Brothers Rudolf, Jakob and Peter Plett are reunited, ca. 1992
My uncle Rudolf Plett was a child survivor of a Soviet slave labour camp. His story follows.
British historian Norman Davies writes, “Work was essential to the Gulag concept. Even so, the reality was such that as often as not guests of the Great White Bear would perish, and perish in extreme distress. The harshness of the Arctic climate, the starvation levels of the diet, the length of the sentences, the punitive character of the work norms, the routine brutality and depravity of the guards, the absence of proper medical care or of adequate heating and clothing, and the lack of hope inevitably produced a devastating mortality rate.” (p. 10 in Thomasz Kizny, Gulag, Richmond Hill, Ont. and Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2004, with remarkable photos of the Gulag taken secretly.)
It’s amazing that anyone survived.
For years, my father, Peter Plett, had no idea whether his siblings were alive. Families of many Mennonites were torn apart after the war. Some found new homes in Canada, Paraguay, or Germany. Others in Russian-controlled zones became prisoners of the Soviet Gulag, their whereabouts unknown.
Then the gift of a lifetime: a letter from Jakob. Dad tells a fascinating story of how Jakob received our Vancouver address from a Russian officer! After that my father could provide essential support to help his brothers and their families survive. Their eventual reunion in Germany brought great joy.
In 2001, Uncle Rudy visited Canada with his son Oleg. My father took me, Uncle Rudy and Oleg to Vancouver Island, where we visited beautiful Butchart Gardens. The brothers laughingly posed on animal sculptures for my photos and showed their genuine joy in being together.
Writing Rudolf’s story began with a bio from his Nov. 2022 funeral, provided by my cousin Jakob Plett. I added information from my research and my uncle Jakob Plett’s accounts, Fleeing to Germany in 1943 and Life in a Gulag. My father told me Rudolf’s description of his attempts to escape. Rudolf’s son Andreas provided helpful documents and photos.
I was touched when Andreas shared how my family history story, “Meet the Teskes,” helped him to find a grave site for his father.
“On Nov. 15, I was at the cemetery, and searched for hours for the place for the grave. I was very sad and troubled that day.
“The next day, I had an appointment with the gardener/administrator of the cemetery. Before I came, I asked God to help me and show me which place is designated. He led me directly to the place where the grave is now. I saw the neighbour’s grave (Gerhard Teske) and it was clear to me that it should be here. I remembered that the Teske family is related, because Katharina Teske is my father's grandmother. Or God has given this memory of the Teske family. God thus answered my prayer and I thank God for it. God's ways are incomprehensible, but afterwards understandable and clear how God has led and helped us.”
- Irene Plett
Rudolf Plett was born on June 10, 1939, in Neu-Schönsee, in the Nikolayev region of South Russia (now Oserivka, Mykolaiv, Ukraine). He and his twin sister Neta were the last of nine children of Johann Heinrich Plett and Anna Graewe Plett. He never knew his sister, Tina, who had died in childhood.
The beautiful Mennonite settlements that began in Russia 150 years before he was born were under attack after the 1917 revolution. Once owning a prosperous farm with a general store in Volodyevka, Trubotskoye, Rudolf’s family was dispossessed. This is how they landed in the village where Rudolf was born, and the tiny home built with handmade bricks. The promise of religious freedom became a memory, as churches were turned into granaries.
The Mennonites were also targeted for their German heritage. They proudly recalled their arrival from Prussia, and before that the Netherlands. They spoke Low German (Plattdeutsch) at home, and high German formally or in writing. Although they often learned the languages of their neighbours, the Mennonites liked to live in close-knit communities where they could support each other as they tried to follow the faith of martyrs.
The terror grew in the late 1930s, when many men were arbitrarily taken from their families, arrested on false pretenses and often executed. Most never returned. Rudolf and his sister might never have been born.
It was a joyful reunion when his father Johann returned early from his first stint as a political prisoner. He had been sent to a forced labour camp in Vladivostok, on the east coast near China, where he worked on the final leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
But Rudolf lost his father before his first birthday. Johann was arrested again soon after his return. He was freed thanks to the testimony of the local Russian blacksmith, Ostap Shapavolov. But his health was poor after beatings and torture endured in the imprisonment, and on March 23, 1940, Johann died several months after his release.
Rudolf’s mother Anna was now a single parent of 8 children. Her trust in God and her persistent prayer carried Rudolf through all the difficult times of his life.
When Rudolf was 4 years old, his family had to flee Russia. On Oct. 30, 1943, they left everything behind and fled to German-occupied Poland. They travelled slowly in a horse-drawn covered wagon train with the other villagers. His older siblings, Heinrich (age 19), Peter (17) and Anna (15), walked alongside the wagon that carried their mother (47), Jakob (9), and Rudolf and Neta (4). The oldest brothers, Hans and Isaak, were then serving in the German military.
At the Polish border, the refugees left their horse and wagon and many possessions when they embarked on a train. They were crammed into cattle cars until Konin, where they were naturalized as German citizens.
At the nearby village of Kramsk, they were told to take a farm away from its current occupants. But his mother refused to cause a family to lose its home; an outbuilding there would be enough.
Two more brothers, Heinrich and Peter, were conscripted in Poland. The changing front lines meant that they again had to leave everything behind and flee. The Polish farm they came to had a room with bunk beds and straw-filled mattresses, but no blanket or pillow, and meagre food.
In October 1944, they moved to Jena, Thuringia, Germany, where his mother’s sister, Agathe Graewe Boleac, was living. The Pletts (mother and 4 youngest children) joined the Boleacs and their 5 youngest children at 17 Wagnergasse.
To escape nightly bombings, one of which nearly killed his uncle Boleac, they moved to the nearby village of Krippendorf. They stayed in a summer house of Ewald Moehrl’s family, who enjoyed their beautiful singing. Rudolf’s mother, who played guitar, made sure the windows were open to share the message of the spiritual songs.
His brother Isaak died at the front in 1945; they last heard from him when he was serving in Budapest, Hungary. Peter emigrated to Canada after his release from American captivity; Rudolf wouldn’t see him until decades later. Heinrich was captured by the Russians and never regained his freedom. Here a reunion was no longer possible, although Jakob was able to visit him once.
Only his oldest brother, Hans, could rejoin his mother and siblings after the war, which was a great help to them. He had been immediately released after being captured by the British.
Family in Poland, 1944, L-R from top:
Heinrich, uncle Boleac, Peter, mother Anna, Anna, Rudolf, Jakob, Neta.
Rudolf was 6 years old in August 1945, when his family was deported back to Russia. After the war, the Soviets now controlled what became East Germany, and punished all Russians of German heritage. Joining him were his mother Anna (now nearly 49 years old) and siblings Hans (nearly 26), Anna (17), Jakob (10), and Neta (6).
They were told they would be going “home,” but Hans had learned otherwise. He could have escaped that fate, but knowing that his mother and young siblings would not survive without him, he tore up his false identity papers and joined them.
Hundreds of Russian-born detainees first assembled in a camp in Jena. They were shipped by train, and finally in cattle cars, disembarking gradually to various remote sites for their next chapter. For many, it would be their last. The Pletts found themselves in remote northwest Russia at a place called “Kilometer 15.” The closest town was Kharovsk, Vologda, 70 km away.
Their new home consisted of rough, crowded barracks in the forest, part of a massive system of slave labour camps known as the Soviet Gulag. Those of working age were forced to toil every day in all weather, merely to earn the family’s poor food rations of bread and a daily packet of dry soup. Workers not meeting their required quota received only bread. When workers were sick, rations dropped by half. Clothing was inadequate, especially for the harsh winters. Many in the camp died, especially when typhoid disease broke out, but the family was spared that time. Only 3 of 5 barracks remained with survivors.
They had to move again, deeper into the forest, into an even less populated area. Like other residents, they had traded the few things they had brought with them from Germany for bread and potatoes in the surrounding villages, until nothing was left to trade.
But Rudolf’s mother Anna refused to sell her guitar for food. She woke the children every morning with her singing. She explained, “a verse in the Bible says that man does not live from bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God. These songs are spiritual songs that comfort me and give me courage.”
But before 2 years had passed, in March 1947, his mother died of starvation at age 50. His brother Jakob recalled her last words: “I have to die now. Goodbye. I ask just one thing. Please don't leave Rudy and Neta alone.”
But unable to care for the 7-year old twins while he and Anna were forced to work, Hans took Rudolf and Neta to a barrack for orphans. Jakob, then only 12, managed to avoid that fate.
Eight years in the Soviet orphanage brought further suffering. Rudolf and his sister were separated and mistreated for their heritage. They were punished for speaking German. Rudolf had to kneel in a corner on steel ball bearings for an hour at a time. There was never enough food to eat.
Under these conditions, Rudolf forgot the living faith of his mother. The Lord, however, never forgot him.
He tried to run away. Once when he and Neta fled into the forest, someone saw them and brought them back.
They fled again after the house mother, if we can call her that, took away Rudolf’s winter clothes and gave them to her own son. Rudolf had only rubber boots for footwear. They hid under a large tree stump in the forest, waiting to die.
A man hunting for rabbits saw movement and was about to shoot, until he saw that the rabbit was a child. Rudolf was unable to speak to the man and his feet were frozen. The hunter brought them home for the night. When his wife asked why they had run away, Rudolf explained about the loss of his winter clothes.
In the morning, it was back to the orphanage, but the hunter reported what had happened to the authorities. The “house mother” had to return Rudolf’s boots and coat and was fired.
In the meantime, his siblings soldiered on with their punishing work. But in 1949, Hans was wrongly accused and sentenced to 25 years in Vorkuta, where multiple coal mine slave labour camps operated in Russia’s far north.
In 1951, his sister Anna died of a lung condition at age 23 in Kharovsk, Vologda. She had finally seen a doctor there after the disease had become too advanced. Rudolf and Neta could not say a final goodbye. Jakob alone was tasked with digging Anna’s grave in Kharovsk.
In 1955, conditions for Russians of German heritage began to improve. An amnesty decree on Sept. 17 freed many who had been accused of collaborating with war-time occupiers, and reduced the sentences of others. A further decree on Dec. 13 finally allowed the Russian Germans to move freely within Russia — except not back home. Leaving the country was not allowed for many more years.
These changes saw Hans released from Vorkuta and returning to Vologda in 1955. Rudolf and Neta could now, at age 15, leave the orphanage and move in with Jakob.
The following year, although malnourished, thin and small, Rudolf had to begin earning his living in the forestry service at the age of 16.
Rudolf performs mandatory military service in Russia, ca. 1964
His brother Jakob, who had married in the meantime, decided in March 1957 to move to Kaskelen near Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, and took his siblings Rudolf and Neta with him. Rudolf was 18 years old when they left Vologda.
In the new homeland, he lived with his brother Jakob. After briefly working at a fruit tree nursery, the Chemalgan collective farm, he laboured for various Soviet construction departments.
Spiritually, Rudolf experienced great blessings during this time. Here, at the age of 19, he found living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. One year later he was baptized and became a member of the church in Kaskelen.
Unfortunately, his beloved twin sister Neta died in 1961 at age 24 as a result of a severe lung disease.
Before he was called up for military service in 1964, Rudolf married his first wife Elsa. They were married for 7 years. Nearly three years away in the military took its toll on the marriage. The circumstances of the separation and the conditions in the Soviet army shook his life of faith, so that he drifted away from God.
In 1968, he moved to the city of Karaganda, Kazakhstan. There he learned the vocation of a construction vehicle driver, and added to his qualifications as a plasterer/painter, a trade which he practiced with great enthusiasm.
It was in this activity that he met his present wife Tatyana, who was also a plasterer. They married in Karaganda in 1970. Tatyana brought their son Oleg into the marriage, whom Rudolf adopted and lovingly cared for. Two more children were born of the marriage, Lena and Andreas, which greatly pleased Rudolf.
The relationship with his brothers Hans and Jakob was very important to him. He liked to visit them and enjoyed fellowship with his sisters-in-law Hilda and Emma over good food, spiritual songs, and heartfelt conversation. His nieces and nephews greatly appreciated his fun-loving and grateful nature and affectionately called him simply “Дядя” (uncle). This cordial relationship remained until the end.
In December 1991, Rudolf and his family left for Germany and settled in Heubach, where many of his relatives lived. His brother Jakob had moved there with his family ten years prior.
When his brother Peter visited Germany from Canada in 1992, Jakob had to translate their conversations. During his stay in the orphanage, Rudolf almost completely forgot the German language, while Peter spoke very little Russian. English was not an option! But their joy in being reunited was palpable.
Thanks to the grace of God, Rudolf was allowed to find faith in the Lord Jesus Christ again. He was a member of the Schwäbisch Gmünd Hussenhofen congregation until his death and remained faithful to God. He devotedly used his gift as a plasterer in the construction of the church building, and also helped many people with bricklaying, plastering and painting.
As a result of malnutrition, Rudolf suffered from stomach problems throughout his life. In 1987, during a visit to his niece Ira Minderlen (née Plett) in Kaliningrad, he had life-threatening stomach bleeding and had to undergo emergency surgery. Thanks to God's grace and the loving care of his niece, he slowly regained his strength. However, after that, his quality of life was very impaired with a quarter stomach remaining.
In 2014, Rudolf was diagnosed with stomach cancer. God prolonged his life once again. After the therapy he was able to recover quickly.
Despite his difficult life and health problems, Rudolf went through everyday life with cheerful courage. As a result, he was appreciated and liked by others. His attention was focused on the well-being of his family in addition to his passionate gardening. He was particularly proud of his grandchildren. He was happy about their visits or calls and gladly took the long way to see them in Paderborn and in Canada. His great wish and prayer was that everyone in his family would find living faith in the Lord Jesus!
In 2017, his wife developed dementia and required care. Rudolf cared for her with love and devotion. Her progressive illness took a toll on his strength and health. With a heavy heart, he had to give up his Tanya, whom he affectionately called "Kukla" (doll), to a nursing home.
In February 2022, his son Andreas and his wife Angelika brought Rudolf to live with them in Paderborn, and then arranged a place for both parents in a nursing home very close to them. Here it was apparent that Rudolf’s condition was worsening due to his colon cancer. Andreas and Angelika lovingly cared for him until the end.
During a last visit with his nieces and nephews in the hospital, he spoke with confidence about the forgiveness of his sins and his being a child of God. He was looking forward to soon meeting his Saviour and his loved ones who had gone before him.
On Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, he went home in silence to his Saviour in eternity. Rudolf Plett was 83 years, 5 months and 3 days old.
He leaves behind his wife Tanya in Paderborn; his brother Peter in Surrey, B.C.; 3 children with spouses: Oleg (Lubov) in Abbotsford, B.C.; Lena (Boris) Magomedov in Vienna, Austria; Andreas (Angelika) in Paderborn, Germany; and 5 grandchildren: Jenny, Enrico, Raphael, Daniel, and Naemi-Rose.
Jesus says: Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die.
Rudolf plasters the Schwäbisch-Gmünd Hussenhofen church, Germany
Tatyana and Rudolf
A portrait of his father, Johann Heinrich Plett, is on the wall next to Rudolf
Rudolf and Tatyana