March 30, 2003

Down and out in Siberia

In light of the current conflict - and because I'm not feeling very peaceable - we are going to focus on Russia and political mayhem one last time before moving on to the much happier world of Canada between the wars. I had, in fact, decided to skip this bit of Grandpa's documentation and keep the narrative focus on Grandpa himself. I had prepared a post on life in Canada after emigration, but I've decided to post this instead. The next post will go up tomorrow or the day after depending on how much time I have.

Russia was not, in the long run, a very hospitable place for Russia's Germans. Between Stalin and the "pre-emptive removal" of Germans in WWII, their community - at it's peak almost two million strong - was basically destroyed and integrated into the dominant Russian ethnic group. Until 1991, most of Russia's Germans, unable to speak any German at all, simply thought of themselves as Russians. Afterwards, however, many of them took advantage of Germany's "right of return" law to gain German citizenship.

Johann Martens was my great-great-grandfather Peter Martens' brother. He was an elder in the Mennonite church in Einlage - the title is usually translated as "bishop" - and remained in Russia after 1927. He was born in 1875 according to the Alter Buch and had six children as far as I can tell. Bishop Martens was a certified teacher and taught for ten years in another colony and then for three years in Einlage after he returned to take over the family farm when his father died. In 1917, he was elected bishop of the Einlage church, but could not start because he was, at the time, the Oberschulze - something like a county commissioner - of the Khortitsa Volost, or municipal government.

While the other Martenses emigrated legally in 1927, before Stalin had consolidated his hold on the Soviet Union, Johann Martens and his family remained, facing the brunt of Stalin's paranoia. His daughter Käthe Dyck and her husband managed to emigrate to the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay after WWII as refugees. At that point, she recounted her father's story. It is published in a book called Mennonitische Märtyrer - "Mennonite Martyrs." This is Grandpa's translation of Käthe's account, interspersed with extracts from Johann Martens' letters from exile.

In the year 1929, Russia began the "Entkulakisierung" [dekulakisation] of the farmers. [Kulaks were farmers with sizeable holdings and were the major barrier to the collectivisation of agriculture. In 1929, Stalin used a fairly moderate and largely voluntary agricultural collectivisation programme to liquidate the kulaks, sending them into exile in Siberia.] Since Father belonged to that group too, he was forced to pay a large fine and every time it grew larger. As long as he was able to make the payment, he faithfully did so, until one day they demanded a sum so large that he was unable to raise it. He considered it pointless to get a hold of this sum since, one way or another they would exile him anyway. Consequently, the church raised the money so that they would not have to blame themselves later. In spite of that, it was all in vain. Shortly afterwards, my parents were evicted from house and home. And in 1930, my parents and two siblings, together with many others, were exiled to the Ural area. Since I was incapable of working because I have a bent backbone, [I presume she means she had scoliosis] I was permitted to stay with my step-siblings because they had a different name - not Martens. After ten days of difficult travel, they arrived in the Ural Mountain region at the city of Bogoslav, not far from Sverdlovsk. [Sverdlovsk was called Yekaterinburg before 1924 and has returned to that name since 1991. Bogoslav was a major labour camp in the early Stalinist era, where some 15,000 ethnic Germans were sent, along with many others.]
February 6, 1933

[...] We are five Mennonite families here and about 15 Lutheran. But we have no fellowship. [They have no religious services.] Repeatedly they investigate whether we have meetings. Enslaved and imprisoned in body and soul. And yet, we are thankful! About 200 verst north of here are more exiled Mennonites. [A verst is an old Russian unit slightly larger than a kilometre.] Some men delivered a team of horses up there. [...] Hunger and deprivation is visible on each of them. Every day there are deaths - the victims of hunger. [...]


There in the primeval forest they managed to stay alive with great difficulty. We, the siblings who remained behind, did our best to support our parents with packages. Since now and then a package arrived from abroad, the government saw fit to send them to a different place so that every trace of them would be lost. They had to work very hard. [...] Since food was sparse, and lodging inadequate living under an overturned row boat, it nearly destroyed him. But the Lord soon provided him with easier work, namely to guard horses in the forest. However, since he had heart and kidney problems and the forest was wet and swampy, he could not stand it for too long because his legs were badly swollen from the wet and cold.

He was permitted to see the doctor, but few people were permitted to be sick - that is the doctor was forbidden from declaring people to be sick even though they were ailing. The Lord again helped wonderfully and the doctor gave Father a certificate stating that he was definitely not permitted to stay in that work. He was then employed as bookkeeper in the prison office.

Excerpts from Johann Martens' letters in the 1930's:

"Here we are [...] in circumstances where they would like to isolate us completely from the world."

"We had nothing like a church. What we had has been completely demolished. That beginning was soon destroyed."

"When they told us unequivocally that proclaiming the Word could result in exile to still more distant lands for the preacher, we did not dare to preach publicly, only in the evening after dark."

"[Those] without help from home and from the west - it is no exaggeration to say that 70% are no more."


Repeatedly we tried to intercede on our parents behalf. We wrote to Moscow and Kiev but it seemed as though everything was in vain. My Mother, who did not have to go to work, had to collect food from 20km away. And so it happened that one day she was carrying 60 pounds of potatoes and could not take the load from her shoulders because there was no one there to help her pick it up again if she put it down. She had to rest by leaning against a tree with the load still on her. Finally, she got home. When she put the load down, she noticed a jerk on her backbone and shortly thereafter the whole right side of her body became paralysed.

For five more years my parents had to live there under the most difficult circumstances, until [the authorities] finally realised that our paralysed mother could not help them anymore and Father was getting on in years. One day, they were told that they could return home. Our brother had to remain there and is still there to the present day. [This text was written in 1947.] Our sister fled after after eight months of banishment.

In 1936 our parents returned, but they no longer had a home. Good friends lent them 3,000 roubles so they could buy half a house. My father was not afraid of work - he did any work that was available during the day and at night guarded horses in the barn of the collective farm. Since I was unhealthy, Mother was unable to do anything and my sister was employed, Father also had to do many of the jobs at home. Every month, some of my siblings earnings was taken to pay the debt. [...]

1938 was an extremely fateful year for us. In one day the GPU [state security and predecessor to the KGB] came to get Father, two brothers and a brother-in-law. [...] For the time being they were in in Zaporozhe, however, we were not permitted to speak to them or to inquire [about them.] We always went to inquire about them with a heavy heart, because many [who did so] received the answer he died. But one day we were told that they had been deported to the distant north. Since then we know nothing about them. [...] In ten years we have been unable to find any trace of them.

We are so thankful to God for the way he has led us and allowed us to find a home here in the Chaco. [A large and fairly wild area in Paraguay colonised by Mennonites in the 1920's.] Mother and I live with our married sister, the one who fled from the Ural area back then. Her husband, praise the Lord, is with her. [The couple later came to Canada.]


My family's Alterbuch has a page for Johann Martens:


[In the Gothic script in great-great grandfather Peter Martens handwriting]
1875 den 7ten Juni ist mein Bruder Johann Martens geboren.
[In the Roman script, in handwriting that I do not recognise]
1938 nach Siberien verbannt und in Verbannung gestorben.
Grandpa's translation:
June 7, 1875 my brother, Johann Martens was born.
1938 he was exiled to Siberia where he perished.
Now, a case can be made that Stalin's brutal rule was all that could keep the peace and industrialise Russia enough to face the Nazis. But remember, that is the judgement of history. For those who lived through it, it was nothing but cruelty.

Those who advocate western countries taking charge in the Middle East and pressing an agenda for radical reform should remind themselves of this story, and should ask themselves if so-called Islamic fundamentalists won't one day be telling their grandchildren these kinds of stories about the US.

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Posted 2003/03/30 23:07 (Sun) | TrackBack