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Mrs. Liebelt shows her husband family pictures from the time she was growing up in Russia.
Reminders of her Decade of Horror Remain for Sawyer Woman

Lund, Leonard. "Reminders of her Decade of Horror Remain for Sawyer Woman." Minot Daily News, 9 February 1974.


A series of tragedies befell the John Mattheis family in the years after they gathered for their picture in the Ukraine in the 1930s. John Mattheis, the father, was forced to leave his family in 1937 and was imprisoned by the Soviet regime never to be seen by his family again. With his wife in the front are, from left, Ida, Ernest and Daniel. Behind hem are another daughter, Erna, with her husband, Boris, and Martha, now Mrs. Theodore Liebelt of Sawyer. Ernest, between his parents, particularly shows the effects of malnutrition from a Russian famine.

SAWYER--Now recuperating at her home four miles south of Sawyer from varicose vein surgery, Mrs. Theodore Liebelt, nee Martha Mattheis, believes that her health problem stems from her experiences in a refugee camp in Germany during and after World War II. In fact, her decade-plus of horror dated back to 1937.

Born into a German family in South Russia, she was displaced by the fortunes of World War II with the reoccupation of Russian territory after the fall of Stalingrad.

Separated by the war from her first husband, Alexander Grosse, never to see him again, Mrs. Liebelt, with her two children, Elvira, 10, and Reinhold, 7, left Nikolaev (Nikolajew) in the Ukraine in 1943, with another sister, Erna, and her two children, Robert, 5, and Valentina, 2-1/2; her mother; another sister, Ida, 19; and two brothers, Ernest, 13, and Daniel, 17.

The three sisters with the children of two of them, their brother, Ernest, and their mother finally reached Schwaig, between Regensberg and Engelstadt, Germany, where they lived from May 1945 for four years or more.

Schwaig, in those days, is described by Mrs. Liebelt as "like when Jesus was born" for "there was no room in the inn."

After being liberated by the Americans, the family of John Mattheis (who had disappeared in 1937 under an order of the Soviet regime) found themselves without money and with only the clothes on their backs.

They went from door to door to ask farmers for a bundle of straw to lay on a floor.

Nine members of the family lived in two small rooms, furnished with only a cook stove. There was no bed, no table or chairs.

They eventually got steel beds from burned out or wrecked trains which had been left behind by fleeing German soldiers.

Some people gave them utensils which had been discarded by the soldiers.

Mrs. Liebelt and her family were forced to beg for food for things were in such chaos they could not even buy a loaf of bread.

For fuel the family cut an allocation of wood from the forest. Unaccustomed to such work, Mrs. Liebelt believes her varicose veins started during that unhappy time in Bavaria.

In order to survive, the family washed clothes for Americans who gave them discarded clothing which were made into clothes for the children.

"We didn't throw away anything," remarks Mrs. Liebelt. She said the family eventually became acquainted with local people who were kind enough to help.

"It was always the poor people who helped you, not the rich," she adds. "We were hungry many times."

Before being parted from her father, Mrs. Liebelt attended a teachers college in Chortiza, shown above, for three years and later taught school.
During that period of turmoil, the family remembered that their father, before he was forcibly removed from his home and taken to prison, had written to a sister in one of the Dakotas, but they could not remember whether it was South or North.

Mrs. Liebelt became acquainted with another refugee from South Russia, Henry Klassen. She asked Klassen for help to locate her aunt in America before he left for Canada to work under contract with a lumber company for a year.

On reaching Canada Klassen placed information in a German paper in Canada about the Mattheis family and it attracted the attention of a Mrs. Wagner, who had come from the Mattheis' home town of New Danzig, not far from Nikolaev.

Mrs. Wagner sent Klassen the address for Martha's cousin, Lydia, Mrs. John Bender, at McClusky. (She died last month at Underwood.)

Mrs. Bender contacted her brothers, Ed Mathis at Max and William Mathis at Sawyer. William and his wife agreed to serve as sponsors for Mrs. Liebelt to come to America.

Without knowing a word of English, Mrs. Liebelt arrived in New York November 30, 1949, with her two children and they reached Minot December 2, 1949, on the train.

While looking for someone who could speak German, the conductor came across a woman who got on the train at Towner. She talked to Mrs. Liebelt.

While on the train she also met Mrs. A.W. Pankow of Minot, now in the Milton Young Towers, and her son Jack, l5, who tried to teach the children to count.

Since the train was late, arriving in the evening, there was no one to meet Mrs. Liebelt, but a woman explained that William Mathis should be contacted at Sawyer. With only one telephone in town, word eventually was relayed to Mathis, who came to Minot to pick up the new arrivals.

For the next three months they lived with Mathis and his wife and Mrs. Liebelt helped them build a house while her children were enrolled in school at Sawyer.

Mrs. Liebelt wanted to get a job to support herself even though Mathis had to sign an agreement that he would support her and the children for a year.

Through Mrs. Alvina Gardner, Mrs. Liebelt got a job as a waitress in the luncheonette at Ellisons in Minot and that also proved valuable for learning English.

While living at Sawyer Mrs. Liebelt met her second husband. They were married in March 1951 and have since lived on their place south of Sawyer.

In addition to her children, the Liebelts have three other children, Ralph, who works for Custom Floors in Minot; Richard, with the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific, and Jeanette, a senior at Sawyer High School.

Reinhold Grosse, her son by her first marriage, is married and lives in Sawyer, and Elvira, Mrs. Peter E. Gray, resides at Ganbrills, Maryland.

Almost four decades later Mrs. Liebelt gathers with her American family. With her husband in the front row are Jeanette, left, and Richard. Behind them are Peter and Elvira Gray, Ralph Liebelt, Carolee and Reinhold Grosse. Elvira and Reinhold, pictured with their spouses, are children by Mrs. Liebelt's first marriage in Russia. They accompanied their mother on the long trek to North Dakota from South Russia.

Mrs. Liebelt was born just after the Russian revolution into a family which had formed a new settlement of New Danzig in the Ukraine from Danzig, Germany. Her great-grandfather had gone to Russia before 1864.

Originally Lutheran, the family later became German Baptists.

One year after Martha was born, in 1921, there was a terrible famine in Russia, she says, but John Mattheis and his family had between 100 and 150 acres of land and were able to scratch out a living.

In the late 1920s their land, located in the country, away from their home in New Danzig, was made part of a collective farm. Mattheis, like other farmers who lost their land, was forced to work for the collective.

They received no payment for land, cattle, horses or equipment, according to Martha.

She says many farmers, especially those who had worked hard to build up their places, were sent to Siberia.

She recalls that her mother's parents had developed a large farm near Steingut, eight miles from New Danzig, and had to give up their land.

John Mattheis, a mail carrier, was in disagreement with the Soviet government and said that a government "built on lies and broken promises" cannot exist.

About the only good Martha could see in the regime was that it afforded persons with ability a chance to get an education.

Martha attended a teachers' college in Chortiza for three years and began teaching before she was 18.

While she was teaching at Halbstadt in 1937, the Russian secret police (NKVD) knocked on the door of her parents' home at New Danzig in the middle of the night.

When the father opened the door, the police said they were looking for a diary which Mattheis had kept for many years. Mattheis, who refused to tell, had hidden his diary under the mattress where his sons were sleeping.

Without being permitted to say goodbye to his children, Ida, 13; Daniel, 10, and Ernest, 7, Mattheis was forcibly taken from his home and was never seen again by his family.

Ida awoke and was crying when police took her father. One of the secret service men yelled, "What are you bawling about?"

When the brothers awoke, they ran down town in a desperate search for their father.

Their mother asked about her husband at the prison but was told there was no one there by that name.

Martha claims that "thousands and thousands" of people met the same fate as her father.

"They always said, `We don't want you old people, if you can't change, but we want your children one way or the other.'"

Martha says the Soviets took the middle aged men and left the old people and the mothers.

"People were interrogated and made to sign statements that they had spied or committed acts against the government," according to Martha.

She reports that her father may have aroused suspicion by writing to his sister, Mrs. Louise Mathis, at McClusky for money during the famine of 1932. With foreign money, Martha says the people in Russia could by anything.

While the relatives at McClusky were people of modest means, their sons worked in the coal mines and all pitched in to send money to Russia.

Mattheis, who had corresponded with his sister, in 1928 had sold everything in hopes to go to the United States but his daughter reports that "Stalin dropped a curtain" and wouldn't let anyone leave the country. Mrs. Mathis had gone to America in the early 1900s.

Martha Jelfinow, who had been Martha's first grade teacher, was in prison with Martha's father and in later years told Martha that she saw him during interrogation in early 1938 in Nikolaev.

Later sent to Karaganda, Siberia, Mrs. Jelfinow was reunited with her husband and son in Canada in 1962.

Mrs. Liebelt learned of Mrs. Jelfinow's whereabouts four years ago through her sister, Ida, who had gotten Mrs. Jelfinow's address from a cousin in Siberia.

Mrs. Jelfinow came to Sawyer about three years ago at Christmas for a visit. She died in the summer of 1970 from cancer.

Alexander Grosse, Martha's firs husband, was first employed as an interpreter in the German army and later was inducted into the German army.

Martha explains that the Russians rejected all persons of German descent for military service. With the fall of Stalingrad in 1943, Grosse was left in Nikolaev with the German army. Martha searched for him for years without success.

She had corresponded with him in March 1944 in Nikolaev when she was in a refugee camp in Steinberg, Austria, but all the letters were later returned with a notice that they could not be delivered.

When the Russians had retreated from the area while under German attack, all the able-bodied men, including Boris, husband of Martha's sister Erna, were taken with the army. Erna never saw her husband again either.

After the battle of Stalingrad, Martha reports the Germans were retreating and persons of German descent and others were ordered to leave on freight trains which were provided for them.

Martha's mother, Ida, Ernest and Daniel, ill with tuberculosis of the hip joints, left New Danzig for Nikolaev to join the rest of the family, including the two other sisters, each with two children.

People were packed into 100 freight cars and they were told to take food for 10 days for a trip to Poland which actually took 17.

Martha says the family ran out of food before reaching Poland, where they were run through a delousing center at a public bath in late November 1943.

Men, women and children were ordered to remove their clothes and take baths at the same time, according to Martha. She says their clothes were disinfected in ovens.

Most everyone got sick. Measles, chicken pox and whooping cough were the lot of the children while the adults came down with the grippe or flu, Martha relates.

Four or five days later the train reached Vienna, where Martha and Erna with their children, who had been riding in one car, were separated from the rest of the family whose car was dispatched in another direction.

Martha recalls that people rode on two levels in each freight car, top and bottom, and could sit but not stand.

From Vienna the sisters' car was routed through Yugoslavia to Steinberg, Austria, to a camp which had served as a cloister for nuns. Others in the family were near Vienna. They were reunited at Steinberg six weeks later.

For six weeks Martha says those in the camp were under quarantine due to the possibility of disease and were unable to go into town.

They were fed a diet of "ersatz" food provided by the German government.

In April 1944 the family was transferred to a different camp at Marienthal in the Black Forest. Ida obtained work in an ammunition factory and was able to provide a one-room apartment nearby for her mother and brothers.

Erna also worked in the factory after her children were enrolled in school.

Martha stayed in the camp until late 1944 or January 1945 before joining the rest of the family. Erna and her children lived with another family near the factory.

When the Russians were pushing into Germany Martha and others in the family joined refugees at Easter in 1945 for a ride on German trucks to Bavaria where they stayed in a schoolhouse for many days.

With the Russians continuing their advance, the family moved on to Schwaig.

In the meantime Daniel had gone with a truck in a different direction and was separated from the family until July 1947.

He was found lying on a street in Austria and was taken to a hospital where he spent 18 months following successful surgery on his hip joint.

Ernest's life had a tragic ending at age 17. He was gassed while working for a Germany company which had a contract with the United States army to destroy bunkers at Munich.

While waiting in Schwaig for a chance to go to America, Daniel became impatient and left for Australia in 1949. He worked for General Motors for many years and later operated a restaurant near Melbourne.

Daniel sent for his mother in 1951, for Erna and her second husband, Nick Fylak, and family in 1952 and for Ida and her husband, Valdemar Rychalsky, in 1956.

Mrs Liebelt flew to Australia in 1960 to visit her mother and the rest of the family.

Erna died of cancer in 1966 and her husband was killed two years later in a car accident.

Mrs. Liebelt's mother, now 84, lives with Ida in Blackburn.

Daniel came to Sawyer for a visit last year, while Rychalsky was in Sawyer two years ago. Daniel is married to an Austrian girl and has a daughter born seven days before Mrs. Liebelt arrived for a visit.

Through correspondence of her sister, Ida, Mrs. Liebelt has learned that she has a male cousin in Winnipeg.

His sister in Siberia, working through the Red Cross, was attempting to locate their sister, also named Erna, and came in touch with Ida in Australia.

On writing to Siberia, Ida learned that the cousin had a brother, John Mathis, who went to Canada from a Mennonite colony in Russia.

He paid Mrs. Liebelt a visit last year. She learned that her cousin's wife had been taught by Klassen and that Mathis has a sister, also named Martha, who is missing.

To make the world even smaller, Mathis and Klassen, the man who did so much to bring Mrs. Liebelt to North Dakota, now live only a block apart in Winnipeg!

Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.

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