In this story, I give tribute to a courageous woman who loved against all odds, as my father recounts some experiences with her in the 1930s Soviet Union.
My aunt Aganete Graewe was a strong, independent woman who had bad luck with men. Her first husband died of a snake bite early on (also called Peter Plett, my dad’s brother). Then her second husband, after nearly twenty years together, was taken away by the Russians. Franz Klassen was one of the many political prisoners in Kherson prison who were arrested on false charges in Stalin’s reign of terror.
Aganete took me to see Franz. It was the second time that we travelled together. When I was about ten years old, she asked me if I’d like to join her.
“Going where?” I asked.
“To Kherson, where my son Peter is working. You can help me carry the goods to market.” I was thrilled! No one else I knew had taken the train. Who had money for excursions? Our lives were work and more work on the collective farm. I would get to see the port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine.
It was fascinating watching the bustling activity at the Kherson bazaar. I had never seen such a variety of food, clothing and small furnishings that were for sale in the open air market. My aunt had her own stall where she sold eggs, meat, cheese and butter from people in our village, who paid her expenses. She spoke Russian very well, and went regularly to the market, usually alone. We brought back fabric, and I helped with the heavier loads.
We stayed overnight in a hotel where Agenete's son Peter had rented a room. That was the first time I saw a flushing toilet. There was a row of four or five of them, with no privacy screens between them. No separation between men and women. I didn’t know what the chain was for, and jumped when water rushed down the drain after I pulled it! We didn’t have running water in the village, and everyone had outhouses.
About a year later, we travelled back to Kherson to see Aganete’s second husband, Franz Klassen. The guards brought him to the prison gate for our visit. There were steel bars between us. They gave us very little time before taking him away again, but my aunt was able to give him some food and they shared a few words.
From the prison, we walked past the port where big ships were docked. I watched as slaves like my father loaded lumber (he was at the Vladivostok Gulag building the final leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway). About twenty men would carry a giant log onto the ship. I felt sad seeing the cruelty of the guards.
That was the last time that Aganete saw or heard from her husband. She received a notice that he died, so they must have killed him.
But she took a chance on love again, wanting to help a widower’s motherless children. Johann Langemann had three of his own children and many stepchildren in his care. His first two wives, who had both died (Anna Derksen and Sara Pankratz), had also been widows, and had seven children between them from their first marriages. A total of ten children were in Aganete’s new family. Her only son Peter was grown.
But shortly after their marriage in 1937, John was taken away by the Russians. They never heard from him again. Then in 1941, two of her stepsons, Jacob Wiens and Henry Lepp, were also taken away by the Russians.
So much heartbreak! But Aganete opened her heart to ten children in need of a mother, who thrived in her care. She eventually brought all the surviving children to Germany, where I was able to see her.
But that wasn’t Aganete’s last time taking a chance on love. In 1952, she married Gerhard Dueck. He also had children needing a mother! Her sister, my aunt Agathe Graewe, wrote in 1956, “One has to look for a mother like that who takes on children in need.”
Aganete also starred in another powerful moment in my life, at my father’s funeral in 1940. Amazingly he was released early from the Vladivostok Gulag, but was arrested again not long after. Thanks to the testimony of our Russian blacksmith, Ostap Shapovolov, who had been expected to side with the Russians, my father was freed. But the injuries he suffered from torture only allowed him to live for a few months.
The Communists were religious in their pursuit of atheism, such that anyone who sung Christian songs or talked about their faith could be arrested and taken away. We weren’t expecting any music at the graveside. But Aganete began to sing, “Wenn aufsteh’n am glorreichen Morgen” (When on that glorious morning). Everyone joined in and no one was arrested.
I kept an old hymnbook that had the words and music to that powerful song. Despite our grief, our faith lifted us up with the hope of being reunited. The words still ring with the deep emotion of that spring day.
When rising on the glorious morning
1. When on the glorious morning
all the dead, great and small, shall arise
from the sea and graves where they're hidden,
what a morning that will be!
What joy, joy, What angelic song, what rejoicing sound, what
joy that will be! joy that will be!
What joy, joy, What angelic song, what rejoicing sound, what
what joy that will be! joy that will be!
2. Then those who were separated here,
are now forever reunited,
and can be called by name:
Father, Mother, Child and Friend!
3. With a heart already so happy here,
already bursting with joy;
when we meet again, oh how happy
and well we will be in the Father’s house!
- Peter Plett (with Irene Plett, writer)
Hymn: “Wenn aufsteh’n am glorreichen Morgen," by W. Isaiah Baltzell (1832-1893), translated by Irene Plett. Gesangbuch der Mennoniten Brüdergemeinde, The Christian Press Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1952, No. 410.
Topics: Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Mennonites, Stalin's Great Terror, Political prisoners, Gulags, Faith, Love, Loss, Grief
A 1952 hymnbook with the song from Johann Plett's funeral on the left
Aganete and her second husband Franz Klassen on the far right of this 1927 Graewe family photo, taken in Friedensfeld, Sagradovka, South Russia.
In pairs from left to right, my dad explains his relationship to each:
Aunt Maria Graewe and her husband Heinrich Friesen
Aunt Agatha Graewe and her husband Dimitri "Johann" Boleac
Mother Anna Graewe and father Johann Plett
Aunt Katherine "Katya" Graewe and Grandmother Anna Thiessen Graewe
Aunt Margarete "Gredel" Graewe and Grandfather Isaak Graewe
Maria Richert and her husband Uncle Isaac Graewe
Aunt Aganete Graewe and her second husband Franz Klassen