Interview with Walter Bamesberger (WB)
Conducted by Ronald Vossler (RV)
24 February 2002, Lodi, CA
Transcribed by Beth Freeman
Editing and proofreading by Peter Eberle and Reverend Marvin Hartmann
Prairie Public Collection
RV: Just say your name, and where you were born, and your parents’ names…
WB: My name is, the way we said it at home - “Vladimir” - Vladimir Bamesberger. My dad’s name is Christian Bamesberger; he was born 1896, August 1896. My mother was Cristine; her maiden name was [Siegle A006]. She was born in 1899 in September. Should I raise my voice a little?
RV: You’re fine. No, you just talk how you do.
WB: Well, I only talk with the accent. [Laughing] Yeah.
RV: Could you tell us about your earliest memories?
WB: Well, like I said, I was born ’26. Until ’30 I just barely remember when the [collectives A014] - you know what [collective] is - when they started taking the cows and the horses and the plows and the wagons. And, just barely until ’31, and after that, they took mostly the men who were not rich, but they thought they were rich. They took a lot, took them away at night, every night, every night, to jail, you know. That was about - that started.
Well, after the [collective] started, then they were afraid that maybe there was some sort of - um - most rich and they start agitating. So they picked them up at night, every night, they went from one house to another what they knew that were pretty well-to-do. And then the rest of them started [quick whistle] shutting their mouths, see, because they were afraid to agitate would…. So they took a lot of, a lot of men.
RV: Where would they take them?
WB: Oh, they took them - for instance, my dad was three years in Moscow working on the canal with the - Volga River and the Moscow River, about 11 kilometer, digging the hole to put that through - one river into the other. He was there from ’31 until ’34, and then he came home, and then the second time, he worked down to [Kostrebala A031], down there by Odessa for a while. Then…
RV: They took many men away like that.
WB: Oh, many. There was not only my dad, the grandfather, but some of those, like she had to have a list, we had to book where all the people were taken in ’37, ’38, and they were shot, and it was her grandfather one time. My uncle, [Siegle]. They picked them up, they took them to Odessa, and then Odessa, I think [Jacob Keller A036] if you get to talk to him, he was in Odessa too. But he was not from our village; he was from [Roguebach A038]. And they were there in jails, and they had to reuse them or shoot them. There’s a different word for - interrogate - them.
RV: Could you tell about how they would come down the streets? You were saying once they had come in wagons and people would be dressed in clothes in bed and they were taken away.
WB: Well, they just had the bundle that put all, not all the people. We, too. We knew that 1931 started. They came around the house at night, and then they searched the house. They searched for food; they searched for if you were hiding someplace. And everybody was ready. All the pants you owned, you put one on top of each other, and the shirts, because most of the time, most of the time when they come in and kicked you out of the house, you didn’t get a chance to go back no more, see.
RV: And who came around?
WB: Communists. Communists with the people from town, to make it look like, more trusting or something like that. They woke the neighbor up to come and knock at your house so you open it, and I, you know, because you knew who Jacob was, so…. Once they had the foot in the door, there was no more.
RV: So they would do a quota - how often would they come?
WB: Every night. Well, if they missed the quota one night, they started the next night, and they started the next night. You never knew when they were coming. That’s why they were slipping up the attic, the older brothers or the fathers. Usually, if you were up in the attic, then [arctier A052], they could go down just in the barn and through the door and [whistle] out they go, find someplace else in case they started searching. A lot of times we had straw piles or hay or something like that, and they find a cavity. There’s air.
RV: So they would come in wagons, or in cars, too?
WB: No. No wagons, no cars. They would maybe - the neighbor to open the door, and then if you got - a rifle and then they went in the house. The guys had to stay out, but once the politicians or the guy who did the - he went in the house, he had to get dressed, no chance for good-bye.
RV: [Bells] Just a second for that bell. Your clock is ringing. [Background talking]
WB: We don’t want to run out of time. I hope I don’t get carried away. You ask what you want to know, and that’s it.
RV: I was going to ask - the history of both records show six million people died in the ‘30s. How did your mother - your parents keep you children alive?
WB: Uh, that was something else. Going back, I know my oldest brother, was born in ’20, he was the old [sic] of four boys. Back in - not in the village, here, but in some other villages, they’d come home and deliver flour, potatoes, or something like that.
RV: The letter - one of the letters your mother wrote said that she had gotten some milk from somebody else. And she said actually that some of your brothers and people were swelling up?
WB: Oh, really? Many people were swelling up and starving, you know. There was time, the worst time was from ’29 to about ’33. After ’33, then they gave them a little more. And it’s - it wasn’t, it wasn’t there. It was just, so tied up. They wanted - creations, they created that, see. And then from ’33, it started getting better until ’37, we had a good year, then ’37, ’38, we had - at least we had enough potatoes and enough flour to bake bread. And that was what was most important for us. I mean, we, we’re used to it. That was until ’40, in ’40 they washed out again, so we started all over.
RV: Was there…there were good crops, actually….
WB: Oh, yah, there were terrific crops - there were terrific crops. But you go out and start picking up some [aires A93] - what was [aires]? The top of the leaf, you know, when they mowed it. You could pick up - I know you were kids from, go out in summer - you know what summer means, collect out in the fields. We were out picking, brought some home so Mother could cook some. There was - a least 60% it was created. Some of the people what they took both the mother AND the father away, and the kids had to live, maybe relatives or here, you know.
RV: Did you see people - she’d get a little bit of milk, and then she’d thin it out - did you see that?
WB: Well, they took the cows away, we had no cows.
RV: So where did you get - so the neighbor would give you some….
WB: So the [collective] – “No, you don’t need no more cows!” You come and get your milk. That’s all, that’s about it, you just go get your milk. But you went out - you went out to get some milk, and they give you maybe three-quarter liter, or liter of milk, for a big family. That’s not enough to drink or not enough to cook.
RV: So watering it was common.
WB: Oh they thinned it until it was almost impossible because it didn’t look like milk no more. I mean everybody, not just my mother, everybody. No, no, no, no.
RV: Did you have any idea how many people died in Hoffnungstal?
WB: Well, all I knew was whatever you see in the books. Because those people didn’t even talk about it. The husband was taken at night, and the next morning the wife had to go work on the field for the [collective]. She was afraid to say it, and what she said because there was maybe somebody in there listening to what she say. Agitating. So you had to watch what you’re doing, what you’re saying. I hope you don’t print all of that stuff now.
RV: [Unintelligible] Do you - were there - your church, was closed?
WB: Haha - church closed. Minister or whoever is the reader, book in church, because we had no more ministers. He had to be watched - so they took him, too. So, make sure, until - until no more church. They had storage and basketball, and all kind of sports and that. The baths were taken down. And no more church. No more active church at all. You didn’t even talk about church. On Easter Sunday, we had school on Easter Sunday because they were afraid that the parents, you know, today’s Easter or something like that and they made some [guashekish A123] just like pancake. On special holidays, you had to be careful.
RV: Were there still like, you know, weddings and funerals, and…
WB: You know, I imagine there’s funerals and weddings, but mostly there were no church weddings no more. You went to the what-do-you call it, justice of the peace, and you bring two witnesses along, you know, sign it and there was the ceremony.
RV: Sometimes you would still have the older funeral - you know the singing of the hymns?
WB: Oh yeah, people know the songs, they knew the songs, they had enough food to make a dinner and a drink, because drinking was very important. And then they sing songs, they sing songs, sure.
RV: Could you describe one of those funerals? How they moved up and down the streets and maybe what songs?
WB: Maybe on that it’s better not. Well, I don’t know so much about down the streets, but they took the casket, and they went to the street and then up to the cemetery and then they put the casket there, and the people gathered around and they had three, four songs. But no, many ceremonies, no. Just some - elderly lady, she took the [gesangA140] book, or the church book, and she read some at here. Then the family knows what songs she likes to have, or preferred. They sing two or three songs when it was covered up. But no, no church hymn now, absolutely no church.
RV: So weak with starvation or hard without food from maybe 1929?
WB: Starting 1929. Well, you know, from ’20 to ’29 there was no solid government. Because they had first in the - changed a lot of [commanders A148] and then there was Lenin and then they killed Lenin in ’24. Then it was Stalin and he got to the root, and then there was really the hammer. He was the Stalin. It wasn’t his name, it was his steel - steel, Stalin, see. And then, then there was no more ifs or buts about it, you go by that.
RV: When - did you remember when they came to the villages and took the grain away?
WB: Oh yeah, that started in ’28, ’29. Whenever they chased the people out of the house, they took everything away. And if they - came and got, for instance, the man from the house, then they searched it all. Even, that big [lias A156], big thing stuck in the ground and the soil. And - or the straw or someplace. Because everyone is like, they’re coming, they’re coming, so we hided [sic]. We hided [sic]. I know my grandpa; he was in his eighties at that time. And he lived with us. And he did much. He didn’t even say where we were, where he was hiding it. They asked my mother, she should tell them where did he put the corn, where did he put that? And she said, “I don’t know, I don’t think he had any corn.” “Oh, we know he had.” So it just, put pressure on that. But they by law, by law anyone over 75, they couldn’t attack them no more. I mean, see, so they couldn’t touch him. Not only that, I know there was a spell where they asked my mother, she had to grow up to her income, and you know what income and that means, in Russia it’s - yes, yes, yah, in the interior. And my grandpa didn’t write the house over to us, it was still in his name. Because much as, they couldn’t do anything to him. But he cried, he cried because they put so much pressure on her. So, they kicked us out of the house, but when they couldn’t take the house away, we could move into again, you know. But if they wouldn’t - if Mother would have the house in her name - Father was taken away. We all would be out of the house. Many, many - her folks there had to leave the house and the yard and everything.
RV: How did people emotionally survive that time? Did they turn to prayer or…how?
WB: First of all, I was a young kid at that time. You don’t feel what the old man or what the old people go through. And it was really tough, because even the walls listened.
RV: So they were - people were divided against each other always.
WB: Not necessarily, I wouldn’t say, I wouldn’t say. Unless, unless they knew who was the [spitz A184], the guy who was going at night and telling. But other then that, no.
RV: So the people that came into Hoffnungstal, the officials and collectors, where did they live, what houses?
WB: Officials of the collective were people of our own. But since Hoffnungstal was the county seat, we also had so much Russian government there. And, the other relatives had it easier, because they didn’t bother to spoil the other ones. But in Hoffnungstal we had to be real careful. Matter-of-fact, we had three [collectives A193] in our village. And then there was the [rayon] that the, like I said, the county seat that the people, mostly different nationalities, not Germans, see.
RV: When the Russian government officials came to town, where did they stay?
WB: Haha, there was a lot of people chased out of their homes; there was a lot of empty homes. If they didn’t have enough empty ones, they made empty. They just arrested so many at night, and then. We had cases here I know in our street, where the husband was taken and 38, builder and they took him with your grandpa to Odessa, and then they had the summer kitchen, they had the house here, and then across the yard the summer kitchen. They chased her out in the summer kitchen, and then the bank, [Kanupf A205] his name was, [Kanupf]. He was the secretary of the bank, so he moved in the big house. She was in the summer kitchen, but she had to clean his house, or their house, see.
RV: So how did it work that so many people were starving and then the collective leaders had so much food?
WB: I wouldn’t say the collective leaders don’t know, government maybe. Well, I don’t know. We never got closer then we had too. And we had to watch out what we said when we went to school. We would see that we were all in school with their kids, too. And we saw what they’re coming to school with a sandwich, and what we. Then I only thought, since we were what they called [bowd A214] and just like we worked like farmers in the field, they made a kitchen in school for those kids who, their parents have a, just like a, job like an office job in Hoffnungstal. They got some food. And we, because our parents were [bowd], like farmers, we didn’t get anything.
RV: So there was no equal way to give the food - they were almost punishing you for being farmers and war crimes.
WB: Oh, they could put any crime on you. They could pick him up at night and teach him. They make their own crimes, you know. Until they checked, “Didn’t you so and so and so and so,” and the guy said, “So and so.” And they talked and try to squeeze something out of it, and finally he says, “Alright, just let me go.”
RV: Do you remember what the happiest time of your childhood was?
WB: There was something on the table.
[Very long pause - defect in tape?]
RV: Did you ever talk about - do you know what your grandfather said about his early years?
WB: Well, once in a while, we talked about it. Because my grandfather was the first from our family was born in Hoffnungstal. But his father came from Germany. He was only 10 or 15 years old - no, about 10 years old. His father came from Germany. They came along the east mile down there on the Black Sea. In the wintertime they stayed there. And then they moved up to Hoffnungstal and they got the settled, what year they settled. I mean, they started from scratch. There was, what they settled down, everything was new. I mean the new people who moved in and built the homes.
RV: How do you think those wagons helped?
WB: Well, see, we had big fields, like I said for instance, from our village, from when our village was built, out over to the railroad station. It was at least 12 kilometers, and there was all field in between. Therefore, our lands when we go out and plow, wherever you had your land, if you were lucky you had a piece maybe close to the village. But sometimes you had to go six, seven, eight kilometers where your field is and you work there. Or the vineyards we had all of them. We had some eight, nine, ten kilometers, and then we have some by the village, where you have to go up the mountains. But we all had ranges, or everybody who wanted land when they settled, they could have so much land. Whatever, to put vineyards on there, or something like that. First they started out 60 [dicideen A261] or similar to a hectare per family. And then there was the bigger families, and they had so many more for each person, see. Dad was almost put down the way they used to live then, didn’t they. If you had like, you lived neighbors, next to so-and-so, you raided. You go up in the vineyard - they had the vineyard next to ours. It was like, they went down the street, and it comes to this one, sometimes.
RV: So you had to take wagons out on your lands, a far way. You said you sang on the way sometimes?
WB: Oh, that was in the [collective] time. The [collective] time, you went down to the, where the guy, the manager was and he had to tell you in the morning. He would tell you, “You and you take a team like that and you work that and that,” and then the ladies, you know, “Go out and hoe the vineyards or go out and hoe the corn or the sunflower seeds,” and there was another 15-20 of them on the wagon, and sure, they were singing when they were going out.
RV: What kind of songs?
WB: Usually German songs. And religious. But we had to be careful.
RV: So was it would - they maybe sing Gott ist du liebe?
WB: Oh yeah, it was something like that, yeah. “Gott ist du liebe,” [“Fuer in mikadent” A282]. Yeah, that was, join with? That was a famous song.
RV: Is there something else you think is important to say as we’re talking about your early life?
WB: Well, I was only 18 or 17 when we left. But it was a community you’d never forget. We had the streets, and we had our friends, and if we meet or we had to go hundreds of miles to meet them personally. It’s about three, four months ago I heard from Canada, he - his daughter, he was a year younger than I was, and I was a soldier with him in Czechoslovakia, and then we had company from Canada, he says, [I left my ambulance A299] in Canada. Then he came down with his daughter and spent three, four days here. And that only, their father’s house was right next to Anette’s father’s house. And they both emptied those places because they made empty nest, they’re for collective where they had the combines and tractors, you know.
RV: They stored tractors there?
RV: You were saying there really was togetherness, like a mindset?
WB: Oh yeah, no. Our village was, I would say one of the - Glueckstal was bigger then Hoffnungstal, but, was one of the biggest villages around there, right.
RV: What was it like before that time in Hoffnungstal? What was the village like before the trouble began?
WB: Well, 1920’s before the, before World War 2, they still had their own land.
RV: Before World War 1, you mean?
WB: Yeah. And then, when Lenin got under there, arrested the Revolution. They gave so much Lenin plus so much per family - for people in the family. And you were not allowed to buy or sell the land. So they don’t get any rich or poor no more. But you could lease it out, for instance if you were a carpenter or a blacksmith or something like that, you had the right to take your land. But they did not take it to farm it, you could lease it out to someone, you know, to a farmer. He could farm it, but you could not sell it, because it was not your land that was given to you.
RV: So, for example, before World War 1, Hoffnungstal was a pretty prosperous village?
WB: I would say so, that’s what the parents or grandparents used to tell us, yes.
RV: Did you raise trees, fruit?
WB: Well, fruit trees, yes, we grew some fruit trees. But it was not an area with a lot of [timber A334] there. They had a little; I would say about 15-20 acres of [timber] land there, what they called a [vold]. But it wasn’t a [vald A334], and that’s what they, in my time, there were big trees already. That’s where they rested the cattle and lunch hour in the afternoon because all the cattle in the village went into one deal and they went out in mountains to look for pasture. Then at night they came home.
RV: So when the German army came in, can you maybe tell how people felt and what that was like?
WB: Oh, yes. Before we used to work hard on the land, didn’t get nothing. Here they gave us - I mean it wasn’t your own land, but you was your own - for farming and you had your crops and you least could support your family. We had very lean years there for one or two years, but the last year before we left, everything was so hot that we left - we couldn’t harvest it no more.
RV: So you ate - you were able to eat what you grew?
WB: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely.
RV: Tell us more about…the German army.
WB: They came in; they gave you as much land as you can - know how to cultivate. You could not take the land and hire someone or something like that. You take as much as you can cultivate for your family, and then the rest, if you had some left over, they came and took it away. But, that was not our land, we had no rights to buy or sell that. We had rights to buy animals or horses or cows, or something like that, but no land. It was still government.
RV: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
WB: I’m afraid I’ve said too much already. [Laughing]
RV: Well, we can stop now. A lot of it we might - things might be added and sometimes we only use a little, just a little bit.
WB: But, could - you know, what I say, I only said from our area. Maybe 30-40 kilometers away, it was altogether different. There I’m alive you see.
RV: Well, and I think that’s part of what my job is. To show that things were different, so people know not everything was that same. All you could do is tell what you’ve seen at your place, that’s fine. You’ve been very helpful Walter.
WB: Thank you. I hope it turns out. When we came here in ’52, I bet we had at least 50 - 60 families from Hoffnungstal living here in Lodi. They came; you know how the old Germans were. If there was one guy from the family from there, they’d all come on down too. And that’s how they - just like the bees - Well, just from my dad’s family; one person went to the United States, his sister. She was here in Lodi. From my mother’s family, her brother, [Jostellas A393], their father in 1902, and then their land was auctioned off, and the money went into the bank for the kids until they grown up, and then they could ever make use of college or school or buy for farm or whatever you need. All saved, and Revolution came along. By the time Revolution was over, the money was gone. But I - my mother’s uncle, he was in charge of the church money for those wives and kids, and he sent my uncle, my mother’s brother, and his cousin, because my uncle was too young yet, sent to the United States - that was before World War II. So he asked his cousin, [Gottfried Ziegler A408] if he would go along. And they came. First they settled someplace up there, someplace in the Dakotas, and then in ’36 or ’46, they both came down here. So when we came to United States, my mother’s brother was here, and my dad’s sister was here, see. But we were here one year, and um - who died first? Tanka. Yeah. For ’52, yah, yeah. She died, and ’54 my uncle died. In April, for Easter, yes. But we thought - we go there. I mean, it’s hard to start at a new place, but if somebody’s there to say, “Don’t do that,’ or, “Do that” it helps. It doesn’t make it easy, but it helps.
RV: It was hard, even starting over, wasn’t it? It was made easier by that, but it’s still hard to cross over.
WB: Well, we are used to working hard. And whatever we had was our own. We left our home when Annette was 14 and I was 17. It’s what you make of it.
RV: Thank you, I appreciate it. You can rest now, it’s Anette’s turn.