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Conversations with Agatha Albert Moor

Family Histories of the following older parishioners and friends of Immaculate Conception Parish in Chelyabinsk, Southern Urals district, Russia, and its mission parishes are being recorded in a series of "Conversations" by Sister Alice Ann Pfeifer with Sister Mary Elise Leiker, her interpreter and interviewer. 


Agatha Albert Moor (born 1933)

by Sister Alice Ann Pfeifer, C.S.A.
with Sister Mary Elise Leiker, C.S.A.
© Copyright 1997, the Sisters of St. Agnes, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, all rights reserved

In 1930, with the kulaks liquidated and collectivization beginning in earnest, Michael Albert wanted no part of the changes sweeping across the lands of the Volga.

He was not a farmer or a skilled laborer; rather, all his life he had made his living with his mind. An educated man, he had been a government clerk involved in the preparation of official documents. 

Already 48 years old, he had become prosperous enough to have a home of his own and to have begun construction on a second home for Peter, his eldest son by a previous marriage. Besides Peter, he also had three young children by his present marriage: Maria, born in 1924; Emma, born in 1925; and Anton, born in 1927. 

He had lived in the German Catholic village of Gattung (originally known as Zug) ever since his birth in 1882. So had his second wife, Kunigunda Mai, born in 1893. Yet with the collectivization being imposed on the people of Gattung by the soviet government, his own hometown no longer felt like home to him. He was faced with a decision, but what decision?

Then Michael heard about a sovkhoz [state farm] that had been formed in the city of Penza, northwest of Gattung. To his way of thinking life on a sovkhoz would be preferable by far to life on a kolkhoz [collective farm], for at least the sovkhoz workers would receive salaries twice a month. 

True, these would be small salaries that would be noticeably taxed, but the chance to receive a regular salary was not Michael's ony reason for considering a move to the sovkhoz in Penza. He also had heard that its nachal'nik (supervisor) was a man of integrity and compassion. In those unpredictable times, a good nachal'nik might prove more important to a family's survival than many people could yet imagine. Michael made his decision and moved his family. 

In Penza, the Alberts were no longer part of a German ethnic majority, as they had been while residing in Gattung. Only two or three German families lived there, and if those families were overheard speaking their ancestral language among themselves, they were denounced as fascisti

Yet even today, it remains a point of pride for the Albert couple's third daughter that she was not born there. Instead, Agatha Albert was born in the village of her ancestors while her expectant mother was there on a short business trip. While visiting Gattung to clear up some documentation questions, her mother gave birth to Agatha on February 10, 1933. The newborn was given the same name as the Albert family's previous infant daughter, who had been born in 1930 but hadn't survived. 

A Child Laborer at Eight 

"The times were so very hard," Agatha says. "You know, my mother had nine children all together, but only five of them lived." More than once, it had happened that her mother had given birth to a thin, sickly child already malnourished in the womb. 

In fact, Agatha herself was fortunate to have survived infancy, and it was the nachal'nik on their sovkhoz who saved her life. After Mrs. Albert had returned to Penza with her newborn infant, one day the nachal'nik visited the family and noticed tiny Agatha's starved appearance. 

When he asked Mrs. Albert about it, she broke into tears and said that she was unable to give her child milk. The nachal'nik immediately sat down and wrote an order for her to take to the head of the local dairy. It stipulated that Mrs. Albert should be given, free of charge, one liter of milk per day. The order remained in effect for the following three years. 

When Agatha reached the age of eight, she, too, was expected to work on the sovkhoz. Every day from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, she helped with planting, weeding, and harvesting potatoes, beets, and carrots. 

How did school fit into the picture? In the summertime Agatha attended classes, but not in the wintertime. The schoolhouse was three kilometers away, and she did not own the warm clothes and felt boots that would have been necessary for the long freezing walk. She stayed in school through four grades and quit when it would have been time to enter the fifth grade. The intermediate school was 15 kilometers away and quite impossible to reach on foot. Among the Albert girls, only Agatha's oldest sister Maria attained more than a fourth-grade level of education, and she accomplished that by boarding with a schoolteacher upon advancing to the fifth grade. 

Well before World War II changed the lives of everyone, misfortune fell upon the Albert sons. When Peter was only 24, he broke his back while performing the routine task of helping to unload a wagon full of potatoes. The accident permanently paralyzed him, and three years later he died as he lay in his bed. 

Strangely, Agatha's brother Anton also met with tragedy while doing a deed he had done countless times before. It was his daily task to feed the family dog. One day after the dog had borne puppies and was tending her litter in a space beneath the family home, 17-year-old Anton crawled into the space to feed the dog. Perhaps feeling frightened at the way he moved - and overprotective of her puppies - she snapped at him, piercing his flesh. 

Although the dog displayed no sign of rabies or of any other canine illness, a few days later Anton developed severe difficulty breathing. His father took him to a hospital eight kilometers away. When Anton learned that he was to stay overnight there, he begged his faher not to leave him alone in the hospital. Mr. Albert, however, felt he had no choice. The boy's breathing was so labored that it seemed certain he would die if left untreated.

The father's decision to have the boy hospitalized, however, would haunt the man for the rest of his life, for the next day Anton was dead. When the boy's body was turned over to the family, Mrs. Albert noticed a strange blue mark where Anton apparently had received an injection. The suspicion that the doctor deliberately had killed the boy has never quite left the family. The tragic fact of their times was that anti-German sentiment consumed the hearts of some people, and they would not have shrunk from commiting murder, especially if confronted with a good opportunity. 

Homeless at Ten 

In 1942 Agatha's two older sisters shared the fate of countless able-bodied German-Russian citizens who were ordered into the trudarmiya, the dreaded Soviet forced labor corps. Maria and Emma were sent to a labor camp on the Volga River, near the city of Saratov, where they joined a crew that had to chop ice on the river. 

Conditions were so bad and deprivations so severe that their Soviet supervisors soon ran away, leaving all the women prisoners alone with no food to eat and no orders to follow. So they followed the example of their supervisors and drifted back to their homes. 

Agatha says she still vividly remembers how her sisters looked when they returned to Penza - thin, ragged, and covered with the telltale open sores that are found on victims of untreated frostbite. Maria and Emma had done what they had needed to do in order to survive, but suddenly discovered that now they were criminals. They were formally charged with desertion, then sent to prison. 

Meanwhile, life in Penza became unbearable for Mr. and Mrs. Albert and 10-year-old Agatha. People saw the entire family as traitors to the Soviet cause and treated them accordingly. Objects of universal hatred and derision, friendless and alone, they abandoned their home and spent the rest of the war years wandering about from place to place, begging various Russian families to give them temporary shelter. 

In the summertime, the best housing they usually could obtain was space in a stable with people's animals. Even that form of help was given grudgingly, and they heard the derisive term fascisti so often that their ears burned with it. Although Michael and Kunigunda Albert had been honest and pious people all their lives, they were reduced to stealing in order to stay alive, which only deepened their shame. 

Go Build Your Own House Now 

When the war finally ended, the Russian family then providing the Alberts with shelter turned them out, saying, "Go build your own house now!" 

By that time Agatha's father was more than 60 years old, penniless, and ill with asthma and bronchitis. The only shelter he could manage to build for his family was a dugout in the earth, with a little roof placed over it. The family lived there for two or three years, then finally obtained an apartment. Their life, however, remained rugged and hard scrabble.

As early as 1946, Mrs. Albert had received a letter from her sister in Chelyabinsk, stating that life in that city was at least a little better than it was in other parts of the postwar Soviet Union. This woman had moved to Chelyabinsk to be reunited with her husband, who had been sent there to live and work in a trudarmiya prison camp during the war. 

Her words sounded inviting, but Agatha's parents were not immediately able to put together the resources for a move. Finally, in 1949, Mr. and Mrs. Albert, with their three grown daughters, moved to Kopeysk, a small village near Chelyabinsk. They found a one-room apartment with 15 cubic meters of space for the five of them to share [about 6 x 6 x 3 feet apiece]. The room was heated with a coal stove. There were few pieces of furniture and no beds. Everyone slept on the floor. 

By this time, the young women's parents were quite old and often sick, but Maria and Emma supported them with their earnings. The two sisters were considered old enough and strong enough to work in the nearby coal mines, which they did. Every day they descended underground to labor like large-muscled men, hacking away at the stubborn earth with their iron pickaxes, loading wagons with the chunks of coal they had managed to wrest from the earth. 

Meanwhile, Agatha fulfilled the daily task of rising every morning at four to hike into Chelyabinsk for bread, then reporting to the mine for the part-time duties that she performed above ground. However, as soon as Agatha turned 18 and was allowed to do the heavier underground work, she did so, remaining a coal miner for the following six years of her life. 

When she was 23, there at last came a time in Agatha's life for something besides work, work, and more work. For that was the year she met a pleasant, responsible young man named Johannes Moor. 

A Couple with Much in Common 

Ironically, Johannes Moor had been born in a town only a short distance away from Gattung, the village of Agatha's birth. Johannes was one of six sons and two daughters born to Anton Moor, son of Igor Moor, and Rosa Hornung. The family had lived in Remmler, previously called Luzern, until the fall of 1941, when all the German-Russian residents of the town were exiled to Siberia. 

"The train stood more than it ran," Agatha says, explaining why the displaced villagers did not arrive in Novosibirsk until the following March. Because it was wartime, the military strictly dictated when the train could and could not pass through the various stops and checkpoints that dotted the route to Novosibirsk. 

In the meantime, the freight train's human cargo passed their time like so many head of cattle being shipped to market for slaughter. They stepped outside their boxcars for fresh air and exercise if the guards said they could; otherwise, they remained crowded together inside, restlessly shifting their weight from one foot to the other. Johannes was six years old then.

Fifteen years later, in the fall of 1956, 21-year-old Johannes re-traced a part of that route into exile when he accompanied his grandmother on a two-day train trip to Chelyabinsk. This time, however, the trip was for a pleasurable purpose. His grandmother wanted to visit her old friend, Kunigunda Albert - Agatha's mother. 

Soon after Johannes and Agatha met, they discovered how much they had in common. By the time Johannes was to return to Novosibirsk with his grandmother, the two young people had agreed to begin exchanging letters. From September to December of that year, they wrote back and forth; then he returned to Kopeysk for a second visit, this time to accomplish a purpose of his own. On December 26, 1956, the couple signed their marriage papers and began their life together as man and wife. 

The newlyweds lived in Kopeysk for six months, then tried life in Novosibirsk for six months. But they ended up returning to Kopeysk and making the village their permanent home. They lived in one room in a barracks, eventually expanding into a second room, and they began raising their family of three sons: Michael, born September 18, 1957; Alexander, born February 12, 1959; and Johannes, born April 30, 1961.

Like-minded in their commitment to their Catholic faith, Johannes and Agatha became active members of the underground Church. As Agatha's parents and sisters had been doing, they attended the secret Masses of the Polish priest, Father Alexander, whenever he came to town for a visit. At their earliest opportunity, the couple asked Father Alexander to pronounce the Church's blessing upon their marriage. 

Although most years passed by uneventfully, the year 1977 brought a significant new improvement to the lives of the Moor family. The state recognized Johannes' skill and industry as a blacksmith by awarding him with a new apartment. In that place the couple continues to live today, every Sunday hosting all of the nearby Catholics for an hour of community prayer. 

In the past couple of years, they have known the added joy of having a priest for Mass two Sundays each month. The German priests from nearby Chelyabinsk have adopted the Catholic community of Kopeysk as one of their mission churches, and the four men take turns driving to Kopeysk every other Sunday, no matter the weather or the season. 

Agatha shows her gratitude by preparing the visiting priest a home-cooked meal. Other church members bestow on him baked goods and fresh garden produce. This little twice-monthly routine represents a big change from the old days, when Masses were far less frequent - and when the Catholics of Kopeysk had to worry about attracting the attention of the government whenever they gathered. 

Agatha still has her worries, though. She worries about a granddaughter and her unwell husband, who pay an exorbitant amount of monthly rent but who cannot afford to buy a house of their own just now. 

Agatha wonders about how she and Johannes will continue to make ends meet. Months pass by without any payment of their pensions from the government (To get some idea of what Russian pensioners are facing, try to imagine the reaction of a retired 65-year-old American - one too poor to have a savings account - to an announcement from the government, four or five months in a row, "Sorry, but you won't be receiving your social security this month, we just don't have the money right now.") 

Agatha also worries about the chronic pain in her leg. She has sought treatment for it, but she still has pain, especially when she has to climb the stairs to her upper-story apartment. No doctor seems to know what is wrong. 

But despite all of her concerns, life goes on. And as Agatha herself will tell you, she's been through worse - and she's survived. 

[This conversation with Agatha Albert Moor took place in November of 1996. 

In a earlier conversation, Sister spoke of the new church being built at Chelyabinsk on the very site where the German Russians lived in barracks during the days of forced slave labor. Sister expressed the hope of the local pastor that the new church be paid for and finished before October 13, 1997, the 80th anniversary of the last apparition of Our Lady of Fatima, whom the Catholics in Russia consider the special patroness of Russia. 

At Sister's request, therefore, the Sunflower Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia has agreed to collect and forward donations for completion of the new church. Checks should be written to "Chelyabinsk Church Fund, c/o Sunflower Chapter," and mailed to Sunflower Chapter, 2700 Elm, Hays Kansas 67601-1712]