1921 The Year of Terror and Hunger for the German Volga Colonies
The year started with bad omens. In the night of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day the church in Koeppental burned down, presumably due to a problem in the chimney. That was a heavy blow for the congregation, because it would obviously not be rebuilt.
And once more a control commission, with a „Chekist“ (secret police) as leader, was terrorizing the community. During November and December 236 cows had been confiscated and hauled off to Soviet farms. According to rumor this commission had specific persons on its list of people suspected of having hidden food, and that we were on that list as well.
On January 5th they searched at cousin Jacob Wiebe’s. They measured the square surface of the entire house and then compared that with the measurements carefully taken of each individual room. That is how they discovered a discrepancy, and actually found the secret place—a small cham ber behind the pantry. They took everything that they found: flour, meat, clothing, and much more. I think they hauled away three big loads of stuff.
Jacob Wiebe was arrested and taken to Koeppental. There the Chekist and other Bolsheviks formed a tribunal and sentenced him to be shot.
That was late in the evening. At midnight he was led out of the village, and from behind the cemetery shots were heard. In the morning it was announced in the villages that Jacob Wiebe had been shot, but before his execution he had named a num ber of other people who had also hidden stuff. If the persons named would not come forward within 24 hours they would be also be shot.
Now what? Renate was for giving up every thing. But I thought that was just a bluff, because if Jacob Wiebe had really betrayed us, the commission would already have come to us. But we were very uneasy. It was January 6. I arranged for our Russian worker, Workresewak, to go visit his friends. The German worker and the maid went to church, and dear Renate and I, brother-in-law Johannes Mathies and his wife and sister Helene, whom we had invited, cleaned out our hiding place in the attic. Clothes and linens went back into the house; leather and harness was put in their proper places in the barn; flour, meat, and lard were loaded onto a sleigh in the back yard with the intent to take them away the next night.
At noon I received the order to appear in the Soviet at once—the moment had come! So we hitched horses to the sleigh and our future brother in-law, Alexander Quiring, who had just then come for a visit, took the load in broad daylight across the fields, without roads or paths, for two miles to the Laube boundary, unloaded everything in the border canal, and returned home by a different route.
In the meantime I was at the Soviet being thoroughly harassed for several hours. Upon their question whether I had hidden anything, I replied: „You don’t believe me anyway, so why don’t you come and search.“ It was a miracle that they did not even come onto the yard. So our fear and cleaning out the hiding place had been unnecessary. At night I hitched up a team and with the help of my brother in-law Johannes Mathies went to the canal and moved the foodstuffs a good eight miles further, close to where our land started in Waluevka. There was a slough with some deep holes where we put most of the stuff. Some we hid in the culvert that was in the dam on the way to Fresenheim. Some we simply hid behind the hedge of the Hohendorf cemetery and the rest I took home because we didn’t have much left.
We and others hid things, especially food, only because of our great need. We could see that the Bolsheviks were taking everything, so we tried in this very risky and dangerous way to keep our families from starving. That night a big snowstorm blew all our tracks shut. We were safe!
When all the searching and raving of the Cheka was in vain, because there was nothing left, they departed. But before they left they installed a „Troika“, a three-man commission in every village. These men were to continue the search for grain, and if within ten days they produced no results, their properties were to be confiscated. Until now the lowest elements and scoundrels had been chosen for such commissions, but this time they chose the three most wealthy farmers in each village, so that if they failed, it would pay to confiscate their prop erty. I was also on such a „Troika“. Our superior was comrade Stahl, a real proletarian.
So we had to go from house to house and „search“, i.e. pretend to do so. A stupid situation. One day when we were on the street in the process of searching we met the returning Cheka commis sion. They jumped off the sleigh and approached us with drawn revolvers. „What are the three of you doing out here on the street?“ they wanted to know.“
„We are the ‚Troika‘,“ we replied. „Aha, and are you working?“ „Oh yes, we are working.“ „What have you found so far?“ „Well, nothing yet.“ „Then come along.“
We were taken to Peter Bergmann’s granary and locked up in the top story. A guard was posted outside the door.
Soon more men were thrown into this „jail“, among them also old Ohm P. Bergmann. According to the Chekists they had a big find there because at the very moment of their arrival at his house several pans of Zwieback had been taken out of the oven. Such a crime! Furthermore they found half a bag of flour standing there quite openly in the pantry, along with about 25 pounds of lard. That was reason enough for confiscation and locking the old man up. The temperature was -20 degrees, and he was without warm underwear.
Towards evening we were all formally charged and taken away under heavy guard for sentencing like criminals. I was fortunate to be among the last ones interrogated. What should I say to these fools? I acted like a simpleton, just kept saying, „I will work, I will search.“ In his rage the Chekist whizzed his riding whip several times within a hair’s breath of my face, but he did not hit me. Finally I and several others were allowed to go free. But they took old Ohm Bergmann and several others with them.
On January 9 sister Anna was married to Alexander Quiring. There was only the ceremony in church, with Elder Wiens speaking on the text from Ps.73:23 : „Nevertheless, I am continually with you.“ It was a quiet and sober wedding. Only the siblings of the bride and groom and Joh. Bergman, came to our home for a few hours and we had cof fee together.
I have forgotten to mention that a few weeks after Papa’s death we three siblings, with our spouses, met in Papa’s house, that is, Anna’s, to divide the property; everything in the house, like clothing, books, pictures, etc. and also outside. We had invited our uncle Leonhard Penner to be present for this occasion. It was a beautiful time without any dissension or discord. Everything was regulated in peace and with love. When we closed our little meeting with song and prayer, Uncle Penner, deeply moved, said what a joy it had been for him to be present at such a settlement where each one tried to ensure that others get as much as possible. He thought surely our Papa would have been well pleased.
The Bolsheviks not only took our grain, but our feed as well, even the hay and straw. We had to haul load after load to Seelman and Saratov. Two of our teams and sleighs never returned from their trip, they were simply taken. In Waluevka we had five large strawstacks from previous years; they took these also. A straw press was set up there, workers were hired, and for weeks the work of bail ing straw continued. There was a massive amount of straw and the bales were piled up in huge stacks behind the haymow. The Cheka commission plus two more communists were the overseers. Each of them stole more than the other fellow. In the neigh boring village of Woskresenkoje there was no feed left, the livestock was starving, and so these poor Russian peasants came by night to the overseers and bartered our straw for silver or gold money, for butter, eggs, meat, machinery or whatever they still had.
During this time the Cheka in Koeppental was also quite busy with barter. They would order the people to deliver straw to the overseer. Now when the written report said that about 4 – 5,000 bales had been pressed, headquarters ordered the mobi lization of several hundred vehicles to haul the straw away. But local Cheka and commissars had pilfered so much and bartered it for themselves that they could not meet the demand. What were they to do now? Their thievery would be exposed! I believe, Bitter, our former manager, had also sold as much as he possibly could. And what happened? One night all the straw, together with the buildings in Waluevka caught fire and burned to the ground. Finished! Now there was no trace of thievery. These buildings plus two „Feuerstellen“ (ca. 130 desjatin land) was to go to my sister Lieschen as her inheritance. Now it was all gone—buildings, land, and everything
In the neighboring Russian and German vil lages people had been starving for some time; now the hunger also came into the Mennonite villages, to all those farmers who had not dared to hide food stuffs or who had been caught with it.
When no more grain could be found, another commission arrived. Actually it was hundreds of Russian workers from the city of Tula who were sent by Moscow to extort the last handful of grain—if they could find any. Two of these men, Kulakoff and Wenew, came to our villages. They searched, threatened, raged, confiscated cattle and inventory in several places, but they could find no grain. They demanded to be taken to Marxstadt, the capital of the German Volga Republic at the time, for further orders. Written orders found with them later showed that they had been authorized to go to the utmost extreme of taking three of the most prominent men in the community and shoot them. After that they would see results—there would be grain.
Meanwhile the rumor persisted that a revolt had broken out south of Seelman which the com munists were unable to suppress. On the day when Kulakoff and Wenew returned from Marxstadt, a mob of 2-300 mutinous peasants came to our vil lages. What a sight! In rags, half starved, a few with guns, most of them armed with pitchforks or handmade picks, they came riding on skeleton horses. A picture of misery and hopelessness.
They dismissed the officials in the district Soviet. Yes, they were our Mennonites who had to carry out the orders from above, they had no choice; the chairman was my dear cousin Johannes Penner. Then they organized a „Council of the Rebelling Peasants“; Johannes Penner was their quiet but primary adviser. In the villages „Councils“ were organized as well, often with the same offi cials that had been in the Soviets before.
When the rebellious peasants had entered our settlement, Johannes Penner had obtained a wagon to help the Koeppental communists, Janzen, Esau, Ehrlich, and others to flee. He wanted to avoid bloodshed, and that was right and good.
Now when Kulakoff and Wenew returned from Marxstadt, they were apprehended by the revolting peasants before they reached Medemtal, taken to Gerhard Wall’s house, relieved of their weapons and documents, taken to the manure pile, and shot. The bodies were thrown into an old unused well. The rest of the fleeing communists only got as far as Neu-Laub where they were also caught and beaten to death.
I will not write in detail here about this rebel lious episode because I have done that in my story „Am Trakt“. Let me only say here what touched us personally. Our Council in Koeppental sent out the order that every male up to age 40 was to arm him self and join the rebels. I also got the order but I did not obey.
Then I had an experience that bothered me con siderably. My cousin Jacob Wiebe, who had not been shot after all that night when they took him out to the field and fired some shots, but had been held a prisoner in Kukus, was released. He came home quite embittered because he had probably been beaten and abused, lost his common sense, became enthusiastic about this peasant uprising and got quite involved in spreading it.
About a week after the start of this uprising he came to us very excitedly and wished to see me pri vately. He asked what I had done during the past week? I told him that I had kept quiet and sat by the stove keeping warm. He flared up and shouted: „Aren’t you ashamed of yourself! If you and I think and act like that, who will get rid of the com munists?“ I told him that I felt just like he did, but we had to use our heads, and we had to think of our families. Could he not see that this uprising was hopeless? I counseled him to stay out of it, but could not convince him, and he rode off greatly agitated.
Several days later I had to appear before the district Council in Koeppental. There they also reprimanded me for not joining the rebels, but eventually excused me on the condition that I carry out a political task they had for me. I was to go to Seelman, the headquarters of the uprising, to check on the situation and bring back a report.
Now what was I to do? Finally I agreed, but requested that people be told that I had gone to Seelman to get back our „Landauer“ coach, which was kept at headquarters ever since the communists had taken it away from me. I actually did get it back, but I dared not bring it home, so I left it with an acquaintance in Seelman.
At the rebels‘ headquarters I was cordially received. This also I reported in the booklet AM TRAKT, but would like to add the following: rumor had it that the uprising had spread to all of Russia, that most communists had been killed, and that large revolutionary armies were marching onto Moscow. Here I learned that this was not true. Uprisings had broken out in many places, but due to lack of leadership and weapons they had nearly always remained merely local skirmishes. All my pessimistic forebodings seemed to come true. Before I left Seelman I was called into the rebels‘ office again, given several official documents for our Council, and the following paper:
„Possessor of this document, citizen J. J. Dyck, is a special confidential representative of the „Chief Council of Rebel Peasants“, and with this has been appointed as organizer and responsible leader for propaganda and political activities on the east front. All military and civil personnel and offices are obliged to assist him and give the best possible support in the fulfillment of his duties.“ (signed) Council Chairman: A Camarion
Secretary: (signed and official seal attached).
I don’t know when in my life I was shocked more than now. This paper could be my death sentence when the Reds returned. I went to Camarion to refuse the assignment, but now he was as militarily stern and brief as he had been friendly the day before. „If you are not with us, you are against us,“ he said. „You have your choice; I give you five minutes.“ I knew instantly how to assess the situation. It was a war. I could see the con sequences if I refused. I accepted. He wished me much success and I was dismissed.
In Koeppental I reported to the inner circle how I assessed the situation. In the meantime fight ing at the front had stopped. The poor peasants did eventually get a few machine guns and a fair amount of rifles, but there was very little ammunition. So how could they fight the well equipped Red army? As soon as the advances of the peasants stopped they became discouraged and gradually started to disperse. The Reds had mobilized many men from the half-civilized mountain tribes, and after about six weeks from the start of the uprising, the peasants were totally suppressed and under Red con trol. But how much bloodshed!
I think it was on May 12 when a Revolutionary Tribunal came to Koeppental. Over 70 persons were arrested. About this, too, and the mass mur der on May 19, I have written in detail in AM TRAKT. Here just this personal note:
When the Tribunal arrived I faced the question whether to flee or stay. Fleeing would be seen as as admission of guilt and it would mean staying away permanently, then what would happen to my help less family? But where would I go? Alone I could disappear into hiding somewhere in this vast country; but with my dear wife and children that was unthinkable. After much thought and a lot of prayer I decided to stay. During the revolt I had never said anything against the Reds. The trip to Seelman could perhaps be explained with the Landauer coach affair. My mandate from the cen tral office there was known only to Johannes Penner and one other person. I had never used it. On my return from Seelman I had reported „sick“ in our district Council and had taken part in nothing. Per haps they would not trouble me. I put myself totally in God’s care. I did not flee.
Saturday before Pentecost we sat at supper. We were apprehensive and the mood was serious. Many had already been arrested. Suddenly our yard was filled with riders and wagons, all military. This was it! I went out at once to meet them, per haps as many as 50 or 60 men. Two came and introduced themselves to me, one as the commander of the division and the other as their political leader. And then the surprise.
„We are not Reds,“ they explained, „but a newly organized division under Camarion, which is well fortified and equipped with arms from the Ural region. We have been sent to help you. Camarion has heard that the Red Tribunal is here, so we came in haste as an advance guard. You have been pointed out to us as a dependable man for the White army. So we would like to have supper here, and then you will lead us to Koeppental under cover of darkness so we can surprise and destroy the Tribunal.“
I instantly knew the danger I was in. I said that we could feed about half of the men; that I knew little about the affair of the Tribunal, or for that matter whether it was still in Koeppental. And I would not accompany them because the Reds had done me no harm. In various ways they tried to change my mind, said some negative things about the Reds, but thank God I uttered no careless word.
Eventually about 40 of them stayed for the night, the rest went to neighbor Fieguth. They allowed us to occupy two rooms, all the rest they took over. It was a noisy and wild evening with eating, drinking, smoking, and finally bedding down after midnight. Even when it got quiet at last, I did not undress and remained at our door listening.
At about three o’clock I heard someone drive onto our yard. It was Johannes Penner. After mid night the Tribunal in Koeppental had been informed that a division of White soldiers were at our house for the night. Immediately the whole Tribunal, about 120 men, had come to apprehend them. In fact at this very moment our house was completely surrounded, but they were too cowardly to attack and had sent Penner, who was Council chairman, to investigate.
Soon the yard and all our buildings was over run with Reds. They questioned the leaders of our night visitors. I heard it all through the wall. They conclusively proved to them that they, too, were Reds, sent from Saratov to Nowo-Usensk. When passing our settlement they had heard about the Tribunal; someone had mentioned my name and they had decided to have a litte „fun“. They had come to me and posed as „Whites“. They had hoped to confuse me and a few others and, should we incriminate ourselves, deliver us all up to the Tribunal.
But the Tribunal didn’t think this was funny; rather they saw it as an indiscretion and a provoca tion. They sentenced the two leaders to be shot within the hour. Now you should have heard these two men tremble and beg for their lives. They boasted about all their service to the government, how many bourgeois they had discovered and liq uidated, and more. I was also questioned whether they had been rough with me, whether they had asked tricky questions, etc. I replied that they had not been unjust and that I couldn’t remember all their questions. Finally their sentence was changed: instead of immediate execution they were to wait two days, while they got information on these two men from the Saratov headquarters. Johannes Pen ner told me later that the report had been extremely favorable, they were indeed valuable fighters, and so they were set free.
Had I complained about them it would have fared badly with me. God had guided me again and I was left unmolested.
We were deeply shocked when we heard that 23 men had been sentenced to death. The Tribunal had been in our settlement for a week. How many people trembled in fear and apprehension! How many prayers went up to the throne of God! And what gracious protection from God that I was spared!
Johannes Penner also escaped death by a hair’s breath. He was reported to have been the adviser of the Council, and also that he had disappeared for about a week after the defeat of the uprising, but then returned again. One time he came to our yard on official business, but when he saw that there were strangers around he was very brief and soon left. I followed him to the gate and he said he couldn’t tell me everything, but that we were both in grave danger. Could we promise each other that if one of us fell, the other would take care of both families as if they were his own? There was a firm handshake, a firm look into a friend’s eyes, and the pledge was sealed. Both of us were spared. We had so much care and protection from God!
Here is more proof of that. Shortly after Papa’s death certain age-groups were mobilized for what was called the „working front,“ digging tren ches and such. For a start it was to be for one year. I was also on the list. Johannes Penner, as chairman of the district Soviet, said he’d go to Markstadt and try to have our young men exempted. We mobilized men went a day later. But Penner had already left and so we did not meet him. We had no choice but to report. I carried the list of us conscripts, took it to the proper office, and was told that we should all report to the barracks within an hour.
When I returned to our lodging the hotel keeper handed me a letter from Johannes Penner, which he had forgotten to deliver to me earlier. Penner wrote that he had been able to free all of us, and that by no means should we report to the office. We were to return straight home.
Rushing back to the office I found my list still on the desk, quickly took it and disappeared. We all went home. Had we showed up at the barracks they would not have let us go. Thus it was thanks to God and Johannes Penner that we could return home again.
This mobilization would have been a lot worse than that during the war. In this way Johannes Pen ner rendered many valuable services through the years, of which this was just one. Although he was generally held in high regard, these services, material and other, were hardly recognized and appreciated. Now my very dear friend is languish ing in exile, or perhaps he is already dead. God only knows.
It is understandable that under these circum stances of hunger and terror the seeded acreage was very small; less than 10 percent in our settlement. On top of that we had no rain, only dry east winds. Soon it was obvious that there would be a total crop failure, not only Am Trakt, but in all of Russia, with a few scattered exceptions. Conditions east of the Volga were the worst because the heat scorched everything. The drought and hunger consumed all.
That started a flight of people from the Volga region to the south were it was reported that there was bread, there was a harvest. Hundreds and thousands of starving people started out on foot, got stranded in the larger cities where they hoped to board a train south. But there was no food. Typhus and cholera broke out and soon was rampant. Thousands perished.
| A year later it was reported that over 100,000 had fled the Volga Republic alone, and that proba bly more than half of them had died on the way. Again that many or more died at home from starva tion and typhus. It was a gruesome death on a gigantic scale, and all as a consequence of the com munist terror and mismanagement. One cannot help but ask, but what about God’s justice and judgment? Truly His ways are often incomprehensible.
Now a new chapter begins in the history of Russia; a new chapter also in my own life. A new chapter for me with a new kind of work. When the Bolsheviks at long last realized that the farmers actually did not have any more grain, that con sequently the cities were also starving, it was Lenin who assessed the situation correctly. He realized that without bread the Soviet rule would collapse. So he proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP), according to which peasants and other farmers were again allowed to own some property, the terror of persecution was to stop, and people who formerly had been in leadership positions, even if they had been wealthy, were to be left alone. Having owned property and having been a leader was no longer to be considered a crime. These people were, in fact, the very ones who were now to help get Russia back on its feet again, rebuild the agricultural sector and the general economy.
With one move all the bloodthirsty, murderous commisars had seemingly disappeared. Everywhere they were replaced with moderate elements.
Again, the majority of the Communist Party were opposed to this new policy, calling it backslid ing and betrayal of Socialism. „Yes“, replied Lenin, „now we retreat. But only for the time being, until the time is ripe to go forward again by leaps and bounds. Then we will crush all bourgeois obstacles and make communism supreme. For the present we need to cooperate.“ His authority won the day and NEP became indeed the new economic policy.
About this time, the beginning of June, the total crop failure was evident everywhere, including Am Trakt. At a meeting of the district Soviet it was decided to send out two men to scout for food and feed, for people and animals. The one party went only a few hundred miles west of the Volga where they found some crops scattered here and there. J.J. Bergman and I were in the second scouting party.
Johannes Penner himself came to tell me this news and also something else. He had heard that in Koeppental several communists claimed that the Tribunal had not been harsh enough, their „housecleaning“ had not been thorough enough, and in their thirst for blood were eager for more revenge. Persons had been reported to them who supposedly had been active in the Peasant Revolt. I was one of them. That is why Johannes Penner had suggested me to be on the food searching party. It was best for me to disappear. With this order I could legally travel to any unknown destination because we were free to try to find food and feed wherever we could. When we were ready to return home I was to send him a telegram, in case the danger had not yet passed.
Again I have forgotten to mention an incident that should be told. It was right after the crushing of the Peasant Revolt, before the activity of the Tribunal. We were asked to come to the Soviet to decide on a vehicle to convey a communist, J.J. Janzen, from Koeppental to Seelman. He had held an office in Marxstadt and was now to be the chief of police in Seelman. I offered to drive him myself. Janzen was a year younger than I and had been my schoolmate for two years in the Koeppental High School. His parents had been poor, his father was an alcoholic, and so Hans Janzen, being treated with condescension and scorn, became shy and suspi cious. I felt sorry for him, especially because I saw some positive qualities in him and so had often defended him against other students, which he appreciated and for which he had thanked me. Not that we ever became close friends, but I noticed that he was always ready to do me a favor. He appreciated that I did not despise him for his poverty and shabby clothes, but always treated him as an equal.
Twenty years had passed since those school days, and our paths had only crossed occasionally, casually and seldom. He was secretary in some Volga German colony.
Now I had an idea. I knew that if the mandate given me by the Revolutionary Council in Seelman under Camarion would be discovered, it would be my death sentence. Surely the Council would have a record of that, as well as my name, a description of the mandate and my signature. So on this long trip I took courage and told Janzen the whole sordid episode. I asked him to destroy that book of records if he could find it. He looked at me…
„You know that I am a communist?“ I replied, „Yes, I know.“..
„And you know what you are doing in telling me this?“
„Yes. I am putting my life into your hands.“ „How can you risk doing that?“
„Because I believe that basically you are a decent person, capable of noble impulses; and I have the feeling that there is something from the days of our youth that unites us; so I am willing to trust you with my life.“
He was thoughtful for a while, actually quite a long time. We drove along in silence. Finally he turned to me, offered me his hand and said:
„You shall not be disappointed in me.“
When we got to Seelman he went straight to his office. I thought he would be back after a few hours, but it was already evening, about six hours later, when he finally came back. He reported that the janitor, Janicz, had told him that all the books and documents had been burned by the Whites, i.e. by the staff of the Revolutionary Council, before they left. So my fear had been unnecessary.
But would Janzen really keep his word? Keep quiet? That was my big fear during all this time of the Tribunal’s activity. He did! And through God’s leading I was able to repay him in almost like manner soon after that. More about that later.
As already mentioned, Bergmann and I received mandates from the Volga Republic head quarters early in June to be scouts for our com munity for finding food and feed in southern Russia for our starving people and animals. In addition we also received mandates from the District Com missariat that we were to try to find feed for a largenumber of purebred horses which were impor tant for military purposes. Then we received a mandate from the Commissar for Agriculture, stat ing that we were members of an expedition to save registered livestock of the German Volga Republic. And we received personal certificates from the Soviet of our district as well as of our village. So we thought we were well equipped and fortified in
grand style with documents, which was so important at that time. We were also supplied with millions of rubles. We were prepared and ready.
We had no problems buying tickets in Seelman for the former beautiful luxury steamer of the Samolet Co. Of course now all the upholstery in the cabins was torn out as being just that much capi talistic nonsense. How smoothly the elegant ship glided through the never-ending waves of our beloved Volga, totally indifferent to Bolshevik ter ror, hunger and misery.
Almost half the night I sat up on deck, alone, watching the bright twinkling stars and listening to the peaceful lapping of the waves against the ship. What had our „Little Mother Volga“ not seen of human hate, suffering and foolishness! Only a few centuries ago the rebellious hordes of Stenka Rasin had drifted on her waters. And how many songs of the rafters had wafted across her wide expanse, as they floated their enormous cargos of lumber from way up north all the way south to Astrachan. It seemed to me I should still be able to hear the echoes of the melancholy „Down of the Volga“.
And during the last decades thousands of freighters had carried the golden wheat from the steppes, and the long colossal iron ships carrying oil from the wells of Baku on her ever-flowing waters. In between all this heavy transport, there were the luxury liners carrying thousands of vacationers on pleasure cruises to resorts and spas. All that was past; never to be again. Lost because of that wretched war and the consequent Bolshevik chaos. All that remained was misery, heartache, hunger, and death.
On this ship there were some commissars, who occupied the cabins, and a horde of starving refugees, in rags, clutching their miserable last possessions stuffed into bags. They were crowded together on the upper and lower decks and even filled the hallways so that one could hardly walk. Imagine me trying to move through that pitiful mass of humanity, constantly stretching out skeleton hands and pleading: „Bread! Only a little piece of bread!“ This was our reality. This was the para dise of Bolshevism.
The ship glided so peacefully through the night that I was in a thoughful and reflective mood. How had it once been? How was it today? And what will it be like tomorrow? The future seemed so dark. Was the blood-thirsty police at home already looking for me? Did my dear Renate and our innocent children sleep in peace? Or was there another …
My nerves started to twitch again . . .But no, no! Just look how peaceful and tranquil it is all around me—the gentle breeze, the warm night air so soothing, nothing disturbing the serenity of the hour-only now and then when someone opens a door, my ears catch the whispering of the starving refugees, who even in sleep, cannot find peace. At last, very gradually—after all dangers and worries of the past, as well as the many times I had experi enced God’s marvelous delivery and help—had glided past my memory screen, a great peace came into my heart. Oh, you beloved Volga, friend of my youth, you, who carried me the first time as a twelve-year old boy to Central Asia; who bore us on our beautiful honeymoon trip; and who carried me safely on so many business trips—these precious hours were like balm to my often frayed nerves. For this I give thanks, next to God, to you, my beloved Volga! And now sleep. Just sleep. No
Bolshevik is threatening now. Sleep…
And I did sleep, deeply and undisturbed until Bergmann awoke me mid-morning. We were in Zaryzin. From here we went by train via Sarepta, Tiskertzkaja to Welikokysherskoe, where a Men nonite settlement was reputed to have prospects of a good crop.
We left the ship and went to the railroad sta tion. We had to show all our mandates, our all important documents, in order to buy our tickets. They would not sell us tickets. We were told that the whole region through which we wnatde to travel had been in a state of war due to the peasant upris ing until recently, and the only people allowed to travel were the military and the Tsheka. All other would be passengers had first to get permission from an office down town. That didn’t seem such a big problem, we had time before the next train. We would simply return to the inner city, get our spe cial permits, and we’d travel on.
On our way to that permit office we heard that trains were not running on schedule anymore, but only two or three times a week, as there was need. At the permit office we found 100 people queued up and waiting. What’s up? Oh, we’ve been waiting here for hours already, they said. Slowly we made our way to the nearest wicket. There were only about ten more ahead of us, when the official behind the wicket announced: „Closed until 9 o’clock tomorrow morning!“
So we had to find lodging for the night. We asked directions to the nearest hotel. People looked at us in surprise but did give us two or three addresses. When we got there a guard by the door demanded to see our credentials. Yes, of course, we have plenty of them. This fellow is going to be impressed! He took them all, went inside, and soon returned telling us that the one document we needed we did not have: we needed to have a permit to rent a room.
Where does one get that permit? In the Lodg ing Department of the City Administration Office. We got the address and walked half-way through the city to get there. Just as we entered the room the presiding official announced to the big crowd wait ing there that all hotels were filled and no more permits would be issued.
Oh, but that’s impossible. I pushed my way to the wicket and demanded a room-permit, declaring that we were so and so, had such and such mandates, etc. And that, surprisingly, was effec tive. „Yes,“ said the official, „we still have several vacant rooms for ‚exceptional cases.'“ Convinced that we fitted into that category, I gave him our mandates. He leafed through them all, but alas! I could tell from the expression on his face what awaited us. He handed the documents back con temptuously with the explanation that unfortunately we were not qualified to occupy one of those rooms because they were for people who expected to stay in Zaryzin, but we were only passing through. We told him why we were stranded, but he replied that that was no concern of his. We were not entitled to a room.
That was the limit. Surely we couldn’t sleep on the sidewalk. And why not? he asked. Thou sands are doing it! And that was true. I lost my cool and got a bit loud. And just as quick as that the police was beside me and said: „One more word from you, and you will have lodging—for ten days!“ We left in a hurry and without another word.
We tried to find a bed in a private home, but doors opened only a crack, we were eyed with suspicion, and told to keep going. That was not surprising under present conditions. We were hungry so we looked for a restaurant. When we found one we could not enter because we had to have special permission. We did not have the offi cial papers and could only get them at designated offices. But by this time it was late and all the offices were closed. Thank God we had taken along a goodly supply of bread and cheese. So we went back to the train station, ate our bread, and lay down on the floor to sleep. Like hundreds of others did.
We were not yet asleep, it must have been around ten o’clock, when a policeman came and chased us all out. Nobody was allowed to spend the night in the station. But where should we go? We walked along the streets and finally came to a market place with many open stalls. At least there was a table and a roof over our heads. So we each had our private „hotel“. We were tired from the many hours of walking and soon fel asleep.
It was not long after that when I felt someone shaking my arm. It was a policeman; he told us to move on. It was forbidden to sleep in these stalls. Furthermore, we were taking the risk of having our throats cut by someone wanting our baggage. We said we didn’t care about that if he would only let us sleep, but he was adamant. So we pushed off again, meandered along, and finally sat down lean ing against a wall. Half sleeping, half waking we passed the night. In the morning we ate some of our bread. The worst was that we had nothing to drink, because we were afraid to drink unboiled water since typhoid and cholera were everywhere.
We went to the office early so as to be first in line, but there were already many ahead of us. By the time the wicket opened three hours later there were hundreds waiting again. Bergmann gave them our papers, expecting to have them stamped at once. Far from it. We were told that we would get a reply after three days. To all our questions, includ ing: „And where can we stay in the meantime?“ there was only one response: „That’s no concern of ours. Move on! Next please!“
| As we sauntered away we actually thought whether perhaps we ought to return home. But that would never do; we simply had to find food for our settlement. But where? Slowly we went along down to the Volga. As we got close to the piers we saw an absolutely incredible sight—as far as one could see along the landing piers lay a multitude of the most helpless and pitiful mass of humanity, all hungry refugees who had fled the German Volga Republic in search of food. They had come this far by ship, hoping to continue on to the Don River region, the Caucasus, or the Taurien area, but were stranded because the trains would not take them. Every day more arrived, not realizing that this was a bottle-neck. As these thousands of people sat and lay helplessly and hopelessly on the ground, here and at the railroad station, many were sick, all were starving, and then they began to die. It was reported that once a day the police sent wagons through the masses to pick up the dead bodies and bury them in a mass grave.
As we watched this pathetic scene from a little distance, we heard the whistle of a steamer, the familiar first signal for departure. A thought flashed through my mind. I turned to Bergmann and said: „Come! Come quickly!“ We grabbed our baggage and ran. It was a large passenger ship that was preparing to sail down the river. We showed our mandates and got tickets immediately. Minutes later we were on the ship.
Bergmann was a bit bewildered. I explained that my idea was to go to Astrakhan, which would take a day and a half, then turn around and come back to Zaryzin. That would be another day and a half. We would be on the ship three days. The tickets were sold for a song, only a few thousand worthless rubles. We would be out of the disease infested city, would have good lodgings on board, and after three days our mandates would be processed. To top it off, after bribing the ship’s doctor he declared us „passengers in need of recuperation“ and as such we were entitled to a good cabin with beds and mattress. Every time the ship docked we could get off, buy food, tea and sugar, and so we were on our way. Hot water for the tea was available on the ship.
We travelled quite comfortably for Soviet con ditions. We arrived in Astrakhan, waited four to five hours, boarded a different ship, and after three days we were back in Zaryzin, nicely rested. At the office we were told that our permission to travel on by train had been denied because we were not on government business. No amount of talking changed that. Now what should we do? Return home? not yet!
At the train station we learned that there were three tickets to Sarepta, the German Herrnhuter (Moravian Brethren) town available. For this rela tively short distance of only twenty miles no special passes were needed because many factory workers came from Sarepta; it was also the main junction for freight trains between the Volga and Don River area. So we went to Sarepta.
On arrival we went straight to the freight sta tion where we found out that the only means of transportaion would be in or on the freight cars. We also saw that those cars were literally plastered with travellers. Those coming up from the south carried bags that were half, a third or even three fourths full of wheat or flour, depending on the strength of the person carrying it or on the amount of gold that he had to barter with. Imagine the enormous need that would compel a father to travel three to four weeks, only to bring home fifty to a hundred pounds of flour for his starving family. And yet they were the lucky ones. Many more perished.
The police allowed no one near the freight train until a few minutes before departure, when every one stampeded forward. Bergmann and I were lucky to drop into an empty coal car, made of iron and about five feet deep. It was open at the top. Within seconds it filled with men, and more men, as they kept dropping in when the train was already moving. All the roofs of the cars were jam-packed with people. It was terribly hot; we sat in the coal dust; too crowded to lie down; surrounded by dirty, lice-infected, hungry men who looked enviously at us when we pulled out a piece of bread to eat. We travelled like that for two days and two nights. Actually we stopped more than we rolled, and had not yet gone half the distance. It was a despairing situation.
Once, when we had again been waiting at a major station for several hours and were just return ing to our car from a thorough washing, I noticed a passenger train heading south on another track. A thought flashed through my mind again. I said to Bergman,
„Quick! Come quickly!“ „What is it now?“ „We’re going to get on this passenger train.“ „What? How?“
„You take the baggage (it wasn’t much) and stay on this side of the train. I will go on the plat form on the other side. Keep your eye on me.“ I walked along slowly, without a cap on, my hands in my pockets, looking for a possible empty spot. But all cars seemed to be crowded full … except, what a surprise, there was one car only half full. That was strange. But who cares why it is not full, that’s ours!
And then I heard the first departure signal. I moved closer to the train and gave Bergmann a sig nal.. At the sound of the second signal I calmly boarded the train like all the other passengers. Soon I discovered that the third and fourth compart ments in this car were empty. Quickly I opened a window on the other side, Bergmann tossed our baggage in. Just then the third and last signal sounded. I reached down, took Bergmann’s hand, hoisted him up, and we were on our way. We quickly spread out our few belongings, went to the washroom to put on clean shirts, and acted as if we were at home. But we did notice how strangely other passengers looked at us. After a while we, too, became apprehensive and got an uncanny feel ing about them. They were all armed. But so what, we’re traveling south!
Towards evening we lowered the sleeping partitions, put our pillows in place, and pretended we were sleeping. But not for long. Soon several armed men stood by our beds to waken us. We acted very drowsy, but they soon had us wide awake.
„How did you get into this car?“ they asked. „This is reserved for a special purpose. Are you headquarters staff?“
„Yes we are,“ was our reply. „Show us your documents.“
„Here they are,“ we said, and produced our mandates.
„Is that all you’ve got?“
„Well, what else do you want to see? Isn’t this enough?“
„Aha, you are spies. Come along!“ We took our baggage and followed them into an empty compartment with barred windows where they left us with a guard at the door.
This time we had really done it! Now we were stuck. And now we also understood what we had done: we had made ourselves at home in the car reserved for the secret police, the G.P.U. But Bergmann’s humor did not leave him even in this tight situation. „We’re advancing in rank,“ he said. „First we travel in a a GPU car, and now in a spe cial car reserved just for us. But no matter, we’re rolling south!“
But we could not sleep. After several hours four to five armed men came to question us. Even though we showed them all our mandates they did not believe us, they insisted that we were spies. That was plausable because this all happened very shortly after the rebellious uprising. The cross examination was fierce, and it might have ended in our favor if one of the officers, in checking through our baggage, had not found some czar money in my bag which we had taken along as the only way, we had been told, that one could buy flour cheaply in the regions before the Caucasus.
Now we were in serious trouble. They stopped interrogatng us and wrote their report, saying that we were counter-revolutionary spies, had secretly invaded the GPU railroad car, and had carried con siderable amount of czar money with us. They they left us.
What would happen next? We concluded that our situation was serious, prayed about it, and actually went to sleep. Early next morning, before sunrise, the train stopped at a major junction, Tis cheretzkaja, from where we were to go east on a different train. Our guard woke us and handed us over to serveral Red soldiers who took us to the local GPU station. The agent, still half asleep, read the report whistled through his teeth, and said: „Aha, so that’s the kind of birds you are. In that case I will settle your case at once. You will each get a bullet and that’s all!“
At first we thought he was joking, but he was dead serious. He wrote a full report, yawned and said: „Sign here. Then I’ll call some soldiers to fin ish you off!“ When we read his report we saw that with our signature we would be admitting that all their accusations were true. We tried in various ways to convince him of our innocence, but it was no use. He got angry. What were a couple of fel lows to him? He was annoyed for having been dis turbed so early in the morning, and for nothing more than two lives.
|As a last resort I took a piece of cheese from my travelling bag, wrapped it in paper an unobtrusively slid it under some newspapers on his desk. He noticed it, got curious, reached over and felt it with his fingers. Then he sat back thinking a while. Suddenly he went to the door, told the guard to take some order to a certain place, and that he himself would take care of these „criminals“.
As soon as the guard had left he said: „Now be gone, both of you. Hurry!“ We grabbed our things and promptly obeyed his order. Were we really to be shot? It seemed incredible, but true. In this way countless lives were snuffed out during the civil war. Human life was cheap. We could have been shot easily, and our families would never have found out how or why we had perished.
Now we hurried to get away to avoid further arrests. After several hours we noticed a long train of tank cars carrying crude oil to Baku. It was ready to leave. Along with many others we climbed up the tank cars and rode along for several hundred miles. It was very dangerous. We sat on top of these round tank cars with our legs dangling on either side, riding along at great speed as if we were sitting on a ball. We were constantly in mortal danger, especially when there was a fast curve or a sudden stop. We had to hang on as best we could. Not all managed; some fell off. But God protected us even on this very dangerous trip.
When our train entered the Kawkaskaja station it was immediately surrounded by soldiers and all „rabbits“ (that is people hitching free rides on freight cars), were declared under arrest. We were herded into a barrack and told by the presiding officer that as penalty for illegal travel we had to do five days forced labor at the station. We showed them our fistful of mandates, but nothing helped. All reasoning was useless. Most of the men agreed without protest, thinking that at least they would be fed. But before the day was out and the evening watch changed, we were able to escape. I think Bergmann had given him some cigarettes.
Once again we searched for a means of transport. We saw how a train was being assembled, and in the dark made our way quietly onto a little platform which is part of some freight cars. We thought we were safe. But just as the train started moving a member of the crew jumped onto our little platform, told us to get off, and even tried to push us off, but we would not budge. He whistled for the police. The officer came running, but the train was picking up speed and so we were on our way. The railroad man said he’d hand us over to the police at the next station. But before we got there he also was pacified in the customary Rus sian way.
We had now reached the station of Welikokujascheskaja near which the Mennonite settlement by the same name was located. But we knew no one there. On entering the village we asked to whom we ought to report, and were told to go to Ohm Johann Fast, who could help us with everything. It was true. Mr. J. Fast, a 70 year old widower, and his daughter, Helene, who looked after his household, received us graciously. After a thorough wash and a hearty meal we went to bed.
In the meantime Ohm Fast consulted with other leaders in the village about our concern. Towards evening several of them came to Fasts: Elder Wiens of the Mennonite Brethren Church, a Mr. Unruh, minister of the so-called „Church Mennonites“ (our church) who had been mayor for many years, a Templer, and a few others.
The next day there was a general meeting in the church, where we reported on conditions in our settlement. After a prolonged discussion they recommended that we send to them 100-200 people and 200-300 head pf purebred livestock for the winter. As compensation the Mennonites from Am Trakt were to work, and also give them one-third of all livestock as payment for feed. We stayed there three to four days and a good impression of the settlement. It seemed to be a progressive com munity. The crops looked promising.
In the meantime we also had to go to a Cossack settlement to obtain a permit to bring our livestock into the area. The two of us were again at the rail road station waiting for a freight train, as was our custom now. Soon a train came, slowed down, but did not stop. Bergmann said that since it wasn’t going very fast we should try to jump it. And he did, right on to the buffer between two cars. The next ones were already occupied so I couldn’t get on. Meanwhile the train was picking up speed. Finally I saw an empty little buffer between two cars and was just going to jump, when someone grabbed me from behind and shouted: „Are you crazy?“
I still think that was one of the most dangerous situations of my life. I took a deep breath. It was almost as if I had been under a spell of some kind that I thought I had to catch that freight train. A little later a single locomotive came along and stopped to pick up some railroad workers. I asked whether they would take me along, too. They gave permission and we followed the freight train. Berg mann was surprised to see me so soon and arrive in such style.
There we heard the welcome news that as of tomorrow all train tickets were to be free to the gen eral public. There is no way to adequately describe our joy; even those who read this cannot really understand it without having personally experienced it. Only our firm resolve to complete our mission had kept us from turning back earlier. How we thanked God that we were spared similar hardships on our return trip.
Next day we were actually able to buy tickets and board the first available train home. Before the war we would have considered it impossible to travel under such conditions, with people not only occupying all seats, but squeezing in to fill the upper bunks, gangways, washrooms, steps, buffers between the cars, everywhere. People clung to the train as if they had been glued on. In addition to the overcrowding was the heat, the lack of air, the foul tabacco smoke; in a way it was worse than going south when we were on top of a freight train, where at least we had fresh air. But actually it wasn’t worse, because now we were without danger of being ejected, and we were getting closer to home, even though very slowly.
To my telegram from Wlikokeyascheskaja, Cuban, to Johannes Penner there had been no reply, so I concluded it was safe for me to return. At Zaryzin we again boarded the ship and so arrived home safe and sound. Though very tired, we were safe and sound.
The harvest was in full swing, if you could call it a harvest when your return is less than half of the original seed. It was still hot with a steady east wind blowing. Hopeless! Now we had meetings where we reported on our trip and people were given the opportunity to volunteer to sign up. Permits and mandates had to be obtained for them
in Marxstadt, and all this took time and work.
In the midst of this preparation we received a telegram that the local Kuban government author ities protested against our planned move. What should we do now? Many were getting ready to go, in fact what else could they do? So it was decided that Bergmann and I should go back again and try to persuade the authorities to let the people and animals come as planned. So we left again on the already familiar route, although this time with regu lar tickets and reached our destination in four days. On arrival I got sick and had to stay in bed for several days. I feared it might be typhus, but the high fever broke and I soon recovered. Fasts cared for me beautifully. They are dear people.
As soon as I was able, the two of us went to the regional capital, Krasnodar (Ekaterinodar) and after long negotiations finally received the written permission to transport people and livestock to their area. With these papers we could also obtain free ship and train transportation for people and animals. It was a lot of bother, but at last everything was regulated and we could return home again.
About 130 persons and 250 head of livestock moved there. The reception varied greatly; some were received graciously and had to pay less than one-third of the livestock for board and room and feed, but for the majority it was not so good. Many experienced what it is like to be exploited and treated heartlessly. Also many horses and cattle died because of the change of climate, so that in the end this venture was not very successful.
I had sent 18 head of horses and cattle with the young minister, Johannes Penner, Medemtal, and Gerhard Dyck, Hohendorf. All that we ultimately got back was one cow and a certain quantity of wheat in payment for two horses. The rest had either died or was taken as expenses. But I had the distinct feeling that Gerhard Dyck had tried his very best, and looked after our animals as well as after his own.
Even though we had a total crop failure, there was a lot of work at home. We still had some workers and a maid, as well as a nanny. Even so, it was a very hard time for my dear Renate. Because the food was so scarce we added more substitutes to the already heavy bran flour, such as more bran, pumpkin, and the like. Our hidden food supply had lasted a long time and we were thankful that some was left, but we had to ration it carefully. Our entire crop of wheat and rye consisted of 45 bushels, and the quality was poor, like chicken feed. How were we going to stretch that to feed a family and our servants for one year? It seemed utterly impossible; there was barely enough for six months.
On August 20 our Cornelius was born, a healthy and remarkably friendly child. My dear Renate was very weak and it took her a long time to recuperate. During those days we again marvelled at all the Lord’s gracious providence and protection that we had experienced during the last year. Our hearts overflowed with praise and thanksgiving. So we vowed that we would lead this child in a special way to the Lord, that we would do everything pos sible to raise it in such a way that it would serve Him, our Lord and our God. And to that end we dedicated it to Him.
By the end of August and the beginning of Sep tember there were already some cases of typhus. Among others our neighbors, blacksmith Peter Wall and his wife, died in short succession. Some schools closed because neither the government nor the communities paid any salaries to the teachers. Our teacher, Franz Quiring, received 50 pud of rye for the whole year, and even that was almost impossible to collect because the people didn’t have enough to feed their own families. The general mood was very pessimistic. There was the deep mourning for the many killed in the Tribunal, and the departure of the many hunger-refugees to the Kuban, and some to other destinations, many of whom would not return. Starvation of man and beast in the immediate future was certain, and there was no relief in sight. All this created a very serious situation.
In the fall, Russians from the western section of the Saratov district (where there had been a better crop) came to trade grain for our best horses and motors. We traded so cheaply. For instance, for an 18 hp motor which had cost 1,300 ruble several years ago, they gave me about 100 pud of rye. Many items were „squandered“ in this way just for a bit of bread.
It was in November when we happened to read in a newspaper that an American, a Mr. Alvin Mil ler, had arrived in Moscow to help the starving Mennonites. At a district meeting it was decided that I was to go to Moscow to investigate. On arrival in Moscow I discovered the situation was very much like it had been in Zarizyn where I could not obtain lodging, except that now it was winter and I could not sleep in the street. But a family Meier, relatives of our teacher Oscar Horn, Orloff, took me in, even though they had only two small rooms and a dark hole for a kitchen for themselves and a married daughter with her husband, Mr. Sebald, and a child.
I learned that Alvin Miller had negotiated an agreement with the Soviet government to the effect that American Mennonite Relief (AMR) would work alongside the American Relief Administration (ARA).
I also discovered that Alvin Miller had left for France and was not expected to return for several weeks. I wrote a detailed report about conditions Am Trakt, handed it to the brothers P. Froese and C.F. Klassen, who at the time worked for the Red Cross in Moscow, and whom I met there for the first time. They promised to give Miller my report as soon as he got back and to send me a telegram.
A few weeks later I received the telegram saying Miller was back in Moscow. Immediately Johannes Penner and I left to see him. Since our district treasurer was short of money and we expected to stay there quite a while, we bought a goodly supply of butter in Saratov, hoping to sell it at a profit in Moscow. In the end we had a lot of trouble dragging the butter around, but no profit. Mr. Miller stayed in the Hotel Savoya where every thing was available for foreigners. During the first days he was very reserved towards us, we could see that everything was new to him and he needed time to orient himself.
So it was good that we had other business to attend to. In our area a government relief effort had been started with its office in Saratov and Schirjaew as its chairman. They hoped to supply feed for purebred livestock. In our settlement the Agricultural Association had been active until the Revolution, so that all the pedigreed horses and cattle had been registered in the herd books. When our District Soviet was asked how many purebread cattle there were, they referred them to our Agricultural Association. So the Schirjaew Commis sion contacted the man who had been chairman of the Association until three years ago. He claimed that he still held that office. But one heard nothing more about them, except that the chairman had hired two „helpers“, Mich. Perow and Alexander Ries, both known gamblers and dishonest men. Repeatedly Schirjaew went with the two to Pok rowsk, but everything was very secretive, and we never received any help.
Now in Moscow Johannes Penner and I went to the Department of Agriculture and asked why we had received no help for our registered livestock? So the whole fraud was discovered: Moscow had sent large sums of money to Schirjaew and they had been receipted by him. Not to create problems for him we kept quiet when we had discovered the deceit.
Later we learned that instead of putting these substantial sums of government money to their proper use, that is distribute it, or buy feed with it for the owners of purebred livestock, Schirjaew together with the rascals, Ries and Perow, had bought huge quantities of grain, petroleum, feed, etc. in the name of the Agricultural Association, which enabled them to buy the stuff from the government at low wholesale prices, and then they had sold it to the Russian and Volga German farmers at double the price. They had made an enormous profit for themselves in this crooked transaction.
Furthermore, because of the rapid inflation the money that they did pay after some weeks to the Society, bought only a fraction of the feed that it would have bought when they received the funds from Moscow. It was a lousy bunch. Thanks to the good nature of the Mennonites they were not prose cuted.
But now back to Moscow. After we had met with Alvin Miller every day for some time he appointed me to be representative for our settlement and gave me a check for $300. For this amount I was to receive food from the ARA, which had a warehouse in Saratov. By now we had been in Mos cow for a week and had been able, especially Johannes Penner, to take care of other business as well. All this time we lodged at Meiers.
On the last evening the representative of the Volga Republic, Comrade Alexander Schneider, invited us for supper. Visitors from the country had arrived at the Meiers that day, so that their little apartment was overcrowded. We asked Schneider if perhaps he could help us find lodging for one night. It was already 10 o’clock in the evening. He took us to his office and explained we were welcome to sleep there. It was the best he could do for us.
We were happy for it because it was spacious, clean and warm. We each had our pillow and blanket, so Penner made himself comfortable on two desks pushed together, and I bedded myself down on the floor near the warm radiator. Soon we were fast asleep.
At about midnight I awoke with a horrible scream. Johannes Penner was instantly awake, turned on the light, and asked what was wrong? I told him that in a kind of „vision“ I had clearly seen my dear Renate in her bed at home, with her arms stretched out in despair and calling: „Johannes, please come! Do come! I cannot die without you!“ At the same time I had seen Lieschen lie deathly pale in her bed, apparently she was dead. I trembled visibly when I told Penner about it. He tried to calm me down and dissuade me from my instant plans, but I was convinced that I had seen what was actually happening.
Next morning we quickly wound up our busi ness and took the first available train home. I could not forget my vision. On arrival back in Saratov we went to Heinrich Baum’s place on No.35 Tagans kaja Street, where we expected some mail. Shortly before we arrived there I spotted Cornelius Wiens on the other side of the street. As soon as he saw me he crossed over to our side. „Now listen,“ I said to Penner, „he is going to corroborate my vision.“.
And that is exactly what he did. He told us that my dear Renate had been sick with typhus for a week already. His father, our homeopath, had visited her yesterday and had told him that there was very little hope for her recovery. Lieschen was also critically ill.
We had sent a telegram from Moscow for a vehicle to meet us so it was waiting for us as soon as we crossed the Volga to Pokrowsk on the other side. By now it was dark and a terrible blizzard was raging. Everybody said it was impossible to go home in this weather. But I insisted that we go. After tea, around 9 o’clock, we started off. I will never forget that trip. The horses were weak, the road was hardly visible, we were four men on the sleigh: Johannes Penner, Johannes Toews, Fresen heim, Bernhard Thiessen, and I.
After a few miles they wanted to turn back because the horses could not stay on the road. So I walked ahead of them and led them by the bridle, my feet feeling the way. Later the others spelled me off, but after five or six hours we had lost our way and were glad to find shelter in an old adobe barn without doors and windows. There the horses could rest and we crowded together in one corner until daybreak. The storm had subsided, we had not strayed very far from the road, and so very slowly we drove on. We fed the horses at the half-way feeding station, Omet, and again in the German vil lage by the Jost Valley and arrived in Fresenheim at dusk. I immediately obtained another team and by 9 o’clock I was home at last. We had taken 24 hours to travel 43 miles.
And how were things at home? Exactly the way it had appeared to me in the vision in Moscow. That night had been Renate’s crisis. She had struggled so hard that it was difficult to keep her in bed. Again and again she had called out the very words that I heard in my vision. Lieschen also was very sick. But thank God the crisis for her also brought a turn for the better. It was three or four days before Christmas when I came home. My mother-in-law had been there often to help care for the sick, but faithful Mariechen Tiede did most of the nursing and housework, which Renate always remembered with gratitude. That was a difficult assignment, taking care of the house and the patients at the same time.
Our Peter also caught typhus in its severest form. Several times he went into long comas and his heartbeat became so weak that he actually started to cool off. Yes, that is how it was. We massaged him vigorously, repeatedly gave him some wine, and gradually his heart revived and began to beat stronger. It also happened with Lieschen that after the crisis she went into a coma, which apparently is not unusual with typhus patients, and if she remains that way simply dies in her „sleep.“ Those were dif ficult weeks, but we were all together and all alive.
On Christmas Day Elder Peter Wiens announced in church that the first shipment of food from our brothers and sisters in America was to arrive, and that these gifts, would continue coming regularly every month from now on. Many, many people were moved to tears. The need was so great. Nobody ate normal meals anymore, except perhaps one family. Malnutrition was everywhere and many succumbed to typhus. That had been the case in our family, too. On top of being malnourished my dear Renate had to nurse little Cornelius. That was too much for her and she collapsed. Similar conditions prevailed in many homes.
On December 27th, our third Christmas holiday, ten sleighs left for Saratov to fetch the American food. A district relief committee had been elected consisting of J.J. Thiessen, Jakob Jantzen, both from Koeppental, and myself as chairman. All the food was brought into our large granary, where we divided it for the different villages according to the number of people in each village. We had received: flour, beans, rice, cocoa, sugar, con densed milk in cans, and vegetable fat. Everything of the best quality. After years of hardship and deprivation, when the Bolsheviks had consistently stripped us of everything, all this food now seemed like a luxury to us. Many, many peoples‘ lives were saved by this food! So at last the hardest year of our life, yes, and the hardest year for our colony, came to an end.
God brought us through; who has not felt it? Who did not see his hand? In darkest trying hours, He was the one who rescued us; He had never left us!
After New Year’s, just as my dear wife and little Peter were slowly getting better, Irma con tracted typhus. Fortunately it was not so severe and she recovered. I believe it was on January 25 when I began to feel a weariness in my bones, but a large shipment of relief food had arrived just then and that required a good bit of paper work and other tasks to make sure it was fairly divided among the villages. It was difficult for me to stand in the granary at -20 R degrees and supervise the division of the relief food. Julius Wiens, son of Elder and homeopath Peter Wiens, came to fetch the supplies for Lysanderhoeh. I noticed him watching me. Sud denly he said to me: „Let me feel your pulse.“ No sooner had he done that, then he said: „Away! Get into bed at once!“
He had noticed how much and how feverishly I had talked and how flushed my face was. My temperature was way up; I also had typhus. I still remember how in my delirious condition I kept weighing the relief supplies, on and on, endlessly weighing them; and how I was lying on a bed made of cans of condensed milk and begged again and again to please have them removed. But I was not nearly as critically ill as my dear Renate and the children. By the time of the next food distribution in February I was already back on my feet and able to do all the paper work connected with it.
In February Mariechen Tiede, who had so faithfully nursed our patients, went home for a few days. Then she, too, came down with typhus and could not return. So sister-in-law Lena came to help out for a while, and in March Lene Hamm from Medemtal came to help. She stayed with us for about 1 1/2 years. She was a faithful and diligent girl, but not as good a worker and manager as the very efficient Mariechen Tiede. She was not very strong, but she was so good and kind to the chil dren.
So at long last that winter passed. The work connected with ARA was more than I had at first anticipated. There was much paper work connected with the big monthly shipments, as well as other work, of course. We had to give a strict accounting of everything to Mr. Miller in Moscow and also to the ARA in Saratov. However, the ARA people in Saratov were much more business-like than Mr. Miller, who seemed to have little experience in business matters. It was much easier to work with the Americans in ARA than with Miller, who dis played petty pedantic tendencies that made our work difficult. The members of our local committee helped once a month with the distributions to the various villages, but everything else was left to me. I did it gladly and without compensation, of course. Later Mr. Miller did send me several „food drafts“ in appreciation for my services.
These so-called „food drafts“ came from rela tives or acquaintances overseas and were sent to pri vate addresses. In time quite a few of these food drafts arrived which meant more work. They had to be recorded, the recipients had to be notified, the products had to be weighed out for them, receipts had to be written, and reports sent to Moscow. Now Mr. Miller also appointed me as ARA representa tive for the other Volga German villages.
In spite of all this wonderful relief of ARA and the daily feeding of children, which took care of the most intense needs, food was still in short supply to the extent of malnourishment and consequent typhus in some families. Not until summer did the typhus epidemic finally stop. Many had died of that dreaded disease, especially before the ARA help arrived.
I would like to mention the Dietrich Thiessen couple in Koeppental. I learned to appreciate and love this couple, even though he was considerably older than I. We always understood each other very well, did much work together for the Credit Union and the Co-Op, and frequently attended meetings together in beautiful solidarity. He was the great optimist, but the harsh experiences with the com munists, the many injustices he had to suffer, espe cially at the hands of that Tribunal, had not only dampened his spirits, but actually broken him physi cally and spiritually. On top of that he blamed him self that as custodian of the church in Koeppental he had not been careful enough and let it burn down. All of that had a cumulative effect on him, so that since summer he was a crushed man.
I had last seen him in our home in Lysanderhoeh in December and was shocked to find him so discouraged and without hope. He kept repeating: „We will all starve, all of us will starve.“ And he did die of typhus; soon after that his wife also died. She simply wasted away, apparently unable to cope without him. With them we lost one of the most important persons Am Trakt. Both of them had been mentally alert, physically energetic, compassionate and helpful, in spite of the fact that they experi enced envy and opposition. I loved them dearly and was so sorry for all that they had to endure the last years. Like many others I had often enjoyed their gracious hospitality. They were a real blessing to me. I will always cherich their memory.
When the time came to sow, hardly anybody had seed. The government distributed some, but it was of poor quality, a mixture of different varieties, summer and winter wheat all mixed together. The amounts were so small that not much more was seeded than in 1921. On top of that was the lack of horses; many had died of starvation and those that had survived were weak. From our twenty in fall we had six left. And since these were too weak to resist disease, four of them died one after the other even before we had finished seeding. After that, like many others, we worked our fields with our dairy COWS.
In February I hired a German worker, Jakob Arndt, from Hussenbach; that was a very good move for us. Arndt served us faithfully for four years. Because horsepower was almost nil, we bought a very good but nearly blind pinto mare. After a while we exchanged her with Johannes Toews for a 4-year old, purebred trotter which they could not drive because it always bolted and ran away with them. One had to be careful with her, but she was basically a good horse for driving. And we raised three very beautiful colts from her.
Shortly before seeding Peter Janzen, Fresen heim, my second cousin and dear friend, died of typhus. He had already passed the crisis, but never having been very robust, he had a relapse and died. He was a month younger than I and one of the few
friends of my youth. With him gone, Johannes Pen ner and I lost a staunch supporter in our societal work. His funeral was on my birthday, April 16. He left to mourn his untimely passing, his wife Elsa, and four children: Lenchen, Lily, Johannes and Peter. It was a sad funeral. How sorry I felt for the children!
Late in the evening of May 13 the brother of my dear wife, Johannes Mathies, had to drive a policeman to Koeppental. He never came back. When he had not returned by morning inquiries were made. He had left Koeppental at 2:00 a.m., but no trace could be found of him or his vehicle.
So all the people were asked to join in a search. Our children and Lena Hamm also helped. They combed all the grain fields. At last they found him on May 16; Lene Hamm spotted him first. He lay dead in a rye field with a broken skull and two shotgun wounds. The funeral was on the 17th. My dear brother-in-law, a fine person, had always been a good son to his parents. He had just married that fall, and had been very happy with his wife, Catherine Philipsen. It was a short-lived happiness. The gruesome murder was a hard blow for his parents. They showed their grief quite differently: the father mourned his son with tears and lamenta tions, while his mother, who had been hurt just as much, became quiet; very quiet and oh, so with
At the end of May AMR sent a very large ship ment of clothing and quilts. In fact it was a whole freight car full for our settlement. Most of the clo thing was used, but some was new. If food distrib ution was much work, clothing and blanket distrib ution was even more because one needed to be as fair and impartial as possible. Except for a few minor cases of dissatisfaction the distribution actually went much better than I had expected. Nearly everyone was satisfied with the way it was done. But there were other problems. According to the agreement that Mr. Miller had made with the Soviet Government all rail transportation of American relief supplies was to be free. When this freight car arrived in Krasny-Kut we were supposed to pay the freight, many millions of rubles. I wired Moscow at once and the AMR sent a message to the Railroad at Krasny-Kut, but it was to no avail, we had to pay. We had to borrow the money.
Later I went to Moscow for this and other mat ters, but was impossible to settle it because the headquarters of the responsible railroad (Rasano Uralskoe) was in Saratov. But I did receive docu ments from the railroad in Moscow as well as from AMR which gave me full authority to try to reclaim our unwarranted expenses.
Let me describe the procedure for this. In the head office in Saratov I had several fruitless discus sions with various officials. Finally I decided to see the political leader of the Railway Co. In his front office I gave my AMR documents to a clerk, requesting that he give them to his boss so that he would know why I wanted to see him. By mistake I had given him the English instead of the Russian copy. Lo and behold, only a minute later to my great astonishment came the political leader himself, with smiles and deep bowings, followed by his English-speaking secretary. His English could not have been very profound or he would have realized who I was. Now the boss took me for an American. I understood the situation at once and said: „Oh, I can speak Russian.“ Fact is, I could not understand one word of the secretary’s English. He noticed this, but he left his boss, a stupid fellow, under the impression that he was dealing with a genuine American. How extremely happy that man was, and so proud to be honored like this. In five minutes I had achieved what telegrams and weeks of cor respondence had not been able to do.
Immediately he called the business manager, who had denied my request before, to his office and ordered him to pay me the money at once. That man wanted to explain that it was impossible for techni cal reasons. But that was the wrong thing to say. „What? Impossible? I said pay at once!“
I said goodbye to comrade political leader, who saw me to the door, and left his office quickly. I could hardly keep from bursting out laughing. When I came to the first floor to settle the matter with the business manager he began to call his boss names, said he was a „durak“ (a fool); and then he repeated again and again that his political leader was a „durak“, a plain „durak“, until we both laughed so hard that the tears ran down our cheeks. Thus I had become an American against my will—something possible only in Russia.
It was at the end of June when I was in the field on the binder when the message was brought to me that Mr. Miller and his assistant, C.F. Klas sen, would arrive that evening. I sent a message at once to Johannes Penner that most likely we would have a general meeting the next day. The visitors arrived in the evening, tired and covered with dust. After a bath and supper we discussed various aspects of the work. Next morning we attended to all the business matters of the relief distribution. Then Elder Peter Wiens, whom I had notified, came over for about an hour. In the afternoon I took the visitors on a tour through the upper villages to Medemtal. They saw how the grasshoppers were doing extensive damage in the fields, that the seeded acreage was small and would probably yield very little. They realized that our settlement would be in great need of AMR assistance again for the next year. Probably 60% of the people would not be able to make it on their own.
I had reported this earlier in writing to Miller, but always had the impression that he was skeptical of my reports. Now his attitude changed. Of course he was bombarded from all sides with urgent and descriptive appeals for help, and had assumed that in light of needs elsewhere ours would be negligi ble.
Since that visit, when he had actually seen for himself and realized that I had not exaggerated in my reports, I noticed that it was easier to talk with him about helping us Am Trakt. Towards evening we had a general meeting in our house. Apparently notice of it had not reached everybody in the more remote villages, so that fewer people were there than we had expected, about 50-60 persons. Mr. Miller reported on the work of AMR in France, devastated by the war, and the work done in Russia so far. C.F. Klassen talked about the work he and Peter Froese were doing with the Soviet government on behalf of our young men seeking to free them from military service. Teacher Jakob Franzen read an expression of appreciation, and preacher/teacher Franz Quiring had a brief devotional. In conclusion we sang the following song, composed by Ohm Johannes Bergmann. (Sung to the tune: „Work, For The Night Is Coming.“)
Oh let us praise our Maker who has blessed us indeed! Who in his providential care has shown us his marvelous grace, In that he guided our brothers to think of our great need. That very kindly we are given many a piece of bread.
So let us warmly thank them all the kind donors there, Who without hesitation are helping everywhere. May God in heaven bless them who through their love seem near, Shower his grace up them and bless America.
May God succeed through this noble work, to bind us all together in lasting unity. And, Father, let it continue through all our earthly days, To the gates of Zion Yea, until all eternity.
Next morning the visitors went to Koeppental for another informational meeting, and then they left in the afternoon. When I now think back about that meeting, I have the feeling that Mr. Miller was not completely satisfied. Perhaps it was our work that had not been done quite right, or the attitude of the people Am Trakt, or the committee left something to be desired. Perhaps we should have been more demonstrative and louder in expressing our gratitude. I don’t want to suggest that he expected that for himself (a little bit, perhaps) but as an American he expected a different response. In this country (Canada) many unctuous speeches have to be made on such occasions.
The crop was so small that it was not worth getting our motor and threshing machine ready, which had not been used for two years. We hired a machine instead. The main reason for the small crop was the poor seed. Since this seemed to be a general problem, it was imperative to find ways and means of procuring better seed. The government had eased its pressure on the farmers, but now urged the formation of cooperative societies. Consequently a Seed-Improvement Society was organized in Pok rowsk under the leadership of the agronomist Kuchowarenko. We were urged to join. When I say „we“ I mean about 7 or 8 of us Am Trakt who had made it our business to do something about getting better seed. So Johannes Bergmann and I were to search for more information in Pokrowsk. We were not impressed with that Seed-Improvement Society and decided to form our own organization. This would entitle us to receive registered seed from the experimental station in Krasny-Kut, something that private farmers could not do.
So we organized an agricultural society with a membership of eleven men. A small start. Who would have thought that from this humble beginning the large organization Malushny Agricultural Society, would emerge, which in only a few years included all the farmers of our settlement, except a few who were unsuitable. This Society restored our ruined economy and brought incredible improve ment and prosperity, the like of which one would have deemed impossible under Soviet rule.
During these short four to five years our Society gave its attention not only to agriculture, breeding purebred horses and cattle, the cheese fac tory and such, but concentrated primarily on the whole financial management of our settlement. Already in the second year we changed our constitu tion to include full banking and credit operations. It developed local industries, such as a machine fac tory, a repair shop, brick works, installed a telephone network, trained teachers for our , elementary village schools, formed a District-School Committee to reopen our district high school, was successful in re-allocating the land, became the judi cial adviser and representative of our settlement to higher authorities, etc.
All my life I have concentrated during certain periods of time on specific areas of concern. For example, since our marriage in 1909 until 1919, I concentrated all my energies on making a success of our farming operation, in which my dear Renate ably supported me.
Just when I had successfully reached the goal of economic security, the destructive forces of the Revolution ended my economic ambitions. Then came the „keep quiet“ years of 1919-1921-do nothing either economically, socially, or politically that would draw the attention of the Communists to us. „Deep waters, deep grass,“ is what I thought about all the time. And just as God had blessed us in our years of prosperity, so he now held his protective hand over us during these dangerous times. We were spared a total plundering, and especially death by shooting.
Now came another and quite different period. For me it was the most significant time of my life. These were the years when I gave myself totally and unreservedly to the societal activities and the wel fare of our settlement. Although I had been drawn into some activities—like village representative, fire insurance agent, jury service at court, member of the Credit Union, chairman of the Co-Op, delegate to various important conferences, etc. -soon after our marriage, they had all been „side-line“ activities. Being the AMR representative was different. That was a major involvement and the work fell almost entirely on my shoulders. But not until we had the Agricultural Society did I become so totally immersed in societal activities that ALL my thinking, planning, work, and striving was solely and heartily for the reconstrucion of our settlement, Am Trakt. Uncle Gustav Schulz, Marienburg, Prussia, was right when he wrote, even back then in 1910: „I don’t want to make you conceited, but it is a fact that God has given you certain gifts which make it your damned duty and obligation to be active, not only in economic but also in societal affairs.“
I had experienced the economic and cultural breakdown of our settlement; I had seen, as worker with AMR, how poor and run-down our people had become. I also saw the increasing opportunities to guide them out of the curse of poverty and need. So I did that, not half-heartedly, but joyfully and with my whole being. This work so roused all the best instincts in me that I gave it all that I was capable of. I did not force myself into this work, and later will show how at first I resisted it, but once in it, I seized each opportunity consciously and decisively. I always shied away from indecision and hesitation. I realized that success came when there was a clear vision, a resolute decision, and a no-nonsense implementation of what had to be done. It did not matter whether the difficulties were large or small, this approach always brought success.
Of course there were times when my dear wife implored me with tears in her eyes to devote more time to the family instead of the many concerns and needs of society. In examining my motives before God, and searching my heart whether perhaps I did all this to satisfy my own ego, I can honestly say today that I saw this as my „mission“, my work given me by God for our people. And he himself will tell me when to stop; but until he does, it is my sacred duty to do the work to the best of my ability. Joy and strength came frequently from my inherent sense of doing my duty, re-enforced in me by my beloved teacher Spiridonow, and laid upon my heart with deep conviction by Uncle Schulz.
But it was not that simple or easy. Sometimes I felt rebellious inside. Why should I do so much? Why should I sacrifice my own interests to the interests of others? But these temptations were brief and not too serious. Joyfully I was able to follow the voice of my conscience. My sense of duty seemed to radiate a serious but wonderful glow, and the fulfillment of it has given me the deepest satis faction of my life. The more I devoted myself wholly to this work, the more all that was good and noble in me was strengthened.
Another factor that made me peculiarly suited for this task at this time, was my attitude to others. I already mentioned it that ever since my youth I have had a „democratic orientation.“ That was often evident in my relationship to our servants. I know that I demanded more from them than the average Mennonite employer, but I always treated them as human beings and respected their dignity. That atti tude brought us incalculable and valuable returns during the turbulent years of the Revolution. Even in times of peace there was nothing that aroused my indignation as much as the „bowing and bending“ before the „mighty ones“ of this earth. That is why I thought then and still think that the revolution of 1905 was a blessing for Russia. It created many new freedoms for the common people and took the so called „privileges“ away from the nobility. It released healthy and energetic strength in the com mon people and gave them a chance to develop.
I remember when we went for our passports to the Samara provincial government, my cousin, Jacob Wiebe, was surprised at my informal and free approach. When I had dealings with people in higher authority I always had the feeling that before God we were all equal, and certainly in matters of money or rank I never thought them as being above me. During the years of 1922-26 most business and government positions were in the hands of moderate right-wing people; I found it quite possible, up to a certain degree, to cooperate with them.
All these circumstances, and last but not least, that I was an idealist, and have tried to be one all my life, enabled me to be a tool in the hand of God; to lift our settlement to a higher level, not only economically but also intellectually, because one without the other is impossible.
An agriculturist of the Narkomsem, Ivan Sergeetwitch Barchatow, with whom I had many busi ness dealings, once said to me, „With you it is impossible to say which is the more dominant, idealism or a sense of the practical; the two are so closely linked together.“
And why this long preface to my work in society? I have already described the work of the Agricultural Society in my report on the booklet Am Trakt. But if I had told it the way it actually developed in those years, my name would have been mentioned too often, I think, even though the Malychny Agricultural Society and my name were synonymous at the time. The other members of the executive were really wonderful people, and they supported me gladly and faithfully in all my work, but mostly by agreeing to my plans and undertak ings, rather than by showing initiative of their own, although that also did happen. But they saw that I did the work to the best of my ability, that I was honest, and so they had confidence and let me do it.
It also happened that I was called a dictator, and the Society the „Dyck Society“, but I doubt that it was said maliciously; more in fun, and as a way of expressing satisfaction with the way things were going. Because I did not want to describe the Society’s work in my document Am Trakt, I will tell about it here in more detail. I write this for you, my dear children, and not for strangers, so there will be no danger of interpreting this as a way of praising myself.
I want to describe the events as they really happened, without always being reticent about mention ing my share in the work, the way I felt compelled to in my report Am Trakt. Oh that my friend Johannes Penner were here; he would have found better words on this topic and would have been glad to say it for me. He was the only one who had full insight into everything, who understood and supported me at all times. Where is he languishing now? Or has his torment ended? „I had a friend, a better one you cannot find.“
Before I continue I would like to tell of an incident that I forgot to mention. In February 1922 I happened to hear that the so-called „police Janzen“, to whom I had revealed my dangerous secret of the Tribunal documents, had left his job in Seelman and was again living in Koeppental in dire poverty. Several of his children had typhus, they were without food and actually faced starvation. I sent him a substantial supply of foodstuff immediately and entered his name on the list of regular recipients for AMR food supplies. Aside from that we sent him privately some of our clothing, shoes, etc. Later he thanked me warmly, saying that this had actually saved his family from starvation.
In September we organized our Registered Seed Breeding Society and received the promise from the experimental station at Krasny-Kut, 20 miles away, that for the spring seeding every mem ber of our Society would receive a certain amount of half-hard, first generation „Albidum“ wheat. By New Year 37 members had joined.
In the meantime I had again gone to Moscow on AMR business and had learned from C.F.Klassen and Peter Froese that the Council of Peoples‘ Commissars had decided to give special support for economic rehabilitation to the Men nonite farmers because of their exemplary perform ances; the idea was that they could provide models of good farming for the peasants around them. That certainly had to be exploited. At this time our land division was unsatisfactory, making it quite impossible to effectively reconstruct the agricultural sector. What we needed most urgently was money, because the time of the „millionaires“ had passed, and the Soviet money of the revolutionary years was as good as worthless. Now there was a new issue of money, the „Tscherwonzi-Ruble“, guaranteed by the government. But the people had nothing more to sell to get hold of this new money. What they needed was credit. This and other matters had to be considered.
So I went to the commissar for Agriculture in Pokrowsk, comrade Heinrich Fuchs, a young man, who made a favorable impression. We discovered that his mother was a Michaelis, daughter of my grandfather’s secretary when he was district mayor. I remembered having heard many good things about the family Michaelis. Comrade Fuchs invited me for supper to his home, saying that his mother, with whom he lived, would be happy to see me. And so it was. She was still very enthusiastic about grand father and about his sense of justice. So my rela tionship with commissar Fuchs was congenial from the very beginning. Through him I was able to accomplish a great deal for our settlement.
I told him that we wanted to expand our Seed Grain Society into a general agricultural society. He welcomed that, but showed resistance in the matter of our constitution. The government had drafted a general form, a sort of „standard constitution“, which Johannes Penner and I had changed con siderably, adapting it to our circumstances and needs. After a great deal of prolonged effort we received permission to use our „private“ constitu tion. We had to fight especially hard for one regula tion: that new members could be admitted only with a 2/3 majority vote, and that they had to be honest and „cultured“ people.
In this way the infiltration of the proletariat element would be safeguarded right from the beginning. But this was diametrically opposed to the government position. It took months of strenuous effort to convince the authorities that a „cultural society“ had to be based on cultured members if it was going to function successfully. At long last permission was granted. Later developments proved how very important this part of our constitution was. Thus the last months of 1922 were filled with a variety of preparatory tasks.
On January 3 Uncle Cornelius Isaac died in Koeppental. He was mother’s cousin. He also had suffered much. He was a merchant. He owned a big general store and two farms, one in Koeppental and another in Waluevka. He was probably the most prosperous man of our settlement. He had the respect of everyone; he was a gentleman. He sold his store to the budding Co-Op. As a member of the executive committee I had many dealings with him. He knew how to look after his own interests, but always in a business-like and honorable manner. In Koeppental he actually had three fully equipped farms, which his sons-in-law took over. His only son, Cornelius, lived on the big farm in Waluevka. As the only son he had not been raised very strictly, so that now and then he kicked over the traces; not in an indecent manner, just enough to make his parents concerned. Ohm Isaac used to appeal to me to use my influence on his son in a helpful and advisory way. The relationship between our two homes was a friendly one. I always had the feeling that my dear wife and I were in the good graces of Uncle Isaac.
His faith shone forth in a special way when the Revolutionary Tribunal shot their son Cornelius in 1921. He and his wife carried this heavy burden with resignation. The next winter his enemies, the Jew Jenkin and his common-law wife Cornelia Ekkert, who had been chiefly responsible for the death of Cornelius, were down with typhus and starving. And who was it that went to their rescue but Mrs. Isaac. She visited them, brought food to them, sometimes nursed them, and knitted socks for them. I can think of no better application of practi cal Christianity.
Uncle Isaac died a very poor man. Half a year before his death he was evicted from his home. In light of these circumstances and the general condi tion in our country, the funeral was small, with only his children and siblings attending. Yet shortly before his death he had expressed the wish that we also attend; a sign of his friendship and love for us.
During the last months the thought was expressed several times that our new Agricultural Society ought to see itself as the continuation of the old society, and as such take over all the pedigree registration books, which were very important. So in January we had a second organizational meeting where the Registered-Seed Society was changed to the Agricultural Society, with greatly increased functions. We already had 68 members, the best farmers of our settlement. The general attitude was positive. We realized that there is strength in unity, especially since the individual farmer could expect no help from the government, whereas the Co-Op venture was assured very substantial assistance.
The executive consisted of seven elected mem bers: Johannes Bergman, Abram Bergmann, Cornelius Wiens, Abram Froese, Johannes Thies sen, Johannes Penner, and I. These now were to elect their chairman. I was elected, even though I had already protested as nominee for the executive committee. Now I rose and refused, saying that I had done all the preparatory work, the project was established, and that I would not accept because I knew that they were choosing me because they needed me, and because they thought the others could not do it as well. But I had had my share of envy and did not want any more; I did not want this job. Then it became very quiet in the meeting. Pre sently Bergmann got up and said: „Well, Ivan Ivanovich has spoken his mind. Likely he was right. I suggest that those who still want him as our chairman raise your hand.“ Every hand went up. So what could I do but accept.
Those who read this will have problems understanding why I consider that which is to fol low so important, because you cannot understand or visualize the degree to which the entire farming enterprise had been ruined. Frequently it was not a case of a farm anymore but a sad resemblance of one. To be sure the buildings were still there, though, badly deteriorated since there had been no repairs done to them for years, the people were still there but they were discouraged, thinking it was all useless, because everything would be taken away again. The land was there, but it was dispossessed and given to those who had never worked the soil, and could not or would not do so now. All they wanted was to find renters for their land and live off that income.
Now viable farming was to begin again. But how? Out of nothing! In theory the government was willing to help; in practice this was connected with so many formalities, frustrations, and red tape that I was tempted to ask whether it was worth all the time, effort and trouble.
The basis had to be the form, the manner of using the land. There was no private land ownership any more. Just to mention „private“ ownership would be enough to stop the whole undertaking. So we wanted to try to work out a method whereby each farmer could work as much of the land that he formerly owned as possible without actually owning it. But we also had to consider all those people who formerly had owned no land, because the law had divided it according to the number of people in a family.
Now a new law had been passed that an excep tion could be made for „cultivated“ persons. The Central Committee of the German Volga Republic had decreed a maximum of 270 acres per person. The important question was, of course, who would decide the „cultural“ status. It took many trips to Pokrowsk, many consultations and a great deal of persuasion to reach an agreement that the following committee would be competent to make that deci sion: the chairman of the Agricultural Society (that was I), the chairman of the District Council (Johannes Penner), and one representative of the Agricultural Commissariat. Added to these was a representative from each village.
The land was re-divided according to: size of family, proven farming ability, buildings, livestock, and available machinery. We were allowed to go through with this only on condition that the entire village would unanimously sign the agreement. If only one person dissented, land division would take its ordinary legal course, i.e. stay as it was. That meant a great deal of work in the individual vil lages. Fortunately I was not involved in that phase of the project. Eventually all the villages agreed to the new terms and were ready for the government surveyors.
We had owned 225 acres in Lysanderhoeh, which I would have liked to have back again. That was not easy because it was 75 acres above the maximum allotment. Eventually it was granted, after a commission came out, consisting of the Comissar for the Department of Agriculture, and two technical experts, who examined our fields, buildings, and machinery. They then drew up a document that our farm was on a specially high cultural level, was a model farm, and I promised to maintain a standard that would qualify it to be used
Now that each farmer was guaranteed the use of the land for 12 to 24 years, depending on each village’s agreement, a solid foundation for new eco nomic development was laid. They didn’t have much land, but it was a reasonable amount to cultivate. Many of them needed horses. The Co Operative Society of the German agricultural societies, headquartered in Pokrowsk, which we joined, had obtained through its‘ agents a large number of horses from Siberia. Twice we received horses from them for our members on a two year credit basis. The Volga-German Bank, which had opened in Pokrowsk, also gave us a three-year loan for the purchase of horses.
Our seed was obtained from the experimental farms in Krasny-Kut and Saratov. Each farmer received a specified amount of the half-hard Albidum wheat. In the course of the year a goodly number of registered-seed societies had formed in the German Volga Republic, who joined together to establish a central organisation, the S.P.C., with headquarters in Pokrowsk. Naturally we also joined it. The afore-mentioned agronomist, Ivan Kuchowarenko, was the chairman of S.P.C., Johannes Penner and agronomist Barchatow were the members of the executive.
We received our seed through this organization and had to obey its rules implicitly. The contract specified how to work the land, how to harvest, thresh, etc. so as to keep the wheat pure and sepa rate from other strains. The total yield of this crop had to be returned to the S.P.C. for the price of ordinary wheat current on November 1. As a bonus we received 50% above that price, and since the yield of this wheat was much higher than ordinary wheat, we fared very well. The higher price was an additional incentive, so that during the summer our membership increased to about 140.
One phase of this project that caused a great deal of work and trouble for me was the estab lishing of a „community farm.“ In May 1921, when the Tribunal was active here, my cousin Jacob Wiebe had fled the community. He stayed in hiding in the vicinity for several days and then went to the home of his dear friend H. Braun in Saratov until he heard that he had been condemned to death in absentia. That meant that he could not return home. His brother-in-law, Johannes Bergmann, and I brought him this news in Saratov. He fled to Mos cow and stayed with the Meiers, along with H.Engbrecht, also from Am Trakt, who was hiding for a similar reason. Under assumed names they finally fled to Poland, and from there made it safely to Germany, where he stayed with his mother-in law in Gross-Lichtenau. Ultimately his wife, Anna, received word that he had arrived safely in Prussia. This information was naturally kept very secret. After prolonged effort from both sides, German and Russian, she and her children were finally permitted to go to her mother, since she was still a German citizen. She left with her children in the beginning of December, 1921. How clearly I remember it all—the hour when she left her home for the last time, how she said goodbye to the birthplace of her husband. Johannes Bergmann accompanied her to Moscow.
The Wiebe farm was then occupied by Johannes Siebert, who did not have a farm. But soon the government confiscated it and converted it into a home for orphans. I realized that this was a spot that could easily become a nest of vipers, and ulcer in our community, a communist breeding ground right in our midst. It would be a place for them to gather unobserved and undisturbed, spread their poisonous propaganda and communist influence among our workers, our youth and ultimately into the Soviets. This threat, as well as the hope to save the farm for cousin Wiebe, even if it were for some future date, gave me the idea to obtain it, and its land of 325 acres, for the use of our Agricultural Society.
So I went to the Agricultural Commissariat which had legal charge of the farm and explained my proposal to them. I pointed out that under the present arrangement the farm brought them no income, on the contrary, it would very soon become a liability as it continued to deteriorate. My request was that they make it available to our Agricultural Society to develop as a model farm. This made sense to them, and after two or three more trips the matter was settled and we were to rent the farm.
I had the promise, but not the signed contract, when suddenly old comrade, Ad. Reichert from Kukus, the town where the district head office was located and the office that had planned to convert the farm into an orphanage, heard about this. Old man Reichert was one of the first and most promi nent members of the Communist Party, a personal enemy of the Mennonites, and I think especially Jacob Wiebe. He now tried his utmost to cancel our agreement. The result was a long drawn out and tenacious struggle on both sides. Endless trips and meetings with various authorities followed. Reichert had the advantage of being an old revolutionary and Party member.
My trump cards were: first, the agreement had been finalized and I could appeal to Fuchs’s ambi tions and sense of honor not to go back on his word. Second, although both were Party members, Reichert and Fuchs were personal enemies, with Reichert representing the left and Fuchs the right orientation of the Communist Party. Third, it would be to the advantage of the Agricultural Com missariat to rent the farm to us, especially since I had made them the attractive offer to buy the farm in the name of the Society (having first made sure that we would get that much credit from the Memel bank and the N.S.S.) After a long hassle we finally signed the sales contract, which was actually more advantageous to us than a rent contract, because we were able to obtain the major portion of the loan for this on an interest-free basis. And the reason we received the interest-free loan was because I was able to convince them that the creation of a model or demonstration farm would be to the advantage of the government.
After the agreement was signed in March I hired Heinrich Reimer, Medemtal, as manager. That was a good move. Because he had two adult sons we had to hire additional help only during harvest time. Reimer was a friendly, good-natured, honest man. In all my dealings with him through the years we never had the slightest conflict.
Immediately I bought some horses for the farm. This was especially valuable to the Agricultural Society because now transportation for business trips was ensured. One team, with Reimer as a good driver, was used almost exclusively for this. Both the community farm and we had telephones, which made it easy to communicate. Reimer was independ ent enough to manage a farm, yet he always fol lowed instructions. I enjoyed working with him. To have the team and Reimer available for trips was important because usually it meant going to Pok rowsk, a distance of 40 miles, about once a week. Soon our horses were so well trained that we cov ered the distance in 4 1/2 hours, 5 hours at the most, regardless of road conditions. We often started out at 3:00 a.m., arrived at Wiegand’s Inn in Pokrowsk at 8 o’clock, washed, had tea and at nine o’clock, when business and government offices opened, we were ready.
I worked in an American tempo until 5 o’clock when the offices closed. Sometimes I had business for two days and longer. Usually after 5 o’clock I had dinner at a restaurant, although occasionally I ate between twelve and one o’clock, depending on my schedule. Then we had tea once more at Wiegand’s, left at six o’clock, and reached home around midnight.
At first I did all the book-keeping myself, but then Peter Neumann, Hohendorf, became my secre tary. He had taken a book-keeping and accounting course with teacher Jacob Franzen. He was also a very good choice as a helper. Peter was a gifted, diligent, very thorough and conscientious young man. I could depend on him completely. He was very sure of himself, but I always got along with him splendidly, even though I had to be a bit strict with him. We both enjoyed working together. However I continued to be the treasurer.
At the beginning of our Society’s activity we had taken over the herd books of our registered horses and cattle. There was renewed interest in registering the remaining purebred animals. The stock of cattle can be built up rather quickly. Each purebred calf after 1921 was kept, and so the num ber of cattle increased rapidly, ensuring our first source of income. To make this branch of our Agricultural Society as profitable as possible, we started two cheese factories, one in Koeppental and the other in Lysanderhoeh. In the latter we rented the buildings and equipment from the cheesemaker Cornelius Wiens. Two teams of horses collected the milk twice a day and returned the whey from the previous haul. It soon developed into a thriving enterprise.
I remember that one time we bought over 100 milk cans from the former Blandow factory for our members. For this, too, we received a special loan, as well as for other similar improvements. Usually the credit was for one year, but often much longer. Soon we accepted milk from non-members at the same price. At the end of the year a certain percent age of the profit was put into a reserve fund, the rest was distributed proportionally to the amount of milk delivered to the members. The dividends were 20 % and more.
Finding a ready market for our cheese soon became a problem. Saratov could not absorb all of it, because during this time a good number of cheese factories had opened in the Volga Republic with the help of N.S.S. We had to go to other cities to find a market, especially to Moscow. At first I assumed the responsibility for this, but by the end of the year 1924 we had one of our cheese makers, Jacob Bestvater, as our salesman.
It should be mentioned that already back in February I bought a four-year old, dark brown stal lion of the heavy Orloff Trotters from the N.K.S. for our Society for three years. His name was Lew koi. I had a private agreement with the N.K.S. in which I guaranteed that no less than 60 mares annually would be bred by him, and that he would always be stalled in our barn. The N.K.S. had no expense with this arrangement and I received nothing for housing and feeding him, but I did have permission to breed four of my mares annually with him, and also that I could drive him. He was quite tame and very good on the road. If something would happen to him through my fault I was liable for 1,000 Ruble.
Since we had one article in our constitution to the effect that we would enhance cultural and educa tional programs, I thought we ought to re-open the high school, which had been closed since 1921. As chairman I invited representatives from all the vil lages for a consultative meeting. A district school committee was elected with one representative from each village and with me as chairman. We decided to start the next year with one class of first-year high school, to be located in Lysanderhoeh.
My suggestion to have three young men go to a teacher training college at the Society’s expense, because we would soon need more teachers, was also accepted. If we had our own teachers there was the possibility that we could pass on our own Men nonite faith and practice, but if we had none the government would send us communist teachers.
It was rather difficult to get permission for this from the district Soviet. A.A. Froese was now its chairman instead of Johannes Penner. Froese was a good man and a Christian, and also realized the value of such a venture, but thought the project was too expensive. Under existing conditions it would prove to be a considerable financial burden. Finally the district Soviet gave its consent, but only on con dition that a vote be taken in all the villages which would show a majority of the people in favor. I realized that propaganda was necessary, had public meetings in all the villages to explain the issue, with the result of an overwhelming vote in favor of financing the teacher training program.
I remember one episode at a meeting in Medemtal, the poorest of our villages. After my message old Ohm Dau stood up and said: „Yes, dear Ivan Ivanovich, you are right. Education is necessary and we need a high school. But when you become as poor as I am, and when there is no money for a pair of workpants, not even for patches to mend the old ones, then one doesn’t think much about education any more.“ How very true! Again it was proof that economic progress was a dire neces sity for raising the moral, cultural, and intellectual life of our settlement to its pre-revolutionary level.
It was clear to me then, and has become almost an axiom for me since, that poverty, especially extreme poverty, provides a breeding place for moral decay, for various sins, for dissatisfaction, envy, often even crimes. Because of this I was so intensely interested in and totally committed to the economic reconstruction of our settlement.
Permission for teacher’s training of three young men had been granted, but from the very beginning the district Soviet granted hardly any money for this. The execution of this project was my responsibility. A number of candidates applied: I chose Otto Dyck, Lysanderhoeh, Hans Quiring, Koeppental, and Jakob Vogt, Medemtal. All three were poor. I went with them to Saratov to peda gogical school, a sort of teacher training college, which had a German department for students from the German Volga Republic. All three of our stu dents were accepted, although Jakob Vogt with some difficulty. (I will come back to that in my 1924 report).
I found a boarding place for them. All three studied hard and did well. During the next two winters whenever I was in Saratov I always tried to have an evening with them. They were always friendly and I was pleased with them. Even in their communist environment they remained firm in their convictions, due perhaps to a large extent to the influence of a German teacher, Peter Sinner, and the professor of German, Mr. Dinges.
When the money for the three stopped coming, we paid the bills from our Society’s funds. But we could not continue doing that for long. So the Dis trict Soviet decided to send them home because of lack of funds. But I would have none of that, so I paid for them myself for some months. At least they could stay in school. I had also asked the Central Relief Committee in Scottdale, Pa., USA for a loan for these students, but received a friendly, negative reply, along with a token of $100 as sympathy for the cause. The letter was signed by Mr. C. F. Klas sen, Newton, Kansas. After one year our Society was strong enough to finance this project without difficulty and without outside help. The District Soviet contributed a pittance.
In the summer of 1923, for the first time since 1919, the special crested wheat grass, „Schitnjak,“ was harvested and sold, naturally through our Agricultural Society. We got a good price for it and delivered it all to the S.P.S.
In October there was a meeting in Alt-Samara of all Mennonite settlements in Russia, except the Ukraine. Johannes Penner and I wanted to go, but my sense of duty made me stay home. And that is where they organized the Mennonite Association „Mennobscheswo“, with its central office to be in Moscow. Peter Froese was the chairman, C.F. Klassen the vice-chairman, and Franz Isaac a member. The objective of Mennobscheswo was to have a Mennonite center in Moscow which would be competent and legally justified to represent and defend Mennonites and their undertakings at the government level in all matters. Since it was not possible to have such representation in any other way, it was done in the form of a society represent ing all Mennonite agricultural societies and co-ops, the A.M.L.V., the All Russian Mennonite Agricultural Society (Allrussischer Mennonitischer Landwirtschafts-Verband).
In the course of the years the Society was often able to give valuable assistance in civil and legal rights, especially also in the matter of emigration. But the Government did not want to see A.M.L.V. be involved in any other than agricultural affairs.
The reason I had not been able to free myself for ten days for the Alt-Samara conference was because it was the time of year when taxes had to be paid. We knew that there was a legal tax exemption on all registered purebred horses and the land that was worked by the „cultured“ farmers. The taxes were collected by the District Soviets and forwarded to the regional office, which refused to exempt our farmers. At first our district Soviet protested their demand for taxes on everything, but it was unsuccessful to change their mind. But this tax con cession was of major importance for our farmers.
Then I took the matter in hand in the name of the Agricultural Society. First we drew up a detailed list of all tax-free objects. Some listed more than was legally exempt, thinking it didn’t matter, and attempting to get as much benefit as possible. So we had to examine each list very carefully. That would have been impossible if our herd books would not have been in such exemplary order. I say this as a tribute to our pre-revolutionary agricultural society whose careful bookkeeping made our pre sent detailed checkup possible. Because we continued working on their basis, we were now able to control every detail.
I took these lists, and a description of all fields that had been entered by the cultural farmers, directly to Pokrowsk instead of first to the regional office where our enemy, Ad. Reichert presided, and where we had been denied tax exemption. After trying unsuccessfully there for a week, they referred me back to the regional office. Pointing out that they had already denied the exemption was of no use, I had to go to the regional office.
Of course they denied the request again. I wanted this in writing. They said they would mail it to me the next day. It was clear why all offices were stalling: the deadline for tax payment was only three weeks away. After that no complaints would be accepted and all taxes would be collected by force, with a heavy penalty for being late. So for the next two or three mornings I went to their office in the morning and sat there until they closed at five. Finally they became furious and gave me their writ ten denial.
Here I would like to mention an incident that, minor in itself, yet four years later contributed to our decision to emigrate. I had a room at the house of G. Schengel, where at that time the niece of the vile Cornelia Ekkert, Koeppental, was boarding. When I left, I happened to turn around at the gate and saw this communist girl threatening me with her raised fist and making a remark to Mr. Schengel. I had seen the hatred in her face and later asked the landlady about that remark. She had said, what a pity that the Tribunal had not shot me; that had been a grave mistake, but it would be rectified when the right moment came.
With the document in hand I returned to Pokrowsk. However, after days of heckling I was told that law applied only to exceptional cases, not to us where it amounted to about 50 % of the total tax. After days in this office I was finally given the writ ten denial, with the explanation that every farmer had to appear personally and apply for the exemption. Our Agricultural Society did not have the legal right to speak for the individual farmers, especially since there was some livestock involved that belonged to non-members.
Now I went home. It was time to go to the Mennonite conference at Alt-Samara. But I could not go even though all the members of the Com mittee, except Johannes Penner, advised me to give up this hopeless fight and go.
I was persistent, because I knew we had the law on our side. I also realized that this was the ultimate and crucial test: if I gave in now, in future they would not take me seriously. By this time the controversy had aroused public interest. I had obtained various written opinions and documents from the N.K.Sem., the N.S.S., the S.P.S. and the Volgabank which was reluctant at first, but then did give them since I asked them to state facts only. Later, when the whole affair created such a public sensation, some of these offices were sorry that they had given their statements, but I had them in writ ing.
Now each individual tax payer had to give me the authority to take whatever legal steps I deemed necessary to obtain his tax exemption. That took 4-5 days. I went back and started over again. But they threw more road-blocks in the way: now they wanted proof that the lists were accurate. So I went back and fetched the herd books. Woe to us, woe to me, if now even one animal was listed for tax exemption that was not listed in the herd book. It would have meant a court trial for me. How fortunate that from the very beginning I had insisted on absolute truthfulness in the listing of pedigreed animals.
Throughout the years of my societal activities I have scrupulously followed the policy, in all details, of strict and absolute adherence to facts that are in keeping with the law; in this way I had never to fear that I would be accused of illegal action or wrong doing; I certainly never attempted to achieve some thing by bribery that we were legally entitled to. In this way I was immune against enemy attacks.
After all the examinations of our documents had proven that they were correct, there was another delay, another intrigue to postpone. I cannot remember all the excuses that they thought of; but neither did the Finance Commissariat expect that I would be that tough and persistent. Our dealings always remained proper and courteous, but it was unavoidable that tensions were created which occasionally resulted in personal antagonistic expressions. But I kept saying to myself, „keep cool“. And the struggle went on.
Eventually there were only days left until the deadline for paying taxes. From home I had already received word that the District Soviet had been instructed to make a complete list of all the tax resisters, so that legal procedures could be started immediately the day after the deadline had passed. The people were afraid and volunteered to pay while there was yet time. I sent a telegram to the District Soviet: „Nobody is to pay. The matter will be cleared.“ I knew what responsibility I took; but I also knew that I was right and they would have to acknowledge that.
Now the Finance Commissariat denied that I had the legal right to act for the individual farmer, since their authorizations had not been drawn up in a legal and correct form. Quickly I took them all to the Justice Commissariat. They wanted to postpone their opinion to the next day, but time was crucial now. I explained the situation and received their written statement that all forms were legally correct and that I had full authority to act on the individual farmer’s behalf.
Now only two or three days were left. But there were more excuses and delays. As a last resort I tried to send an S.O.S. to the Department of Agriculture, to the Finance Department, and to the Justice Department in Moscow. Those were lengthy telegrams in which I freely stated that the officials of the Volga Republic were trying to postpone a decision until after the deadline for tax payment, that I possessed all legal rights and documents. The result was a telegram to our Finance Commissariat to grant our demand at once if we had the legal right; if there were doubts or unclarities they were to send all the material to Moscow for examination and decision.
So almost at five minutes before twelve o’clock, as it were, I received the official tax exemption for everything on our lists.
That long story just told is only the surface of what actually happened: the work, the hard and nerve-wrecking work that it took to overcome all those obstacles and intrigues. When I came home I had the reputation: what Ivan Ivanovich wants he also accomplishes. But people couldn’t really know how much work and praying it actually had taken. Yet I am convinced that if I had failed the general cry would have been „crucify him“ rather than „hosanna!“ I would have been blamed severely. But to God be the honor. I don’t remember the exact amount of this tax exemption, but think it was about 7,000 rubles—a very large amount for our as yet very weak economy and the actual value of the new Tsherwonez ruble.
This was the first year that 21 year old men had to report for military duty. The new law did free Mennonites from military service, but not en masse; each candidate had to appear in court to testify to the sincerity of his conviction. Each candidate for the C.O. classification had the right to bring along a so-called „expert“ from his congrega tion to testify on his behalf. At a general meeting I was appointed to be that man. In November I accompanied a group of young men to court. They knew so little about the Bible and answered so poorly when defending their peace convictions, that I began to fear for them. In part this was due to their ignorance, but in a large part also to the fact that they were shy, helpless, self-conscious and embarrassed. The large court room, the elaborate procedure, it all intimidated them; they were just farm boys who had never gone beyond the bound aries of their villages. I explained this emphatically to the judges. The young men were all exempt from military service.
So far I have given a rough sketch of my socie tal activities in 1923. Now something about our pri vate life. On April eleven our baby, Renata, was born, receiving her mother’s name, though abbreviated. In our emigration passport she is registered as Renate, but until now we have kept to the Rena. Lene Hamm was our housekeeper in addi tion to a nanny and our Marie, sister of our excellent worker Jacob Arndt.
Lieschen had actually finished grade school, but the young teacher, Franz Quiring, offered information and additional lessons not given by the old retiring Ohm Bartsch, and so we let her attend one more year. Now we had five children in school and four at home. In these years the training of chil dren was almost entirely in the hands of my dear Renate, since I was either gone on trips or too busy with various societal involvements. Likewise I had very little time for the farm, but fortunately Jacob Arndt was a faithful, efficient and dependable worker.
In March I traded some of our wheat for two beautiful brown half-purebred trotter mares, Lawina 7 and Tshoika 4 years old. Then we had two more thoroughbreds, Silva, which we bought from Johannes Toews, and Elshanka, the only one remaining of all our many horses. They were four beautiful mares, as good as any in the community, and we were lucky to get from them, and the stal lion Lewkei, quite a number of fine foals.
The harvest was fair this year and we threshed it with our own machine, but we did not do any custom work because the seeded acreage was gener ally quite small. This year I sold all our Simmental cattle to the Department of Agriculture, N.K.S. and bought a number of purebred Holland (Holstein) cows and a bull instead.
The salary that I received as chairman of the Agricultural Society was a mere pittance, 25 ruble a month, but I didn’t want any more as long as our organization was still financially weak. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction to do this work almost on a voluntary basis, and I never said to anyone that for me it was a „mission“, but that is actually how I felt about it. I was doing mission work. With that kind of an attitude there is always a blessing; and our situation was no exception. Our farming was a great success, and indirectly there were a good many gains for us also. For example, if I had not been known so well in the N.K.S. I would not have been able to sell our Simmental cattle at such a good price. Private people at that time had very little money.
Before our annual meeting in January the auditors, Cornelius Wiens, Ostenfeld, and two other men, came to check our books. How well I remem ber that day. Wiens was an intelligent man, but when he leafed through the books, which were kept in double entry system and which he did not understand, he checked a few figures, made a few spot-checks, and then suggested that they write their report that everything was in order. I said they hadn’t really performed a thorough audit. To this he replied:
„We believe you are an honest man, and that’s good enough!“
„No,“ I told them, „that’s not good enough for me. I want you not only to believe that everything is in order, but I want you to know it.“ So I showed them how to audit the books, quickly but thoroughly.
At the annual meeting the old executive com mittee was voted in again. Because the work of the Society increased, it became important to obtain credit at the Nemwolbank (German Volga Bank); but that became progressively more difficult for technical reasons. So we added another paragraph to our constitution which made it possible for us legally to obtain long and short term credits.
A Mr. Kober at the Nemwolbank was espe cially favorably inclined towards us, i.e. me, which was a great help to our Society. Not only were we able during the next several years to obtain loans of up to five years for such special projects as our cheese factories, reconstructing the Epp machine shop, etc., but we were also able to get substantial amounts for current expenses without needing to provide special guarantees. And it needs to be said that we never misused these privileges and always made prompt and full repayments of all loans.
Because every calf born was also raised, it was inevitable that during the next three years the num ber of cattle increased substantially. Today I am thankful that I kept the brochure of Prof. D.W. Elpatowsky of the Saratov Agricultural Institute about his survey of our cattle in those years. Among other things I see in this brochure that he says that at the time of writing there were again 1,446 head of purebred cattle of our settlement entered in the herd book. That many cows meant, of course, a great deal of milk. As a result two more cheese fac tories were opened this year, one in Lindenau and the other in Ostenfeld. That year the milk prod uction amounted to 2,651,560 pounds, yielding 256,880 pounds of cheese.
As cheese production was becoming one of our major sources of income, we tried to put the indus try on a scientifically sound basis. Every farmer who had cows listed in the herd books was obliged to weigh the milk of each cow three times a month, the the 10th, 20th and 30th. Then we employed a control person, Romesow-paid by the NKS, and our Society provided him with room and board plus a vehicle—to check each weight and butterfat. He worked diligently for two years keeping records of milk production and percentage of butterfat and also offering courses, etc. We also had all the cattle vac cinated against T.B.; only 3.4 % reacted positive, which is further proof that our cattle were not as prone to T.B. as most cattle of the area.
For seeding that spring all members, 160 if I remember correctly, received sufficient registered wheat for seed. Last year’s crop of wheat, which had not yet been very substantial, had been paid for to each producer and stored in the rented granaries of our Society. Now each farmer could claim back on credit as much of this wheat as he needed. In addition we again received a certain amount of first generation wheat from the experimental station, to be distributed among the farmers who had worked their fields best.
This year the yield was above average. Since the S.P.S. and N.K.S. again paid us 30 to 50% more than the market prices, depending on the qual ity and kind of wheat, the farmers now had more money. Our Society took a modest commission for the handling of seed wheat, which with the increase in quantity ultimately amounted to quite a sum. But we also had expenses. For example: we imported three expensive „Triere“ grain cleaning machines on credit from Germany, rented granaries, hired men to handle the wheat, etc. The crested wheat grass, „Shetnjak,“ also yielded well, and was sold through our Society.
Then we also rented the large, over 1,000 acres, farm at Waluewka that had belonged to Cornelius Isaac, who was shot by the Tribunal. Since his death the Communists had farmed it, but were doing so poorly that it turned out to be a liability to them. Apparently they were now going to tear down the large and almost new buildings on the place. Our Society rented it, also with the secret hope that after the end of the Bolsheviks it could again be returned to its rightful owner, the widow of the late Cornelius Isaac and her son. We did not profit much from this rent, but neither did we lose by it. Our manager, P.D. Wall, Fresenheim, was a good and honest man, but not very energetic.
During the months of May, June and July, there was an all-Russia exhibition in Moscow, and we were invited to participate. Of course we wanted to do that, sent two cows and a bull, and received prizes. We were also asked by the N.K.S. to exhibit a miniature Mennonite farm; they said they would pay for the model. We took our neighbor’s, Ger hard Fieguth’s, farm as model and had the brothers Jacob and Heinrich Froese build it. They made it so that it could all be taken apart and reassembled in Moscow, complete with all the buildings: house with all rooms, barn in every detail, haymow, machine shed, building for the well, etc. They did excellent work. I also went to Moscow and observed that the visitors viewed our farm some what skeptically, not quite willing to believe that such a farm actually existed in Russia, Communist Russia at that. – I suppose by this time everything has been destroyed.
For a while we had difficulty to maintain the division of land as approved the year before; there was fear that this was giving too much strength to the individual farmer. That was true, of course, but was exactly what we aimed at. Eventually each farmer’s deed was renewed, but not for 24 years as per contract, but only until 1929.
This year the first cows were sold outside of our settlement. Bulls had been sold before. It was done, of course, through our Society. Because of the high price paid for our Albidum wheat, the farmers sowed a lot of that and not enough for feed for the animals. So our Society bought large amounts of feed for its members, such as bran, pressed sunflower seeds, etc., from Saratov; also a carload of rye from Dawlekanowo in the Ufa region.
We received nine purebred Yorkshire sows and three boars from England through the N.K.S. They were very expensive, but ultimately we did not have to pay in cash, but an amount calculated later and based on offsprings. They landed with J.P. Isaac, C.P. Wiens, and me, because we had good pigbarns and were willing to sign the not very favorable con tract. Of course the offspring had to be registered in our books.
A.M.R., i.e. Mr. Miller, had procured a num ber of Fordson tractors two years ago which had been sent to the Mennonite settlements in Siberia where they had been used under A.M.R’s. jurisdic tion. However, this had not worked out very well, so the tractors were sold and we bought one for our community farm in Lysanderhoeh. The price was definitely too high since the tractor was not in working condition. Also Mr. Miller was particular in calculating interest and cost of repair parts; so all in all it was not a good buy for us.
This year we bought some more milk cans for our members, as well as cream separators, binder twine, and other agricultural supplies.
In June the annual meeting of the All-Russian Mennonite Union took place in Dawlekanowo. Jakob Penner, Ostenfeld and I went as representa tives. Delegates came from all the Mennonite settle ments of northern Russia. The atmosphere was harmonious, optimistic and hopeful. The government had sent a political observer, a German communist by the name of Bartels, who seemed to be quite a decent fellow. At this meeting I was elected into the Executive of the AMLV.
On our return trip down the Volga—Oh, what a gloriously beautiful trip!—I read in the government paper „Iswestjia“ (Moscow) an article by Trotzky under the heading: „With A Red-Hot Sadiron“ which impressed me deeply. Trotzky explained that due to the „New Economic Policy“ (NEP) after only three years of certain freedoms in trade and agriculture, there were already too many „strong“ elements emerging, that a new bourgousie was being raised. That could not be tolerated. These „peaks“ sticking up above the average of the masses would have to be pressed down from time to time with a red hot sadiron in the form of extra taxes, and if that would not keep them down, there would have to be other „effective“ measures taken against them. I had felt for some time that the wind was blowing from that direction, that there was a swing to the left in the Communist Party. This article clearly expressed what I had only felt as being in the air until now. There certainly was much food for thought here.
As soon as I was home I said to my dear Renate: „You know things will change, so that after another four or five years we will have to emigrate after all.“ Until now nobody from our settlement had left. We were not in favor of leaving our homeland. We maintained that since we enjoyed the years of peace, so now we had to persevere in the years of discouragement, especially since the NEP seemed to promise continuing improvement of con ditions. But this article, written by Trotzky himself, pointed in a completely different direction. It made me think, opened my eyes, and made me ever more vigilant in watching the Communist Party. It helped me to interpret their actions and to draw my own conclusions.
At the meeting in Dawlekanowo I met Franz C. Thiessen, a teacher, for the first time. That Sunday his choir sang a cantata in church. It was excellent. The closing program in the Dawlekanowo Men nonite High School was simply magnificent. It was an impressive evening which we would long remember.
This year I was appointed to the Economic Council of the German Volga Republic, consisting of 12-14 members, all Communists except two, the leader of the Krasny-Kut experimental station and myself. This was quite a responsible organization, providing leadership in agriculture and industry. I was active in this for about two months; after that I was not invited back, which suited me just fine. I had not felt comfortable there. Furthermore, I felt that we two non-communists were considered a nuisance, since we had a chance to observe the real force behind the politics of Communism. My appointment had been due only to the insistence of the Agricultural Commissar, Fuchs, and the chairman of N.S.S., Zeitler, who considered my judgment in economic matters valuable. Both Fuchs and Zeitler were oriented more to the right and hoped to strengthen their position with our presence as non-communists. But that didn’t work and I was very happy to stay away from the meetings.
It was different at the meetings of the N.S.S., where I also was a member of the Executive. There the Communists were in the minority and for that time the atmosphere was quite tolerable. Joh. L. Penner was a member of the executive of S.P.S. and we worked together a great deal.
The authorities were quite emphatic that our Society should be more active in the cultural political sphere. The training of our three teachers to-be was a step in the right direction. We also started bi-monthly meetings for our young men. Lectures were given on co-operation, world history, animal and plant breeding and more. They sang folk songs and had a good time together. In this way we were able to keep them away from the communist dance parties. This summer several groups of stu dents from Saratov came to visit our Society and observe its various activities.
This summer I was again elected to accompany our young men to court in the matter of their C.O. status. In general the situation was very much the same as last year: the young men were shy and inhibited, but it was also evident that they lacked basic knowledge of biblical faith and Anabaptism. But all went well, none had to report for military service.
But I will always remember the following inci dent: among the recruits was Jakob Vogt, our teacher-candidate studying in Saratov. They asked him about his occupation. When he replied that he was a student at the Saratov High School’s German Division, everyone perked up. The chief judge, Comrade Huszti, a one-time Catholic priest from Frankfurt/Main, Germany, and now a very leftist Communist, said: „At last there’s one young man who knows that there is no God, right?“
And Vogt replied: „Oh no, I am convinced that there is a God.“
„One can be convinced of something only when one has experienced it,“ replied Huszti.
„Yes,“ replied Vogt. „I have often found that to be true.“
„I don’t believe it,“ said Huszti. „Give me an example.“ At first Vogt said that would take too much time, but Huszti insisted. Let me briefly tell what Vogt said:
„I am the oldest child in a very poor family. We are 12 children, three sets of twins. My father was mobilized during the war and I, a weakly boy of 15, was expected to manage our farm. I almost collapsed under the load. In those years I often prayed that God would make it possible for me to train as a teacher, which I fervently desired also because I was physically too weak to do heavy work. When father came back I told him about my wish, my hope and dream. He said that was quite impossible, we were too poor. But I kept on pray ing, year after year.
„And now imagine this. Last year my father came home from a community meeting and announced that the Agricultural Society of Lysanderhoeh was going to pay for training three young men as teachers. I wanted to apply at once, but my father said that would be useless, since we were the poorest of the poor. Furthermore, we were not even members of the Society. And, finally, because he did not really know its chairman, who was the man that was going to make the selections. Because of my pleading father finally consented to go for an interview. But before we went, I first went to my room to pray.
„The interview lasted not much more than 15 minutes. The chairman of the Society said I was accepted.“
I also remember the incident distinctly. I had gone to the barn where Jakob Arndt was putting in new boards, when Vogt and his son came to speak with me. I knew the father slightly. The boy’s modest and courteous manner, his honest face, and the clear open look of his eyes appealed to me. I asked a few questions about his level of education and then accepted him.
To Jakob Vogt’s speech the judge replied: „As long as you deal with another Mennonite you think it is your God who is helping you and answering your prayers.“
Quickly Vogt said: „With your permission I will tell you how God helped me even when the decision lay in the hands of the Communists. It was like this: The chairman of the Society, who was also chairman of the School Board, took us three men to Saratov where the other two were accepted in the High School; but in spite of my good report card from our school, I was rejected because I was too old. The regulation prescribed a maximum age for each grade. I was very disappointed.
Then our chairman said he would go to the Department of Education to ask that an exception be made in my case. While he was gone I prayed inwardly to God as never before. And do you know what happened? Within the hour the chairman was back with the written permission for me to attend. That definitely was an answer to prayer, and proof that there is a God.“
„Nonsense,“ said the judge angrily, „that was mere coincidence!“
Vogt’s testimony was so modest, simple, and yet so impressive and convincing that my heart rejoiced with him. Naturally he, too, was freed from military service.
Another project this fall that caused much work and perseverance, even though the issue was a rela tively minor matter, was the reopening of our dis trict high school. We could not expect much help from the district Soviet, so our Society had to assume the responsibility. As chairman of the Society as well as of the School Board, I could approve the necessary funds. However, there were two obstacles: first, most people did not consider the school a necessity; and second, where would we find a suitable teacher? We had none that qualified. Finally we agreed that we would start with one class, the first year of high school, in Lysanderhoeh.
The search for a teacher seemed hopeless. We Mennonites had no suitable candidates, and in other German circles Communism had spread among the teachers, especially the young ones. Eventually teacher H. Braun, Saratov, told me about Joseph Kern who had been teaching in the German Depart ment of the Saratov High School, and had resigned due to a disagreement with the principal. I went to him at once, had a good impression of him, but he was reluctant to move from a big city and a large school to a small village. He wanted to think it over for 24 hours.
I returned promptly after the 24 hours and we had a lengthy discussion, including the matter of salary. Finally he agreed to accept. Then I went to the Department of Education for permission to open the school. They were not interested, especially not with Kern as teacher. If we had hired a Communist teacher it would have been different. However, after much persuasion they agreed and the matter was settled. We had permission.
About a week before school opening I received a letter from Kern saying he had a change of heart, he was not coming. So back to Saratov I went. There I „wooed“ Kern for three days, learned to know him well, and discovered that he was rather fickle, tended to change his mind. By now he had received a good offer in the city, but the main reason for his reluctance to come to Lysanderhoeh was that he had heard about the Department’s reluctance to give permission for the school to open, as well as his going there. He feared that would hinder his work.
I reasoned with him that a good German always keeps his word, under any circumstance; that the Department would not agree a second time, etc. As mentioned, it wasn’t a big deal, yet the principle of the thing was important. After three days Kern agreed. Except for a few minor flaws he was a good and very thorough teacher, cooperating very well with our interests and was generally very satisfactory.
In the summer of 1923 Uncle Herman Epp from Alie-Ata, Tashkent, Central Asia, came for a visit. His late wife, Anna, was my mother’s sister. He had many relatives in Am Trakt, from his wife’s as well as his side of the family. There were nieces and nephews, like the D. Thiessen children whom he visited often, but mostly he was guest in our home. He stayed until May 1924. We appreciated him very much; he was a sincere Christian and proved it with his life. We went on many visits with him and each time, whether the circle was large or small, before we left he managed to direct the discussion to some religious topic. He didn’t do this in any artificial or forced pietistic way but naturally and with ease. It was obvious that he was sincere and he had a longing for discussions of spiritual matters. He was an ordained minister. Everyone in our family learned to love him and he became a blessing to us.
The crop this year was barely average. However it turned out to be an economically good year for us because of the 50% higher price we received for our pedigreed wheat, and also because of the high milk production. Additionally we earned some with custom threshing, but not nearly as much as with the large farms before the Revolution. Our whole farm operation had been scaled down from a large to a medium sized farm, though it was the allotted maximum. Our entire system: land, cattle, horses, everything was geared to quality production, which created a good income. In economic terms these were the most agreeable years. Formerly the big size had brought with it so many pressures and frustrations with the many hired workers. Now we just had two men all year round, our faithful Jakob Arndt and another man, plus additional help as was needed in the busy seeding and threshing seasons. Jakob’s sister, Marie, was excellent, too, and so was our nanny, Annchen Bartuli, from Koeppental. She was very clean, neat and well-mannered.
Naturally not everything was agreeable in these years, not even under the Communists. For many people the inspection of conditions for hired help was very irksome. The two inspection agents, com rade Liebrecht of Koeppental, and comrade Oehler of Kukus, sent many an employer to court, charging them with not paying enough wages or poor treatment of their employees. We had very little trouble in this respect because we had such faithful servants who were always on our side and because we paid higher wages than anyone else, which was to our advantage.
Another reason was that as Society chairman I had the „right“ to hire help and therefore was not an „exploiter.“ But even so, Liebrecht at times was a big nuisance with his efforts to agitate our servants against us. In my work with the various government departments I also had to be very alert and cautious, since I was the protege of the few moderate and practical, business-like Party members, and as such was watched with suspicion. Only because I showed absolutely no political interest, but concentrated on economic and business matter alone, was I able to be successful in the reconstruction of Am Trakt’s economy; also because I always stayed strictly within the existing legal framework.
In family and community it was a quiet and very pleasant life, except for the fact that due to my intense societal activities I was away from home so much that the responsibility of our children and looking after the farm was almost completely in the hands of my dear Renate. We carried on in this way until the middle of November. My heart was weak but had no congenital defect. Nevertheless, because of the tensions during the years of the war and revolution, as well as three years of steady and persistent over-exertion in my public life, which often included excitements, worries, and also dangers from the Communists, with whom I had to work, ultimately brought me close to a nervous breakdown. The fact alone of having constantly to be alert, to weigh every word as if on a scale, to always be a diplomat, forever seemingly being forced to wriggle through a maze of intrigue, wore my nerves down to the point of utter exhaustion.
Once in September, after a very exciting, frustrating committee meeting in Pokrowsk, I had a severe attack of dizziness, so that I nearly fainted. On checking with Dr. Kassel, he said that my heart was at least 15-20 years older than my years, that my blood pressure was too high, etc. He recommended complete rest, with no excitement or anxieties, or there could be serious consequences.
I didn’t think I could lay down all my societal activities just like that, but I did decide to watch my health more carefully. But how could I? One pressing task followed another: meetings, trips, manag ing all the various branches of our expanding Society, everything seemed to depend on me; too much rested on one person. The result was that I seldom went to bed before one or two o’clock in the morning, because during the hours from ten to two I took care of the growing correspondence for which I could find no time during the day. On top of that was the problem that I often couldn’t go to sleep when I finally did go to bed, but already at seven or eight in the morning the people started to come with all kinds of concerns and problems. And then there were the many 40 mile trips by night to Pokrowsk since there seemed to be less and less time to make these trips by day. Obviously this could not continue without serious consequences.
I had not been feeling well for a few days and one night in the middle of November I woke up with the shivers. We lit the stove to warm the room, but the shivers continued. When I wrapped myself in blankets and sat on a chair while my dear Renate straightened out the bed, I had a prolonged fainting spell. Renate immediately phoned our homeopath, Julius Wiens, but before he arrived I fainted again, this time in bed. He thought the situation was rather serious, said that my heart was functioning poorly, and asked Renate to call Joh. L. Penner, Fresenheim, about seven miles away, to ask him to fetch Dr. Grasmueck from Seelman, a distance of 30 miles. Obviously Wiens feared for the worst.
Penner left at once. Renate sent our team to meet them halfway, so that in spite of the bad roads our old friend and family doctor Grasmueck arrived in the early afternoon. By that time I felt better already, but still very weak. I was able to whisper again. On entering the room Dr. Grasmueck looked at me and said: „Good Lord! Just look at that fellow! He lies down in bed as if he’s going to die!“ Then he talked lightly about the trip, told all kinds of anecdotes, all the time examining me thoroughly. He looked at the bottles of homeopath medicine with wrinkled brow. I said:
„But doctor, this time that medicine really helped me.“ He replied: „Oh yes, I believe it; drink distilled water in good faith and it will help you.“ He also prescribed medicine, but emphasized that absolute rest was essential. During the next few days I had several more, although lighter, attacks. And that is how God took me out of the work.
Not until Christmas, six weeks later, did I leave the house and go to church, but that was too soon. For a long time I was mostly in bed. My strength returned very slowly. I didn’t know whether I would recover completely or continue in a state of mere existence. And so the year, that had been so filled with work, came to a close. I have merely touched on the individual aspects of the work of our Society because it had grown so much that I cannot possibly describe it all.
So now I had plenty of time to think and meditate. Now I also remembered how often my dear Renate had pleaded with me not to get so intensely involved in the activities, concerns, and problems of the Agricultural Society. Now I examined myself: had I done wrong? My conclusion was, No. My conscience was completely at ease, even in the face of death it did not accuse me. Other things did burden my soul, but not to the point of despair. All my life the grace of God has kept me from major sins; that this was no merit on my part I fully realized. I examined my life minutely. I received strength and comfort from knowing that only the blood and righteousness of Christ blotted out all my sins.
I was also strengthened by the realization that the intense public work of the last three years was not because of selfish ambition, but was prompted by my idealism. It appeared to me a worthy and noble goal in life to lift our settlement from its bitter poverty, from its ruin, to a new and better life. That, and that alone, seemed to be worth all my energy, knowledge, and effort. This certainty gave me the conviction that the course I had taken had been the right one. But how to continue? What
God had spoken to me through this illness; I felt it and listened to what he had to say to me. At first the thought of giving up the work in the Society aroused only rebellious feelings in me. No way! I had learned to love this work; and now that everything was well organized just quit? No, a thousand times no!
Gradually, however, I came to the conclusion to step back. I could do that now without creating problems or harm the cause. The Society was well organized and was on a sound financial basis.
And now it was my dear friend Joh. Penner and, in part also my Renate, who tried to talk me out of it. But I felt that God was clearly showing me the way to go, that I should resign from all societal activity. I determined from now on, as long as God would grant me time and strength, to devote myself to my family. Everything else would be secondary.
Usually the annual meeting of the Agricultural Society was at the beginning of January; on account of my illness it was postponed to the end of February. It was held in the large hall which at one time had been the store of A.J. Bergmann. It was a large meeting with over fifty members present. For the first time I became aware that I had gained the complete confidence and love of our settlement. The meeting started at 10 a.m. and did not close until 10 p.m., after all the reports, questions, finances, plans for the next year for all departments had been taken care of.
I felt the respect and confidence of the mem bers so intensely that I found it increasingly difficult to announce my resignation as we approached the time of new elections. So far only Johannes Penner knew of my decision. He was the chairman and he asked me to say nothing for the time being, but to proceed with the elections. The election result was an almost unanimous vote for me, except for my three opponents, J.D.F, C.P.W. and one other.
When I announced my resignation they would not believe it. Joh. Penner, too, urged me to stay on for one more year. He called for another vote and this time the three negative votes were also changed in my favor. So it was unanimous. They said I had worked far too cheaply, I should get 100 Rubles a month from now on, making it retroactive, and finally they said I was to determine the amount of my salary. I replied that I had demonstrated to them
in the past that I was not working for the money; I thanked them warmly for their confidence in me; said that this had given me courage and strength to go on, but that now, due to my uncertain health and family responsibility I needed to resign.
Joh. Penner, the chair, called for a second vote. It was unanimous. It was already after midnight when the meeting finally closed. I agreed to be a member of the Executive, the vice-president, and to participate as much as my health would permit. But a chairman was not elected. Abram Froese, who had the most votes, asked for time to decide; so a special election-meeting was to be held a week later. At the end of the meeting a very warm and hearty resolution was drafted expressing appreciation for my services, and stipulating that I was to receive a gift of 100 Rubles. The resolution was passed and entered into the minutes.
Eight days later Abram Froese declined the chairmanship and Joh. Thiessen, Koeppental, was elected with a considerable majority. During the next several months I often substituted for him and introduced him to the work of the various pertinent Commissariats (departments) in Pokrowsk. Thiessen was a very sincere and absolutely honest man, who worked for the Society to the best of his ability. Anyone not closely involved in the work would not have noticed much change in the continuation of the work.
However, Joh. Penner and I, and a few others, soon noticed that the time had passed when we would be able to receive the maximum benefits from the various Commissariats. The time had come when we attained our rights only by tenacious and persistent fighting for them. But friend Thiessen was no fighter; he accepted what was granted voluntarily. For the time and conditions that we were in he was too timid and cautious. So there was no growth or expansion of our Society. He managed the work well within the established boundaries. I believe that in these few words I have been fair and impartial to him and to the Agricultural Society.
If now I have written quite a bit about my societal experiences and public involvement for you, my dear children, who likely will be the only ones who will read this, you will know that my motive was not to gain honor or fame. I did receive a great deal of that. But I did not mention all this involvement and activity in my essay „Am Trakt“ because I wanted to keep myself out of the limelight as much as possible. But here it seemed appropriate for me to mention at least some of all that work which I did.
My work and involvement in society certainly did not end at this time, but changed and expanded, a circumstance that I fortunately did not realize at the time.
At long last the time had come when for three months at least (March, April and May) I could devote myself unreservedly to my family and the farm. We were raising some beautiful colts and our cattle were among the best in the settlement. Gradually my strength returned so that I was able to attend the annual meeting of the AMLW in Moscow as an advisory member. Joh. Penner went as delegate. He was elected chairman for the meeting. Fr. Fr. Isaac resigned from the Executive because he was emigrating to Canada. In his place Jakob Wittenberg, Neu-Samara, past representative of the AMR in Siberia appeared rather eager to fill the vacancy. I did not know the man, but it was obvious that the general mood was not in his favor.
Unexpectedly I was asked to allow my name to be placed on the ballot slate. At first I refused. I had my family at home which would not move to Moscow. I wouldn’t even consider giving up the farm. And then there was the matter of my health. Finally I consented on condition that I be in Moscow only as much as family, farm, and health permitted. My main reason for consenting was the wish of several men, like Joh. Penner, whose judgment I valued highly, to have me on the administration to counter-balance the political orientation of the chairman, P.F. Froese. The election gave me a large majority.
After the meeting I went home for a few days and then stayed in Moscow for 2 to 3 weeks, help ing to work through several important projects. On my return home it was harvest time. A good harvest this year. Cutting and threshing went well. As in previous years the wheat prices had been established by contract with S.P.S. and N.K.S.
I received a telegram from Moscow to go at once to Ebenfeld to clear up misunderstandings that had arisen between a group of local people and the leader K of the A.M.L.W. So an hour after we had finished threshing I left for Nochoi station, and from there by train and wagon to Ebenfeld.
It was a small village with plain and poor farmers, except for one Mr. Eidsen, whose larger farm was outside of the village. Mr. K., who had left by the time of my arrival, was in general disrepute. I was supposed to investigate the problem and report my findings. But that was difficult, because Mr. K. had kept no records of income and expenses. Nothing was organized. After I had checked the little available material, had discussed the matter with several men who seemed to be in leadership positions, a general meeting was called. Here I explained the motives and goals of the A.M.L.W. and led an election for new officers.
After my return from Ebenfeld I went to Moscow again for a while. There was a large Mennonite settlement of twenty or more villages near Omsk, Siberia. They had also joined the A.M.L.W. Their chairman was a former teacher, A. Rempel, who had his office in Omsk; the business manager was Mr. Unger. Apparently they worked on a large scale, because they reported thousands of acres of registered wheat and enormous stocks of cheese. Because of their impressive assets they had already received considerable amounts of credit through the recommendation of the A.M.L.W. and now they asked for more. The committee in Moscow became skeptical, didn’t quite trust their reports, and decided that I should go and investigate the matter. This was all the more urgent because the Moscow committee was ultimately responsible for any credit granted. On my return trip from Omsk I was to stop at Dawlekanowo, Ufa, and check on conditions in that settlement.
So I went to Siberia. It was a long and pleasant trip. I stayed in the Omsk area for about five days. Business there seemed indeed to be on a large scale. It was impossible to make a complete audit of their books in so short a time, but that was not my assignment either. The spot-checking and comparisons that I made with what they had reported to Moscow and their actual financial condition seemed to agree. I was less convinced about their reported acreages of wheat, which was very difficult to verify, of course. The different Mennonite settlements all made a very favorable and promising impression. Incidentally, when we came to Canada I found that our climate and agricultural conditions in Saskatchewan were very similar to those around Omsk, Siberia.
From Omsk I took a different route via Tsheljabinsk to Dawlekanowo. The panorama was very interesting with beautiful valleys, mountain ranges, and often the giant smokestacks of iron and brass works. It was the end of August and the days were hot and oppressively sultry.
On arrival in Dawlekanowo I felt poorly and stayed in bed for a day at the home of Jak. J. Toews, the chairman of their local organization. Their business manager was a Mr. Peters. My impression in the office the next day was not very favorable. I didn’t think that they had actually fal sified their reports to Moscow, but they had put very little emphasis on the real cooperative goals of the A.M.L.W., which were to raise the cultural and material standard of our Mennonite settlements. That seemed unimportant in Dawlekanowo. They wanted to get as much private profit from large speculations in wheat or any other commodity, so that they would be able to pay large salaries and dividends to the people in the Committee.
I left on an afternoon, feeling poorly. The train was very late and waiting was strenuous. When it finally arrived the coach seemed like a heated oven. I felt the blood pressure in my head rising; during the last days I had repeatedly been troubled by dizzy spells. Although the windows were wide open, there was no relief from the heat. My temples were throb bing. And there I sat, opposite a lady with a restless three to four year old child, which was getting on my nerves. Once it climbed up on the baggage rack and then suddenly fell down- right on top of me. I was so surprised and astonished, my first impulse was to grab the child and throw it out the window. As I became increasingly ill and came close to fainting they gave me water to drink and I revived again.
Thank God the attack passed, but I felt very sick. Was it not God’s gracious providence that restrained me when I had that surprise and fright from the child? Let no one condemn lightly and harshly criminals who act when they are not in complete possession of their senses. I certainly had not wanted to harm the child or commit a crime, and yet by a hair’s breadth I would have done it. May God have mercy on all mentally ill people.
At long last in the afternoon we reached Moscow. Instead of going to bed at the place of our lodging in the Taganskaja I went straight to the office. I still remember what a strain it was to meet the people with their lively greetings and many questions. I extricated myself as soon as possible and went to my desk to write my trip report. But I felt suffocated, my neck was stiff, the blood pressure in my head increased, and I went repeatedly to the open window for air. As I was writing I sud denly felt something like an electric current flash through me, my head fell backwards, and if they hadn’t held me I would have fallen on the floor. I had not really fainted, but I felt terrible. After a drink and washing myself with cold water I wanted to see a doctor.
C.F. Klassen advised a cardiologist, a Dr. Steriopuls. They should not have let me go alone because I could have had an accident. I sat in a park for a long time until I was able to go on. The doctor asked about my occupation. I replied that basically I was a farmer, and then explained my present involvement with the A.M.L.W. He said: „Thank God that you live in the country. Go home at once. Stop your work here. Go home and don’t work, think, worry or even read for a year. Live only in nature.“ I asked him if I had had a light stroke, because my right eyelid was drooping, the right side of my face felt strange, and my right foot felt heavy. He replied: „You have had your first warning!“ Next day I went to another specialist who prescribed three months of cure with injections and medicine that he prepared. After another day I left, came home sick, went to Dr. Kassel in Pokrowsk, who wasn’t surprised, since he had warned me against any mental activity.
I stayed in bed most of the time for about two weeks and applied leeches repeatedly.
Our Agricultural Society organized an agricultural exhibition, a real country fair, for September 20. It was held in our village of Lysander hoeh, on the site of the former windmill, opposite J. Wiebe’s home. I was responsible for a good part of the preparation, especially to attract the various institutions and Commissariats. I succeeded in obtaining substantial amounts of money for prizes from the A.M.L.V. in Moscow, the Nomwol Bank, N.K.S., and S.P.S., a total of over 1,000 rubles. That was a large amount for that time and enabled us to give prizes for the best horses, colts, cows, young stock, hogs, and sheep (the Spanish breed with very soft and fine wool). This was a great encouragement for future animal breeding. Over a thousand visitors came to the exhibition, including many from various institutions and the government.
After all the technicalities, such as judging and awarding of prizes, were completed, the people gathered around the platform on which J. J. Thiessen, Joh. Penner, and I were seated. Then the various speakers made their presentations: some from the Department of Agriculture, others were specialists in animal breeding, and finally also the president of the German Volga Republic, Comrade Kurz. He had a long speech about the importance of Mennonites as carriers of culture.
It was obvious that this speech needed a response. The appropriate person for that was, of course, our chairman, J. J. Thiessen. But he refused. Next in line would be Joh. Penner, but he also declined. There we sat on the platform exchanging one note after the other behind Kurz’s back. I don’t know when I was as angry as at this time with my two dear friends as now, especially with Joh. Penner. I felt I was a sick man, my blood pressure was rising, and I should have been in bed instead of on an outdoor platform. But they showed no sympathy, only wrote: „You’ll do it.“
Finally Kurz was finished and stepped down. Neither of the two rascals got up, they just calmly looked at me. What could I do? Almost mechanically I got up and began to speak, totally without preparation. First, of course, I thanked all the various participants and organizations, and in doing this I gradually got my wind. To make an impressive speech on such an occasion it was absolutely necessary to quote Lenin. Nobody had done that so far. Everybody knew the attitude of the Mennonites toward Communism.
It was my good fortune that I was quite familiar with the writings of Lenin, and so I quoted from a speech he had given at the beginning of N.E.P.: „The time has come when one practical worker for reconstruction is worth more than ten agitators.“ I explained how important these words of Lenin had been to us when our Society started its work, and that they still hold the same significance for us today. (For the initiated, like the Commissars and several of our people, the reference was very clear: I had hinted at the recent trend of returning to the aggressive political left.) In short, the words of Lenin were a good peg on which to hang my remarks, and I ended with the words: „We Mennonites shall always endeavor to be the avant-garde in the German Volga Republic; not an avant-garde in a revolution, but in an evolution in economic and cultural affairs. That is our program and our goal, with that we will either stand or fall.“
There was rousing applause, especially from the representatives of the government, who in a sense were our sponsors, and who represented a moderate or middle position. Only comrade Kurz later expressed his disappointment to me that I had not spoken in German. But I always could express myself better in Russian. Today it is totally irrelevant and insignificant that I command or commanded the Russian language so well. But I was happy about Kurz’s remark because it indicated his German-nationalistic attitude, and knowing that could one day be very useful to me.
Several weeks after the exhibition the A.L.M.V. from Moscow asked me to go to Aulie-Ata in Central Asia, because delegates from there had been in Moscow and requested that someone help them straighten out their confused situation, which was mostly due to a large debt.
My dear Renate strongly advised against going, because of my health. Joh. Penner also said: „Watch it; one of these days you’ll be left lying beside the road.“ But I knew that usually trips were beneficial for me, and so I agreed to go. The trip on the Volga up to Samara was as refreshing as always. But from there on it proved to be anything but restful. The train was overcrowded, the heat increased as we advanced into Asia, even though it was already October. The open windows brought no relief; there was heat and dust, more heat and more dust. At one station I had to change trains and wait ten to twenty hours in that oppressive situation. I felt so ill that I did regret having gone. But at last even this trip, of I don’t know how many thousands of miles, came to an end.
I had sent a telegram giving them the time of my arrival in Aulie-Ata, and so Brother Dyck met me at the station. On the 50 mile trip from the city to their settlement we had ample time to discuss their situation and for me to obtain much needed information. I stayed with Uncle Hermann Epp. He had no children, had rented his farm to Cornelius Is. Wall, Hohendorf, Am Trakt, who was married to Uncle Epp’s niece, Anna Wall. They were like family to him. C. Wall was a plain and kind-hearted man. I remember his wife as the ideal of a Christian German wife and mother. She was quiet, intelligent, energetic and wonderfully kind. I soon realized that she truly was the heart and soul of the home. She directed everything in the house and outside, but in such a beautifully tactful way that seemed very rare. Her appearance as well as her manners resembled those of Mrs. P.Wiens, Koeppental, to whom she was a cousin.
I have few regrets about the time of my societal work, but later I did deeply regret that I had stayed only five or six days in their home. I was not well, I had such splendid opportunity to rest there, because both Uncle Epp and C. Walls were very hospitable. There was an irrigation ditch under my window which murmured such a soothing melody, day and night, and which was so relaxing and refreshing for my head and nerves that I would have liked to stay there a long time. I regret that I didn’t.
I also had acquaintances there: the friend of my school days and youth, Herman Bartsch; Jakob Wall, brother to Mrs. Anna Wall, whom I met during the visit as a boy with my parents and with whom I had become good friends through correspondence; also the daughter of our former neighbor, Anna Eckert, now married to Rev. Regehr. All asked me to stay for several weeks. But I thought I couldn’t do that. First because I was travelling at the expense of the A.M.L.V. and received 10 rubles per day for the work I did. Also, because another meeting had been announced for Moscow and I felt
obligated to be present.
First I arranged meetings in Uncle Epp’s house with the representatives from various villages. The problem was that two years ago, when they had organized their Society and had been offered credit from various institutions, they had taken as much as possible but had not used it in a practical and productive way. When the deadline for repayment came, they had no money available. The leaders were accused and new men were elected to offices. However, they too could find no way to solve their problem, and to get out of their dilemma, had turned to Moscow for help.
It was difficult to find a solution. In addition to their big deficit there was the problem of the books, which were not in good shape. To compound the problem, I soon noticed that the old antagonisms between those who had come from the Molotschna and those who had come from Am Trakt were still alive. Even after all these forty years there was still occasional friction, they had not yet welded into one harmonious group. I found it interesting, but also sad, that after only a few hours with them I could usually tell who came from where; their dialects and mannerisms were still different.
After a general discussion and weighing the various alternatives I advised them to dissolve their Society. (The government had threatened to declare them bankrupt, which for a variety of reasons moral, economic and apolitical had to be avoided.) My counsel was to liquidate and divide the deficit among the members who would personally assume responsibility for their share.
And what happened? A number of the men, originally from Am Trakt, volunteered to assume a proportionally large debt in order to ease the burden for the financially weak members. That was a very noble gesture and was also intended to ease the tension between the two groups as well as help the poorer members financially. After these private discussions a general meeting was called where the proposal was finally accepted. A liquidation committee was elected to regulate the old debts.
At the same meeting a new organization, with a different name, was created. There were some changes in the constitution, and a new executive was elected. This new Society assumed responsibility for all enterprises, like cheese factory, flour mill, etc. but without a deficit. No more deficit operation! It seemed to me that this was the only way in which they could, first, prevent the scandal (before the government) of bankruptcy, and, second, make it possible for them to continue with their various economic undertakings.
I learned later that there continued to be a lot of bitterness until the old debt was finally cleared up, but that was not surprising. I could see no other way out of their dilemma and that is why I insisted on the course of action they ultimately followed. However, most of the men, and certainly all men with insight into the complexity of the problem, used their influence to make the new course work. But there were also those, of course, who com plained: „What was the use of getting someone here from Moscow? In the end we had to pay the debts ourselves anyway.“ It seems that some had the idea that Moscow would send someone with a magic wand, who would wave it and presto, all the debts would disappear. Well, I was not that kind of a magician.
Saturday afternoon we had our last meeting. In the evening I visited Regehrs (Anna Ekkert), and next morning I went to church with Uncle Epp and the Walls. The service gave me strength. After a week of intensive work, after attempting to remain absolutely impartial and objective, and after constantly attempting arbitration, always keeping the welfare of the group in mind, yes and after sometimes leaning on someone, applying gentle pressure, I must admit that after all this my heart and nerves were in a state that I again began to feel poorly.
I should have taken two or three days of rest, but instead I left at two o’clock that same Sunday afternoon. C. Wall took me to Aulie-Ata; his wife came along to do some shopping. This in my estimation noble woman, died of typhus, compounded by hunger, five years later when the Communist terror again brought misery and starvation to the country.
Half an hour before we left, Herman Bartsch came to say goodbye and to introduce his wife and two children. On passing through the village of Nikolaipol we stopped at Jakob Wall’s, who wanted me to meet his family. He had many children; they were very poor. He wanted to visit some more with me, so he hitched his own horses to his wagon and drove me at least 15 miles; after that he turned around and went back. He told me his life’s story and asked me for advice in several matters that were important to him. And then he wanted to hear my life’s story. As far as I could tell he was a very good, and truly Christian man. How and why I had earned his confidence and friendship I don’t know. He continued sending me greetings from time to time until just a few years ago.
A few hours after arriving in Aulia-Ata my train left. Even now at the end of October the heat was still oppressive. But soon the weather changed as we got into the Orenburg area, where the nights were actually quite cold.
From Aulie-Ata I had sent a telegram giving the time of my arrival here, but there was no one at the station to meet me. What should I do now? I went to a nearby Russian village to hire a team and wagon. It was after midnight and I tried in vain in 10 or 15 places. It was interesting that when I knocked on the door or window, only once a man came to the door, all the other times the women came. What more evidence do we need to prove that we men are lazier than the women?
At last a man was willing to provide transportation for me. He had only one horse, but he claimed it was a good runner and he would get me there quickly. It was a distance of about 30 miles! He promised he would have me there by noon, at the latest. Before we started he fed his horse, greased his wagon, and generally took his time in the preparations. I couldn’t complain, I was warm and dry, and soon the samovar was boiling for the tea. On his inquiry about me I mentioned that I was travelling for an organization in Moscow. By now it was 1 o’clock. But when I mentioned Moscow, as quick as that, he ran to fetch the two local Communists. They actually came and were overjoyed to have the honor of conversing with someone from Moscow. It soon became obvious that they considered me a VIP and I had to tell them „all about the domestic and foreign political conditions of Russia,“ which at that time was always the topic of conversation.
Their respectful and devout attention reminded me of the incident in the office in Saratov when I was admired as an American. Oh that Russian naivete! At dawn we started at last. The Russian had told me he had a „tarantas“, a buggy with springs, and a good horse. It turned out to be nothing but a box on four wheels, and the gallant steed was a skinny and lame old horse. The box was perhaps four times the size of a 40 pound apple box. The front and back axles were connected and were supposed to give the „springs“. I would have much preferred not even to start out with this kind of contraption, but I had tried half the village without success. And so we left.
I will never forget that ride. We either went step by slow step, or a lame trot as long as he kept beating the poor animal. Soon I was miserably cold in my thin overcoat, so that half the time I walked beside the wagon. The wind was icy with frequent snow flurries. The countryside was hilly and covered by native prairie grass. After about four or five hours we spotted a Russian or Bashkir village in the valley. My driver got the idea to shorten the distance by leaving the round-about road and making a bee-line for the village. The result was that soon we were stuck in slightly frozen quagmire so deep that the horse could not pull us out. I was able to get off without getting stuck in the muck myself, grabbed my baggage, and walked the few miles to the village. There I warmed myself and drank tea. Finally my Russian driver also arrived. I told him that he didn’t need to take me any further, which made him very happy. I felt sorry for the poor man, and even more sorry for his horse. So I paid him nearly the total amount we had agreed on, although he had taken me only half the way.
Here the same story repeated itself: there were hardly any horses in the village. At last I located a conveyance. Experience had made me cautious, so I went to the barn to look the horse over. It was a more hopeful situation: the animal was a strong well-fed brown gelding. But instead of the man driving it, he delegated it to a fifteen-year old boy.
Leaving the yard the road went downhill to a little river, and our brownie trotted quite merrily; but we had scarcely crossed the bridge and began to ascend somewhat, when we shifted into a slow walking gear. I told the boy to urge the horse on.
„God forbid,“ he replied, „I am an orphan and work for my room and board. If my master finds out that I have beaten the horse, I’m sure to get a sound threshing.“
„Why yes,“ I said, „but we can’t cover the whole distance just walking. If you get me there before dark, I’ll give you half a ruble extra.“
„Alright,“ he replied, scratching his head. „We’ll get there before dark; but we have to walk the horse until we are over the next hill, because I know that my boss is watching us.“
Good enough. At last we were over the hill and he started to encourage the horse, only to discover that the gelding was an abominably, miserably, lazy creature. Each time when the boy raised his whip he accelerated his pace, but no sooner was the whip down than he slowed down to his comfortable walk. I wanted to cut a stick, but we were going through a bare steppe region without trees. But luckily I found one lying by the side of the road.
From then on that horse had a new experience, likely a first in his life. The boy worked him over on the left side and I on the right side. He was a mean creature, impossible to keep on a steady trot. But not only that, every time we wanted to help him along he started with such jerks that once my suitcase was thrown out of that miserable, flat wagon and split a seam. But at least we made headway.
We reached the Mennonite village in a valley at twilight. But before we could reach it we had to cross a little river. The main road seemed to lead in a different direction, so we took a less travelled side road to the river. We were nearly there and about to cross it, when we noticed a man on the other side stop his horse and wave frantically to us. He was obviously trying to warn us not to cross. When we stopped he also stopped waving to us. We looked at the water and the shore, which was a bit steep, but the river was only about 30 to 40 paces wide, so we thought we could make it across and started again.
Immediately the man on the other side started frantically waving again and calling something to us that we couldn’t understand. But we turned back to the main road, found a bridge, and soon were in the village.
There they told me that on the same spot where we had wanted to cross, which was actually a swimming pool for horses, a Russian official had drowned just a few days before. His driver, like we, was also not familiar with the road and thought the water wasn’t deep so he attempted to cross on that very spot. God had protected us!
The Orenburg settlement consists of over 20 villages. First I had a consultation with the local Committee of the AMLV. Then I gave lectures in three places about our work in Moscow. Part of my assignment was to warn against hasty and impulsive emigration. Some time ago many families in this area had sold everything before they had their visas from the government. When these were denied them, they were destitute: their homes were sold, their money was nearly all spent, what could they do? As a last resort a number of these families had come to Moscow with their last few possessions, in the hope that AMLV would be able to obtain Canadian visas for them. But that was not easy; some families received them, many did not.
I was to warn them against such hasty actions. The whole settlement was young, barely more than a few decades ago most of them had come from the Chortitza in south Russia, and nearly all were poor. I had the impression that even under normal conditions there was little prospect for economic success. I was there only four short days, but I think only a few villages had really good land. Also the general cultural standard in the settlement did not seem very high. At one of the meetings, I think it was in Pretoria, brother Peter Penner, formerly of Fresen heim, Am Trakt, came to greet me. Later we had coffee together and I had to tell him all about „home.“ Was that man ever homesick! I felt so sorry for him.
But I had to hurry on to get to Neu-Samara, to have a meeting there, and then get back to Moscow in time for the Council meeting of the AMLV. When the last meeting was over at 9 o’clock in the evening, a wagon was to take me 60 miles to Neu Samara for the meetings the next day.
This time horses, driver, carriage and all were in excellent condition. On top of that I was given a warm fur coat for the trip, which I returned with the driver. So I hoped to have a good trip. I was tired and tried to sleep, when I noticed that my driver stopped every now and then and got off. At first he was quiet and let me dose, but after several more stops he got quite talkative and expected me to respond, so that I soon was wide awake. He also talked about my warning them against impulsive emigration; he thought they could not stay in Russia because their faith was threatened.
Again he stopped several times, went behind the wagon, and I noticed that after each stop his willingness to „sacrifice everything for his faith“ grew more intense. I also noticed that his breath became quite „perfumed.“ The next time he stopped and went behind the wagon I noticed that he took long draughts from a bottle. When he realized that his little secret was out, he offered me the bottle, too. When I refused, he encouraged me with the assurance that this wasn’t some cheap slop, but authentic home brew, prepared by himself. So that was the reason for his strong faith. ..
Towards morning we stopped in a Bashkir vil lage to feed his horses and there noticed that one of them was sick. Although it refused feed we had no choice but to continue, but slowly. When we reached the first Mennonite village, the horse could go no further. I stopped a passing vehicle and asked the driver, if he would be kind enough to take me to Pleshanowo, their central village. Actually he was going in the same direction, so I went along with him. I made an interesting acquaintance: my kind driver was non other than the elder of the settle ment, Rev. Boschmann. He was an older man and rather depressed because of several incidents in the congregation. One minister had emigrated, another was guilty of immorality, and a third had committed suicide. He was almost alone in the ministry and asked me to plead with our ministers to send some one to comfort and build them up again. I felt very sorry for the man. I haven’t remembered all the details, but this was the gist of what he told me.
In Neu-Samara I stopped at the beautiful home of Mr. Wittenberg, whose brother now lives in Canada. He was a very practical man, and I also obtained the impression the following day at the Council meeting that the people had a positive atti tude to the AMLV, but there was little evidence of real cooperative agricultural reconstrucion. The AMLV to them was merely an agency to be used for emigration and as a go-between them and the government.
In the evening of the same day there was a gen eral meeting which was well attended. The discus sion about the various agenda items, such as emigration, registered seeds, cheese factories, purebred livestock, land division, etc., was far more animated than in Orenburg.
Next day Wittenberg took me 15-20 miles to the nearest railway station. Just before leaving I received a telegram from Moscow, that the Com mittee meeting had been postponed for eight days. Too bad that I hadn’t known that in Turkestan, I would have stayed there at least five more days; and I would not have needed to hurry so much at the other places. It would also have been better for my health as well as the business at hand.
So I went home. Everything at home was in the best order. Eight days later Joh. Penner and I went to Moscow for the meeting. This time my dear Renate and Lieschen came along. I wanted to show them Moscow. We also made substantial purchases of yard goods, footwear, woolen blankets, etc. She enjoyed that shopping very much, she knew how to spend money! Actually it was the first time since the Revolution that she could buy to her heart’s desire. The children were growing up, the old wardrobe was more or less depleted, the stores in Moscow had almost as much merchandise as before the war, we had money enough for such purchases, and so we bought about 1,000 rubles worth. Yard Goods, for example, we usually bought by the bolt rather than by the yard, so that we were asked whether we intended to open a store.
As I write this, Renate reminds me that the same fall we had bought about 300 rubles worth of goods in Saratov. In other words, we had provided for years to come. . .and much of what we bought then actually came to Canada with us, for example, the maroon woolen blanket. A few days after the Committee meeting we went home. From the meet ing I remember the following incident:
As usual the GPU sent an observer, who this time was rather active. He claimed, for example, that those present did not represent the broad masses, they were not „workers“ but teachers and intellectuals. Therefore the decisions that were made were not for the benefit of the common people. He stressed and itemized points in his long speech. I responded by refuting point by point all his non sense. I pointed out that we two from the German Volga Republic, for example, were died-in-the-wool farmers, and used expressions like, „we come from the plow and are waiting for the Collective tractor.“ Consequently our needs and our education were also changing. After that the man was quite decent.
On our return trip the president of the German Volga Republic, comrade Kurz, and the chairman of the N.S.S., comrade Zeitler, were in the same coach with us. I had lengthy talks with both men. Zeitler suggested that I apply to the government for an all-expenses-paid trip to the south coast for three months for my health. He promised to support my application. At that time only a few of the health resorts and spas had been restored after their destruction during the Revolution, and those few were used only by government officials. I think the German Volga Republic at the time had the right to send eight to ten persons there.
Zeitler also suggested that he was going to name me as a candidate for the „hero of work“ medal to the German Central Inspection Committee. Zeitler had always shown a high regard for me and my work in the reconstruction of the economic sector, not only in our local Agricultural Society. For a time I had been a member of the Economic Department of the German Volga Republic, and now I was a Council member of the NSS.
When he made these two well-intentioned propositions, I refused both of them. I thought it was the wisest course, since such distinctions were usually granted only to Party members, and I wanted to create no jealousies. Even now, I still think that I made the right decision, because the envy of the Commissars, who already found my success a thorn in their flesh, would have increased and would have hindered my work. Last but not least, I would have been under obligation to the Party committees that looked after such favors, and that I certainly did not want. Zeitler was almost offended at my refusal, but realized that my reasons were sound. Naturally I did not tell him the last of the reasons.
And so another eventful year, 1925, came to a close. Even though I had resigned from the Society, de facto I still did most of the work until May, after that only as much as health and time permitted. The election on the Council of the AMLV in Moscow, with its ensuing travel, the quarterly sessions of the NSS and the SPS also took time and effort. Other public responsibilities such as being chairman of the school board, adviser for our C.O. youth at the courts, etc. added to the burden. So it had once more been a year packed with work, but not to the extent of the past three years. I did have more time for my family.
This year, or was it the previous year, there was an election for a minister. I had received hints that I would be one of the candidates. One day some of our more prominent men in the Co-Op store in Koeppental were discussing this. I suppose they expected me to give my opinion, but I kept quiet, because I hadn’t thought about the matter sufficiently yet. Soon the discussion drifted in the direction that those present were going to be against my being nominated as candidate for the ministry because I was indispensable in the societal work which was much more important. I remember how strongly Herman Eck expressed himself, saying that „Ivan Ivanovich is far too valuable for the ministry.“ I found that repulsive, although I knew how he meant it. At that time our ministers had nothing to do with any kind of societal involvement, often they could not even vote. That was the exact opposite from the way it is here in Canada, where it is almost a foregone conclusion that community undertakings, of which there are very few, are under the leadership of the ministers. I think both of the methods are extremes.
Economically, 1925 was a very good year. The crops yielded very well and since we had sown only registered seed, the sale through the Society, with prices 30-40% above market prices, meant a substantial income. At that time we milked ten to twelve cows, all Holsteins, except one Simmentaler. They were excellent cows yielding a lot of milk, which was picked up and delivered to the cheese factory. Milk prices were high, so that each cow produced more than 100 rubles worth of income. Their offsprings, too, whether bull or heifer calves, were sold for high prices to the government, and they shipped them off into all directions of Russia. I remember, for instance, that one shipment was bought by the Germans in Central Asia.
This year we threshed with our own outfit, and also did some custom work, which brought good returns. Considering the reduction in size of our present farming operation as compared to prerevolutionary times, our income was large. The relations with our servants were excellent. Jakob Arndt was as faithful and dependable as always, and so was his sister, Marie. Our second man was Alexander, a diligent and merry fellow.
In our family this year we experienced only joy and happiness. The children were all well, they enjoyed school, and the teachers were satisfied with their achievements. Our village teacher was Peter Dyck, who had taught in Lindenau for many years. I think he was one of the very best teachers that our settlement had in the last 30 years. But he was getting old and his throat ailment made speaking difficult for him. That is why I suggested at a community meeting that we hire an assistant teacher. An additional reason was that 40 students for one teacher was far too many. It took a good bit of persuasion to convince the men, but finally they agreed and I was asked to hire a teacher.
I had acquaintances in Dawlekanowo, where the Mennonites supported a very active and wellfunctioning high school, with a course in pedagogy. Through the assistance of Jac. Toews, chairman of the local Mennonite Society, a graduate of this school, Abram Giesbrecht, was hired. He was a bit flighty, but under the positive influence of our older and very excellent teacher he soon found his way and turned out to be a good teacher.
Another young teacher from Dawlekanowo, Goertzen, was teaching in Fresenheim. Our high school that had operated in Lysanderhoeh for a year, was transferred to the district school building in Koeppental due to lack of space. Teachers for the two high school classes were again J. Kern and one Richard Goebel, a one-time Communist, who was now honestly and diligently seeking and striving for the good and noble in life. He had been disillusioned by the Communist Party and had made a right-about turn. Later he studied as pastor in the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Leningrad. At this time he was already a decided and honest Christian and a good teacher. Irma attended school in Koeppental and boarded with my sister Anna, Mrs. Alexander Quiring.
I’d like to touch on another matter. I think it was in the fall of 1925 when I was searching for a teacher for our newly opened high school, that I was given the address of Hans Harder, a young man in Germany at the time. He was the son of Bernhard Harder, who returned from Alt-Samara in the early 1920s and at the present time apparently is working in the Hamburg city mission in Germany. I started to correspond with Hans Harder and he was very enthusiastic about accepting our offer. His letters were positive, and he was looking forward to returning to Russia to serve his fellow Germans with his knowledge and, as he put it, „to help spread light in the darkness of the villages.“
I went to the Department of Education to apply for his entry into Russia and a permit for him to teach in our community. But I met firm resistance, because they suspected Harder to be a counterrevolutionary, since his father had emigrated because of the Revolution. Then I happened to meet the representatives from Alt-Samara in Moscow, who felt they had to warn me against him because he had Communist leanings. I kept my opinion, which I had gained from his letters, to myself. I thought he was hot-head, eager to offer his talents and ideals about progress and freedom in the service of our people. On the other hand, the information that I had obtained made me less enthusiastic and persistent in solving the problems than had been the case with J. Kern. So when the Department of Education refused me a second time, I dropped the matter.
On our trip to Canada in 1927, Hans Harder’s brother, Alexander, was on the same ship with us, but since we travelled a different class we only met briefly a few times. But even so, my impression of him was not so great. When I read Hans Harder’s book Dort Unten an der Volga (Down by the Volga) a few years ago, I was reminded of our correspondence; both his letters and book were written with the same youthful enthusiasm and desire to serve his own people. I found both letters and book rather appealing and expect great things from him for our Mennonite literature.
At that time the Mennonites were granted permission to publish a church paper. „Unser Blatt,“ (Our Paper) was born in Halbstadt, south Russia, with Alex. Ediger as editor. I wrote two articles for it, one was a report about the general meeting of the AMLV in Moscow. Later I met Mr. Ediger in Moscow and we happened to touch on the topic of smoking, of which I am a strong opponent. Ediger was interested in the reasons for my opposition and asked me to write an article on the topic for Unser Blatt. So I started to collect material. I solicited the opinion of prominent doctors on the effects of smoking on one’s health; I collected statistics about the amount of land used for raising tobacco, and consequently losing it for valuable food production; the number of people employed by the tobacco industry in both land and factories; the percentage of fires caused by smoking; etc. I was reminded of the truth of the Russian proverb: „The one who acts most stupid, gets the most wood.“ I received so much information, and even more references for additional sources, that my file on smoking grew and grew; and my interest grew with it. I was confirmed in my earlier conviction that smoking was detrimental in every way. When we left for Canada in 1927 I had not nearly finished my research and writing, but to take all that material along seemed too troublesome. Later I regretted that I had left it behind.
As mentioned before I was vitally interested in the training and well-being of our three prospective teachers, Vogt, Quiring and Dyck. Now I seemed to notice that the high school in Saratov, due to pressure from above, started to lean noticeably to the left. This was corroborated by the very highly esteemed teacher, Peter Sinner, Heinr. Baum and professor Dinges. So I suggested to our school board that we send our three students for the remaining two years to our Mennonite High School in Dawlekanowo, which was still under the leadership of principal Perk and functioned according to our Mennonite principles. The school board agreed, but trouble arose when I wrote this decision to our three young men. They considered this an infringement on their personal freedom and protested. Later I was told how they had exploded and decided to reverse that decision.
One day all three came to see me. At that time I knew nothing about their negative response. But they had barely greeted me, when I instinctively felt the reason for their coming and their attitude.
„Well boys,“ I said, „I know why you have come. You think thus and thus. Right?“
Eventually, because of their respect for me and because they knew I was acting out of honest love for them, and that I could understand them, that I could put myself in their place, I was able to convince them that it was not narrow-minded Mennonite backwardness that had prompted that decision to transfer them to another school. The reason was our honest desire to prepare them in the best way possible for their service to our people. For that reason, and that alone, it was advisable to leave the Saratov school, to which they were also indebted, and to finish their work in Dawlekanowo. And so we parted in perfect agreement.
This fall I again accompanied our young C.O. men to court. The procedure and the outcome were the same as in previous years.
As mentioned earlier, inspite of my societal activities on a larger scale, I was able to have more time for my family. Even though I was away from home much of the time, on my return I was more or less free, whereas before everything was always waiting for me, at times barely giving me time to take off my coat. Before, visiting and socializing was virtually impossible, always only business, business, business. Now there was time for social interaction with relatives and friends, like Joh. Penners and Joh. Bergmanns. And of course with our parents and siblings. Penner was not only my cousin, but my tried and true, faithful and closest friend; our wives also harmonized wonderfully, making it an ideal relationship of trust and love. I cannot remember one moment of discord, even though we were not always of the same mind. Yet our disagreements never became personal issues. „Ich hat einen Kameraden, einen bessern gibt es nicht.“ (The first lines of a German folk song, „I had a friend, there is none better.“ PD)
After 1921 our relationship with Joh. Bergmann’s also became very close and warm. His wife Anna, nee Wiebe, was my only cousin from mother’s side (i.e. here Am Trakt, in Asia were three more). She was dear to me like a sister. When her only brother Jakob Wiebe had to flee suddenly, and when his family soon followed him to Germany and then to America, Anna sought closer ties of friendship with us, which we welcomed joyfully. I was also on the same wave-length with her husband, dear Joh. P., although the interests that held us together were different from those that bonded Joh. Penner and me together.
In my opinion Joh. Bergmann was a model farmer, really No.1 in our entire community. He was diligent, practical and absolutely dependable. He was one of the few men who helped me organize the Agricultural Society and continued to be a faithful committee member since its beginning. I appreciated his practical approach, he was a strong supporter of the Society, but never just a blind yesman. He was also an ideal family man, giving priority to his wife and children. Anna was an exemplary wife and mother. Their family relationships were very beautiful. Their three oldest girls were good friends with our oldest three. Our economic status was very similar. All this, plus the years of common hardships during the revolution and especially the last few years of reconstruction, brought us really close together in a bonded friendship.
I remember several occasions, when they asked us to stop at their home after Sunday worship (they lived diagonally across the street from the church) because they wanted to discuss a concern or ask for advice. We have happy memories of the tradition that on the third day of Christmas we would always visit with the Bergmanns. I mention all this with gratitude to God, who gave us such good friends; but also with thanks to those dear people. And now there is sadness because of their exile and suffering. Are they still alive? Is their pilgrimage finished? Only God knows.
But not only now in writing this do I look back with thanksgiving. I know that at the end of that year we were truly grateful for all of God’s providential leading. We had experienced his helping hand in a marvelous way in this year, especially also during the time of my illness, and on so many other occasions. God had been exceedingly good to us!
1921 The Year of Terror and Hunger for the German Volga Colonies