Chapter 3: Early Memories

Early Memories
Partings and Goodbyes

One of my earliest memories is my brother Peter leaving for war. In 1917, the Communist Revolution began. The country was engaged in civil war and my older brother was drafted into the Army in 1918. I was not quite five years old when he left. This was in the fall of 1918, just after the old Czar had been overthrown. The revolutionaries had set up a temporary Republic that needed soldiers. Peter's leaving made a deep impression on me.
The new Republic had been immediately attacked by a second revolutionary movement—the Communists. My brother was to go fight on the side of the Republic. They didn't have uniforms, so they simply wore their own clothes. I can remember Mother filling his backpack.
Peter served in the medical corps. The men received a few weeks of training and then were sent directly to the fighting front. Both sides fielded woefully pathetic armies. In time, the Communists' “Red Army” overwhelmed the Republic's “White Army,” leaving Russia in the hands of Lenin and the Marxists.
During this time, it was necessary for Father to take a trip by train to Novosibirsk where Peter was encamped. By the time Father reached Novosibirsk, Peter had been sent to the fighting front, so Father returned on a train that was crowded and disease-infested. I remember how sick my father was when he returned.
In those days, traveling was very difficult and fraught with danger. Contagious diseases were very prevalent, as were body lice. The lice would crawl from one person to another and infect a new host with the diseases of their previous host, and so on.
When Father came home he was running a severe fever. In three days he was dead. (My sister, Anna, who was fifteen at the time, provided these details.) Father had been waiting for his train at the railroad station in Slavgorod just as Mr. Isaak, who later became my stepfather, returned from a trip undertaken as a representative for the village. When he met Father at the station, he said, “Block, don't go—you will never make it. Traveling these days is too difficult”.
But Father was a man of determination (this I can appreciate). He proceeded on, contracting scarlet fever before the end of the journey.
The afternoon he died, I remember my mother came out of their bedroom weeping, and told my older brother Henry, “Go and call Uncle Frank.”(Her brother, Frank Janzen)

Next, I remember the family clearing out the house and disinfecting it. We did not have the disinfectants that we have today, so, after burning sulfur in the room, Mother heated Father's clothes in the large bake-oven that was built into our house. Then Father's bedding was placed in large sacks and buried in the ground and left for a time.

Father's body was washed, wrapped, and placed in the feed barn where it froze and was well preserved for the funeral two or three days later. The young Russian man who worked for us told mother he did not want to go in the barn alone after dark. She asked him why not? He said, “My Xosain (master) is there and I am afraid.” After that, someone always had to accompany him during the late feeding of the livestock.
The funeral was held in a larger house across the street from ours. It was a stormy day in February, 1919. Snow was blowing. Only adults went to go to the cemetery, because of the severe cold. I remember standing at the front room window, wishing I could go…but I had been told that I must stay indoors.

Mother had a hard time alone. She was left with five children. They were Anna, fifteen; Henry, thirteen, Frank, seven; I was five, and Jacob was three. Mother herself was not too well, and Anna took on most of the household duties. (Henry and Frank both died in their youth. Anna Block Rogalsky lived in Reedley, California, until she went to be with the Lord in January, 1990. Jacob and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Dinuba, California.)
Mother was forced to depend on neighbors and friends to take care of the farm. They were helpful but not as careful in the matter of taking care of our farm machinery, which Father had always taken care of very meticulously. Sometimes equipment was returned in not as good a condition as it had been. Mother's difficulty was increased by this carelessness.
News of Peter
Mother was longing to hear from Peter. He had been sent off to the front, that much she knew, but she had not heard from him for a long time. I remember one late winter evening when a neighbor lady (in whose house the village post office was located) knocked on our door and called out for us to open for her. She said she had a letter.
Mother opened it—I can see her trembling now. It was a message from Peter: he was alive, but had been wounded and taken prisoner by the “Red Army” (Communists) and placed in a hospital. His injury was not too serious, a leg wound. After a time he was given furlough, but since home was too far away, he had stayed with relatives in that region.
How I Began School
I had been hoping to start school the following September, but, because I would not be seven until November, there was a question of whether I could join the class. In the evening after the first day of school, there was a regular meeting of the village heads of families. Since women did not go to these meetings, my Uncle Frank represented Mother and went to plead my case. Late in the evening, he informed Mother that I could go to school in the morning.

Thus I started school one day late. This meant that I had to take the lowest seat in the class. We all sat on long benches attached to a long table. The first arrival took the seat next to the aisle, and so on. I had to sit clear at the other end, next to the wall—the last of seven, or, perhaps, nine boys, with a row of girls in front of us. The seating was used as an awards system. At certain times, when a child had done well in his studies, he could move one or more places “up” toward the aisle. By the end of the first grade, I had the good fortune to be the second boy from the aisle.
Coping and Keeping Warm
These were trying times for the whole country. Many people came from other places, begging for food. Even some of the people in our village did not have enough to eat. Yet, as far as I remember, we always had enough food.

Clothing was very difficult to come by. I remember Mother cutting up canvases that had been used on the self-binder for harvesting. There wasn't any twine available to use on the binder anyway, so, out of desperation, she used some of the canvases to make clothes for the children. Some people doubted whether there would ever be twine available again, or whether normal life would ever return. Some converted their self-binders to simple mowing machines.

One of the major sources of heating fuel was animal waste. During the long winter, all of the barnyard manure was placed on a pile in the yard where it was allowed to decompose until spring.

After spring seeding time, this manure was processed. It was thoroughly mixed with water and spread out on the threshing floor. Horses were ridden around in it until it became a smooth paste. The top of the layer was leveled off with a harrow, then it was allowed to dry for about two weeks. Before it was thoroughly dry, it was cut into bricks. These were set on edge to complete the drying process. The dried bricks were stacked in a shelter to be used in winter.
This was a good source of clean, odorless heating fuel. Fire was started with a small amount of wood. Then a manure brick was broken up and pieces were piled in the furnace.

Necessity certainly is the mother of invention, as this effective adaptation proves.
In the last years, they had a machine that would process the raw manure and press the material out in square “logs”. These were then cut into the desired length, about 10 inches. As the decomposed manure came out neatly from the machine and cut, the bricks were slipped onto a board sled drawn by one horse ridden by a boy. They were hauled to a drying place in the yard, where they dried in the usual manner.
Lamps for light during the long winter evenings were homemade. They burned animal fat that was processed when the animals were slaughtered for food. This practice, among other developments, came after the Communist Revolution. Before that, kerosene lamps were used.
Peter Comes Home!
Mother was anxious for Peter to come home. The following summer, her dream came true. My brother Frank and I were outside in the yard, playing in the stock-watering trough in our birthday suits.
A buggy with two men came into the yard. They were strangers, we thought, yet one of them got out of the buggy and came directly to us. We didn't know him so we ran away, but he called to us. Soon we embraced our brother, Peter, whom we had not seen for more than two years.
When his furlough had ended and it was time for him to report back to the Communist authorities, he decided not to go back. He was fairly confident that they had no records of him. He knew that their record system was a complete mess, so he decided to just stay home and see what would happen.

Indeed, his hunch proved correct. They never called him back into service and probably didn't care.
After the next harvest, the farmers were ordered to deliver all of their grain harvest to the public granaries in the city. Many young men were drafted to work at those granaries, as receivers for the grain.

All grain was handled and hauled in sacks. Peter, who had a good elementary education, was one of those assigned work as a grain receiver.  During deliveries, there were long lines of wagons or sleighs, so that it often took all day to get unloaded. Some farmers presented the receiver with a ham or other foodstuffs so they would be sent to another door or some place where they could get unloaded faster.
The farmers were not allowed to keep any grain for themselves; the new government paid for the grain with devaluated money. People carried money around in bags because it took so much to buy anything. A loaf of bread cost thousands of rubles.

Though the money was practically worthless, the grain still had to be delivered. Most farmers managed to keep some for their own food, sometimes at great risk to themselves for doing so.

Since the city was only about twenty to thirty miles away, Peter was able to come home for brief visits on weekends and certain other occasions. We were getting along as far as food was concerned, but clothing was still scarce. Sometimes Peter would manage to bring home a new gunnysack or two, from which mother made clothing. This all may sound quite trivial, but it was very important in our lives. I remember how proud I was in a new shirt made out of a new gunnysack.

About three and a half years after my father's death, Mother remarried. Economically things were much better, even though in cities it was far from good. The fortunate people were the ones living in rural farming areas, like us, raising their own food. They would always get along a little better than people living in cities. Of course we didn't need any utilities such as electricity, indoor plumbing, or gas. We had our own wells for water. Wood and other material for fuel were readily available.

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