Germany, Poland and Russia
September 19 – October 10, 2001
This tour came about as a result of a visit in the summer of 2000 to my mother Helene (Dyck) Funk and her sisters by Rita Pauls, a distant relative, and Ulla Lachauer, a researcher and writer. They came from Mannheim, Germany. Rita had hired Ulla to help her research and write a book about her family, which had roots in the Am Trakt Mennonite Colony in Russia. As part of their research they visited Am Trakt and took pictures of the many Mennonite era buildings they found there. Unfortunately, Rita’s Grandmother’s memory was fading and she couldn’t recall what the buildings were. However she was certain that her childhood friend, Helene Dyck, who now lived in Canada, would remember.
So Rita and Ulla made the trip to Canada to show the pictures to Mom and her sisters Irma Balzer and Lieschen Quiring. The first picture they saw was of the house they were born in and vacated in 1927! No one from our family had seen it since that day. This planted the seed which grew into this tour with encouragement from my wife Shirley and financing from my parents. Rita and Ulla’s research resulted in a self published book called Rita’s Leute.
September 19-20 – The Pilgrimage Begins
Off on the long-awaited roots tour with Mom and Dad. There is increased security at Saskatoon airport because of the World Trade Center events of September 11 but not as bad as we expected. An uneventful flight with tantalizing glimpses of the lights of Ireland and Great Britain. Lots of thoughts about the preparation (study I could have done but didn’t) – people who could have been called.
We’re met at the massive Frankfort Airport by Ed Giesbrecht – we had to give Mom a ride on the baggage cart to get her to the parking lot. Once on the road I’m jealous of the Germans for being able to drive unlimited speeds on the Autobahn. We’re also somewhat surprised at the wooded and rolling countryside between Frankfort and Koln. There’s lots of evidence of environmental mitigations – i.e. trees lining the Autobahn, green space, noise barriers, etc. appropriate to a country with 81 million people in an area about like Saskatchewan.
A whirlwind tour of the Giesbrecht families in and around Dueren begins immediately. There are 10 offspring. All are doing quite well, nice houses, pleasant folks. We visit their new house building site and are amazed at the super-durability of construction, including concrete room dividers in the basement.
There are lots of stories from the revolution and the aftermath. Elizabeth Giesbrecht is the daughter of Grandpa Dyck’s sister Anna Quiring. Her father, Alexander Quiring, didn’t leave with the Dyck’s because his brother Franz was in jail. Alexander was taken later as well. In 1937 Ed’s parents were taken as enemy Germans leaving 4 and 9 year olds abandoned to be taken in by an elderly relative. They ended up in Dushanbe, Tajikestan close to the Afghan border.
Very strong feelings are expressed about the intentions of Muslims which have been reinforced by the World Trade Center events. The Giesbrechts felt that they were not welcome among the Muslims after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and joined the 2,000,000 ethnic Germans who Germany repatriated. They are great admirers of Gorbachev who they see as a liberator.
September 21 – New Branches of the Family Tree
Two facts are starting to sink in. The first is that all these couples we’re visiting are really my blood relatives. We visit two more for supper, Marie and Waldemar Konrad. They are well informed, interested in the situation of Canada’s Indians and other ethnic nationalities, politics and world peace. The second is how old these settlements are. Duerin is 1025 years old, although it was destroyed during WW II and rebuilt. Also visit Nidiggen Castle (Burg) begun in 1177. A very interesting and evocative place but the romance is tempered by the evidence of how difficult and violent the medieval times were. More evidence of the shrinking globe – drew out 100 DM at an ATM with my P.A. Credit Union debit card.
September 22 – Johannes Penner and Hard Times Remembered
Down the Autobahn to Isselberg close to the Dutch border. Again we’re surprised at the extent of agricultural land in such a densely populated, industrial area.
We visit Anita Penner, her daughter Irma, Irma’s husband Gnady Mazur and son Andrew. Her brother Harry and family also dropped in.
Anita was Mom’s friend and the daughter of Johannes Penner, Grandfather Dyck’s cousin and confidant, especially in political matters. She told the story of her father’s repeated imprisonment and disappearance onto a ship in Siberia and her sneaking onto the ship to say goodbye. He had previously been freed because he fed the wives of Red soldiers while the Whites briefly held power. She also told stories of her own hardships, forced labour in the forests and seeing up to 70 children per day hauled away dead.
They now live in a pleasant rural strip village in a picturesque and well-kept home. Had a backyard barbecue, good local beer and lively conversation with Irma and Gnady who are amiable folks who would like to come visit Canada. The aerial picture of our farm on the Spruce River north of Prince Albert, SK. on Hwy #2 is always a hit.
Back to Duerin to visit Otto Quiring, Elizabeth Giesbrecht’s brother and Mom’s cousin who is in the hospital. He tells about feeling like a stranger the whole time in Russia and again when they moved here to Germany. An intelligent and outspoken man, who coached us in how to approach the Kazaks in Am Trakt and asked me to try to find remnants of his boyhood home across the stream from where the church used to be.
September 23 – Visit Till You Drop
Another long day of visiting – I’m getting tired – I can’t imagine how tired Mom and Dad must be. For Mom these are once in a lifetime visits with people who are part of a shared family mythology, so no complaints.
In the morning we travel from the flatlands of Duerin to the hills of Bergneustadt, a beautiful place that looks like post-card Germany. We visit with Friedrich and Martha, Albert and Marsha Quiring. Again a fine home they’ve built for themselves. Tante Kaithe Dyck and Frau Waltraud Funk (a Froese) drop by to visit.
The Quirings like a bit of wine with their meal which sets up a refreshing walk in the woods with Albert. He knows some English, has been to Canada and is interested in social and environmental issues, economics and politics. As expected the woods are heavily managed for maximum production – a turnaround of approximately 30 years for large softwoods.
Mom’s cousin Albert Mathies finally finds us and takes us to nearby Mainerzhagen to see Helene Wiens, her son Peter and family. Fr. Wiens seemingly knows everybody, everywhere. The Am Trakt pictures evolve a retelling of the old stories as they always do. A new addition in the telling of how Grandpa Dyck went around to his close friends and relatives describing Russia as a burning ship on the ocean. Peter’s wife was in Kharkiv, Ukraine last year and had pictures which provided some interesting shared experiences for me, i.e. visiting the huge Mother Russia war memorial with the beating heart.
Down the Autobahn to Versmold with Albert. The talk turns to business ideas, including pre-fab wooden housing, which is just coming into Germany, and helping Russian Mennonites who want to emigrate to Canada and seem willing to pay $10 – 15,000 for assistance. However any notion that with limited skills they’ll enjoy a better standard of living than they enjoy in Germany is doomed to disappointment. A big issue with them is a obligatory 1-week student trip where pornography is shown, outrageous behavior is encouraged, etc. Apparently the SPD is not immune from bone-headed actions in pursuit of worthy objectives.
September 24 – A Day of Antiquities
An element of normalcy – get to sleep in till 9:00 and then buy the Herald Tribune, an English paper. It seems the events surrounding the World Trade Centre events get more and more tangled. Certainly the Herald-Tribune is a better source than our local press which I’m used to reading.
Drive to Bielefeld with Albert Mathies, buy train tickets to Berlin and pick up Frau Elizabeth Wiens a 92 year old. She is additional evidence that story telling ability is the key to longevity. She also reinforces the description of Grandpa going around warning those close to him of the impending doom with virtually nobody taking him seriously enough at the time. She spent 3 ½ months in solitary confinement for being a German spy, served as a servant to a German engineer building factories for Stalin during the 30’s. She also tells about a dog she had with the gruesome habit of digging up the graves of people the dog knew. She’s been to Am Trakt in 1965 and 1990 and says the best way to get there is from Hanover to Rostov where she had two daughters.
This day seems highlighted by the ancient. Albert shows us a Bible his mother preserved which has been in the Mathies family since approximately 1670. We visit the Bockhorst Village Church which was built in 1723. There we meet Christian Mayer-Hermann whose family has had title to the farm next to the church since 1371 and still live in a house/barn combination built in 1823. Apart from length of tenure it seems farmers here have the same problems as ours – tight margins, waning political clout, pressure to expand and increasingly stringent regulations. It is quite surprising however that they still manage to feed 2500 pigs and 100 beef cattle/year right on the edge of a “village” of 1,000 people.
The day ends with supper with the Mathies clan who are an exceptionally good looking, bright and a well-spoken bunch of kids – Heinrich, Viktor, Clara, Lili, Johannes and Peter.
September 25 – A Taste of Aristocracy
Drop off Frau Wiens in Bielefeld. I’m struck by how much the stories of the Russian Mennonite ladies resemble the oral histories of Indian people. They obviously kept their faith, traditions, family history and identity alive through many decades of hardship and repression with these stories. I wish I had a tape recorder. I hope somebody is getting these stories recorded as they are told.
On to Schloss Bueckeburg, a truly splendid palace which the Schaumburg family still lives in. The construction began in the 14th century and went on to incorporate some of the finest decorative work I’ve ever seen, including a fortune in gold leaf, Renaissance paintings and period furniture. Among the interesting paintings are angels on the ceiling who appear to turn and follow us as you cross the room and a portrait of the 10 children of Graf Phillip where the artist went out on a limb and painted four similarly sized little bodies and then filled in the faces when the last 4 children reached 2 years of age.
The visit to Bueckeburg ends on a worrisome note when Mom has an angina attack and we return to Mathies place. After a vigorous soccer game with Johannes and Peter we go to supper at Heinrich and Irina’s apartment. Heinrich is always a pleasure to visit with a wide range of interests including family history.
The Saratov part of the trip finally starts to come together with Shirley getting an e-mail from the German Consulate and Frau Wiens getting us in touch with Cornelius Wall who recently lived 5 years in Lysanderhoeh (now known as Kalinina). He says that what was Orloff, Lysanderhoeh, and Hohendorf are all now part of Kalinina.
September 26 – Off to Berlin
Albert and I take a last minute trip to Versmold to mail postcards and take the spin on the Autobahn Albert’s kids had planned for me. The object is to hit 200 km/hr but Albert’s VW Golf only get up to 195. Still as cheap thrills go this one ranks high.
To the train station in Bielefeld and onto the Express to Berlin. The train is fast – up to 185 km/hr, smooth and comfortable – the way train travel should be. Crossing the former E. German border is like changing worlds. The old villages are decrepit. The countryside is empty of the farmyards seen in W. Germany, no doubt due to collectivization. The fields are neglected – whether due to EU incentives to take land out of production or lack of resources to farm them, I don’t know. One noticeable feature is the hunting stands every few hundred metres wherever there is bush to be seen. It must seem like a free fire zone in hunting season.
We arrive at Zoological Gardens station in Berlin and take a cab through the narrow but commercially active streets of Berlin to Peter and Barbara Letkeman’s. Peter is a descendant of the branch of our Friesen who stayed in the Vistula Lowlands till forced to flee by the Russian advance in 1945. Their apartment is a sophisticated, beautifully finished old style walk-up with 10-ft. ceilings and a balcony big enough to accommodate a garden.
We are joined for supper by Volker Mattern, his wife Sabina and the Letkeman’s daughter Eleanor. There are lots of Friesen stories and detailing of our respective lives. Volker was the chief media spokesperson for the Department of Transport under the CDU government, a job he was shuffled out of under the SPD. He describes the tremendous impact the New York bombing is having on the transportation industry. He’s also experienced the joys of trying to integrate the old E & W Germany bureaucracies while moving the whole capital from Bonn to Berlin. He predicts that with the total rebuilding of the E. German infrastructure in 20 years it will enjoy the competitive advantage W. Germany had from a new infrastructure after WWII, while W. Germany will be struggling with aging assets.
September 27 – The Monuments of the Reich
We visit the Reichstag, a historic imposing edifice. There is a long line up to get in which Barbara circumvents by using the wheel-chair entrance to get a wheel chair for Mom who is struggling. The security is tight and atmosphere tense as the news circulates about the shooting of 14 legislators in Switzerland. We go up to the top of the new glass and mirror dome, a spectacular creation with a panorama view of Berlin. The view is somewhat curtailed this day by pouring rain. At the base of the dome is a photographic display of the political history of the Reichstag that pulls no punches.
We embark on a bus tour of the city from the Unter den Linden Street which is one of several immense imperial avenues, and leads to the Brandenburg Gates. The tour highlights the grand buildings and churches of Prussian and German Empires, most of which ended up in E. Berlin During the Cold War era. A striking feature is the huge Tiergarten, an inner-city forest with over a million trees, many of them replanted after the war because it was largely cut down for firewood after Germany’s defeat. Berliners describe it as the lungs of Berlin.
The tour also highlights the Berlin “Mauer” – (Wall) which physically is reduced to bricks laid in the pavement and a short section falling victim to souvenir hunters, but which is still a huge presence psychologically.
The evening is spent with the Letkeman’s. Peter is an historian and archivist who has made it his mission to search out Mennonite records in Germany and Danzig. He has a keen analytical mind and a tremendous memory for detail. His retirement comes in a few years and I expect to see significant output from him once he is free from daily labour. He expects to do work in the Danzig Archives which he is already well acquainted with. He also thoroughly scares me about the prospects for the train trip to Gdansk the next day.
September 28 – Stranded in Gdansk
Begin the day with little sleep and lots of apprehension as a result of Peter Letkeman’s warnings about the potential horrors of changing trains in Sczeczin, Poland – long flights of stairs to an overpass, no track and destination markings, etc. The trip from Lichtenberg Station, Berlin and the border crossing is uneventful. When we get to the dreaded Sczeczin there is a German speaking fellow on the platform who points us to the Gdansk train, which is 5 metres away across the platform.
The ride across Western Poland in a 2nd class compartment is a bit tedious but still it’s always interesting to see new country. The fields are big and show various degrees of cultivation. We begin to see increasing evidence of uncombined wheat and are later told that this is the result of a lengthy wet spell, which began with a deluge just as harvest was beginning. From the evident poverty of the villages we pass through, these folks will have a tough winter.
The cities and larger towns don’t look much more prosperous although virtually every dwelling has a satellite dish. Around each city are little dachas which are mostly carefully and intensively tended and appear to produce an astonishing amount of food.
As we near Gdansk a new throng of people, many of them students, pile onto the train at every stop. I begin to get apprehensive and try to find out how far to Glovny Station. All I get is encouraging gestures in the direction we are going. Suddenly there is a Glovny sign and Mom catches a glimpse of a sign with the name Rybak, the name of the gentleman who is to meet us. We frantically grab our five pieces of luggage and desperately try to fight our way out of the compartment and through the jammed aisle of
the train. Just as Dad is nearing the door we hear the conductor’s whistle, the doors close and the train heads out of the station.
What to do? We finally get to the doors and decide our only option is to get off at the next station and try to get back to Glovny. The next station seems to be in the middle of nowhere but I manage to get tickets for the next train back in a bit over an hour. While Dad guards our luggage I help Mom find a washroom which is in a bustling little market across the tracks from the station.
When we finally get back to Glovny Station where there is no sign of Herr Rybak. The station is a mammoth, bustling and somewhat seedy looking place. By the time I manage to change money and master the Polish phone system Mr. Rybak is back home, 70 km away. He agrees to rehire a van and come back for us. He instructs us to hang tight at the MacDonald’s, which we do, and are very relieved when 1 ½ hours later he appears. On the way out of the station with our luggage two tough-looking guys are scrapping at the door. One of them stumbles over Dad’s luggage while he’s backing up and continues to act threatening as we leave.
We drive through the night to the Rybaks where we are staying. The next morning we discover the meaning of the incident at the door – Dad’s wallet is gone!
September 29 – The Search for Vogtei
Our hosts for our days in Poland, the Rybaks, are a truly delightful family. They share their house in Stare Pole with their daughter, who helps Ms. Rybak run a bed and breakfast, a son-in-law who is a vet, and two amiable granddaughters. Their son lives in the same yard and runs a food import business.
The Rybaks are both retired agricultural advisors with Mr. Rybak having been in charge of all agricultural and related development activities in the region. (He is no fan of recent changes). Both of the Rybaks speak German. Mr. Rybak has a longstanding interest in the former Mennonite presence in the area and has worked with researchers, guided numerous tours and helped restore and maintain Mennonite cemeteries. He is extremely knowledgeable and dedicated but he says there is nobody else in the region to succeed him and he’s 71 years old.
After spending a few hours trying to cancel Dad’s credit card (which daughter Rebecca finally accomplishes) we leave on a roots tour of the area. There are more sites than we can possibly visit in the two days we have scheduled so we establish a priority list of sites with family connections. In addition to these specific sites the whole area has a period look to it, with numerous “Winklehofs” (barns and houses connected at right angles), Germanic buildings and traditional villages. The old drainage systems built by our ancestors are still there but often overgrown (to Mr. Rybak’s disgust).
We begin with Heubuden, where Helene Janzen waited 10 years for Johann Dyck to come back from the1849 California Gold Rush. It proves an excellent first stop since it has one of the best preserved Mennonite cemeteries with its traditional oak and tall grey headstones standing in the shade. There is an almost audible echo of centuries of ancestors who lived and died here.
Our next destination is Palschau, home of our first recorded Friesen ancestor. Near the village we stop to admire an old windmill, a symbol we often use to represent our past in the region, and one of only two like it remaining in the lowlands. The mill is an imposing presence and although the arms are damaged through the windows the working parts appear intact. (A report several years after our trip indicated that this mill has burned down.)
The stop in Palschau village also quickens the pulse. As we pull up I read in the Friesen book that Johann von Riesen was described as a merchant mariner on the Weicsel (Vistula) River. As I scale the dike to catch my first glimpse of that historic river I’m just in time to see a boat pulling in to the shore and for a moment it feels as if that might be Johann.
From Palschau its on through Neuminsterberg where Abraham Friesen Sr. was born and on to the site of the Fuerstenwerder Church where Abraham Friesen was elected minister in 1872 and served until his departure to Canada in 1894. Here there again are gravestones and the foundations of the church. Regrettably youngsters playing with fire burned down the church just a few years ago. Besides the foundation all that remains are the scorched doors which Mr. Rybak salvaged and keeps in his shop.
From there we pass through Fuerstenwerder Village and start the quest for the remains of Vogtei, site of the last Prussian farms of both, the Abraham Friesens, and the Peter Mathies. Allan Friesen has provided several maps, the name of the Fritz Kohlman in Brunau and a warning that Vogtei is hard to find.
Mr. Rybak knows Fritz Kohlman but elects to do a visual search which takes us in a circle all the way around to Alte Babbke, home of the Regiers, where we finally stop for directions. Some friendly folks indicate a series of mounds in the distance which can only be accessed by going back around through Fuerstenwerder and back to Brunau.
At Brunau there is a double-tracked cobbled trail heading in the right general direction so Mr. Rybak and I set off on foot. After passing several mounds and walking over a kilometre at a pace which leaves 71 year old Mr. Rybak exhausted we arrive at a mound, which is on the right canal and clearly the most westerly of mounds we have seen. We consult the map and talk to a farmer and his son who stops their combine to see who these invaders might be. The farmer says he recalls a big farm on a mound to the east but Mr. Rybak declares we have found Vogtei so we dig up a bit of soil and take some pictures in the chest-high poison ivy. I still want to check out the mounds we can see approximately a kilometer to the east, but its getting dark and Mr. Rybak is fearful of wild boars and wild farmers so we head back to the folks waiting patiently in the car. We head home and try to reconcile all our maps. With a sinking feeling I become convinced that in spite of our efforts we didn’t get to Vogtei.
September 30 – The Search for Vogtei – Part II
In our preliminary phone conversations Mr. Rybak has mentioned that a National Polish Catholic congregation now worships in the old Elbing Mennonite Church and it might be a nice idea to go there for worship since we’ll be there on a Sunday. So we get dressed up and head to Elbing (now Elbag).
When we get to the Church which is located on Orla Street, we’re the first ones there so Mr. Rybak takes us inside to see the old Mennonite organ, take pictures and introduce us to the priest. We note Uncle CJ’s ministry in Elbing, Kansas and make a 200 zloty (about $60) contribution to the church. Mr. Rybak says this is a significant sum for a poor congregation and the priest thanks us warmly.
The service is in a language we can’t understand but still we are moved by the reverence of it and by the sense of our ancestors worshiping in this same place. The congregation sings to recorded music, but the music is beautiful and the acoustics of the building are at least the equal of the old Tiefengrund Church. We also get introduced (in Polish) and an explanation is given connecting us to the people who built their church.
After the service there are friendly handshakes and a gift of icon cards from the priest. Both the priest and Mr. Rybak mention that of all the people who have returned to visit the church we are the first to have worshiped there and we are doubly glad we did.
From the church we stop to take pictures of the Hanseatic-era buildings and the majestic St. Nickolai Church in Elbing. Then we head down the historic Reichstrasse #1 which connects the ancient Germanic capitals of Aachen and Konigsberg and down which countless armies, including Napoleon’s, have marched. With the ports of Danzig and Elbing and this highway in the vicinity this Mennonite refuge doesn’t appear as isolated as it is sometimes described.
After leaving Elbing we stop in Ellerwald where both John D. Dyck and Helene Jenzen (1859) and Abraham Funk and Johanna Kliever (1883) were married. The church is no longer there but the graveyard is well preserved with its traditional oak and numerous headstones.
Our next destination is the Marienburg at Marbok, the ancient fortress and headquarters of the crusading Tentoric Knights. Mr. Rybak is a German guide at this UNESCO World Heritage site which has been rebuilt after 6 weeks of shelling in the winter of 1945. The structure is truly awesome and its details and stories worthy of much more time than we allow ourselves to spend.
From Marbok we drive through Rychenau, birthplace of Grandfather John Funk (1886) and on to Rosenort, a name which we Tiefengrunders are personally so attached to. The Rosenort Cemetery, with a number of tombstones, still exists and is marked in English, German, Dutch and Polish. It has not been restored and the path to it leads through a thick patch of poison ivy. But there is a remarkable oak tree which is still alive in spite a large hole being burned into it. There is also an apple tree whose fruit we pick and enjoy for several days.
Close to Rosenort is the busy and substantial town of Nowy Dwar Gdansk, the former Tiegenhof. Just to the north is Tiegenhagen where the last Friesen in the area served as mayor until 1945. We also drive onto a yard and take a picture of the house Abraham Friesen Jr. was born in. Allan Friesen mentioned being invited in for tea but the place has changed hands and Mr. Rybak is unsure of our reception so we beat a retreat.
From the former Friesen yard it’s a short distance to the access road leading to the site of the Tiegenhagen Church where many Friesens worshiped and Abraham Friesen Sr. served as minister for 44 years. The road looks impassable so Mr. Rybak and I hoof it in while Mom and Dad rest in the car. As we have been warned the site, a peaceful spot on the little Tiege River, is in poor shape. There are no intact gravestones visible and Mr. Rybak says there has been ongoing pilfering of stones for other purposes. The site is significantly overgrown and there may well be stones in the tangled growth but regrettably it is beyond the scope of our present visit to do anything about it.
On departing from Tiegenhagen I suggest to Mr. Rybak that we head to Sommerau where we know that the house Dad’s father was born in is still in use. But since Sommerau is close to Stare Pole, where we’ll end the day, and since Mr. Rybak too has caught the Vogtei bug, he suggests we first head back to Brunau to talk to Fritz Kohlman.
Herr Kohlman and his energetic daughter (whose name I neglect to get) clearly recall the visit of Allan and Maryvel Friesen on the same quest and have done some thinking about it. It turns out that we indeed should have headed east from the spot we were at the day before because the large farm we heard described was in fact the Friesen farm and was the last farm occupied of the former Vogtei settlement.
The last farmer there was a Kurt Funk born nearby at Jankendorf in about 1915. The farm had belonged to a Heidebrecht who died and whose widow married Kurt in about 1936. The barn burned down in about 1939 but it was rebuilt. The farm met an abrupt end in 1945 when the Eastern Front rolled through the area and demolished it.
By now it was again getting dark and actually getting in and out of the site would be a hike of several hours. Herr Kohlman’s daughter, who had accompanied Allan and Maryvel to a spot at ditch where they were blocked from getting to Vogtei, felt bad and made me promise that I’d return with Allan to complete the quest before somebody with big equipment acquires the Vogtei site and levels the mounds.
When we get back to Stare Pole I insist we still go to Sommerau, but since Mr. Rybak says the residents of Funk house are old and troubled by the Jehovah Witness activities of their children, it’s too late to go in. So I take a picture in the dark of Dad and Mom in front of the gate and call it a day.
In conversations along the way Mr. Rybak says that times are tough in the villages of the region. With the end of the old system employment in Gdansk has been sharply curtailed and the infrastructure, especially the maintenance of canals, has deteriorated. This has resulted in continually worsening water conditions, including this year where much of the crop was lost.
The farmers themselves are also caught between the old system, where the state offered substantial supports (in spite of the fact that 75% of the land remained in private hands); and the new EU system they are entering next year. There they will enjoy substantial price support, but at the cost of industrializing and rationalizing their farms into large units. Currently the average Polish farm is 10 hectares with the average in the Werder area about double that at 18-20 hectares. (By these standards the Friesen farm at Tiegenhagen was immense at 34 hectares). The number of farmers is expected to shrink from 2 ½ million to 1 million in the next few years.
It is a small wonder that the Solidarity government got decimated in an election during our stay to be replaced by a government dominated by former communists and radical peasants.
October 1 – Moscow – From the Sublime, to the Seedy, to the Dangerous
The trek into Russia begins with passages through the ultra-modern airports at Gdansk and Warsaw – evidence of where the World Bank loans went. On the flight from Gdansk to Warsaw, Donald Tusk, the leader of the newly formed Platforma Obyuatelsua Party, which finished in 2nd place in the recent election, is pointed out to me. Old political instincts die hard, so I stop and congratulate him on the way out of the plane.
Flying into Moscow the village clearings in the massive taiga gradually change into the dachas and suburbs of Moscow. The dacha areas incongruously include everything from the traditional little garden sheds to the massive palaces of the “new Russians.” On the trip from the airport the car fleet varies from smoking little Ladas to a goodly number of Mercedes, Audis and other luxury vehicles. The truck fleet, though numerous, looks similar in vintage to my own.
As we near the center of Moscow the buildings become more and more grand until finally the familiar (from TV) walls of the Kremlin are before us. We’re also at the Rossija Hotel at the edge of Red Square and our home for the next 4 days.
The Rossija is a true tribute to Soviet gigantism. With 3000 rooms it was built to accommodate the entire Soviet Congress membership of 6000. Just navigating to our
rooms totally exhausts Mom and this unforeseen difficulty adds to my wish that I had scheduled a day or two less in Moscow.
Leaving Mom and Dad to relax I head out onto Red Square. The TV images in no way capture either the size of the square or its beauty and I find myself in a bit of daze at what I’m beholding. I return to get Dad to go scouting for some food and feel a bit better about the Moscow decision where he says that this is something he never expected to see in his lifetime.
After a snack in Mom and Dad’s room I head to my room 3 floors and about 2 city blocks away. The phone promptly rings and I hear a seductive female voice offering “super sex” for $50 U.S. I no sooner dispatch that call when the phone rings again with another voice making an even better offer. Enough English is understood for me to communicate that my best offer is from my wife, Shirley, in Canada who I am about to call. Later it takes firm words with the floor manager at a desk down the hall to get the calls to stop.
The guide book said that to truly experience the splendor of Red Square you have to see it at night, and since one of my favorite sports is checking out big cities on foot, I head out. There are about half a dozen young women, any one of whom could have matched the voices on the phone in the halls as I make my way out of the Rossija.
Truly seeing the Kremlin at night is another dimension of splendor. It is said the Kremlin and its environs were built to inspire a sense of awe and mystery and this night they totally succeed. I stop on the bridge on the Moskva River and from that vantage point I can count 17 brightly lit domes and spires.
In order to try to capture this moment on film I go back to my room for my camera. On my way back to the bridge I detour through a Metro station tunnel. Rounding a turn I encounter 15 of Moscow’s midnight beauties standing shoulder to shoulder blocking the entire passage. I stop and think of taking a picture but the thought leaves abruptly when I see three nasty-looking gentlemen standing to the side. Instead I timidly ask to be let through and proceed back to the bridge.
The film is almost full and after two shots its filled. While reloading my faithful little Black’s camera breaks again and finds it nesting place in the bottom of the Moskva. For consolation I try to bring down the Kremlin walls by spending 45 minutes marching around them but that doesn’t work either.
By now I’m hungry so I find an all night money exchanger, get some rubles and go in search of food. There is no shortage of street venders still out at this hour of the night but I want to sit down. So I wander to a little spot that advertises Pilsener and where I can see a group gathered around a guitar player.
The music is good so I sit down at the next table, and offer $1 US for it to continue. Soon two of the group have joined me and we exchange toasts, selected foreign phrases and pins. In short order a bottle of vodka appears and a few more dollars keep the music going. There is an Armenian at the next table who invites me over and we exchange toasts as well. When he also gets out a bottle of vodka I decide that as much fun as this party is its time I got back to my room.
My refusal of the drink seems to end the party and the guitar player packs up his guitar and heads out with his two buddies. The Armenian and his friend get up to go too and since I’m also rising he gives me a bear hug. As he’s doing so I feel his hand going for my back pocket. I jam my hand in the front pocket where I’ve wisely put my wallet. He leaves and goes out but promptly returns and gives me another bear hug, this time going for my front pocket. When he loses the hand wrestle for my wallet he leaves again and joins the gang now staring at me through the window. At this point the proprietress of the establishment comes out from behind her window and tells me. “It is extremely dangerous for you to be here. You must leave immediately.”
With that she ushers me quickly through the door to the back of the café, opens the back door and says “Now run!”
I don’t actually run but leave at as fast a walk as I can muster keeping a wary eye on the group on steps of the café behind me. At this point I’m awfully glad I’ve scouted enough of the turf to know a back way to the Rossija.
October 2 – An Imperial City
The next day is a sleep-in morning and rainy so we decide on a lunch at a buffet I spotted and a bus tour of the city. At the café the menu includes one of many hilarious translations we encounter “Filling hot? Want to cool youself? Here are our original recipes to save solves from heet.”
The bus tour includes the Stalin Skyscrapers, the splendid rebuilt Church of the Savior, the bizarre Peter the Great Monument, the Bolshoi Theatre, the Pushkin Museum, the Duma and a host of other quite marvelous churches, palaces, monuments, and gigantic Soviet structures. On the tour we stop at Statue Park which ends to a moving commemoration of the victims of Stalinism. There I share an umbrella with two New Yorkers who saw the World Trade Centre come down from their apartment window. The next leg of their trip is a train trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
October 3 – Inside the Kremlin
One of the objectives of the Moscow stop is to contact the Canadian embassy to scout the prospects for business for Spruce River Research. At the Embassy I meet with Marina Femitchevy, their rural expert who is a young woman from Moscow and one of the 80% of staff who are Russian.
Ms. Femitchevy is a pleasant and knowledgeable person who politely informs me that the type of business we do is capacity development, and that currently the policy is to not support development work but only purely commercial ventures. She also says that in general, Russians respond poorly to the notion that they may need training since they believe that after all they’ve had to endure they’ve seen it all.
The serious business being over I ask about accessing archives regarding the Malushny Agriculture Society, which was the name of Grandpa Dyck’s organization in Am Trakt, or the All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Society. She says that she has a special interest in the question of agricultural organizations and has also researched the Volga Germans. All references in government records relating to land ownership were purged during collectivization and all records were again searched during World War II to remove any references to the presence of Germans. She said many historians lost their lives for protesting this obliteration of the historical record.
In the course of the conversation I get out a copy of the Am Trakt book and as I leave she politely suggests she would love to have a copy of it, I leave it with her since I brought along seven copies for occasions like this.
The highlight of the day is a tour of the Kremlin for which I hire a guide at the gates. Just being inside the walls is exciting and the sites and their stories are interesting regarding the largest caliber gun in the world (which has never been fired), and the largest bell in the world (which has never been rung).
The most truly impressive part of the tour was the cathedrals which included: The Ascension Cathedral with its blaze of artwork and icons; The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael which features the vaults containing the remains of the Czars; and The Annunciation Cathedral which has seven domes to commemorate the seven wives of Ivan the Terrible and a side door for Ivan, since someone with that many wives isn’t allowed in the front doors at an Orthodox Church.
The tour ends with a visit to the Diamond Trust which features the most spectacular collection of precious stones in the world. It occurs to me that the anger of the workers and peasants of Russia might have been fuelled by the thought that all their tribute went to fill pailfuls of diamonds for the Czars and Czarinas.
October 4 – An Evening with the Bolshoi
This is our last day is Moscow and with such a smorgasbord to choose from we pick the Puskin Museum of Fine Art and an evening at the Congress Centre in the Kremlin watching the Bolshoi troupe perform the great Russian Ballet, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
The Puskin is advertised as offering a great French Impressionist collection – my favorite art along with the Group of Seven. Happily the museum lives up to its reputation with 5 Van Goghs, 8 Monets, 5 Renoirs and 2 Pissaros in one room. The post-impressionist section is even more stunning with 12 Picassos, 19 Matisses, 9 Guigains and 12 Cezannes. In addition there is a great Flemish collection, including 3 by our namesake Antonius Van Dyck and virtually every Bible story is depicted somewhere.
While Mom and Dad rest I do a quick picture taking tour with the mini Nikon I’ve bought to replace the late great Blacks. I especially want to get the row of buildings I’ve enjoyed seeing out my window: the peach and white Church of Saint Barbara, the old English Court given to the Muscovy Trading Company by Ivan the Terrible to house Queen Elizabeth I’s emissaries, St. Georges Church and the Romanov Palace.
The Bolshoi performance of Swan Lake is truly a once in a lifetime experience. I keep forgetting what a visual treat ballet can be and Tchaikovsky’s music by this great orchestra is an inspiration in itself. For Mom especially this is a truly memorable event and for me when the storm scene hits I literally start to shiver. What a perfect way to wrap up a Moscow visit.
October 5 – Off to Grandpa’s Favorite City
After the splendor and relative prosperity of Moscow the route through Saratov from the airport to the Zagreb Hotel is a bit of a shock. We travel through many blocks of rickety old wooden houses, the wide streets are a patchwork of pavement, and the grass in the many parks is uncut. But in spite of the obvious symptoms of tough time there are lots of signs of life with little markets lining the streets, trolley’s and buses over flowing and little Ladas charging around like a demolition derby miraculously without the demolition.
There is an “Aid Fair” on with all the foreign NGO’s doing business in Saratov in town for a gala weekend. This means that the recommended hotel, the Volga and all the other downtown hotels are booked. The Zagreb turns out to have roomy suites and good food but its attached to an apartment building out on a back street in a non-descript suburb.
Ulla Lachaur from Mannheim, Germany, a researcher hired by the Pauls family, has been a great help in arranging the trip, but the Saratov end of things has never quite come together. In Ulla’s experience the folks at the German Consulate in Saratov were most helpful but phone calls have not gone through and my last e-mail hasn’t been answered. Also Corney Wall has told me to contact his daughter’s friend Tamara Anashenko in Engels but this seems a bit tentative too. Therefore when the local In-Tourist office phones and offers an English-speaking guide and a driver for tomorrow I’m greatly relieved and tentatively accept pending a trip downtown to the German Consulate to confirm that no alternate arrangements have been made.
The trip downtown reveals a bit more of the former character of the city which led Grandpa Dyck to compare it favourably with Danzig. On closer examination the facades of many buildings are fine work, if a bit dowdy, and the parks and boulevards must have given the city a sophisticated look in their better days. A bustling pedestrian street known locally as ‘Broadway’ which connects two civic squares highlights the city centre.
When I finally manage to get the security man at the German Consulate to hail someone for me it turns out that two of the names Ulla has given me have recently departed and the Herr Huss who my e-mail communications have been with left on vacation this morning.
Back at the Zagreb the presence of kitchens in our suites inspires us to seek out some food for our sustenance. We are directed to the neighborhood market which we get to by a path through an abandoned construction site, down an overgrown ally and past a row barely habitable apartments. The market itself is bustling, with a maze of little stalls selling as many things as the P.A. Co-op, including meat chopped up on the spot and lying in slabs on the counters.
After our meal I hail another cab and set out for Engels and Ms. Anashenko. It turns out her address is on one of the streets of old wooden dilapidated dwellings joined by high board fences. Its getting dark and the whole situation is a bit spooky but I’ve come this far so with the taxi driver’s help I figure out how to penetrate the fence. Tending her tomatoes in the backyard by the outhouse, I find Tamara Anashenko and she invites me into her house. Her German is spotty but it turns out Corney Wall had tipped her off about our coming and she and her son had waited all the previous weekend for us to show up. Now her son, a truck driver, is on a run. She expects him back tomorrow so we arrange for us to take a taxi to her place on Sunday and to continue together with her son to Kalinina on Sunday.
During the course of the day I piece together the fact the Saratov region is in as tough a shape as it is because the two former main stays of its economy, the military production industry and agriculture, have both collapsed. The heavy concentration of military equipment factories also explains why Saratov was sealed off to foreigners until recently.
This isolation has also meant that Saratov lacks the foreign contacts which have been a key factor in the economic recovery of those cities where restructuring has been relatively successful. Working in its favour are some first class education and research institutions.
One characteristic which Saratov shares with blue-collar cities everywhere is its enthusiasm for sports. Its impossible to pass the spiffy-looking hockey arena without having it being pointed out by the cab drivers along with a reference to NHL – Kristal, a local lad who’s hit the big time. The basketball stadium always provokes equally animated sign language.
October 6 – Home at Last
We leave the Zagreb Hotel at 11:00 with Elena Loguinouva, our guide and our driver, an engineer with a large-model Lada. Elena is a new graduate of a 5-year university Tourism program and speaks French and Spanish as well as English. She recently accompanied a group of 60 Volga Germans from Argentina. They visited Mariental where 234 people were massacred in one day as a reprisal for participation in the ill-fated peasant counter-revolution of 1921.
Crossing the three kilometre long bridge over the Volga from Saratov to Engels confirms that the Volga is as “riesich gross” at this point as Mom remembered. The highway east is high and wide and the countryside immediately reminds us of Saskatchewan.
The fields are huge and to Dad, much of the soil looks better than ours with no rocks anywhere. The success of farming ventures looks uneven. We are told that associations attempting to run the former collective farms or individual farmers renting from the state have done farming either. A year ago a law was passed in this region making it the first to permit private purchase of land but access to capital both for purchase and operations is a huge problem. All grain production is still sold to the state.
At Bizimiyannoe we turn South along a road much like today’s secondary highways at home. The road is lined periodically with manchurian elms and maples. There are three villages and/or collective farms along the way with the level of technology varying from horse and wagon to seven new Claas combines in the corner of a several thousand-acre field.
Suddenly we stop at a place where there are two long rows of intermittent dwellings and little farm yards facing each other across a wide open space which runs perpendicular to the road we are on. Elena, our guide, announces this is Kalinina.
There is a woman crossing the road who confirms that we’re in the right place. She turns out to be Gemes Maikeeva who finds us again at the Dyck house and proudly takes possession of an Am Trakt book. She points out the store to the left (East) which Corney Wall said is Bergman’s Store, and the cemetery behind it, which she says has German graves.
Mom decides we should visit the cemetery first. The most noticeable part of the cemetery is Russian with blue and white trim, flowers and little fences. On three sides of the Russian graves are approximately 100 obvious mounds and depressions. To the East are two gravestones of Enss’s, several more stones with dates and no names, and a half dozen pedestals for gravestones. It is a moving moment. As far as we can tell from Corny Wall’s description this was the Orloff Cemetery. Later conversations with Aunt Lieschen indicate it may have been the Lysanderhoeh cemetery. In the absence of a definitive map it’s hard to say which is correct.
Our next priority is the Dyck house which Ms. Maikeeva has identified from our picture as being down the road to right (West). The highway we are on crosses the former village street and turns west along a tree-lined stretch behind the southern row of houses. After about a kilometer we turn back north through the trees, back onto the old village road and there it stands – the object of our halfway around the world quest – the Dyck House.
A fellow coming out a gate informs us that there are now 3 living units in the house. Our guide goes to the West door while I take pictures and check the level ground where the machine shed stood. Luckily Ulla Lachaur’s pictures have prepared us for the neglected look of the grounds and buildings.
We are allowed to enter by a somewhat dubious thirty – something fellow and find ourselves in grandpa’s old study. From there we go into what Mom remembered as the children’s bedroom but which we later decide from Aunt Lieschen’s descriptions was the living room. The interior of the house is far from clean and well kept but still looks solid. I offer the gentleman 100 rubles for the intrusion and repeat this with the other two occupants as well.
Our next stop is around the house to the East where we get a friendlier greeting from Vyacheslav Borodin and his 80-year-old mother Anna. The first thing we see is the trap door to the famous basement so I head straight down into the dark followed by Mom. After adjusting to the dark and taking pictures we see a door to the left which is locked and we are told the other side belongs to the place we just left.
Inside the Borodin’s rooms the tile-heating unit is still there but doesn’t appear to be used. Tante Anna shows us into the big corner room and increasingly warms up to Mom as things get more relaxed. Vyacheslav takes us to the upstairs where the framing still looks great although there is a fair accumulation of dirt. I take a picture out the gable window of “Grandfather’s House” in honour of Aunt Lieschen who Mom says enjoyed reading up here. Vyacheslav tells us he has recently purchased his part of the house from the collective farm and we joke about finishing the upstairs to accommodate tourists.
Our last stop is the southeast section which we enter through the old front door where the organ used to be. Nicoloy Hubdergaliev informs us that he and his mother, who has since died, moved in 6 years ago. He also owns his part of the house. We enter the big room in the corner which Mom believes is the room she was born in and I take her picture sitting on the bed in honour of the occasion.
When we leave the house Ms. Maikeeva has arrived and I get out my Am Trakt book. This creates a new level of excitement as everybody looks through it. Since I only have one copy Mr. Maikeeva appropriates it. We take pictures, we promise to be back again, and are on our way still somewhat shell-shocked by what we have just experienced.
At the hotel we settle the bill – $30/hr for car and driver and $7/hr for the guide. After Mom has had a bath and a rest we spend the rest of the evening trying to figure out what each room was and how Aunt Lieschen’s floor plan fit with what we saw. Unfortunately it seems we’ve missed the site of the “treasure” so we have to get back to check that out.
The night is filled with thoughts of how much there still is to explore both out at Am Trakt and in the Archives and how little time to do it.
October 7 – Thanksgiving in Lysanderhoeh
The day begins somewhat uncertainly because we haven’t heard from Tamara Anashenko about whether her son Sergei is available to take us out to Am Trakt again. Since I had made tentative arrangements to meet her at 11:00 I call a cab at 10:00 for 10:30. At 10:15 she calls to say her son still hasn’t shown up but since the cab is on its way I suggest we drop over for tea and a visit.
When we get to her rather humble little place she’s dressed up in her Sunday best. We get invited in to 3 small rooms she shares with the 2 sons of her daughter who died five years ago. “Ess ist schwer.” No sooner have we started tea but her son arrives and in an hour we’re into the 2000 Lada (a better car than its reputation) and off to Am Trakt. Today the Claas combines are working and we are told the German government has provided assistance to resettle Volgadeutsch here. Included is a Schweibel Janz whose grandmother is buried in Kalinina.
Tamara’s first stop is to see her friend to deliver goodies from the city. Children collect and the Canadian flag pin and picture taking phenomena begins. Tamara is enthusiastically greeted everywhere we go.
Sergei takes us down the old main street rather than the new road to the South and we stop to take pictures along the way to the Dyck house. With Tamara’s uncertain German it’s a bit of a trick to explain why we want to look in the house again. The Borodins are happy to see us. Vyacheslav has a bit of a glow on but he shows me the dining room/kitchen area again and with a bit more light it basically matches Aunt Lieschen’s plan although the dividing walls are a bit confusing.
Again we head for the basement and again the door to the west side of the basement is locked. Our dubious friend from yesterday is sitting in front and shakes his head at my attempts to ask to go back to part of the house. Tamara arrives and somehow gets him to change is mind. We head down steep set of stairs from the hallway to the barn into the dark. When my eyes adjust there in the crucial corner is a gaping hole about 3″ x 3″ and about 3 feet deep. I take pictures of the hole and support beams and mentally declare the search for treasure done.
The next priority is to try to locate the Lysanderhoeh graveyard. A bit of a crowd has gathered in front of the Dyck house as we quiz the folks about where it might be located. Everybody is trying to be helpful and in spite of a young lad thinking he knows where it is the adults say the only German graveyards are the one behind the store we’ve already seen, one at Kirov (Koeppenthal) and one next to a Kazak graveyard almost 3 km to the East.
Reluctantly we decide to move on to Koeppenthal, our next destination. Several hundred metres to the west are two more German houses and a collection of unique farm equipment, so we stop. Mom disappears into the end house on the north side and Tamara finds the gentlemen who shows up in Ulla Lachaur’s pictures. He’s a bit frustrated with Tamara’s translating but keen to help. He shows us the ruins of what were obviously a substantial mill and an underground storage bin with names and initials (which we don’t recognize) from 1919.
On to Koeppenthal which is 8 km away and lies in a picturesque valley. There are remains of state farm type buildings on the hills and a substantial village along the road to the East and across a small stream to the West. Across the stream we catch sight of a substantial building seen in Ulla’s photos which resembles pictures of the Central School. Tamara boldly proceeds to knock on the window and soon we find ourselves invited in for tea. The family is extremely friendly and show us the large rooms and broad staircase of what clearly was the former Zentralschulle, the school Aunt Lieschen, Aunt Irma and Uncle John attended.
The daylight is starting to wane so we proceed as quickly as we politely can. But just as we get to the car to begin looking for the graveyard it begins to pour, so we proceed on. When we reach Kalinina the road east to the other graveyard looks impassable. We elect to head home but Tamara insists we bounce down the old main street approximately a km to the East to see the remains of the cheese factory.
By now its getting dark, cold and wet and everyone has had a full day. It has certainly been a once-in-a-life time Thanksgiving and the things we are thankful for seem both unspeakable and self-evident, especially our grandparent’s painful decision to leave this home.
October 8 – War and Discovery
When I go down to pay the phone bill there is a solemn crowd gathered around the TV in the lobby. The Americans and British have begun the bombing of Afghanistan and I’m sure some of these folks are reflecting on their own experience with war in Afghanistan. Selfishly I wonder whether this will impact our flights homeward starting tomorrow.
We have a brief family conference and decide to go to Am Trakt one more time tomorrow to drive the full length of it and to try to find the Koeppenthal and the Eastern cemeteries. Today will be devoted to a souvenir shopping trip to downtown Saratov and a visit to the Engels archives. I also contact Herr Schoenemann, a referral from Ulla Lachaur. He in turn briefs me on the archives and suggests contacting Igor Rudoltivich Plevvy, the Director of the Pedagogical Institute who is a Volgadentsche with a private archive collection. This will have to wait for next time.
The trip downtown with Mom and Dad is pleasant – sunny weather, bustling crowds on “Broadway” and glimpses of the former architectural splendor of Saratov. The trip to the archives turns out to be a bit more of an adventure. On the way over the Volga Bridge I ask the taxi driver to stop at the one little turnout to take some pictures. Just as I’m lining up my prime shot a police car stops and makes it very clear that taking pictures on the bridge is forbidden. He also gives the driver a chewing out and makes us wait at the far end until he returns and collects a fine from the driver. Then for the next hour we drive around and ask directions since he doesn’t know where on Lenin Square the Volga deutsche Archive is.
Once inside I am introduced to the translator Mikail Pestov who in turn ushers me into the office of Yelizaveta Yerina, an impressive woman in her sixties surrounded by mountains of paper. Her office and other parts of the premises I see later show all the signs of daunting working conditions and very little money.
At first I get the impression they suspect I am another tourist wandering in and wasting their time with idle inquiries about obscure relatives.
I am politely informed that many documents have been destroyed, lost, sent to other archives, and in the case of the Mennonites, taken with them. The atmosphere begins to change when I ask about records of the Malushny Agricultural Society. It turns out Ms. Yerina has written a book with references to the society.
The warmth of the occasion noticeably increases again when I get out my Am Trakt booklet and Ms. Yerina (who speaks a bit of German but no English) begins to realize what she has in her hands. An assistant is hailed, given the names of the Mennonite villages, and dispatched. In an hour I am summoned and told that a file exists of oral histories to each village collected by students under the direction of August Langenzenger in 1928. She says that she has copied this file to the Goetingen Archive in Germany – which she has done with many files, often secretly and at great risk to herself. However these originals have never been accessed nor is there any record of the copies being accessed in Goetingen.
I am intrigued and ask for a quote for copying, translating the Russian portions into German and mailing, for the histories from Orlof, Lysanderhoeh, Hoendorf and Koeppenthal (I forget Walevka). I am quoted 5000 rubles ($250) plus mailing, payable in cash while I am here.
While I am prepared to conclude the deal Ms. Verina isn’t, and she shows me the 2/3 shelf of books on Volga Deutsch she had authored or co-authored, the new Encyclopedia of Germans in Russia, Vol I to which she has contributed entries, and the spring 1994 and Spring 1999 issues of the Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans in Russia where articles by her on the work at the Archives appear. In answer to my inquiry about German or English translations she bemoans the lack of funding not only for translations but also for proper storage and referencing of documents, ensuring publication of Vol II of the Encyclopedia, and preparing an unpublished manuscript by August Langenzengzer (which is in Goethigen) for publication.
By now it is obvious that this is a woman with tremendous ability and dedication to her task. I can only imagine how thankless the job of maintaining and disseminating the story of Germans in Russia must have been over the years so I attempt to express my thanks on behalf of we the descendants of these Germans.
In turn Ms. Verina says that one thing they have virtually nothing of is documentation on the leaving of the Mennonites from the area and asks if we have any records in our family about their leaving. I can’t restrain myself from mentioning Grandfather Dyck’s german Autobiography and Pilgrim People II which includes and English translation. She immediately pleads with me for a German copy of the Autobiography but happily settles for a commitment to send a copy of Pilgrim People II. In my mind it is a fitting tribute to the lives, work and faith of our ancestors to leave their stories here so close to where so many of those stories happened.
October 9 – One Last Look
Again we are lucky to have beautiful weather – which we have had 18 out of 20 days. Elena has truly taken an interest in our story and us and is back as our guide. She immediately asks if she may have my last copy of the Am Trakt book as a present.
The purpose of this trip, back out to Am Trakt is to further check out Koeppenthal, take pictures of the Hansau and Walevka countryside, and find the graveyard East of Kalinina. For the last time we turn off the main highway at Bizimiyannoe which translates a place with no name.
The road ends at a square in Kirov (Koeppenthal) and as we look around we see what are clearly three Mennonite era buildings. The first is now a store which we photograph. The second is my #2 objective – the Koeppenthal Co-op Store! Elana introduces me to Lina Loskutovia who invites us in. It turns out that the store is now the local clinic and pharmacy and has had up to 25 hospital beds. Nina and the two other women are totally taken with the pictures of buildings and people in the Am Trakt book so I have no choice but to promise to send a copy. It is moving to see this historic building not only in good condition but being used for a healing purpose.
Next stop is the cemetery which is on a hill overlooking the village and offering a beautiful panoramic view of the countryside. The cemetery is in active use by the local villagers but we find only a few concrete grave borders and fragments of granite with no visible markers except for one barely legible inscription on a border.
Time is running short so we leave after I take one picture of another Mennonite house in the village I have spotted from the road. Back to Kalinina, we stop at the store run by Corney Wall’s friend Vladimir Dawlytov but again it is closed. We check the road east to Oestenfeld and Medental but the driver pronounces impassable. We share a hug and a few tears, take one last picture and head back to Saratov.
On the way back we reflect on how tragically flawed the communist experiment was. Certainly it wasn’t for lack of big ideas and investment because the countryside is littered with massive, largely abandoned, concrete buildings from the collectivist era. For the people left behind and living there now these are difficult times and its hard to imagine where they will all find a place in the new era. Capitalism and the market will find a way to bring back a measure of economic productivity. But the current drastic underinvestment in primary education and health care will mean that the Russia’s greatest resource, its young people will likey not have the opportunity to participate equitably in the recovery. That road has had unhappy consequences before.
Also, while its encouraging to see the energy which is coming with the new freedoms its clear that the further from the middle of Moscow you get the less the benefits and the greater the costs of the changes. As well, while the colour and bustle of the market is invigorating, the degree to which all things American are predominant from fast food, to brand names to popular music leaves one wondering where the Russian identity will end up. Luckily the beauty of its architectural heritage and the language will be hard to change.
Lastly, the whole question of how we, inheritors of the heritage of the people buried in the Vistula Delta and Russian colonies should act to preserve that heritage is one we need to address. These places form an important part of our historical identify. But in today’s world these fading memories are tending to get lost as we are increasingly assimilated into mainstream culture.
Properly acknowledging these locations and their stories will take a significant investment of energy and resources. But if nothing is done we and our children will lose the benefits of the lessons learned here, the inspiration of the faith and hope exhibited here, and an opportunity to communicate with our former neighbours.
Some efforts are already underway to rehabilitate the graveyards and mount plaques in the Vistula Delta. These need to be supported.
Am Trakt represents a greater challenge since it has only so recently become accessible, the number of descendants is a small fraction of those tracing their roots to the Prussian homeland, and the location is so remote. However here too I believe we need to figure out ways to mark the graves of our ancestors, raise plaques to acknowledge our former presence there, and become part of the larger effort to retell the stories of the Volga Germans and the Mennonite Colonists.
There are also possible opportunities for more direct involvement, including participating in the ownership and restoration of the Dyck House, and revival of the Malushny Agriculture Society as a partnership between the current communities and Am Trakt descendents.
Personally I found the trip intellectually stimulating, spiritually regenerative and an unforgettable shared experience with my parents. I would encourage anyone with the health and resources needed to make possible the experience visiting these sites for themselves to do so. Anything I can do to facilitate such visits I’m happy to share.
It was entirely appropriate that we spent Thanksgiving in Lysanderhoeh. I am thankful for the success of our odyssey, for the wisdom of Grandpa and Grandma Dyck in seeing the need to leave, and especially for my parents who made this trip possible. I’m also grateful for the interest and encouragement of my children and I am truly indebted to my wife Shirley Falstead for cheerfully supporting this venture and keeping our home and business together while I was off having this great adventure.