Our Trip to Ukraine

Riehl, John and Ann. "Our Trip to Ukraine." Watrous Manitou, 16 August 1999.

"I invite all the Riehl family and others to return to Krasna with me in 1999." Through a translator, Max Riehl encouraged everyone at a family gathering in Mandan, ND. He had come to Bismarck from Koblenz, Germany in August, 1998. First he attended the Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention and spent many hours studying the photo binders and information collected by researchers Ted Becker (Williston, ND) and Rosemary Mack (Bienfait, SK). Their research centers around the former Bessarabian villages of Krasna and Emmental. Max related how a bus trip was being planned and he had brought with him several photos from previous trips there. He would hold twenty seats on the bus for travelers from the US and Canada until Christmas, 1998.

What an adventure this would be. Fly to Frankfurt, Germany then take an eleven and a half day bus tour that would take us northeast through former East Germany, Poland, the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Austria and back to Germany. And more special yet, we would be visiting Krasna where Dad Riehl was born in 1898 and Emmental where Mom Riehl was born in 1908. John's brother, David, their sister Liz (husband, Maurice) and nephew, Greg, (fiance, Andrea) also planned to take the trip.

So we mailed our deposit by Christmas. Early in 1999, it was time to book our flight to Germany and get our papers in order, renew our passports and obtain the necessary travel visas. Canadians were required to have them for Poland, the Ukraine, Moldova and Romania. Closer to travel time, it was necessary to consider what travel items we should include. We were advised to include good walking shoes (maybe extra shoes in case of wet weather), toilet supplies (tissue and towelettes), comfortable travel-wear, and it was also suggested not to take expensive jewelry.

Arriving in Koblenz on May 22nd, we visited with several members of the Riehl families whom we had met in 1987 during a Riehl family reunion.

The Riehl family, as handed down verbally, came from Bavaria, settled in Warsaw in 1809, moved on to Bessarabia in 1814 and stayed there in Krasna until 1940 when everyone had to leave. Max's grandfather, Lorenz, died in Krasna in 1929 and Max was a boy of thirteen years in 1940. John's grandfather, Thomas, ( a half brother to Lorenz) and family had immigrated to the US (to SD) in 1905 and in 1913 came to Allan, SK where he died in 1917. Lorenz's brother, Josef and family also remained in Krasna, but their brother, Karl, and family immigrated to the US (to ND) in 1910 and their sister, Helena (Mrs Michael Volk) and family immigrated in 1905 (to ND), traveling on the same ship as Thomas.

Tuesday, May 25, travelers gathered for a 4 am breakfast and we were under way by 5:15 am!! We now totaled seventy persons travelling on two air in air conditioned comfort. We were eight Canadians, twenty - two from the US and the remainder from Germany. Of this total, twenty six were Riehl relatives.

As daylight broke, everyone settled in and enjoyed the scenery as the busses whizzed along the autobahn. Crossing into the former East Germany, one observed the poorer conditions of buildings and roads; however, there was also much activity with improvements being made..

Our noon meals consisted mostly of bread, cheese, packaged meat and hard boiled eggs, all eaten picnic style near the bus. Beer, coffee, pop and bottled water could be purchased on the bus. Each evening meal and morning meal was provided by the hotels in which we stayed. The meals were very good and the hotels were clean and comfortable.

Several of our days were very long. As the days passed, and although the roads were paved, they were not good enough to travel very fast. Often times were horse-drawn wagons to maneuver around, sometimes animals-at-large on the road. The highway was THE road, no side roads unless a very narrow road off to a village, so we were constantly meeting or passing all types of traffic. Throughout many of the countries, however, and sometimes for miles at a stretch, trees had been planted years before that lined each side of the highway. Each tree was planted perhaps forty feet apart.

In all the countries we traveled, the terrain was similar to our prairies - some flat, some rolling. Most of the land was farmed. Crops we saw included wheat, (some winter wheat), fall rye, corn, sunflowers, hayland, too, but hardly any summerfallow. From our vantage point in the bus, we saw hardly any farming equipment but we did see many people hoeing in the fields. Many were hand hoeing the corn. A few were lucky enough to have a small plough pulled by a horse. Wild poppies were in bloom everywhere. No fences needed. Everyone lives either in the villages or in the cities. The villager's cows are looked after during the day by a herdsman and at night, the cow is in the barn in the villager's yard. Each yard is completely fenced as villagers keep a few pigs, some chickens, geese, rabbits, etc. We also saw goats being looked after by a herdsman. Peonies and roses were the flowers in bloom in village yards.

Passing through the cities, we noticed many many apartment buildings, all in a sad state of disrepair. There is just no money to fix them. In other cities, we saw huge factories abandoned. We noticed the gas line to each house was above ground, about eight feet high (enough to run above the yard's entrance). In other cities we saw huge pipes also running above ground alongside the highway. We were told these large pipes were the system to provide steam heat to houses in the winter.

Crossing from one country into another was an experience all of its own. As we were leaving a country we had to go through that border patrol, drive ahead a short distance to the entrance of the next country and to another border patrol. Our bus drivers handled all the passports. At one border one time, however, our passports were returned to us so that an officer could board the bus and pick them up! Still, at another, our passports were given to us and we filed off the bus, into a large vacant-looking building where the officer took our passports and we waited in a holding area. We observed an officer walking through the bus and another checked under the bas as it sat overtop a grated pit area. We had been reminded more than once by our bus spokesman to put away our cameras, No photos were to be taken of the border police or of any patrol officer.

More than once we observed packages of cigarettes, bottled water and pop being offered by our bus drivers to the officers. In one city, we were stopped by the city patrol and they 'required' US$6 funds per person! Apparently it was paid. Upon leaving the same city, another patrol 'required' the same. Our bus drivers said we had no more money and that there was no reason we could not continue; the papers for the bus were allin order, as were the papers for all the passengers. However, our drivers continued to make their appeal. We were prepared to eat our supper beside the bus and we would sleep on the bus, the German embassy would be phoned the next morning and then the patrol officers could sort out the whole mess. A short meeting by the officers and their decision to allow us to pass was greeted with a sigh of relief. It had been another long day.

With border patrol, city and highway patrol that day alone, we sat a total of five and a half hours! No wonder we were often at the breakfast table by 6 am several days and did not get to our evening destination until 8 pm. One night it was 11:30 pm.

We were greeted in Krasna (now Krasnoje, Ukraine) with the traditional bread and salt ceremony,and then everyone was billeted with villagers. It was sad that the language barrier kept everyone from enjoying a good visit, but sign language worked well. Max Riehl led a walking tour of the village. The house of the Riehl family no longer stands but another house has been built in its place. The yard and fence is still the same. The church is no longer standing. The headstones in the cemetery were destroyed long ago but through the tireless efforts of Max and his Bessarabian countrymen, a cairn was erected in 1992 and most recently a small chapel stands on the site. The Chapel is a replica of the one standing in the Koblenz, Germany cemetery. For several of our German travelers, this was quite an emotional stop. At a memorial ceremony, several readings and hymns were presented. Many in our group left family and close friends in Krasna in 1940.

A visit to Emmental (now Permovais, Moldova) was also very special to us. When John's mother was born here the village was in Bassarabia and when she left in 1926 it was a part of Romania. We had taken a 1940 town map with us. Several years ago, Mom had described the Moldenhauer yard and she had given us the names of all the neighbors too. Traveling on our bus was a man who was born in Emmental and who also had a map. He helped us locate the yard and the well, just as Mom had described it. An elderly couple and their two sons live in the one house now. At first they were cautious: "Why did you come here?" "What do you want?" Our translator explained that we only wanted to see the yard and the well as our Mom was born here. We were immediately welcomed then. Some folks, mostly the older ones, were still wary.(After WWII these people occupied the home vacated by the German people living here.) We all drank water from the well - "The best in Emmental," the elderly lady said. And we all took several photos.

Also while in Emmental, we were greeted with the bread and salt tradition and billeted with villagers. We toured the church. The steeple had been knocked off after the war and it now is an Orthodox church. In the cemetery, a few headstones still stood, although time had erased names. Grandfather Jacob Moldenhauer is buried there. (Grandmother, Christina, came to Canada following his death and is buried at Colonsay, SK)

While visiting the villages, both not far from Odessa, we saw hay lying to dry on the street in front of a villager's yard. We saw geese and chickens with their little ones feeding off grasses near the yards. Sometimes the adult bird had one leg secured to a tethering string so it would not wander away. Very few vehicles were in evidence. Many were inoperable. Some people drove old motor bikes with side cars like the ones from the war years. Some drove a rubber tired wooden wagon pulled by a horse. Most just walked. Toilets were outdoors. There were no seats in them, just a small hole to squat over.

The highway going through the villages was paved and in Krasna we observed a few other streets that had large concrete slabs for the road bed. Most of the streets, all very wide, had only a dirt, clay type roadway. In wet weather, all would be impassable with a vehicle. The pot holes were huge!

The villagers were very hard working people. In Krasna, our hostess, through a translator, told us they work for a collective farm. For all their work in 1998, they were not paid until March, 1999! In Emmental we visited with a lovely young lady who taught English in a neighboring village. She had received one month's pay last September but nothing since then. We wondered how she managed. She said she lived with her mother and her two older sisters gave her clothes periodically. We were told that authorities in Emmental consented to leave the electricity turned on for the two nights we were there just for us visitors. Then it would be shut off again indefinitely!

With the main purpose of our trip being the visits to the villages of Krasna and Emmental, very little time could be spent as sightseers. We did, however, briefly visit the city of Dresden, Germany; the port of Odessa; stopped at the water's edge of the Black Sea; spent a short time in Budapest, Hungary and a few hours in Vienna, Austria. Altogether, we traveled more than 5200 kilometers.

What a memorable journey! How sweet though it is to be home. We should be thankful each day for our freedom in this country in which we live. Many are not so fortunate.

Reprinted with permission of the Watrous Manitou.

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