Jakob and Emma Plett in Vancouver in 1983
My uncle Jakob shares about his family’s flight from Russia to Germany in this excerpt from his Life Story.
I grew up in a beautiful village [Neu-Schoensee, Sagradovka]. I can still remember our farm very well. We had a beautiful garden with lots of fruit trees and berry bushes. My mother often warned me and forbade me to climb the tall trees. But the sweet cherries tasted so good that I often disregarded these prohibitions and climbed the trees. But God saved me from falling from the trees.
We had a very good cow at home. She gave a bucket of milk every evening when she came in from the pasture. I was always allowed to walk with my sister Anna to the center of the village, where there was a centrifugal machine that was used to make sour cream. Then I always helped to carry the buckets home.
Most of the time I played on my own at home. I either played in the house or in the yard. In summer, however, when it was warm, I sat behind the house next to a small hedge that provided nice shade. The chickens were there too. I caught a hen because I had nothing to do. When the rooster saw this, he jumped up at me and bit my lip and tore it open. That was it for the rooster. In the evening there was a nice chicken soup. The scar is still visible today.
After that I was afraid to go behind the house. That's why I always went to our neighbors, the Giesbrecht family. I always played with their son Heinrich. But since he was older than me, after a while he didn't want to play with me anymore, so I played with his sister, who was about my age. I often got to eat there when I was hungry. I liked to stay there until evening, when I heard my mother shouting: “Yasch, come home right away and wash up.” I didn't like that at all and called back, "Ach, washing up again!"
Fleeing to Germany in 1943
Now back to 1943 when our mother and six children had to flee to Germany. Our mother got a covered wagon and a horse to pull it. It was a very difficult journey, but we had no other choice. We tied the cow to the back of the wagon, took some hay and food with us and then we started.
Humanly speaking, this trip had no hope of reaching a destination. Nobody would think if they saw us that we wanted to go to Germany. However, there is a verse in the Bible that says, "What is impossible to humans is possible with God."
We arrived with the cow at the city of Vinnytsia, where we had to leave the wagons and cow and continued on the train.
In this way, however, we experienced God's guidance and leading in all things. Before us was our flight, while behind us the war chased us. But through all these adverse circumstances, our praying mother maintained the firm belief that the Lord would not leave his own. My mother kept this firm belief until the end. She often sang the song, "Bravely walk on home."
From Vinnytsia the train went on to Litzmannstadt [now Łódź, Poland]. There was another memorable event on this trip. We travelled all penned up in a cattle car to Litzmannstadt. The train passed over a very wide river. I had never seen anything like it and it was very interesting for me. The bridge we travelled over was a large steel bridge. The moment we were on the bridge, just above the water, the train came to a standstill. Some passengers opened the sliding door of the train a bit to look out. I was also very interested, which is why I was at the door. The moment I looked out, the train jerked off again. As it started up, the sliding door of the train car opened and I would have fallen into the river if a fellow traveler hadn't grabbed and clung to my clothes from behind. So the Lord saved my life even in this situation.
In Litzmannstadt we had to go through a large bathroom and were then given new clothes by the Red Cross because our old clothes were full of lice. We were then taken to Kramsk in the Konin district of Poland. Here we were naturalized as German citizens.
War catches up to us
Then the world war caught up to us. We had to leave everything behind and flee. We came to a Polish farm. There we received accommodation: a room with bunk beds and mattresses filled with straw. There was no blanket and no pillow. We all had to do heavy field work there. Even I, as an eight-year-old boy, had to tear grass out on the field. Our thanks for the hard work was a very poor meal. In this situation our mother called to God and prayed: "Lord help us! Otherwise we will die here."
The next day she went to the Red Cross and asked for permission to travel to the city of Jena in Germany to her sister, Agathe Boljak. We were then allowed to do so.
Now we arrived in Jena. We were two families who got a house together, right in the city of Jena. It was wartime. Air raid sirens were heard in the city every night because the American Air Force was bombing the city. Now our mother also prayed to the Lord and asked for help to escape these nighttime attacks.
We were then allowed to move to Krippendorf, seven kilometers away. Here we were relatively safe from the bombs of the air raids. At night, you could see when the city of Jena was being bombed, down in the valley. Then it seemed like daylight in our quarters.
In April 1945, the Americans took over this part of Germany and also came to Jena and Krippendorf. They then drove through Krippendorf with their tanks and off-road vehicles.
The war was over.
There were no more bombs or shootings. You could go to Jena unhindered, which was not possible before. We then met the Boljak family again.
God also wonderfully preserved this family during the night bombing raids. One night when my uncle, Johann Boljak, was at work in the building yard, air raid sirens sounded again. He and the other colleagues present were told to go to the basement and all to lie on the floor. But he listened to another voice and kept standing. When the bombs hit the building yard, the rubble fell and buried everyone under it. Only Uncle Boljak survived and was able to free himself after two days.
He came home on the third day. At that time we were still living in Jena and I can still see it today. He came in, his head bandaged and injured. He didn't greet anyone but said that together we should first thank God. Then he greeted everyone. God had heard the prayers of his wife and children and brought him back home safe. Uncle Boljak was a good preacher.
Post-war life in East Germany
After the war ended, a new life began for all of us. The card system came into effect, namely that we got a little bread and packaged soup every day. However, this amount was not enough to fill us up. My sister Anna therefore found work with a farmer, where she had to cook potatoes to feed the pigs. I was allowed to go to the farmer with her a few times, and with this opportunity, ate my fill of potatoes. Then I was no longer allowed to go because the farmer prohibited it. He said the potatoes were only for the pigs.
My mother loved to play guitar. Especially now after the war she started again. She loved to play Dreiband homeland songs. We always sang in the evenings with the window open so that others outside could hear it well. I also remember how our mother always took us to the Boljaks on Sundays to have prayers with them.
We boys often played outside in the fields with our friends. One day my mother warned me that I shouldn't go and should stay home. I obeyed this time and did not go out. I later learned that my friends had been killed or seriously injured by a land mine they found. The Americans had spread these land mines around their camps to protect themselves from attacks. So the Lord saved me from misfortune here too. Thanks to him for that.
However, I often went to the American soldiers because I always got a loaf of bread from them and brought it home. We were all very happy to eat white bread. Several times I also got chewing gum from the soldiers.
Repatriation to Russia
Now my brother Hans came home from the front. His employer, the mayor [of Halle], gave him all the papers saying that he was a German from the Reich. At that time in 1945, the occupying powers divided Germany into four parts. The East, where we were, was placed under Soviet command, so now all Germans who came from Russia were gathered in camps to bring them back home. My brother Hans learned that it was a lie and came to our camp and told us about it. We now knew that we were not going home, but to Siberia in the forest. Hans decided to go with us. He tore up his German papers before my mother's eyes and said that if he didn't come to work for us, we would all starve to death.
So it began. In Germany we were loaded into normal train cars. Every family took a lot of things with them because they thought they were going home to Ukraine. Each family was given a compartment with six seats. We then drove a few days until we arrived in Poland and were stopped at a train station.
After a while, our train was parked in a dead end about a kilometer from the train station. Here we were told that we had to spend the night and continue the next day. People started making tea and cooking food and getting ready for the night. In the evening, the accompanying soldiers also left the train. They were immediately shot at from a railway house. All of these soldiers were killed even though the war was over and they were on their way home to their families. None of us civilians were attacked.
The next day, other soldiers got on the train and we set off again. We drove to Brost, where we were reloaded into cattle cars. On the route from Arckangelsk to Vologda, a train car was uncoupled in every region, and the people who were on this train were sent up to 50 kilometers deep into the forest. Our station, where we were dropped off, was called Mitinsky Lesso Point Kilometer 15. From there we were transported in an off-road vehicle and brought to Kilometer 15.
To be continued.
- Jakob Plett
(translated by Irene Plett)