Susanne’s daughter Lena’s wedding to Kurt von Schmude in 1948.
Susanne stands at the far left; my father beside the groom.
My father’s aunt Susanne Plett Janzen was a courageous widow who sheltered my parents when they first escaped to West Germany in 1947. Her flight from Ukraine in 1943 also brings to mind so many fleeing today.
Susanne Plett was born on 28 Nov. 1894 in Alexanderfeld, Sagradovka, Kherson Oblast (now in Ukraine). She was the ninth of ten children of Heinrich Plett (1850-1934) and Katharina Teske (1857-1918).
On 1 Dec. 1817, in Nikolaifeld, Sagradovka, she married Isaak Janzen. He was born on 26 Mar. 1894 in Tiege (probably also in Sagradovka), to Jakob Janzen and Lena Wiens, who both died in Tiege before 1944.
Susanne and Isaak moved to Blumenort, Sagradovka (Svitlivka, Ukraine), where they had six children, before Isaak was taken away by the Russians in 1937. His fate after that time is unknown, but he is believed to have been shot as many others were.
It was a terrible time of increasing state repression when untold numbers of men were arrested falsely and executed. Susanne’s brother-in-law David Knels (1894-), husband of her youngest sister Lena (1899-1979), was also taken away in 1937 and never heard from again. We have records of one family member. Susanne’s eldest brother Heinrich Plett (1877-1938) was executed on 14 April 1938 at Slavgorod, Altayskiy Kray, Russia, after being arrested on 23 Jan. 1938. He was exonerated on 1 Mar. 1960 for lack of evidence.
In 1941, the German army invaded and occupied the area. It felt like liberation for the Mennonites, who were allowed to practice their religion again. However, as the war intensified, many young men were drafted into the Germany army, including Susanne’s eldest son Peter (1921-). He perished during his service.
In the fall of 1943, Susanne and her remaining five children followed the retreating German army, fleeing by horse-drawn covered wagons in the great trek. Most able-bodied young people, like my father, walked over 600 miles to Poland, as the poor single horses could barely haul the food and few possessions gathered by those leaving their homes forever.
When they reached German-occupied Poland three months later, the evacuees were transferred to a train. At some point, Susanne’s daughter Lena (1923-) disembarked, and the train left without her. The same thing happened to my father’s second wife, Margaret Lammert Koop Plett (1920-1997), who had strolled from the train with some friends. Lena’s whereabouts were unknown on 23 Dec. 1943, when Susanne applied for German citizenship in the northern Polish town of Soldau (Działdowo), where she was staying in the Blücher transit camp. Lena’s adventure without her mother is unknown, but she was reunited with her family. For Margaret, some kind people helped the girls to find their way and safely rejoin their families.
Susanne endured the horrors of war, but I will not go into that. After the war, she was able to avoid being repatriated to slave labour camps in Russia.
In 1947, Susanne had a crucial role in the lives of my parents. She was then living in Buchholz (Aller) in the Heidekreis district of Lower Saxony, West Germany. When they first escaped from East Germany, Peter and Ursula had tried in vain to stay in Mennonite refugee camps scattered across West Germany: Munich, Ulm, and Gronau-Westfalen. The first two were full, and the third refused, saying they couldn’t admit a couple who were engaged but not yet married.
Peter and Ursula took another train to Schwarmstedt, then walked to Buchholz (Aller), where they were welcomed by Peter’s Aunt Susanne. She was then staying in a summer house, an outbuilding of a farm. Peter soon found work and lodgings at the farm of Fritz Schulz, across the road. Ursula then returned to East Germany; she couldn’t see herself living in a barn, even if the room had a window; and she needed some things from home.
When Ursula returned and they married in nearby Schwarmstedt on October 10, 1947, Susanne’s daughter Lena was a witness, along with Mr. Schulz. In 1948, Peter also attended Lena’s wedding to Kurt von Schmude. Peter is seen beside the groom in their wedding photo. Looking into the distance, perhaps he is thinking of his wife, Ursula, who had gone back to the East for more preparations before finally leaving her family home.
Lena and Kurt von Schmude had two sons, and lived in Hanover, West Germany.
Susanne’s son Heinrich (1925-) also stayed in West Germany, marrying Anna Loewen. We know of one daughter, Lena Janzen.
But life was not easy in West Germany after the war. Susanne joined many other Mennonites who relocated to Paraguay, along with her sons Walter (1928-), Johann (1930-) and Jacob (1937-). They travelled on the USS General Stuart Heintzelman on Feb. 22, 1948, settling in Neuland Colony.
But pioneering in the jungle of the Paraguayan Chaco was also challenging, and Susanne and her sons later returned to Germany. Susanne died there in 1970.
Her son Johann married Katharina Thiessen. We know of three children: Siegfried, Sieglinde and Helga.
I was never able to meet Susanne or any other great aunts or uncles, but am glad to learn about them with the help of my father and genealogical research. Susanne cared for her family against all odds, helped others in need, and helped to bring about my own family’s story. I’m grateful for that.
May we find ways to move toward peace and prosperity for all in the world who are now suffering.