Autobiography up to 1920

Dec. 19, 1929: These days I again read the diaries of grandfather. I finished today. Now I have read them three times—always with great interest. That is why I, too, from now on intend to keep a diary, if not every day, but nevertheless to record our experiences, the events on the farm, etc. so that when I am gone our dear children will know what it was like when we were still all together which in retrospect I hope they will call a „beautiful“ time. Now this is not always valued highly enough because they are young and understanding unfortunately comes with the years. For the sake of my beloved children I hope I will still be able to make notes for a number of years.
We received very sad letters from Russia these days. My aged parents-in-law have been driven from their house and home by the communists. Father-in-law at age 79 is in prison. Very many have been evicted from their homes, as the com munist government is starting its program of collec tive farming for which they take the best farms. My dear cousin and best friend, Johannes Penner, has disappeared on his trip to Moscow. Because he went there in matters of immigration and to obtain visas he was arrested, I think by the GPU. God keep and protect himn and all our loved ones there.
For several weeks we have had a constant temperature of 25-35 degrees C.; also lots of snow. Yesterday the collector for the Mennonite Board of Colonization, Doerksen, from Herbert, came to us for the night. We discussed the „Reiseschuld,“ or travel debt, for the Mennonites in this area. Today he went to Sheldon. Our son Johannes took him to P. Dueck. On his return trip the horse shied, upset the sleigh, broke it badly, and ran away. Too bad. We always take the horses into the barn for the night.
Our Lieschen, who was run over by the tractor on 17.9.1929 and is now in her second cast, was to have it changed in Saskatoon today. But Dr. Bond said on the phone today that we could leave it till the beginning of January. I sent Johannes to farmer Clarke who has offered me barley at 40 cents per bushel. For $30 he bought 75 bushels. It contains wild oats, that is why it is cheap. We’ll get it after the holidays.
Dec. 27, 1929: Our third Christmas in Canada is past. For a week it has been warmer, at times even had water dripping from the roofs. Christmas Eve was celebrated at our home, for which all „Trak ters“, except Mrs. Gustav Froese, who was in con finement, had come. On Christmas Day Isaacs were here. We had little gifts for their children, which made them very happy. On the 26th we went to Cornelius Froese’s; no one else had come. They live even more isolated than we do, which may account for their strong attraction to their English neighbors. It would be for the benefit of everyone if more could come here from Russia. Our children, our children. ..
Gerhard Lehn and his three daughters, 11 miles away, came for dinner today. Our girls really enjoyed it. Have written four letters today. I have not been well again for a week, my heart functions poorly. Occasionally also severe rheumatic pain. I can hardly do any work.
My Parents and Forebears
My dear father, Johannes J. Dyck, was born April 6,1860 (old calendar) in Fresenheim, Am Trakt, Koeppental Rayon (rayon was a district—IB) Samara Government, Russia. My dear mother was born Dec. 16, 1859 (old calendar—IB) in Bayer shorst, West Prussia. They were married Feb. 16, 1884. The parents of my father were Johannes Dietrich Dyck, born Dec.5, 1826 in Poppau, Dan zig Nehrung, West Prussia.
When he was about 22 years old, he went to America for 10 years. After many experiences and hardships he returned and married my grandmother, Helene Janzen. I think she came from Gross Heubuden, Prussia. She had been engaged to him before he left for America and waited for him all this time. Soon after their wedding, in August 1859, they moved to Russia where they started a very modest homestead in Fresenheim. They were among the first pioneers in this village. In time they reached a modest level of prosperity.
Grandfather was a man highly respected by everyone. For 18 years he was „Oberschulze“, or mayor, of the settlement. During this time he received a medal and a decoration from Czar Alexander III „For faithful service to the fatherland.“ For 34 years, until his death, he served as chief fire insurance agent („Brandaeltester“). After suffering a throat ailment for several years, which became cancerous in the last 3-4 months, he died in 1898. Grandmother died in January 1888.
The parents of my dear mother were Rev. Cornelius Froese. I regret it immensely that when we left Russia all the documents from my mother’s side stayed behind. I didn’t see how we could take everything along, so I gave it all to my cousin, Anna Bergmann, nee Wiebe, who also had great interest in such documents. But now all that is lost, of course, when they were banished by the com munists from their house and homes. As I remem ber it, grandfather Cornelius Froese had lived in Bayershorst on the Linau. When I was in Germany in 1907, I visited mother’s home place. Grandfather Froese was highly respected and much loved in Germany and also am Trakt. He must have been a very mild-mannered man. He also was much appreciated as a minister. He died Jan. 30, 1885 in his home in Lysanderhoeh, after he had handed our farmstead over to my parents the year before. My mother was his youngest daughter. Three of his married daughters had joined the Claas Epp Trek to Central Asia in 1882, which he found very hard to accept. (See: „The Great Trek“ by Fred Belk, Herald Press, 1976).
His wife, my grandmother, was Maria Froese, nee Froese, I think. I do know that her mother was a born Donner, daughter of Elder Donner in West Prussia.
So much, briefly, about my grandparents. Later I will have more to say about my parents. I will just mention now that they married at the age of 24 and took over the homestead of two „Feuer stellen“, or parcels of land, from her parents.
Father was tall and slender; our Peter resem bles him somewhat. He enjoyed farming very much. He was especially skilled as a horseman and driver. He also enjoyed carpentry. He was very exact and particular in everything, more than I am. For many years, I think 12, he was district judge and as such had the reputation of always being fair and impar tial. Mother was a small person but a hard worker. She had a big heart, full of love. One of her main characteristics was her humility. She had a good education of mind and of soul. My dear, dear mother.
My Childhood
I was born April 16, 1885 in Lysanderhoeh as the oldest of 10 children. My siblings were: Helene, 1886, died 1888; Maria, 1887, died a crib-death after several months; Lieschen, Cornelius, another Helene, Jacob and Anna. Jacob died of diarrhea and vomiting when he was only 4 months old. Lieschen reached the age of 5 years 10 1/2 months; Cornelius lived 4 years 9 1/2 months; Helene lived 3 years 7 1/2 months; and Anna barely 1 year. All four died in September 1894 of diphtheria. One Sunday Lies chen and Helene were buried and the next Sunday Cornelius and Anna were buried.
I was 9 years old at the time and the only child left. How well I remember the pain of my grief stricken parents! And later, too, I often heard them say that this had been the hardest blow in their lives. They all had been such healthy, rosy children. Apparently Lieschen was the most gifted of us sib lings, as well as exceptionally sensitive and loving. That is why relatives sometimes are supposed to have said she was just too good and clever and would not grow up to maturity. This always pained my mother. Cornelius seems to have been especially close to mother’s heart. She gave him her father’s name and he showed promise of becoming like him in appearance and nature. The other two also were lovable and healthy. It was very difficult for my parents to give them all up.
On April 28, 1896 (old calendar) sister Lies chen was born. She married Johannes P. Isaac and they live here in Canada. The last child was Anna, July 23, 1899 (0.c) who lives in exile in Central Asia close to the Afghanistan border. She is married to Alexander Quiring, second youngest son of the late Elder Johannes Quiring, Koeppental.
The outstanding memory of my childhood is that it was a time of great loneliness. And that not only in our home, where I was the only child until my sisters (Lieschen and Anna-PD) were born when I was 11 and 14 years old, but I was lonely in school too, where I had little close contact or social life. Already in those childhood years a shadow fell on my life which never left me. In fact it became pronounced as I grew up and began to understand what it was—it was the envy of almost all of my peers. Even today, after almost 50 years, I still remember them saying in a spiteful, jealous and unloving tone that my parents were rich, and I was the only son. I remember how one time I fled to mother, cried and asked: „Am I to blame that my siblings all died and that we are rich?“
An added factor was that I found schoolwork exceptionally easy and consequently, as was the custom, sat in the „highest“, most honored spot in the school benches, above students who were 2-3 years older than I was. That also created envy. This jealousy had such a depressing effect on me that I, being rather reserved by nature, felt ever more alone and isolated. Often I shed bitter tears because of it.
This attitude toward me became more pro nounced during adolescence, especially as my parents became more prosperous. Because I felt iso lated and read a great deal—German and Russian books as well as magazines; which raised the level of my education—but this in turn resulted in less and less common ground with my peers. The height of resentment came when, on top of everything else, I made trips abroad and finally married my dear Renate, whose father was reported to be the richest, or at least most well-to-do, man in the settlement. I would like to warn everyone never to be jealous of children who, for whatever reason, are advantaged. One day such envy will be hard to justify.
Not only has this envy clouded my childhood and youth, and made me lonely, it has also influenced my character formation negatively so that all my life I have had problems with the con sequences. How often was I close to losing faith in humanity, in what is good and noble in people, when again and again I observed how ill disposed they were. In my youth I came to dread any kind of success, and yet everything turned out successfully, no matter what I did; so I tried to keep it as quiet as possible, even though deep in my heart I craved to share it with others so they could rejoice with me. Oh, this accursed hostile disposition, this jealousy that misinterprets everything one does! It leads to unfounded slanders which are relished and passed on with always another titbit added.
Perhaps the above does not rightfully belong in the childhood years. And yet it does, for envy and jealousy so burdened my life with pain and loneli ness that my spirit became embittered to such an extent that it was not child-like. I know, for exam ple, that I decided not to study and to be rude to my teacher, just to get rid of the reputation that I was the teacher’s pet. In surprise the teacher asked: „Now what’s the matter with you?“
But enough of that, because God has made all things well in my life. This attitude has also dis appeared in later years and everything was changed by God’s grace. How long that road was, and how it all happened will often be mentioned later.
The first great event that I remember after the death of my siblings was a trip to Aulie Ata, Turkestan. I went with my parents in the summer of 1897 to visit mother’s sister, the Hermann Epps. For me the trip was fascinating. A steamboat took us from Saratov down the Volga to Astrakhan at its‘ mouth at the Caspian Sea. From there a smaller ship took us to where the big ocean liner was anchored which took about one hour, I think. The sea voyage lasted over two days. It grew very stormy, so that mother and I, as well as most other passengers, were quite seasick. Papa was one of the few who stayed well. We docked at Krasnowodsk.
From there a train took us 500 werst to the end of the railroad line. I think after that we travelled for over a week by stage coach. That was a horrible trip, especially strenuous for Mama. It was terribly hot and dusty. When horses were changed at sta tions we had to wait a long time, usually till Papa had paid the supervisor some money above the agreed price. Most trying was the crossing of the desolate so called „Hunger Desert“ for several hun dred werst with only sand and more sand. At times water was so scarce we hardly had enough for tea. We passed through the cities of Tshimkent, Merv and Samarkand. The biggest was Tashkent. Every where we saw the strange Asiatic people.
After Tashkent things improved, the countryside changed too, there was much irrigation and even trees. When we arrived in the city of Aulie-Ata a wagon was there to meet us. It took us the remaining 90 werst. About half-way there we went through the pass in the Alatau mountains that leads into the valley where the Mennonite villages are. This pass is very interesting: with its precipices, cliffs, rock formations and caves. It seems very adventurous to a newcomer.
I think we stayed three weeks. All land was irrigated. The local Asian Kirghiz and Sarten men were employed on the Mennonite farms. The Sarten are much more intelligent than the Kirghiz, who are very dirty. We also went on a hike in the mountains but returned before we had reached the eternal snow. There I made the acquaintance of several boys, for example Henry Janzen, son of Peter Jan zen, and others. But I made friends especially with Jacob Wall, son of watermiller Cornelius Wall. We have kept up our correspondence through the years, even after we came to Canada. I received a letter from him last winter which I want to answer.
Our return trip was along the same route, except that we stopped in Baku, the great oil city on the Caspian Sea.
Soon after our return the Jacob Wiebes, Lysanderhoeh, my mother’s oldest sister, celebrated their silver wedding. I recited a poem composed by my teacher, Franz Bartsch, which talked about our Asia trip, the mountain hike, the nomadic tribes, etc. So I, the 12-year old, was gazed at as a hero by my peers—but again also with envy.
One afternoon in May 1898 the barn, haymow, and cattle shed of my parents burned down. The house was saved with great effort. The cause could not be firmly established, but it was assumed that the workers in the chicken barn had been smoking, because that is where the fire started. Hay, chaff, all feed grain and harnesses were gone—a very sub stantial loss. In the summer a new barn was built and a very big haymow with eight side compart ments.
In the fall of 1898 the secondary school in Koeppental was reopened after being closed for years. It offered 2 years additional teaching after village school. I also attended, along with 3 other students, and boarded at teacher Fedor Cem. Sajapin. His parents also lived with him; his mother was cook and housekeeper. They were very simple old people. There, with daily practice, I thoroughly learned the Russian language. Sajapin probably was not a very good teacher. He was very young, just out of teacher‘ training school, and could not measure up to his position. This became especially obvious during his second year. I have forgotten to mention my village school time. I went to school in Lysanderhoeh for 6 years. My instructor was teacher Bartsch. Learning came easy and was enjoy able.
In February of my second year in Koeppental father told me one weekend when I was home that all the parents of our class had decided to transfer us to the school in Warenburg. Elder Johannes Quiring, who was teaching German and religion in the school, had suggested this. The reason was that the whole class was learning less and less, there was no discipline, we had turned into an unruly bunch, due to our incompetent teacher.
The head teacher in Warenburg was Wassily Sper. Speredonoff, known as an excellent peda gogue. He was young, but spirited, serious and per sistent. I think the other students felt as I did: after one day with Speredonoff all nonsense was forgot ten and the watchword was: now catch up! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I studied to the utmost of my abilities.
I boarded with teacher Emanuel Busick. He and his wife had returned from America just a few years ago. Meals there were excellent, in American style; and yet I lost weight as I spent all my energies on studying. It happened often that late at night teacher Busick saw the light from my window or under the door and came to blow out the lamp so that I had to stop working and send me to bed. I had such remorse over the wasted time in Koeppenthal that I put forth every effort to catch up. Herr Spomer was the German teacher and Pastor Haetzel taught religion. All other subjects were taught by Speredonoff. And how!
He was a genius in his profession. How clear, thorough and convincing he presented the lesson. What gift he had to explain everything so clearly and to repeat it till all had grasped it. But woe to those that were inattentive or superficial. Occasionally he boxed a student’s ears or slapped his neck. That was not in fun and was effective. He was my ideal. Tall, long wavy hair, a very melodious voice, serious and yet inspiring con fidence. In school he was the strict uncompromising teacher-out of school he was friend and comrade to those students who understood him.
How well I remember some times with him. For example, several times he invited me to visit him in his room in the evening—what beautiful hours of communication! Or he would say that anyone who wanted could stay for half an hour after school. Then he would read from the classics, or recite from memory, for which he had an excep tional talent. To this day I remember how he recited „Nestor“ for us.
„Nestor“ was the oldest and best known writer of Russian history. „Once more I do this task, then comes the end, forever.“ That was Nestor’s swan song. And even more vividly I remember his recital of „Ivan the Terrible.“ It was as if we saw and heard the terrible explosions of anger and the men tal anguish of his tormented conscience which tor tured this „terrible“ man before his death. It was terrible to watch the contortions of his face, the rolling of his eyes as he portrayed how the ghosts of all the murdered people pursued him at night. And then how in desperation he tore open his shirt at the throat and broke down with the heart-rending cry: „Not happy is he who owns only the world.“
Deathly silence filled the classroom. I think we were all as pale as death, as if we had been present in reality. It took a while till someone moved, we were so impressed. And then he spoke to us, so deeply serious and yet with loving concern about the burden of a guilty conscience. It becomes harder and harder to bear, he said, the older one gets, and he warned us never to despise or neglect the voice of our conscience.
Also I remember the lovely, I’d like to say sacred hours we had with him, when in the beautiful month of May on Saturday or Sunday night he rowed far out on the silent, smooth, immense Volga with 5 or 6 of his admiring students. Slowly our boat drifted, sometimes under high tree tops tower ing over us, past islands of elevated meadows, until at last we reached the main channel of the big Volga River. There the current was stronger, the water no longer clear nor smooth as a mirror. After trying our utmost to paddle against the current we returned to rest on a grassy and wooded island, set up and lit the samovar, hauled out our picnic lunch and had tea together. And then came the best part. We stretched out on the green grass around our teacher and he talked. ….
He talked of human brutality and injustice, of poverty and need, of the ignorance and mental dark ness of the Russian people. He talked of how valu able and precious it was to help educate and enlighten them in order to elevate them to become a happy, intelligent people. How he literally glowed with enthusiasm, and we with him.
Those were the birthing hours of my compas sion, which has never left me, for all people who are oppressed, poor, needy and treated unjustly. At the same time I also gained my political orientation, which I still have today, that it is not only our moral and civic duty, but also our obligation as Christians to oppose legally, but with all our energy, the baleful, ominous influence of capi talism. It is this insatiable capitalism which turns people into slaves and creates unbearable living con ditions for them. This greed for money is the real cause of today’s Bolshevism (communism).
And always, again and again during such con versations in many different ways, he tried to create and develop in us a sense of duty. Again and again he emphasized that improved conditions would not come through rebellious speeches, talking, etc. but through consistent and faithful work, year after year, by each one of us at the place where life had placed us. Change comes when we do our duty. To him a sense of duty was the greatest virtue. And surely he not only taught us that, he lived it. Even though he seemed so tall and strong, he had weak lungs; and the doctor had often warned him not to exert himself.
Once I overheard this, as the doctor spoke to him, it was at our house, at Busicks, where teacher Speredonoff took his meals, there the doctor met him and warned him of over-exertion; but his reply was: „Now I have no time to think of myself, as soon as the holidays are here, I will follow your advice.“ I could mention many more things which he taught us. I think we can truthfully say that Speredonoff was a teacher by the grace of God. He was not strongly religious, but certainly not anti religious either. He taught and sowed in the hearts of his students all that was noble and good.
And I had the good fortune to have a pious and praying mother who pointed out to me that we can not do in our own strength all these good and noble things, but only through him who enables us, Christ Jesus. All my life I have considered it a special gift from God to have had, even though not for long, such a wonderfully ideal teacher—and especially such a godly mother. Of the 22 students who gradu ated in Warenburg in 1900, only 2 did not pass all exams. Three, Shegaloff, Miller and I graduated with honors.
Teacher Speredonoff asked if I wished to con tinue my studies. Of course I wanted to, but feared that father would not allow it since he badly needed his only son at home. So I asked Speredonoff to speak with father about it. This he did and he tried hard to persuade him to let me continue my studies. But it was in vain. Finally, when I showed no inter est in farming whatever and only talked about con tinuing my studies, father made a proposition to me: I should try farming for one year. If at the end of the year I still had no interest in the land, and still persisted in continuing my studies, then so be it.
During the course of this trial year I really tried to get interested in farming—the land, horses, livestock, and all. I also realized that it would be very hard for my parents to see their only son leave the home place and that it was my duty to stay, especially since Papa’s health was not good.
On the other hand, father also realized that I would stay home more willingly if he met my thirst for knowledge and enrichment of the mind. So I had permission to subscribe to the „Saratovsky Wes nik“, the provincial daily paper; also the „Moscow Wedomstwo“, the major paper of the capital, with all political news; and a weekly journal, „Roduga“, with its inserts, as well as the journal „Selbstbildung“ (Self-Education). So I read much, felt more or less satisfied, and stayed home.
Due to the influence of teacher Speredonoff and to the reading over the years of the Russian newspapers, especially of the ultra-patriotic „Mos cow Wedomstwo“, I felt much more pro-Russian than others in our settlement. To me Russia was not a „foreign“ country anymore, like for my parents; to me it was home and fatherland in whose prob lems and wellbeing I had a very great interest.
In late winter of 1901 I prepared myself for holy baptism. Instruction was given by Rev. Peter Wiens in his home. He followed the prescribed out line: the catechism and memorization of songs and psalms, etc. Whether Rev. Wiens was able to warm our hearts for the plan of salvation, to make us real ize the importance of baptism, is not for me to say. But he did try his very best with the gifts given him. His explanations were serious and urgent and he demanded a thorough knowledge of what we studied. I don’t think he made any personal contact; everything was kept in a general framework. Later we went to Koeppental, where Elder Johannes Quir ing reviewed the whole course for 10 days with all candidates from upper and lower villages. I think we were 28 candidates. (The list of names are omitted).
This marked the close of my childhood. Not only that through baptism I officially became a member of the young people, but the experiences that followed taught me that life is serious.
The Years of my Youth
On Wednesday, May 11, 1901, in the early afternoon, I came home from the last session of catechism in Koeppental. I had put my horse, the gray stallion, in the barn, had eaten lunch and was changing clothes in the front room. My parents were having a nap in the pantry, because already for six weeks we had three painters in the house. They had first smoothed all walls, the floors, windows, had made all necessary repairs and then had given the whole house, except the pantry and front room, several coats of paint.
– They had finished in the afternoon. When I came home Papa had just settled the account with them. On top of the advance payment it cost over 100 rubles more. I heard Papa say: „So we are in agreement. I will give you the rest of the money, which is in the painted room, after my nap.“ The painters also went to lie down for a rest before their departure because it was a hot day. A strong east wind, actually a storm, whipped along the street.
Then suddenly I heard loud shouting and screaming. I ran outside. „Fire! Fire!“ screamed the maid and we saw behind neighbor Fieguth’s place clouds of smoke and fire. Papa called me to run quickly to the nearby village well to make sure that the hauling up of the water was fast and efficient. I bridled the gray stallion and galloped off to the well. I met men from Hohendorf rushing to fight the fire. They called to me, „Your place is burn ing!“ I turned around, saw that the straw stacks behind the haymow were in flames, turned back, stopped the approaching Hohendorf fire brigade and urged them to try to save our buildings. Mama and the maids were alone at home, all hired men were in Waluevka. Papa had gone to help with the fire, not knowing that it had already reached us.
Suddenly a sheaf of fire came flying from neighbor Fieguth onto the roof of our haymow. The fire brigade was there and there was water, but the fire engine didn’t work. In a matter of minutes the fire travelled along the roof to the barn, then to the pig barn, the small granary, the large granary and finally to the house. Only then Papa came home. He tried to enter through the window to at least get the money for the painters, but it was not possible. The whole inside of the house was a sea of flames. The fresh oil paint burned in all the rooms! It looked horribly beautiful! Hardly any furniture and clo thing could be saved, since everything had been taken upstairs because of the painting.
Also nearly all wagons, machinery, and over 8,000 pud of wheat, nearly the whole crop of the previous year, etc. was totally destroyed by the fire. Papa had been in Laub the day before, had sold all the wheat and was going to have it delivered the fol lowing week after finishing the summerfallow. Now all was gone. That was a heavy blow for my parents. Yes, there was insurance, but yet the loss was heavy because all the farm buildings had been newly built only a few years ago.
The fire had started through carelessness. At Jacob Peter’s a maid had carried out the ashes. The ashhouse was quite full so that on opening the door, the storm blew in and the live ashes flew to the shed where the fire started. Quickly it reached the straw roof of the haymow and went from there along the street, where the storm blew it from house to house directly down the street, so that no delay or rescue was possible. In a few hours eleven homesteads were wiped out, the best in the settlement. Had the wind not changed from south to the north, all the buildings in Hohendorf would have burned to the ground.
Next day was Ascension Day. After that there was a general cleanup, hauling of lumber and rebuilding. As it became increasingly more difficult to get hold of enough carpenters, and certain kinds of lumber and bricks became scarce, Papa decided that this year he would build only the haymow. So he bought the house across the street, which hap pened to be on our land, from Henry Horn, the storekeeper. It had not been in the line of the sweeping fire and consequently had been spared. We moved in. Papa had a 100 foot long but low barn built on it’s yard, which the year after, when all the buildings were erected, was rebuilt into a machine shed.
Ten days after the fire, May 21, was Pentecost. On second holiday I was baptized by Elder Johannes Quiring in the Koeppental church. It was a serious and sacred hour. Always Elder Quiring repeated: „Be constant in prayer, pray at all times and in all situations; and if you cannot pray because of illness, work or outward circumstances, then cry inwardly to God: ‚Lord help me!'“ When he stood before me, read my baptism verse: „Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths,“ (Prov.3:4-5), he looked at me so seriously and pressed my hand firmly. When we came home and had eaten a late lunch I went out to check on the cattle. Then I wanted to be alone.
After what seemed to me a very short time Papa came and said that it was nearly evening. He asked me to go and look after the chores, help the men to ready the wagons and borrow some more to go for lumber early next morning. Seldom have I been as reluctant to go to work as on that day. It seemed to me that I was pulled down by force from higher regions to this loud, noisy work-a-day world. I craved so very much just to be alone. Mama noticed this and comforted me beautifully. She said that even on a load of lumber I could meditate and pray if I was right with God. But the pressure was on to get the lumber and start rebuilding, so we could not have a third holiday as we usually did in other years.
We started early in the morning with six to eight wagons. The trip there was fairly fast; then the lumber was bought and loaded, the horses were fed, and slowly, step by step, we made our way home again.
This trip from Warenburg, about 40 km that took 8 hours or more, is still vivid in my memory. There I truly celebrated my Pentecost in close com munion with God. Never before had he been so close to me as my personal Savior as in these pre cious hours. It was like a seeking and finally a jubi lant dialogue with God. I was unspeakably happy. All that had been heard and experienced on the day before, I lived again and again. I felt so close to my Savior and Lord. It made me so happy and content that in turn I gave thanks, prayed and sang songs of praise. It seemed to me unexpectedly soon that we arrived home.
This whole year and the next I seem to have spent on the road, except when fieldwork had to be done. The entire farm was rebuilt on a grand scale, as it still was when we left Russia in 1927. The big house, I think 36 x 52 ft; the connecting structure between house and barn called hallway, which served as dining room and hired men’s room in winter, pantry, workshop, kitchen, and the long hall, 28 x 42 ft; then the huge fire wall of solid brick, the carriage entrance and pumpkin storage room, the barn 42 x 98 ft; at right angles from it the pig barn 28 x 60 ft. At the end of the barn was a leanto connecting barn and haymow. The latter, without all its leantos, was 42 x 98 ft. And the big granary, which held 12,000 pud of grain; as well as the remodeled machine shed. I know that we used about 100,000 bricks, plus all the lumber! Every thing had to be hauled from a distance. So I was much on the road, very often with camels. We always were two men for 10 wagons in summer and sleighs in winter. And what a torment it often was for us two, when again and again the loads shifted and tipped, or we would get stuck because of the poor roads.
It certainly made me tough. As if that wasn’t enough, even during 1903 and 1904 there were end less trips because in these years we build the homestead in the 5th Colony, i.e. Waluevka.
Until then there had been only a mud hut and a small shed there. So now we built new buildings, which meant hauling lumber and hauling more lum ber. How many storms did I weather on those roads! For the most part I enjoyed it. Trips by day and by night, in good weather and in bad, with horses and with camels, empty or with loads, sum mer or winter, nearly always on the road. We also hauled the great quantities of wheat from both farms ourselves.
When all the buildings had been completed in Waluevka, most of the horses and livestock stayed there for the winter because most of the tilled acreage and therefore also the feed was out there. So usually I moved there already in February or at the latest the beginning of March. But on Saturday evening I always went home to be there for Sunday. This I did till October and gradually, being always alone, turned more or less into a hermit. Always alone.
Yes, we had laborers there. (Note that father seldom mentions neighbors). We also had a foreman with his family. Most of the time I was on good terms with them, but we had no fellowship or close relations. What all I read in those years! Russian and German; newspapers, journals and books; from our own shelves, from the big lending library, bor rowed from several teachers, from Wormsbecher in Warenburg, and wherever else I could get them.
Papa’s health was poor. Only 16-17 years old, I was often in complete charge of the big operation in Waluevka, until after some weeks Papa would come. In winter we usually had two or three men there, in summer, depending on the season, we had ten to twelve during seeding, twenty and more dur ing harvest. To get along with them was no small matter. In such a big group there were always some „bad guys“ and, as usually happens, they got the upper hand. How much frustration and anger I had to keep bottled up inside of me, for most of it I had to fight alone, as Papa’s health was too poor to get him involved.
But there were „good guys“, too. I look back with satisfaction on the very positive relationship that I had for years with our foreman, Philip Becker and his wife Marie-Christine. They were excellent people. I still have a number of diaries from those years. It’s unfortunate that they are in Russian and therefore of no value for our children.
When the young people here in Canada speak and write so much in English, rather than in German, I can understand that. I felt exactly like that. I think 90 percent of my reading was in Rus sian. I loved the language, liked to express my thoughts and feelings in the language, wrote mostly in Russian and mastered it completely. When in later years I had to give a speech or prepare a docu ment for the authorities it only „took off“, so to say, when I did it in Russian. There I had a much richer vocabulary, never had to hunt for a word or expression, as I had to do in German.
For years I kept up an occasional cor respondence with my former teacher Speredonoff. He always regretted that I had not continued my studies. As teacher he went to a gymnasium in Ras jan, then in Moscow. There he must have gathered a large number of students around him, formed a political club and was very popular with them. Dur ing the first revolution in 1905—ardent defender that he was of all the oppressed and enemy of all brutal force—he got entangled in it. He became a prisoner and was first put in the Peter-and-Paul fortress in St. Petersburg, then was exiled for life to the Karoimosky-Kraj. That is up in the polar region. After a few years the cold climate and tuber culosis, which had bothered him for a long time, were the cause of his early death. He had asked his relatives to inform me of this. How sad!
The Revolutionary years of 1905-06 stirred up many people in Russia, especially the young. Nearly all the intelligentsia favored greater political free dom.
The present Russian form of government was unfit and rotten to the core. This showed up clearly during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05). There was corruption everywhere, officials were dishonest and could be bribed. Everything deteriorated till the war was lost and as a result the revolution followed. It started with factory and railway strikes. Then there were raids on banks, while robbery and mur der increased. Businesses and government offices were attacked. The news media and most educated people demanded a constitution and the creation of a parliament. But the Czar and his closest advisers did not want to grant any rights to the people. The poor farmers demanded distribution of the enormous land holdings of the rich landowners. That was denied them. Consequently the raids, murders, and arson on the great estates increased more and more.
At first the military suppressed these uprisings, but soon they, too, were not dependable any more and the government yielded to the demands of the people.
In a royal manifesto issued on Oct. 17, 1905 the Czar promised that the people would get their constitution and a parliament, called Duma. This quieted the unrest somewhat, but the main leaders and radical leftists were not satisfied and much blood was shed, especially in Moscow, before the government was again in full control. As is typical for the Russian people: first they were held captive in one extreme, without any civic rights whatever, and now they went to the other extreme in their excessive demands.
Added to the dilemma was the inconsistency of the Czar who kept his word only in so far as he was forced to do by circumstances, listening to his advisers on the right and then again to those on the left. Everything was unstable during 1905-06. But gradually the unrest subsided. Statesmen like S. Ju. Witte, and especially Ark. P. Stolypin, ruled with a firm hand, so that Russia gradually changed from revolutionary turbulence to a healthy economic and political evolution.
A time of constructive reform, especially in the redistribution of land, followed. The Russian peasants received ownership of the land which they had worked. The result was an incredible economic upswing.
Throughout all this confusion I adhered firmly to my political conviction (which I never kept secret) that the present system of government was doomed. This led some hot-heads, like the student Rudolf Riesen, from Koeppental, and several teachers of the district high school, to try to involve me in revolutionary activities. But because I drew a very clear line between legal and illegal action, they soon stopped bothering me. As already mentioned, on the whole the years of my youth were rather joy less. I often felt excluded and repelled because of envy, but probably I was also too reserved. I read very much and so had different interests from most of my peers. Because I withdrew from them, I was considered arrogant and proud. Even though I got together with them at times, there was never any real bonding. It seemed as if cousin Jacob Wiebe and I could have become closer friends; but then his sister, Anna, married Johannes Bergmann and after that Jacob was absorbed in his new circle of rela tives and friends.
Yet I felt the need to share with someone who would understand me, with whom I could share on a deeper level. If at that time I could have found a girl to love, I would have been spared many cheer less and dreary hours. But nothing came of that either. Perhaps I was too shy and too cautious. So I remained alone!
My parents, especially my dear mother, was always lovingly solicitous, but in those critical years parental love does not suffice. Thus I withdrew ever more and really became quite bitter; creating many a sad hour for my parents. One reason was, of course, that I had no brother or sister to share with, for my two sisters, Lieschen and Anna, were small children at the time. They were toys and playthings for me, nothing more.
I remember an episode that I would like to mention. Father wanted to buy a Kirghiz stallion, a half-wild bronco from Siberia’s steppes, to upgrade our purebred trotters. So in December 1905 we took the train from Krasny-Kut to Nowosensk, about 150 werst, and then hired a teamster to take us to the steppes of the Ural, first to the Cossack station Salamichino, and from there to the „aulas“, or vil lages, of the Kirghiz. No one from our settlement had ever experienced such a trip. We went into a total wilderness of the Kirghiz territory.
One evening we arrived at the aula of the chief, or „Beck“, as they called him. He did not live in a tent of felt-blankets or in a dugout hut, like all the others. He lived in a two-story adobe house. He welcomed us into his home. He was quite an old man and hardly knew a word of Russian. Our driver, also a Kirghiz, interpreted for us. With him we had the following experience:
When we left the train station in Nowosensk in the morning we were told that it was about 30 werst to this aula, which was our destination. We started without any trail and went in a straight line through the snow of the Ural steppe. Hour after hour we went without meeting or seeing anyone. When we asked the driver how far we had to go yet, he always answered in broken Russian: „widneetse“ (it’s coming into sight). But we saw nothing. After 3-4 hours he stopped, fed his horses, and drove on. When we looked back we saw our sleigh-tracks straight as a ruler, he had such a sure instinct even when there was no tree or anything whatever to guide him.
Hour after hour we drove. Gradually we became restless and asked more often how far we had to go yet. But our Kirghiz driver grew more quiet and somber. After six to seven hours the horses got tired and slowed down. Finally the thought crossed our minds that the fellow might be taking us to a trap, where he, and more half wild men like him, would rob and kill us. We started talking to him more sternly. He became more quiet and withdrawn.
Aha, we thought, and noticed that he looked simply awful, with his angry slitted eyes, his yellow skin, and loathsome behavior. He whipped the horses mercilessly. If only this won’t end in dis aster, thought Papa. My thought was to scare him so that he wouldn’t harm us. I told him that we were government officials and I was a doctor. Now a doctor is the highest rank to a Kirghiz, like the medicine man to an Indian. I further told him that many soldiers were waiting for us in the city and if we didn’t return in time they would follow us on horseback, and then woe to him.
It seemed to me that he looked back with increased anger, his blood-shot eyes looked terrible; he whipped his horses to greater speed. Finally I decided to play my last trump. With a flourish I took the revolver, which we carried in our travell ing bag, and waved it about in the air. And what happened? Our Kirghiz driver dropped the reigns and begged for his life.
We were dumbfounded. Now we realized that he was afraid of us and that is why he had kept looking back at us so wildly. We tried hard not to laugh out loud. The revolver was put away, of course, we spoke a few good words to the Kirghiz, and on we went.
And so we arrived in Aul at twilight. The Kirghiz driver went first to enquire at the Beck’s abode if we could spend the night there. Then we were received warmly. We soon noticed that our driver had told them that we were doctors. We were given the best room. There were no chairs or any other furniture, but many soft rugs and mirrors on the walls. Soon a number of Kirghiz arrived and we all sat in a circle on the rugs. Now we tried to explain to them the purpose of our visit—we were looking for a stallion for breeding purposes. Finally they understood. We tried to explain who we were, where we came from, etc., but they continued to call us „doctor“ and to show the utmost respect. Finally we were introduced to the great-grandfather, who they said was over 100 years old. He looked like a yellow, wrinkled mummy.
When we sat down to eat I was embarrassed. Papa adapted much better. They placed a large steaming bowl of extremely fat mutton soup, with cubes of fat meat floating in it, in the center of the circle. They rolled up the sleeves of their right arms and with their hands scooped up the food from the bowl and transported it to the mouth. With loud smacking of lips and fat running into their sleeves, they ate their supper. Papa took part at once. I didn’t think I could and resisted. But he said I absolutely had to eat or they would be offended. That was true, of course, especially since they were so very hospitable.
So whether I liked it or not I followed suit. The lighting was poor in the room and so no one noticed that each time a piece went from my hand, not into my mouth but into the large shafts of my boots. In this way a large part of the meal slipped into my legs instead of my stomach.
Later, I emptied my boots in the yard and was actually glad for the blubbery meat because I tossed it to the dogs who were giving me a hard time.
Next morning we inspected the horses, but did not buy. So we returned to the cossack station Salamachino and spent the night in the big house of the Owtschinnikow, the richest man in the Ural steppes. I don’t know how large his herds were, but I do remember that he had 8,000 to 9,000 horses. Next morning we started out again in his sleigh with driver and mounted escort. Again we went without a trail in a perfectly straight line. At noon we came upon the first horses. They grazed in the endless virgin steppes in groups of 500, always one group of the same color—all browns, blacks, etc. In this way the horses graze all winter in the endless steppes. From time to time we noticed rows of large hay stacks, which had been prepared in the summer for winter emergencies, when due to icy surfaces the horses would be unable to get at the grass under the snow and ice.
We picked a heavy-set but very muscular sorrel stallion, perhaps seven or eight years old. What a job that was to catch and bridle him, since he had never been bridled before. Around midnight we were back at Owtschinnikow, where we stayed the night. We bought the stallion for 500 rubles. Then he gave us a two-month old puppy from a purebred hound, which had won many prizes at exhibitions. At first he asked 25 rubles for it, but then made it a gift.
We rented a sleigh to take us back to Nowosensk to catch a train. But the last one had left the day before and now all trains in Russia were on strike. So we had to go all the way home by sleigh. It was a very long trip and the last days were bitter cold. During the last night when we were almost home, we lost our doggie. We had kept him under the fur robes at our feet the whole way. We were very sorry to have lost him. The descendants of the Kirghiz stallion were quite good, but not exactly what Papa had expected.
The year 1904 saw the beginning of the Russo/Japanese war which led to even more avid reading of newspapers than before. Then, when strikes broke out in factories, railroads, mines, and even mail and telegraph operations (which eventually ended in revolution), the pursuit of politics became increasingly interesting for me. In 1906 Papa’s health, which had not been good for a long time, deteriorated significantly. The main ail ment was a chronic catarrh of the larynx, like grandfather had, which worsened with time. Papa lost his voice almost completely when he had the slightest cold or talked too much. In May my parents went to see a specialist in Moscow. He gave some medicine and advised him to see Prof. Gerber in Koenigsberg, Germany, if the medicine didn’t help within two months. Since his health did not improve Papa went to Germany in September, accompanied by Peter Tjahrt, Ostenfeld, who wanted to visit his brother there. Papa was gone for three months. The professor’s treatments were very effective. During this time Papa also visited rela tives in West Prussia. During his absence I was in charge. In important matters I naturally consulted Mama. For Sunday I always came home from Waluevka. Mama was very lonely without Papa. I still remember that, and how concerned and worried she was about him. During those months I tried my utmost to look after the affairs in both places to the best of my ability and believe I was capable of this task. I also think that I did not grieve Mama with anything, but looking back, I feel that I should have shown her much more love since the sisters were small and Papa was sick and far away. I should have been more comforting. How differently one sees things as one gets older.
On his return from Germany, Papa brought uncle Hermann Epp, Aulie-Ata, along. He had been in America and Canada for about six months, together with the itinerant minister Jacob Quiring. The latter stayed in America. Uncle Epp had met Papa in Germany on his return trip and so they came home together. Papa was very satisfied with my management of the two farms. At this time I developed a closer friendship with my cousin, Johannes Penner. He was three years younger than I, very bright, also interested in politics, so we had things in common.
On the whole these years were the most critical for me and my spiritual development. As already mentioned, I read very extensively. Added to that, my reading was not controlled by any one and not everything was commendable material. Dissatisfac tion with my present life, regret for not having con tinued my studies, excessive amount of reading, and always being alone in Waluevka, resulted in my being more and more alone and gradually produced a feeling of resentment against myself, against everyone around me, and against God. Immersed in these thoughts I became more and more bitter.
At that time I tried to get better acquainted with Renate Mathies, later to be my bride. But due to negative influences of unfriendly persons nothing came of it. That embittered me still more. Soon Ich noticed that she regretted it and wanted to renew our relationship, but by then I was stubborn and wanted nothing to do with her. The long and the short of it is that I felt extremely dissatisfied and unhappy in those years. When I now read my diaries of that time, which unfortunately are written in my favorite language, Russian, I realize how utterly unhappy I was—in every way. Also the reading of Leo Tolstoy’s writings (I read most of them), as well as those of other freethinkers, gradually had quite an influence on me and caused me to question everything and even doubt the existence of God and his creation. When I read the Bible I found contradictions. I wanted to understand with my MIND and things got worse. I searched, and
Several times I tried to talk about all my doubts, questions, and searching with others, but the result was that I had supplied material for gos sip. Soon it was rumored that I was an atheist. Resenting this, I became even more isolated. In these years I used every opportunity, when I was in Pokrowsk, to cross the Volga River and go to one of the large city theaters. There were two and I spent many enjoyable hours there. These theaters were very different from what Americans call „shows“. My visits in January 1905 when I watched such drama as „The Life of the Kaiser,“ and many others were especially unforgettable. One winter I attended several operas, which I found less appeal ing, though to this day I don’t regret that I learned to know „Romeo and Juliet“, „Macbeth“, and other dramas. I never lacked money and could easily afford such pleasures. Usually I chose a seat in the 8-12th row, costing about 2.50 rubles. Even mixing with the people had a certain educational influence on me.
Then there was the so called Otschkin Theater. It was not only a cabaret, of which there were several in Saratov, it was quite a large estab lishment, though naturally, both in outward size and productions did not measure up to the city theater. It presented operettas, satire, and other light plays. After the performance patrons adjourned to the „Winter Garden“ and dance hall. There too, I sat and observed, but nothing more. It was God’s grace that this was no great temptation for me, though I was approached several times. But I could always remain an observer. I didn’t find that difficult. There I saw how the world lives and how money can be spent, for the Otschkin was a very expensive place.
As I have said, these short, occasional visits to the Otschkin did not harm me directly, and yet were like drops of poison for the imagination.
I advise everyone not to try this experiment, for it is possible that he/she would not be protected by his/her mother’s prayers, as I was. How many have fallen into sin and shame. I still say it was God who protected me, not I. The City Theater was very different. One felt impressed, awed, even noble, to sit in the partierre. The theater had, I think, five galleries and could accommodate several thousand people. Everything was refined, nothing crude or shocking. When the dark-green curtain, with its art istic decorations and inscription „Presentation from grey Antiquity“, slowly, very slowly parted, all was hushed, quiet, solemn. I enjoyed many happy hours there.
Soon rumors had it: „He even goes to the theater, how terrible!“ Hardly anyone knew what it was all about. They imagined dirt and immorality, like the kind they could peak at in the 25 kopek Cabarets, where these same people in great secrecy sometimes dropped in. This again I resented and it erected barriers between me and others.
The final result was that the conflicts between my conscience and the Tempter, the good and the evil, which is in all of us, increased steadily. I was nearing a crisis. God’s Word seemed unclear, con troversial, and did not satisfy. There was no peace in my soul. I asked myself what now? Throw your life away? Forget about faith? Was Tolstoy perhaps right in saying that Jesus was only an ideal person? The battle raged. I was storm-tossed, now this way and then that way. But at last there was light!
How that happened is what I would very much like to tell, but will never even come near to des cribe fully what I experienced. Only one who has had a similar experience will be able to understand me.
It was on a beautiful fall day, I think it was September. The workers were plowing. I was again having one of those miserable days in which I felt totally alone and abandoned. My innermost being was in shambles. After I had accompanied the workers to the field and returned I wanted to do something, anything, but I had absolutely no desire to do anything. I tried reading, but that didn’t work either. How unhappy I was and how I longed for peace. I knelt down again and again, but all I could pray was „Lord, help me.“ And again and again „Lord help me.“ The anguish continued.
And then, I believe it was in the afternoon. I was helping the workers get the horses ready. I remember it so clearly, it was at the front corner of the barn where the big millstone lay. I was adjusting the reins of the horses when suddenly I felt myself completely overpowered, yet gently and mildly, but so holy and godly. I dropped the lines, went into my room and fell on my knees. What was it? It was the Lord. I cannot describe the quiet, godly feeling that came over me. It flooded my being again and again. I felt and knew it was the Lord. „Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.“
Then it became quiet and peaceful in my heart. I could only continue to pray, „My Lord and my God.“ How long? I do not remember it any more. I believe it was several hours during which I knelt again and again before the majesty and holiness within my soul; and the Lord comforted and streng thened me so wonderfully, so gently and peacefully.
Finally I went outside, still in communion with God and only hoping I would not meet anyone. It was as though only my God and I existed. To the faithless it is foolishness to talk about a triune God. It cannot be explained and understood, it can only be experienced. That happened to me. Was this not the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit? Certainly! The heart cannot prostrate itself before anyone human in such utter humility, worship, and adoration. My heart wanted to say: „Lord, I am so unworthy, so full of sin.“ And again the assurance came: „Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.“ And I went about, overshadowed by the peace of God.
And again the question came, only this time not unhappily and resentfully, but childlike: „I can not understand the Bible like some others, much of it is unclear.“ And again I almost felt God’s loving hand on my head and heard the words: „My child, all that is not necessary. Only believe and follow me.“ When I got up I knew that my God and I had been having a dialogue. Not in the form of prayer, or in a way that it can be repeated, but I had been at the feet of Jesus, rested on the breast of God, and the Holy Spirit comforted and strengthened me. I received God’s peace. I was his child. That became very clear to me. Again I wanted to ask, how I could be called his child when I had been so rest less, loveless, and stubborn? And I only heard: „I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you.“
Oh world, you may laugh and mock such an experience, if you can. But I am not writing this for the world but for my dear children. Perhaps these imperfect words, which do not begin to describe the blessedness I felt, can one day strengthen you in your own pilgrimage.
And another thing. If one or the other of you should not have this kind of experience, do not be discouraged. In those hours the sure foundation of my faith was laid. I am convinced that everyone must come to God in his and her own way and God will draw near to us. The only condition is that we come honestly and in childlike faith, not adhering to rules and forms. And the almighty will understand!
Gradually, I think it was towards evening, I became aware of my surroundings and responsibilities again, quietly rejoicing in my new and precious „secret“. But I do not want to dwell too long on this, precious and wonderful as it was, because I am quite unable to describe it. Perhaps you will ask if from now on I always continued in this state of bliss. I can best answer that with the following song:
I feel your nearness here already When you revive me by your grace, I feel your sweet and wondrous peace Coming into my guilt-burdened soul. Then I rise from the dust And with joy exclaim: „I believe!“ My heart is light, the clouds have lifted, I know that I have been pardoned.
Alas, those blessed times are not forever, Because I am still tempted by sin. Because the spirit has to fight against flesh And Satan often harms me still. That dampens my courage, Mutes the songs of joy. And releases the longing sigh: „If only I could be in my Father’s house!“
No, no, the perfect cloudless joys Are not found in this valley of sorrow. Many thorn pricks still wound us here, And often light changes to darkness. That is why I long to go To the heavenly Jerusalem, When after the sorrow of this short pilgrimage Eternal bliss and glory wait for me.
These verses describe my spiritual pilgrimage. God’s grace alone has kept me in the faith, which has always been a very simple one. I have never found much pleasure or inner enrichment from long clever sermons or from complicated Bible exposi tions. I was and still am of the opinion that hair splitting, modern interpretations, and over-feeding in spiritual matters is not always advantageous.
Farming improved in those years. Now that I was grown up and spent my working days from March to October in Waluevka, Papa had rented considerably more land, so that we always had a significant acreage under cultivation. Crops were mostly good as were prices, so that the debts incurred during the years of building (1901-1903) could now be substantially reduced.
In those years, until my marriage, I lived a relatively independent life. Major things were planned by Papa, but it was left to me to carry them out. In the busy seasons, two to three weeks during seeding time and again from about June 20 to the middle of September in harvesting, I worked hard and steadily alongside the workers. I was always first and last at work. Usually the day began at 4:00 a.m. and ended around 10 to 10:30 p.m. when I went to bed. I was not only director and foreman in the work, but worked with the laborers, which very few of my age group did at that time.
It is true, however, that during the slack sea sons I often withdrew for weeks, even months, from hard work and lived a life of leisure in Waluevka. I woke the men in the morning, helped with the feed ing and stayed with them until the daily routine started. Then I withdrew and rested. I read and read endlessly.
That rest was necessary, because often the con tinuous hard work which I plunged into so intensely, had really drained me. So rest was good for me. But even in those times there often was unexpected work and especially many, very many trips. For example, we hauled nearly all of our grain ourselves (on the average 8 – 12,000 pud annually) to Laub, Warenburg, Seelman, or Pok rowsk, distances of 20 to 42 miles.
In the fall of 1905 Papa went to Germany for treatments. When our crops in 1906 and 1907 had been good, I asked my parents‘ permission to make a major trip through Russia and on to Germany. Cousin Jacob Wiebe and I had long been planning this. We both got permission from our parents. Uncle Jacob Wiebe decided to come along. Usually all went well, except on a few occasions when our youthful temperaments wished for a faster pace and a freer spending of money than our older uncle practiced.
During that time I kept a detailed diary, but unfortunately in Russian, so I will repeat here some of the entries in German. We started early in the morning of October 13. In Saratov I did some shop ping, for example, I bought the felt hat which I still have today, and a wallet which I also have. We took the beautiful steamer „Shukowsky“ of the Samolot Line to go up the Volga. In Samara we stopped for our passports, then took the train to Moscow.
In Samara we met young Peter Iw. Schlegel, a Volga Colonist, who was also going to Germany, but to study. Twenty years later I had a lot to do with him because he was the deputy Commissar of Agriculture of the German Volga Republic.
We stayed in Moscow five days, visited many famous cathedrals, museums, palaces, the Kremlin, etc. Our next five-day stop-over was St. Petersburg. Of special interest for me was the Taurian Palace, in which the second session of the Duma (parliament) was to take place in a few days. Because of extensive preparations for the sessions the palace was closed to visitors. But being intensely interested in politics, I tried my utmost to gain entrance and was not only successful, but was able to meet the commander of the palace, Baron Von der Osten Saken. I found that very interesting, especially when he expressed his own interest in Mennonites. He said, „The Mennonites are model citizens.“
In this Duma or parliament building I also met several prominent Duma members, whom I recog nized by name and from photographs. For example the chairman of the first Duma session, Golowin, also Tschelnokow, Bobrinsky, Krupensky, and others. We also went to see the Czar’s residence Czarskoje Selo‘ and visited both Czars‘ palaces. There was much to see.
Our trip took us on to Riga (Latvia), where we also stayed a few days. It was quite interesting to see the contrast between this typical German city and the Russian cities. Especially beautiful was the beach promenade in the Spa garden and in front of the hotel. Then we went to Libau (Latvia), another very German city. We took the electric train out to the harbor where we saw our first war ships. We watched men working to deepen the port: small motor boats dropped dynamite into the water which was exploded from the shore with a terrific bang and hurling of mud, stones, and water into the air. From Libau we went via Schanzli and Kowno to the border town of Wirballen, where our passports were checked. From Wirballen to the German control sta tion, Eidtkiehmen, was only a three minute trip. The baggage inspection was very superficial.
From there Wiebes went to the Werder, but I only went as far as Koenigsberg (Lithuania), where in two days I saw many things, bought a suit, coat, etc. On leaving Koenigsberg I went to the wicket and said to the official: „Please give me a …“ he interrupted me and roared: „What in thunder is the meaning of that introduction? What do you want?“ I told him I wanted a third class ticket to Tiegenhof. „Then you only say three words,“ he barked. „One, third, Tiegenhof.“ It was rude; but he was right, and that lesson has stuck with me the rest of my life. Never again did I waste an official’s time; just three words! That’s enough.
In Tiegenhof I first went to Aron Andres. His wife, Johanna, is a daughter of Uncle and Aunt Jantzen, the latter being a half-sister to my grand father. She has another daughter, Mariechen, married to Bernhard Wiens, who took over the homestead. The old couple lives with him. B. Wiens’s have no children; Andres’s have six, four girls and two boys. Children and parents were very nice and lovable.
My main host was Uncle Heinrich Dyck on the Hauskampe by the Vistula. He was Papa’s cousin. His wife had died a few years ago after being bedridden for many years. He had no children. Papa had told me that Uncle Heinrich was a bit queer and it would be difficult to get along with him. He certainly was an odd man, but we did get along just fine. I had the time of my life there as far as com fort and freedom was concerned. I had a beautifully furnished room, a very good riding horse, a fine two-wheeled vehicle at my disposal. So I travelled across the country as much and as often as I pleased; also visited mother’s relatives, David Walls in Bayershorst, Regehrs in Broeske, and others.
Uncle Heinrich, Wiebes and I also went to Ber lin where we enjoyed many sights, also in Potsdam and Sanssauci. There we saw the Kaiser’s second son, Prince Eitel Friedrich, riding in the park of the palace. Uncle Heinrich went home after two days.
From Berlin I went to Marienburg (W. Prussia) to visit Gustav Schulzes. She was Uncle Heinrich’s sister and my father’s cousin. I appreciated them very much; Getting to know Uncle Schulz made a lasting impression on me. He was an important man. He had given his farm in Fuerstenwerder to his oldest son, Gustav, and now lived for his offi cial duties in Marienburg. He was manager of the big dam enterprise along the Vistula and also chairman of the „Reifeisen“ insurance and co-op companies in the district. I attended their annual meeting in Marienburg.
Uncle Schulz explained the origin and func tions of this organization to me. These were bran ches of the co-operative credit unions all over Germany. They were involved in many other eco nomic matters. He also took me to Danzig to one of their main offices. He took a lot of time with me, went to a lot of trouble to help me understand. We liked each other very much and often had discus sions till late at night. Later he wrote me very encouraging letters; one of which I will refer to later.
In Marienburg I also visited the famous old fortress of medieval times simply called the „Marienburg“. I also went to see Gerhard Dyck in Gross Lesewitz, a brother to Paul Dyck at present here in Canada. His parents, Jacob Dycks, live in Morgenau with their son-in-law Heinrich Wiens, father of Erich Wiens here in Canada. I visited them as well and many others. I enjoyed it but did not feel completely „at home.“ I did not like it that most of the people here seemed to live above their means, acting grandly on the outside, but without a real substance or basis to support this lifestyle.
It seems I had a good credit rating with uncle Heinrich Dyck because he offered to sell me his farm at a very reasonable price. He even suggested that if I didn’t want to be alone in Prussia, we should sell our two farms in Russia and all move back to Prussia and take over his farm. But I was not in the least interested, my heart was drawn to Russia.
I stayed there until December 28, when I left from Tiegenhof for home. Wiebes joined me on the return journey at Simonsdorf. We took a different route this time, travelling via Mlawa-Ilowo in the direction of Warsaw. At the (Polish) border I had to wait a day for my suitcase which by mistake had travelled not as baggage but as express. Wiebes were reluctant to wait, so I told them to go ahead. I stayed in Warsaw a few days, saw many sights, but having seen many cities before was not all that much interested and I longed for home.
From Warsaw I went via Moscow and Saratov to the station Besimanja, where Mr. Engbrecht, who lived nearby, met me and took me home the next day. I arrived at home on Dec. 23 (old calendar). Since in Germany they already had the new calendar I celebrated Christmas twice that year. My parents, my two little sisters and I, too, of course, were glad that I was safely home again. This was my first big trip, not counting the one with my parents to Aulia Ata, Asia, 1898.
Now it was back into the daily routine; I can’t say that I found the adjustment difficult. But when I was back in Waluevka that summer, and again all alone in my hermitage, and so very lonely, I decided to put an end to that and get married. Some had thought that I would develop a relationship in Germany, but I had no intention of doing that. Also I was too shy in those years, especially around girls. But if I wanted to marry, then that would have to change. I thought of this one and that one, but always came back to Renate Mathies in Hohendorf with whom I had made a rather close acquaintance several years earlier. The summer with all its work passed quickly; but when September came around and I tried to assess my possible chances in Hohendorf, I soon sensed that I would not come in vain.
It was on a Sunday, October 5, 1908, in the afternoon, that I went to Hohendorf to ask officially for the hand of the woman I loved, my dear Renate. Even today I could still repeat much of our con versation of that memorable day. It had been a time of waiting and probation for both of us. My parents were very pleased with the turn of events. Espe cially Mama felt with me and looked forward to all of us living together. I still remember where we stood that Monday morning when she said: „All my life has been hard; now I feel as if I am standing at the threshold of an easier life when Renate comes into our home.“
Truly, she stood at the threshold—at the threshold of a new life. During the next few days she was always chilly. She was busy outside doing the fall cleanup work with the maids and caught a bad cold. Diarrhea set in and on Wednesday and Thursday she had to stay in bed. Rev. P. Wiens, a homeopath, came several times and gave her some medicine. The diarrhea stopped, but her weak heart had been so badly strained that we feared for the worst.
I just noticed that in those days when my dear mother died, I wrote my diary in German, so I will
quote from it:
Thursday, Oct.9, it did not look good with Mama. I went to Waluevka, stopped at Mathies‘ place to say that the parents could not keep their appointment to come that day to discuss engagement arrangements, invitations, and such. We had planned the official engagement for Dec.15, and Mama had been happy that on her birthday, Dec.
16, we would be there as an engaged couple.
When I returned home in the afternoon Mama was worse. Her eyes lay deep in her sockets. P. Wiens was there and gave her new medicine. I went to fetch Tante Wiebe (Mama’s sister), for it seemed very serious to us. How my heart ached when I saw her lying there, mortally ill. I knelt down at her bedside with Lieschen and Anna and prayed for her recovery. Oh, our dear Mama! With great effort she said: „Johannes, and when your faith is as a mustard seed, be constant in prayer and God will strengthen it. And he will also make me well, if that is his will.“
Towards evening she could hardly speak any more. She had great difficulty breathing. I said to her: „Mama, I am going to Renate, we will all pray for you.“ She pressed my hand and her eyes filled with tears. On Friday her diarrhea finally stopped, but her heart and general condition was very weak. Teacher Franz Bartsch came and wanted to talk with her, but she waved her hand, and since her voice was inaudible, wrote on the slate: „Jesus is my one
in all!“
On Saturday, October 11, she seemed slightly better. I did not feel well myself and went to the Wiebe’s for a steam bath. I went to bed at ten. At eleven Papa woke me for my turn at the night watch. Soon Mama became very restless, threw off the blanket, sat up, breathed with increasing diffi culty, and could not talk. This continued until two o’clock when she became calm again. As I sat so alone by her bed and realized that there really was no hope of her getting better, my heart grew heavy at the thought of how often I had caused her pain. How could I have done that, when she always had such an outpouring of love for me? How often I had been abrupt and harsh with her when I didn’t really mean it. Thursday when I had talked to her about that, she only said: „You know that I have forgiven you everything, everything! Your faith will help you.“
Around four o’clock she grew restless again, her features seemed to change. I didn’t know what to do. I knelt down, took her hands in mine, and prayed: „Christ’s blood and righteousness avail; his grace and pardon never fail. This shall my song forever be, when I go to meet my Lord.“ With that she grew calmer. I bent over her and asked: „Mama, do you feel that our Savior is near?“ In response she pressed my hand, and looking at me serenely for the last time, whispered softly but audibly, „Yes“.
I wakened Papa. He sent at once for P. Wiens and Tante Wiebe. Wiens said there was no hope, and she took no more medicine. Ohm Wiens said loudly to her: „The Lord will come soon.“ She breathed „yes“. That was her last word. She lay quiet and still, looking at no-one, with her eyes upward, her breathing became more shallow, until at 11:50 a.m. it stopped. The heart of the most faithful mother was at rest. She went to be with her Savior.
I had not been well for several days. Mama’s death struck me in the core of my being so that I broke down and had to stay in bed until Tuesday. Towards evening that day I was able to get up though I was very weak. Then Papa sent a note to Renate saying that if she wanted to see Mama once more she should come now. She did come, and Papa, Lieschen, I, and Renate went together to the summer kitchen where Mama lay. I will not dwell on that. The funeral was on October 17. Elder Quir ing based his message on 2. Cor.4:17-18 („This small and temporary trouble we suffer will bring us a tremendous and eternal glory, much greater than the trouble.“)
Forty-one families had been invited to the fun eral, as few as possible, and yet, what a burden all these people were for us. God grant that my mother’s most intense wish for me be fulfilled—that my faith become firm and strong. I now have my dear Renate at my side but poor Papa, he is so alone. For him it will be the hardest. Lieschen and Anna are only twelve and nine years old and cannot fully realize their loss.
With this the years of my youth came to an end. It was a time when I failed, erred, doubted, searched and most of all felt very lonely. But through it all, through confusions and temptations, the Lord helped me and enabled me to carry into manhood my youthful idealism, my faith in all that is noble and good, and my longing to strive for these high goals.
After Mama’s death Renate arranged for her neighbor’s daughter, Lieschen Schmidt, to come and be our housekeeper. She was very quiet and reserved, which was a blessing for us at that time of mourning. But life had to go on. Hogs had to be butchered. Our people in Waluevka were untrustworthy and irresponsible. The livestock was not properly taken care of; several horses, cattle and sheep died. Conditions there grew worse, we simply had to get different workers. In other words, life went on and had its demands. In that time of sorrow and mourning we realized that work is a blessing.
Finally we decided to keep the date of our planned engagement. In the beginning of December Papa and I went to Saratov to buy me a suit, a coat, a fur coat, harness for my bridal team, and more. Dear Papa bought so much for me and everything of the best quality. My Renate also came with her father to do some shopping. Together we bought our engagement rings. I also bought her a gold watch with a long gold chain for sixty rubles for her wedding gift. Papa gave me the money gladly and willingly for everything.
Our formal engagement was on Dec. 15, a clear and very cold winter day. We celebrated in the Mathies‘ home, my future parents-in-law. Elder Quiring had the message, based on 1. Cor. 9:24-26 („Surely you know that many runners take part in a race, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize“). Then came our so very beautiful time of engagement. Every day we were invited to visit different families. That was fun. But I thought a lot about Mama, in love and in mourning. But we knew that her blessing was upon us, and that gave a radiance to our engagement weeks.
Our wedding was on January 15, 1909 in the Orloff church with Elder Johannes Quiring officiat ing. His sermon was based on Gen.32:17-18, with the central questions: a) to whom do you belong? and b) where are you going? He did not mention Mama much, which I missed, because I felt the need to hear and talk about her on this important day.
The Years of Manhood 1909-1919: years of intense economic involvement
I was 23 years and ten months old when I married. On Jan. 19, 1909 I brought my dear Renate into my parental home in Lysanderhoeh as my wife. Oh, if only Mama had lived to experience this day! How much we thought of her. Papa wel comed Renate very lovingly and yet, as was his way when he was deeply moved, rather gruffly. But thank God, they always understood each other well.
As my maternal inheritance Papa gave me two parcels of land (c. two quarter sections) in Waluevka. The buildings, livestock, and machinery was assessed at 9,000 rubles, to be paid back plus interest of 6%. Of that 3,000 rubles were paid off shortly with money that Renate had received from her parents as dowry.
Until the end of March we lived with Papa and then we moved out to the 5th Colony, Waluevka. At that time our horses were infected with a nasal glandular disease („Rotz“). We lost 18 of our 32 horses in the first six months. They either died or had to be shot. New horses had to be bought, which was a drain on our resources. We rented two more „Feuerstellen“ from Papa and also took over three and a half Feuerstellen that he had rented but the rent-contract had not yet expired. Consequently our first seeded acreage was rather substantial. The yield was good and prices moderate. I had hired a steam threshing machine and fetched 35 men as threshers from Achmat across the Volga. Every thing worked out as planned.
Until now we had always employed reapers for cutting and tying the sheaves by hand because Papa was not in favor of modern machinery. But that required a great many people. But now, when the crop prospects were so favorable, I bought two new Osborne (British made) binders. They worked very well. I drove the one and our Russian worker, Jefim, who was with us from the start until 1914 when he was conscripted for military service, drove the other one. Only a few weeks after he was drafted he was killed at the German front. In those years we daily cut 20-25 desjatine (50-65 acres) with two binders, working from early till late, of course.
During the summer we expanded our house by adding another room, entirely of brick, thus giving us two rooms for ourselves. Then there was the kitchen and two smaller rooms for hired men and maids. We also got rid of the disease among our horses during that year. We did it first of all by eliminating each horse just as soon as any symptoms of the disease appeared. Secondly, we worked them very moderately, always watching our for colds. And finally we fed them well with pure wheat. Never again did we have horses so well fed, slick and shiny, as in that year.
Since Papa wanted us to spend the winter with him in Lysanderhoeh, we hired a couple by the name of Gottfried from Wiesenmueller to take care of the farm. They were good and honest people, took excellent care of the livestock. By the end of October all harvest work was completed and so we moved to Lysanderhoeh on October 31. to spend the winter there. Just in time: On Sunday, Nov. 1, our first child, Lieschen, was born. At first all was well. But after a few days Renate got childbed or puerperal fever in its severest form, so that during the next several weeks she was often near death. Many prayers were said on her behalf and at last they were answered. Slowly she improved. Many trips were made during that time to Brunnental (22 km) for the doctor or his assistant.
That November we had more rain than ever before, making the roads a quagmire. More rain, always more rain. Three to four horses had to be hitched to a light buggy. After three weeks the frost came, making the rutted roads almost impassible. Finally, at Christmas, Renate was well enough to go to church, even though she was still very weak. Very slowly she regained her health.
At the annual community meeting before our engagement I had been elected as village representa tive to Waluevka, and I remained that until the Revolution.
Ever since our first year of marriage we liked to visit Leonhard Penners in Fresenheim. It was only 4 km from Waluevka. We just loved to go over there and visit with Uncle and Aunt, who were always so kind and loving to us, but I also appreciated every possible contact with my cousin Johannes Penner.
In the winter of 1909-10 I received a letter from Uncle Gustav Schulz, Marienburg (Prussia) asking whether I was socially active. My reply was that there was no time nor opportunity for such involvement, our motto was to work on the farm.
He responded with a provocative letter, which unfortunately I no longer have, but I do remember some of the content. For example: „I don’t want to make you conceited, but it is a fact that God has given you several gifts and natural abilities, which make it your damned duty and obligation to use them in serving society and your fellowmen, and live not only for your economic interests.“
He further explained why he had said „damned duty and obligation“, because as a rule, ingratitude was the result of such service, but one had to rise above such considerations. Fifteen years later, when I put all my energies and strength into community service for our settlement for five to six years, I often thought about those prophetic words. But praise God, except in a few cases ingratitude has not been my reward.
During this winter I sold the trotters which I had received from Papa as a wedding gift. They were very beautiful horses, black, four and five years old, both purebred from Johannes Esau, Fresenheim, who was known for raising first-class horses. Papa bought the stallion Drushek, and I sold the mare Witka on the horse market in Saratov.
We stayed in Lysanderhoeh until March 17. Then when the snow began to thaw rapidly, we moved out to Waluevka, all three of us! Here we again seeded quite a large acreage. After seeding I fetched the well-digger, Jakov Koroshow, with 3 or 4 men from Pokrowsk. Until now we had hauled the water from the two small wells in the ravine, which was always a cumbersome affair. In winter it required almost one man’s time just to keep the place supplied with water. It was also very hard on the horses to pull the heavy water barrels up the high hill. Many horses were either lame or almost useless as a result of it. The haymow was built at an angle to the barn so the front section seemed the right place for the well.
The first stage was a seven by seven foot shaft down to a depth of 91 ft. It produced only a small amount of water but the flow was steady and there fore sufficed. The water was hauled up by a horse with two large buckets (each with a four-pail capa city); one went down while the other one came up. Very simple and practical. The water was then piped into the cistern in the barn which held about 500 buckets. It was a considerable expense, but a great economic improvement. In the other two sec tions of the haymow we built two pigpens and a grain bin. We also made several changes in the barn.
The buildings and arrangement of our entire establishment was so functional that it could hardly be surpassed, especially here in Canada where the outbuildings, in comparison, are all so impractical.
The harvest was average, but prices dropped sharply. We still had a goodly supply of last year’s wheat, but I was reluctant to sell at such a low price. Even if we were to make no payment on our debt, we still had considerable operating expenses. So we borrowed smaller sums from several sources for a year; sold some of our cows and steers; and in winter finally borrowed a substantial amount from Philip Busich, just so that I did not have to sell the wheat. Both fathers warned us that wheat prices could drop still lower and advised to sell, but I wanted to risk it.
In this year we economized very much. We threshed wheat with John Dyck’s (curly head) new threshing machine which I had guaranteed but didn’t like very much. In fall we got workers from Schaefer, a village by the Carman River. That was a poor choice, because they were negligent in caring for the livestock and embezzled many things. Upon Papa’s wish we again moved to Lysanderhoeh in fall because he was so very lonely. But we stayed only until the end of January because our manager in Waluevka neglected to take care of the livestock to the extent that we had to dismiss him. So we moved there, hired two men and a maid, and estab lished order again.
In February Anna was born. We were very concerned that Renate not get ill again; but all went well, in fact she seemed only then to really gain back her health.
In this winter there was a conference in Pokrowsk for the farmers of the Samara province. Dietrich Thiessen, Johannes Penner, and I went from our settlement. It lasted three days and was very interesting. Many important men were there. I got acquainted with Mr. Kobsay who had been mayor of Pokrowsk for many years and at one time had gone with my grandfather to the coronation of the czar. I took part in a debate and when he heard my name he came during the intermission and intro duced himself. He was very kind. That was my debut in the larger arena of public involvement. Most of the discussions were about economic mat ters but political issues also surfaced.
The summer of 1911 was very dry. When heat waves rolled over the steppes early in June, crops began to suffer and wheat prices began to rise. They had sunk to 70 kopeks and now rose to one ruble. Never before nor after, except during the war, had there been such a price range. Almost every day buyers came asking for wheat. The price kept rising daily from two to six kopeks. When it was 1.30 ruble per pud everybody said I was a fool not to sell because the price had never been this high. But I did start to haul several loads every other day to the Brothers Schmidt, Inc. in Laub, with whom I usually did business, so as to keep informed on the situation. The price rose to 1.40, then to 1.45, to 1.50 and still I was not selling. Should I wait longer?
The next day I went again with several loads. I took samples of all our wheat along. And sold everything for 1.53 ruble per pud. Finished! Now all 8 wagons were loaded and we began to haul wheat. When we came back the next day the price had risen to 1.56; the following day it dropped almost 15 kopeks and continued to drop daily until it stopped at 1.10 ruble. We had been lucky; we had gained thousands of rubles in one transaction. Never before nor after did I take that big a risk.
Soon after that I bought a „Feuerstelle“ of land from P. Wall, Orloff, adjacent to Papa’s in Waluevka, for 5,000 ruble; 3,000 in cash and the rest to be paid in five years at 400 ruble annually. But it was fully paid for in two years.
Next winter, 1911-1912, we stayed in Waluevka. Sister Lieschen was now old enough to take care of the house for Papa, so that the housekeeper, Lieschen Schmidt, could return to her home.
This winter lingers in my memory as one of the happiest of my life. We seldom went out and had few visitors. We had two good hired men and a reli able maid. There was peace and quiet, and there was the daily routine. I remember especially the many cozy winter evenings. We pushed the table with the lamp on it in front of the bed; „Mutti“, my dear Renate, sat on one side of it knitting, while the two little ones, Lieschen and Anna, romped with me on the bed. They crawled all over me, played, crowed and talked. Then Mutti would fetch a plate of apples from the basement—what more did we need to be happy and content? Nothing at all!
The harvest of 1912 was quite good. We threshed with Solomon Dyck’s horse-drawn thresh ing machine, the same that we used in 1911, but as our acreage had increased we found it too slow and did not like it.
At this time we had a lot of cattle, bought 1 1/2 year old steers in March and sold them after two years. We also had quite a few sheep, usually around 100. The sheep were shorn twice, the first time just after spring seeding. We sold the long wool to factories for fabric and weaving. The wool from the September shearing was much shorter and more expensive and was used to make felt articles.
In the fall of 1912 we had 4 or 5 large hogs to sell, but there seemed to be no buyer. On the con trary, everybody seemed to have hogs for sale. In our community pigs were not raised on a commer cial basis; only occasionally would there be a pig for sale, which was always bought locally by teachers, carpenters, and others who had no farms and bought only for their own use. Suddenly there were many more fattened hogs that glutted the market. So what should I do?
So I went from one village to another and bought up all the large, fat hogs, the smallest was 350 pounds and the heaviest 625 pounds. I bought them at the end of October on condition that the owners keep them until November 15, and then deliver them to me killed, cleaned and drawn.
I expected frost by that date and made a five ruble down payment for each hog. But a few days before the due date it started to rain. And it kept on raining. Now what? The people wanted to get rid of their hogs. So I asked all the farmers from the lower villages (Koeppental, Lindenau, Fresenheim and Waluevka) to bring the animals to us alive; and the farmers from the other villages (Hohendorf, Lysanderhoeh, Orloff, Ostenfeld, and Medemtal) to take them to Papa, who had reluctantly consented to take them. That was one piggy mess!
At our place and at Papa’s the hog and horse barns were crowded to capacity. The partitions in the haymows were also full. And we needed feed, of course. And the weather stayed warm and rainy for 10 to 12 more days. At last there was a light frost. Helpers from all around came to assist with the butchering. In Waluevka and Lysanderhoeh the granaries soon hung full of carcasses. They were supposed to freeze for 2-3 days and then be taken to Saratov. But alas, after a few cold days it began to thaw again and the weather became balmy. Did we ever watch the thermometer and barometer in those days! Each night I got up several times to look at the thermometer in the hope that it was dropping. We had invested a lot of money in this venture. What if the meat spoiled.
Sure enough, after eight days the carcasses were beginning to show blue and green spots. And now some of those dear people who were always jealous showed more and more interest and asked, in „sympathy“, of course, how my hogs were doing? And surely I wouldn’t have to take a loss? Wouldn’t that be just too bad. Oh how happy they were to see me in trouble. Of course I never said anything except that they could still hang for a while. But I allowed no one to enter the granaries.
At last, I think it was on Dec. 14 or 15, it got cold and we had snow and frost. At once we readied Papa’s sleighs, hired drivers and more sleighs, loaded the pigs and hauled them off to Saratov.
When we reached Pokrowsk on our side of the Volga we got a new shock: prices had dropped dur ing the last few days so that I would likely lose about 30% of the purchasing cost. On top of that the Volga was not yet frozen over so we could not cross it. What was to be done now?
I made a quick decision and took the hogs to the RR freight station. I was actually able to rent a railroad car on the spot. But then the meat inspector wanted to cause trouble. However, in the end he stamped each carcass as healthy and I sent the whole lot off to Moscow. I was so sick of those hogs by then that I would have been glad to send them off to no-man’s land. The empty sleighs returned home the following morning.
During the night there was a 20 degree frost. Rumor had it next morning that the Volga was now frozen over and safe to cross. When I reached the shore crowds of people stood there watching, but no one ventured across. I have never seen the Volga frozen like this. Usually iceblocks from the north come floating down, crowd each other, and freeze together. Now the ice had jammed together above Pokrovsk and the River had frozen over as smooth as glass. It was a beautiful sight to see the mighty Volga tamed and fettered like that. Finally some people from each side dared to test the ice. I was one of them. We shuffled slowly ahead and actually made it to the other side. It was utter foolishness and irresponsible, of course.
I went to Moscow and had to wait two to three days. Hog prices there had dropped as well. So finally I handed the whole sorry affair over to the Sibirski Torgewni Bank on commission. I got an advance payment of 2/3 of the price, and went home.
Since our cash flow was good I was able to pay everybody even before the hogs in Moscow were sold. This amazed the people, especially those who had probably hoped that I would lose heavily, or had feared that I would not be able to pay them. When everyone was paid in full, and when someone in the post office saw that I received a substantial sum as final payment from Moscow, their mood changed. Some had difficulty concealing their envy. To the many questions they asked I always replied: „This business wasn’t too bad.“
Then the rumor spread that I had made a great profit, and those who had sold hogs to me wondered whether they had sold them too cheaply. Fact of the matter was that I had recovered my expenses, but not much more for all my trouble. It was alright with me, however, since it happened during a slack work period, and also because I had learned several valuable lessons. One that I found particularly repugnant was to see again how easily people become envious.
In March 1912 I decided to start a different strain of cattle. Our cows were not first class. Until now I had put no emphasis on that. We had Hol steins, but these Holland cows were just scrubs, mixed with other strains. Due to Stolypin’s land reform Russians and Colonists now lived on land which they owned, instead of only being allowed its‘ use. Before Stolypin’s reform the land was redistributed among the entire male population every twelve years, which meant, of course, that nobody improved the land or built on it. The people lived in villages of 1,000 to 2,000 and often had up to 30 km to go to their parcel of land.
Since they now owned their land they began to be much more interested in it, as well as in cattle raising. Usually these people obtained their breed ing stock from the Mennonites, who bred Holsteins. However, the Colonists wanted red, not black and white cattle, and they wanted purebreds. With this in mind as a potential market, I decided to raise Simmental cattle. They are heavier than the Hol steins, light reddish color, spotted, and usually have a white head. There milk production is less than the Holstein’s, but it is higher in fat content. They are bigger cows and their meat is more expensive.
So in March I went to the Marionskoe S-G-J, a government experimental farm that bred registered Simmental cattle. I bought two heifers and two calves of three and five months for 75, 90, 150, and 180 rubles. Then I continued on to Jatishtsivo close to the city of Jambow, where the duchess Ustinowa had a large estate of 15,000 acres. There I bought a ten month old bull for 250 ruble. I was on that estate for two days, had never seen one that size before. So now a start was made with these five registered Simmental pedigreed animals.
My hunch had been right, we were always able to sell the young stock from these cows for a high price to the Russians and Colonists. But unfortunately this breed has very sensitive calves, so that there weren’t that many to sell. During the first ten years at least 30-40% of the calves died during the first two months. Later they became har dier.
In the winter of 1912-13 a lo-operative was organized in Koeppental. This lo-Op took over the General and Hardware Store of Cornelius Isaac. I was elected to be a member of the auditing com mittee for two years; then as a member of the executive committee, and during the war, up to the Revolution, I was its chairman.
In this year a Mutual Credit Union was organized in Koeppental. It was a cooperative undertaking that extended limited and for the present short-term credit only. We had more or less copied the model from the Raiffeisen Organization in Germany. The executive consisted of Dietrich Thiessen, Leonhard Penner and myself. I enjoyed this work. In early summer I was informed that I had been appointed to serve on the jury of the district court of Nowe-Usen as representative of am Trakt. Soon I noticed that these various duties: jury, Credit Union, agent of the Waluevka Fire Insurance, and others began to take up a considerable amount of my time. Crop prospects this year were good. To always hire a threshing outfit was not ideal so I began thinking of buying our own. I bought a „Triumph“, an 18 h.p. motor, from the agent at Tokmak in South Russia, who came around in May, for 1,350 ruble. Through the Brothers Epp, Koeppental, I bought a British Clayton and Shuttleworth threshing machine with a 42 inch wide cylinder. It turned out to be a very reliable machine, especially its cleaning mechanism. I forgot to say that on March 20, 1912 (0.c.) our Irma was born, the same night that our neighbor Johannes Reimer’s had a daughter. He had asked us to fetch the midwife, Mrs. Penner, from Lindenau. In the forenoon we sent a message to Reimers that she should come to our house. But she had already left, so we had to go to Lindenau a second time that day. Irma brought life into our house right from the start. She was restless and lively.
On July 6, 1913 (0.c.), on a Saturday evening when we were cutting rye, our Johannes, the long awaited „manager“, was born. Papa came to visit the next day and remarked: „You have just bought your own threshing machine and already you have a mechanic for it.“
The harvest was very good and threshing went smoothly. After we had threshed our crop we also did Papa’s. His hired man, Heinrich Seltenreich, offered to run our outfit. Since he was an honest and dependable man, we hired him. That fall he threshed over 50,000 pud with our machine, mostly for the Colonists by the Jost ravine on the way to Pokrowsk, and also in Stahl. Occasionally rain slowed us down, but for the most part it was a smooth operation. The threshing outfit had cost about 2,800 ruble, and we earned 2,000 ruble in 3 months with it. I think we did better than any other machine in the area. I succeeded in almost every thing I tried.
In summer Papa started talking about his wish that we would take over his farm, and he would then build himself a small retirement home close to us. Since Mama’s death he, who at one time so loved farming, had lost all joy and zest for living. He was not in good health, was exceedingly lonely, wanted to get rid of everything, and live only for his two girls. But I had absolutely no desire for that. The land in Lysanderhoch alone was not enough for me, and to farm both places was too much. I remembered how difficult it had been in the past, when I had tried to work both places, and knew that now it would be worse, because then, Papa had managed Lysanderhoeh and now I would be alone for both places. That is why I had no desire to move to Lysanderhoeh. Also I felt at home in Waluevka and in the lower villages, but not in Lysanderhoeh and the upper villages. I never did like their more formal and stiff bearing; I felt more at home in the more democratic villages where I was also more popular. After much deliberation I said no to Papa’s offer; also because there was a prospect to buy more land conveniently located for us in Waluevka. All these advantages were lacking in Lysanderhoeh.
In the winter of 1913-14 I was away from home much of the time. We hauled the great quantities of wheat, and that took time. On two afternoons each week I went to Koeppental in mat ters relating to the lo-Op and the Credit Union. We also visited more than before. We had reliable hired help and everything went smoothly. At the Annual Settlement Meeting, to which all villages sent delegates, the chief mayor (Oberschulze) and the deputy mayor were to be elected. Mayor Jakob Froese was re-elected, but Ohm David Wiens, who had held his office for 20 years, wanted to retire. I was nominated. But again it was evident that Jakob Froese and some of his supporters were against me. He nominated another man. However, when it became obvious that the majority was for me, he did not call for the vote, but spoke in favor of his candidate in such a way that I got disgusted and withdrew my name. It was best this way because I knew that the two of us would have problems work ing together.
In the summer of 1914 Johannes Penner married Heinrich Neufeld’s Lenchen from Fresen heim. We two had long been close friends and I was a bit apprehensive whether his marriage would spoil our relationship. But that did not happen. We saw from the very beginning how Lenchen tried to adapt; she and Renate always got along splendidly.
We again seeded about 250-300 disj. (600-800 acres). The prospects were good and the future looked promising, not only for us but for all of Rus sia. The country experienced an economic boom as never before. This was a direct result of Stolypin’s land reform. It was so good that more and more land became privately owned, which, understandably, resulted in an economic boom. In a few short years exports, especially of wheat, had nearly doubled. As is always the case, with agricultural improvements there also came industrial development. New factories sprang up like mushrooms after a rain. New stores opened in places where no one had thought of before. Trade and commerce as well as cultural enterprises flour ished. Russia enjoyed a new prosperity.
In the decade following the first revolution (1905-15), more schools, especially high schools, were opened than in the previous 25 years. That is what happens when a sound political system meets the needs of the people. Even though the laws were not yet perfect—and the reactionary nobility at the court of the Czar tried to use its influence to weaken those laws that had been passed in 1905 granting rights and freedoms to the common people, so that these laws were in fact sharply curtailed or even annulled—yet on the whole there was justified hope of a healthy democratic development. Russia was on the verge of creating economic prosperity the like of which was perhaps only possible in this country, with its natural resources and 160 million people just waiting for a chance to work and get ahead.
But it was not to be. It failed, partly because of Russia’s panslavism, i.e. the ambitious goal of unit ing all of Europe (Montenegro, Bulgaria, Rumania, Austria, and all of Siberia) into one vast Slavic Kingdom. This sort of dream was fostered by France, as a means of revenge against Germany. It also failed because the young united Germany, feel ing strong and mighty, had by peaceful means grad ually conquered the world’s economic markets, thus becoming a rival for England which, under the reign of Edward VII, had started a systematic policy of encircling and isolating Germany. German diplomats were unable to counteract this. The result was that the atmosphere in Europe became increasingly charged with the risk and threat of war.
All countries prepared for the coming conflict. The news of the assassination of the Austrian crown prince by a Serbian, likely a tool of the Serbian government, struck like a bomb. That was the start, welcomed by some, especially France and the Rus sian Foreign Minister Iswolski. Austria demanded satisfaction in very harsh terms; Serbia was undecided; Germany supported Austria’s claims not only forcefully, but in a manner that gave little hope for a peaceful settlement. France agitated; England tried appeasement because it feared the general bloodshed—but at the same time saw this as an opportunity to suppress Germany. At times it looked as if reason would conquer and peace would have a chance. But lies and propaganda accelerated to the extent that the confused nations simply tot tered into the war.
A disaster for everyone; millions of people murdered, more millions of young and healthy men crippled and millions of women widowed. Children became orphans. Humanly speaking, God in all eternity cannot punish the individuals enough who were chiefly responsible for this incredible slaughter of innocent people.
It was on July 18 (0.c.) and we were threshing. I had gone to Koeppental, tied my horse in front of the lo-Op, when the mailman, Gerhard Penner, came racing from the municipal office shouting: „War! War!“ He went off to take the mobilization order to all the villages. I still remember that I was overcome by a foreboding that now the beautiful era of peace had come to an end; the future would bring suffering and heartache. But to what an extent that premonition was to be true no one could foresee.
The following day, July 19, was the funeral of Uncle Jacob Wiebe, Lysanderhoeh. Added to the mood of mourning was a mood of general depres sion and apprehension of things to come. And sure enough, in the evening Germany’s declaration of war was announced. Three or four of our workmen had to leave at once, among them our dear faithful Jefim, who from the beginning of our farming operation had been with us every summer. A rather slow but faithful and dependable worker. The poor fellow had a wife and a number of small children in Pensa. Now he had to go to war without saying goodbye to them. Within the month he died at the German front.
Mobilization for men, horses, harness and wagons became a daily routine. Soon workers became scarce because of the extensive draft. But having our own machine, we finished threshing early. Franz Wall’s David, Hohendorf, was our mechanic. He was tolerably good at the job. Again we did a lot of custom threshing, though not as much as in the previous year. At any rate in two years the outfit had more than paid for itself.
As I have mentioned, Papa had offered us his farmstead in 1913, but I had no desire for this. He repeated his offer again and again, finally saying that if we did not accept his offer he would rent it to a stranger because he was determined to retire. That I did not want, so we finally consented. Renate also favored the move because she very much wanted to live in that house and in Lysanderhoeh. For her this was the epitome of earthly happiness.
So on August 31, 1914, we moved permanently to Lysanderhoeh. And while Renate was happy, I was not. My heart was still in Waluevka and the farm that I had largely built up. There I had spent most of my youth, had struggled and hoped, had endured the depth of depression, but also experi enced the happiness of those beautiful early years of married life. I found it hard to leave, but realized that it was best in every way. So goodbye forever, my dear Fifth Colony. Actually it was not a final parting. We had traded the Lysanderhoeh two Feuerstellen with buildings and all with Papa for two Feuerstellen and buildings in Waluevka; addi tionally we were to pay 6,000 rubles over a six year period. But we paid it off in two years. We kept the land that we had bought in Waluevka and rented Papa’s four Feuerstellen.
So the old cumbersome farming in two places at the same time started again. When we moved to Lysanderhoeh we engaged our workman, Gottfried Seibel, and his wife, from Dinkel as our managers at Waluevka. They were both good people. Unfortunately, however, this was not for long because the following year Gottfried was also drafted.
When we moved to Lysanderhoeh Papa was still engrossed with building his retirement home. So we boarded his carpenters. Alexander Bartuli was the foreman. Papa worked much too hard, often exhausting himself, especially when hauling lumber. By October the house, barn, feedshed and wagon shed were ready so he moved in with my two sisters. He found the move difficult. After that he came over to us, just across the street, almost every morning after breakfast, and our Mama always had time for him. He already felt very lonely.
The harvest had been good, wheat prices rose, but we sold only enough to cover current expenses. The horses and wagons that were requisitioned were paid for quite well. Workers wages and all indus trial products rose in price, but agricultural products even more, so that economically 1914 turned out to be a good year.
The great bloodletting at the front continued. Germany was winning on all fronts so far, but not decisevly enough to knock out the enemy. On the western front it was impossible because Germany just could not match the reserves brought forward by France, Belgium and England. On the Russian front Germany seemed to have won more decisive victories, but Russia had millions of people that seemed always at the ready to be thrown into the slaughter. So the winter of 1914-15 passed, bring ing not peace but increased reinforcements on all sides to continue the fight and to encircle Germany more and more.
Shortly before the war started I received the last news from Uncle Gustav Schulz, a photo of his family with children and grandchildren. I value that to this day.
In 1915 a large acreage was seeded in the country. The weather was favorable from the beginning. The problem of worker shortage was solved by employing the masses of German refugees who were looking for work. The Government had evacuated all Germans from the border areas of Poland and Volynia en mass deep into the interior of Russia; they were taking no chances of them becoming traitors. No one was allowed to stay West of the Volga. Many were sent deep into Siberia were they suffered untold hardships. They had to leave their homes and belongings within 24 hours after being notified, and were allowed to take with them only what they could carry. They were loaded onto cattlecars and shipped east. Often they were on the train for weeks, with only meager provisions. Dis ease soon broke out and many of them died, espe cially children.
In Saratov they were hearded into large wooden barracks and then divided up among the peasants, usually on a voluntary basis. Anyone needing workers just went to these barracks and picked his families. There I saw how poor and help less these people really were. With nothing but the little that they had brought with them they squatted on the bare ground for weeks. They were so skinny and emaciated that nobody wanted them, because there was little hope that they would be able to work. We frequently got workers from there. Some of them were with us for quite some time. In gen eral they were not as strong and skilled as the workers from our Volga colonists. But then one has to remember that these evacuated and homeless refugees could not have much courage and zest for work. Unfortunately their helpless plight was fre quently exploited.
In general, I think, they fared better with the Mennonites than with the other Volga Germans and Russians. And yet I know that we all, some more some less, sinned against them. We did not show enough mercy and compassion. There were so many of them, and we heard their sad stories so often, that one got used to them and took them for granted. We no longer heard their stories of woe and misery but only considered their abilities to work. It was human, of course, but in later years—especially since coming to Canada, and when hearing that now our own loved ones in Rus sia are in much the same situation—I have often thought about their tragedy. I have asked myself whether we had sinned against them, and if what was happening now under Bolshevism to our own people was the punishment. May God forgive all of us who failed.
Economically the year was a great success. The prices for mobilized horses, wagons and harness were still good; those for wheat, cattle and milk products continued to rise. We were able to pay almost all our debts that we had made in the prop erty exchange with Papa.
After our manager of the 5th Colony, Gottfried Seibel, was drafted into the army we hired Alexander von Moor and his wife Maria. They were good people. During harvest and threshing time we lived in Waluevka for about six weeks with our family, and since Maria had too much milk she also nursed our Peter. Both babies benefited from that.
In the spring of 1915 we planted many trees and shrubs in our garden. Two years earlier Papa had taken out most old trees and left the soil fallow. In the fall of 1914 we laid out winding paths and flower beds in a quarter of our garden. Everything grew beautifully, since 1915 was a very wet year. Soon we had a beautiful garden with lilac and wild vine arbours, etc. Some of it can be seen on the large photos of the house.
Since the fall of 1914 my sister Anna stayed with us. The children loved her dearly, and so did we. Lieschen was Papa’s housekeeper. Our nanny from 1913-15 was Katje Russ, a very good, clean girl. Our workmen changed often, as more and more were conscripted into the army. To farm in two places was not easy, but we managed. I was young, healthy, and venturesome. Gradually I was drawn into various social activities. In May I went to our district city Nowo-Usensk for two weeks of jury duty. Though we were twelve of us, I felt it a big responsibility, especially in serious cases, to cast the „guilty“ or „not guilty“ verdict. If guilty, the presiding judge decided on the punishment. We had to consider some major cases, even murder.
On my return I got very sick with dysentery. For a few days it even seemed critical. But God helped and soon my young, strong constitution asserted itself and I was up and about. In 1915-16 I worked on the executive committee of the Credit Union along with Dietrich Thiessen, chairman, and Uncle Leonhard Penner. In January 1915 I was elected chairman of the Co-Op. This organization had taken over Cornelius Isaac’s general and hardware store. The business had flourished when it was privately owned, and continued to do so now. Usually there were three clerks with Herman Elk as manager. The chairman before me had difficulty getting along with him, as he had a rather fiery temperament, but I had no major conflicts with him.
Because the crops were good there was natu rally much threshing, at home as well as custom work. Financially that was rewarding. Johannes Wall, Hohendorf, was our mechanic even though he was not trained for that. However, he took good care of the motor and the threshing machine and got along with the customers much better than his brother the year before. In the summer of 1915 we built a fairly large underground cement cistern for storing motor oil in our machine shed. However, when it was finished I decided not to fill it with oil; perhaps in these war years it could be put to better use. The masons who had built the cistern were strangers and moved on, while our own workmen happened to be out working the summerfallow in Waluevka. I had day laborers haul the excavated earth away. I covered the lid with several inches of soil, and finally moved machinery on top of it. And that was that.
This year we got the first prisoners of war (POW) as workers. I was delegated at the district meeting to fetch them from prison and make all the necessary arrangements with the officials. We tried to get as many Germans as possible. At first that worked, but later there was resentment that Germans landed in better situations than Russians and so we had to take Czechs, Croats and various other Slavs. I remember especially a gypsy, a vile person, unfit for anything. Finally we asked him just to herd the cattle in Waluevka. He did us a lot of harm. Then we had a Hungarian, a wonderful man, but he stayed only three to four months because we could not communicate with him; the only German words he knew were commandos, like stop, forward, left, right, etc. He had been a taxi driver in Budapest, so I often used him as my driver. He did that splendidly and also had the vocabulary for that. Then we had Friedrich ? , a very good and capable man, but we had to give him up. We also had another Austrian, a Karl ? for several years. He was a fairly good fellow, but finally got into trouble when he got a German refugee girl, Julie, who had been with us three years, pregnant. He left and escaped secretly. Our last POW was Joseph Specht, a German from Batschka, Hungary, who stayed with us until 1921.
Our family life those years was beautiful. Everyone was healthy, financially we were well off, we could buy anything we needed. But I don’t think we were extravagant. We lived well by the standards of the time, bought many things that made life pleasant and comfortable, but we had no luxuries. We both worked hard right alongside of our hired help.
In the meantime we had adjusted socially as well, had good relationships with the neighbors, although at times we felt the envy of some of those who were jealous of our success. This was felt most from —, who lived only a quarter mile away from us. Our outward relationship was correct, but he always worked against me, though his wife had a very different attitude towards us.
During the winter of 1915-16 the conscription of the men continued. My dear cousin Johannes Penner had been gone for a year. Now they were calling up the older ones, even those who had been exempt because of special family circumstances, like my cousin Jacob Wiebe.
The mass murder continued in ever greater fury. For us it was a quiet, beautiful winter in the cozy warmth of our family. But we realized that soon our turn would come too. At this time A. Warkentin made our first large family photo.
In early March our Waluevka manager, Alexander Moor, was mobilized. Realizing that I would be drafted soon, too, I looked for a depend able man to take charge of Waluevka. Peter Bitter, manager of the big Hergenroeder estate, offered himself to us. I considered him to be the right man and hired him for a rather high salary. In the middle of March he and his family moved to Waluevka. Had I known at the time what a disastrous effect he would have on our farming enterprise, as well as on us personally, he would have never crossed our threshold.
On March 22 or 23 I received my induction order to appear within three days in Nowo-Usensk. I went with Johannes Reimer, Peter Wall’s Franz, Orloff, and Paul Vogt, Medemtal who also received their mobilization orders. I was aware then already that I had a weak heart which often caused prob lems. However, possibly because I was a German the examining committee was so rude to me, that I realized there would be no chance for privileges, and declared myself healthy. All of us were ordered to work in the forestry service at Neu-Berdjansk in South Russia. We were to report there by April 10. So the die was cast.
We went home for several days. On April five, the day after my birthday, I left, leaving wife and children behind. Papa lived across the street, but he was not well and made it clear that he did not want to get involved in the farming enterprise. Well, we thought we had a good manager.
We had been given wrong travel orders: instead of sending us to Neu-Berdjansk they sent us to the city of Berdjansk, about 200 werst away from the forestry service we were to report to. At one stop we had to wait for 12 hours to change trains. It happened to be Good Friday and there in the large waiting room a long table was spread with paskas and Easter eggs of the people of the neighborhood. The train and station personnel waited to be blessed by the priest. We reached Neu-Berdjansk in the forenoon of Easter Monday. Jacob Wiebe and several others from am Trakt were there, but we were together only for a few days, then they were sent to log trees in a forest in Berdjansk, Central Russia.
I regretted deeply that Jacob Wiebe and I could not be together. So now I had become a conscripted worker for the Crown. Our first job was to remove winter straw from tree seedlings. There we sat on our haunches or stood crooked and clawed with our fingers to remove all the fine bits of straw from between the plants. It seemed a bit childish to me. My thoughts always turned homeward where the field work was starting. How would they get along without me? Would Bitter be able to manage every thing? That year we seeded over 1,000 acres. We had over 60 horses, ten to twelve workers. And would it all be too hard for my dear Renate?
I had been working for three or four days when I was called into the office and offered the job of supervising a group of mixed, male and female, workers. Naturally I accepted and found myself in charge of about 20 people. A few days we worked in a vineyard, hilling the vines and hoeing the land. Then we hoed in various orchards, but conflicts began soon.
Because we were free on Saturday I had rented a buggy to take me to Melitopol for Sunday. The forester heard of this and asked me to deliver a par cel to his children who went to school in that city. Of course I obliged. When I had delivered the par cel, the children asked me to wait. Then they asked me to take a letter and parcel, presumably dirty laundry, home to their parents. On my return on Sunday evening I happened to mention this to a fel low C.O., who advised me to take it to the forester’s house at once. It was only about a quarter mile from our barracks. I said no, I was not the forester’s private servant. His maid could come and get it. The fellows thought that was gross. Monday morning I remembered the affair and took the letter along when we went for presentation before going off to work. The inspecting forester asked if I had delivered the parcel and brought something back in return. I said, „Yes. Here is the letter; the parcel is in the barracks.“ And why did you not deliver the parcel, he wanted to know. Calmly I replied that I had expected his servants to come and get it. Then the storm broke loose! And how! All this in front of the whole commando of 300 men!
So I went off to work with my party. After several hours we reached the gate near the exit of the large orchard, where the barrack smithy was located. I was rather excited from the morning’s episode and went to blacksmith Loewen to share it with him. He asked me immediately whether the forester had not yet seen me? When I said no, he replied that he would see me soon. And did I ever streak back to my group of workers. But alas, it was too late! A few seconds before me the forester and manager, Hildebrand, had arrived and found the whole group sitting in the grass. This time I was obviously guilty. I was not only reprimanded but cursed at in the vilest manner. So I was no private servant of his, but what about this? I would pay for this! One rudeness followed another. All this time I had to stand at attention with my hand in salute at my cap. At last he had spent his wrath and left. I was on fire inside.
When they had gone about 20 paces I called Hildebrand. He stopped and I went to him. I told him that as of noon today I would stop working and report sick. He replied that if I dared do that I would find out what the consequences were when a mobilized soldier refuses to obey. At noon we ate in the mess hall. Then I lay down in my bed. I was told to report for duty at once. I stayed in bed and said I had reported sick to the manager.
Next day the doctor’s assistant came to examine me and others who had reported sick. He wanted to force me to return to work, but when he had examined my heart he said that it didn’t func tion right. I would have to see the doctor, for which the forester had to give his permission. He tried to unnerve me with threats, but eventually I was permitted to go see the doctor in Tokmak. There two doctors examined me and gave me a certificate saying that I was sick and unable to work at the pre sent time. I was to appear before the military medi cal commission in Melitopol who would have the final word. That took almost three months, but I had to stay at the forestry, eat, drink and find ways and means to pass the time. But no more work! That was the end of my active C.0. service. I was not allowed to go home, where I was needed so badly. Twice a week I received long letters from my dear Renate. It was soon apparent that our manager, Bitter, was a braggart, but unable to manage the large farm. However, one way or another things did get done.
After about six weeks at the forestry I got a surprise visit from Papa. He stayed several days, shared much with me about things at home, also that Bitter was not at all qualified for his job. I had several days‘ leave and went with Papa to Halbstadt where some of our relatives lived. We visited B. Mathies, secretary of the Orphan organization and P.P. Wiebe, a rich man in a large new house. He took us to one of his large estates, with a driver whom he continued to criticize. I didn’t get the best impression of Wiebe, although he was pleasant to us. His riches came from his wife, a born Wallman, and she wouldn’t let him forget it. In Tiegenhagen we visited Peter Mathies, who lived with his mother, a cousin of grandfather. He had a lovely farm. We drove through a number of Mennonite vil lages, visited a Home for the Aged, the High School, Girls‘ School, and other institutions. The villages in Molotschna appeared very well-to-do and the people seemed well aware of it.
One observation that has stayed with me until today (1939) is the rough treatment, I’d like to say shocking behavior, of the Mennonite farmers towards their Russian workers. That was new to me. I know that it was very rare am Trakt. In the Molotschna the barrier between employer and employee, landlord and laborer, was much more pronounced; there was no personal caring. It seemed much more West European. When I later heard about the cruelties committed by Russian workers and farmers against the Mennonites in the Molotschna, I was not surprised. Those were acts of revenge.
After this five-day trip Papa went home and I went back to the forestry. Letters from home men tioned much rain and favorable growing conditions. Since all the granaries, bins in our attic, and other available storage space was still filled from last year’s crop, I wrote home that Bitter should sell and deliver all the wheat that we had in Waluevka, as well as some from Lysanderhoeh, to make room for the new crop. The wheat in the big granary in Waluevka had all been weighed. I must explain that when the grain went into the bin I saw to it that it was always recorded as less than what we took out, in other words there was more in the granary than recorded. I always gave generous measures, but Bit ter reported at least 300 pud less than what had been recorded. I was certain that he was not honest. Wheat prices were high, so we took in quite a bit, had no debts, and all that was needed was that I could go home to my loved ones.
At the end of June my dear Renate and little Anna, now five years old, came to visit me. Papa took them to Arkadak, about 400 werst from the Trakt, to my good friend, Heinrich Rempel, also a C.O. but on home leave, and so she could come along with him. She stayed two or three days. We discussed everything: farming and everything else. Anna had been very train-sick for 2 1/2 days and continued to be sick during the visit. Without asking for permission I accompanied them a third of the way to Charkow. The return trip went well.
On the trip coming here Renate had given Henry Rempel 100 ruble, which was stolen from him. He felt very badly about this, although I assured him that we could easily take this loss, and that I was very grateful that he had taken such good care of my loved ones.
When week after week passed without any word from the medical commission, I decided to go home. I did not have permission, but the manager, who knew about it, promised to send me a telegram immediately the notice came. So I went, deserted, I suppose. I had wired when to pick me up at Pokrowsk. As I traveled in civilian clothes I had no problems on the train; passengers in uniform were often checked to make sure they had the necessary furlough papers. I came home on a Saturday. It was harvest time. Sunday afternoon as we sat in our front room visiting, a vehicle drove into the yard to deliver a message. It was a telegram that said: „Come immediately!“ Within the hour I left to catch the 6 o’clock train to Saratov.
So I had been home for only fifteen hours. I was happy even for that. The five days on the trip and the money spent was worth it. At the forestry they were surprised to see me so soon. It turned out that only after some days I and several others had to go to Melitopol for examination. The doctors diag nosed me as having a weak heart, and I was given three months furlough. Hurrah! I remember how I ran to the station to send a telegram informing them when to pick me up at Pokrowsk. I was deeply grateful for answered prayers. Nothing is impossible with God. That was one of the never-to be-forgotten hours of my life.
Meanwhile threshing had started at home. Bit ter could not manage the many hired men and a Pauls from Aulie-Ata, could not handle the motor. My dear Renate was almost sick with impatience
and worry, but she could do nothing about it.
And then I came home. Papa had fetched me from Pokrowsk. He had brought my three-year old Wanja, (John) the little „manager“ along. We arrived at Waluevka an hour before sunset. The threshing machine was going, but how? I didn’t go there, I could hear it at once that it was going far too slow, and as more sheaves were fed into the machine the motor had trouble handling the load. Bitter came running and bowed repeatedly before me. Alright…
Next morning I rose at 3 a.m., woke Bitter and the machinist and took the motor apart. I soon found what I had expected, the piston rings were burnt and consequently fused together, so there was little power. In two hours everything was fixed. That Saturday we thrashed more than double of the previous day’s output.
I observed the workers, some twenty-five men. Most were not so bad but a few were obviously useless. My dear wife, who had been at Waluevka all last week, told me that Bitter always started late in the morning and quit early in the eve ning. After supper the workers, with the maids, spent long evenings dancing on the yard to harmonica music; no order and no discipline. Alright, I’ll fix that!
We always stopped work early on Saturday. This time, too. After supper I had all the workers gather in the yard in front of my window. I gave them a short speech. The theme was: how it hasbeen and how it is going to be. There was grum bling and protesting from all sides. I asked for quiet. There was silence. I asked five or six of the men, whom Renate had mentioned to me as the trouble makers, to come to my room immediately and collect their wages. They were dismissed. That started a wild excitement. They said then they would all go. My reply: Fine, then you all go! Then they started to threaten. My response was: if that is what you want, then in an hour the police would be on the yard. The ringleaders have to take their money and go. Anyone else who wants to go is also free to claim their wages and leave. Not one person came forward. As soon as the trouble makers were gone, the work went smoothly. We had no more problems and enjoyed good mutual relationships.
The harvest was not as good as the early sum mer prospect had indicated, but prices for all agricultural products were high, so that in all it was a good year financially. With Bitter I fared reasonably well. He was not a practical man, jab bered too much drivel and nonsense, but he was not stupid. His wife was a very good housekeeper, which was important, so I did not take Papa’s advice to dismiss him, realizing also that because of the endless conscription able-bodied men were scarce. I did look around but found no one even remotely suitable for the job, so I really had little choice but to keep Bitter.
Now I was able to enjoy myself at home with my loved ones for three months. Time passed quickly. Barely home, I had to be chairman of the Io-Op for the three months, as there had been a big row between the manager, H. Eck, and the chairman D.J. Thiessen. In fact Thiessen had resigned.
Threshing was barely finished when I had to return to the forestry service because I had not yet received written permission giving me home-leave; I had taken the risk of going home without that. The day after we finished threshing a telegram came from the forestry manager to come at once or the police would be notified. I was so happy and thank ful that the threshing was finished and left at once.
When I arrived I was told that the head manager from Alt-Berdjan had been there four days earlier and took a roll call of all men in the service to make sure everyone was there. I and one other man, who likewise had been furloughed by the medical commission, were missing. When asked about our whereabouts the manager had replied that we were in Melitopol to see the doctor. Hence the order that we check with him immediately upon our return. So we two went to Alt-Berdjansk. The forestry manager was scared and pleaded with us not to mention that we had been home, or he would be in deep trouble. Everything went just fine. I had indeed been at the doctor’s, only I didn’t say that it had been in Saratov.
Because the furlough documents still did not come, I went to the forestry service head office in Simferopol, a large city in the Crimea, several 100 miles south, to check on the documents. At my request the official in charge sent them to Alt Berdjansk the next day, so that I could at least go home legally. And that is when the three months started to count, which expired shortly before Christmas. During this time I tried to stay home just as much as possible; it seemed to me that the most precious gift was the happy family life.
The spiritual or church life, which heretofore had been rather lukewarm, had improved noticeably. The seriousness of the many separations and the obvious consequences of the war had brought about a deeper spiritual life.
I would like to mention one particular episode. In the beginning of December, when I was in Koep pental for a Co-Op executive meeting, I was told that the local police wanted to talk to me. He gave me a paper to read which the chief military officer in Nowo-Usensk had sent him. It was a libel against me, saying I had been home now for a long time without proper authorization, and that I was laugh ing at the stupid Russians who let themselves be killed at the front for the German Mennonites. Therefore, the undersigned had deemed it their duty as good patriots to report this to the authorities.
There were seven Russian signatures.
When I examined the paper more closely, the writing seemed familiar. I was convinced it was Bit ter’s doing. All signatures were written by the same hand, just changed somewhat. His letters to me had the same handwriting. In four or five of the signa tures the German letter „e“ appeared, which in Rus sian is written slightly differently, (like this a ), but Bitter had always used the German „C“, just like he had done in all his correspondence with me. I showed the police my legal furlough papers and he was satisfied. But I made a copy of that document. The next day I went to Waluevka. I would have liked to get rid of Bitter, but where was I to find a replacement? Especially since I had to leave home again within a few weeks. On arrival he met me in a most friendly manner. After we had made the rounds and looked at everything, we went into the house. I said I had something very interesting to read to him. Slowly I read to him the letter, watch ing him get red and pale in turn, and didn’t know what to do with himself. When I had finished I said that there surely were some bad people around to think up such lies; only a scoundrel would be capable of such slander. And when I had to leave again soon, it was of the utmost importance for us to know that our servants, especially Peter Petrowitch Bitter, was loyal and faithful to us. That would also make life much easier for my wife. Surely we could depend on him.
He couldn’t find enough words to convince me of his faithfulness to us and assure me of his best intentions. So I left it at that, feeling that I had done the best I could under the circumstances. But I did hope that some day I could take him to account for what he had done. It was not to be, and that, too, is alright.
Soon I received the order to return to Nowo Usensk as soon as my furlough was over. I was prepared for some unpleasantness, but after a solemn cross-examination I was merely ordered to report to New-Berdjan. I went home for one day and then continued on with a heavy heart to Neu Berdjan. It was a week before Christmas. So many were going home for the Christmas holidays, and I had to leave home. That was a difficult trip for me.
On arrival in Melitopol I checked in at the Hotel Europe, my usual lodging place. After a bath I went to the dining room and there at the table sat our forester, Fedot Kondratowitsch Prokopenko. He was greatly surprised that I was returning at this time, just before Christmas. My reply: What can I do? My furlough is over. Well, he said, and winked meaningfully, if you come back on January 10, then I haven’t seen you today. But don’t come to the bar racks, because then you will have to be entered into the register.
Hurrah! I asked him to give me this permission in writing, but he would not. If you want to risk travelling without official papers I have nothing against it, he said. And then he repeated: But I have not seen you today, so do not count on my support if you get into trouble.
Again I went to the telegraph office to ask them to pick me up in Pokrowsk. Within a few hours I was on an express train going home. I arrived on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Those were pre cious, beautiful days in the warmth of the family circle. I went to church only once. Then Aron Toews, our mayor, asked me to leave home as little as possible because people would know that I had no official furlough papers. He himself said he knew nothing about me being home!
Soon after New Year I left home. On arrival a doctor examined me and declared me unfit for work. So I could again apply to be examined by the military medical commission. By this time I knew that it would take some time before I would be asked to appear before them. So after about two weeks I went home again. After a week or two the telegram came: „Come at once.“
The long train ride from Saratov via Rjashsk, Charkow, and Melitopol was getting very familiar to me. In Russia we had three classes on trains: 1st class for the top brass; 2nd class, almost as good as first except that the color of the upholstery was yel low instead of brown; 3rd class with green wooden benches which accomodated 85 to 90 percent of all the passengers. I always travelled second class and always took a sleeper. In this class the passengers were respectable. It made no sense to me to save 25 to 30 ruble on a trip and miss the comfort, when at home, under Bitter’s mismanagement, it cost many hundreds more. And beside that, we could afford it.
I enjoyed travelling and slept as well on the train as at home. The Russian sleeping coaches are so much superior in comfort to the American.
On arrival there were no problems, but I real ized that it would be best to stay for a while. Although I never stayed very long at any one time, yet gradually I learned to know the life in the forestry service. It had negative but certainly also positive aspects. I believe they were good training centers for our young men, especially with regard to order and discipline, which greatly appealed to me. Some of the older men found it hard to adjust, for example to eat in seven to eight minutes, to rise and go to bed on command, etc. I liked this military order from the start.
Those of us with medical problems did not have to go to work; we read, played games, wrote letters, carved toys out of willow-wood for our chil dren, occupied ourselves in the workshop, etc. But in spite of my dear Renate’s frequent letters, by the middle of February the longing for home became so strong again that I left once more without legal permission.
In the meantime passenger control had become much stricter because there were increasingly more deserters. I was warned. But inspection was usually done only in the third class. So all went well. I still don’t consider it wrong that I went home. My stay in the forestry was of no value to the state and only cost them money. It certainly wasn’t my fault that I had to wait so long for the Commission’s inspec tion. After a week at home the already familiar telegram arrived.
I think I left home on Feb.23 or 24. It was colder than we had ever had it before, down to -28 R (-35 C or -31 F) with frequent blizzards, so that trains were often stalled, especially freight trains, which caused food shortages in the cities and at the front. The result was a growing discontent in the cities, especially among the working class which resorted to frequent strikes. I left in very cold and stormy weather. Our train often got stuck in the snow drifts, which sometimes were higher than a man across the tracks. The snow plows just couldn’t keep up with clearing the tracks.
When at last I reached Charkow, where I had to change trains, we were told that no trains from the north had come through in the last 24 hours. Hundreds of people were stranded. By chance I still had the (out-dated) order of the Novo-Usensk Mili tary Commission with me instructing me to report to Neu-Berdjan. It probably wouldn’t help me, per haps harm me, but at least it was a „paper“, a docu ment. After showing it to the official and paying him a hefty extra sum, he issued me a first class ticket on the Moscow-Sevastopol express.
In the compartment were three other pas sengers, one of them a high-ranking military officer. During the course of the 16-hour trip he frequently tilted his bottle and consequently became rather talkative. He had expressions that startled and surprised me, especially coming from a military officer. He mocked and ridiculed the royal family, especially the Czaritza, and made ambiguous remarks that we would soon experience great sur prises; that the newspapers were full of reports about the great food shortage due to difficulties in transportation, and that one could observe great ten sion and nervousness everywhere.
The revolutionary outcries in the Duma grew incredibly daring. The affair with the monk Rasputin created great excitement. What was truth? What mere revolutionary propaganda? One had ominous apprehensions of impending disaster.
One day when I was in the barracks I and others were invited to the birthday celebration of the forester. About ten or twelve persons were present. As was customary at such banquets, wine was served and toasts were made. The Postmaster pro posed the first and the Governor the second toast; I was asked to make the third toast. Now it was the custom, especially in wartime, that the first toast was always for the Czar. But it had not been done. In my toast I mentioned that it had been overlooked and asked that we toast the Czar. I noticed that the Postmaster and forester exchanged meaningful glances. What could that mean?
Next day, March 1, there was mail at last. Also a student, a Penner, returned from furlough. The papers carried the first report about the outbreak of the revolution. An hour after his arrival the bells called all men together in the assembly hall. There the hero stood on a table with 250 men crowding around him. He could hardly speak in his excite ment and enthusiasm.
He reported that in Charkow he had witnessed how the masses had dragged the police chief by his legs through the streets and tortured him to death. That he himself had joined in the rejoicing and the destruction of the police station. He reported (it wasn’t yet in the papers) that the Czar had been dethroned and that a time of freedom and happiness for everyone had come at last. It was pathetic. He tore his shirt open as if he were choking from hap piness. Fellows, now we will live, really live! There was enormous applause. And then: But now it is up to us; what can we do for the great cause? First thing we have to take Kloas (Nicholai, the Czar) from the wall; take him where he belongs, to the latrine. Shouts of hurrah came from all sides. Now that hit me.
I also jumped on a table and shouted, trembling in anger: „Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? As Mennonites we are to be a model to others and you cheer this rascal (Penner had a poor reputation) for his shameful suggestion. Let no one dare touch the portrait of the Czar; the one who does will have to deal with me. They were stunned at first; then there was grumbling, but soon there was general applause. Then I asked them to disperse quietly and to wait for further developments.
That evening the forester called me to him and revealed that indeed the Czar had abdicated his throne. The postmaster had known it the day before from the telegraphs he handled. He had told the forester. He said that some were of the opinion that now the faithful-to-the-czar groups would organize in the provinces, and that they interpreted my afternoon’s little speech from the table as a sign that I would start such a group here. That would have been stupid on my part. All I wanted was to keep order and propriety. With this explanation and my permission (sic!) he was quite satisfied and took the czar’s portrait from the wall and tucked it behind a box in the storage room. Thus the Czar’s reign had also ended in Neu-Berdjan. Some of the fellows were quite happy about that.
Now excitement was rampant. One revolution ary event chased the other. Into this turmoil the news that fifty men from our unit were to go to Siberia to cut timber there came like a cold shower. The names were announced. A number of them were known to be well-to-do fellows, and some lived only 30-50 werst from the Forestry. They were to leave within two days. Soon we became aware of underground activity. Everybody was afraid of being sent to Siberia where the work was hard compared to here. Six or eight of the men attempted to get off that list by offering substantial bribes to the manager. The middlemen were a Braun, Thiessen and a Siemens. Rumor had it that they did such „negotiations“ between the C.Os and the management on a commission basis. Now they were quite open about it and seemed to be busy. Lo and behold, those six or eight men could actually stay and other, all quite poor fellows, were to go in their stead.
Formerly no one dared to speak up in such matters. Now there was a different atmosphere. The bell rang for a meeting, everybody assembled, and they demanded an explanation from the forester. At first he was pale and nervous but then he grew more confident when he saw that the protesters were mostly young men and poor. In fact some of the fel lows who were to be sent to Siberia were shy but humbly pleaded for an explanation. Finally he announced that those men listed on the second list were to go. Finished! The whole sordid affair had aroused me to such indignation that I was like a powder keg with the fuse burning. Just a few feet away from me stood the guilty trio: Braun, Thiessen and Siemens. At first they seemed to be scared, but after the change of mood became apparent, they grew cheerful. I saw Braun laughing and overheard him talk mockingly to his accomplices. And that’s when I exploded.
I asked to be heard. Stepping up close to the forester, with one foot on a bench, trembling with anger and indignation, I made a passionate speech, concluding that in the name of the Commando we demand that the men on the first list be sent, and that the names of Braun, Thiessen, and Siemens be included in that. There was rousing applause. The forester wanted to protest, but a turmoil threatened to break out. There was confusion. I suggested that a committee be chosen to arrange the affair with the forester.
The result was that I, the manager, and several others were appointed to be the committee. We went to the office but the forester refused to agree. So I told him that he was under arrest, and that we would take him to Melitopol if he refused to com ply. He was crushed, cried and lamented so effec tively that the younger members of our committee were ready to soften. But I explained to him that this would be to his own advantage; he needed to free himself from these unjust methods and „hel pers“, and this was as a good an opportunity as any. If he would agree, we would all cooperate and his authority would be preserved unblemished. Finally he agreed to the inevitable.
I had been warned that Braun had threatened to shoot me before he left, but nothing happened. Two or three years later he was shot as a communist by the German army. He was a brother to the Braun here in Canada who started the big lawsuit against Friesen, in which he involved Elder David Toews as a witness. Their home village was Lichtenau in the Molotschna.
In time revolutionary ideas and methods grad ually trickled through to the forestry. Frequent meetings, elections of committees, etc. became much more important than work. The furlough question was regulated too: everyone was to draw a number and starting with No.1 that would determine who was eligible for a two-week vacation. The number I drew would make me eligible only after three months. Due to the revolutionary unrest no one was called by the Military Medical Commis sion. I did not have to work, but neither could I go home, where my dear Renate desperately waited for me. She was not well, Bitter was growing bold and insolent, which affected the other workers. She could do nothing about that. All this was very depressing for me.
The fellow in the bed beside me, an Epp, a robust young man and a good friend, knew how much I wanted to go home. At the close of another one of the many meetings one evening the chair asked if there was any other business? This Epp got up and asked: „How is it here: is one for all, and all for one?“ We are all for one, shouted the fellows, what do you have in mind? He reminded them how I had fought for the innocent poor against the forester, that my furlough was far away, that I was urgently needed at home, and whether the time of my leave couldn’t be changed so I could go now, and for four weeks instead of two, because I lived so far away. Permission was granted unanimously. I left the next morning.
· I arrived home shortly before seeding time. Travel was getting more difficult. Trains were over crowded in all classes with soldiers who were bec oming bold and threatening. It was a weird feeling to realize that the break-up had begun. After I got home Bitter and the other workers became more manageable. I had to direct the work at the Co-Op again. There Dietrich Thiessen, an older man, and also cousin Jacob Wiebe, who worked as a C.O. in central Russia, surprised me. Thiessen gave me one of Jacob’s letters to read which was full of the new freedom and in which he challenged him, as a pro gressive person, to bring new life to the Mennonite settlement. Seemingly Thiessen felt like that too. The first step he had taken as chairman of the Co Op was to change the decision-making process. From now on he would no longer „give orders“ but discuss everything, not only with the manager but also with the rest of the workers. But that didn’t work, it only created disharmony and disorder, so I was asked to assume the chairmanship again, although I was to be home only a short time.
We again had a large acreage seeded. When my leave was over the end of April, I returned. In Saratov I noticed that conditions had worsened in the one month. There was lack of discipline; unpopular officers were shot by ordinary soldiers. The motto of the temporary Kerensky government was: „Fight to the victorious end!“ What utter non sense!
At the forestry things also were changing. The economy-preacher, Abram Wall (recently died in Alberta), had a difficult position. He, who in former times had directed the agricultural part of the forestry service as well as the business affairs gen erally, was henceforth only to be the preacher and pastor. That would have been ideal, except that then the farm and business aspects of the forestry suf fered because instead of one person being in charge, they now did everything by committee. Talk, talk, and nothing got done.
The C.Os regretted that I had not returned a day sooner, because they had elected three delegates to a meeting in Halbstadt of all C.Os in Russia. They had wanted to send me as their delegate. I was sorry, too, that I could not go because that would have given me a much better insight into the condi tions, attitudes, etc. of the C.Os. The delegates were mostly younger men, but representatives from the various settlements were also there. Apparently there had been conflict. This is the first time that the name of P.P. Froese was mentioned. It seems he was a bit of a hot-head and did not make a favorable impression. Later he was chairman of the All-Russia Mennonite Organization.
New applications had to be made to appear before the Military Medical Commission. It was obvious this affair would drag on. And why should I be bored here when I was so badly needed at home? Now some buildings were to be erected at the forestry, but building materials were not avail able. The building committee (!!), for example, could not get nails. I volunteered to get 400 pud of nails and other hardware directly from a nail factory in Saratov in exchange for three weeks leave. After several days the „Committee“ actually commis sioned me as their agent „to buy supplies for impor tant state buildings“, as the document said. However, I was to wait until money became avail able. I offered to advance it, which they gladly accepted.
Before I left Melitopol I went to a Jew, a Mr. Glass, a black market operator, and asked if he could get nails, etc. for me. Of course, any amount. So within a few hours I had everything that I needed, but at greatly inflated costs. This is how it was everywhere; nothing was available for normal prices. Naturally government organizations, includ ing the forestry, were not allowed to deal on the black market, which led to a general decline of all state enterprises. I knew, of course, that in this case I would have to pay the difference (about 30 to 40 times as much) out of my own pocket, but I was glad to do that because of the time saved and the opportunity to go home. I had the nails put in storage in my hotel and went home for three weeks.
I was urgently needed there. Harvest was at the door, the mood of the workers was not the same as before, and on top of that Bitter was more and more a bitter pill every day. How was my Renate to cope with all this? During my several brief stays at home I devoted most of my time to the family. My health, especially heart and nerves, was not good. How quickly these few weeks passed and I had to leave again. I arrived safely at the forestry and delivered the nails. Nobody asked where I had bought them, and I don’t think I was ever paid. It made little dif ference to me.
After five to ten days the order came for all men unfit for work to report to the Military Medical Commission. I sensed that this time only the seriously sick men would be discharged, because once again the government made every effort to strengthen the resistance at the front. Hence they needed all men they could get, and the inspection would be strict. My check-up lasted about a minute. The doctor pronounced me „fit“. So now I had to stay at the forestry and do what? Attend meetings, because that is what they were doing there now. I made a quick decision: go home again. Without „papers“, of course. A few hours later I was on the train.
I was home a few days when the familiar „come-at-once“ telegram arrived. I did not go. After five days the same telegram came again, with the added threat: „If you don’t report back we will notify the police.“ However, the government had just issued a proclamation to the effect that all farmers, who had no other male family members, where to be freed from the front or any other place in the military, for two months to take care of the harvest at home. I obtained a certificate from our district office immediately saying that I was indeed the only male member in our family and sent it to Neu-Berdjan. In the meantime other fellows were in command there and they sent me another telegram saying that I had to come personally to regulate these affairs, but I paid no attention to that. The time had come when there were many orders, but little was done.
Our 1917 crop was not good. However, because we had seeded a large acreage there was still a lot of grain. We did not sell, partly because the ruble was devaluating under the Kerensky government. I felt it could not be trusted and the income from the dairy and sale of cattle was enough to cover operating expenses. All industrial products, like textiles, hardware, agricultural implements, were very hard to get for money but were available on a less expensive barter basis for grain, flour, meat, butter, etc.
We made rapid progress in the harvest. We summerfallowed and sowed fall rye and did the usual plowing. When my two months of harvest leave were up the disintegration of the army had become general. Many soldiers did not return from their furlough. The Ukraine was agitating to sepa rate from Russia and become an independent country. Neu-Berdjan was in the Ukraine, and so I did not return there. I asked an acquaintance to send my belongings to me. I received several more telegrams from the committee to come back, or this and that would happen. I simply wrote them that the Ukraine wanted to separate from Russia, and that would free me from any obligation to return there.
And so my service to the state was finished. Most of the time I had spent in furloughs and travelling back and forth. However, the constant uncertainty, the tension because of the frequent dangers of the military controls, the deceitfulness of Bitter, which had caused us serious economic losses, his incompetence, and on top of all that to see my dear Renate suffer so much because of our separation — all this had a serious and cumulative effect on my health, especially on my nerves. Also Papa’s health was not good, and the devaluation of the ruble troubled him.
In the fall of 1917 I tried to get rid of Bitter. I even hired another couple and had them come to Lysanderhoeh. Then I went to Waluevka to settle with Bitter. He admitted that he had often failed and begged so urgently to be allowed to stay one, and promised to do much better in the future, that I merely served him notice, but promised to reconsider. The next day when I observed the new couple I noticed several things I had overlooked before, things that made an unfavorable impression, especially the wife, who was going to be a lady. I also felt that they were not eager to take the job. When I asked them directly, they admitted it and were grateful that I had them taken back to their home in Stahl and even paid them for the day. And Bitter stayed on, since no other suitable couple was available.
There was ferment everywhere in the land. The discontent of the workers and the poor Russian farmers increased. There was no incentive nor joy in work. The solution of the Bolshevik Party: immediate peace; all land to belong to the one who works it; all banks and factories to belong to the people; appeal to the masses. Fighting at the front decreased as whole battalions threw down their weapons or took them home. The uncertainty mounted. What will the future bring?
Aunt (Jacob) Wiebe, oldest sister of my mother, died Dec. 30. The funeral was on January 4. She was the oldest and my mother the youngest of six sisters. She lived the longest, ten years longer than Mama.
On January 18 my sister Lieschen was married to Johannes Isaac, Orloff. „Polterabend“ was at Papa’s and the wedding was in our house because it was bigger. To procure the dowry for Lieschen was difficult for Papa, because all textiles, although still available, were very expensive. But my dear Renate came to the rescue and very energetically arranged for everything. In the end Lieschen had a very nice dowry.
In the fall of 1917 the Bolsheviks had formed a new government with Lenin and Trotzky at the head. Not because they had the confidence of the majority of the people, but because they were the only Party that assessed the situation correctly. They promised an immediate peace to a populace that was tired of war. The Russian people had shed their blood for three and a half years for foreign interests. So the Bolshevik Party gained many mem bers, not so much among the peasants and in the cities, but in the upper circles of the army and in the capitals. The leaders of the moderate parties and the temporary government had talked too much and acted too little, so that when they met in November, 1917, in St. Petersburg, to draw up a final constitu tion for all Russia, the minority Bolshevik Party recklessly and aggressively broke up the meeting, got rid of the present government, and by force of arms assumed power.
That is what started the long and wretched civil war, in which much blood was shed. A peace treaty with Germany was signed at Brest-Litowsk with incredibly hard terms for Russia, similar to those that the Allies later forced on Germany–but with the difference that the hypocritical prelude of the Wilson style was missing. A large section of the Bolshevik Party considered it impossible to sign such a peace treaty and pressed for the continuation of the war. But Lenin’s authority won the day. He said they would sign any kind of treaty, because peace would be of short duration. Unfortunately he was right.
One slogan of the Bolsheviks was, „National Self-Determination.“ Consequently from February 18-21 the meetings for the forming of a German Volga Republic were held in Warenburg. D.J. Thiessen and I were delegates from our settlement, am Trakt. Many hoped that organizing into an autonomous German republic would help escape the Bolshevik chaos and despotism. In isolated cases that actually did happen, but in general we were powerless against the Soviet state. A few German Volga Republic communist commissars, because of their background, were less fanatical, but they could not resist the pressure from above for long and were soon replaced by more willing servants of the state.
In April the order came that Am Trakt was to send two delegates to Nowo-Usensk to decide on the final boundaries between Russian and German Volga Republic territories, and the use of these lands for at least one year, until the general law would be introduced. H. Engbrecht and I were the delegates. It was the time of transfer of power to the communists in the provinces where, until now, they seldom were in command. I have described this interesting, and for the progress of the Revolution symptomatic meeting, in my NOTES ON THE TRAKT SETTLEMENT, and shall not repeat it here (AM TRAKT, Echo Verlag, 1948; English translation pending). The result was that the repre sentatives of the moderate parties, i.e.. the large majority, capitulated before the machine guns of the communists and left the meeting. From then on the communists were in control in Nowo-Usensk. The two German commissars who had been elected in Warenburg to represent the Volga territory could do very little; other communists, especially two German prisoners of war, forcefully seized the lead ership. In May we were obliged to deliver large quantities of wheat. Compulsory transportation („podwody“) was also introduced. Grain and feed had to be taken to cities, and worst of all, the masses of communist commissars had to be
transported with our vehicles.
We did the seeding as usual, but there was no joy in it. Workers were again plentiful. Soon after the seeding was done the order came that we were to divide all land as follows: 10.8 acres (depending on the quality of the land) for every living person, workers, their families and all. A bit more than one acre for every head of livestock. In Woluevka I had been elected into the land commission. There we received quite a bit of land, since we had about 40 horses, 40 head of cattle, several hundred sheep. The rest of our land, except what was portioned out for Bitter, went into the „land fund“, which was temporarily available for rent. I arranged with the Soviet that I could rent it, also Bitter’s land, i.e. our own land.
Actually we had worked the land in Waluevka, but basically it belonged to Papa. He had to experi ence the loss of all his savings, then the devaluation of the ruble, and now also the loss of his land. It very was hard for him, now that he was old and unable to work. I remember how he came to me one day in near despair. I assured him that as long as we had bread he would have bread also. But he was very depressed. Later he told me how those words had strengthened and comforted him. I also remem ber how he said: Yes, I know you will not let me starve, I believe that; but to have no money and no income at all is very difficult.
Then I remembered grandfather’s carriage in our shed, which was really my father’s, and I asked if he would sell it to me because I wanted to have it restored. He said yes, but that wasn’t worth any thing anymore. When I paid him, I think several thousand ruble, he was so moved that he cried. Per haps I did pay double the price, but on the other hand Papa had no idea how inflation was running away with prices. So we always found a way to make sure that Papa had the necessary money he needed.
In May our Clara was born. Some time before that I got Mariechen Tiede, an older girl, from Koeppental. She stayed with us for half a year and my dear Renate could at last take it a little easier and get her strength back. Mariechen was a very good and diligent person who was a great help to my dear wife at this time and also later.
All summer there were a lot of break-ins and burglaries during the nights. For example, one night five men smashed the bedroom window at my parents-in-law, entered with raised revolvers, drove all occupants into one room where they had to stay with their arms up, while father-in-law was forced to hand over his substantial amount of cash. Then they hitched his best horses to his carriage, loaded it with their clothing, linens, and other valuables, and drove away.
These incidents increased daily. Since we still had many prisoners of war in our village, the com munity hired several POWs for each village as night watchmen. Individual families also did that. For over two years we had a POW as our private watchman. There were plenty of weapons, because the returning soldiers usually brought them along.
The harvest this year was average. Nobody wanted to buy or sell grain for money because the value of the ruble decreased so rapidly. Bartering was becoming more and more common, but was forbidden, because the communists wanted all the grain for the cities. The orders for grain deliveries increased and pressure intensified. Our district organization was dissolved in fall and a Soviet (council) established. The first chairman, Adam Flegler, a Lutheran teacher, behaved shamefully. He was rough, started „officially“ to rob the more prosperous farmers, for example, by making them give their horses and cows to the workers who had none.
I remember one incident, a rather comical situation. There was a family named Koehler in Lysanderhoeh who used to be herdsmen at Wiens’s and Bergman’s. One day Koehler came to me and showed me an order from the Soviet that said I had to give him a good cow on the spot. So we went to the barn and I offered him a really good cow, although she was not very big. He was suspicious, and decided to do his own picking. And why not? So he picked the largest, a very good-looking Sim mentaler, but which gave so little milk that we didn’t even bother milking her. We let the calf suck her.
So he left with his cow. He was quite proud and happy. After a few days I was ordered to the Soviet. Koehler had accused me of having cheated him. They wanted to punish me severely for my wickedness. Of course they didn’t believe my side of the story. But it so happened that a man was there who overheard all this, and he told them how Koehler had personally told him in great detail how he had gotten the better of me by picking the best cow. The incident ended with Koehler returning the Simmentaler cow and taking the one that I had originally picked for him.
And another incident with comrade Koehler. During the land division in Lysanderhoeh I had received about 2/3 of our land because of our large family, as well as Papa and Anna, plus the substan tial number of livestock that we had. The rest was given to Koehler. Additionally he got from neighbor Fieguth, who was a bachelor, another 32 desjatin. One day a commissar arrived in the Soviet to examine the land holdings of the new land owners. Comrade Koehler sat in the front row, his legs spread in front of him, sucked on his pipe, blew smoke circles, and every few minutes spat in a great arc into the room. We „old“ farmers sat in the back. Oh how grand he felt! Upon the commissar’s ques tion how much land he had, Koehler got up, spat forcefully, and said: „Me? How much have I got? Well, from Fieguth I have a whole lot, and from Dyck I have another patch.“ But how much a „lot“ was, and how much a „patch“ was, he didn’t know. He looked around triumphantly as if he was on top of the world. It was probably the greatest moment of his life.
Poor people. Often they were totally or semi illiterate, had always lived in abject poverty, and now when good fortune came their way they didn’t know what to do with it. Most of them were demoralized by this and became criminals. Ill-fated Russia. But that was and is the character of red socialism. How different from Germany, where cap italist monopolies are gradually dismantled, but with the result that the lower classes benefit and slowly rise economically. In Russia they attacked not only capitalist monopolies, but all property, either ban ning or shooting the owners. And the result is that nobody has anything; everybody suffers.
Comrade Koehler was certainly not one of the worst. In the hunger year of 1921 he took his family to South Russia, but died of cholera on the way.
The Soviet chairman, Flegler, was disliked and actually hated by everyone, so that when there were more or less free elections in fall, Johannes Penner was elected to replace him. One of his responsibilities was to fulfill the official requisition quotas for grain, livestock, vehicles, etc.. He was not only able to negotiate better terms, but also carried these unpleasant tasks out more justly.
In fall, when we had to deliver a large quantity of grain, one of my workers and I filled a great many sacks and stacked them up in the shed. At night I opened the cistern that had been made in 1915 and filled it with wheat, I think perhaps 200 pud. Then I covered it up again, leveled the earth and moved the machinery on top of it. No matter how many searches we had to endure later, nobody ever discovered that cistern.
Again in summer, when all the workers were in Waluevka and I was alone at home, I asked. Mariechen Tiede and her brother Julius to help me make another secret hiding place. On the second floor, six feet from the fire wall, we built a parallel wall to that, using bricks that we had on hand in abundance. This secret „room“, ca.6 x 28 ft., had a solid wall, except at one end where we did not cement the bricks in place but merely laid them on top of each other. That was to serve as our „door“. Before we built this wall we moved a huge chest up against the fire wall, so that later it was enclosed in our secret chamber. We had filled that chest with coats, yard goods, leather, etc. We did the same thing with a large clothes closet, which we could easily dismantle and reassemble, and filled that, too. Then we also hid about twelve sacks of flour, four large crocks of lard, a barrel of salted pork/bacon, and several smoked hams, as we ll as the best har ness, etc. Julius and Mariechen promised not to tell anyone. And they kept their word.
Grain requisitioning continued in increased tempo, so that most of our wheat was given away; however, since we had quite a lot of grain in storage we were still able to sell and barter quite a bit. In this way we received a luxury „Landauer“ coach in trade, with roof and solid rubber tires, doors and glass windows, and even a count’s crown on the door with his initials in silver letters. It had likely been pilfered from some nobleman’s estate. Of course we could not use it, but at least our wheat was not given away for nothing. In the same way we also bartered wheat for an almost new buggy with springs, a „Lineika“, which we used all the time. It was a practical vehicle for taking meals out to the workers in the fields, etc. The „Landauer“ was stored in the shed at Waluevka and never used.
Nobody looked forward to seeding time in spring. The „farmers“ who had just received their land didn’t want to work. Why should they? Instead, they rented „their“ land to the original owners and lived off the rent. Most farmers decreased their seeded acreage. For my part I wanted to risk it once more. Bitter and the other workers were also willing, especially since Bitter was receiving hefty wages as well as a guaranteed part of the crop. In any case he was much better off this way than if he would have the land to himself. So, once again, we seeded a sizable acreage both in Lysanderhoeh and Waluewka. In the spring of 1918 I had seeded in Waluevka about 125 acres into crested wheat grass, called „Schitnjak“.
I should also mention that one of the articles in the peace treaty with Germany declared that all Germans in Russia were free to return to Germany at any time. All they would have to do was report to a German consulate and obtain a certificate of safe conduct („Schutzschein“), which would automati cally grant that person German citizenship with the rights and protection inherent in that status. Fur thermore, the Russian government was obliged by this treaty to pay to the German government in gold for all the movable and immovable property of the returnees. The German government would hold this money in escrow until the returnee could claim it. This would fit in with Germany’s plan to settle the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had been taken away from Russia by the peace treaty, with Germans, and thus „germanize“ this region as a buffer state between Russia and Germany. Back in February already, on the occa sion of the founding of the German Volga Republic, Pastor Johannes Schleuning, just back from Germany, privately advocated a mass return of Germans. A German Consulate was opened in Saratov with Mr. Bonwetch as consul. He was the son of Dr.Bonwetch, with whom my grandfather was well acquainted. Before the war young Bon wetch had been an engineer in Russia, had studied here, returned to Germany for military service, came back to Russia, but was called back to Germany as a reserve officer, a few days before the war broke out. So this Bonwetch was now the German consul in Saratov.
In July I was in his office for the first time. His officials gave me the information I needed, but since I wanted to see Bonwetch personally, I sent him my calling card and asked for a meeting with him. As soon as I stepped into his office he asked whether I was related to the chief mayor Dyck. When I told him that he was my grandfather, he was very friendly and said how much his father had appreciated my grandfather. To my question whether he advised me to get a certificate of pro tection for myself and my family, („Schutzschein“) replied: „Better to wait a while; but I tell you this in strictest confidence; don’t mention it to anyone.“
Soon after harvest in September I went back to him with the same question. He asked: „Do you believe that Germany will win the war?“ I hope so, but how can I know? He gave me a stack of German newspapers (not available in Russia) and said I should come back again when I had read them.
I took the papers and went to the city park where I read them carefully. It made my hair stand on end! I had no idea that the situation in Germany was that critical. For example, I remember a lead article in the „Frankfurter Allgemeine“ that advo cated an immediate peace treaty, even if the Entente would ask for the resignation of the Kaiser. It said that, „The merits of the Hohenzollern are not that great they deserve the suffering of Germany.“ I was quite depressed. Here in Russia the future looked hopeless to me, so I had come to Saratov with the firm intent of obtaining the „Schutzschein“ and immigrate to Germany as soon as possible. But if the mood in Germany was in fact as the papers reported, then why go to Germany? In fact if Germany lost the war and Russia won, communism would also spread to Germany.
When I returned to his office, Bonwetsch asked: „Well, shall we prepare the certificate for you?“ I had already given him all the necessary documents such as birth certificates, invoice of property, etc. I only shook my head. „The situation is very serious,“ he said gravely. „Our fatherland is in a tragic situation.“ He asked again that I keep this information confidential, he had given it to me as a friend.
As far as I know only two families from am Trakt applied for the „Schutzschein“, H. Engbrecht and Aron Esau. They paid substantial amounts of money at the consulate in Saratov which was to be credited to them in Germany. Ten years later Aron Esau wrote to my brother-in-law, Johannes Isaac, here in Canada, to send him a large sum of money which would be reimbursed to him from Germany. When C.F. Klassen, Winnipeg, was in Germany in 1936 he looked into this matter and discovered that the bank confirmed that Aron Esau did indeed have a credit with them, but they could not pay this out since Esau had not given a written authorization to the bank to do so.
Later I was glad that I did not have a „Schutzschein“. In November Germany collapsed and the peace treaty between Russia and Germany was canceled. Esau and Engbrecht had much trouble because of their certificates of protection. Because the peace treaty with Germany was now declared null and void, they were declared traitors.
The weather was great, the harvest was good, but there was no rejoicing in it. It was obvious that the state would claim most of the crops. By now I also realized that I could not continue with the Waluevka farm. It was too dangerous. Large estates were often confiscated and the owners shot. I knew that I could not trust Bitter. But what should I do?
The weather was great, the harvest was good, but there was no rejoicing in it. It was obvious that the state would claim most of the crops. By now I also realized that I could not continue with the Waluevka farm. It was too dangerous. Large estates were often confiscated and the owners shot. I knew that I could not trust Bitter. But what should I do?
I had a plan. All the fields in Waluevka on the east side were summer fallow-wheat and con sequently the best. From the edge of these fields to Lysanderhoeh it was only four and a half miles. And all this was to be confiscated by the state? No way. So when we started to cut the wheat we set the binder as high as possible, making real short sheaves. When we started threshing we did the fields on the west side first. Then, when we came to the better summer fallow wheat on the east side, we stopped threshing for the time being. The motor wasn’t working so well.
In Lysanderhoeh we started to haul the wheat into piles, stacking it up, but not threshing it. We also brought the Waluevka east side wheat to Lysanderhoeh. In the meantime the government issued one requisition of wheat quotas after the other but we postponed the delivery of wheat as long as possible in the hope that the Bolshevik government would collapse.
For example, I remember the 16th of August when we were at the funeral of Mrs. Jakob Froese, Lysanderhoeh, we could hear the roar of cannons in the distance all the time. It was sinister, and yet it lifted our spirits because we knew that was the advancing army of General Denikin, who was push ing northward with a large army as well as Cos sacks from the Don area. But we had hoped in vain. Soon the White army was in retreat and before long it dissolved completely.
In the meantime I had dismissed most of our workers. With the remaining ones we hauled the wheat into large and very wide stacks. It took an incredible amount of our short and heavy sheaves to make one such stack. In the meantime, when it rained, we sowed some fall rye, did some plowing, and prolonged the threshing of the wheat until pre sently winter was upon us and it was impossible to thresh. And that was now the conclusion of my plan—to drag everything out as long as possible, in the hope that perhaps during the winter there would be a change in government.
However, the requisitionings of grain, meat, potatoes, animals, etc. simply increased. Many could not fulfill their quotas and had to endure searchings of house, barn, haymow and even straw stacks. Woe to those unfortunate people who had hidden something. It usually resulted in the loss of their best horses, cows, machinery, clothing, etc.
By January nobody had grain to spare, i.e. above the „norm“ that they were officially allowed to keep, based on the number of persons, registered animals, and for seed. Repeatedly military delega tions and commissars came to inspect everything; but finally concluded that there was nothing more to be had. Our grain stacks were assessed three times, each time more than the time before: first 2,500 pud, then 3,500—4,500 pud, which they themselves thought was too high. But I had to sign that in spring I would deliver that amount of grain. But I had no fear because I knew the quality and quantity of wheat in that stack.
When the commissars of the Volga Republic reported to Moscow that all available grain had been shipped, and that the amount kept back was just enough to keep the farmers and their best animals from starving, and for seed, a special control com mission, headed by the Jew Kalmanowsky, was sent out to look into the matter. He arrested everybody in the government of the German Volga Republic, with Comrade Ad. Reichert at the head, and sent them to a concentration camp at Moscow for six months. In their place they put left wing radicals, often of low caliber, even criminals, who now undertook their task. They simply took all the grain that they could find. Soon hunger spread, especially in the Colonist villages, where crowds of hungry beggars swarmed over the villages. Those who had not hidden some foodstuffs, or who had hidden it poorly, were soon in bad shape.
When the Kalmanowsky Commission came to Lysanderhoeh I was ordered to appear at the Soviet and then the harassment began. It is impossible to describe in words the torture that I went through. Two or three men questioned me at the same time: how much land was seeded? How much of each kind? How much here and how much in Waluevka? How many horses, cows, pigs, sheep, oxen did we have in Lysanderhoeh? In Waluevka? How much had been delivered to the government? How much grain was ground into flour? How was my sleep? How much human blood did I drink daily? How many children, how many workers did I have now? In former times? A hundred questions. Ten to fif teen men were at me shouting, threatening, brandishing their revolvers in my face while all the time two or three men wrote down everything I said.
The questions were not asked in orderly fash ion the way I put them down here; indeed not, some questions were repeated as often as ten times, with sudden jumps and shouts of: „Aha, now he’s lying! Before he answered differently!“ There was accusa tion and cursing, threatening, brandishing of horse whips close to my face, beating chairs on the floor, fists on the table, heavy tobacco smoke, and the like. If I tried to think before answering they screamed: „Speak! Speak! You’re stalling to think up lies!“ If I answered in Russian they screamed and asked questions in German and demanded German answers. When I obeyed they shouted: „You’re sup posed to speak Russian, you German dog!“ This is only a faint hint of the torture I was subjected to. Today I would break down after five minutes of this kind of treatment; I don’t know how my nerves stood it for one and half hours.
I was on the verge of collapse, ready to cry out: „Take all my property, or kill me, I am tired of everything!“ when there was an unexpected change. Suddenly the agronomist Samarin, who represented the government Department of Agriculture, a very decent man whom I knew from before, jumped up and shouted quite excitedly: „That’s enough! Now stop that torture! Don’t you see citizen Dyck is a decent and honest man?“ And indeed, those devils in human form, burst out laughing, began to joke around and acted as if nothing had happened.
Then I had to sign a new form promising that in spring I would deliver not 3,500 but 4,500 pud of wheat. With that they thought they’d catch me. Even today, after twenty years, that Jew Kal manowsky seems to me like a devil straight from hell.
When I was in Moscow in 1922 I asked com rade Alex Schneider, who had been one of the arrested German Republic commissars, if he knew where Kalmanowsky was now. Schneider told me that Kalmanowsky had been held in very high esteem in the Kremlin as one of their most able secret policemen whose examinations no one was able to withstand, until he suddenly went off the deep end, became violent and deranged. He ended up in a mental institution: „Be not deceived, God is not mocked.“
After this last wave of robbery there was peace for a while. However, when spring came many of the animals had died or were too weak to work. And of course there was no seed grain. At last, when it was actually too late, the government did issue some seed grain; but a large part of it was secretly ground into flour for bread by the starving people.
Then came the order that all workers had to be out on the fields by 5 o’clock in the morning and were not allowed to return home before 9 o’clock in the evening. They were to do the seeding; anyone found at home during these daytime hours was subject to punishment. So everybody was on the fields with their horses. There was so little grain to sow and the horses were so skinny and weak, that the men lay around on the ground and the horses stood idle. A lot of tobacco was used up in these days.
After seeding I was supposed to thresh. Again I postponed it as long as possible with the excuses that the machinery had to be overhauled, or I didn’t have enough workers, and so on. Finally a secret police agent came out with the chairman of the Soviet to check into the matter. He didn’t say much, but he made me sign that within one week I would be threshing and deliver not less than 4,500 pud wheat. If I failed to comply they would confiscate all my property and I would be sent to a concentra tion camp. Now I knew it was time to act.
So we started threshing with Gerhard Klassen’s big machine, since ours actually was not in working order. But alas, the Soviet sent two men to check on the amount of grain that was actually being threshed, one was a soldier, Hoelzer, a communist, the other our village blacksmith, P. Wall, a good natured man. They took turns watching, each did half a day. That was great..
Now I arranged with P. Wall that his half day was considerably longer than Hoelzer’s half day, but he always reported about the same amount of wheat being threshed as Hoelzer. All the wheat was stored in our large granary to which Step Porow, a Russian from Woskresenskse and grain com missioner for our district, had the key. And so it happened that there were about 500 pud of wheat more in the granary than the two controllers had reported. I did not have to report anything!
During the noon threshing break our Austrian POW Joseph Speckl, helped me empty some sacks of wheat into a chaff bin and cover it over with chaff. So we did these things and took risks. Why? Because the wheat belonged to us, it was ours, and we knew the communist robbers would come for it. So I tried to ward off hunger and starvation for my family and livestock. But it was still risky.
I had promised to deliver 4,500 pud of wheat and actually delivered almost 5,000 pud, over and above the extra wheat about which nobody knew anything. Of course I had to hand over the keys to our three-storied granary to the authorities, but I had an extra key for the lower story which I kept and at night helped myself to MY own wheat.
But then Perow, who had the granary keys, became suspicous. He told me he was planning to have all the grain transferred to a different granary and hoped that the recorded weight and actual weight would be the same. So I realized that he knew something. Suddenly he asked if I would sell him our „tarantass“. I asked what he would pay? He mentioned several thousand rubles, I don’t remem ber exactly how many, but just enough to put the rim on one wheel. Still, I had no choice but to agree to avoid certain difficulties. So of course the wheat stayed in the granary, and I continued to siphon off the extra amount.
That same week I had to provide transportation to Koeppental for several days for a commissar; that is when our beautiful spring buggy was stolen. Several days later our blacksmith’s son, Peter Wall, came running and asked me to come at once because the communists were about to seize our „Landauer“ coach. Because I didn’t trust Bitter I had brought the stately coach from Waluevka to P.Wall’s feed shed, put some boards in front of it and then cov ered the whole thing with straw. But apparently someone had seen us and reported it. Naturally I didn’t go there because I could do nothing about it, but I saw them drive off with it. So within a week, I had lost three expensive vehicles.
I almost forgot to mention an important inci dent. After my experience with Kalmanowsky I realized how dangerous it was to own such expen sive property at Waluevka. But how was I to get rid of it? It was almost impossible to sell livestock and machinery, and even if I did, what would we do with the almost worthless money? Then there was an incident, I can’t believe it was anything else but God’s leading, that showed me what to do.
Our municipal office was in Seelman, about 30 miles away, and chairman comrade Ad.Emig and his private secretary Franz Thiessen, from Koeppen tal were responsible there. Thiessen had been a teacher in the district high school until it was closed. One Sunday he had come home for the weekend and sent me a message that he had some thing important to share with me. I went at once. He told me that a few days earlier our Peter Bitter had come to the office and asked for the commissar Emig. At the very moment when Bitter was shown into the office, Emig had left the room by another door. Thinking that Thiessen was Emig, and seeing that he was alone with him in the office, he asked how long he was going to tolerate J.J. Dyck having two farms and so much property? He slandered me and requested that he relieve me of one of the farms.
Knowing that Emig would soon return and that he would give Bitter a friendly ear, he decided to hear him out. When he realized Bitter mistook him for Emig, he decided to do me a friendly turn. So he scolded him for slandering an honest citizen like Dyck, who had always faithfully done his duty to the Soviet government. Finally he told him to be on his way home and get to work. Bitter thought, of course, that he had been talking to the commissar Emig, was rather bewildered, excused himself, and left. He certainly hadn’t thought the new Soviet government was like this. Moments after Bitter left the office, commissar Emig stepped back in again. Naturally he knew nothing about this conversation.
So now I knew what I had to do, though I found it extremely difficult. Since I went to Waluevka very seldom this winter, Bitter had sent me weekly written reports. In the fall he addressed me as „Highly honored Sir.“ I asked him to stop that nonsense but he persisted for some time. Then it was just „Honored Sir,“ then „Mr. Dyck,“ and finally „Friend Dyck.“ Of late he had addressed me „Comrade Dyck.“ I took this as a barometer of his attitude to me. What was I to do? Discharge him? Out of the question. I would be severely punished for that and the farm would be confiscated.
So I decided to act on the proverb: „He who cannot help you as a friend, can do you a lot of harm as an enemy.“ I went to Bitter. I remember how very friendly he received me, took the reins and unhitched the team. After warming myself in the house we went out to make the rounds togeth er—the whole farm, animals, feed, and everything. What feelings beset me. For the last time. . . For the last time. . . Bitter was sweet as honey; very repulsive. But it had to be. We went inside again. When I said that I had an important matter to dis cuss with him he seemed very alarmed. His bad conscience was bothering him.
I told him that under the present circumstances it was not quite appropriate for me to have two farms, and so I had decided to hand most of one over to him, especially since he had managed it for so long. As I recall it was about 12 horses, 5 cows, some young cattle, sheep, harness, plows, harrows, wagons, sleighs, feed, seed grain-in short, every thing that belonged to a medium-sized farm.
He seemed unable to grasp what was happen ing, said he couldn’t possibly pay for it all. I assured him that it was alright for now, but asked him to sign a paper that he would return to me at some later time, when he could well afford to, the equivalent value of what I was giving him. He signed that document which I had prepared in advance. One still had the secret hope that one day all this would pass and normal conditions would return. However, I never received one red cent from him for all that.
Over and over again he called me his benefac tor. I would like to have thrown the rascal out, but that could have been our downfall. So I left as soon as I could get away. It was best this way! I was rid of the 5th Colony, our Waluevka farm. . .at last! And I was told by others more than once that after this Bitter defended me on more than one occasion in the Soviet and against proletarian attacks.
My dear Papa found it hard to accept that this had all been for the best. Like other older people he could not adjust to the new times. The rest of the livestock, horses, and inventory I either sold or gave away to needy families, with the understanding that if and when they could and wanted to pay for it they could do so. That led to many positive experi ences and the realization that there still were many honest Mennonites. When we left for Canada seven years later, most of them had paid up, some without being asked.
In the meantime Papa’s health had improved since 1919 when he suffered so much from nervous depression. He had a hard time of it, poor Papa. In the fall of 1918 he went to Waluevka for a load of dry firewood. While pruning some birch trees in the ravine he cut his right thumb (he was left handed). It seemed negligible and he paid no real attention to it until blood poisoning set in and after several days we had to take him to the hospital in Seelman. Dr. Grasmueck operated immediately, made five inci sions between his hand and elbow, and with rubber tubes drained out the poison. Papa had to stay in the hospital and for a while it looked as if he would lose his arm. Dr. Grasmueck did everything he could for Papa.
After a week we went to visit him but still could not take him home, as we had hoped. Condi tions in the hospital were terrible: hardly any medi cine, very poor food, poor beds, everything teeming with lice. All this as a result of the revolution. We had brought along bedding and some food. Repeatedly his condition became critical and he was obliged to stay there for six weeks. When at last we took him home he was emaciated and crawling with lice. We were so very sorry for him; had visited him repeatedly, and obviously he was glad to come home at last. My dear Renate did much for him in these days, cleaning him up and caring for him. After all, sister Anna was still young.
Eventually his arm healed, but it was never fully restored. It took over a year until he could start using it a little; but gradually it dried up. All this: his poor health, the loss of all his money and property, the great sense of loneliness that never left him since Mama’s death, and other matters that he shared with me in one of his dark hours, resulted in severe depression and melancholy in the summer of 1919. It was very difficult for him, and we could not give him any lasting comfort. We were so sorry for him. When he went home after visiting us he seemed comforted, but soon a great weight came upon him again to depress him.
I took him to a psychiatrist in Saratov, but he received very little help. I will never forget the return trip on which he poured out his heart and cried until he had no more tears. Our dear Papa. But gradually he improved. He was able to sleep again, became more calm, and things went better. Then one morning in May, 1920, after a sleepless night (my nerves were almost in ruins) I paced up and down the garden in front of our house, when I heard Papa coughing. He lived directly across from
us and slept by an open window. Though I had often heard that cough, I had never before realized that there was something ’sinister‘ about it, and I feared we would not have him with us much longer.
But I have omitted something. In the summer of 1918 we put a new wooden roof on our barn. One day when I was on the roof a worker came run ning from the well with Johannes in his arms. He had walked behind a horse carrying a stick in his hands. When the horse suddenly stopped, and then backed up a bit, Johannes had fallen down and the stick had gone into his abdomen. Now the intestines were coming out through the hole. Rev. Wiens, our homeopath, sewed it shut and all was well. But it could have been much worse.
Our little „Petche“ (Peter) also had an accident. Somehow he got stuck with his legs in the fence resulting in a wound which started to fester and turned to blood poisoning. So we had to take him to the hospital in Seelman. He was able to come home after about a week. This was some time before we took Papa there, and the conditions had not yet deteriorated so much.
As I have mentioned several times, searching our premises was a common occurrence, nobody knew if and when these official robbers would come and plunder us. I remember one such search in March, 1919. A detachment of Red soldiers under the leadership of a sailer came and searched our haymow, barns, sheds, the house, snow dunes, and finally the attic of our house. It was rather dark there, so I had to get a lantern. Everything seemed to go well and they were just beginning to leave, when the sailor turned back to the brick wall that we had erected to have a second look. I held my breath. This was it! I came closer and offered him the lantern, asking whether he needed it. At the same time I positioned myself so that my shadow fell on that part of the wall where the bricks had only been piled up, not cemented together and where we had a pile of baskets. When I acted so calm and relaxed, he looked at me sharply, then turned around and left. By a hair’s breath! God had closed his eyes and had given me strength. But oh how I trembled afterwards!
Soon after that there was a new danger. Our Austrian POW Joseph Speckl, who was regarded as a poor proletariat and hence harmless, was actually quite a spy for us and often brought me valuable information. So he had heard that a commission of Chekists (secret police) had been sent out from Marxstadt to make five house searches, and ours was one of them. To be prepared for this I collected various more or less costly articles of gold, some gold coins of Czarist times, which until now I had hidden in different places in the house, and put it all together in one toolbox which I was going to hide outside. Just then, as usual after breakfast, Papa came for his daily visit. I pushed the box under the couch in the living room and covered it with some old newspaper. Papa stayed quite a while: we talked about what this day would bring, and so on. Then he went home.
At that moment several sleighs with ten to fif teen Red policemen came on the yard. So they had arrived! They let Papa go home, but I was forbid den to leave the room. A guard was placed at the door and a Chekist started to question me. Outside the Red soldiers were searching everything. It was fortunate that the wheat under the chaff in the haymow had long ago been used up as feed, because the search was very thorough. Eventually dinner had to be served to everyone, and then the search continued. All this time two or three men stayed with me in the room and tried to confuse me. Never before had I heard that many cursings and insults, such as slave driver, vampire, blood sucker, can nibal, devil, and words that can’t be repeated. Often they jumped up and brandished a revolver in my face. I have not always been able to keep my cool as well as I did then; but inside I was trembling, espe cially when I thought that any moment they will start with the house. And then what!?
Just then my dear Renate came into the room, made a cheerful comment to the police, then turning to me, asked: „Where did you put that toolbox?“ I couldn’t believe it! I pointed over my shoulder and calmly replied that I had shoved it under the couch. She went over to the policeman sitting on the couch and said to him: „Would you please move over a bit?“ He moved over; she bent down, took the box in a matter-of-fact fashion, and walked out of the room with it. During that brief time I talked to the Commissar to detract his attention. Nobody suspected anything.
Mama put the box in an empty ash can in the kitchen and put cold ashes from one of the stoves on top of it. Later, when these „bandits“ were gone, we hid it more securely. They searched the house from top to bottom but found nothing. And the inquisition, in spite of its length and brutality, was not as grueling as that by Kamanowsky.
Our greatest fear was the servants. A few days earlier the same delegation had searched Jacob Froese’s property but had found nothing. However, the workers had complained that they had been mistreated, so the police plundered them totally: they took loads of furniture, tools, utensils, clo thing, linens, food, and a lot more, including horses, cows and machinery; you name it, they took it. Some of the clothes they gave to the servants. This was probably the worst case so far. That is what would happen at our place if the occasion was right, i.e. if workers would complain. They urged our workers repeatedly to complain against us, but they stood loyally by us, to an extent that surprised me.
At that time we had Ivan Mawrin, who had been with us off and on for at least four to five years, and Wassilyi, who was with us the second year. When they were in the barn the police kept urging them to voice some complaint against us. Suddenly Wassilyi grabbed a manure fork and shouted: „If you don’t stop insulting our boss, I’ll chase you out of the barn.“ Hired help could afford to use language like that.
Then they questioned Joseph Speckl, who lived in the corner room, one of the nicest in the house, where he also had the carpenter’s workbench which he was free to use as much as he wanted to. He was a skilled carpenter. He also staunchly defended us. So did the maid Alvine, a refugee woman from Poland, and Emily, the nanny, who also spoke well of us. At last the group had to leave without any „results.“
The harvest of 1920 was below average, the seeded acreage only about 20 % of the total surface, so there was not much grain. But just as soon as threshing began the requisitions started. In many cases the farmers were ordered to deliver more than they had threshed. Also due to the constant agitation and propaganda to further the class-war, the workers were set against their employers, who in turn hardly knew what to do for fear of what would happen next. Almost everyone felt insecure and lived in constant dread.
Papa’s health and nerves had improved since 1919, but we noticed that he became weaker, more quiet, and very mild. His coughs worsened and by October he was bedridden. He had a great longing for me and wished that I would just stay with him all the time. So I was with him a great deal and dur ing the last weeks constantly, day and night. As soon as I left the room he became restless. For example, once I had to go to the Soviet, but I had just arrived there when word came that I was to return home at once. He was so restless that he called out again and again: „Oh, please, please, bring Johannes to me!“
When I came, his eyes filled with tears.
„Please stay with me,“ was all he said. He didn’t expect much conversation or anything else, just so long as I was there beside his bed. I just sat there and from time to time rendered such little services as one does to a patient in need. And how gladly I did that. Oh, how I valued his love, and yet blamed myself for not always giving time and full attention to him in earlier years when he was so very lonely, like my dear Renate had done. But the large farm operation, all the excitement of the war and revolu tion, had claimed so much of my time and energy that I had not devoted myself to him as I now wished I had.
Mid October we fetched my old friend and family doctor Grasmueck. He said Papa was „using up“ the last bit of his lung and would probably live another fifteen to twenty days. So I was with him all the time, which was good, yet there was one damper—the adjoining room was occupied by the family Alex Reinicke, husband, wife and a 15-year old son. They had been owners of a large steam mill in Saratov, probably were close to being a mil lionaire, but had fled the city during the revolution and had already lived with Papa for over a year. They were very respectable people, but the knowl edge that only a wall separated us and that they could hear every word we spoke, was a deterrent and sometimes kept me from saying something that I should have said which might have comforted and strengthened Papa’s faith. A few days before he died he called for all our chil dren, whom he loved dearly, had them kneel around his bed, and blessed them with the words from Tobit 4:6 : „My child, be faithful to the Lord all your days. Never entertain the will to sin or to transgress his law. Do good works all the days of your life, Never follow ways that are not right.“ (Jerusalem Bible)
Once I asked him if he wanted Renate to come and sit with him instead of me. He replied: „No, she has always had time for me; there is nothing that she needs to make amends for.“ I had to be with him all the time, except that in between, his favorite, my dear sister Anna, came to be with him. So we had beautiful, quiet times together. Sister Lieschen could not come because she was expecting her baby.
During the last days, but when he was still able to get up a bit and Lieschen could still travel, he asked her and Johannes Isaac, us two, Anna and her fiance Alexander Quiring, to come to him. He told us how he wished his property divided after his death. Anna was to have the house, but he added: „I don’t think that Anna and Alexander will stay here, Alex will be drawn to Koeppental. But Johannes, should the time come when Alex wants to sell this house, I wish you would buy it. I have built it with my last strength and would not like to have it go to
a stranger.“
Gradually he grew weaker. A few days before his death somebody approached him with a question of business. He looked so helplessly at me. I understood and answered the question for him. Later he said: „Johannes, I don’t want to think about anything anymore. Will you handle every thing until they carry me out to my grave.?“ „Yes, Papa,“ I said. „I will do it as well as I can.“
His last day was Sunday, October 31. Leon hard Penners had visited him and left toward eve ning. His other two sisters, Tante Wall and Tante Toews, had also visited him. Little was said, but he seemed to be as usual. Suddenly his breathing became fast and labored, his expression very serious. I sent for Renate. His breathing became slower. Then slower still, and slower. And then no more. I raised his head, with my arms under his pil low. And so he passed on gently and peacefully. He had gone home.
Dear Papa, how very lonely he had been since Mama’s death, and how very tired during the last years. Tired not only physically. How often we heard him say: „I am so tired.“ Now all loneliness and tiredness was over. My dear Papa had finished the fight. Together we knelt down by his bed and prayed. Soon brother-in-law Johannes Isaac came.
The funeral was on Nov.6 in our house. Elder Peter Wiens had the message based on 2 Cor.4:17 18: „For this slight momentary affliction is prepar ing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.“
It was a beautiful message from the heart, as only a friend can give it to a friend. He made that clear when he said that when he himself had been ill two years earlier, Papa had visited him all those months so very faithfully. Later the situation was reversed, and then he came to the bed of Papa, who had been a dear friend to him.
Because of the hard times the funerals were less elaborate and the caskets more simple. I asked cabinet maker Gerhard Klassen, if he could make a coffin as beautiful as the one he had made for Mama. He said that he could, because he had
recently been able get some black varnish. Of course these are merely external trifles, but anyone who has gone through such an experience will understand me. I wanted this, not in the least for the people, I could care less, but as my last chance to show my love, respect and honor for my dear Papa. So we had everything: the coffin, his suit, the team of four beautiful black horses, the meal, and every thing else just as beautiful as we could possibly make it. God knows that I did it for Papa only. And so we put him to rest beside Mama, where they will sleep until eternity, when we hope to meet again before the throne of God. „Rest in peace here on earth, though sorely missed by us; until the peace of God reunites us in heaven.“
Here is a copy of the funeral invitation: „Dear Relatives and Friends! It is our sad duty to inform you of the blessed home going (as we firmly believe and hope) of our dear father. The illness of our dearly departed one started several years ago with coughing and not feeling well. At the end of Sep tember his condition deteriorated and after four weeks of suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs he died on October 31, 6:15 p.m. He was granted a lifetime of 60 years, 6 months, and 12 days. Our comfort is that now he can enjoy in peace what he so ardently longed for in his life. God willing, we intend to commit the earthly body of our dear father to the grave on Saturday, November 6, and invite you, relatives and friends, with families who are named below, to our house for a 1:30 p.m. worship service, to be followed by the committal at the cemetery as an act of last honor and respect to the deceased. In expectation of a sympathetic response to our invitation, very respectfully, Johannes and Renate Dyck, Anna Dyck. November 2, 1920, Lysanderhoeh.“
„P.S. Please forward this invitation according to the list on the back of this page.“ (63 families were invited.)
How graciously God had granted peace during the weeks of Papa’s illness, so that no excitement and disturbances from the Bolsheviks marred the tranquility of his sickroom. Our children, especially Lenchen and Clara, were very ill at this time with scarlet fever. On the day of the funeral they were still in bed, though improving. My dear Renate had a very busy and hard time in those days.
The peace at that time was merely the calm before the storm. It started a few days after the fun eral with a grain requisition commission headed by commissar Lehmann. Since the people had already delivered all the grain they could possibly spare, hardly any was collected. So they started to take anything that was left by force. Red soldiers were always on the streets and almost every day people were called to the Soviet for questioning.
Until now we had been able to fulfill all demands, but certainly not only from the 1920 crop, which was poor, but from the hidden wheat which we had threshed in May. Because of this we had been able to keep our livestock and machinery, which many farmers had already lost. But there was
us constant danger and anxiety. How very thankful we were that our dear Papa was spared all this.
After several weeks of this detestable plunder Lehmann finally left. But something else was already waiting for us: the „Voluntary Forced Loans.“ The government needed money and every body had to offer a loan. By this time the money was so inflated that the sums collected were simply enormous. But that wasn’t good enough. The cry was that the bourgeois („kulaks“) still have a lot of money. They must give more! And again we did give, in the hope that this would keep the Bol sheviks out of our homes.
Soon another order came to pay once more, and for each one the amount was specified. Those who were unable to make the payments had their livestock and machinery confiscated as punishment. I was able to pay even this newest requisition, whereupon the order came that J.J. Dyck has to pay the same amount once more, or his cattle would be confiscated. And I did pay it, for the third time! That is how I escaped the confiscation. Amid all these threats Christmas and New Year had come and gone. Church attendance was poor because the horses were too weak to pull the sleighs. Meanwhile my sister Anna and Alexander Quiring had quietly celebrated their engagement at our home.

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