Chapter 22: Happy Homecoming

Happy Homecoming

Death Throes of the Soviet Union

On Monday morning, just as we were ready to leave the house for the airport, one of Paul and Olga's friends came and said, "Have you listened to the television this morning?"

When we said no, he replied, "Well, Gorbachev is being held prisoner at his dacha in the Crimea where he was vacationing." This was only about 150 kilometers from where we had been.

No one knew what this meant for the immediate moment, nor for the long run. It was somewhat scary, not knowing what was going to happen in the country, but we made our way to the airport and waited for boarding. We were traveling Russian-style now, not like tourists but like people of the land.

The boarding was somewhat difficult. It was crowded, but we managed to get on. Yet, when one does get on the plane, even if one has assigned seats, there is no guarantee that the assigned seat will be vacant. By the time we got there, our seats were occupied. Happily, we were able to find other seats nearby and had a pleasant flight to Novosibirsk.
No Need for the Train

I had called the granddaughter of my older brother Peter, and told her that we would be arriving in Novosibirsk, Monday evening about six o'clock. Then we would take a train to the city of Slavgorod, where they live only 20 minutes away. I didn't know exactly what time we would arrive there. They would have to find that out locally.

When we arrived in Novosibirsk, while we were waiting for our baggage, behind me somebody spoke up and said, "Uncle John."

I looked around to see where the voice was coming from—a young man stepped forward and said, in Low German, "I am Jacob Block." His partner stepped up and said, "I'm Alexander Friesen."

Then I realized who they were. Jacob Block is my lost brother's grandson and Alexander Friesen is the husband of my brother's granddaughter, Elizabeth, to
whom I had spoken on Sunday evening. They had come to Novosibirsk to pick us up by car instead of letting us travel by train. They said the train took too long. A very pleasant surprise indeed!

As we left Novosibirsk about nine o'clock in the evening, a light shower was falling. The road was very modern, and it was nice traveling. All of a sudden, a gravel road full of chuckholes replaced the smooth pavement. I said to Alexander, "They must be repairing the road here."

He laughed and said, "No, Uncle John, they don't repair the road here. This is the way our road is." Unfortunately he was right. The best roads are near the larger cities.

Fortunately, our communication was very easy because they spoke Low German. Jacob did not speak the language very well, but enough so that we could communicate. Friesen spoke it very well.

On the way, Peters asked if we could stop to get a cup of coffee, but Friesen laughed again and said no. There were no restaurants along the way where one could stop. It was just like it had been in the Ukraine.

We arrived at their home about three o'clock in the morning. Elizabeth, Alexander's wife, had gotten up to prepare a bit of food for us, but we said we would rather just go to bed and sleep.

When I got up at nine the next morning, I was informed that the "Banyan," a homemade sauna, was hot for my convenience. After a welcome bath that was reminiscent of my childhood, there was lots of activity going on.

Watching History in the Making

Another of Peter's grandchildren, Anna, had come. Shortly thereafter, Anna's husband, Joseph Bolz, came and she introduced him to me. She is a schoolteacher, and she said that he was the school director, which would be the equivalent of the principal in our terms. She had written previously that he was the secretary of the local Party—as in, the Communist Party. I said, "You wrote that he was the secretary of the local Party."

She replied, "Oh, that was before, but not now. This is better." So a lot of changes had already taken place even before the coup took place.

They informed us of what was being reported on television, which we couldn't understand. Later that same day Lena & Paul Obholz, my brother's daughter, the only one of his children still living, arrived and was overwhelmed to see me. We had gotten acquainted before in 1978, in Novosibirsk.

Paul kept me informed about what was happening with regard to the coup. They had very good coverage on television, perhaps not all the details that were shown in America, but the people were well informed.
We asked people, "What will this mean?"
They said, "We simply don't know what it will mean."

It soon became evident that a full-fledged revolution was taking place.

Television showed large crowds protesting against the forces surrounding the White House, the headquarters of the Russian government under Boris Yeltzen. They were trying to keep the military from taking over. Meanwhile, the military was slow to obey orders. This reluctance to fire on their own people was applauded over the whole country. Thousands took turns around the clock to keep the protest going. The only way that the military could take over the headquarters of the government was by mowing down the people, and the military didn't have the stomach to do that. Truly this was a people's revolution, with many sympathizers in the military.

We watched as they showed Yeltzen taking his now famous stand on top of a tank to make a speech discouraging the military from taking orders from the Communists. He assured the military that the coup leaders had no authority. By Thursday morning, the standoff was pretty well over, and our people were rejoicing that it looked like civil war was going to be averted. Paul informed me that most of the coup leaders were arrested, and one had already shot himself.

Suddenly, it struck me—I was witnessing a second revolution, and I was in the same place where I had been when communism came into power more than seventy years ago!
Celebrating Our Family Ties

That first day we visited around in the village of Grischkovka, the home of two children of Peter, my brother's son. In the evening, the whole family came together at the home of Alexander and Elizabeth Friesen. There I unpacked the gifts I had brought from America. We brought one suitcase full of a variety of  clothes, underclothes, stockings, some shirts, some dresses, and some money. This was distributed to the whole family.

There were four sisters: Anna Bolz, I already mentioned, and her husband Joseph; Elizabeth Friesen, and her husband Alexander; Lillie and her husband, Anatoli Majstro; Valentina and her husband, Andre Breunert, with their children, and Jacob Block, who's wife Elena and their two children had been there earlier for a week, but had gone back home to Barnaul while he stayed to meet me. These were all the children of my brother Peter's son, also named Peter. My brother's son, Jakob, has a family living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan—I did not get to see them. My brother's daughter, Lena, and her husband Paul Obholtz, were with us, and we saw their family later.

We had a very fine family gathering, getting acquainted, expressing love and appreciation, and just plain excitement. They said they appreciated the gifts, but
emphasized the greatest gift was my presence with them. I can't express what all this meant to me.

The next morning Alexander Friesen took Peters and myself, and Jacob Block who was still there, around the countryside to see the different villages. We went to the village of Alexanderovka where Johann Schmidt lived. He was a cousin of Annie, Alvin Peters' wife. Peters also had a large suitcase full of presents for them and other relatives.

It was a nostalgic moment to meet Johann Schmidt. I remember that he and his mother, who was my stepsister, lived in our home for a short time after his father died. He was only a little boy. I reminded him of that, but he couldn't remember it. He was only about five years old then, and I was about ten.

After that meeting we went on to other villages. However, many of the former villages no longer existed. In most cases they had combined four or five settlements into one collective farm. Then they all moved together into one village, built new houses, and leveled the others. Blumenort, the village where I was born was no longer there; it was just a grain field.

The Place of My Boyhood

Then we went to the village of Petrovka, where we lived after my mother married Mr. Peter Isaak. We moved there when I was nine. I lived there from age nine to fifteen, the years when one is most impressionable. When I saw the sign for Petrovka, I got very excited. Of course, I already knew that the village was no longer there, because we had been informed of that earlier. But, just to get to that spot! I asked Alexander to drive slowly. I was intent on recognizing the place where we had lived.

There was a grove of white birch trees right in back of our house. The road had been moved, so it wasn't quite in the right place, but when I saw the cemetery I was able to get oriented. I asked to stop for a minute because I knew the approximate direction of the cemetery from our house; it was diagonally across the street, but some distance from it. The schoolhouse was next to the street, and the cemetery was behind the playground.

I found the approximate spot where our house used to be. It was right in front of the birch grove. It is difficult to describe what I felt, the kinds of feelings. What an exciting and emotion-filled experience!

From there we went on to the village of Desyarka, formerly, Schoenwiese. That's where Heinrich Wahl had lived. He was also a cousin of Annie Isaak Peters (my stepbrother's daughter and Alvin Peters' wife). Here Peters had some more presents to unload and left his empty suitcase. The Wahls lived in a very comfortable home. He had a good position as the controller for the collective farm in that area. But he had papers already finished to go to Germany. They are living in Germany now. We tried to discourage them from leaving there, saying, "Why do you want to leave, now that things are getting better around here. now that you're going to have more freedom due to this revolution?"

But people are very skeptical. They think things may only be temporary, and it might get worse again. So when they have the opportunity to leave, many of them choose to do so, much like we did, so many years before.
Neighbor from the Past

The crowning time of that day came later in the evening. In fact, it got later than we intended, but on the way back to my niece's place, we stopped in the city of Slavgorod and saw a new church under construction. It was thrilling to see a new church being built in the Soviet Union. We stopped there and looked it over.

We also talked to some of the people. One of the men said his name was Cornelius Isaak. I asked him where he came from. He said from the village of Blumenort! That was the village where I was born.

I didn't remember any Isaaks there, but he said they knew the Block family very well, including Peter Block, my brother. He didn't remember us—he was too young for that. He said that Peter Block and his father were arrested and hauled away on the same sleigh one cold winter night. Neither one of them were ever heard of again. What a kinship that kind of shared experience makes.
The Pleasure of Being Uncle Hans

From there we went on to Lena and Paul's house. We arrived at nine o'clock, just before dark. The whole family was there, a large group of people; I couldn't remember all their names. Lena and her family were jubilant to have an uncle from America there. Sometimes I was Uncle John, but most of the time they called me Uncle Hans in German. A long table was all furnished for dinner, just waiting for a great time. There was a time of getting acquainted with Lena's children, their spouses, and their children. Then it was my turn to open the suitcase again and give out the last of the gifts I had brought. "This is it." I said. "Here, you can have the suitcase as well. I'll leave it."

It turned out to be very late in the evening when they finally dispersed and went to their homes. Lena and her husband were the only ones left for the night.
Meeting My Niece's Family

The next morning was rather quiet. Lena and I had an opportunity to talk about her parents, my brother and sister-in-law, and what it was like when her father was arrested and torn from the family. She told me where they lived after they had returned from Moscow that time when they tried to go to Germany. She also gave me a letter that her mother had composed and left behind when she died. It was written in German rhyme. I have translated it as prose and include it here as she wrote it.
"A Ledger of Tranquility and Pain"

I often reminisce about the joyful time when I lived in happiness and great satisfaction. When we were engaged to be married and were united at the marriage altar, in the year 1921.

This was a time of great satisfaction and joy. This is the way we lived until the summer of 1929.

Then we left our home and community and moved into the wide world, where we sought a better life. [This was when they joined many other Mennonite people in Moscow and sought to emigrate.] After some weeks of waiting, there suddenly came an order to return. This caused pain and suffering and was far removed from joy and well being.

So we returned and arrived at the home place. Here we joined the collective farm where we both worked as true friends, until in the fall of 1934.

Then they made us voiceless people. [All civil rights were revoked.] We remained there until April of 1935. Then we moved to the area of Pavlodar, [a provincial city]. Here we gained a sense of well being in that we had all we needed for our livelihood.

We lived well until February of 1938, when a tremendous, painful event overwhelmed us. My dearly loved husband, the father of our four children, was arrested and placed in a dark prison where he was to suffer, separated from the children and me. The children and I cried painfully but there was no salvation. He had shouted, "I have done nothing wrong, I'll be back," and the sleigh disappeared.

How bitterly hard this was. I lived in worry and pain. On September 24 of 1939, we moved back to our old home where my sisters lived. They welcomed my children and me and we lived with them. I again joined the collective farm where my boys and I worked for our living.

I was able to calm down because I always believed my husband would come home. [He was executed by then but she never knew it.] Then there would again be a good living and the children and I will no longer need to torment ourselves with this hard work.

In June of 1941, the news came that the country was at war; every man would have to fight. I thought to myself that I had no one who could go, so there would not be another separation.

My husband is away and no one knows where he is. I found no peace day or night. I began to fear a heart attack was near.

  In February of 1942, there was a celebration and my children went to participate. I was home alone.

 Suddenly the door opened and my youngest son appeared, his face as white as snow, he was trembling.

I said, "My Jakob, what brings you home so early?" He hesitated and said, "A messenger has come and I will have to go far, far away. I do not know where. It is so hard for me because I am so young. '' [He was 17 and was sent to work in the coal mines]. I wept bitterly and sobbed, "The burden is too hard." I sought and found comfort in God.

Barely a month had passed, and then they demanded my oldest son. I thought my heart would break, but he said, "Mama, don't take it so hard. It will not be long and we both will come back." So I waited and anticipated but more pain was to come.

In the winter of 1943, in February, I was summoned to report to work in the city and leave my two young daughters alone. Then I did not know how I could leave them because they were so young.

This turned out to be my salvation; I was allowed to stay with them. However it only lasted until June of 1943. Then both my sixteen-year-old daughter and I received an order to report for duty in the "work army." That was painful because Tina was yet so small.

We reported to the city from where I was allowed to return. That was God's grace. But my Lena, 16, had to go into the wide world alone. "Dear child, seek
strength and comfort from God, He has not forsaken us. ''

Lena then told me, "These were the last words I ever heard from my mother, and I have never forgotten them. We were separated from each other. For how long no one knew then, but we never saw each other again. Our dearly loved mother died in 1945. When the war had finally ended, she was full of joy, her children would return. But the joy was too much for her. She suffered heart failure and God took her home to heaven."
This writing was given to me by Lena, the only one of my brother's family who was alive at the time of my visit in 1991. Both of his sons were gone by the time of this visit. Each was survived by five children.
Stroll about Tabune

Lena and one of her daughters walked with me to the various homes where her brothers' children lived, all in the village of Tabune. Along the way, we went to the grocery store, which was rather meagerly stocked. Many shelves were bare; there were a few loaves of bread on one shelf and some preserves on another. We were told that the bread shelf had been full that morning, but now, before noon, it was almost gone. At the general store we found a few caps and a few jackets, but that was about it. We met the storekeepers, who were using an abacus to calculate their finances. I remarked that I liked their computer. They knew the term, but said, "This is not a computer."

I said, "That is what the word means, "to compute," and that is what you are doing."

On the street, we met two ladies. My niece said, "I would like for you to meet our school teachers." We stopped and conversed a bit. One of them spoke German and we related a little bit of who we were, where we were from, what we were doing, and so on. I remarked that they were dressed well. She replied that they did not have presentable casual clothes like we have. I was wearing a sports warm-up jacket at the time, and she said, "That must be very comfortable, but we always have to wear our best when we go out."
No Calls to the USA

That afternoon it was my time again to go back to the village of Grischkovka. A local Mennonite group that usually met on Saturdays for worship had arranged to hold their service on Thursday because I was there, and they wanted me to bring a message from the Word of God. Paul and Lena's son, Victor, and his wife Katja, took us by car back to Grischkovka.

Heinrich Wahl was waiting for us. He had brought a telegram from my son, Paul, in southern California directing me to call him immediately, or call the American Embassy in Moscow or Leningrad. We had tried more than once to call home before that, but there was no way to get through.

When I tried to call my wife on Tuesday, they had told me they would put the call through on Thursday at six o'clock in the evening. There was no way to get through quickly.

I called the American Embassy in Moscow and they said, "It's after five o'clock and the right people aren't here. Call back in the morning." I called back the next morning and told them that we could not make connections with our families at home, and we wanted to let them know that we were well and safe.

People in the United States did not know whether there was a war raging throughout the nation or not. Also, unknown to us, Americans had been ordered to leave the country. But all was calm where we were.
The Embassy staff said, "You can just go into the hotel and call directly."
I asked, "Which hotel are you talking about?"
"Well," they said, "aren't you in Moscow?"
 "No, we're out in Siberia."
They said the order for Americans to leave had been rescinded since calm was returning to the country. We didn't even know that there had been an order for  the Americans to go home. We were safe and enjoying ourselves.

I told the American Embassy this and asked them to convey the message to our families that we were well. They promised they would try to do that, although they never got through.

The whole thing was very intriguing. Here I was, in a moment of revolution, almost at the very same spot where I had been as a little boy during the first revolution when communism took over in 1917-1919. So I was there at the beginning of communism in Russia, and I was there to see its collapse.

Sharing God's Word in German

Also, that evening, my nephew Jakob Block's wife and their two children had come from Barnaul by train, and I had time to meet with them and get acquainted. My nephew's wife was a lovely person. They have two lovely children with interesting names. In Russian, you can use some names for females as well as males by changing the ending of the word. So Jakob and Elena's children's names are Valentin—that's the son's name, and lexandra is his daughter's name. Changing the ending changes the meaning of the name.

These were very beautiful and very intelligent children. The daughter was seven years old and the son was five. They were very polite and interesting. Their mother, Elena, expressed warm appreciation for the gifts I had brought.
The service that evening at the house was full of people. Many were widows whose husbands had been liquidated as my brother had been during the same era. They had a lively song service both in German and in Russian. I enjoyed bringing a message in German, which I had not done in many years. The people were very appreciative of the message on 1 John 1. They carry on with a lay minister serving them.

Testifying on Television

After the service, Victor and Katja took us back to Paul and Lena's house. There we found a message that a journalist had called and wanted to interview me for the Barnaul radio and television station. She left a message that she would try again.

The next day the lady came and interviewed me. She assured me that I could speak freely. I could tell about our flight from Russia and what we were doing now, even though I did not need to go into detail if I didn't feel comfortable. She assured me that they really had freedom of speech now.

It was my pleasure to tell them how we had left the Soviet Union and went into China in 1929; how we had reached America and how God had blessed us in our adopted homeland. I was happy to be able to give a testimony of God's leading in our lives.

Lena's Family

It was a joy to meet again with some members of Lena's family and get acquainted with them individually. Elvira works in the hospital and speaks good German. Victor, who took us by car wherever we went, also speaks good German. He and his wife, Katja, and their two children moved to Germany early in 1995. Katja is Russian and is now studying German. The various other children came: Emma and her husband, Elvira and her husband, and Paul and his wife, Tamara. These were Lena's children.

Their oldest son, Alexander, is in the military, stationed near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again). So I asked whether it would be possible to see him when we went to Leningrad. They had already telephoned him to say that I was coming there. They gave me his address and asked me to send him a telegram when I got to Leningrad; he would come and see me in a hotel.

All of the family came together to say farewell, even though it was mid-afternoon. Some even took time off from work. Victor and Katja were again on hand to take me back to Grischkovka, back to the Friesens where I had been the first evening. As the members of that family came together again, each one brought something as a souvenir. Also that evening I met the two children of my brother's daughter, Tina. She had died earlier.

How short our stay seemed! How fulfilling to meet as a whole family and experience our bonds of family and faith. It is moving to see how God has sustained them through all the years of our absence. It had been 62 years since we left, and all of these were born since then. It was a great opportunity and a gift from the Lord to meet them.

The next morning we said farewell to Lena and Paul, and Victor and Katja, who had stayed for the night. We gathered in a circle, prayed, and said goodbye. Two of Elizabeth's sisters had also come from other villages to say farewell. They presented me with souvenirs, many mementos of love. From the family, I received a shiny decorated brass "Samovar." It's an historic Russian utensil, a self-cooker that the peasants used to fire up with chips of wood to make hot water for tea when visitors arrived. This one was electric.

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