A Distant Promise: A New Beginning & The Last Bridge: Her Own Story: Elvera Ziebart Reuer

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Reuer, Elvera Ziebart and Glaphry Duff. A Distant Promise: A New Beginning. Abderbeen, South Dakota: Quality Quick Print, Inc., 1998.

The central character of Elvera Ziebart Reuer's story is Eva Ziebart, the mother of the clan whose story is told in these books. Eva, who began life as a shy young orphan, lived in several villages and buried two husbands and five children in Russia. Her stern practicality, courage, astute perception of human nature, unrelenting work ethic, faith, and aggressive planning saw her family through unimaginable wartime hardships. The books trace the family’s journey from Bessarabia to America.

Eva, Elvera, 18, and the other members of the Ziebart family lived in Arzis, Bessarabia, which had been part of southern Russia settled by German farmers at the invitation of the Russian government more than a century before. In 1918, without encountering resistance, “Rumanian soldiers walked into the agricultural community and simply claimed it as spoils of war.” The Ziebarts housed and fed an officer who set up his headquarters in their once-pristine parlor. The Rumanians were followed by Communist soldiers on May 15, 1940. The Russians, like the Rumanians before them, were permitted to treat the people as they wished, and physical and psychological abuse generated pervasive fear.

Plainclothes visitors from Germany arrived in Arzis as early as 1938. They held special events such as games and dances, reignited the people's sense of German identity, and excited them about the possibility of a proud future in Germany. So it was with dread of Russian occupation mixed with anticipation that on June 25, 1940, Eva Ziebart and her family of teenagers, Albert, Elvera, Gertrude, Alma, and Linda hurriedly gathered essentials and got on a crowded train and left for Germany. Eva's stepsons, Gerhardt and Bruno, who remained behind to bring in the harvest, made their way to Germany later, and were inducted into the German army.

In Germany, the family found themselves encamped in a former schoolhouse and in other crude, minimal shelters. Always they feared bombs dropped by the Allies, so nighttime blackouts and hurried rushes to the cellar were the norm. The conditions in all places were crowded, and food, which consisted mostly of thin vegetable soup, was short. After many months, they realized why they had been brought from Arzis. The Germans were summarily evicting Polish farmers from their farms and replacing them with ethnic Germans, who were expected to raise food to feed the German army. Eva demanded and achieved the return of the Polish family that had lived on the farm assigned to her--a mother, father and three sturdy sons--saying she was but a widow and needed their help for the work. Few were less helpless than Eva, but only her children knew that. They set about cleaning the farm and its buildings, acquiring food and draft animals, raising grain and vegetables, and reaching out to the many hungry and destitute people around them. In the midst of war, the older children married and gave birth to children. The younger children went to school and weekend camps, where their susceptibility to Nazi ideology was muted by their mother’s careful warnings. Her proximity to Germany meant Eva could care for Gerhardt when he was wounded, and sometimes the girls could find jobs, as did one who cared for injured men in a hospital.

As the war ground on, the family sensed that Germany was losing. Then they heard that the fearsome Russian army was moving in from the east. Eva and her family loaded necessities into the wagon she had so carefully kept in good repair, and headed west. The trek, which culminated with their ending up in the American zone, is as tense and frightening an adventure as one would want in one’s lifetime. They stumbled into several areas of active fighting, witnessed heartrending atrocities, and crossed bridges just before explosives detonated or the bridges were finally closed. Again and again, Eva’s careful foresight made the difference. As an example, When she observed men painting some wagons with a red X, she guessed that they were tagging wagons for return to Russia. She bribed a soldier with food and was allowed to continue west. Later, when Bruno was being separated from her, she told him to get a job in a kitchen if he could. This advice served him well. The story of how Bruno’s wife, three small children in tow, traveled overland for over a year, after the war and appeared in rags at Eva’s door is an astonishing story, of itself worth a whole book. Through all this, they clung tenaciously to their faith in God.

In the postwar years, life was difficult for the people who came to be called displaced persons. Resourceful Eva traded her horses for a cow, the girls found jobs, and she located her family members, all of whom, miraculously, had survived the war. Some 134 packages sent to them from relatives and agencies in America (CARE packages) provided food and clothing and items that could be sold for other necessities, and the family never ceased to marvel at the generosity of the Americans. Elvera's skill with needle and thread meant clothing and money for the family.

At the invitation of American relatives, Eva, Albert, Gertrude, and Elvera, emigrated to Bowdle, South Dakota in 1949. There the work on farms was also demanding, but they were welcomed wholeheartedly into an extended family and it was possible to prosper. Eva returned to Germany to live out her life with the family that remained there; Elvera married and lives in Arizona today, where she enjoys the company of her children and grandchildren.

These books are reviewed together because their stories overlap. "The Last Bridge" especially is told in a good, fiction-writer’s style, and ends when they first stepped onto American soil. "A Distant Promise" has, as its pattern, Elvera answering her grandchildren’s questions about how she got from Arzis, Bessarabia to America. Both have some pictures, but "A Distant Promise" has many more, which were taken at points along the journey and today. Both books are worth reading. Elvera recalls details somewhat differently from one book to the other, and the second writer has a distinctive style. Details that are not clear in the first book come into focus in the second. Both books needed an editor who could have shaped up punctuation and usage details. Elvera’s story is one of great personal courage and sometimes miraculous deliverance experienced by people caught up in World War II. It is also one of the few that tells the story of Bessarabian Germans who were sent to live on the farms of Poland. The books are important to the Germans from Russia experience.

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