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Conversations with Helena Weigel Merz

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. 

Helena Weigel Merz (born 1922)

by Sister Alice Ann Pfeifer, C.S.A.
with Sister Mary Elise Leiker, C.S.A.

© Copyright 1997, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, all rights reserved

The first year of life for Helena Weigel Merz, born in 1922 in a German Catholic village in the North Caucasus, was also the first year of foreign exile for southern Russia's lone Catholic Bishop, Joseph A. Kessler. In many parts of the old Empire, practicing Catholics were a threatened species, yet in Helena's village they were thriving like honeybees in a field of clover. This, as you will see, is only one of many amazing facts about Helena's life and times - especially where matters of faith and religion have been concerned.

Helen remembers an active and prayerful Catholic parish in her native village of Roshdestwenka - one fully benefitting from the regular services of a priest. Yet if Helena had grown up in one of the Volga villages where her parents had been born, her earliest memories might have been quite different. The early days of the Russian Revolution, which happened just before Helena was born, had been harshly felt among German Russians living along the Volga.

They were among the first to have their private property seized and their parish pastors removed. In other words, they were among the first to receive the "blessings" of agricultural collectivization and state-sponsored atheism. However, between untimely droughts at the hands of Mother Nature and ill-conceived policies from the mind of Vladimir Lenin, these "blessings" soon meant nothing but widespread hunger and misery, both physical and spiritual, for the German Russian people of the Volga.

By March of 1921, even Lenin himself was forced to admit that something had gone wrong with his ideas - although, even then, all he allowed himself to believe was that his ideas, while basically correct, were being imposed upon the people too swiftly. So, in that month, his "New Economic Policy" was announced. With what was meant to be a \\temporary relaxation of communist social and economic aims and policies a certain amount of private enterprise and ethnic cultural preservation was again allowed among the Volga Germans.

However, by that time many of them had already fled to other parts of the former Russian Empire, parts that had not yet been brought under Red dominance. In those places they continued to practice their trades and follow their religious consciences and their cultural customs in much the same way as they had before the Revolution. In those places, too, they held onto a hope that communist expansion would never reach them.

A Place Safe from the Worst of Communism

Adam Giesinger lists Helena's native village, Roshdestwenka, among the North Caucasian German colonies that were founded along the Kuban River in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. (See "From Catherine to Krushchev," p. 135.) Helena does not know when, why, or how her parents left the Volga to live in the Caucasus. She knows only that her father, Adam Weigel, had been born in the Volga village of Pfannenstiel (Marienthal), and her mother, Katharina Schreiner, in Urbach.

Helena was one of the youngest of nine children born to Adam and Katharina Weigel. Only five of the nine lived long enough to marry and have children of their own. Today an older sister, Barbara, may still be alive and residing in the south-central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, but Helena is not sure.

Helena's father was a farmer and a skilled, prosperous one at that. In Roshdestwenka, Adam Weigel owned chickens, pigs, and cows, plus land that he himself worked with a horse-drawn plough. Although the North Caucasus had been brought into the Soviet Union by the end of 1922, the New Economic Policy had not been implemented. So land-owning peasants such as Adam Weigel were left undisturbed in their labors and in their general way of life, including their continued participation in organized religion. The exiled Catholic bishop still was not permitted to return to the country, but the priests who had escaped death and imprisonment during the first years of militant communist atheism continued to serve loyal flocks in various locations around the former Empire.

Cautiously recognizing a new opportunity in the Soviet government's relaxed policies, in 1926 the Vatican appointed and secretly consecrated four bishops to be Apostolic Administrators in four different parts of the former Diocese of Tiraspol: Augustin Baumtrog in the Volga region; Johannes Roth in the North Caucasus; Stephan Demuroff in the republic of Georgia; and Alexander Frison in the Black Sea region. (See "From Catherine to Krushchev," p. 292.)

Seventy years later, Helena still cherishes fond memories of life in her village before the great changes of 1929. She remembers how beautifully the church bell rang every morning to call the people to Mass - first, one solemn ring of the bell and a pause; then, another solemn ring and a pause; finally, a long and merry jubilation of the bell ringing again and again, as if to cheerfully remind people that they must hurry if they want to be on time for Mass. The church bell also pealed every evening, and when it did, people stopped whatever they were doing, in their fields and in their houses, to pray the Angelus in honor of Mary, the Mother of God.

Although she was seven years old the last time she experienced it as a fully functioning church, Helena still remembers a great deal about the place where her family had regularly attended Mass. The church was large enough to have a choir loft in the back, an elevated preacher's pulpit in the front, and entrances on three sides of the building. Inside were beautiful statues and an immense crucifix. She remembers how "orderly" the seating was for Mass. On the left side where the statue of Mary stood, all the women and girls were seated.

On the right side where the statue of Joseph stood, all the men and boys were seated. People of both genders were seated according to age, with the youngest in front and the oldest in back. In her mind's eye as a little girl kneeling in the front of the church, she can still see the priest saying Mass before the main altar, flanked by two servers on his left and two on his right. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament - a special ritual in which Catholics honor the presence of Jesus in the consecrated host - occurred every day after Mass. For feastdays there were big processions that made use of a special canopy that was kept in the back of the church.

How were Catholic holidays celebrated in her home? Easter was an especially joyful time. About two weeks before Easter, Helena's mother helped each child put some soil into a basket and plant wheat seed in it. The children waited for the first green sprouts to begin appearing in their baskets as the final days of Lent approached. By the night before Easter, in each basket a lush bed of green "grass" would be awaiting the arrival of the Easter bunny. That night before sending the children to bed, Mother would promise to stay up and wait for the Easter bunny, so that she could open the door for him when he came!

During the month before Christmas, each evening the children kept vigilant eyes on the windows of their family home. They knew that the Christkind would be somewhere outside, giving the children glimpses of various store-bought toys and gifts that would be theirs if they remained on their best behavior during Advent. Then on Christmas Eve, the Christkind, with a long flowing garment on "his" body and an opaque veil on "his" face, would knock at their front door and be invited into the house by their parents. (Usually the Christkind was a woman - a relative or a family friend trying to disguise her voice and keep her identity a secret.)

In one hand he would be carrying a sack of presents and in the other hand, a little whip. As the Christkind would lay open the presents for the children to see, he would be quick to use his whip on any child who reached for a present without permission! For the children knew that first they were to gather for prayer, and only after saying their prayers with the Christkind could they claim their gifts.

The Year the Church Music Died

Today a ready smile comes to Helena's face as she shares these simple homespun memories. Her face darkens, however, when she starts to talk about the year 1929. That was the year when distant rumblings from Moscow finally reverberated in her little village. Two years earlier, Stalin had announced that Lenin's New Economic Policy of 1921 needed to be replaced with a plan for the final and complete collectivization of all property in all the republics of the Soviet Union.

For a committee to work out the details took a couple of years, but by 1929 the dreadful liquidation of the kulaks had begun. Helena's father knew that he would be considered a kulak - a prosperous peasant - and that he was no longer safe in Roshdestwenka. So he fled to the east, to a village in the present-day republic of Chechnya, hoping to send for the rest of his family later.

That same year, 1929, was when a new wave of religious persecution began. Priests and ministers again were killed or exiled. Three years after their appointment, three of the Catholic Church's four Apostolic Administrators suddenly disappeared, including Bishop Johannes Roth, who had been serving the Catholics of Helena's area. Only the whereabouts of Bishop Alexander Frison of the Black Sea region were known - and he was in prison. The beautiful church of Roshdestwenka was among the country's thousands of churches that were seized and either torn down or converted to other uses. In December of that year, a massive nationwide propaganda campaign attempted to discourage people from celebrating Christmas.

In the absence of the head of their household, other things besides Christmas were on the minds of the Weigel family. Grandmother Weigel was suffering the throes of her final illness, so authorities were allowing the family to care for her before sending them into exile with the other kulak families. The Weigels had already been dispossessed of their home, and they were relying on the kindness of a neighbor woman who at risk of being branded a collaborator with the \\kulaks, was temporarily providing them with shelter.

Meanwhile, besides keeping a death vigil over their grandmother, they kept waiting for word from their husband and father. Soon after Adam Weigel contacted them from the land of the Chechens, they fled Roshdestwenka aboard a train, putting eight hours of rail travel between their old home in Roshdestwenka and their new home not far from the city of Grozny.

The Search for a New Safe Haven

The next few years provided little stability for the Weigels. In 1933 they returned to their native village but the homecoming proved disappointing. Because it was not possible to recover anything of their former life in Roshdestwenka, Adam Weigel decided to journey to Baku, a city in present-day Azerbaijan, in search of work. Again his plan was to send for his family once he met with success in his quest. Meanwhile, the fall session of school was beginning in Roshdeswenka, and, at age 11, Helena was still without formal schooling of any kind, so she began her primary education in the village school.

By the end of 1933 the family received word that Adam's search had been cut short by sickness and death. Soon after that, in January of 1934, Katharina Weigel also fell ill and died, leaving Helena motherless as well as fatherless. She stayed in Roshdestwenka and continued her education while living with her married sister Ottilia.

Meanwhile another sister Katya, moved to Tbilisi in present-day Georgia. Many Catholics of German background poured into that city in those years, Helena explains, because it was a place where they could find work and enjoy freedom of worship. In Tbilisi a Catholic parish was still permitted to function, and it was staffed by a priest whom Helena remembers as "Father Emmanuel."

Helena stayed in school in Roshdestwenka for four years, then quit to work on the \\kolkhoz. In 1939, when she was 17, she joined the flood of German Catholic migrants to Tbilisi. There she found employment as a housekeeper and babysitter for a working mother and her two children.

The Catholic parish life in Tbilisi was vibrant, and Helena became one of its many active members. There she learned dozens of hymns which even today spring readily to her mind and her lips. There she met Gertrude Tetzel, a pious woman who was, at that time in Catholic Russia's history, the rough equivalent of what today would be called a "sister." Gertrude belonged to no formally established order of religious women, but she did live by private vows that she had made to God, including a vow never to marry.

In keeping with her vows, she lived a life of simplicity and prayer in a room specially provided for her at the parish church in Tbilisi. (Although no one could have known it then, nearly 60 years later another Apostolic Administrator appointed to serve Russia's Catholics, Bishop Joseph Werth of Novosibirsk, would be so impressed with the story of her life that he would begin an effort to have her formally recognized as a saint.) Also in Tbilisi, Helena became acquainted with members of the Merz family who had originated from the Volga German village of Schoenchen: Alexander, who ardently wanted to become a priest, and his younger brother Heinrich, who eventually became Helena's husband.

"Where God Is, Nothing is Heavy"

When war with Germany broke out in 1941, the German Russians living in Tbilisi had a general idea of what was in store for them. By this time Heinrich Merz and Helena Weigel were engaged, and they knew they needed to hurry if they wanted a Catholic priest to preside over their marriage. So they planned their wedding in Tbilisi for Oct. 18.

Not long after that, the newlyweds were among the area's countless German Russians who were rounded up for exile to work camps in Kazakstan. The people's journey consisted of a train ride to Baku, a boat ride across the Caspian Sea, and then another train ride to their destination in Kazakstan - a place called Yuzhny, too small to be noted on most modern maps.

"That must have been a terrible time for you, a time of heaviness and sorrow," commented Sister Mary Elise when Helena reached this part of her story. "No!" Helena responded quickly and firmly, almost sharply, startling us with the force of her reply. "Where God is, nothing is heavy. What did I go through? I had my daily bread. Yes, the work was hard, but where God is, nothing is really too hard." 

Chastened a little, we then asked, "So what do you most remember, after all these years, about that trip into exile?" Helena's face lit up when we asked that question, in almost the same way that it had when we asked for her childhood memories of Easter and Christmas. "If only you could have heard the singing on the boat, how we filled the air with our singing!" she responded. During the entire trip by rail and over water, members of the parish remained together, and they prayed and sang all the way.

Because Helena has a clear memory of the hymns of her youth, as well as a strong and melodious voice, we produced a tape recorder and asked her to sing some of the hymns they had sung on their journey. Happy to oblige, she gave us renditions in German of "Mary, We Follow in Your Footsteps," "Mother, Most Pure," and "The Golden Rosary."

Once in Kazakstan, members of the parish were split up among various barracks, and all through the work camp years no group of Catholics as large as the group on the boat ever again assembled. However, small groups here and there continued to assemble for prayers and hymns. Among those in the women's barracks where Helena lived were Gertrude Tetzel and another woman who had consecrated her life to God, Clara Rome. (In former days Clara's uncle had been a priest, Helena recalls, a man named Riedel.)

Every Sunday Gertrude led a special prayer service which served as the women's Sunday Mass. Every workday they gathered together to recite their morning prayers before heading outside for their assigned tasks. Even while under the watchful eye of their work supervisors, they openly prayed aloud and sang hymns. Either the supervisors did not understand the meaning of the women's German songs and recitations, or they understood and did not care, Helena says. At any rate, their days passed by in a predictable cycle of work, prayer, and sleep.

The next year, in 1942, all the men were ordered into the trudarmiya, a wartime heavy labor corps. They were sent north to Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains. The following year, all the women also were ordered into the trudarmiya, and their new camp was located in Guryevsky, another town in Kazakstan. Helena remained with Gertrude and Clara and other women who continued to openly pray together, but now their work was more difficult - making bricks, digging ditches, and laying pipes.

In 1945 the war ended, and in 1946 changes came to the women's camp. The new commandants and supervisors were Bulgars, Greeks - and militant atheists. Helena did not see the worst of their intolerant new policies, however, because she was permitted to join her husband in Chelyabinsk. Later she learned that Gertrude had been jailed for religious activity.

Meanwhile in Chelyabinsk, Helena's brother-in-law Alexander had become one of the chief Catholic prayer leaders in the city. Although Alexander had never become a priest, this seems to have been the way in which history had allowed him to live out his priestly ambitions. (Or, as a person of faith would say, the way in which God had wanted him to live them out.) The postwar era was a time, however, when new government efforts at stamping out religion were meeting with success through the use of spies, infiltrators, and informers.

In 1949, probably because of a tip provided by a traitor in his own prayer group, the government learned of Alexander's religious activity and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Ironically, it was while this would-be priest served his sentence that he met his future wife. She was the daughter of a fellow prisoner, and Alexander made her acquaintance during the times she came to visit her father and bring him food. When Alexander's sentence was unexpectedly commuted in 1954, he looked her up and married her.

Continued Work and Constant Prayer

After the war Helena and Heinrich started their family. They remained in Chelyabinsk, first living near the city's heavy industrial plants and later moving to Stalovarof Street (which means "steelmakers' street"). Their daughter Maria was born in 1947, their daughter Katya in 1949, and their son Alexander in 1952.

By 1959 Helena was a widow, her husband having become a victim of cancer. With three children ages 7 to 12 to support, Helena found work at one of the plants, where she remained for the following 19 years.

Helena's oldest daughter grew up to become a bookkeeper and has remained in Chelyabinsk. She married a Russian man, Victor Nikulen, and they have two daughters, Sveta and Alyona. Sveta seems to have inherited her grandmother's talent for music and serves as the talented organist for Immaculate Conception Parish.

Katya also married a Russian man, Valentin Tsipilov, but she now lives in Stavropol in the Causasus - a city familiar to many Americans as the birthplace of Mikhail Gorbachev. Katya is the mother of a son, Andrei, and she is a medical technician by occupation.

Alexander married a Russian woman, Zina Perova, and supports his family as a chauffeur. The couple and their three children - Andrei, Julia, and Katya - live in Chelyabinsk.

Helena's deep contentment with her life shows in the serene expression which never totally abandons her face. She explained to us that her peace comes from praying constantly. All day long she keeps up running conversations with God and with the saints, especially with Mary, the Mother of God, speaking to them as if they were friends and companions at her side. She added that she knows they are listening because they are always doing her little favors. Our curiosity piqued, we asked, "Can you give us some examples?"

First that familiar bright expression flashed across Helena's face, then she told us about an experience she had in 1990. It was during one of the many summers which she has spent on the family dacha near Chelyabinsk. That summer the garden produced an abundant crop of fine tomatoes. After getting them all picked, she laid them in a sunny, open spot where they could get just a little riper. Then while she worked in another part of the garden, a large gust of wind suddenly burst from out of nowhere, so strong that it knocked over the pail at her side.

She glanced at the sky and saw that it was black with threatening clouds. Then hail started to pelt the ground. Oh, no! Her tomatoes! There was no time to try to gather them together, so she ran into her cabin and started to talk to Mary about the whole situation. "All summer long I have worked on those tomatoes," she complained, "and now in a matter of a couple of hours, all that work will go to waste!" She prayed throughout the duration of the storm, and when it finally had passed, she stepped outside. Her heart sank when she saw the hailstones scattered far and wide - then it soared when she looked at the place where the tomatoes lay.

Just as if a protective canopy had been suspended over that one piece of ground covered with the tomatoes, that spot was completely clear of the hailstones that had fallen all around it. Not one hailstone had touched one tomato.