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Conversations with the Goertmanns

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. 

Frederick Goertmann (born 1922) and Agatha Mare Goertmann (born 1924)

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

Why didn't 72-year-old old Agatha Goertmann want us to come to her house? What would we find there - untold poverty and everything in disrepair, a cruel or drunken husband, a son or daughter with a shameful mental or physical condition? These questions lingered in our minds as we walked her home from church one cool and bright Sunday in October [of 1996].

The week before, Agatha had readily consented to an interview with us, but then she had hesitated a bit when she learned that our practice was to go to our subjects' homes rather than to have them come to ours. "Are you sure you don't want me to come to your house?" she had asked. "Yes," Sister Mary Elise assured her. "We will understand your life so much better if we can be with you in your own home."

The Home of Frederick and Agatha

Agatha's street looked like many of the little German neighborhoods we had seen in our part of Chelyabinsk. "Do many Germans live on this street?" Sister Mary Elise asked as we turned left from Prokatnaya Street. Not anymore, we were told. Before, Spiesses, Rohrs, Beckers, and other German families had lived in this neighborhood, but now the Goertmanns were surrounded by Russian and Tartar neighbors. The Germans who had not already died had migrated to Germany.

As Agatha led us though her front gate, I spotted a nice-looking car beside her house. No, we are not about to encounter a situation of desperate poverty, I thought to myself. When Agatha opened the front door for us, her husband quickly descended upon us from the kitchen where he was frying bacon. After precursory introductions all around, he whisked our coats off the hook where we had just placed them. "Those hooks are for work clothes," Agatha quietly explained.

We were then taken to the living room on the far end of the house, where her husband joined us. It didn't take long to notice that Frederick was an energetic man with a sharp and curious mind and an equally sharp tongue. Although Agatha had told him about us in advance and about the general purpose of our visit, there was obviously much more that he wanted to know before we could proceed.

As Sister Mary Elise answered his questions in the Volga German dialect that both of them could speak with ease, I quietly followed my usual routine of beginning to snap candid photographs of the people in the room. Because nearly every Russian whom I have ever met warms up to a camera as fast as an infant returns a smile, I almost jumped out of my shoes when I suddenly heard Frederick bark, "Das ist genug! (that is enough!)" I had taken only three pictures of him. I glanced at his face and there wasn't a trace of a smile. This man meant business. Was he the reason Agatha had not wanted to bring us into her home?

Further into the conversation, I understood enough German to know that Frederick wanted to know my age. It soon became evident that he had asked because I looked too young to be retired and if I wasn't retired, why wasn't I working at a "real job" like everyone my age? I was in a pickle. I decided that I would try to speak for myself, using my scant knowledge of Russian to communicate, instead of relying on Sister Mary Elise to speak for me in German.

I would not, I decided, launch into any explanations about Catholic sisters to a man who clearly had little knowledge of his wife's religious traditions and beliefs. I would not call myself a student, either, even though taking private Russian lessons had been consuming the lion's share of my time in Russia. No, I thought, I was here for an interview, and I would simply tell him that I am a journalist.

Wrong decision. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than he wanted to know where my credentials were. Why should he believe that I am a legitimate journalist? Maybe I am a spy! Maybe I am carrying a concealed tape recorder! The longer he spoke, however, the harder it became for him to hide a little smile forming at the corners of his mouth. Soon he shifted his attention from me back to Sister Mary Elise, and the two of them conversed in German again. But his wife so frequently interrupted him with one simple Russian word, "Khvatit! - meaning, "Enough!" - that I eventually understood he was, purely and simply, "a card"! 

He was saying all kinds of things, often in a feigned harsh tone, just to see what kind of reaction he would get. Soon all of us were laughing openly at many of the comments, but whenever it seemed as though he was crossing the boundaries of good taste, "\Khvatit!" again erupted from his wife's mouth - then a high-pitched little laugh that reminded me of the laughter that teachers try to suppress whenever they are disciplining a class clown who really is, after all, quite funny.

Once we felt quite comfortable with our hosts - and a natural break occurred in the conversation - we were invited to the kitchen for a simple lunch of fried bacon, fresh bread, apple kuchen, honey from a beehive that Frederick tends in the forest, black tea, and a popular Russian wine much like the Christian Brothers brand sold in the US.

Only after a long lunch punctuated with frequent hearty laughter did we get down to the business of the day - learning about the lives of two people who probably never would have met, much less married, if the policies of a mad dictator had not brought them together almost 50 years ago. For although both Frederick and Agatha had been born in villages on the hilly side of the Volga River, in those days they lived their lives worlds apart. In 1922 he had been born into a prosperous Lutheran family in Frank, still today a thriving little town of 3,000. In 1924 she had been born into a poor Catholic family in Seewald, a village that is now extinct.

A Kulak's Child: Frederick's Story

"Ich war ein Kulakskind" is how Frederick begins his story: "I was the child of a kulak." The scene of his parents' "crime" (prosperity earned by hard work) was the village of Frank. There his father, Karl Goertmann, had been born in 1890, and his mother, Katharina Brungardt, in 1898. When dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the liquidation of the kulaks in 1929, there was no question that the Goertmanns were wealthy enough to be considered enemies of the people. They owned four horses, four oxen, two cows, three pigs, and 20 sheep. Twelve members of the extended family, including a grandmother and grandfather, all shared one big house in Frank.

(Actually, if things had gone right for Frederick's father earlier in his life, he would never have needed to face the dreaded liquidation of the kulaks. Karl Goertmann and his beloved, Mathilda Brungardt, had emigrated to the United States in 1915, but once they reached Ellis Island, only Mathilda passed the health screening process. Karl was diagnosed with glaucoma, so U.S. immigration officials sent him back to Russia. Matilda went ahead and entered the country, settling either in Chicago or someplace in Washington State, and waited for Karl someday to find a way to join her.

As time passed, however, it became evident that he would never realize his dream of living in America. Mathilda then married someone else and, back in Frank, so did Karl; he married Mathilda's sister, Katerina. During the Goertmann couple's years in Frank, their union produced a daughter, Olinda, in 1918 and four strong sons: Karl in 1920, Frederick in 1922, Johannes in 1924, and Jacob in 1926. To this day, Frederick wonders whatever happened to his Aunt Mathilda, and he would welcome word from anyone in the United States who might know.)

In early 1930, the order for the Goertmann family's exile to the Dzhambul region of Kazakstan was ruthlessly and swiftly enforced, even though Mrs. Goertmann was close to bearing the fifth of her six healthy children. (Olinda had died in infancy.) When authorities came to arrest the family, all their property was seized except the basic requirements for their journey. Frederick recalls that his father was not even allowed to take along an extra pair of shoes that were found hidden under a quilt.

The family then was taken from Frank to Hussenbach by wagon and there was held captive for about a week, as kulak families throughout the area were rounded up like cattle. At last all of the deportees were herded, again like cattle, onto railroad boxcars for the long, arduous trip to Kazakstan.

About two weeks later, weary and dirty, they were deposited in an area that seemed like a vast wasteland, with nothing visible for miles around, not even a tree. Until 1934 the Goertmanns and another family, a total of perhaps a dozen people in all, shared a converted animal stable for a dwelling. There they lived like the farm animals they were displacing, not owning a stick of furniture and, at night, bedding down on straw mats on the floor.

Frederick's father, however, being a man of unflagging industry and resourcefulness, by 1934 was making important improvements for the family. He procured a milking cow and built his wife and children a new home. Twelve-year-old Frederick then began to enjoy something of a normal youth, at times pulling boyish pranks such as crossing a river on the back of a pig. ("Those pigs had lice the size of my thumbnail," he remarks today, grinning broadly and extending a thumb, his wife again exclaiming, "Khvatit!"

Life continued to improve for the Goertmanns - until the ugly clouds of war began to gather in the early 1940s. Then in 1942 as Hitler's soldiers advanced into Russia, the four oldest males in the Goertmann family were ordered into the Soviet trudarmiya. They were transported to Chelyabinsk, where they endured brutal labor camp conditions throughout the duration of the war - the ones who lived through it, that is. After one year and two months of heavy labor in Chelyabinsk, Frederick's father died of hunger. It was to be three more years before his mother would even learn the news, delivered to her by Frederick after he received permission to visit her in Kazakstan in 1946, the year after the war ended.

In the part of Chelyabinsk now known as the metallurgical region, Frederick worked in a steel plant and slept and ate in a barracks crammed with bunks for 300 men. Some days all that the men were given to eat was one loaf of bread for all 300, which they scrupulously divided into 300 portions so that each man would get at least something. The prisoners learned to be very resourceful in their search for food, and they also learned to eat almost anything.

They were frequently surprised at how good some things tasted. "In that situation you had only one constant thought, " Frederick observes today, "and that was, if you don't eat something, you are finished." One night in the middle of winter, he and some comrades on night watch duty covertly dug out of the ground a few pails of rotten potatoes. The men ate the potatoes after mashing them into patties, peelings and all. Other times they ate soup made from boiled grass and leaves. He says when he now thinks about some of the things he ate, he can hardly believe that he was ever that hungry.

Death constantly lurked nearby, threatening to destroy any man without a robust constitution and a strong will to live. During one especially difficult night, more than 20 men died. The next day, in a place behind the factory, the living were ordered to dig a huge common grave for the deceased. But in time so many prisoners died that there was no possibility of burying them all, and the bodies just piled up in the open.

In 1945 when the war ended, Frederick and his brothers, amazingly, had survived the ordeal that had killed their father. "It was very important that your country helped defeat Hitler," Frederick now adds as an afterthought "or else all of us today - both we here in Russia and you in America - might be living in the Third Reich."

In 1946, Frederick says with a tinge of mischief in his voice, he was given his freedom. Although the men were not actually free to leave Chelyabinsk or even to abandon their life in the barracks, in that year they were given permission to visit the labor camps of the women, who were being held in other parts of the city. One day on such a visit, blue-eyed Agatha Mare (pronounced "MA-reh") caught his fancy. Frederick struck up an acquaintance with her, the two began exchanging letters, and a year later, he says with a twinkle in his eye, "I paid three rubles for her." (That was the price of the couple's official marriage papers.

A Widow's Child: Agatha's Story

From her village on the Volga to a heavy labor camp in Chelyabinsk, Agatha's journey went by a different route and on a different timetable from Frederick's.

Her father, Johannes Mare (1896-1935), had been someone with ambitions that he was never able to realize. As a young man, Johannes had traveled from his native German village of Seewald to the Russian town of Krasny Kut, across the Volga River, to study agronomy. For some reason he could not finish his studies, but he returned to Seewald with the latest and best varieties of seeds to try on the farmland of his native village. He married another Seewalder, Angelina Schwaab (1901-1965), and became the father of six children, three of whom lived into adulthood. Those three were Agatha, born September 9, 1924; Andreas, born April 28, 1928, and Maria, born December 29, 1934.

As a child Agatha received a full seven years of education, the first four in her own village of Seewald and the following three in nearby Dietel. All instruction was done in the German language, except the hour when Russian was taught. Agatha studied all of the basic subjects plus a few others such as chemistry, but by far her favorite class was German. Both reading and writing in the German language were easy for her.

It wasn't until one day in the middle of 1935 that Agatha's childhood as anything but uneventful. While her father and several other men were working in the fields, a sudden rainstorm drove them to the shelter of a nearby tent. Before the storm had passed, her father and another man lay dead from a lightning strike. The remaining years of Agatha's childhood were dark and unpleasant. The year of her father's death was also the year that communists, renewing their efforts to stamp out religion in the countryside, razed her village's Catholic church.

Agatha remembers life on the collective as boring and difficult. Her mother, a tobacco field worker, was busy every day from early in the morning until late at night. Angelina Mare never remarried, so after the death of her husband, the sole responsibility of raising three children between the ages of 1 and 11 fell entirely on her.

At age 13, Agatha began working in the fields, too, by fulfilling such tedious tasks as picking weeds. When she was 17 war with Germany broke out, and in September of 1941, all the ethnic Germans of her village were rounded up for exile. Then, as Frederick's family had done 11 years earlier in Frank, Agatha's family packed only what they could carry as they waited for wagons to take them to Hussenbach, 25 kilometers away from there they boarded railroad boxcars that carried them to central Siberia. They arrived in Omsk on October 5. After disembarking from the train, they went another 400 kilometers north by river boat, to the site of the collective that was to be their new "home."

A little more than a year later, in January of 1943, all the women of Agatha's collective ages 16 and up were ordered into the trudarmiya in Chelyabinsk. No exceptions were made, not even for the mothers of infants and toddlers. (Who had to go into the trudarmiya and who could remain behind, Agatha explains, depended entirely on the inclinations and disposition of the Soviet commandant of any given collective. The commandant on hers was merciless.)

Because the month was January, the women could not go to the train station by the same river boats on which they had ridden in October of 1941. If they would have used horse-drawn wagons in the bitter cold, the animals' eyes would have frozen shut. So the women were ordered to walk. From January 9 to January 15, spending nights in homes that their Soviet guards commandeered along the way, they marched some 400 kilometers to Omsk. None of the marchers froze or starved to death, but Agatha was grateful for her felt boots and her father's heavy coat.

Living conditions that Agatha experienced in the women's camp in Chelyabinsk were similar to those of Frederick in the men's camp. She, too, was placed in a barracks divided into three rooms, 100 prisoners to a room. Her only protection from the cold were the clothes and bedding she had managed to carry from her home on the collective in central Siberia. She was assigned the heavy work of stoking the furnaces in an iron plant. She was blessed, however, with one important advantage to her new life in the women's camp: her commandant was a German Russian.

Unlike the men in Frederick's camp, the women in her camp were never mistreated or abused with derogatory terms like "fascists," "German pigs," and "Hitlerites." Although food was scarce, not one woman in her barracks died from hunger, cold, beating, or overwork.

Joys and Sorrows of the Postwar Years

Frederick and Agatha chuckle when they describe the places where they lived after their marriage in July of 1947. At first, all they had was a single rented room with only a few centimeters of space between the two Russian-style beds that otherwise filled the room. About a year later, they found a larger single-room dwelling and then had enough space for a small table between the two beds. On that table, Agatha placed a cherished first-anniversary gift from her husband, a hand-carved wooden box with a spring-open lid, made with precision and craftsmanship by a friend of his. Agatha still has that box and shows it off with obvious pride, but tears of laughter come to her eyes when she describes the first time a neighbor woman came to their little rented room and noticed the fine box on the table. "Oh, my," the woman exclaimed, "you are rich!"

In July of 1948, their first child was born, a son whom they named Alexander. He was soon joined by three sisters: Lydia in 1950, Maria in 1952, and Katya in 1957. The year 1957 also marked the beginning of construction on the house where the couple still lives today. Frederick built it all himself. After the war he continued to work at the steel and iron plant, remaining there until his retirement. Earlier this year, along with other retired steel makers, he was an integral part of a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the official establishment of the Metallurgical Region of Chelyabinsk.

The postwar years brought the Goertmanns their share of changes and, sometimes, tragedies. Worst of all were the accidental deaths of their daughter Katya and her husband in 1982. The couple was sleeping peacefully in their apartment when the oven in the kitchen began to leak gas. The following morning they did not awaken from their sleep.

In 1984 Agatha learned of the existence of a registered Catholic parish here in Chelyabinsk. She was told about it by her third cousin, Maria Puhl. (Readers may remember Maria as a friend of Katya Seib, featured in an earlier article in this series.) After that Agatha became a regular Sunday Mass attendant.

For Frederick and Agatha, partings of another kind have occurred more recently with their remaining daughters, Lydia and Maria. In search of better lives, both have emigrated to Germany. But their son Alexander, whom Sister Mary Elise and I met during the afternoon we spent with the Goertmanns, vows never to leave Russia. Why? He has seen Germany when he has visited his sisters, and it is ne-krasivy - not beautiful.

Speaking rapidly in Russian, he then passionately describes how much he would miss his hills, woods, and lakes if he ever had to live anywhere but here in the Urals. He has the soul of a Russian, I thought as I heard him speak. But he also has certain distinct gifts and inclinations that are probably reflections of his German background. Frederick and Agatha's house, for example, are filled with finely, crafted wooden items built by Alexander according to the style and methods taught him by his father.

Alexander also has his father's sense of humor. "I am as smart as a dog," he says in Russian when he refers to his ability to track a German conversation. "I understand everything I hear, but I just can't talk back!"