Jakob working in a Russian Gulag
In the last chapter of my uncle Jakob Plett’s story, Fleeing to Germany in 1943, the family had just been transported to Kilometer 15, Vologda, Russia. Their new home in 1945 was a slave labour camp (Gulag).
Here we were assigned to barracks. There were bunk beds in every room. We received almost nothing to eat here, although the German resettlers had been promised that the Americans would take care of their meals. They did so, but the incoming shipments of food were intercepted by the Russians, so we got nothing. Very many people therefore had to die of hunger.
And so a very difficult life began for all of us. All working people such as fathers, mothers and all young people were forced to do heavy forestry work. They had to cut down trees, cut off branches and burn them. The trunks then had to be divided up into 6, 4 and 2 meter pieces (about 20, 13 and 6 ½ feet) and then carried together on stacks. We only had a saw and ax as tools. Every worker had to meet a certain quota every day. Three to four cubic meters (3.9 to 5.2 cubic yards) of wood had to be processed. Those who did not meet this target only received 600 grams (1 ⅓ pounds) of bread and nothing else. We had to work every day. It didn't matter if it was raining, snowing or if the sun was shining.
The bread was baked very wet by the baker, which put a lot of weight on the scales. However, the officials who were there were given as much bread as they wanted as well as fish. Many people couldn't tolerate this wet bread and got stomach pain from it.
After a while, typhoid disease broke out in our camp. There was no thought of doctors or medication. The people then died en masse. People were carried out of the sick barrack every day and taken to the cemetery down by the river. The relatives then had to bury their deceased relatives. Many no longer had the strength. Then the bodies were sometimes buried under just 50 cm of earth and snow. The cemetery was located at the riverside with the intention that the bodies would be washed away in the spring when the water flooded. Of the five barracks from the summer, only three barracks remained with survivors.
Thank God our family was spared from this disease. God had heard the prayers our mother prayed for us day and night. I think that our mother often gave her portion of bread to us children and went to bed hungry herself.
The men and women often had to go to work sick. But if they couldn’t, they stayed in bed.
That’s what happened to my brother Hans. He developed a high fever and was therefore unable to do the heavy forestry work. Every morning a commander walked through the camp and checked if anyone hadn't gone to work to cut their daily ration. So he came into our barrack and looked into the room. He saw my brother Hans, whose skin was very red from the heat of the fever, and asked him why he was not at work. Hans replied that he was sick. The commander ordered him to get up. Hans got up with his last strength and held onto the wooden bed to avoid falling over. Then the commander came closer and hit him with his fist and Hans fell to the ground. We children all cried a lot and were afraid that he might do something else to him, because he always carried a pistol.
My mother also prayed about this matter, and Hans got well enough to work again.
The cold in Siberia became increasingly unbearable that winter. The food we ate contained almost no fat that was essential for us to live. So people started to exchange the belongings they had brought with them from Germany for bread and potatoes in the surrounding villages. So it continued, until most of them had nothing left to trade. We also had nothing left.
My mother only had her guitar, which she did not give up. She woke us every morning with singing. She told us that the Lord would give us eternal bread.
It was like a dream. One morning, I thought I was in heaven and could already hear the angels singing. But when I really woke up and saw the cots with the rags on them, which were supposed to be a pillow and a blanket, I knew that we were still in the forest in this barrack and that the Lord Jesus hadn't picked us up.
Even in this poverty, our mother did not sell the guitar, although a woman came up to her and told her to sell the guitar to buy bread for us children. My mother replied that there is a verse in the Bible that says that man does not live from bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God [Matt. 4:4; Deut 8:3], and these songs are spiritual songs that comfort her and give her courage. In this situation, too, my mother did not fail and hoped for God. The guitar was not sold. She had confidence that God would get us through. Many other mothers and their children died, but God spared us and gave us as much food every day as we needed to survive.
Some time later we had to move again. It was deeper in the forest. We came to a small place where only a few people lived. We were given another barrack with the same beds as in the old camp.
The winter was freezing cold. There were only two ovens in each barrack. The wood hardly burned because it was wet. And once the stove was warm, you couldn't warm yourself because the cotton jackets and cotton pants that the workers had to use to work needed to be dried.
This winter was also the hardest and last winter for my dear mother. In spring, in March, my beloved, praying mother died. I don't remember the exact date of death, but I can still remember it very well.
My siblings Hans and Anna went to work early in the morning. Rudolf, Neta and I stayed home with our mother. About an hour after Hans and Anna went to work, my mother called me to the bed. She took my hand and squeezed it with the last of her strength and told me that I should quickly run to Anna and Hans in the forest and tell them that our mother was dying and that they should therefore come home quickly.
I found them in the forest and we quickly ran home. My mother opened her eyes one last time when we arrived and said to us: “I have to die now. Goodbye. I ask just one thing. Please don't leave Rudi and Neta alone.” After that she died!
After the death of my mother, Hans brought Rudi and Neta to a home for small children. [The twins were then five years old.]
Now we had to bury our mother. Hans went to the camp leader, who told him that the relatives of the dead were responsible for them. Now we had no choice but to make a coffin for our mother. When it was finished, Mother was dressed and placed in the coffin. The coffin was then laid on a cart and dragged to the grave. There were no cemeteries. Everyone was allowed to bury their dead wherever they liked. (How beautifully we can bring our dead to graves in our time.)
We came to a place where we now wanted to bury her. We put the coffin on the ground and my brother Hans started digging the grave. My sister Anna was too weak for this and the three of us were still too small, so Hans alone dug the grave for our mother. It took him until noon and he had dug about a meter. Since it was spring and the snow thawed, the grave kept filling with water. Anna and I worked diligently to empty the grave. Then we let Mother down into the grave. But by the time we wanted to fill it up, it was full of water again. So we buried our mother there in the forest.
However, we already knew at that age that our mother was in heaven with Jesus, who sees everything, which she believed. That gave us comfort in those difficult hours.
So from 1947, we were orphans.
Life was very difficult then, but God didn’t leave us. Hans and Anna met their quota in the forest every day, which is why everyone always got 800 grams (1 ¾ pounds) of bread and a packet of dry soup. So life gradually improved.
(Page 9 is missing; during this time, Hans is taken away.)
...hadn’t heard the howling of the wolves. I replied that I was so hungry and would get the bread. That's why I kept running. He didn't want to let me go any further. I went anyway. On the way I didn’t see or hear any more wolves. God heard my prayer.
Anna grows weaker
Then my sister Anna became too weak to work in the forest. She was then assigned a two-kilometer (1 ¼ mile) section of train tracks which she had to keep clear of snow. During this work she was sweating profusely, ate snow when she was thirsty and became ill.
After a while she noticed that it was getting harder and harder for her to breathe. She made her way to a doctor who was 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. After an X-ray, the doctor informed her that it was too late. Holes had already formed in her lungs. After she received the diagnosis, she drove the 60 kilometers home. We were all very sad to learn that she was terminally ill.
She was now released from work. Anna had converted as a young girl. She could also play the guitar like her mother, using the same guitar. She gathered all the children together for singing and Bible lessons. The children learned to sing and learned Bible stories from her. She continued as long as her strength allowed.
She grew weaker and weaker. Then one day she had to stay in bed. Because she was sick, she was only given 300 grams (⅔ pound) of bread, as much as I received. Since we were very hungry, we ate the bread immediately, so we had nothing for the next two meals. With next to nothing to eat, she quickly became weak. I cared for her until her death.
Shortly before her death, she said to me: “Yasha, take me to Dr. Balonin again. Maybe I'll get well again. I feel better." This is what happens to some who are terminally ill. They feel a little better before death.
I then went to the head of the camp and asked for permission. He made it possible for us. We then drove 12 kilometers (7 miles) to the railway station on a flatbed truck intended for lumber transport. After that it was 60 kilometers (37 miles) by train to Kharovsk. Anna was hospitalized and had to stay there. I drove back to the camp.
A week later I received a telegram that Anna had died. I cried bitterly. She died much too early at the age of 23.
I once met a man in Germany who asked me if I was Anna's brother. He remembered very well her stories from the camp. He later went to a village where there were meetings, where he converted. He said, "I used everything your sister Anna taught us in Sunday school."
Now we had no choice but to bury Anna. I went to Kharovsk with my aunts, Lena and Emilia. It was very nice for me that someone went with me.
Once there, the doctor told me that he had arranged for us to bury Anna in the city cemetery. He gave us a horse and a carriage. I attached the horse in front of the carriage, placed Anna on the carriage and drove to the cemetery. There the cemetery master had assigned us a plot where we could bury Anna. Because I was still small and too weak, I only dug one meter deep. We then lowered the coffin and the three of us sang a song. That was my sister's funeral. Then we drove home.
From then on I was alone. I was 16 years old.
Thus far there had been no schools. But one day a teacher came to the village. Her name was Augusta Demitrewna. She got all the children together and taught from the first to fourth grades. I only got to the third grade.
Then spring came and I had to work a little to satisfy my hunger. I got a job as a cowherd. I now had to look after ten cows. Every day I got milk and bread from the owner of the cows, so I had enough to eat all summer long.
We now had to learn the communist system. But we soon understood what it means to live that way. We didn't let our opinions get changed because we knew exactly what these people had done to our fathers and mothers.
I had to fight my way through another winter, so I decided to go begging in the surrounding villages. Since the next villages were up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) away, I made my way early in the morning. I had to move quickly because there was severe frost and I would otherwise have frozen to death. Since I was hungry, I couldn't walk very fast.
On the way, a man with a cocked hunting rifle passed me. When he was about 30 meters (100 feet) in front of me, I decided to follow him. I felt a little safer and didn't have to be so scared. Suddenly he turned and shot in my direction. I heard the bullets whiz past me. I think that the Lord Jesus held his hand in front of me so that nothing happened to me. I hid behind a tree and waited about 20 minutes and then continued.
In the village I went from house to house and begged, but nobody paid attention to me. I kept going until a woman let me in. She had compassion for me. I was given food and was allowed to stay the night. When she saw my completely ruined boots the next morning, she gave me a pair of felt boots.
I also begged in another village and got some pieces of bread. I stowed it in the little backpack that I had with me, and made my way back home. At home, I divided the bread so that it would be enough for a while. When I had nothing to eat, I went to Maria Fink, the mother of Hans’ girlfriend. She then gave me bread and a cup of coffee.
I was always very weak because I didn't get everything my body needed to grow. Meat had not been mentioned for years.
The last time I got meat was when Hans was still there. He was working with a horse that was already very weak and could no longer pull the carts. Hans told me that we would now go to the stable to get meat. It was midnight and the horse had died. So after an hour, Hans brought a horse thigh home and warned us about cooking the meat. We hid it. We would have loved to eat it immediately. The next day the horse breeder came and wanted to see if the house smelled of cooked meat. It was only after three days that we cooked the meat and ate it.
New forestry work
In spring this master hired me as a marker. I had to mark tree trunks in the forest, so that one could calculate how many cubic meters could be used [for the workers to meet their quotas]. That was my salvation from hunger. I now earned 600 grams (1 ⅓ pounds) of bread and a packet of dry soup each day.
After the beautiful summer, a cold winter followed. In winter my paint froze, which I used to mark the trees. I had to mix the paint with gasoline to prevent it from freezing. My cotton jacket and pants became soaked in gasoline. Nevertheless, I always went near the bonfire, where the forest workers burned branches, to warm up a little and get a bit dry. That winter the thermometer dropped to -40° C (-40°F).
One day I got too close to the fire. The fire immediately spread to my clothes. I was immediately on fire. A worker standing next to me grabbed me right away and pushed me into the deep snow. Nothing happened to me in this incident either.
Then I got a new job. I had to operate a steam engine that generated electricity for saws. The output of this steam engine was 60 kilowatts. This operated eight machines. I had to heat this machine with wood. Four cubic meters (5.2 cubic yards) of wood were needed per day for this machine. I started heating the machine only at night, and went on like that for two years. I knew the machine so well that I was also allowed to operate it during the day.
One evening I went to the cinema to watch a movie. I carried in so much wood and threw more than usual into the oven so it would last for the duration.
When I returned after the film, I already heard the steam hissing. I saw that the steam had risen very high and the machine was too hot. According to the master, the kettle would have to rip apart under such pressure.
I immediately took the glowing pieces of wood out of the oven and walked about 50 meters (164 feet) and waited for the kettle to explode. I prayed that nothing would happen and asked God for forgiveness that I had gone to the cinema. I waited about an hour and then carefully approached the oven again. When I looked inside, I found that everything was back to normal temperature and in order. A miracle happened.
I was now 18 years old. I asked for God’s forgiveness that I had gone to the movies. My mother had warned me when she was alive, "Jakob, don't go to the cinema or to dances."
I continued working on this machine for another two years.
- Jakob Plett
This is the end of Jakob’s account. In the camp, he married Emma Pressler and had the first two of nine children. In 1957 or 1958, after 12 or 13 years in the Gulag, they were released, and moved to Kaskelen, Kazakhstan. In 1981, Jakob moved to Germany with his family. Jakob and many descendants live in the Schwäbisch-Gmünd area.
Jakob and Emma and their family in 1969, Kaskelen, Kazakhstan