Chapter 18: Fond Farewell; Back to Moscow

Fond Farewells: Back to Moscow

We had another light lunch together, and said farewell to each other. They went to their homes, and we boarded our flight to Moscow. We arrived at noon because of the time difference. We transferred from the airport to the Hotel Russia, the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world. In fact, before we left home, I had read in National Geographic magazine that if we were to match it in size, we would have to turn the Pentagon into a hotel and build on a few more rooms.

We were to meet Katherine Braun there. She had stayed in Moscow while we went to Novosibirsk. She and her sister arrived, but it was sometime before we got together. After the evening meal, I had gone outside to watch for her. Finally, I saw two ladies walking away, looking somewhat dejected. I called her name and they were quite happy to see us at last. They had been waiting at the wrong door.
Another Brush with the Law

That Sunday afternoon turned out to be interesting, when my niece, Katherine Sylvester, asked me to go with her to the Berioska. This is a store where people could make purchases with "hard money" only. That means only foreigners can buy there.

The Russian people never enter that store. In fact, even Natasha, our guide, had never been in it. So she asked Katherine and Anna if she could walk between them so she would not be detected. She wanted to see for herself what the store was like. The Russian people shop in state department stores like the Gum Department Store—a very large store, but very bare and unappealing. The Berioska was attractive and well stocked with mementos and souvenirs.

On the way back to the hotel, we took the wrong turn in the pedestrian subway under Gorki Street, close to Red Square, and came out on a side street. It was not very far from where we were supposed to be, but not at the corner. Katherine said, "Let's just walk across the street, since there is no traffic."

Before we got to the other side, I heard a whistle coming from among the crowd at the corner by the Red Square. I looked around, but seeing no one, we proceeded to go across the street.

When I stepped onto the curb, I heard that whistle again and saw a white-gloved hand pointing directly at me. A policeman approached us and barked a few reprimands, which we, of course, did not understand.

Then I replied, rather foolishly, but apparently in fairly good Russian, "I don't understand." 
He barked, "What don't you understand?" Then, he said, "One ruble, strafa."
I did not know what "strafa" meant, except in German it means fine, so I told Katherine, "He wants a ruble, and I don't have any more money."

She said that she had some coins. I also found some coins, and we quickly made up the ruble and gave it him. He scribbled something on a scratch pad, gave it to me, and we went our separate ways.

At dinnertime I told the story to the rest of the people of how I had managed to pick up a ticket in Moscow. Natasha listened, and then said, not very sympathetically, "Mr. Block, you were not fined for jaywalking, you were fined for showing off."

She never explained how I had been showing off, but perhaps she meant it was because I answered him in Russian, and yet had told him that I didn't understand. She also said it was illegal to fine us on the spot, and I said, "Probably so, but I did not care—I had no desire to be detained. I would rather just pay it
She said, "He probably bought a beer at the next stand."
I had to agree. "That may well be," I said, "but we are all here, and everything is behind us."
Rediscovering My Roots

An early morning flight brought us to Zaporozhye in the Ukraine—the area where our parents were born. This is where our forbears had come late in the 17th century. They had lived in that region for a long time; thus it was very important to us.

First we had lunch at the hotel. In the afternoon we boarded a tour bus that took us to the oak tree where the first Mennonites, migrating from Prussia to Russia in 1789, had spent some time before going to their Chortiza colony. That tree had become a significant, defining ground where Mennonites from Russia and America had a celebration of the 200-year anniversary of Mennonites coming to Russia. This tree is thought to be 460 years old, and a solemn monument.

We then went on to Chortiza Island in the Dnieper River, to the sanitarium for aluminum workers. It was good to see that they were concerned about their workers and the poison that they absorbed from these different minerals. We spoke with the physician there, and she explained about the facility. Then she wanted to take somebody's blood pressure; she wanted a volunteer. Of course, she looked at me and said, "How about this man?" So, she took my blood pressure and announced the result as being good for an old man.

The evening was free for us to explore the streets and the nearby park. I also negotiated a tour to see the former Mennonite villages of the Molotschna colony, where our ancestors settled. Fortunately, the local tour guide knew the story of the Mennonites well. She had read a book, Story of the Mennonites, given to her by C.D. DeFehr from Canada.

She was not sure whether we could go to the village, because everything had to be approved by Intourist, the Soviet department of tourism. We had tried to make the arrangement for this at home, before the itinerary was set, but they said, "No, this is a local situation, and you have to make the arrangement when you get there." So, she was not sure whether we would be able to go.

She said it had rained, the roads were not very good, and had all sorts of excuses. She assured me however, that she understood well that this was one of the main reasons why we had come to Zaparozhye in the first place, so she said she would try hard to get us permission to go.

We were informed at home not to give money as tips to anybody, but a supply of ballpoint pens, chewing gum, or decorative coins were greatly appreciated. Thus, a Parker Jotter was just the right thing at this time. She said, "Oh, you even brought the best."

Apparently she knew something about Parker Jotter pens. At breakfast she informed me that she had gotten approval but we would need to pay for this in addition to our tour package. I assured her that was not a problem, especially since the bill was only $6 per person. She said we would start early, at 8:30. This gave us a full day and time to see what we wanted to see, instead of what was prescribed for us.

The villages are all renamed. They all have Russian names instead of the German names they were known by originally. All the German-style houses were replaced with smaller, typically Ukrainian houses. Our guide knew the German names of most of the villages, which made the tour very realistic.
Old Home of Katherine Braun

At Halbstadt, which was the civic and cultural center of the Molotschna Mennonite Colonie, we saw the remains of the old Willems Furniture Factory, and the School for the Deaf and Mute that was founded and operated by the Mennonites. In Rikenau, the shell of the Mennonite Brethren Church is now used as a stock feed processing plant. In the fields we saw herds of red cows that the Mennonites had introduced from the Danzig area, and, originally, from Holland.

At the village of Pasva we found the home of Katherine Braun. She was a refugee in the Second World War. She, together with others, had escaped from Russia just ahead of the retreating German army in 1943.

As we drew near, she was tense with excitement and filled with emotion. She stood in the bus as she looked around and said, "I know I will recognize my former home."

Coming to the end of the one street village, the bus driver stopped and asked, "Well, where is it?"

She had not seen it. Our tour guide helped by talking to some of the people on the street, asking them, "Where did the Brauns live before the Germans came?"
They answered, "Right over there, next to the school house."
Katherine echoed, "That's right, next to the school house."
So, we went there, and the current occupants took her to the apple tree and she said, "Now I know this is the place."

Her family's house had been replaced with two small houses. The word spread fast through the neighborhood that Katherine was there. Some of the older ladies were standing back a little ways. I went and talked with them and asked, "Do you remember her?"
They said, "Of course we remember her. Where does she live now?"
They seemed to be pleased when I told them she was living in America. They asked whether she had a family and I said, "No, she never married." They were
surprised at that.

It was a very interesting day, especially seeing these villages that resembled the ones I knew in Siberia. Our villages had been built as replicas of what had been in the Ukraine—the parent settlement of the Siberian settlement. All of the Mennonites were moved out of that area during the war years. Many of them were moved to Kazakhstan, and some of them to Kyrgystan.

Returning to the hotel at 5:30, we had seen a good part of the Molotschna Colony, but not the Chortiza colony. It was a great disappointment, particularly to Sarah Penner and her nephew, Galen Penner, because their ancestors had come from there.

A Whirlwind Tour

The following day took us to the hydroelectric plant at Zaparozhye. There an engineer explained how electrification of the country had been one of Lenin's highest priorities. He related how, in an act of heroism, an unknown soldier had kept the plant from falling into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War. There was a simple monument to that event.

He also pointed out that the first two generators were from America, made by General Electric, evidence that they had contact with American business people as early as 1929, even though no government-to-government contact took place. It had taken some time for the generators to arrive. By the time the imported machines got there, they had two generators of their own which were much larger, but much clumsier. He also pointed out that the American and Russian machines were now operating side-by-side. I remarked about how pleased I was that we could work together. He said, very emphatically, "We have to!"

An afternoon flight took us to Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and our last stop in the Soviet Union. We arrived rather late in the day, met our local tour guide, and told him that we had to take a flight about noon the next day. He was indignant that we would not allow time to see his city properly. Coming this far, and then spending a couple of hours in the city was totally unjustified.

He said our tour didn't start until ten o'clock, and, if we had to leave by 11:30 or so, we would have no time to see his city. But Natasha, who was our national tour guide, said, "We will work it out."

Therefore we had an early breakfast at 7:30 and this gave us two hours to get a flying view of the historic city before we had to leave for the airport at eleven o'clock. A farewell lunch with Natasha included the disappointed local guide—he could not forgive us for failing to tour his great city properly.

In eleven days we had become friends with Natasha, especially Katherine Sylvester and Anna Simons. She had confided in them that she was in love with a French student who had gone back to France, but they still contemplated marriage. If that did happen, she did not know whether she would have to go to the West or whether he would come there.

Clearing customs was no problem; our suitcases were not even opened. But my brother Jake's briefcase was thoroughly checked over. They saw all the pictures of the families of our relatives and inquired about them, but did not take any names or addresses. We were relieved that our friends and relatives probably would not have any trouble because of our visit with them.

Katherine Braun's self-cooker "samovar" was pulled out of the carrying case, and when it was closed back up, the zipper broke. This made carrying it more difficult, but all of us had a share in carrying it the rest of the way home.

One last trip to the restrooms, which were hard to find, left an indelible impression of the culture. As in most other places, they were away from the main building, and when we did find them there was every indication of a lack of sanitation. We especially noticed the contrast at the next airport in Prague, Czechoslovakia. There, the rest rooms were sparkling clean and had a fresh smell to them.

We had spent eleven action-packed days in the Soviet Union, we had seen the country as never before, and had gotten reacquainted with our families, gaining a new appreciation for the land of our roots and of our birth. At the same time we had wept inwardly for the lack of freedom of our people, and for the destruction of their lifestyle—the culture and heritage of the Mennonites—by a system that rejects God.

Yet, we could still sense the productiveness of the land. And, we had a new appreciation for the warmhearted common folks of Russia.

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