SIBERIA: The Land of Opportunity
Written by Ruth Gross Wiest, and shared by her son,
Kanloops, British Columbia. Harold Wiest grew up in Odessa, Washington.
His mother's side of the family came from Teplitz, Bessarabia, and
father's side of the family came from Kurudschika, Bessarabia via
Rohrbach, South Russia.
A move was definitely in the air! But where? Land agents were enticing immigrants to settle in the United States or Canada. Others said many opportunities were waiting in South America, especially Brazil and Argentina. With the general exodus of people, the Russian government became very concerned in keeping the people in their country. Siberia needed to be developed. Siberia was presented as the land of opportunity!!
Our life was a quiet peaceful life in South Russia at the turn of the century. Many of our dorfs or steppe (villages) were German in the Bessarabia area. We had a proud heritage. The German born queen who married the Russian Czar asked Germans to settle in Russia so that farming techniques and general conditions would improve. But to marry a Russian would have been a disgrace. We were Germans -- with German being spoken in the home even after three generations. There was some Russian taught in our schools, but mostly it consisted of the national anthem which had as its theme "God protect my Country."
The dorfs consisted of a long street with homes on both sides of the street. The houses were made of sod, with reed roofs. Stoves were fashioned with brick-like cement and the floors were lime. Saturday was housecleaning day with the floors smeared shut instead of washing them in order to close any fresh holes that had developed during the past week
"AAnie" (grandfather, Andrew Tittus or Dittus) lived with us. He was a shoemaker by trade. He was nearly 80 years old, crippled with a crooked leg. The leg was broken in his youth and had never healed properly. He couldn't pass the medical exams that were required by United States, Canada, or South America so it left only one alternative -- Siberia -- where no medical exam was necessary.
In March 1902 our families boarded the train at Odessa, Russia, (this included the family of Israel and Margaretha Schaal Bahnmiller) and rode for 9 days until we came to Isikul. We found some land to buy which was 3000 acres near Omsk. Half of the acreage was forest land. Each family averaged approximately 750 acres - a very large holding. For three weeks we shared an apartment with our cousins, the Bahnmiller family, until a one-room shelter could be built. It was rather crowded in the shelter as our family consisted of "AAnie", father and mother, Jacob, Andreas, John and the two of us.
Soon our three bedroom home was finished. It consisted of the three bedrooms (though one was unheated, unfinished and used for storage), a large kitchen which also served as a living room, a bedroom and a cellar. It was built similar to our Bessarabian home with the grass reed blocks put on like shingles on the roof. The stove consisted of two large kettles cemented in with a large compartment underneath to stoke a fire. Smaller kettles were placed inside the larger kettles and our food was cooked in that. When bread was to be baked, the large compartment was cleaned with live coals put into the kettles and then 10 to 12 loaves of bread were put into the compartment to bake. Bread was a mainstay in the family as breakfast consisted of coffee and bread. The meat in our diets consisted mainly of pork and several times a. week we would have a soup called "borsht" made of kraut, meat, potatoes and rice.
Barns were built for the 8 or 9 horses father had acquired. He had cattle which were used mainly for milk, cheese and butter. The dozen chickens kept us supplied with what eggs the family used; and a dog was our family pet.
Father planted rye and wheat that spring and in spite of the virgin soil it was a poor crop year. Naturally this made a big dent into our family savings. Our family was pretty well-to-do by turn of-the-century standards.
In early September a native Russian told father to dig the potatoes as snow was imminent. "No! No!" father argued. "Why in Bessarabia winter would not set in for several months yet." But the snow did come and everyday brought more snow plus the weather kept getting colder and colder. Finally father realized that if he wanted to salvage the potatoes he would have to dig immediately because the weather wasn't going to get milder. Soon the temperature dipped to 40 below zero and stayed that low. The kraut froze in the cellar and had to be chopped with an ax. Even after the barrel was transferred to the kitchen, the kraut still froze. The clobbered milk that mother was trying to process into cottage cheese froze even though it was setting next to the stove. The snow kept piling up till it was up to the level of the roof and we had to make steps leading upward out of the house so we could get on top of the snow. Naturally we wore very heavy clothing and heavy shawls -- anything to try and stay warm.
It was nearly too late when father realized the nomads (Kirghiz) of the area would herd the horses for a nominal fee and thereby the horses would get exercise and scrounge for food like reindeer. We lost nearly all our horses that winter as they got so stiff from the cold weather and not enough exercise.
Finally the nine months of winter passed and again wheat and rye were planted, and plans were made for the coming year.
The nomads had different customs than we were used to. The married women would have their hair completely covered. The single girls would have their hair uncovered and the engaged girls would have coins woven into their hair. The more coins - the longer the time of engagement. One of the rituals before marriage was that both the bride and groom would be given horses to ride with the bride given a headstart. If the bride had a good horse and didn't like the groom she could outride the groom and marriage plans would be cancelled.
It was September 1903 and our parents realized the three-month summers were just too short to harvest the planted grain. The savings wore getting less and with no income they realized Siberia wasn't the "promised land". So it didn't take long to pack up and head back to Bessarabia and to try again for a better promised land "America".
By David Schaal and Rosina Schaal Gross (as told to Ruth Gross Wiest in 1970)