Leaving the Country, 1929
Heimatbuch 2001/2002, Landsmannschaft
der Deutschen aus Russland, Stuttgart, Germany, Pages 249 - 254
Translation from German to English by Alex
Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
From the Editors
We received the following contribution from Anna
Warkentin of Bielefeld, archivist for the Evangelical Church of
Westphalia. Here are her accompanying remarks: "During my
work on the archives of the Evangelical Church community of Warburg
(county of Paderborn) I happened upon a report by one of our country
folk (the specific name is not mentioned) which describes the
emigration of Germans leaving Russia in the year 1929. The report
carries the title, 'Experiences of a teacher ...from the colony
... in Western (the word 'Western' was struck out) Siberia during
his escape from Russia. (Reported and transmitted by himself via
P. Kienecker, Pastor Hamm i. W.)' I discovered this report among
papers of the Gustav-Adolf-Society. I was unable to determine
whether the report was ever published."
...As early as 1921 I was beginning to wish that
I might be able to leave Russia. Times were very hard. Famine
and inflation raced through the country. Thousands starved during
the year of 1922, even as thousands and tens of thousands of pud
of wheat were rotting. (This is how things are when Communists
are in power!!!) It was as if a curse had been pronounced on the
country. The same curse seemed to be felt even years later as
God's hand seemed to rest heavily on people and the land. Even
where there were no bad harvests, several severe illnesses seemed
to be spreading. All of this, plus the ever more stringent measures
taken against the Church, evoked in me a strong awareness that
Russia was hurtling toward a catastrophe, one that can only be
designated as horrible.
During the past year (1929), all over Russia one
noticed increasing activity by the "Society for the Godless,"
all in cooperation with certain government organs. People who
were seemingly possessed by the devil were forming groups everywhere
and unleashing such a degree of persecution that many who were
still believers were often close to despair.
They were especially interested in directing their
activities against children and adolescents. Subjects of instruction
called "anti-religious propaganda" were being introduced
into the school curriculum. The so-called Red teachers, all members
of the Society for the Godless, now had unlimited opportunity
to do as they pleased and to turn innocent creatures away from
God. Those teachers were ruthlessly tearing down whatever religious
matter parents had been able to impress on their children. People
came near despair as their children would come home and complain,
"Papa, everyone in school laughs at me because I believe
in God. The teacher says there is no God and that our parents
who are trying to 'poison' us would be brought to justice. I am
not going back to school."
One can imagine the capricious cruelty of children
who no longer believed in God and the difficult suffering of those
children who still believed. Thus I often struggled with the question,
"Should I watch quietly when children are carefully inculcated
with atheism? When gradually all those doubts over God's existence
grow every more strongly in those children and when children are
indoctrinated with anti-Christian mores?" I had to tell myself,
"No, I must not. My own conviction stands in direct contrast
with the education of children after the new method, and it is
not out of the question that one day my own children will say,
'There is no God!'" That was the horrible image I saw before
me day and night. It is remarkable that, particularly beginning
with June 1929, I felt myself needing to beg God ever more frequently
and more intensely to lead me out of Russia. And lo and behold,
the Lord heard my prayers.
It was on September 27, 1929, that my father-in-law
J.S. from the village of U. in Siberia, together with his family,
traveled to Moscow in order to request permission to emigrate
to Siberia [Translator's note: the writer really means "emigrate
from Siberia," as the entire story centers on]. My brother-in-law
F.S. and my uncle S.F. joined in as well. After a long time I
received a letter in which my brother-in-law wrote that we should
stay put for the time being.
Another long pause ensued, and I was beginning to
accept the idea that my relatives had left Moscow. Finally on
October 25, I received another letter in which my brother-in-law
gave me the joyous news that permission for emigration had been
given, and that we should hurry and come to Moscow, the first
group being scheduled to leave Moscow on November 5.
We hurriedly attempted to sell everything we had,
often at ridiculously low prices. I was employed in a company
that began each fiscal year in October, and so in my position
as bookkeeper I was still obliged to provide a year-end report.
Consequently we did not leave Slovgorod until November 5. Meanwhile
I had been blacklisted, since I was still attending church services
and believed in God. Therefore I was to be the first to be swept
out as part of the cleansing by the Soviet apparatus. Our leaving
was painful, of course, but the thought that we might finally
be able to be stripped of the shackles on our liberty, helped
us to think past all such difficulties.
The city of Slovgorod is situated on a branch line
of the Siberian Magistral railroad. The station where the branch
line originated was called Tatarka, which we traveled to first
and changed trains. About 100 families were already there, and
because Tatarka had no depot building, they had already been loaded
onto dirty, cold rail cars. Following a 20-hour wait we also boarded,
our first goal being Omsk, where we had to change trains again.
There our tickets had to be stamped for the privilege to get onto
a train for the continuation of our trip. To acquire the stamps
we were forced to pay the porter 1.5 rubles per ticket.
Finally the train arrived and with it the horror
as well. Children were kicked to the ground. The weaker passengers
were pushed back and run down by the stronger ones. People boarded
the train while wildly running and walking over boxes, baskets
and people who had been pushed to the ground. Portions of families
remained behind, their baggage and sometimes the father of the
family being on the train, and vice versa. Children, too, were
left behind all by themselves and then sent for afterwards.
Among those lucky enough to board was our group,
i.e., my family and I; we had hired a porter. And now we took
off straight in the direction of Moscow, where we arrived happily
following a four-day ride. Brother-in-law F.S., who had just arrived
in Moscow himself, received us there. It took only a few more
minutes before we were on a roomy local train, steaming joyfully
and gratefully toward the town where our relatives lived. On arriving
there we rented a place where seven families totaling about 35
people had to share one room with 33 square meters of space.
At first we got along quite well in K. Nobody bothered
or cared where we were from, why we had come there and who we
were. The cooperative (consumer group) issued each of us a bread
card so we could buy bread daily at a reduced price. Sugar was
also available via these cards, perhaps even too much of it. We
were very happy, felt quite secure there and did not foresee the
disaster that stood before us.
The morning of November 16 brought news of the first
arrests. This was totally unexpected, and the terrible news struck
like a bolt of lightning. An entire storm would follow. Every
night cars were running around, grabbing harassed people. When
night came we were filled with terror. The poor children clung
closely to their parents, especially their father, each time they
heard one vehicle after another buzzing ever closer.
Ruthlessly, amidst wild confusion, children and
baggage were thrown onto trucks, followed by the adults. Then
they were driven through the dark of night to the rail station
where the families were forced into freight cars without heat
or light, all to be transported back. No pleading helped. People
who have no God are without compassion. Several children were
crushed to death; many adults suffered broken arms and legs. Three
women who did not willingly obey the order to board the trucks
were forcefully dragged out of their houses. These women were
pregnant, and one of them gave birth immediately upon boarding
the freight train, another one [delivered] on the way. The births
turned out to have been premature.
Thus it went for two long weeks. As soon as we woke
up in the morning we would ask about who still remained. In addition
to the arrests of entire families, there were those of individual
fathers only. One can imagine the horror felt by all family members
when someone banged on a window at night, the police entered and
read the names of those to be arrested. Mother and children would
run toward the father and cling to him with all their might. There
were heartrending cries whenever fathers were dragged off with
nothing but complete uncertainly over their destination.
The terror was actually to become even worse. Refugees
were hearing rumors stemming from the cellars and underground
cells of the GPU [secret police] of countless tortures endured
by those who had already been arrested. At this point I wish to
describe briefly the torturous route of some of the refugees.
Refugee Konrad was arrested on November 20. Two policemen, armed
from head to toe, accompanied him to the truck that already contained
14 prisoners. At the time of his arrest he was merely told that
he was being called before the town council to answer a few questions.
Just a few minutes earlier, though, another refugee from the same
house had been arrested. Automobiles to Moscow continued to buzz
through the dark of night.
On arrival Konrad was taken to a space where 414
others who had been arrested the same night had been taken as
well. They were called up individually, were forced to undress,
and all of their papers and valuables (money, watch, etc.) were
taken. Then the arrestees were assigned to specific cells -- cells
that normally might have held 50 people but were now stuffed with
100 to 120 people. Witnesses have testified that the arrestees
had to take turns sitting, sleeping and standing. Those who had
arrived early on November 21 had to wait another day. The food
they were given to eat would barely be enough for a child.
On November 22 Konrad was taken to interrogation
where he was posed the following questions:
1. Who is the organizer of the immigrations?
2. Who were the first to arrive in Moscow?
3. How often have German representatives been in K., and what
4. Have negotiations taken place with Russian shipping companies,
or are there other prospects?
After the answers were given, all sorts of inhumane
threats were used to extract a signature testifying that the arrestees
agreed voluntarily to return to his former place of residence.
The agents of the police declared that the government was ready
to give 500 rubles to those returning voluntarily, to give back
all goods that had been sold, and for that which was no longer
obtainable they would be given long-term loans by state businesses.
When certain arrestees refused to return voluntarily,
they were led to a room that had been steam-heated to 50-60 degrees
[Celsius -- 112-121 degrees Fahrenheit, tr.]. Here these poorest
of all had languished for three hours. Sweat would come out of
all pores, and even the floor had been heated so that one could
not stand still for more than a second. At the door there was
a guard whose only duty it was to give a little bit of water to
an arrestee who might be passing out, so that he could recover
only to be tortured again. These things occurred only during the
When the three hours had elapsed, the arrestees
would once again be taken for interrogation in a room where six
officials of the political police were sitting and using indescribable
tortures in order to extract the arrestees' agreement to return
After all this process of "working on them"
(as it was called) failed to achieve its desired result, or one
or another arrestee under threat of a pistol agreed to give up
his plans to emigrate, they were all led back to their cells.
Even though the latter had been told they would be freed in three
hours, it was all merely deception and lies -- all of them had
to remain in prison.
After a five-day stay in prison, about 400 men under
heavy guard were loaded in cars during the night and stuffed into
freight cars. To make it difficult for the arrestees to escape,
they were first brought to a rail station 15 kilometers outside
of Moscow, where they would be unable to get oriented. When they
all had been put on the train (none of the cars had heat or lighting),
the train set out into the unknown. Doors and windows had been
The train stopped at a large log building inside
a forest about 20 kilometers from Moscow. The arrestees were to
stay here until their families were transported back to join them.
A few took advantage of an opportunity to escape when the doors
were opened and actually succeeded in getting away. Among these
was the colonist Konrad mentioned above. The other refugees were
never actually reunited with their families and were transported
back without them.
There were some cases when arrestees had to spend
as many as six to eight hours in the steam room. A few were able
to save themselves by sticking a cigarette mouthpiece through
a small crack near the window and thereby able to gasp for a bit
of air, or they might lie down on the floor and attempt to catch
some air through the cracks in and around the door.
The prisoners were allowed to visit a toilet at
most three times a day, and everything in between had to be taken
care of in the cell. Everything legal and illegal was attempted
in order to persuade the refugees to return. There was no lack
of public propaganda effort. A Russian appeal to the German farmers
was being spread among the refugees in Moscow via thousands of
copies of a flier designed to persuade them to return to their
former places of residence. The headline read as follows: "The
Soviet Government Rushes to the Assistance of the Working Farmers
Who Have Been Plunged into Emigration Misfortune." It read
further, "Measures are being taken in your old home places
to protect the goods and properties you have squandered."
An alleged letter from a working farmer was cited: "The editors
of the Deutschen Zentralzeitung [German Central Newspaper]
have received from farmer Franz Voth of Prigorye (in the Cherson
region) the following letter to be forwarded to his brother Johann
Voth, who is currently in the camp for emigration-happy Mennonites:
'Dear Brother Hans! I am writing these lines to
you, completely uncertain whether this letter might even reach
you. We're all in good health. Things in our farm business are
as usual, and we haven't sold anything. Many have sold things,
but their buyers have to return them in case their owners might
return... The goods don't even have to be picked up, they will
be delivered. Whoever sold his cow to the milk association or
his flour to the cooperative will get them back. In N14 farmers'
properties are still in the same condition as before. Militia
people are guarding things so that they're not stolen. Everyone
here is hoping you'll come back, then everyone is supposed to
get all his things back, and everything will be forgiven. Those
without bread will be given some so that they do not stay hungry.
Now I've told you everything the way it is here.
You can let your neighbors know and also tell them that here all
doors remain open for those who strayed away, and that they will
not be punished. We are feeling quite cozy next to our stove.
We have plenty of bread, as you know, but we have begun to take
stock of all reserves, and those who don't have enough will receive
Sincerely, with warm greetings from us all,
Your Brother Franz Voth.' "
How wonderful that all sounded! How friendly the
Soviet government wished to treat the refugees! But in the camp
of the "emigration happy," how were things there? In
Moscow 35 autos were constantly available to transport the "strayers"
ever closer to their "beautiful homes." At some places
refugees were being deceived by promises that they should pack
quickly, for they would be going to Leningrad and from there to
Germany. They would ride off happily, but their joy could come
to a horrendous end. Meanwhile the refugees cried out to God every
night, and the "True One" kept His word and heard their
On November 30 we were informed by men of the militia
that we were to hand in applications for the issuance of passes
for foreign travel. At this point, I need to mention something
that I will never, ever forget. I went together with my brother-in-law
and two other men chosen by the refugees in order to find out
what we could from the "administrative department" of
the Moscow "Gov. Executive Committee" concerning the
time of departure. To avoid being noticed by the secret police,
we separated into two groups of two each and took off for the
previously mentioned officials. Looking for our companions around
a street corner, we noticed that they had disappeared. We waited
for a long time, went back, but not a trace of them was to be
found. On arriving at our destination, we waited once again for
a long while, but without success. They did not come. A few days
later we learned they had been arrested by the political police.
Our faithful Lord did hold His hand over us, and we were able
to learn that the Lord did hear prayers, because prior to going
off I had asked God for protection. Thanks be to the eternal,
almighty, merciful and compassionate God forever.
Having filled out the forms that were required for
obtaining passes for foreign travel and having paid the requisite
fees, we were given the passes. Yet here, too, the Soviet government
had taken care to fill the refugees with worries and sadness.
Twelve families were arbitrarily denied their passes without any
reason given, even though they had already been prepared for them.
With deep sadness, they were forced to stay behind.
Filled with trepidation for fear of being arrested
at the last minute, we arrived at the railroad station N. After
waiting six hours, partly under the open sky, partly in the unheated
waiting room of the rail station, we finally boarded the train.
A great sigh of "Thanks be to God" came from our lips
as the train finally started to move off. However, fear and horror
might not be over for any of us, for we could never trust the
It was midnight when we arrived at the Baltic rail
station. After a short wait our train once again started to move.
Dead silence in all of the rail cars. The only thing noticeable
was that lips were moving, and tears -- tears of joy, mixed with
dread -- were running down everyone's cheeks. Anyone who has never
experienced the feelings that came over us will find it hard to
imagine them. It could be likened to a weight scale where joy
and fear alternately outweigh each other. It took hours till things
became a little livelier, yet everyone spoke very softly, for
it was always possible that a secret police representative might
be listening in... The consequences were all too well known to
Meanwhile the train kept rolling toward the border.
Customs officials came by, rummaged through everything, stole
money and anything else of value, looking especially for American
dollars. At the border station of Sebesh we had to give up any
money that was still available (small sums, perhaps five to seven
rubles per family, were not being taken away), so that no "Russian
treasures" would be taken abroad.
Sebesh became yet another but final point of terror
for us, for here all the passports would be checked. Again there
was a long wait, filled with dread over whether one or the other
family might still be transported back. Nothing can describe our
happiness when we were given back our passports, along with the
promise that we would be allowed to cross the border undisturbed!
Jubilation and great joy filled our hearts when the killers of
all freedom left the train and all of us, with tears streaming
down, were able to greet the Latvian customs officials. Hurriedly,
we packed all the things the other customs men had tossed about
wildly. After just a few more minutes, we were allowed to leave
the Russian rail cars. I was the first among our entire transport
allowed to board the train, and my very first action was to sink
to my knees and to thank God who had proven so glorious to us.
After everyone had finally finished changing trains, a resounding
chorus of "Now Thank We All Our God" was intoned. The
singing, though, lasted only perhaps through half of the second
verse when it was replaced with general sobbing. Only a few continued
singing through the third verse, then everyone sat down wrapped
in their own quiet thoughts. Every one of them praised the One
who had led us out of darkness.
The Red Cross provided us with coffee and white
bread -- yes, white bread, which we hadn't seen in years. They
also thought of the children. Nurses and doctors from the Red
Cross were careful to get everything taken care of, and they turned
their attention to the children. How different it was from Russia,
where from all street corners one could always hear great declamation
over the importance of our children's happiness, but here they
were actually given assistance in word and in deed! Even in our
wildest dreams we could not have imagined this situation -- everywhere
there were friendly faces and sincere empathy and understanding
for our misery.
We reached Germany after crossing Latvia. Everywhere
we met with friendliness and empathy that simply cannot be described.
Gifts of all kinds, clothing, money, and so on were frequently
provided. Tears of gratitude flowed freely. People whom no one
had seen crying for years were now seen sitting quietly and crying,
all filled with the awareness that God, only God could have been
the One to help us so greatly. We were experiencing the meaning
of the saying, "God's mills grind slowly, but ever so splendidly
fine." For such a long time we had been feeling fear and
terror, and now we were to taste an even deeper solace. Our greatest
joy was that now we would finally be able to praise God without
any sort of hindrance.
We were received very warmly on arriving in Eydkuhnen.
After the welcomes we all took a bath, and that occasion was used
to disinfect our clothing. We arrived in Hammerstein on December
5. Retired Major Fuchs welcomed us in the name of the German government
and people, and we were invited to enter a dining hall that was
adorned with evergreens, flags of the German Reich, and a picture
of Hindenburg. We all took in a breakfast meal and were then led
to some barracks. Following a brief time of quarantine, we finally
came to a town called Prenzlau and were housed in barracks formerly
used by the Reich's Army.
There we were able to spend many joyous days. Especially
-- and forever -- memorable for all of us was the welcoming ceremony
and Christmas celebration. Those were true holidays, the likes
of which we had not known for a long, long time.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex
Herzog for translation of this article.