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Danger on the Train

Danger on the Train

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Danger on the Train

368 pagine
5 ore
Mar 14, 2013


This is a true story of two siblings, Sophie and David, who are separated by the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. Sophie and her family immigrated to America in 1913, but David stayed in Russia, and was drafted into the tsars army. Their families stayed in touch until the mid 30s, when one could be arrested for receiving mail or packages from America or Germany. Then silence. For a long time, the relatives in America thought their cousins were dead. The silence was broken sixty years later, when Donna and Lilli, granddaughters of Sophie and David, providentially met in Germany.

Born only one day apart, the two cousins have each exchanged information about what happened during those years of separation and silence. They write, visit back and forth, and even took a frightening trip to Russia, where Donna began to understand what the family had to endure under Communism.

In these pages, you will meet Russian rulers from Catherine the Great to Mikhail Gorbachev, and see how their decisions impacted our cousins who still lived in Russia. The Iron Curtain lifts for us to get a glimpse of what life was like in Russia after Sophie immigrated before WWI and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Donna and Lilli have joined together to tell the many dramatic stories in the familys fight for survival.

Mar 14, 2013

Informazioni sull'autore

Donna Walter is a teacher, speaker, and author of Discover Prayer and articles for a variety of magazines and journals. Her love of family has led her to write a family tree, interview relatives, scour cemeteries, visit other countries, and even learn German. She and her husband live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Danger on the Train - Donna L. Walter

Copyright © 2013 Donna L. Walter.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

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Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

Any people depicted in stock imagery provided by Thinkstock are models, and such images are being used for illustrative purposes only.

Certain stock imagery © Thinkstock.

ISBN: 978-1-4497-8644-1 (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-4497-8643-4 (hc)

ISBN: 978-1-4497-8645-8 (e)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013903354

WestBow Press rev. date: 3/13/2013

Table of Contents

Chapter 1    En Route to Moscow, 2000

Part 1: The Early History of the Germans from Russia 1763 to the Bolshevik Revolution

Chapter 2    The Invitation

Chapter 3    So Much for Promises

Chapter 4    Home Life on the Steppe

Chapter 5    My Grandfather’s Diaries

Chapter 6    They Need to Flee

Chapter 7    News from Russia

Part 2: Sophie’s Family in America 1913 to 1983

Chapter 8    Dreams Dashed

Chapter 9    Casper’s Choice

Chapter 10  Their Early Years Together

Chapter 11  Being German-Russian in America

Chapter 12  Joy and Heartache

Chapter 13  Staying in Touch with the Relatives

Chapter 14  Casper’s Parting Thoughts

Chapter 15  Lives Lived Well

Chapter 16  The Good-Bye Letter

Part 3: Connie: The Link Zeeland, Michigan 1993 to 1999

Chapter 17  Connie

Chapter 18  Letters to and from Cousin Emilie

Part 4: David’s Family in Russia from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan

Chapter 19  Joseph Stalin

Chapter 20  Traces of a Life: Emilie’s Early Years

Chapter 21  Emilie Wiegel März in Kazakhstan

Chapter 22  Replanting an Old Tree

Part 5: East Meets West in Germany Heinsberg–Kirchoven May 1998

Chapter 23  Meeting Our New Cousins

Chapter 24  The Day Before, a World Away

Chapter 25  A Rainy Day in Dachau

Chapter 26  So Many Reminders!

Chapter 27  David and Lilli Visit America

Chapter 28  What Do I Say? What Should They Do?

Chapter 29  Chicago

Chapter 30  Letters to and from Russia

Chapter 31  Preparing for our Trip to Russia

Part 6: Meeting the Relatives Still Living in Russia September 2000

Chapter 32  Our Adventure Begins in Germany

Chapter 33  Aunt Amelia: Another Survivor

Chapter 34  Heinsberg to Kaliningrad

Chapter 35  The First Time They Saw Americans

Chapter 36  Kaliningrad, Russia

Chapter 37  Aunt Emma’s Family

Chapter 38  Opening the Suitcases

Chapter 39  The Train Ride to Moscow

Chapter 40  An Afternoon in Moscow

Chapter 41  Welcome? I Don’t Think So

Chapter 42  The Slovakia

Chapter 43  Exploring Saratov

Chapter 44  They Are Not the Same!

Chapter 45  Learning the System

Chapter 46  You Call This a Cruise?

Chapter 47  More Bribes at the Saratov Airport

Chapter 48  An Interesting Birthday Party

Chapter 49  The Second Shipment to Russia

Chapter 50  Überaschung! (Surprise!)

Chapter 51  Herbal Medicine

Chapter 52  Unser Vater (Our Father): Johannes Marz

Chapter 53  The Legacy of Lilli’s Father

Chapter 54  Searching for Food and a New Mother

Chapter 55  A Wise Man Passes

Part 7: Relocating to Germany

Chapter 56  Lilli’s Story: Roadblocks to Leaving Russia

Chapter 57  A Whirlwind Tour

Chapter 58  Forever and Always

Chapter 59  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


With gratitude to God for orchestrating a visit with cousins whom I never knew existed; for unexpected generosity from friends and family who provided clothing, Bibles and money for my relatives in Russia; for loving protection in Russia; for my devoted husband and family who were great encouragers; and for prodding me and providing me with inspiration as I wrote, thank you Lord, for being there before me, with me, and behind me.

I am also grateful for the following people who have been so helpful: Denise Matulka at the AHSGR library; my sisters Jan, Starr, and Julie for reading the manuscript; Jan Van Wyhe and Karna Walter for proofreading it; Donna Lowe for technical support and manuscript formatting; Carol Ebels for her encouragement, and for everyone who has been praying for me.

Words from the Author

Danger on the Train is the true story of my father’s family. Sophie and David Wiegel were siblings living on the Volga River in Russia in the late 1800’s. They lived in a community of Germans known as the Volga-Deutsch. These Germans were hard-working, hospitable, dependable, thrifty, and godly people who kept to themselves. Most of the 104 villages were Evangelicals (mainly Lutheran); others were Catholic and Mennonite. Sophie left Russia for America in 1913; David remained behind. Their families stayed in touch from 1913 to 1935, when the Volga-Deutsch were no longer allowed to send or receive mail from the United States and Germany. The silence began. The quiet, sheltered life of David’s family fell apart on June 22, 1941 as the second world war moved into Russia.

Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia for thirty years, was threatened and dismayed, because he had signed a non-aggression pact with Adolph Hitler just two years earlier. Stalin feared the Germans who lived in Russia might defect and join the Nazis as they crossed the border. To insure that did not happen, every Volga-Deutsch soldier in the tsar’s army was exiled to gulags in Siberia. In September of 1941, Stalin decreed that all of the Volga-Deutsch villages would be displaced. A geographical line was drawn; some would land in Kazakhstan, others in Siberia. Thus, families were split apart. In seventeen days, all 446,500 Germans, most of them believers, were loaded onto cattle cars and herded east. They were never allowed to return to their homes. They left their fields on a beautiful harvest day and arrived in a blinding snowstorm in Siberia or Kazakhstan three to four weeks later. They would not know the fate of their separated relatives until 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and proclaimed the exiles could travel freely in Russia. (Unfortunately, they were not allowed to leave the country). The silence with their American cousins lasted until 1997, when Emilie wrote her first letter to America. This is the story of how God reunited my father’s family eighty-five years after Sophie left her brother David.

I have included a set of questions at the end of the book if you would like to discuss this further in a book club or school setting.

The Family Tree of Gottlieb and Maria Elizabeth Boregart Wiegel

(Ted and Irina have the same birthday)

Map of Russia

1.The Volga Colonies; 2. Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, where people from Schwed were deported; 3.The destination of the people from Stahl (Lilli’s parents); 4. Almaty, where Lilli went to school to become a teacher; 5. Uzbekistan where Johannes went with his family for bread during the famine of 1921.

Chapter 1

En Route to Moscow, 2000

The late-September sun cast long shadows as our narrow-gauge train slowly chugged to a stop at the checkpoint between Belarus and Russia. We weren’t too concerned because only a few hours earlier, our passports had been checked at the border in Lithuania. Even though the young man who had checked our papers at the last stop had disappeared for fifteen minutes, he had eventually stamped them, giving us the freedom to continue our journey east toward Moscow. In my naïveté, I had smiled at him and tried to engage him in a friendly dialogue, but his English was limited. No, he had never been to America. I invited him to come sometime.

But at this border check, there were no smiles when the train stopped. The doors clanked open and shut, revealing four Russian guards, two women and two men, accompanied by a large German shepherd on a leash. The guards’ appearance was so severe that my breath caught. The men wore standard, split-pea green with red trim on their hats, and the women wore black ankle boots, regulation skirts and jackets of the same color, and hats worn angled on their heads.

When we left the Baltic city of Kaliningrad, our cousins Nickolay and Svetlana had urged us to fly, pleading with us not to take the train. They knew it was dangerous, especially for women traveling alone. But my sister, Jan, our cousin Lilli, and I assured them we really wanted to see the countryside. Besides, we had rationalized three women together were safer than one. For security, we chose to buy tickets for a small, first-class compartment, which offered a table by the window, two seats on either side, and two long, padded seats on each wall and overhead. On the wall across from the window was a glass door that could be locked, a benefit not given to those in second or third class, farther back in the train. We could not imagine spending the twenty-five-hour trip sitting or standing, as the second- and third-class passengers did. Nor could our relatives in Kaliningrad, who warned us to guard our belongings from thieves.

As it turned out, our real danger came when the officials boarded the train. One of the older border policemen entered our cabin and asked to see our papers. Since he only spoke Russian, my sister and I could only imagine what he was saying, but we knew from the tone of his voice and penetrating stare there was a problem. Fortunately, Lilli had lived in the Soviet Union most of her life, and she knew not only the language but the culture as well. She needed to negotiate a bribe, which she did on our behalf in a mild but matter-of-fact manner.

The border agent insisted our American papers were not in order. Since I had gone to the Russian Consulate in New York City twice and had jumped through all the appropriate hoops, I knew they were correct, even if they had not been obtained easily. We had wondered, Don’t they want people to travel to Russia? The officials had not been overly helpful and seemed to disappear whenever they were needed. Now the border agent warned that since our papers were not in order, Jan and I would have to return to Lithuania.

Lilli responded with reassurances that we did not have the time or money to do so, since we were on a tight schedule and would only be in Russia for a week. Perhaps they could give you something—like thirty dollars—for your trouble, she cajoled. My sister wasn’t as willing to comply. She surmised what was happening, and the anger was apparent on her face and in the veins of her neck. This was an injustice, and she was not going to stand for it. Unfortunately, we were not talking to an American department store manager, and righteous indignation wasn’t going to matter on that train.

We were each told to give him twenty dollars, and no rubles, the currency of Russia. He wanted American money. Unfortunately, my money was in a body wallet under my blouse, and it took a few minutes under his watchful eye to loosen the bottom of my blouse, turn the cotton wallet around, and open the zipper to withdraw the money he demanded. I turned the zippered opening toward myself, hoping he would not see how much money I had. As I extricated twenty dollars for him, Jan did the same, but not cheerfully. I started to complain, but he quickly snapped the cabin door shut to silence the protest from any listeners in the corridor. He stamped our passports but not with the correct information. We noticed later; perhaps he did so to protect himself should we report the incident. Then he yanked the door open and turned on his heel to search the other passengers’ papers.

As the guard left, our young cabin steward asked Lilli if the border guard had taken money from us. Lilli had been standing in the open doorway of our cabin, with her back to the hallway, and he was behind her. As soon as he asked the question, she closed the door behind her without acknowledging his question. I asked her why she didn’t tell him what had happened. She quietly shook her head and said, "Ich weiss nicht." What didn’t she know? Would he try to get money from us, too, or would he report the official, and we would all end up off the train? Lilli did not want to say anything other Russian ears on that train might hear. The reality was she didn’t know whom she could trust. Fear was creeping in and starting to overwhelm me.

While we waited for the journey to continue, we noticed the four guards and their large dog gathering on the platform just below our window. There was just enough light for a picture, I thought, so I raised my camera, making sure the flash was on. Nay, Donna, Lilli advised firmly, putting her hand on my arm so that the camera was lowered. I turned to her with a questioning look, and when she warned me the second time not to take the picture, I heeded her advice. I did not want to lose my camera or have another confrontation with the sour man in green. Apparently Russian police personnel did not like their pictures taken. I was not told that before the trip.

My mind was a jumble of thoughts and concerns. This leg of the journey was twenty-five hours east, ending in Moscow, to be followed by yet another seventeen-hour train ride southeast to the city of Saratov, on the Volga River. What had we gotten ourselves into? In spite of my desire to see the land from which my father’s family had emigrated, I wrestled with what else might face us as we traveled deeper into Russia, farther away from any security net our American papers might allow.

As scary as my experience had been on this train, Lilli and her extended family had horror stories to tell about Soviet trains! Her father lost family members in Uzbekistan because of the famine of 1921 (and almost his religion!) In 1941, relatives were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Uncle David laid on the top of a train for seventeen days as he fled from a gulag in a forest at the Ural Mountains. Finally, Emilie and part of Lilli’s family, with no lights and shot-out windows, crouched in a freezing train to flee from rebels in Chechnya, on their way out of Russia. These trips were far more dangerous than mine, and with less-than-happy endings. I would learn of those later.


The Early History of the

Germans from Russia

1763 to the Bolshevik Revolution

Chapter 2

The Invitation

Lilli and David Rein had come to America the year before our trip, in 1999, to visit Bob and me in Michigan and to attend a reunion of my father’s family in Chicago. This would be an exciting time for them and for my family as well, because it would be the first time the American relatives would meet some of their cousins who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately, Lilli and David had been in America for only four days when their trip was cut short by a phone call from Germany. Lilli’s brother Waldemar had died very unexpectedly, and they would have to leave after the reunion on Saturday afternoon to get back for the funeral. She and I both felt our time together was too short.

We had left early for the reunion and sat visiting in our car until the other relatives arrived. I had driven, and our guests were in the backseat. Casually, Lilli said, "Donna, naechste Jahr, du kommst nach Deutschland, und wir gehen zusammen nach Russland."

Okay, I understood that next year she wanted me to come to Germany, but what was that about Russia? I turned around quickly, looked at her, and asked, "Wie?" (How?)

Her matter-of-fact response was, Mit dem flugzeug, bus, und zug. Now she was stretching my vocabulary. Ah, she meant with the plane, the bus, and the train. She had really thought this through, perhaps because our visit had been cut short. She told me we would go together to the land our grandparents had come from (her grandfather, David, and my grandmother, Sophie, were siblings) and see where they had lived. My head was nodding, but I was thinking, I am not so sure about this.

I was on that train to Moscow because Lilli had invited me. Jan came because she thought I would need to have someone else who could speak English. It was a good idea, because it took concentration to speak and understand Lilli’s German. Jan also has an adventurous spirit, so we thought it would be fun to travel together.

As my family and friends heard I was going, they would often ask, "Why would you want to go to Russia? When I told them I wanted to see where my father’s family had come from, most were surprised. I thought you were Dutch and German!"

I am, I responded, but my German ancestors lived in Russia for more than one-hundred-fifty years before my paternal grandparents sailed to America in the early 1900s.

I was still met with skepticism. In fact, the two people who were the most vocal that I should not go had lived in Russia. I was warned that if I went, I should wear old clothes and no jewelry, and try to blend in with the crowd. Not easy, I discovered. I am five feet nine inches tall; many people were shorter than me.

My father’s people were Germans who had lived along the Volga River in Russia, about 450 miles south of Moscow, and were known as the Volga Deutsch. I wanted to see their villages and picture what life was like for them. I could not have gone without Lilli’s invitation, however, because she had lived in the Soviet Union for most of her life, enabling her to know the Russian language, understand the people, and know how to navigate our travels. I should have added that she knew how to negotiate bribes, but I didn’t know that part yet.

Before I made the trip, I studied as much as I could about the early immigrants who had settled on the Volga, one of the largest rivers in Russia. I became a member of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, (AHSGR) and I gained a great deal of information from them. Their headquarters are in Lincoln, Nebraska, where many of the Germans from Russia came to work on the railroad or farm there and in the surrounding Midwestern states. The land was very similar to the steppes (grassy plains) of their ancestors, so their surroundings were similar. Today, eighty thousand people—or one-fourth of the population in Lincoln—are German-Russian.

Why would the Germans be willing to travel to Russia? As an American I automatically think of Europeans emigrating west to America, but not in the opposite direction. But during America’s colonial period, there were Europeans who were disenchanted with wars and restrictions where they lived. Many were Germans who chose to travel west. For example, in the mid-1700s, forty thousand Germans settled in Pennsylvania, where they became known as Pennsylvania Dutch, (a mispronunciation of the word Deutsch, meaning German). By the end of the 1700s, more than eighty thousand German speakers settled mostly in the mid-Atlantic region and the Carolinas. But twenty-five thousand pioneers also traveled east to set up colonies in Russia. Whether it was east or west, many of the Germans were moving.

The Germans who chose to travel east had done so at the invitation of Catherine the Great, a former German princess who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. As early as the first year of her reign, the empress entertained the idea of inviting foreign colonists, and issued a call in 1762 to western Europeans. She invited them to come settle on the Russian steppes. She knew Germans were industrious farmers and hoped they would teach the Russians to farm as they did. Because the manifesto was issued while the Seven Years’ War was still raging in Germany, she received little response. Also, she had given no indication of guarantees regarding freedom of religion, political autonomy, and protecting the culture of the invited colonists, so the empress issued a second manifesto one year later. Twenty-five thousand Germans responded, with hopes of a better life in Russia.

As large numbers of Germans left, twenty-five to twenty-seven thousand in all, German rulers became alarmed. They had to stop the flow of their people leaving, so they enacted laws to punish Russian recruiting agents, confiscate property, and imprison Germans who signed immigration contracts with the Russian recruiters. In 1768, Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II forbade any further emigration, but most immigrants had already left. The years of the largest exodus from Germany were 1764 to 1767.

But why would foreigners want to travel as far as Russia? The recruiters of Catherine the Great painted a rosy picture of Russia to the disenchanted Germans. They were promised soil to cultivate and were told that their land held the promise of ore and metals, rivers and lakes. Owning land was a crucial reason that they came. Located close to seas for purposes of trade, they would be in a place convenient for the development and growth of all types of industry and factories. The settlers would be able to choose the land that would be suitable for their trade.

The government also promised the foreigners free and unrestricted practice of their religion. They could build churches and bell towers, and maintain the necessary number of pastors, but they could not construct monasteries. Under threat of punishment, those who were to settle in Russia would not be allowed to proselytize any Christians already living there. However, this prohibition did not apply to those who professed the faith of Mohammed and were living on the borders of the empire.

The manifesto of Catherine the Great also promised that none of the settlers would be required to pay taxes. The colonists were promised suitable land and loans without interest for purchasing tools and livestock, and building homes. They would be granted duty-free import of their property, no matter what it might be. The German colonies were to be autonomous, subject only to Russian civil courts.

Finally, prospective colonists were promised that should they wish to leave Russia, they had the freedom to do so at any time. The manifesto was hand-signed by Catherine the Great and printed by the senate in St. Petersburg on 25 July, 1763. The Empress spent 5,200,000 rubles to enable the immigration effort, so she had much at stake.

After the Seven Years’ War, the land was scarred, and German peasants had suffered many losses. At that time, the area that is now Germany was a conglomeration of three hundred principalities and dukedoms, which frequently changed hands, and therefore, religions as well. There appear to be political, economic, and religious factors that motivated the fairly large-scale emigration. When I learned that a desire for land, religious freedom, and self-government were important parts of their decision making, I could not help but compare them to the colonists coming to America for the same freedoms. But, had my forebears gone west instead of east to Russia, I would not be telling this story.

The Russian empress’s promises were enticing, so many Germans decided to make the difficult journey, and my father’s ancestors were among them. My grandmother’s family (named Wiegel) left Wurttemberg, Germany, and moved to Schwed, which was settled on July 27, 1765. There were seventy-eight settlers in that group, and by the end of the century, their village had grown to 156 people.

My grandfather’s family (named Praeger) settled in Stahl am Karaman (on the Karaman River) on July 9, 1766. Stahl was about twice as large as Schwed, with 154 settlers, and by 1798 their numbers had grown to 256. They had come from Hessen in Germany, near Frankfurt. Both Stahl and Schwed were part of the mother colonies established in 1765 and were evangelical Lutherans, which described the majority of Volga settlers. Most Volga-Germans had come from the German states, generally from Hessen and the Rhine areas, compared to the Mennonites, who had come from western Prussia (now part of Poland) and settled along the Dnieper River farther south in Russia. There were also Reformed believers in the villages, but they were a smaller group. Because there were more Reformed believers than Reformed pastors, the Lutherans and the Reformed believers shared pastors with each other.

Between 1764 and 1767, 104 German villages were settled in the valley on both sides of the Volga River; all of them were German, except one French village. Forty-four villages were established on the northwest side of the river in the hilly area (the bergseite). Sixty villages were built on the southeast side of the Volga on the meadow side (the wiesenseite). Our family settled on the meadow side. Down the river and to the west was Saratov, the largest major Russian city in the area. That is still true today. It was the final destination of the train rides for Lilli, Jan, and me.

Unfortunately, the government’s openness to foreigners was not shared by the Russian people who were already living there. While the government considered the invitation of foreigners to be useful and necessary, and generally showed friendliness towards the strangers, the Russian people believed the foreigners did nothing but harm the empire and interfere with their way of life. The latter view was shared by their clergy. The lower classes of Russians could not understand how the clergy failed to prevent the immigration of heretics in such great numbers, so they ridiculed and insulted their new neighbors.

The settlers of the initial 104 mother Volga colonies were not the only Germans in Russia. Later more Germans settled on the Black Sea, Caucasus, the Ukraine, and by St. Petersburg; Altogether there were three hundred colonies, and by the turn of the nineteenth century, there were 1.8 million Germans in Russia.

Although thousands emigrated at the turn of the century, the remainder of the Volga-Deutsch continued

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