Chapter 4: Our New Family

Our New Family
New Town and School
When Mother married Mr. Peter Isaac in the summer of 1922, we moved to his village, into his house. Mr. Isaak's children were all grown, though Henry, 18, and Margaret, 16, were still living at home. My older brother, Henry, had been sick for several months with tuberculosis. About eight days after mother's remarriage to Mr. Isaak, he died, never having had the chance to know life in the newly organized family.

The rest of us (three brothers: Frank, Jacob, myself, and our sister, Anna, 19) moved to the new village named Petrovka. Peter had married his boyhood sweetheart, Neta, and they stayed in the family house for a while, until they bought their own.

For us boys, this move naturally meant a new school—one large room in which one teacher taught six grades. We sat at long tables with a bench attached. There was a shelf under the table to place our materials. We mostly wrote on slate boards or some newsprint-grade paper. Paper was very scarce and our paper was used over and over again, at least two or three times, by erasing earlier writing. Chalk was scarce, too. We burned chicken bones to the right texture, until they turned a light gray color and used them as substitutes. Few erasers were available, mostly what older siblings had left over from before the revolution. Also, sometimes we were able to get some off of rubber tires.

Moving like this was a good experience, but, yes, it was a little difficult for our young lives to be changing that much.
My brother, Frank

Some three years later, while we were living in Petrovka, my brother Frank got sick, so seriously ill that people didn't think he was going to live. But I never gave up hope. I just knew he was going to live. Then one day Mother told me to wear some of his clothes.

Frank and I were very close; we were almost the same size even though he was two and a half years older. He was small for his age and I was tall for my age. We spent so much time together in most of our activities that many people thought we were twins.
When Mother told me to wear some of his clothes, I said, “No, Mom, I don't want to wear his clothes! When he gets well, he'll need them.”

 She replied, “If he gets well, I'll make him some new clothes.”

“But,” I said, “you may not have time to make clothes for him.”
She replied, “If he gets well so quickly that I can't make clothes for him, then he'll just sit in his pajamas for a day while I sew. Now you just go and wear these.”

I was overruled. I especially remember another evening during his sickness. When some people came to sing for him, they also spoke with him about the Lord Jesus Christ, and he accepted the Lord as his Savior. Not much was said about this in our home, so I did not know right away what had happened. All that I knew was that something great had happened. Later on, of course, I found out.

I had no concept of what it meant to receive Jesus as Savior, but afterward Frank expressed that he was ready to go be with Jesus and to be delivered out of his sickness. There was a reason for not speaking much on the subject. It was generally considered to be arrogant to say one was saved; no one could know until Judgment Day, when it would be revealed who was saved or lost.

This was not true of Mennonite Brethren; they believed one could know, and it was some of them who had come to bring the message to Frank.

Not long after this, it was given to me to be the bearer of the bad news. My stepfather was in the field several miles from home when Mother told me to go and ask Dad to come home. It appeared Frank was dying.

He did die that day, and his body was placed in a trench where the soil was moist to keep it cool. Funeral arrangements were made for a service to be held two days later.

Because of our closeness, Frank's death was a very traumatic experience for me. He was thirteen and I was eleven. Eventually, though, I did learn to live without him. Life goes on.

Summer Toil

I went to school like the other boys did, and of, course, I worked during the summer, which helped to overcome my loss. The work of boys in the fields was mostly riding horses. It was fun at the beginning, but got pretty old when we had to do it all day, day after day.

For harrowing in the field we used two horses; we rode on one, with another next to it. When we plowed, we used four to six horses. A team of five consisted of two in front of the plow and three others slightly ahead of the two, so we rode on one of the side-by-side pair, guiding the three in front. They were connected to the plow by a long chain that ran between the two back horses. As we guided them, we also had to make sure that they pulled as evenly as possible, if one was slower; it had to be driven on. This was hard work for boys that were between nine and fifteen years old.

Even so, we were always glad for the school year to end, for being out in the open was more fun than sitting in class. Sometimes kids quit before the term ended. A good excuse, of course, was that they were needed on the farm to help with spring work. Being like other kids, I would have liked that, too, but it never worked at our house. Our parents would not allow it.
The Village Creamery

My older sister, Anna, married Henry Rogalsky. The first winter they lived with his parents in another village; later they moved back to Petrovka, bought a farm and began to work it. Three of their children were born there: Katherine, Helen, and Anna.

A creamery was opened in our village. Butter was shipped in small barrels and my brother-in-law, Henry Rogalsky, who was gifted in making handicrafts from wood, was challenged to learn the trade of making barrels. He accepted and became the official cooper for the creamery.

Since storing butter and other dairy products requires refrigeration, an ice cellar was built. It was dug into the earth with the roof rising about two feet above the ground. The roof was covered with a thick layer of dirt, so heat would not penetrate. During the winter, blocks of ice up to five feet thick were broken loose from a nearby man-made lake along the local creek. The lake was formed by plugging up the creek with an earthen dam.

The ice was hauled on sleighs to the cellar where a crew of men with sledgehammers broke the ice up into small blocks. When the cellar was full, the ice was covered with clean straw to retard melting. In summer, this ice was used as needed for cooling and lasted all through the hot months. Next winter, the process was repeated and the cellar was again filled up with ice. They were careful not to take any muddy ice, but beyond that I don't believe there was any testing for purity.
Dreams of America

For as long as I could remember, I had heard people talking about going to America, even before Mother's remarriage when we lived in the village of Blumenort. I often heard people claiming that someday we were actually going to be able to go.

When people spoke of America, they generally meant Canada because they were in communication with people there. Rumors and promises seemed to fly around the countryside. I remember, for instance, in 1925 a number of people started getting ready to go to Mexico, and some actually did emigrate there. In 1926 there was a big movement to go to Canada.

I remember one day a man returned to his home. His boys were chopping weeds in their garden, and he told them to quit what they were doing because they would soon be leaving for America. He'd been away somewhere and had picked up a rumor. “Going to America” was the great desire of the Mennonite people all around us. Sad to say, that family never got to leave. Most others didn't get here either.

About that time, a Dr. Neufelt came from Canada to examine our people for eye problems. There was much trachoma, an infectious eye disease that afflicted many of our people to some degree or another. It was known that people with this disease would not be admitted to Canada or the United States. Dr. Neufelt came to treat people so they would qualify for entrance.

When we first arrived in the neighboring village to be checked-out by Dr. Neufelt, huge crowds of people with horses and wagons totally filled the schoolyard where he was conducting examinations. He couldn't check all of us, so we headed back home in the evening, our hopes and aspirations dashed again.

Our parents surmised that we probably wouldn't be able to emigrate anyway. Folks were pretty pessimistic about the chance of being issued exit papers and passports. However, we continued to seek examination.

My sister, Anna, had a very severe case of trachoma. Dr. Neufelt operated on her. Right after Anna's surgery, the Soviet authorities, who were not at all sympathetic to Dr. Neufelt's endeavors, ordered him to leave the country within twenty-four hours. But thanks to the good care of some nurses, Anna came through it all right. Later, when we were in China, several of us had to undergo extensive treatment for the same problem.

Beating the System

Some time later, the government ordered another wheat delivery. All grain had to be surrendered. At threshing time, we boys were told to stay in the house for an hour or so. We didn't know what was happening. But my older brother whispered the secret: “They are shoveling wheat into a hole in the barn floor.”

Sure enough, Father and some other men had secretly dug a pit in the floor of the feed barn and were filling it with wheat. Then they stacked the barn full of straw and chaff, feed for the horses during the wintertime.

It had to be hidden this way for protection against the authorities that might come and search for hidden grain. Burying the wheat made it very difficult for the inspectors to find. Some people just poured wheat into their piles of chaff, but many times they got caught when inspectors poked deeply enough and discovered the grain. Though the government did not demand the wheat for free, the severely devalued money didn't buy anything. Meanwhile, grain was life-sustaining food. People were forced to hide whatever they could. It was a matter of survival.

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