Jasch Biography Letter
Maria Biography Letter
Lena Biography Letter
Liese Biography Letter
Tina Biography Letter
Jasch, Maria and their six children lived on a quiet street in the small village of Altonau, in the larger Mennonite colony of Sagradowka. Altonau is a tree-lined village near the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine. The Ingultez River flows nearby. A large Cossack mound at the end of the central street is a reminder of previous inhabitants. The grassy mound provides an all-season playground for the children. Watermelon, fruit trees and agricultural crops thrive in the fertile soil. Friends, siblings, cousins, and grandparents in surrounding villages share meals and good times. The family works on their small farm, worships in the nearby church, and the children attend the local school.
However, in 1929, everything changes. They know they must leave. Jasch's sister Liese and her husband Franz Bargen leave quickly in the middle of the night. Jasch and Maria hesitate. Frail aging parents cannot be left behind. Twelve hours later the family pack their belongings and prepare to leave for Canada. They are too late. The border has been closed. Armed guards prevent their departure. Jasch is immediately arrested for attempting to leave. He is held in a local prison cell for eight months.
Maria and the children are homeless. They are now enemies of the new Marxist state. Labeled as kulaks, they are stripped of their citizenship, home, belongings and property. They wander from place to place – it is illegal to house kulaks. Eight months later, (June 6, 1931) the entire family – parents and children (the oldest 17 and youngest three years) are arrested. With only a few hours notice, Maria packs a handmade wooden trunk. Only one pillow and blanket for two people, several spoons, forks, cups, bowls and some clothing are permitted.
Packed into a granary with other prisoners for three days and nights, the family is reunited with Jasch. His sixteen-year old brother Aaron joins them, arrested in place of his frail father. All are herded into cattle cars at the railway station. For nine days, with sitting-room only, no toilet, no washing water, and a daily ration of thin soup, the train rolls north. It stops in a prison camp in the northern Ural Mountains. The entire family is caught in a prison system of unparalleled size and brutality.
A space five feet by five feet in a three-story barrack becomes their home – the wooden travel trunk their only possession. Sound travels freely between thin walls. Bed bugs and lice are their companions. From floor to ceiling, sleeping platforms crowd the perimeter of their room. For a ration of bread, Maria, her husband and children work in Stalin's industrial sites: forests, mines, railroads and smelters. Work dominates their lives. The oldest children, Liese (17) and Peter (15), are sent on a three days' journey to cut timber. They are wet day and night. With no change of clothes and no shoes, they use leaves, bark and rags. Daughter Mariechen (13) works in an unknown location, and "has not come home" for five days. Tina (12) walks five kilometers every day to shovel slag in an iron-ore smelter. Father Jasch watches his children "stagger through snow up to their bellies -- and so they must walk 5 km. and then work a 10 hour shift without pay."
Pleas for food begin in the first letter from father Jasch. Letters and packages from Altonau and from Canada arrive in the prison camp. The trickle of aid is hardly sufficient to keep the starving prisoners alive. Powdered milk, salt, barley and sometimes dried beans arrive in parcels. As days stretch into years, hope for freedom wanes. Jasch and son Peter do not survive. Maria and the remaining children struggle against disease, starvation and brutality. Yet somehow they survive.
Finally, in 1956, they are freed from the prison camp in the Gulag. But this is not liberty. They are forbidden to return to their former home; forbidden to leave Russia; and prohibited from practicing their religion. With no possessions and no employable skills, Maria and her surviving children begin a new life, first in the Urals, and eventually in Tokmak, Kyrgyzstan (near China). They work to obtain a cow, some chickens, and a small garden. But their former home on the tree-lined street in Altonau is now a shrouded memory.