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
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
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.