, Marienbrunn, in 1910 as well as serving as its mayor for several terms, his confidence was being shaken by a distressing turn of events.
While some members of the community had capitulated to the socialist,
communist ideology, because of his stature with the Caucasus authorities,
he had been led to believe that due to his social position and financial
security, he would be allowed to remain a free enterprise member
of the Russian society and his sons, of whom there were six, would
also, under normal conditions, be free from Soviet military service.
As time progressed, however, what had been common place bribes to
minor officials suddenly became large, expected requisites, which
together with the excessive taxes demanded by the federal government,
were rapidly depleting his holdings. Then he learned that along
with several other Marienbrunn farmers, he was now branded a “kulak.”
Strictly translated, “kulak” means stingy or tight-fisted.
But in Soviet times that definition was expanded to identify anyone
who had through his own efforts accumulated any degree of personal
wealth which in socialistic terms rightfully belonged to all the
people, in fact, the State.
This concern plagued him to the extent that he began to consider methods of a possible escape out of this degrading existence. Summoning his courage, he finally discussed his concern with his sons, Ephraim age 30, Alexander age 28 and Johannes age 21, to quickly learn that while Ephraim and Johannes readily revealed similar concerns, Alexander was reluctant to consider engaging in any kind of risk that might imperil his wife and children’s safety. Josua, the eldest son age 32, had previously moved to another village and was considering a further move to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Consequently, David with sons, Ephraim and Johannes, agreed to quietly mention this idea to others whom they trusted in the village for their reactions. To their satisfaction, ten families saw the benefit of undertaking such a venture.
To avoid detection, all thirteen families began to quietly dispose of their possessions, for by this time, a number of the community residents including some relatives were now confirmed Communists and would, therefore, be willing to incriminate others to ingratiate themselves with the authorities. Quite unexpectedly, Johannes Flegel was called into the military, but because he was a “kulak” and son of a “kulak” was not sent away into active duty. Instead, he was required to pay an annual fee of 1,000 rubles, but still as a Soviet soldier be subject to an unexpected call into active military service at any time.
During early 1927 an evening meeting was called for all “good” Soviet citizens which excluded the Flegels, Schulzes , Isaaks and Seibels who were now labelled despicable kulaks and as such had lost their voting rights. Johannes managed to smuggle himself into this restricted gathering and having hidden himself in a corner with close friends who protected him, heard their family friend, Alexander Widmer, who was in fact a kulak turned communist, betray others including the Flegels with the accusation of concealing large quantities of harvested grain from the Soviet officials. Accepting Widmer’s accusation as factual, the authorities fined the kulaks 1,000 to 2,000 rubles. Without funds to pay such a large fine, David Flegel was obliged to have son, Johannes, take five of their herd of twenty horses to the market at Piatigorsk to raise the required amount. Instead of receiving a receipt for the payment to clear this false indebtedness, they were given state lottery tickets for the amount paid, leaving the obligation still open. Subsequently, this practice continued until their livestock was depleted to 2 horses and 1 cow.
Having had all possible food stuffs extorted up to the point of starvation, David Flegel, August Isaak, Gottfried Schulz and Jacob Seibel were now called in for questioning about their respective crop yields, with the demand that each submit his most accurate assessment of his personal harvest at separate hearings. After David had given his computation, Johannes was called in from an adjacent room under guard, and reminded that as a soldier in the Red Army he must give a truthful estimate of the amount of grain harvested in his father’s fields. Not having any idea what his father might have said, his figure came to about ½ of his father’s statement. Whereupon, the inquisitors became livid with anger, swore at him and called him a terrible liar and a disgrace to the Soviet Army. Even though severely frightened, he maintained his calm and quietly reaffirmed that he had only given his most honest and accurate reply to their question, as best he could recall. As they continued to rage, he suggested they call in Johann Felsch, a common laborer who had no property, but had leased a hectare of land adjacent to the Flegels’ fields under support of his employer, Jakob Meister, who had provided him with equipment and horses to cultivate his acreage. Certainly, they should be able to believe this common laborer whose crop was actually poorer than the Flegels. The officials followed this suggestion and called Felsch whose stated harvest figure was one-half of the amount Johannes had quoted. However, they believed him and angrily drove the “Kulaks”out at gun point to be met by their fearful wives who had been nervously walking up and down the street in front of the building worried about their husbands’ fates.
The following day was quiet, but in the evening, the clerk of the
local city counsel named Meier came by David’s home to tell
him to be ready to be taken into custody on the coming evening.
Promptly at sundown, the police were there to arrest not only David
Flegel, but all four of the Marienbrunn senior elders and take them
to Mineralyyne Wody. Since Benjamin Deutsch, a friend of Johannes,
had beem comissioned to haul them in his wagon, Johannes asked him
the next morning where he had taken the men, thereby learning that
they were at the police station. Joined by Johannes Seibel who like
Johannes Flegel was a Soviet soldier, they went to the police station
on the following morning and requested an audience with the apprehended
men, which they were fortunately granted. They consoled the elders
with the assurance that all possible was being done to gain their
Meanwhile, Ephraim Flegel being well aware of the Russian propensity for solving a problem with alcohol, proceeded to take a large bottle of “schnapps” to the kanzlei (city hall) and generously offered each local official one drink after another until the bottle was empty . By that time, the officials had become quite pliable and readily agreed to act in favor of his father as well as the other jailed elders. Thus, after three days incarceration, the four senior men were released without explanation. However, as a recompense for the unique manner in which he was able to achieve his goal, Ephraim was forced to sit in a cold cellar with only bread and water for food for several days and nights. At this Ephraim was so enraged that he could hardly wait to get away from the oppressive condition. In confiding this to his wife, Else, he unexpectedly learned that she had some misgivings about leaving at all. This angered him even more, to the point that he threatened to take their two girls, Frieda and Helena, and leave the mother in Marienbrunn. Not wanting to be left alone, Else finally agreed to be included with the group for which she was afterwards eternally grateful, and very proud of her husband for being such a capable leader of the escaping assemblage.
Upon returning home, David also decided to no longer hold out for 10,000 to 12,000 rubles, but to sell his land and homesite for whatever he could get. A few days later, a Russian came by with an offer of 2,000 rubles which was actually a pittance for such a fine property, but David agreed to the sale. Upon hearing of this, the Marienbrunn burgermeister (mayor), Solomon Herter, came to David with the demand that he sell the property to the community for the same amount, 2,000 rubles, and cancel the sale to the Russian, to which David reluctantly complied, for no one in Marienbrunn had previously come forward with any type of offer for the real estate. An auction was held to dispose of the one cow, two horses and equipment as well as the household items. This accounted for about 3,000 rubles. Ephraim, assuming leadership of the group, went to Piatigorsk to acquire the necessary travel documents.
On June 28, 1928, everything being in readiness, community members from near and far came by for final tearful farewells, regardless of political differences or family mis-understandings, some of which were quite extreme and of long standing. Those who had warned them with the words, “You won’t make it in any case and will only subject your wives and children to needless harm.” came by to wish them well and Godspeed. Andreas Flatho, son-in-law of David, Alexander Flegel, Daniel’s son, nephew of David, and Johannes Widmer, nephew of David, came with vehicles to haul the eight families to the railway station at Mineralyyne Wody. These families included the three Flegels, David, Ephraim and Johannes, and families of Abraham Kurtz, Reinhold Pries, Emil Eslinger, Emil Stein, and Gustav Meister.
Having been called for 3 months limited duty as Soviet soldiers, Johannes Flegel and Emil Eslinger were without passports, even though they had along with all the others acquired railway and steamship tickets for the passage across the Caspian Sea. While the others were prepared to depart momentarily, conditions became precarious for Flegel and Eslinger without passports, and Emil Stein who had just joined the group and was, therefore, lacking both a passport and travel tickets. Ultimately, these three families were left behind in Mineralyyne Wody, spending the night with friends while the men repeatedly visited the commandant’s office who, however, failed to make an appearance. Recognizing this as a typical bribery strategy, the three men invited the local officials to join them for drinks at a “gasthaus” (inn), which the officials readily accepted. As the party progressed into the wee hours of the night, the Soviet officials became sufficiently altruistic to the extent that they gave assurance that the necessary passports would be ready early in the morning of the 29th, which actually occurred precisely as had been promised.
However, to make everything legal, the passports still required an official stamping by the police whose office would not open until 8:30 AM. The women and children were prepared to board with the luggage as soon as the train bound for Baku on the Caspian Sea would arrive about 10AM. As the men were restively waiting, their repeated inquiries were answered with the oft repeated statement that the official would be in his office within half an hour, but no one with the proper authority ever appeared, causing the men to become more and more agitated. With the sound of the approaching train, a decision for three possible options had to be made quickly: (1) should they all remain together for another day? (2) should the women and children be sent on ahead?, or (3) should the men leave with their families without the passports having been stamped? At that very moment, a friend, Jacob Seibel, came by and learning of their plight, suggested they leave without the official stampings. All three families readily accepted that alternative and everyone was aboard when the train left the station bound for Baku at 10:20 AM..
Upon their arrival in Baku at 4:30 AM on June 30 they found the rest of their party had been concernedly waiting at the station for them the past twenty-four hours. Amazed and delighted that the three men had made the trip without the passport certifications, all eight families were now able to board the ship together to cross the Caspian Sea.. Two porters, one Turkish and one Persian were employed to transfer the heavy luggage the two kilometers across town from the railway station to the harbor for the 6 PM departure time.
During the day, Ephraim and Johannes had found occasion to visit the local market place where they met a group of Jewish traders who were buying and selling state lottery tickets. Quickly collecting all the tickets the families had brought along which they had previously received from the authorities at Marienbrunn and Mineralyyne Wody for the fines imposed upon them, they agreed upon a price of 60% of their value with the traders and thereby accumulated nearly 12,000 rubles for the lottery tickets that they had considered almost worthless, but had fortunately saved. Ephraim and Johannes had maintained contact with Josua by telegraph who was in another village preparing to leave for Tashkent, and were able to inform him about the rare opportunity to sell his tickets for 60% of their value, as well as encouraging him to alter his plans and join them for the escape into Persia. He did come to Baku by train to profitably dispose of the tickets but did not alter his plans from continuing to Tashkent at that time.
The ship left Baku at 6 PM to arrive at Krasnovodsk on the opposite shore of the Caspian Sea the next forenoon. Having been warned by the railroad officials about the presence of pickpockets and thieves, two of the men took turns guarding their possessions as the group spent the entire night in the railway station waiting room. The following morning, they bought food supplies and waited for the fast train which arrived near noon and speedily carried them the approximate 300 km (180 mi.) to Ashkhabad near the Persian border which lies about 700 km west of Tashkent. The train stopped at Kisle Dag (spelled Kilitath by some) a suburb village of Ashkhabad which lay about 35 km (20 mi) from the border. Acquiring local transportation, they made their way under an almost unbearable desert heat to a schoolhouse 2 kilometers from the border which was the appointed location where they were to meet Eduard Janz and Alexander Kurtz who had gone ahead to explore the terrain and possibilities of crossing the mountains to Mashhad (Meshed) in Persia.. The young men had actually walked the 20 km from inside the Persian border to this location where they were awaiting the arrival of the families.
All at once, a strong difference of opinion between the two young men became apparent. Kurtz, who was acknowledged as a very honest person, warned David that the trek across the hills was a risky and dangerous undertaking, and should not be attempted, while Janz who was known for his habit of exaggerating and fabricating, affirmed that while he realized that his word couldn’t always be trusted in the past, this time he was being absolutely honest in stating that the crossing was indeed possible. At this strong statement, David Flegel looked hard at the young man and with these words endorsed his commitment, “Eduard, I have known you all of your life, your good points and your bad. Now, I really want to take your word, for we have come this far and there is actually no turning back. So, you and I must accept the full responsibility for bringing these families safely across the border into Persia and across the mountains to the city, Mashhad, (Meshed).” While nearly everyone agreed with the father, also known as uncle David, a total of five families, including Abraham Kurtz, father of Alexander and Ephraim Flegel, brother-in-law of Alexander, influenced by his wife, Else, along with Gustav Meister and the widow Spielmann chose to follow Alexander’s advice and began to make preparations to return to Marienbrunn.
While those families returned to the town, Kisle Dag, in anticipation of leaving the following morning, the other families spent the night in the school house. Janz had previously been given 200 rubles per family to obtain permission from the Soviet officials for the group to bail hay on the Russian, and afterwards the Persian side of the border, and fortunately obtained those essential passports for this endeavor that very morning. Whereupon, Eslinger, and Stein accompanied by Janz, quickly hitched their horses to a carriage and raced the 20 miles to Kisle Dag to present the good news to the five families, arriving there just as the others were preparing to board the train for the return trip to Krasnovodsk, and on back to Marienbrunn.. However, a unique incident had also taken place earlier that day, when Ephraim Flegel and Gustav Meister were informed by a Russian official that the wire which had been ordered for the hay bailing operation had arrived and was ready to be picked up. Already beset with misgivings for his hasty action of the previous day, after having served as leader of the group up until this episode, and now, as Janz handed all of them the four month passport into Persia that included their entire families, Ephraim Flegel was moved to totally reverse his earlier decision and vowed to remain with the escaping refugees, at which he was joined by Abraham Kurtz, father of Alexander.
However, Alexander Kurtz and Gustav Meister held to their conviction to return to Marienbrunn Upon arriving at the seaport, Krasnovodsk, these two families chanced to meet Josua Flegel and Johann Wittchen enroute to Tashkent. Upon learning what had taken place, Josua was faced with the need to make an immediate decision. Having positively no intention of returning to Marienbrunn, he decided to change his plans and join the others in the deceptive hay-bailing operation. Instead of continuing to Tashkent, he ordered that his goods which had been sent on ahead be shipped back to Kisle Dag while he and his family would take the next train from Krasnodarsk to that location where they would meet the others. At Kisle Dag, the familiar faces they assumed would be present were no where in sight. Again in a quandary, Josua’s family decided to reconnoiter by simple sitting under a shade tree and hope for someone to appear. Coincidentally, not knowing that others had picked up the bailing wire, Johannes Flegel drove his wagon from the Persian border to Kisle Dag, where instead of the wire, he found and was able to pick up his brother, Josua, and family for a happy reunion..
The hay bailing venture required the purchase of horses, wagons and other necessary equipment for which they needed to go to not too distant, Ashkhabad. Most of the animals available in this desert area were, of course, riding horses, so they needed to carefully select what appeared to be the most sturdily built animals for the nature of work involved and then proceed to break them to harness as well as teach them how to pull and properly work together as a team.
A couple of weeks later when everything was in readiness to proceed with the bailing operation, Eduard Janz pleaded for permission to return to Marienbrunn and convince his parents that this was a well-planned, relatively safe arrangement. Permission was granted and the final crossing into Persian territory was delayed until the entire Janz family could join the group. However, when Janz returned to Marienbrunn, he learned that Alexander Kurtz who had returned to the village two weeks earlier, had developed such an intense hatred against him for having had his proposition accepted, that he determined to get revenge by having him arrested at night while he was asleep. Learning of this plan, Johannes Widmer, Helena Flegel’s husband, awakened Eduard and advised him to leave quickly. He did so and walked the 20 km (12 miles) to Mineralyyne Wody where he met a German barber friend whose shop was near the railroad, and who kindly purchased the tickets for him. Janz hid himself until the train was beginning to move when he jumped on and got away while Kurtz and the police were at the front gate expecting to nab him.
Upon returning to the Persian border encampment, he begged the others to hold up the final crossing until his parents and siblings would arrive, which actually took another two weeks. Reacting to the need for action, however, several chose to go on ahead to get started with the haying operation on the Persian side of the border. During those two weeks, additional families arrived to join the escaping party, namely, David Brost, Friedrich Brost, Daniel Isaak, Johannes Knodel and Reinhold Selcho. While Johannes Flegel, Emil Eslinger and Emil Stein were hauling these families’ goods from the railway to the border, Janz was busy acquiring their passports from the border guards. Three young, single men, Jakob Prochnau, Heinrich Eck and Heinrich Schmidt of the Mennonite Brethren faith from Alexandrodar in the Caucasus, suddenly appeared and requested permission to also attach themselves to the group.
Eventually all families were on Persian soil with the exception of the parents of Ed Janz for whom all were waiting. When they finally did arrive, the Sr. Janz insisted on seeing the crossing place before he would take his family any further, to which his son readily complied. Having satisfied his father, they returned to the family to find the police already there waiting to arrest them. Eduard was able to get word to his wife, offering her the option of going on with the others, or returning to be with him. She decided to leave the group and return with her children to be with her husband. To this day, no one has been able to learn specifically what happened to the Janz family. Two stories about Eduard Janz did surface, (1) that he had been imprisoned where he died of starvation, and (2) that he had been suspended in a large vat of ice water until he succumbed. Nevertheless, the fate of the entire family still remains a mystery.
The rest of the refugee group continued bailing hay which was sold to both Persian and Russian traders until October, all the time waiting for the return of Eduard Janz, which never happened. During that time they also made their vehicles into covered wagons. Finally, it was agreed the time was now right to move on to fulfill the originally intended plans. Josua and Ephraim Flegel, the accepted leaders of the group, acquired permission from the Persian authorities to travel through their country, and hired a Persian guide at the village, Tassakala, to lead the caravan through the mountains, while Benjamin Wagner, Daniel Isaak and Johannes Flegel were appointed hunters of wild game for the trek..
Their journey began as a caravan of eleven covered wagons with, in some cases, two families sharing one wagon. The loads consisted of food, water, clothing, bedding, small equipment and even larger items such as sewing machines. The first day, following a riding trail over some fairly level as well as passable hilly country they covered about 15 to 20 kilometers, until they arrived at a Persian village where they camped for the night, sleeping in the wagons and cooking on piles of rocks. From that point on, the terrain became more steep, still passable, however, but now they could average only 6 to 8 kilometers per day over a very curving trail. One evening the guide explained that for the next several days as they reached the higher mountains, they would encounter the most difficult portion of the entire route. This soon became apparent when they found only narrow trails over a terrain that had never seen wagon wheels, which in addition required their building roads across ravine beds.
Abruptly, they came to a sheer cliff approximately 1 km in length, along which only a narrow horse trail existed. The lead wagon, shared by Eslinger and Selcho, each having one horse, came too close to the edge causing it to tip and roll down the incline. Eslinger’s horse broke loose at the top and was OK. Selcho’s horse rolled with the wagon, finally coming to a stop about 10 meters (30 feet) on a level area where it was caught on some shrubs. The men descended to the spot, unhitched the injured animal and almost physically carried the beast to the top of the hill. Meanwhile the wagon rolled another 8 meters where it rested against a huge boulder. The men were able to retrieve the wagon with most of the load with the exception of the cooking utensils and sewing machine which had previously fallen out, to end up at the bottom of the canyon some 600 feet below. They were pleased and grateful at having avoided a more serious loss, and were later able to hitch both horses to the wagon, even though the one had sustained serious bruises.
Having learned a valuable lesson, all horses were unhitched and singly led by the women and children along the balance of this narrow trail, while the men pulled the wagons, one by one, trying to make certain that all wheels were on solid ground. In several instances, where the upper wheels were on the hillside, it was necessary for the men to physically support or carry the lower side of each of the eleven wagons for several feet over precarious areas. This was a slow and tedious process which took all of one day and on until midnight, after which it was appropriately wise to again hitch the horses to the wagons and travel another 5 km (3 miles) to a watering place. Earlier in the day, being very thirsty, Frieda Flegel, Ephraim’s 8 year old daughter had found a damp spot in the dry creek bed and scratching away the sand and rocks uncovered brackish water which being strained offered each person a small drink, but not really enough to totally quench the thirsts as well as none for the animals. Feeling the need to recuperate from the ordeal of the previous day, they camped by the flowing stream that night plus another 24 hours.
As they traversed this hazardous region, there were occasions when some of the horses balked at pulling the loads. At such times, it became necessary to blindfold the animals and slowly lead them through the dangerous areas. In this manner, they made their way successfully through the most dangerous portion of the trek. From time to time, as the route lead through a level area, the caravan passed by villages that revealed a most primitive and impoverished lifestyle which provided much food for thought, relative what they had left behind in Russia as well as what the future may have in store for them.
The descent down the north-eastern slope of the Kopat mountain range, although less treacherous than that which had previously been negotiated, continued to be quite hazardous. Traversing a steep decline required the exercise of their best ingenuity, such as sliding heavy timbers through the spokes of the wagon wheels and tying them firmly together to make the wheels slide instead of turn. Then, with all able-bodied men, women and youths walking and the horses being slowly and carefully led down the steep hillside, the descent was gradually negotiated, thereby avoiding mishaps, all of which was another tedious process. At one time the route led through a canyon with sheer cliffs on either side of a creek which could only be traversed by removing large rocks from the creek bed and moving along very slowly in this manner for an entire day. Occasionally a wagon would tip over, sometimes containing family members, but being quickly up-righted avoided serious injury or problems developing.
Finally, the caravan arrived at Bojnurd where it met up with Ephraim Flegel and Ferdinand Wagner who had left the hay bailing operation two days prior to the full group’s departure, and had ridden there on horseback Ephraim had met with the Persian Counsels at Mineralyyne Wody and Baku to assure the party’s safety while in Persia., and now at Bojnurd, a town of 6,000 population in the Persian foothills, desired to meet with the Persian authorities and verify the earlier agreements. However, the two accidentally stumbled into a Persian military detachment where the guard stopped them and demanded to see their passports which Ephraim couldn’t produce. The guard then called his commanding officer who could speak Russian fluently and Ephraim explained the situation to him, but to no avail, they were taken into the stockade. Sitting there, it became quite hot and uncomfortable, prompting Ephraim to remove his outer garments which revealed the desired papers in one of his vest pockets. When these documents were presented to the officer, his demeanor changed abruptly. Suddenly he treated Ephraim and Ferdinand like long lost brothers and the entire detachment couldn’t do enough for them.
The balance of the caravan arrived a two weeks later, having covered the 70 km (42 miles) in about three weeks, while the two men on horseback had traveled the same route in less than three days. The families were greeted most cordially by the Persian army and were provided with food and lodging. In addition, two soldiers brought bags of food, clothing and shoes for each family which were presented along with individual passports that entitled each family to travel wherever it desired under full protection of the Persian government and military. The local government also advertized on behalf of the refugees, that these Germans were hard working people of highest integrity who could be recommended as good farmers or workers to anyone. Whereupon several of the wealthy landowners approached them with overtures offering share-cropper opportunities on their lands. This was quite appealing, but being determined to ultimately get to either the United States or Germany, they resolved to avoid becoming too deeply involved.
At this juncture, having made contact with their Mennonite emissary, the three Mennonite men left the group, proceeding on their own and ending up in Brazil. An amazing coincidence brought this drama to light when, while engaged in an AHSGR organized German-Russian People to People Tour of South America during 1978, the writer, Arthur Flegel met Jakob Prochnau at Witmarsum near Curitiba, Brazil. Prochnau , the only still living member of the threesome, was the same age as Johannes Flegel and well recalled the trek across the mountains to Mashhad, Persia. Eager to again meet and visit with Johannes, Prochnau announced that he and his wife would be visiting their son in British Columbia during the following year, 1979, and were pleased to be invited for a stop-over in Menlo Park, California enroute. Since Johannes and Katie Flegel were planning to visit his cousin, the Arthur Flegels in 1980, it was hoped that they could alter their plans and come a year earlier. Unfortunately, this was not workable for Johannes, rendering it impossible for these two pilgrims from participating in a reunion and time of recounting their travel adventures during their escape from the oppressive Soviet Union one-half century earlier.
Several of the refugee group did accept the offer of a wealthy
land-owner to settle on his land near the village, Givak, about
350 population. They were provided with huts as living quarters
which they white-washed inside and out. A creek near the village
offered opportunity for fishing by the men while the women gathered
wild berries that grew in abundance along the creek bed. They were
also given food until they had become established and grain for
planting. To earn extra money, they contracted to haul rocks and
did odd jobs whenever available. While the men were fishing, they
noticed a wild boar and ordered David’s sixteen year old son,
Jonathan, to bring a fire-arm to shoot the animal. Instead, he found
a double-barreled shotgun with which he took after the wild boar
on his own. Suddenly, meeting up with the beast which charged him,
he took aim and luckily shot it in the head. Although mortally wounded
the boar continued to charge, as Jonathan stood his ground and with
a second shot did kill it. A very sturdy horse was needed to carry
the boar into camp. The skinning process was an unusually strange
procedure for the Persians passing by, who would constantly stop
to observe this operation.
One of these passers-by was a land-owner in the area who offered food and planting seed to Ephraim and Johannes Flegel and Ferdinand Wagner, which they accepted. According to family tradition, the owner needed to obtain permission for this action from his father in Bojnurd and promised to return the following morning to consummate the arrangement. Everything worked out as planned. For accommodations, the owner’s home consisted of two rooms, one quite large in which the two Flegel families plus Wagner were quartered, while the owner lived in the adjacent, smaller room. It being three days before Christmas, the Germans began to make preparations for the Holiday. While Johannes and Ferdinand drove to the foot hills to procure wood, Ephraim built an outdoor limestone oven enabling the women to bake pastries for Christmas. They had broiled the wild boar for that evening’s dinner and invited the Persian to join them. Although it is not normally permitted for a Moslem to eat hog meat, the youthful landlord found it quite tasty and seemingly enjoyed himself in the company of these freedom seeking Germans and their typically German-Russian meal. Johannes and Ferdinand had returned with not only the wood, but also a Christmas tree which was quickly decorated with ornaments of various unusual designs and quality gathered on the spur of the moment.
The following day, the Persian arranged for the butchering of a lamb and prepared a sumptuous Christmas dinner which he enjoyed sharing with the Flegels and Ferdinand Wagner.
Two days later, plowing for the planting of winter wheat began. Having provided the equipment available, which was rather primitive at best, the landlord gave instructions to the local shop keepers to charge whatever his tenants might want to purchase to his account, some of which he later deducted from their pay. Altogether, he treated them very generously, giving them grain which they were able to have ground into flour in a primitive stone mill, assuring a comfortable survival through the winter. In February, they sowed another of his fields with summer wheat.
Having been settled in an undesirable locality, when spring arrived, Josua Flegel and Daniel Isaak decided to go on to Mashhad to seek better farming conditions. There they were introduced to a wealthy Army Officer living at the village, Torog, who was eager to have these Germans settle on his lands. He withdrew money from the local bank to give to Josua to pay off any and all indebtedness to the landlord he was leaving. When the families of Ephraim and Johannes Flegel learned that the other Flegels which included their husband’s father, David, were moving south to Mashhad, they did not want to remain in this distant community by themselves and urged their husbands and fathers to also make the move. True to his contract, however, and being without family obligations, Ferdinand Wagner did remain to conclude the grain harvests.
Enroute, they halted for six months at Shirvan where they found employment hauling raisins to Mashhad on order of a Georgian trader from Tiflis (Tblisi) in the Trans-Caucasus for the brewing of whiskey. Then came the localized earthquake of May 1, 1929. On this quiet evening, several women, which included Karoline Flegel, David’s wife, Hulda Flegel, Josua’s wife, Emilie Pries, Reinhold’s wife and Rachel Brost, David’s wife, were sitting on a porch enjoying the mild evening with song, when suddenly the building collapsed covering all of them. Fortunately, they escaped with only minor scratches and abrasions. A masonry wall fell on Uncle David, but did him no serious harm. Else, Ephraim’s wife was working in the yard and barely felt the quake, but both their daughters, Frieda and Helena were covered with fallen timbers that had to be removed physically. Benjamin Wagner’s child was in a crib that was totally covered with falling debris, but the infant suffered no harm. Major loss for the refugees was death of one of Josua Flegel’s horses.
Quite remarkably, the men at work in the fields 2 km distant were having their evening meal alongside the road when it appeared that the horses had become agitated and were moving the wagons. Not until they saw people running from their houses, did they realize that an earthquake had taken place. Unfortunately, quite a number of Persians lost their lives in and about the city, Shirvan due to the poorly constructed buildings which easily collapsed from the quake totally covering or killing the inhabitants. Since their residences at Shirvan were now in shambles, the Georgian raisin buyer arranged for the entire group to camp in the well-groomed cemetery, where they remained for 6 weeks. All of this served as an added incentive for the group to speedily continue their move southward to Mashhad.
At Mashhad they were met by a Persian officer who provided the
families with housing and settled them on his land, where they promptly
sowed summer wheat for early fall harvesting.
Since they had wagons, the landlord arranged for them to haul extra wheat for others in the community to the city for export. This was normally accomplished with pack mules in the primitive fashion, rendering the wagons a greatly advanced method of transportation. In the fall, they planted winter wheat on a 50/50 basis with the landlord providing the seed and irrigation water. At Mashhad, David also engaged in house building as desired and requested by the natives. For this, they needed to bring lumber from a locality some 60 km distant, a trip that required two days in each direction, plus a day for loading the lumber.
Things were going reasonably well until that fatal time in early November when David having traveled a day’s drive with sons, Ephraim and Johannes, suddenly developed abdominal pains. The young men desired to turn around immediately, but their father, David, insisted that it was only gas pains which would finally go away and even stated that the pain was lessening. Thus, they proceeded another day going to the location, then taking most of one day to load the lumber and an additional two days to return to Mashhad. By that time, David was a very sick man whom they rushed to the Presbyterian hospital attended by an American missionary doctor, named Rolla Hoffman. He promptly operated on David, but the surgery was in vain, for the pain had been his inflamed appendix which had burst causing peritonitis to set in. He died November 6, 1929 and was buried at Torog, a suburb of Mashhad.
Thus, Uncle David Flegel did not live to enjoy spending his remaining
years in a free country. His funeral service was held by Friedrich
Schaeffer, a lay preacher from Eigenfeld on the Kuban in the Caucasus
who joined the group at Mashhad, Persia, and was assisted by David’s
son, Josua Flegel. These two also presided at the funerals of Abraham
Flegel age 22, who died of typhus, Karoline (Kujat) Brost, Friedrich’s
wife, who died of cancer, Johann Brost, David’s son, as well
as children of Benjamin Wagner, Emil Eslinger, Johannes Knodel and
At the birth of Katie and Johannes Flegel’s daughter, Helene, Katie informed the Dr. Hoffmann that her surname was identical to his, which he considered interesting. He also treated a number of the group’s illnesses, including Helena Flegel, Ephriam’s daughter as she endured a bout with Malaria.
Another remarkable coincidence relative this episode occurred in 1959, when while attending a Presbyterian Church Mission Conference in California, Arthur and Cleora Flegel heard this same Dr. Hoffman speak about his experiences as a Missionary Doctor in Persia.in1929, to also learn that some of the people he had served were in fact Arthur’s cousins fleeing from Soviet tyranny. Dr. Rolla Hoffman spent his retirement years at Westminster Gardens, Arcadia, California.
Notwithstanding the solicitous treatment afforded them by the Persians, the escaping group did not alter their determination to end their flight in either the United States or Germany. Overtures to the American embassy being rejected, they appealed to the German Counsel, Franke, who not only accepted their request, but arranged under the President Von Hindenburg and the Lutheran Church to have them resettled in Mecklenberg of northern Germany. After all the crops had been harvested and construction projects completed by late October 1930, the German Consulate was prepared to provide funds and means for the entire group’s transportation from Persia to the country of their ancestral origin.
Having disposed of all possessions that could not be carried with them which included horses, wagons and household items, on 10 November 1930 under care of the German government, they departed by truck from Mashhad to Teheran and from there by truck to the Iraq border. They were carried by train from the border to Bagdad and on across the desert to Damascus, Syria,. from where they rode in new automobiles on excellent roads to Beirut, Lebanon. Here they waited five days for the ship that would carry them to Marseille, France, a voyage that took six days, during which they received most excellent care by the ship’s crew and similarly by the German representatives at the seaport. From there, on a swift French train they were carried to Kehl, Germany, just across the border from Strasbourg, France where they were divided into two groups traveling a day apart. From Kehl, the route continued northeast to its destination at Moellen near Krakow am See, east of Schwerin, where they arrived December 10, 1930 at 8 PM and were quartered in military barracks, where they remained until January 31, 1931.
Meanwhile, a large acreage of land had been purchased from the land-owner, Roth, at Schossin, near Schwerin, Mecklenburg by an organization from Berlin, probably the VDA, (Volksdeutsche im Ausland) the predecessor of the DAI (Deutsches Ausland Institut) (Germans in Foreign Lands Institut) which was created to help Germans in and from foreign lands. Each family was assigned an acreage with materials for construction of dwelling places. By June 31, every family had their own home site and were working the fields for the planting. In some cases, such as with Ephraim Flegel, many loads of sand, gravel and soil needed to be hauled in to fill the swampy area that had here-to-fore, been unsuitable for farming.
The first general occupation for all families was the sorting of potatoes for early planting, with the development of the area proceeding in a normal industrious fashion thereafter. Not all families remained in Schossin, some going south to Wittenberg, others north to Schwerin as well as elsewhere. After WWII when Berlin was being divided between the Soviets and three Western Powers, that area of Mecklenberg was traded to the Soviets for a larger slice of Berlin. Thus, the families again found themselves under Soviet domination from which to be freed they had undergone so much two decades before. While some remained in “East Germany” (DDR), a large number, managed to move into “West Germany” (BRD) where they created a satisfactory lifestyle for themselves and their families. Presently, the third and fourth generations have been totally assimilated into the German culture to be scattered all over that land as well as elsewhere.
Herewith is a list the people who were associated with or participated in the escape into Persia:
David Flegel Sr., wife Karolina Fischer, children: Abraham, Jonathan,
Friedrich, Ida, Maria.
(David died in Persia 1929, Abraham died in Persia 1930)
Josua Flegel, David’s son, wife Hulda Schell, children: Woldemar, Emelie, lived at Wittenberg.
Ephraim Flegel, David’s son, wife Else Kurtz, children: Frieda, Helena, Arthur born in Persia, family settled at Schossin.
Johannes Flegel, David’s son, wife Katherina Hoffman, child Wilhelm (Willi) settled at Schossin later moved to Westerwald in Hesse.
Friedrich Brost Sr., wife Karolina Kujat died in Persia, settled
David Brost, Friedrich’s son, wife Rahel (Rachel) Pries, cousin of Reinhold Pries, children: Johann who died in Persia, Jonathan, Friedrich, Theodore, settled at Schossin.
Benjamin Wagner, wife Amalia Brost, Friedrich’s daughter, children: Theodore, Leontina, Frieda who died in Persia; (Family went to Uruguay where Benjamin died, Amalia returned to Schossin with son Theodore in 1972).
Abraham Kurtz Sr., wife Lydia Schmidt, children Else husband Ephraim
Flegel), Johanna, Jonathan, Cornelia, Angelica, settled at Schossin.
Alexander Kurtz, Abraham’s son, with wife and children returned to Marienbrunn.
Gustav Meister, with wife and children returned to Marienbrunn.
Reinhold Pries, wife Emilie Issak, daughter of August Isaak, children:
Ida, Berta, Jonathan, settled at Schossin.(Ida became wife of Jonathan
Jonathan Pries, single man, brother of Rachel Pries Brost,
Emil Eslinger, wife Olga -------, children Nellie, Hilda, (son
died in Persia),
Daniel Isaac, wife Bertha Treichel(?), child Bertha, 2nd child Ingelene, daughter of Daniel’s bro. Gotthilf (died?).and Bertha Treichel, her 1st marriage. Settled at Schossin.
Johannes Knodel, wife Naomi Schulz, children: Ludmila, son born/died
Reinhold Selcho, wife Maria Hasert, no further record.
Emil Stein, wife Lydia Spielmann, children: Bertha, Helena, Ella, Maria born in Persia;
Ephraim Spielmann, single man, brother of Lydia, remained with escapees.
Wihelmina Spielmann, widow, mo of above, with son Johann, dau Ida, ret’d to Marienbrunn
(Wilhelmina was exiled to Kazachstan, at age 80 able to come to Schossin).
Ferdinand Wagner, single man–not related to Benjamin Wagner,
(wife would not leave, stayed with children in Marienbrunn) He reportedly
remarried, lived in Mecklenberg.
Johannes Herdt, single man, no further record.
Eduard Janz, wife and children along with parents and siblings arrested by Soviets, fate unknown
Friedrich Schaefer and family from Eigenfeld, Caucasus, Baptist lay preacher, joined group at Mashhad, served at funerals with Josua Flegel.
Emil Eifler and Jakob Krebs and family, Johann Kunoff and family,
joined group later,
David Prochnau, Heinrich Eck, Heinrich Schmidt, single, Mennonite threesome, joined later,
Alexander Kurtz, son of Abraham, with wife and children returned
to Marienbrunn, later suffered under Soviets.
Gustav Meister, with wife and children returned to Marienbrunn, later suffered under Soviets.
David Flegel’s father was Johann Flegel, who moved from Kulm,
Bessarabia to the Caucasus.
Johann had the following children: daughter Wilhelmine, husband Johannes Widmer remained in Marienbrunn, son Daniel and family remained in Marienbrunn, son David who initiated the escape, son Johann emigrated for the USA, father of the author, Arthur Flegel, daughter Sophie, husband Abraham Widmer, remained in Marienbrunn, son Gottfried emigrated for the USA, daughter Rebekka, husband Gottlieb Hartfelder,.remained in Marienbrunn David’s children who remained in Marienbrunn were Alexander married to Maria Freier, Johanna married to Andreas Flato and Helene married to Johannes Widmer, All who remained in Marienbrunn, regardless of political leanings, but only because they were German, were later displaced and suffered severely under the Soviets.
The foregoing account is the result of numerous interviews held in Germany with people who had first-hand experience and knowledge of the escape from Soviet Russia, they were, Johannes Flegel, Jonathan Flegel, Else (Kurtz) Flegel, Frieda (Flegel) Brehm and Helena (Flegel) Dilba
The recollections and history provided by the interviews were arranged
into chronological order of events and written in narrative form
by Arthur E. Flegel, Certified Genealogist, son of Johann and Juliana
(Pflugrath) Flegel, who lives at Menlo Park, California, USA