Remember Us: Letters from Stalin's Gulag (1930-37): Volume One: The Regehr Family

Book review the Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Siemens, Ruth Derksen. Remember Us: Letters from Stalin's Gulag (1930-37): Volume One: The Regehr Family. Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario, 2008.

A box of 463 old letters, discovered in 1989 in the attic of the old family home of Peter Bargen of Manitoba, Canada, opened a world his family had hidden. Peter and his wife Anne labored for several years to translate the old-fashioned Gothic German text. They struggled to interpret uncertain dates and authorship, obscure place and family references, odd spellings, and veiled meanings. An incredible story came to light. It is recorded in this book by sourced, full texts of a selection of the letters. Siemens, who worked with the letters for her Ph.D. thesis, keeps the reader on track by interspersing the letters with brief comments and explanations.

Most if the letters in this collection (billed as volume 1), were written by Josch and Marie Regehr who, with their six children, were among the thousands packed into cattle cars and sent to a primitive
camp in the Urals, then moved frequently.  Packages, an indispensable lifeline, also passed, most during 1930-1934. The letters and packages moved via a postal system which was partly a routine public service, partly a kind of underground railroad. It worked amazingly well, but Stalin finally put a stop to it. The letters stopped but the suffering clearly continued.

It was a bizarre world the Regehrs had entered, and the letters give a picture of suffering beyond imagination. Marie Regehr calls it. “The pestilence that has hit us.” A brutal day’s work, such as felling 50 trees and cutting them up in deepest winter or summer muskeg was tied to a meager, measured piece of bread. Hunger, inadequate clothing, and a profound sense of alienation was eased only by time together and the letters received from or written to Canadian relatives. Rumors swirled
within the detainee communities but reliable information was hard to come by. In the beginning, they dreamed of rescue or escape. After five years, they had been told, they could return to Ukraine, but the possibility that this promise would be kept became increasingly remote. They were in contact with relatives there, but one of their mothers, who had remained in Ukraine, was in hiding--taking shelter from abusive authorities as she could--and conditions hardly seemed better there.

The fact that the abuses were perpetrated on a productive, law-abiding people living in a time and place when food production was very important makes the persecutions so bewildering. One comes to appreciate the sacrifices of Canadian and American recipients of the letters, received during the great depression, and how they deprived themselves to ease the suffering of relatives who bore the brunt of the communist economic experiment. No larger entity seemed aware of or was interested in interfering.

This reviewer, who has worked with a great aunt’s letters from the gulag, albeit from a later period, was especially taken with the person of Marie Regehr. The letters reveal how she plotted to save the
lives of her family and how she functioned psychologically and spiritually.

The final chapters of the book tell the rest of the story. We meet Lena and Mariechen, two of the youngest family members, now living in the west, and learn what happened after the communists finally forced the letters and packages to stop in 1937.

The story of those who remained in Ukraine has become relatively well known because their letters were published in German language newspapers and now have been collected in books by Ron Vossler. This collection reveals a story less well known, the experiences of those sent deeper into Russia during the first Five-Year Plan, designed as a crash industrialization program.

Related Material:

An excellent DVD titled “Through the Red Gate” (Out to See Entertainment, Inc., 208-338 West 8th Avenue, Vancouver, BC VSY 3X2). 2008. has been produced to accompany this book. The title refers to 5,000 persons who escaped to the west, leaving thousands more, who had sought to escape, to the mercies of the communist system. This video recreates the finding of the letters and tells the basic story of the Regehrs’ exile. It features those who brought them to public attention, including Peter Bargen and, strikingly, children of the family who wrote the letters. It will stand alone and would be very effective shown to a heritage group or persons interested in the gulag period.

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