I Heard My People Cry: One Family's Escape from Russia

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Lenci-Downs, Elizabeth. I Heard My People Cry: One Family’s Escape from Russia. New Bern, Carolina: Trafford Publishing, 2001.

Drawing from intensive interviews and diaries, Lenci-Downs tells the story of Lise Huebert Toews Gerig (1930-). Lise, with her family, lived through the time of collectivization, purges, and World War II deportations in the Ukraine. They escaped to live in the west.

The story, told in part with flashbacks, begins before Lise's birth when her Mennonite family, fearful of what World War I might bring, moved via train from Troitskayain, northwest of the Sea of Azov, to a village called Taganrog in the mountains of the Crimea. The pioneering journey to Taganrog was but the beginning. The extended Huebert family traversed an incredible series of wanderings and relocations. Only through wise choices, street smarts, and sheer luck or the grace of God did any of them survive and live to emigrate to Canada after World War II. A love story enters the account as Lise loses then reconnects with Walter Toews, a childhood friend who became her husband.

The Huebert family had been among the thousands of Mennonites who went to Moscow in 1929 hoping even then to emigrate to Canada. But, though their papers were all in order, the revolutionary government slammed the doors and they were sent back to Taganrog. The terrors of revolution and communism swept through even this backwater village. Since the family was defined as wealthy, as were almost all Germans in the colonies, they were branded kulaks and were vulnerable to deprivations and persecutions. This though they had formed themselves into collective farms without as much protest as occurred elsewhere. In the latter 1930s, men of the large Huebert family, accused of nebulous offenses, were arrested in the night, and some, including Lise's father, disappeared forever.

When the remaining family, some 180 persons, were put into boxcars headed to Siberia, their train got caught in a battle between the German and Russian armies. The family left the train and walked westward toward the multi-village colony of Molotschna, where they hoped to find others of their faith who would help them survive. The family settled in one of the empty villages of Molotschna and set about farming the land. When the Russian army pushed westward, the Hueberts moved yet again, traversing in winter a treacherous pass across the Carpathian mountains. Once in Germany, Lise, her mother, two sisters and young brother were assigned to a farm from which Poles had been evicted. In the waning months of World War II, when it was clear that the Russian army would thrust into Germany, Lise and her family made yet another terrifying trek westward, going as far as Holland. They narrowly escaped being sent back to Russia. Eventually they were able to obtain visas and emigrate to Canada.

The book contains some especially powerful images:

-There is a virtual pioneering guidebook in the description of how Lise's family prepared for a pioneering venture when they moved to form a daughter colony in the Crimea.

-The reader senses the terror people felt when they saw cars, the black mariahs, coming into their village.

-As a young child, Lise and her siblings accompanied their mother in visits to her father, who clearly had been tortured, in a Russian jail.

-In what may be a one-of-a-kind, first hand description, Lise remembers encountering village after abandoned village, with but a few Russian families camping in the homes, as her family walked across the steppe after their escape from the deportation train. The inhabitants of the villages had left hurriedly, forced aboard northbound trains..

-The atrocities of which the Germans were capable become evident when the Hueberts identify a mass grave.

-Lise's mother did what she had to do to care for her children and survive, but she needs to be recognized for heroism beyond the imagination of most persons today.

-Lise and Walter laugh as they watch off-duty American and British soldiers play ball, marveling at the sight of adults playing.

Though Lenci-Downs worked conscientiously to keep the characters delineated, their large number and similar names are sometimes confusing, but this is not a serious flaw. The story of Lise Huebert and her family is told with as much drama as the most absorbing mystery. Even if readers have read the stories of others who have had similar experiences, they will be well rewarded for the hours they spend walking in Lise's shoes.

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