Chapter 20: Can I Go Back Again?

Can I Go Back Again?
Tragic News of My Brother's Son

Since our visit to the Soviet Union in 1978, we had kept up correspondence with our relatives, mainly with Lena Obholz, our niece (our brother Peter's daughter), and also Anna Friesen Harms, the one who had lived with us as a young lady and then stayed in Russia when we left for America.

I don't remember ever having received a letter from Peter, our nephew, my brother's son. He was very fearful of the Soviet system, though he was a part of it. What had happened to his father—his arrest and subsequent death—and other atrocities seem to have kept him a continual state of fear. As I recorded earlier, it was Peter who told me that they had received a letter from the government saying that their father was taken by mistake and he was, I think, always extremely careful that this thing would not happen to him, though he did never say that.

In the early Eighties, we received a letter from Anna Friesen with very tragic news: Peter Block and his wife, Amalia, were "no longer there." She knew the family would not write. They told her they could not bear to tell us what had happened; it was too painful. So Anna wrote to let us know that Peter had shot his mother-in-law, then his wife. Then he telephoned his children and told them to come on over, that their parents "would be no more."

The children heard a shot ring out over the telephone. When they came to the house, they found the three bodies. Lena had continued writing to us and mentioned that her parents were no longer there, but she did not mention what had happened.

News from My Brother's Grandson

Then, early in 1990, I received a letter from Peter's son, Jacob Block, a grandson of my brother. He wrote in Russian because he could not write in German. (I found a translator in Sacramento.) Jacob wrote that he had seen our picture recently among his parents' belongings and got our address from his aunt Lena. He wanted to write and get acquainted.

He remembered that when he was about seventeen, his parents had gone to Novosibirsk to meet some relatives from America. He said that at the time he wasn't particularly interested, but now he was very much interested. He didn't know anything about his grandfather: what he was like, where he lived, or what his occupation or profession was. He said he would very much appreciate correspondence with us because he had no one to ask now that his parents were gone. He also referred to the fact that their country had opened up more; there was freedom to correspond and freedom to check into past information.

We all know that this greater freedom began with Gorbachev in 1986 when he inaugurated "glasnost," (openness) and then later on "perestroika," (reorganization). We were still fearful, yet began to wonder whether it would ever be possible for us to go back and visit our village.

I was very happy to hear from Jacob! I wrote to tell him about his grandfather—that he had been a leader in his area, and what he had been doing until he was arrested.

Then, late in December of 1990, I received a letter from Jacob telling me that since the government archives were now being opened up, he had applied to the judiciary to find out what had happened to his grandfather.

The authorities informed him that his grandfather had been arrested in February of 1938 and was executed by firing squad on March 6, 1938. The charges against him were for "anti-Soviet activities," of which he was later exonerated. When Jacob tried to find out about the burial place, they said they had no record of that.

We were surprised that they would even have a record of his execution or that they would disclose such a thing at this time. So we became more hopeful that maybe someday we would be able to go there and visit the scenes of my childhood, and the life I knew with my beloved elder brother, Peter. But because the government was still very unstable, we thought it best to wait.

Jacob's sisters, Anna and Elizabeth, both speak and write German, and I was able to make contact with them as well. Communication became easier. In a subsequent letter, Jacob wrote that two of his sisters would like to have Bibles, if we could send them. He added, somewhat hesitantly it seemed, that he would also like to have a Bible in Russian.

This request I was glad to fulfill! He received his copy shortly after that and wrote that he was reading it. He said, "Now I am beginning to read something of which I know nothing."

The sisters, however, never got their Bibles. Somehow, the mail doesn't always carry through.
Mennonite World Conference

In July of 1990, there was a Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg, Canada. I had never been to such a conference. I flew to Winnipeg to attend. It was very interesting and exciting to be a part of a group of representatives from 68 countries! We were told there that our group spoke a hundred different languages!

There were 21 people from the Soviet Union. They had a choir of 14 members who, together with other choirs from many lands, inspired the audience. They told us of the greater freedom that had begun in 1986. On one occasion in 1989, they had gone out to high-rise apartment buildings to sing and hand out New Testaments. The following week, the pastor was called to City Hall, and the officials informed him that the law had been broken and they would have to be penalized.

Rev. Peters Enns, from Karaganda, Kazakhstan, who told the story, said the officials could not figure out how the offenders should be punished under the new system. So they asked the Mennonite pastor and his helpers what kind of penalty they thought would be appropriate.

They negotiated back and forth. Finally, the police simply let them go and said, "From now on, we give you permission to preach and sing in prisons and in hospitals."  Since then, however, they have preached freely, and people are very open to receive the message. They said that their church services were still mainly in the German language. This was a surprise to me: that they would have maintained that language during all the years of persecution.

Some of them were lamenting that too many Mennonite people were leaving for Germany since that country has been opened up. One of the ministers, Peter Toews, also from Karaganda, said we should not be complaining over the fact that these people were leaving. God had opened the door for them—let them go if they want to go. But, he said, the Mennonite churches in Russia should be opening their doors in the community, changing the services into the Russian language, and inviting the people to come. He said that his church was doing that, and many people of the community were coming. This was a tremendous blessing to be with these brothers and sisters and hear of their experiences.

In fact, the whole convention was exhilarating and inspiring. On Sunday morning we had a Communion Service during which 10,000 people were very efficiently served communion, despite the enormity of the task. I went away from there with a sense of the presence of God, with an excitement that people are being won to the Lord all over the world, and with the certainty that the Mennonite people are not sitting still, but going everywhere.

One of the African pastors shared how businesses are exploiting the pygmies in Africa, but the Mennonites were speaking to the government in behalf of the pygmies and winning rights for them. He said that many people of the pygmies are turning to the Lord. The following year, they were going to open a school for them.

The whole experience of the conference gave me a greater desire to return to Russia. I now had hope of actually going back to the homes of Peter's children and getting better acquainted with the families of my brother.
Alvin Peters Has an Idea

For a number of years, I had remained active in the local church, but not much in the conference. Then a new church was being started in El Dorado Hills, near Sacramento. Another work was begun in Roseville, also near Sacramento, and we had no one from that area on the Pacific District Conference Board of Home Missions for the Mennonite Brethren Churches. Thus, our pastor, Steve Toews, and some of the board members at our home church asked me to make myself available to serve on that board, in order to have a representative when the work was being done in our backyard. I followed their advice and the conference chose me to serve in this capacity.

At a Board meeting in May of 1991, Alvin Peters, a grower and international shipper of fruit, came to me during a break time and said, "John, I want to go to the Black Sea this year."

I asked, "Why do you want to go to the Black Sea?"

One of his contacts in England, he told me, reported to him that they had ordered some grapes from the Black Sea region the year before, but the quality control was so poor that they didn't order any more.

 "I feel an urgency and a responsibility to go there and help those people with their fruit," he said. "I must advise them on growing and preparing fruit for shipping to world markets, if they ever want to participate in them." Alvin is also a son-in-law of Henry Isaak (my stepbrother who prayed with me to receive Christ), so his wife, Anna, had come with us from Russia. He wanted to go in August. Would I go with him?

I said, "No, not now. It's still too unstable. Maybe a year or two from now we will be able to go. Furthermore, I said, "Do you realize that this is May and you want to go in August? I could never get my papers ready in time."

"Well," he said, "Logos, an organization in Fresno, is operating a Bible Institute in that area, the only evangelical Bible Institute in the Soviet Union, and they say they can get the papers ready for us by then."

I went home, talked to my wife about it, then called my sons and talked to them. They said, "Well, Dad, it appears that this may be a great opportunity for you." Kathryn agreed that if we could work out a plan so that she would not have to stay alone, she would encourage me to go.

I called Peters and told him, "I have a proposition. I'll go with you where you want to go, if you will go with me where I want to go." He asked me where it was that I wanted to go.

I said, "I want to go to Siberia and see my relatives, my brother's descendants." And, of course, his in-laws had relatives in the same area as well.
"Sure, I'll do that," he said. 

I started to get my passport, and the folks at Logos said they would get my visa ready. I learned that they prepared the visas right there in their office, and then got approval from the consulate in San Francisco. All would be ready at just the right time.

Flying by Faith

We were to leave from Los Angeles on August 8, but, when the day came, we still did not yet have our visas. In faith, I went to Los Angeles. At the airport, as I checked in with Finn-Air to fly from Los Angeles to Helsinki, Peters came bringing the visas in the nick of time. While he was checking in, they called me back to the desk and said, "We would like to reassign your seat. We can do a little better for you." When they saw that our visas to the Soviet Union were designated as "cultural exchange" and not as tourists, they seated us in the first-class section, or what they called the business section.

We were delayed in Los Angeles for several hours while an engine on the plane was changed. We finally departed Los Angeles at 9: 15 p.m. Shortly after we were airborne, all of us in our section received a gift: a case with manicuring tools and shaving equipment and a pair of warm socks, so we could remove our shoes for the long flight. Then we were served juice, followed by an appetizer, a selection of cheeses, drinks of our choice, a salad with strips of bacon, and a sumptuous meal, which consisted of several different choices of meat. I had a breast of pheasant (I thought this was a novelty) and brown rice with hot vegetables and coffee. Wonderful service! Then we settled down for the night. It was a far cry from our trip 62 years before—over a frozen river at midnight in horse-drawn sleighs as we fled from soldiers, and looked for food in a strange countryside.

After a bit of sleep, I woke up; it was three o'clock in the morning, Pacific Daylight Time. I opened the shades of the window and bright sunlight hit me. It was too bright to look at, so I had to pull the shade down. Sometime later, we arrived over the coast of Finland—a beautiful, green countryside.

As we came down below the clouds, a refreshing rain had just ended. We arrived at Helsinki at 7:30 in the morning, Pacific Daylight Time, but, of course, it was 5:30 in the afternoon Helsinki time. We had a two-hour layover, during which we got acquainted with the place and found the plane for Moscow. The two hours went by very quickly.
Lost Ticket

At 7:30 in the evening, we took off for Moscow and landed there at 9:50, in a little drizzle that continued most of the night. As soon as we left the plane and walked into the spacious airport, I stopped to make sure my papers were in order before going through customs. I found my passport and the declaration paper that we had filled out on board the plane. I thought everything was in place, but then I couldn't find my ticket! I figured I would go back to the plane and look by the seat; I must have dropped it there.

When I got to the door of the building, it was locked. I couldn't get out. There was a young lady there in flight uniform who spoke a little English. I told her that I needed to get back on the plane. She talked to a soldier nearby who found the key and tried to open the door. He worked on it for perhaps a couple of minutes and couldn't get it open. He called another soldier and together they finally got the door open. I walked onto the plane and found the crew sitting in a circle drinking coffee. I told them I needed to check my seat again. Back on board, I looked all around and there was no ticket. Nothing. Then, as I was wondering about what I could do, just in the moment before I gave up I believe the Lord reminded me, "Check the pocket of the seat in front of you." I did—and there was my ticket.

I went right back into the airport where Alvin was waiting, trying to decide into which customs line we should go. There was a red line and a green line. The red line was for those who had nothing to declare, and Peters said, "We don't have anything to declare, but I already went there and they don't speak any English." 
"Well, let's see," I said. 

We walked over. I greeted the inspector in Russian, but there was no conversation needed. We plunked our suitcases on the conveyor belt and went right through customs without any checking or opening of any bags. He just marked something on our declaration paper and we moved on.
Russian Law and Disorder

On the other side, we met our guide who was holding up a sign to let us know who he was: Vladimir (or Volodya, for short) Krimsky. He introduced his driver, Andre, and led us to a small Russian car with a small trunk that was half-full of junk. "Here's the car," he said, as he tried to squeeze our suitcases in without the slightest hope of succeeding.

We each had two large suitcases and a handbag. There was no way that even one suitcase would go in the trunk, so Volodya wanted to put them on top. Peters was a little concerned because they were already wet from the rain; apparently our bags had been sitting for quite a while on the baggage truck. We didn't want everything to get soaked.

We kept telling Volodya to please get another car. "This car is too small. We can't go in this car." Volodya kept insisting, "He can make it." 
He couldn't make it. 

Volodya finally went off and came back with a larger car, a Volga, a four-door sedan and the largest made in the Soviet Union. We got everything in there and took off for the hotel. Andre, being Volodya's driver, had to go to the hotel with us to bring the smaller car. I volunteered to ride with Andre. On the way the two cars got separated. Of course, both men knew where they were going so that was no problem, but as we were going through downtown Moscow, a policeman in the street motioned with his hand. Andre pulled aside. I said, "What's wrong now?"
"Well," he said, "They want to check me."

The policeman came and talked a little bit to him. Then they both went and sat in the police car for a while until Andre came back and said, "They want to check my papers. They think there is something wrong with my papers."

He got something from the car and went back again. After another wait, he came and said, "They want to fine me, but I told them that if I pay them now somebody else might stop me again on the way—so you guys lead the way to the hotel."

The police agreed and led the way. Then just before we got to the hotel, they pulled over to the side of a street not very well lit. Andre got out and walked to the police car, sat there for a while, then pulled out his wallet and paid some 200 rubles. He came back and we proceeded to the Salyut Hotel, a nice establishment for tourists.

The rest of our people were already there. They told us that breakfast was included in the hotel price, so we could plan on going to the dining room the next morning to eat. After a good night's sleep, we went to the dining hall and showed our tickets, but the host said "No, this isn't the right dining room." So we went to another dining room, and they sent us to the third dining room where we could finally have something to eat.

These hotels are old buildings, ornate, built in times when things were plentiful before the Communist Revolution. They are kept up fairly well—not elaborate, but adequate. The dining rooms have long tables where you are invited to sit down and other guests are invited to join you for the meal. We had a fine breakfast.

Shortly after breakfast, Volodya Krimski brought another man in, his name was also Volodya: Volodya Teterin. Krimski told us there was a problem with our visas. He would try to get them fixed, but this being Saturday, he was not sure whether he would succeed. They had wanted to take us around town, but he said, "Today I will be busy working with your visas." Our visas had the name of only one city on them, and we wanted to visit several cities, so he said, "I will go and see what I can do."

Teterin, whom we called Volodya Number 2, was busy that day, but he would show us Moscow by night. During the day we would be on our own.
Fun and Pizza in Moscow

Peters had a friend in Moscow, the son of one of his clients in Dinuba, California. He was doing construction on the American Embassy in Moscow and Peters had his telephone number. The Volodyas called for us to find out where he was. An arrangement was made for our guide to take us to the friend's place, and he would take us around town during that day.

 After we met him, Volodya said, "Well, we will leave you here on your own and see you at hotel about five o'clock.'' We asked Volodya, "Where can we get some Russian money? We will need some rubles."

 "Come sit in the back seat of my car," he said. So we followed him to his car and there he opened his briefcase—it was full of rubles. "How much do you want?"

We said we would like to have a thousand rubles each. The exchange was made at 35 rubles per dollar, and we were all set for the day.

Peters' friend took us to Arbatov Street, the "free market" street where you could find almost anything for sale, including Baskin and Robbins ice cream, but especially souvenirs. Among these souvenirs were even portraits of Czar Nikolai II, Petrushka Dolls, images of Gorbachev and President Bush.

Czar Nikolai II was the last royal ruler of Russia, who was executed along with his entire family by the Communist Revolutionaries. The availability of his portrait indicated considerable new freedom of expression, but it also showed the people's desire to turn back to the pre-Communist era. I was impressed with the difference in public attitudes compared to those in 1978, when we saw Communist slogans on every billboard.

After spending time listening to singers performing for coins or rubles, viewing the samples of street art, and buying a few souvenirs, we were asked by this friend of Peters' "Where would you like to go for lunch?"
"Wherever you want to take us."
"Would you like to go to Pizza Hut?" he asked.
We said, "That would be fine." He negotiated a price with the taxi driver, and we went to Pizza Hut.

As we went in, he said, "This is the door where people with hard money enter."
"Hard money," of course, is money from other countries like America, West Germany, or England. We walked right in and were waited on immediately. It was interesting to note that the waitresses were wearing the same uniforms, and gave the same courteous service that they do in the United States. The company has done a good job of training their employees.

As we left Pizza Hut, we saw a door on the other side of the building. That was where the people came who paid with rubles, and that line was much longer. At this particular occasion it was not terribly long, perhaps a hundred feet, but our friend told us that sometimes it was a block long. (The dollar commands a lot of influence, as we found again and again. For instance, when we came to Leningrad, they said the taxi drivers didn't even want to take rubles; they just wanted dollars.)

The day was almost spent, so we took another taxi and went back to the hotel to wait for Volodya to come and take us to see the city by night. At dinner, we met Faina, from Tashkent, in the Republic of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is an Asian republic, but she was Russian. There are many Russian people living there, just as there are in all the republics of the Soviet Union.

She was very interested to meet Americans, even though she couldn't speak English. We did the best we could with my limited Russian. She asked about our country, and we asked about hers. She invited us to come and visit, emphasizing that if we ever came to her area, we should get in contact with her and she would show us around. Then our driver came, so we had to leave her to tour the city.
Red Square Revisited

Just before dark we walked through Red Square. The Parade Ground, separated from the Kremlin by a red brick wall, is a place where people spend leisure time. Next to the wall is the Tomb of Lenin, attended night and day by an elite guard of four soldiers. On the far end of the square stands Saint Basil's Cathedral, built about 1750. It is an outstanding and very imposing building.

On this same ground, not far from Basil's Cathedral, is a circular raised stone platform where, in early Russian history, the court used to announce its verdicts and executions were held. It's a very impressive area for visitors to see. Our guide also took us through a 17th-century church. Churches are mostly used as museums. Finally, back at our hotel, we had a good night's rest.

Many young people came to Lenin's tomb to be married. On momentous occasions, people look for something greater than themselves with which to identify, and since state-imposed atheism had ruled out churches and even God, such places as this are the centers to which an atheistic society is drawn. Though it was just before dusk, we saw several couples walking around dressed in their wedding regalia—brides were dressed very much like American brides.
More Moscow Explorations

In the morning, we again went to the dining room for our breakfast, and there we met two more guests—both from the Republic of Georgia. When they found out that Mr. Peters was interested in fruit, they urged us to come to Georgia, the "fruit basket of the Soviet Union." It was never hard to strike up a conversation with people, because they were all interested in meeting Americans. We had no problem with being lonesome.

This was Sunday morning. Our guides, Volodya Teterin, who was to accompany us to our next destination, and Volodya Krimski, who had our visas, were all smiles as they said, "Your visa problem is all solved, all fixed. You're ready to go to various different cities where you want to go."

He didn't tell us how he did it or how he got it done. He had not thought it possible to get everything arranged on a Saturday, but he got it all finished. He said, "You do what you want to do now, in the forenoon, and about two o'clock Volodya Teterin will take us to the airport. Then you will go, not to Zaporozhye (as we had expected) but to Odessa by Black Sea."

Zaporozhye is a nostalgic and historic place where the Mennonites first came to Russia back in 1789, and ever since. Therefore, we wanted to visit it. I had been there before, in 1978, but Peters hadn't and he was very much interested, especially in visiting the village of Halbstadt.

We had planned to go there directly from Moscow, but these men said, "From Odessa some people will take you by car to Zaparozhye."

Odessa is a Black Sea port in the Ukraine. We were glad to go there, too, having intended to take in that region. They also said, "You have an invitation to Odessa." Therefore, Volodya Teterin would join us later. Some local people would meet us at the Odessa airport and take us to their apartment. Later, they would take us to Zaporozhye and bring us to Krasnodar, all of which had been on our schedule.

We asked them to take us to the entrance of the Moscow Metro for some sightseeing. I had told Peters, "When you're in Moscow, if you don't see anything else, you must see the Metro."

It's a very fast moving operation, very efficiently run, so different from everything else in Russia. They have beautiful art work in several different stations. I once thought it was in all stations, but it's only in certain ones. The whole history of the Soviet Union, and even pre-Soviet times, is portrayed on the walls and ceilings in these stations. As we went in, I asked which ones were the stations with the artwork. We followed the instructions given us, getting off at several places, taking pictures and admiring the magnificent murals depicting scenes from Russia's turbulent past.

We spent the forenoon on the Metro, sightseeing on our own. After our Metro exploration we talked to a watermelon vendor near the exit. He asked how we liked their city and country. Then he said, "Don't just say ‘good, good—go ask those people across the street." (There were some dilapidated houses across from us.) "See if they think it's good. It's not good!" Then we took a taxi back to the hotel.

After lunch, Volodya came for us and we went to the airport. He had obtained tickets for us. After we checked in we witnessed a strange scene.

A black man, probably an African student, accompanied by a blond young lady came to the counter to check in, but the clerk, an imposing Russian woman, apparently did not like what she saw and gave him a bad time about his papers. The argument grew louder and louder. A crowd of spectators gathered to watch. The young lady sat down, crying, while the man continued the verbal altercation in very good Russian. They finally boarded with the rest of us and left for Odessa.
We were reminded that we were in a different culture.

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