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Conversations with the Stamms

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. 


Johannes STAMM (born 1934) and his wife Agnes WAGNER STAMM (born 1929) 

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

Ten years ago, 63-year-old Johannes STAMM had a cancerous lung removed, but he still chugs along just fine on his remaining healthy lung. In the summertime he spends long hours in his productive garden, and in every season he is busy simply being a loving husband and good provider for his wife. She relies on him a great deal because her one good eye no longer allows her to see any further than a few feet in front of her face. The other she lost in the war.

So he is missing a lung and she is missing an eye. Yet it would be hard to find two people with more life and vitality - of the quiet and durable kind - than Johannes and Agnes have. Perhaps that is because, from their earliest years, both have clung to life in the most desperate of circumstances. 

Exiled at Age Seven

Torn away from his native village on the Volga when he was only seven years old, Johannes does not remember much about life in Goebel. His family had lived "straight up from the bridge," his mother was a gardener on the kolkhoz, his father was a driver of horse-drawn wagons, and there was "always hunger." He and his sister Maria, three years younger, were the only children in the family. His father, Georg Stamm, was born a son of Johannes Stamm in 1910. His mother, Susanna, was born a daughter of Georg KONRAD, also in 1910. Johannes knows that he had an aunt, Katerina, and an uncle, Johannes, on his father's side, and three aunts on his mother's side - Elizabeth, Katerina, and Maria. And that is all he remembers about his relatives in the village of his birth.

In June of 1941, war with Germany broke out. In August, all the German-Russian families of Goebel were given 24 hours' notice to pack their bags for a long trip into exile. They were now considered unreliable, suspect citizens of the Soviet state. There was no time to butcher animals or to stock up on food, only time to gather together bare necessities and begin to worry and to pray. Soon little Johannes found himself herded with other villagers onto a cattle car headed for Tyumen Oblast in western Siberia. Although it was still summer on the Volga, by the time they reached their destination beyond the Ural Mountains, there was snow on the ground.

For at least two reasons, the exiles from Goebel were lucky. At least their cattle cars were heated. Each wagon had its own potbellied stove, and at stations and stops along the way, the exiles were permitted to gather wood for their stoves. That was one stroke of good fortune that had not befallen all German Russians who were sent into exile in that tragic year. The other was that the ethnic Russians of Tyumen Oblast gave the Volga Germs a cordial welcome into their midst. From kolkhozes all over the area, Russians met them with sleighs at the train station, then cheerfully drove them to their new dwellings. They never used insulting terms like "Nazis" and "fascists" against the exiles from European Russia.

The Stamms were given a large log cabin to share with one other family. A total of eight persons shared the cabin, which was divided into one large all-purpose room and a kitchen. The Stamms lived in that place for a year. That was the year when Johannes was to have begun school, but he did not attend classes because the lessons were in Russian and he could understand only German. A Russian boy named Anatoli became his best friend, however, and earnestly began teaching him how to speak Russian, using a combination of hand gestures and enactments with little toys. The following year, when the Stamms were ordered to another kolkhoz nearby, the two small boys remained friends and managed to continue visiting each other occasionally. 

Running Around Like Puppies

All in all, then, the year 1941 was not so very bad for the Stamm family from Goebel. But their relative good fortune did not hold out. Another child was born to them and died soon after his birth. Then in early 1942, Johannes' father was sent to the trudarmiya, into a small town near Sverdlosk called Krasna Turinsk. There, in a slave labor camp deep in the Siberian woods, Georg Stamm became a woodcutter and a log-hauler. "Men were used like draft animals," Johannes explains.

"They were forced to pull heavy wagons that were meant for animals to pull. If they didn't go fast enough, they were beaten." It was not unusual, under the heavy demands that were placed on them, for men to fall and die in their tracks. In fact, in 1944 Johannes' father was among the camp's many men who weakened and died.

By then Johannes was already living like an orphan, for in the previous year his mother also had been sent to a work camp. That had left nine-year-old Johannes and six-year-old Maria alone to fend for themselves.

At first the sympathetic Russian people of their kolkhoz had tried to care for the children of all the adult Germans who were being sent away to trudarmiya camps. They organized an orphanage headed by a very kind and talented Jewish woman who understood and loved children. Unfortunately, however, the people's hearts were larger than their pockets. With a war draining the people of their resources, food and money were scarce, and the humble kolkhozniks were unable to keep their orphanage open.

After that, little Johannes and Maria ran around "like puppies," searching for scraps of food wherever they could find them. Old gunny sacks became Johannes' shirts. For socks, he stuffed straw into his shoes. One time he and some other homeless children spied a slaughtered cow in a shed. At their first opportunity, they later snuck into the shed and stole the cow's hide so that they could make themselves some crude leather shoes and shirts.

Before releasing the children from the failed orphanage, the Jewish governess had taught all the children how to pray and how to sign themselves with the cross - in the Russian Orthodox manner. "Pray and you will survive," she had said to the children, most likely as her own heart was breaking. Unfortunately, however, prayer was not enough to save Johannes" little sister, Maria. She was just too young to take care of herself, and she eventually starved to death. Some kindly adults of the kolkhoz helped Johannes to bury his sister in a lonely place in the woods.

Such deaths were common during the war years, Johannes says. Buying young victims of neglect and starvation became routine.

"Didn't You Recognize Me?"

When the war ended in 1945, that did not mean the end of the detention of Johannes' mother in a trudarmiya work camp. It was not until 1947 that she again saw her son - and only because she had stolen away from her camp in Chelyabinsk without permission. Returning to the kolkhoz where she had left him, she walked its rugged dirt roads in search of him. When he caught a glimpse of her, he tried to hide from her. He was ashamed of his dirty, ragged appearance - and especially of the lice that were crawling all over him. When Mrs. Stamm saw him avoiding her, she approached him and asked, her voice full of hurt, "Didn't you recognize me?" Shyly, he answered, "Yes, right away. But I did not want you to see me like this."

In the meantime, a spiteful woman of the village had spotted Mrs. Stamm and reported her to local authorities. She felt sure that Mrs. Stamm was there without official permission (which she was). When an officer came to question Johannes' mother, however, the leader of the kolkhoz jumped to her defense. "This woman has lost two children already, and she has only one left." Why don't you leave her alone? Don't you see the lice eating him alive because he has no one to care for him?"

After the officer finished his interview with Johannes' mother, the compassionate leader quietly advised Mrs. Stamm to leave that very night. "You know the way," he said as he promised not to notice if she and Johannes fled into the woods. So that night they undertook the 18-kilometer trek to a station where they could catch a train back to Chelyabinsk.

That, then, was how Johannes became a resident of the city of Chelyabinsk. He came to live with his mother in a trudarmiya barracks that she shared with other detainees. For the first time in his life, at age 13, he enrolled in school. After four years of formal education, he began his life's work as a smith. 

Born a Catholic

The people in the barracks where the Stamms lived were Catholics who often prayed together in secret - remaining very quiet, covering all the windows, and posting sentries outside the barracks. Johannes was one of the young men who frequently assumed guard duty for the Catholic prayer group. Across from his barracks, with only an outhouse between the two structures, stood another barracks where a young Catholic woman named Agnes Wagner lived. It was only a matter of time before the two young people met and realized how much they had in common, most notably a lively Catholic faith that claimed their unflagging loyalty.

"As we like to say," Agnes interrupts as we reach this part of her husband's story, "we were born Catholics, we will remain Catholics, we will live as Catholics, and we will die as Catholics."

Indeed, these days the commitment of Johannes and Agnes is evident in the great distance they travel each Sunday, in all kinds of weather, to attend Mass in the little house church on Domenniya Street. Simply coming to the church, staying for Mass, and then returning to their home on the city's northwest side is an all-day excursion for them.

Agnes' Origins

Agnes (WAGNER) STAMM was born in Ukraine, the youngest of eight children of Joseph Wagner and Cecilia (FELLER) Wagner. Like her husband Johannes, Agnes can also claim roots in Russia's Volga region, for her mother had been born in the Volga town of Marienthal in 1893. Somehow or other, though, Cecilia Feller had ended up in the Ukrainian village of Yeremayevka in Odessa Oblast, where she became the wife of Joseph Wagner, who had been born there in 1885.

After Agnes' oldest brother, Daniel, was born in 1911, other children born into the Wagner family were Francisca, Helena, Agatha, Magdalena, Joseph, Maria - and finally, Agnes. (The family members who remain alive today are Francisca and Helena, who have emigrated to Germany, and 
Magdalena, who lives in Chelyabinsk.)

Agnes' mother told her that when Agnes was born in 1929, the family had a good life in Yeremayevka. They owned a house, land, and a vineyard. In 1930, however, they quickly found themselves among thousands of prosperous, industrious Soviet citizens whom Stalinists had condemned as kulaks - oppressors of the poor, enemies of the state. During the time of the liquidation of the kulaks, it was almost automatically assumed that if someone owned anything of worth - a horse, a cow, a wheat field, a vineyard - that person had cheated a neighbor in order to get it.

All kulaks and their families were punished severely. It did not matter if there was any truth to the charges made against them. Truth was beside the point. The point was seizing their holdings for purposes of redistribution among the poor and the landless (and also, all too often, among the shiftless).

In 1930, Joseph Wagner, his wife, and his eight children were turned out of their home and were ordered to board a northbound train. Just as they and other dispossessed families were about to take that train, a man on horseback came galloping up to them and breathlessly said that they did not have to leave, after all. However, none of the families would be allowed to return to their homes.

Outcasts in Their Own Village

What to do and where to go? Joseph Wagner wandered from one relative to another, from one acquaintance to another, until he found someone willing to give his family an animal shed in which to live. Then he found work as a shepherd on a local kolkhoz. That proved not to be a lasting solution to his problems, however. As time passed, the leader of the kolkhoz refused to give him his share of the produce for the work that he did. Joseph was called a dirty, lowdown kulak who did not deserve any pay.

Now what to do? At a stone quarry six kilometers away, Joseph found new work, making barrels and wagon wheels for the equipment used in the hauling of stone. He moved his family there, where for shelter they received a room in a barracks. The place, called Yoos Quarry, was located in the district of Bilayevka.

Then in 1936, as part of a stepped-up campaign against the kulaks, Joseph was arrested and held in an Odessa prison. Three months later, he was allowed to return to his family, but it turned out not to be for long. In June of 1937, he again was arrested. The family never saw him again.

Before being taken the second and final time, however, Joseph had sent his three oldest children into hiding, warning them that, as adult children of a kulak, they might be taken next. It was not until 56 years later that surviving members of the family learned what had happened to their father in that summer of 1937. As two of Agnes' sisters got their papers in order to emigrate to Germany, they learned that, on August 25, their father had been shot and thrown into a common grave.

The following year, 1938, brought the eviction of Cecilia Wagner and her five remaining children from their home in the barracks. They were told to return to Yeremayevka because they did not have official residency papers for Yoos Quarry. It was fall. They realized that they could no longer try to stay together as a family, so Agatha and Magdalena went to a city to seek work as household servants. That left Mrs. Wagner and her three youngest children to seek shelter somewhere in Yeremayevka, where the practice of shunning \kulaks remained as strong as ever. The family was forced to live in a dugout, while their mother worked on the local kolkhoz in a vegetable-raising brigade.

In 1939 new problems arose when the officials in Yeremayevka claimed that the Wagners were lacking official residency papers for their village, too. What they really wanted was a financial bribe, but Mrs. Wagner did not have that kind of money. The family had lost everything they owned years before. Mrs. Wagner could not speak good Russian and feared that she would never be able to get the situation worked out by herself. So she sent for her daughter Helena, whose Russian was fluent, and asked Helena to approach the ranking local official about the matter.

The man knew and liked Helena and, immediately upon seeing her, was eager to help. Upon examining the official record, he noted that Mrs. Wagner indeed had failed to meet a registration deadline and could be imprisoned for her negligence. But he promised to see what he could do for the distressed family. Three days later, the Wagners had everything they needed - signed, stamped, and sealed - to remain in Yeremayevka with no further questioning or harrassment.

The new decade began on an ominous note when, in 1940, Agnes' sister Agatha died. (She was one of the two girls who had sought work in a city.) Then on June 22, 1941, war with Germany broke out. In August, Hitler's army marched into Yeremayevka. On August 13, Yeremayevka was bombed. During the devastating attack, Agatha's sister, Maria, lost her life. Agatha lost an eye.

Life under the Nazis

Nazis then began an occupation of Yeremayevka that lasted until March 16, 1944. One of the first things the army did was to return homes and property to their original owners, so Mrs. Wagner was moved back into the beautiful house she had once shared with her husband and eight children. By this time, however, she was able to share it with only Joseph and Agnes, her two youngest children.

A little more than two years later, when the tide of the war had turned against Germany, the occupying army needed to plan a hasty retreat from Yeremayevka. All village residents of German ethnic background were commanded either to join the army in its retreat or to face death by hanging. Choosing life over death, Cecilia Wagner and her teenaged children, Joseph and Agnes, soon were riding a train headed for Nazi-occupied Poland. Immediately upon their arrival on July 1, 1944, 
they were given a home seized from its Polish occupants. Then Joseph was drafted into the Nazi army.

Six months later, new orders came for Mrs. Wagner and her daughter Agnes to go to Berlin. At first the two lived in a hotel, along with other refugees. Then one day all the refugees in the hotel were gathered together, and people from the surrounding area were invited to come and pick out individuals and families to share their homes with. A kindly woman named Frau GRISCH picked Agnes out of the crowd, saying, "That girl is mine. She will be my daughter." With those words, she took Agnes and Mrs. Wagner home with her and loved them like her own family members throughout the remaining days of the war.

On May 9, 1945, the war ended in defeat for Germany. The Russian army came to occupy the village where Agnes and her mother were living with Frau Grisch, and they, along with all her Russian citizens of German background, were sent to a detention camp within occupied Germany. Then in July, Agnes and her mother were put on a train headed for the European Russian city of Vologda, far to the north, in a heavily wooded area.

They arrived in October 1945 and joined other prisoners who were housed in barracks and put to work as woodcutters in the forest. Each worker was given only six grams of bread a day - little more than two ounces. Mrs. Wagner did not receive an allotment because by then she was too old to work. Agnes always shared her portion with her mother.

In the summertime life was unbearable because of all the giant mosquitoes that bred in the nearby swamps. In the wintertime life was unbearable because of the heavy snow and severe cold of the north. After four years in the camp, people began dying in droves. The work was too heavy, the living conditions were too poor, and there was never enough food to eat. Agnes remembers that whole families at a time were wiped out - mothers with three or four children. Wherever the victims dropped in the snow and died, there they remained.

A Prophetic Dream

For eight years Agnes and her mother lived in that place, not learning anything of the fate of other family members, not knowing who among them was dead or remained alive. Then one night Agnes had a strange and vivid dream. She saw a huge tree, and she felt an urge to run up to it and throw her arms around it. When she did this, she saw that her father was standing on the other side of it. He was severely wounded, and blood gushing out of a bullethole in his arm was flowing into the ground all around him. The dream was so vivid that Agnes felt compelled to ask another woman in the camp about it, a woman known for her ability to interpret dreams. "I think that you will soon receive good news about your relatives," the woman said.

One day soon after that, the commandant of the camp approached her and asked, "Do you have a sister?" She replied, "I once had many sisters, but I don't know if I have them anymore." Then he said that a letter had arrived for her from Chelyabinsk, from a woman claiming to be her sister.

Agnes' joy knew no bounds when she opened and read the letter from her sister Magdalena. She learned that Magdalena had been sent to a trudarmiya camp in Chelyabinsk during the war and that now she was happily married and had a son. Magdalena explained that she had been doing everything to try to locate lost family members, including writing to Moscow for information. She invited her mother and her sister to come join her in Chelyabinsk.

A year later, Agnes and Mrs. Wagner received their permission to go. By then, however, life in the camp had improved so much that Agnes was having her doubts about making another major change in life. When her mother said, "I want to see my other daughter," Agnes realized how heartbroken her mother would be if they did not go to Chelyabinsk. The commandant solicitously saw to all the details of their travel arrangements, even providing them with an escort for company and protection. Agnes remembers well the date of their departure May 27, 1953.

On June 1, the two women and their escort arrived in the big downtown train station in Chelyabinsk, a busy, bustling place. Agnes and Mrs. Wagner kept scanning the crowd for anyone who might resemble Magdalena, but they really were not sure what she would look like after all those years of separation. Worried and anxious, Agnes and her mother separated to continue their search for Magdalena.

Then when they got back together again, Agnes decided that her only choice was to venture alone into the city to locate the street where her sister lived. Her mother panicked at the thought of being left behind in the train station. She worried that Agnes would get lost and they would never see each other again. "I have a tongue," Agnes tried to reassure her. "Don't worry, as long as I have a tongue, I can ask questions and be shown the way."

As Agnes began asking for directions, people warned her that she had a long distance to travel. The barracks were far from the train station, they said. When she finally made her way to her sister's barracks, the two had a joyful reunion. "You were so little when I last saw you. Now you are big. I didn't know you!" Magdalena exclaimed. She had been to the train station earlier that day, but had not found a familiar-looking pair of women and had returned home in despair. The two sisters immediately returned to the train station to bring their 60-year-old mother to her new home.

A year later, on June 9, 1954, Cecilia Wagner died. Agnes thought she would never stop crying.

Hard Work, Continual Prayer, and Strict Silence

When she was 26 and he was 21, Agnes met and married Johannes Stamm, the devout young man who lived in the barracks next door. Their first child, Victor, was born on December 1, 1955. The couple recall with amusement the night of their Catholic marriage ceremony in February of the following year. As a visiting priest from Kopeysk, Father Johannes, secretly led the marriage ritual in the barracks where they lived, Agnes held her eight-month-old firstborn in her arms. That same night, baby Victor was baptized.

The Stamms had three more children in the subsequent years. Lydia, born June 22, 1957; Maria, born May 12, 1959; and Helena, born July 20, 1963. Their life together has been full of hard work, continual prayer, and - until fairly recently - disciplined silence about the secret practice of their Catholic faith.

In fact, silence is a discipline that has not yet entirely left Johannes and Agnes, as it has not left many German Russians living in the Chelyabinsk area. For more than one reason, it is not uncommon for today's German Russians to refuse to share their stories for publication in the United States. Yet Johannes and Agnes were willing to take the risk of telling us about their life experiences. May their trust in us, their interviewers, and in you, the readers of their story, be rewarded with the blessings that only God can give.