Chapter 17: Faces from the Past

Faces from the Past

Joyous Reunion in Siberia

A 1:30 a.m. departure from Moscow and a four-hour flight spanning four time zones brought us to Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. This was the place where we really wanted to go in order to visit with our relatives. We arrived in Novosibirsk at 9:30 in the morning. We had petitioned to be allowed to travel to the homes of our relatives in the Slavgorod area, in the Altai Region of Siberia, but Intourist was not of the same mind. They said there were no tourist accommodations, and we could not go to the homes of people. They could come to Novosibirsk, about 400 kilometers away, and visit us there.

We knew that my brother had been arrested in 1938, at the beginning of World War II, and had never been heard of again. But this was the long-anticipated moment when we were to meet his children. They were no longer children, of course. His oldest son, Peter, was six years old when we left; little Jacob was four; and the baby, Lena, was only two when we left them and began our uncertain journey to America in 1929. This was an exciting reunion after 49 years.

The meeting was rather spontaneous. We didn't know where we would find them, and they didn't know where they would find us. They just knew the flight on which we would arrive.

Natasha took us into the airport by a side door. Walking through several rooms, I lingered behind to see if I could spot our relatives. At the other end of a large room, close to a window, I spotted a group of people with two ladies carrying flowers.

I dropped my suitcase and walked toward them. Then I noticed that one of the two older men resembled Frank Janzen, my mother's brother—my Uncle Frank, who got me started in school. I asked in Low German, "Might this be the Janzens?"
They replied, "Yes! Who are you?"
"John Block," I replied.
I was mobbed.

By this time, my brother Jake, and his wife, Elizabeth, had come with our nieces Katherine Sylvester and Anna Simons. There was a joyous meeting and introductions. With us were Peter Block and his wife, Amalia; Jakob Block; Lena (and her husband, Paul Obholz)—my brother's three children. The older men were cousins, Frank and David Janzen, the sons of my uncle.

Peter introduced himself to Natasha and asked if they could ride with us in the bus. She approved, and we went sightseeing until noon, visiting and getting acquainted with our long-lost family. For the afternoon, however, we were told that we were scheduled to visit a "pioneer camp." Our relatives would not be able to ride with us because we were combined with two other tour groups. Our relatives left, saying that they would be back for the evening.
Natasha came to me and asked about Peter, "What did you say is his line of work?"
I said, "He is a manager on a collective farm."
"That I can believe," she replied. "He certainly acted like a man of affairs."
Nostalgic Scenes and Shared Blessings

As soon as I was in my hotel room, I called Pastor Jacob Fast, pastor of the Baptist Church, and asked when they had services and how we could get there. I tried my Russian but soon switched to German. He understood and replied in the same. He said their services would be the next evening at five o'clock. We could take a taxi, or a certain bus and ride to the end of the line, then walk a few more blocks.

In the afternoon, we traveled to the camp about 10-15 miles out of the city. This was a most nostalgic ride. Even though we were some 400 kilometers from where we used to live, the countryside was just as I remembered it. The grain in the fields had just "headed out," but was still green; the landscape was dotted with white birch woods, with potholes in the center filled with water from the winter snows.

An honor guard of boys and girls lined the driveway to the camp. As soon as the bus stopped, they surrounded us to extend friendly greetings. We had prepared for this with pockets full of chewing gum. We soon learned that we would have to hand out single sticks of gum instead of packages, or we'd run out before long. Natasha informed us that we had some free time and a little later the boys and girls would do a skit for us.

 After viewing the camp, we walked through a birch and aspen wood to a fine man-made lake. Walking through the woods reminded me of how we had gone to hunt for wild strawberries in my childhood. It did not take long to see that the mosquitoes had not diminished in size or in number! They were bigger than any Texas mosquitoes.

The skit by the boys and girls was well done, even though we could not understand most of it. They were acting out a trip to a world youth conference in Cuba. I understood enough Russian to know that it was laced with Communist slogans and a few anti-Christian remarks.

We did not get back to the hotel until seven o'clock. Our relatives were waiting for us. They were taken to our rooms while we quickly ate our dinner and joined them. We had a very fine visit that evening. They shared their lives with us, their families, and how they lived. They looked well fed and well dressed.

Peter worked as a safety inspector on collective farms in a large area. For many years he had been one of the managers of a collective farm. Now he was nearing retirement; he was 56, and that meant a new assignment. He wore several pins on his jacket that he had earned in recognition for meeting production quotas.

Jakob was on disability retirement. He suffered from "Black Lung" as a result of working in coalmines for fifteen years and was now a part-time chauffeur at a cooperative. Paul Obholz, Lena's husband, was a bricklayer. He was called a master oven-builder, apparently well recognized in his field.

We exchanged gifts. We had brought items of clothing like blue denim jackets, shirts etc. They had brought various mementos that we still cherish as remembrances.

I had one of the two Bibles we had brought through customs. I asked who would like to have it. They all agreed that Cousin David should have it. We understood that he was very active in their church. Both of the Janzens, past seventy in age, were part of an unregistered "underground" church. We all prayed together and broke up our visit after eleven o'clock, with the promise that they would be back in the morning.

Forty-nine Years to Recapture

The next morning our relatives arrived on time. Peter had made arrangements with Olga Nikolaievna, our local tour guide, so that we could all ride together. We toured the city ofNovosibirsk. While we had a lively conversation going, Olga, the guide, asked us several times to "keep it down." We were to listen to her while she extolled various points of interest. Our visiting, of course, was of greater interest to us. We had forty-nine years to catch up on.

Intourist had provided the bus and the guide, so we had to give her an ear. And it was exciting to catch a glimpse of the famous train depot where we had stayed for six hours on our way to China. This brought back a vivid memory, as clear as though it had happened yesterday: the train was late, as usual, people were crowding toward the entrance of the train car, each trying to get in. The conductor was standing in the doorway, yelling Order!"

Someone had gotten in and was standing behind the conductor while people passed suitcases over his head. I suddenly noticed that one piece of our luggage was missing. Henry Rogalsky, my brother-in-law, went with me as we dashed to the baggage room, located it, and made it back just as the train started to move—but we got on. The depot still looked the same…white, with black trim.

We visited "Acadam Gorodok" Science City, a community just outside of the city of Novosibirsk. This is where all of the government science research in the whole country was relocated during the war, when the Germans overran the Ukraine, Leningrad, and were approaching Moscow. This is still the center for scientific research.

We walked the streets, admired the beautiful white birch trees lining each side, saw some monuments, some archaeological work, but not the inside of the buildings. We had lunch at a "famous" restaurant, went shopping in a shopping center and had time to go swimming at the beach of a manmade lake.

Peter and Jacob Block led the way, and several of our tour group followed: nieces Katherine and Anna, Galen Penner, my brother Jake, and myself. The water was a bit cool but enjoyable. Upon my return to Sacramento, I mentioned to one of my neighbors that I had just returned from Siberia. He was amazed, and said he had just seen on TV that they were carrying milk in paper bags there because it's so cold the milk freezes solid.

 I said, "Is that so? I went swimming in a lake near Novosibirsk about ten days ago."
A Dream Fulfilled - Partially

During the afternoon I said to Olga Nikolaievna, "It is no secret to you that we are Christian people. So, we would like to get back to the hotel in time to go to a church service in the evening."

She said she thought there would be no problem except that we would have to move along to get done with our tour on time. We got to the hotel about five; the service would start in half an hour.

Several of us, including my cousin, Frank Janzen, Galen Penner and his aunt, Sarah Penner, and others left for the church service. Jake and Elizabeth stayed to visit with our family. They also arranged a dinner for all of us in a small dining room where we could be together and enjoy privacy.

On the way to the church we hailed a taxi, only to be told that he was answering another call. The driver of a second taxi said his time was up; he was heading for the garage. We watched the buses and saw the number we needed. We lined up at the corner, and I told Sarah Penner in the front of our line, "When the door opens, even if the bus is full, just push and get in." Indeed, when the bus came, there was standing room only. We rode to the end of the line and walked the rest of the way.

Frank Janzen asked some people on the street for the way to the house of worship, as evangelical churches are called, and everybody seemed to know. When we arrived, the service was in progress. We were greeted by the pastor's daughter and invited to come in. A delegation from Liberia was also there, and it was their escort who was preaching as we walked in. We sat down in the rear.

The pastor's daughter asked me to go to the platform because her father was expecting me, but I preferred to wait until after the message. During the singing of a song, the pastor came to the back to meet us and invited me to the platform. They had about 300 people in a Saturday evening service.

While sitting on the platform, one of the men asked me if I knew Bill Bright, the founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ. "Yes, very well," I

He said he had been the translator for Dr. Bright when he visited there, and he would translate for me if I planned to speak in English. But Pastor Fast expected me to speak in German and so the pastor translated for me.

It was a joy for me to bring greetings from our denomination, and from the Evangelical Pastors Association of Sacramento. I also asked Pastor Fast to read a passage out of the First Epistle of John and was glad to be able to make some comments on it. The officials had not cleared me to preach; therefore, I limited my remarks.

I had long had a desire to preach at least one sermon in the Soviet Union. When I voiced that wish to my church in Grass Valley, California, one of the ladies very strongly pleaded with me not to attempt it because she wanted me to come back. This was at least a partial fulfillment of that desire. It was one of the highlights of our whole tour. Here we also heard a preacher in Russian. Of course, I did not understand everything, but just enough to get the drift of the message. The choir sang beautifully.

After the messages, they all knelt down to pray. It was heartwarming to hear the Russian women, and also the men, pray and thank God with such sincere, deeply felt praise and prayer. At the close, children brought little bouquets of wild flowers, freshly picked, to all the visitors in the church, a very touching experience.

At the end of the service, we were shown pictures of baptisms and other festivities. They said they had baptized forty-nine that year, and another group was then forming. I asked Pastor Fast why the young people with the flowers were there? We understood that people under eighteen were not allowed to go to church. He replied that they might attend, but were not to be baptized under eighteen. He then added that this was only "man's" order.

A number of people wanted to send greetings to friends in America, but were afraid to write their names down for fear they might fall into the hands of authorities.

After a time of visiting, Pastor Fast drove us to our hotel in his own car. On the way I asked David Janzen about the church, and, since it was "unregistered, who could come to it, and how did they know where it was.

He answered, "Everybody in the village knows where it's located." In times past, he and others used to pay heavy fines, but in recent years it had gotten better. They told us of their love for the Lord Jesus Christ, and we certainly appreciated that.

A Long Lost Sister

When we came back from the church, we found that Jake and Elizabeth, and the other relatives, were finishing dinner in a very nice private dining room. Elizabeth asked me, "John, do you see anyone different here in this room?"

I looked around and saw an older lady.  I quickly recognized her! It was Anna Friesen (Anna Harms now), the one I mentioned earlier. She had worked for us, and lived in our home as a member of the family. She was like an older sister to me. She had received word, apparently from my nephew, Jacob Block (because they have relatives together), that John and Jacob Block were coming to Novosibirsk. She thought that it must be their sons—old men would not make such a trip anymore. Now she saw that those "old men" were not so old.

She had taken the train from Takmak in Kyrgyzstan. She said that, at first, she thought she would not be able to come, but her husband said, "Just take the train and go."

Jacob Block was from Frunze (now Bishkek), in Kyrgyzstan, very near where Anna was living. He had taken a plane, so he got there a couple of days earlier. Anna's son, Abram Wiebe, lived in Novosibirsk, so they had no trouble finding us at the right hotel.

It was delightful to see Anna. She had married Abram Wiebe shortly after we left in 1929, but only got to live with her husband four years. He and his father and brother were sent to a labor camp and, predictably, they had died there. She never heard from him after he was arrested.

She told us of the hardships in her life. For many years she had worked on the collective farm, side-by-side with men, but now she had a fairly comfortable life in the city of Takmak in Kyrgyzstan. She told us of their church with a large youth group of 400. She talked of many baptisms, and mentioned that they had recently finished a new building costing 80,000 rubles. They had raised the money as they went. They, of course, had to get building permits, and all of this was very difficult, but they got through. When the inspectors who had to approve the building before occupancy saw it, they marveled at how these people had managed to get the whole thing together.

Anna, along with her son and his wife, came back to the hotel the next morning. We were able to visit until 9:30. Then we had to take a bus to the airport, accompanied by our relatives.

Due to the change in time (there are four time zones between Moscow and Novosibirsk) we got to visit a little bit longer, until 11:30, before we had to leave.

We were so happy that we had the opportunity to get acquainted with my brother's children—one of the strongest reasons we'd had to go to Russia in the first place. We were glad to see that they were living fairly well, although their freedom was very restricted.

Their lack of liberty showed itself, for example, when Peter asked me if he could "use my name," if necessary. When someone goes abroad, he said, there might be an opportunity to send a letter, mailed outside of the country, in which one could say more.

I said, "You may use my name any time for something like that."

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