May 4, 2003

Beastly Murder

In response to my public, Pedantry is returning to pre-revolutionary Russia for a few more instalments in my series of posts taken from my recently deceased grandfather's papers.

My great-grandmother - Grandpa's mother - was born Katharina Abram [Ekaterina Abramovna] Neustädter in 1895, 108 years ago this August, on a rural estate in Gubernaya Ekaterinoslav, now part of the Republic of Ukraine. She died in early 1988 in Winnipeg, Manitoba when I was 16. She never fully mastered English and used standard German, not Mennonite Plautdietsch, as her most regularly spoken language. I never really mastered standard German and I am still nowhere near as comfortable in it as I am in French, so I had few conversations with her and I have little to recount about her in the first person. My memories of Grandma Dick are all of a very old woman. She was a few days from her 76th birthday when I was born.

I always knew that her parents were murdered, but I don't know if anyone ever told me the details.

Grandpa includes among his papers a translation of the news coverage in the Odessaer Zeitung, apparently a major newspaper among the Ukrainian Germans. The first mention is on Sunday, 27 May, 1907:

Bewaffnete Räuber raubten die ökonomie des Gusbesitzers Neusteiger unweit Kitschkas aus, wobei sie N. und dessen Frau schwer verwundeten.

Armed robbers plundered the estate of the landowner Neusteiger [clearly the reporter misheard the name] not far from Kichkas during which they seriously wounded N. and his wife.

Thursday two weeks later, a more extensive article was published, from which I have taken the first few sentences:

Donderstag, 7 Juni, 1907

Bestialischer Mord

Über die Ermordung des Ehepaars Neustätter im Gouv. Jekaterinoslaw, worüber wir vor einigen Tagen ein kurzes Telegramm brachten, finden wir nun in der "Russkaja Prawda" eine eingehende Schilderung, die einem das Blut in den Adern erstarren macht, so entsetzlich, so scheuslich sind die Einzelheiten...

Thursday, 7 June 1907

Beastly Murder

About the murder of the married couple, Mr and Mrs Neustätter [once again misspelled] in the district of Ekaterinoslav, about which we published an account in a short telegram a few days ago, we now read a detailed account in the Russkaya Pravda which makes the blood congeal in your veins - so dreadful, so atrocious are the details...

Grandma Dick's account is certainly disturbing enough. Violence was a part of life in old Russia, but the Germans had largely been segregated from the horrors of Russian life, at least until the beginning of the century. As Russia began to break down, so too did the protection of Russia's Germans and other internationals. In Grandma Dick's case, the deterioration of the Czarist state was most abrupt and started well before the revolution. Given her story, it is hardly a surprise that Russia stood for nothing but pain and misery to her.

In March 1967, Grandpa was able to convince her to write her story down for her then still quite young grandchildren. What follows is Grandpa's translation.

My parents were Katharina Neustädter, born October 18, 1868, the daughter of Kornelius Heinrichs; and Abram Neustädter, born May 1, 1866, the son of Abram Neustädter.

We lived on a large farm, but we had two other farms. All three farms together were almost 4000 desyatin land. [1 desyatin = approx. 2.7 acres or a little more than a hectare. 4000 desyatin comes to just under 11,000 acres of land or roughly 16 square miles. This was a huge landholding by the standards of the time.] We were five children in the year 1907: Helena, born August 15, 1893; I, Katharina, born August 17, 1895; Susanna, born April 30, 1899; Abram, born April 22, 1901; and Maria, called Mika, born June 15, 1905. [Grandma Dick calls these dates "Old Style calendar", technically this means the Julian calendar.] Three children, Maria, Kornelius and Abram, died in infancy. In the year 1904 Helena had to have her left leg amputated halfway above the knee because she had cancer in the knee. In the fall of 1905 Father took Lena [Helena] to Freiburg, Germany and had an artificial leg made for her. As a companion he took his brother-in-law Kornelius Wieler and for Lena he took her cousin, Suse Martens. Uncle Kornelius Martens then sent his oldest daughter, Maria, along at his own expense. In March of 1907 we children all got the measles. Sister Lena was unable to recover because the cancer had spread through her body and she died on the sixth of May, 1907. Almost three weeks later, Father and Mother were murdered.

It was dusk on the 23rd of May, 1907, that I was sitting on the swing and Father was standing beside me. Through the fruit garden we saw people in the forest. He called a worker (the Schliesser - the man with the keys to all the buildings and stores) [I imagine something like a foreman] and said "Send someone into the forest and find out who those people are." The messenger returned without having found anyone. We children went to bed as usual when it was time and fell asleep, not realising that that it would be our last night in our parents home. While Mother was in the kitchen with the servant girls, she must have noticed that something was wrong in the yard. She ran through our room and wanted to lock the door that opened out out of our room toward the yard. When she reached around to grab the door, they shot her in the wrist. Then she ran back through our room and the men ran after her. At 9:30, when I was half awake as a result of the shooting, I saw Mother running past through the room and several men in pursuit.

When I got up and ran after her, she already lay in the next room with eleven gunshot wounds. Two shots had gone through her wrist, the others through her chest and body. With my help Mother dragged herself to the other door that led into the long hallway where the robbers had ordered our seamstress, Maria Janzen, to stand at the door. She had been sewing late in the room that was toward the garden. The room had an outside door. She had the window open so one of the robbers jumped in, unlocked the door and let the others in. (Several robbers were at the barn.) They shot left and right past Miss Janzen's head. Since she screamed and because of the shooting, Mother thought a rabid dog had entered. A rabid dog had been on the yard during the day. Hearing the shooting, Father ran for the front door, probably to get help from the barn.

During the day, Father had sent the coachman (a faithful, trusted man) to the capital city to get money from the bank. [They lived near Ekaterinoslav - now Dnepropetrovsk - which was the capital of the gubernaya where they lived.] He returned the same day. Father probably used the money immediately to pay his workers because there was very little in the safe. Sister Susan also woke up. Since she was screaming so loudly, they wanted to shoot her, but she ran and hid behind a door. There were clothes hanging behind the door that kept her covered. The door remained open, so she stayed there until the robbers were gone.

Abram and Mika slept through the night. The maids had run away as soon as they heard the shooting. How often they held the revolver in front of my face and threatened to shoot when I grabbed his [the robber's] hand and pushed it aside! They led me through the house to look for the key to the safe. I told them, "Father has it in his pocket."

I stayed with Mother, and she asked for the song Keiner wird zu schanden, welcher Gottes harrt. ["No one becomes nothing, when God awaits" - a hymn about how God never forsakes the faithful.] I knew the complete song from memory because Father and I often sang together in the evenings. Frequently he would accompany me on the accordion. That was why I knew so many songs from the Reichsleider from memory. ["Kingdom Songs" - a German hymnal current in Russia at the time.] Father's favourite song was Mächtig tobt des Sturmes Brausen, um ein kleines Schiff. ["Fierce and wild the storm is raging around a helpless bark"]

They shot Father in front of the barn. Later, they found the keys on the ground where they had fallen. He had been shot eight times. Many shots were into his body, but a few penetrated the forehead and they bled profusely. When the robbers were gone, he came alone towards the house by holding onto the picket fence that surrounded the circular garden in the yard. Maria Janzen saw him, holding himself on the fence and went to help him. He leaned on her and managed to get him up the few steps into the front room where he remained lying. He was unconscious and did not utter another word. He probably handed the keys to the robbers after he was shot, but because of the darkness they did not notice it. After the robbers had gone, the keys were found on the ground. They loaded the safe onto our wagon, hitched our horses in front of it and drove away. Weeks later, the police found the safe in a ravine near Ekaterinoslav about 50 verst away. [roughly 50 kilometres] Naturally, it was still locked.

When the bandits were gone, Maria and I went across the yard to the workman's house and begged the workers for help putting Mother and Father into their beds. They were afraid too, because they had been threatened not to leave the house before daybreak. But some of them did come. I took what I could find and washed the blood from Father's face and hands. But the blood continued to come out of his head - not only blood but also his brains.

Upon hearing the shouting and shooting, a Russian girl that had stayed in the cow fence with her boyfriend after the milking was finished ran to the nearest Russian village 5 verst away and reported it to Peter Heinrichs who lived on an estate near the village. Mrs Heinrichs was Mother's sister Lena. Early in the morning, Uncle Peter Heinrichs came, accompanied by Uncle Abram Hamm, a teacher who lived on the estate. ["Uncle" and "Aunt" were frequently used as titles of respect, so "Uncle" Abram was most likely not a relative.] They sent for a doctor in Khortitsa, a distance of some 40 or more verst. There was a man with some medical knowledge closer by, but nothing could be done. Father died the next day, the 24th of May at eight in the morning. In all her pain, Mother gave birth to a child she had carried for four or five months. It also had gunshot wounds. Mother died on the 25th of May at one in the afternoon. Father was born again, Mother was not. How gracious God was to give her this time of grace permitting her to accept Christ as her Saviour.

It was a very large funeral. I was as in a dream. I could not cry. [Grandma Dick was no doubt in shock.]

We three girls wore black dresses. I was eleven years old, Susa seven, Abram four and Mika two. Then all the cattle and inventory were sold. The land was rented to many German people who then lived on the three farms.

We four children were taken in by Aunt Lena and Uncle Peter Heinrichs. They had no children. Frequently, we went out for fruit from the garden. It was rented out to a gardener, but we were allowed to get fruit for ourselves.

On a Monday morning, three weeks after that terrible night, Abram, Mika and I were outside. Susa was in the laundry room with the wash girls. With us was the maid that looked after us children. Uncle Peter sat on a platform in front of the house and many Russian workers stood below while he was paying them their wages. Then a wagon with eleven armed men drove up and immediately a gun was discharged. Was it intentional or an accident? We children saw and heard it and, together with the maid, ran to the river and followed it to a place where we knew it was not so deep. The maid carried Mika across, then Abram, while I followed holding their feet so their shoes would stay dry. Then we ran into the Russian village where the maid's home was. When everything was over, they came to get us with a team and wagon. Susa had also run to the Russian village with the other maids.

The robbers did not find any money this time either. Uncle Peter unlocked his safe and they saw there was no money in it. But my parents' golden jewellery was there. He told them that it belonged to the children and they didn't take it.

They told him the road had been muddy. Their plan had been to come the night before. Would there have been deaths if they had arrived as planned? The Lord did not permit it to happen. All the people in front of the house [during the day] were unexpected as well.

Maria Janzen was also at our Aunt's house. They said, "You are here too?" It was the same gang that had murdered our parents. All this had influenced my nerves so much that I became depressed. [Grandpa's note: Gemütskrank. She became emotionally ill and couldn't laugh for four years.] I had to have medical attention for a long time. My cousin Abram Neustädter was so affected that he died soon after.

How difficult it was for me to call my uncle and aunt Mother and Father! How often the four of us cried together when the longing for the love of our parents overcame us! Our parents had a faithful German maid, Annie, who we took with us to our Aunt's. She slept with us and looked after us completely until she married several years later. After that, I assumed the responsibility under Aunt Helen's supervision. She was very strict. [Grandma Dick did not, if I am recalling correctly, ever speak highly of her foster mother. Those years were not pleasant ones for her, and it seems her new parents contributed to the misery.]

The robbers were not simple Russians but well-dressed, educated students. Frequently I had to go with Maria Janzen to the prison in the capital, where prisoners were lined up in front of us and we were asked if we could recognise them. It was intensely disturbing when they would look at us with hate-filled eyes and ask, "Well, do you know us?" There was no one that we could definitely identify.

About 1911, our foster-father Peter Heinrichs died of dropsy. [Dropsy means an accumulation of fluid in any major body cavity.] We then moved from foster-mother's house to Einlage where she had a large house built. In 1913 she married the builder, Peter Solomon Peters.

Foster-mother was born on April 29, 1873 and died April 25, 1932. My brother Abram went along with the White Army in 1919, because he had fought the Reds in the Molochna colony where he had attended the School of Commerce in Halbstadt. [Halbstadt is now Molochansk, Ukraine.] He went because he was afraid to stay at home. Since then, he has disappeared without a trace.

I also have the inscriptions on the tombstones of Grandma Dick's parents along with Grandpa's translation.

Abram Neustädter:

Zogst ein Du Treuer in den Ruhehafen
Und schlummerst sanft bis Gott dich wieder weckt
Nun stört kein Schmerz dich mehr im Schlafen
Es ist kein Feind der dich nun noch erschreckt
Die Kugeln die aus Mörderhand dich trafen
Sie schmerzen nicht wo Gottes Schild dich deckt
Und jedes Weh, von dem du warst durchdrungen
In Gottes Schoß, da ist es ausgerungen

You entered, dear one, into the haven of rest
And are slumbering softly until God will waken you again
No pain will disturb you now in your sleep
There is no foe that can frighten you
The bullets from the murderer's hand that struck you
They hurt not where God's shield covers you
And every woe by which you were overwhelmed
In God's bosom every struggle is over

Katharina Neustädter:

Du Liebe alle deine schwere Leidenstunden
Vorüber sind sie, bist nun in Kanaan
Die Schmerzen die am Fleische du empfunden
Die Lebensnot, die hoch sich türmte an
Und alles was hineinen noch gebunden
Von unserem Erbteil Irrtum, Sünd und Wahn
Sie alles ist für dich dahingeschwunden
Du kamst zum Licht und ruhst in Gottes Frieden

Dear one, all your difficult hours of suffering
Are past now, you are in Canaan
The pains that you experienced in your flesh
The anguish that piled up high
And everything that was tied up with it
Of our heritage of error, sin and folly
These all for you have disappeared
You came to Light and are resting in God's place

Old Comments

Posted 2003/05/04 17:28 (Sun) | TrackBack

My oma was Maria Janzen Friesen. She was also a seamstress at that time, in that area of Russia. Unfortunately, I was 2 when she passed away but my older sisters remember this very similar story. My sisters would always ask for Oma to tell them stories of what happened in Russia during the war. Oma would tell them these scary stories (without gory detail of course). I wonder if it was her? Did you ever know what happened to Maria after the murders? If this is the same Maria Janzen I would love to know more. Thanks

Posted by: Karen Hayes (nee Friesen) at November 19, 2004 0:29

Karen, I'm afraid I know nothing about Maria Janzen that isn't in this text. Grandma Dick died in 1988 and my grandfather passed away in 2002, so I don't know who I could ask. I imagine it probably was the same Maria Janzen. There can't have been too many people with the same name in gubernaya Ekaterinaslav who were seamstresses.

Posted by: Scott Martens at November 19, 2004 9:39
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