Electronic mail message from Elaine Becker Morrison,
Boulder, Colorado (CMorri3751@aol.com)
[Member of the June, 1996 Journey to the Homeland Tour to Odessa, Ukraine and to Stuttgart, Germany, sponsored by the North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo]
One of the highlights of my life occurred in 1996 when I traveled on a "Journey to the Homeland" tour with Michael Miller. We first spent a few days in Germany where we interacted with Germans who had recently come to Germany from various parts of the old Soviet Union. Some of us were also fortunate to visit the towns in Alsace from which our ancestors had emigrated to South Russia around the beginning of the 19th century.
We spent a day at the Bundestreffen in Stuttgart; this is a gathering every two years of those who have been repatriated from Russia.
Between 40,000 and 50,000 people attend the Bundestreffen where they search for friends and relatives from whom they have been separated, or to renew acquaintances. I wandered to the table that was the meeting place for those with interest in the Beresan district. As I stood there, trying to summon courage to speak to someone (my German hadn't been used for about fifty years, and hadn't been much good even then) a woman approached me and asked if I was looking for someone from Worms. If she knew English she hid it well, but with my hunting for words we soon determined that we are distantly related. In fact, I have in my possession a letter written by her father shortly after World War II in which he tells of his little daughter waiting for food packages to arrive from relatives in the United States. I sincerely hope that future travelers will have experiences as thrilling as this was to me.
Sophie and I have exchanged occasional letters since our meeting. She has sent a copy of a plat map that would have been great help when we were in Worms. The map was made in 1944 as the Germans were leaving Worms. Although most of our parents or grandparents left there around the turn of the century, there are many familiar names shown as residents of the properties (probably even uncles or cousins). Neither AHSGR nor GRHS had copy of the map so we contacted the lady now living in Germany, who along with her husband had made the map, and she gave permission to make copies. AHSGR is selling them, and GRHS refers people to me. It is a large map, on a 23" x 36" page, and with shipping, they sell for $4.00. We tried reducing the size in order to have a lower cost, but the print was too small to read it well. I hadn't meant to give a sales pitch, but some of you may want to have a copy and I would be happy to have copies made for those who want them.
The trip out to Worms was quite an experience in itself. People in many other countries do not follow our rules of the road. After several "near misses," as our driver took chances that we wouldn't think of doing, we decided that it was best not to look at the road, but just enjoy the scenery. If there are public restrooms in Ukraine, they are not evident. One learns to be careful of fluid intake prior to going out for the day; and we learned that bushes are not just for looking nice along the roadway.
We thought that on a certain day we would be going to Worms, Rohrbach and Johannestal, but as we were about to leave the hotel, we were told that we would also be going to Gnadenfeld. Our driver and interpreter had been to Worms and Rohbach once before but all maps that are used by Intourist are in Ukrainian, and no one knows the German names of villages as we know them. Fortunately our driver was not embarrassed to ask directions, so we would drive on until he'd see another person, and we would stop again to ask for directions. We spent four hours looking for Gnadenfeld! There were a few German speaking people there and they gathered to speak to us. We walked through the cemetery there. As is the case with most of the German cemeteries, they are overgrown with weeds, shrubbery and trees. Some names were visible on the remnants of tombstones. We also came upon a human femur partly exposed. (In the Kassel cemetery we found pieces of human skull.)
Arriving at the village of Worms, we were thrilled to drive under the large (?cement and stone) arch leading to one of the main streets. Although it looked old, we heard that it was not the original. It was painted blue and yellow with a star on the center top.
By the time we got to Worms it was well past lunch time so we ate our "box lunch" (one large pasteboard box with all the food in it) across the street from the old church. The church is in the process of being rebuilt although the people who were working on it did not know to what purpose it would be used. We were under the impression that it had been our forefathers' Lutheran church but the map we received after our return shows that it was Reformed. The building was in a very sad state. There were deep holes where the floor had once been, large holes in the ceiling, and a poor excuse for a large door that had been hung on one long wall. We were told that it had been used for machine storage and the machines had entered through that door. The spaces that had been windows and secondary doors had been closed with bricks and cement.
The three men and one woman who were working on the restoration invited us to go up into the bell tower. We crawled up the very worn stairs (they must have been the original wood) and then the equally long new ladder into the tower area. Some of our group made it to the top where they emerged and had a good view of the village and the surrounding area. We thought that it was a bit peculiar that the first part of the restoration took place on what had been the steeple or bell tower, while the building below was crumbling.
The Worms map shows a school across the street from the Reformed church. The building that is there now may have been used as a school but if so, it certainly wasn't a very large school and appears too new to have been there when our families lived there. When one stands on the Reformed church steps, facing away from the door, and looks in the direction of about 10 or 11 o'clock you can see the larger school, maybe two blocks away, that is shown on the map.
When facing the front steps of the church, on your right is an area with a large statue of "Mother Ukraine." Continuing on in that direction one would come to the location of the Lutheran church. We were "on our own" and didn't know that there was another church. We did not see it, but in a later letter, Sophia, whom we met in Stuttgart, gave the impression that it was considerably smaller than the Reformed church. Along side it (according to the map) there was a pastor's residence and a school. Because there was a school next to each church, we may be correct in thinking that each of the churches had its own school.
Going back to the Reformed church, again face the front steps. Now cross the street to your left and proceed down this wide street. You will shortly come to a rather large building on your left. It was painted dark brown when we saw it. This is the site, but not the building, of the School for The Deaf and Dumb that was known throughout South Russia. After the revolution, the original building became the main school for Worms (German schools were "verboten").
Our next stop was the cemetery. The section near the entrance is Ukrainian and fairly well kept. A large tombstone seemed to mark the boundary between the Ukrainian and German sections. The German side was again overgrown and parts of tombstones were lying over the grounds. None were legible. An iron fence separates the cemetery from the fields that extend as far as one can see. Blooming hollyhocks and lots of lilac bushes have survived and reflect the care that once was given to loved ones' final resting places. Wild flowers were also in bloom. I plucked a few wild flowers, pressed them carefully and brought them home where I framed them and each time I see them I think of my great grandmother and many other relatives who were buried there.
We saw very few cars in the villages. Horses and wagons are still the most frequent means of transportation. As we went into the cemetery at Worms a family rode past in their wagon. It helped to transport us back in time.
Our ride to Rohbach was over single lane dirt roads, through farmers' fields (map troubles again). We probably covered around ten miles instead of the four it should have been but we did see interesting country including a lovely lake where men were fishing (and who helped steer us in the right direction). Many of the fields near Rohbach are boardered by rock fences, as are some of the family properties in the village. There are a few Germans in Rohrbach but none who lived there originally. When the Germans were allowed to return to the villages (some were allowed to go to the Black Sea area) they were made to settle in villages where they had not lived before. The few that we met were extremely happy and anxious to speak to someone German, and taking leave of them was difficult. We saw neither church nor cemetery in Rohrbach although I have heard that there is a cemetery. To my knowledge, a plat map of Rohrbach has never been seen although many people have been anxious to have one.
Johannestal was our last village to visit that day. The most outstanding thing there was the village well, a beautiful wooden structure in the "village green." The cemetery was the usual: tombstones scattered over the ground, none legible. Nearby we saw the remains of what must have been the church. There was also what appeared to be a religious monument on the grounds of those ruins. We did not speak to any Germans there.
If you travel to the area with the idea that this will be the adventure of your life, knowing that you will stop comparing everything in Ukraine with America, that you will always be flexible and that you can maintain a sense of humor, then you will have a ball and after a brief recovery time, you'll be raring to go again.
Reprinted with permission of Elaine Becker Morrison.