THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA
Working my way west towards Grigoriopol I kept below the ridge in what looked like a dried up culvert running parallel to the road. When I heard the sound of a car coming I climbed back up towards the road to see if it was Irina’s car. But, instead it was a Tiraspol police car. A wrecker followed close behind. Soon after a late model sedan with tinted windows appeared, all headed towards the accident scene.
Keeping out of sight, I turned and headed back down along the road towards the old German villages of Bergdorf, Neudorf and Gluckstal. Now, renamed Colosova, Carmanova, and Hlinaia during the Soviet era, the former colonies with their attached ‘collective farms’ looked uninhabited, almost ghostly, like the old ghetto near the cemetery.
When I asked Irina earlier that day if we could stop and explore the old settlements she refused my request.
“Why? There aren’t any villagers still living there. So, there is no one around to take us through them. Besides, we don’t have the time,” she said.
“But, it’s a part of the history of this region, and my research of these ethnic groups,” I countered back. Her deliberate excuses to deny me access to these places infuriated me. It also surprised me.
She just adamantly replied, “We can’t. That’s all. It’s not one on our allowed itinerary.”
“And why not? Those are the original villages of the German Russians, aren’t they? Even if no one lives there, can’t we go through them so I can get some video of it?”
“The terrain is too uneven. It’s not safe to drive through there, much less walk around. I am responsible to get you to the places assigned on our itinerary. That is all.”
She was right about that part. The road was full of deep ruts and grooves, looking as if left from old farm tractors or wagons. Irrigation streams had dried up, and a foul odor came from the wells no longer producing adequate water supply.
My bag snagged on something sticking up from the ground. Pieces of old farm plows lay rusting in their own grave, in a pocket of sunken earth. Not to pass up an opportunity I took out my camera again, focusing on the buildings and barns to get some shots. What was still standing looked abandoned, deserted.
A crunching, crackling sound came from behind. My reflexes were keenly acute and aware of any possibility, anymore, ready to react at a second’s notice. Quickly shoving my camera back into my bag, I scanned the ground for something to use to defend myself. Grabbing up a metal rod from the pile of refuse I waited, listening for the quiet irregular steps of someone, near.
Agonizing seconds passed when an old man appeared in the clearing. He stood staring at me, his face weathered and calloused. He was dressed in old dungarees and boots.
“Who are you? What are you doing here”?
Not sure what to say I stood staring back, my nerves on edge, rattled inside my cold, sweating skin.
“I’m sorry sir. I was just looking for a shortcut back to Grigoriopol from the graveyard in Transnistria. I missed my ride back, so cut through here. I thought it was deserted, so…”
He looked down at my bag and the metal rod I held tightly at my side. I could not be certain where he’d come from or how long he stood watching me from behind the trees, or even if he saw me snapping photos.
“This is private property. Please. Come with me. I will lead you back onto the road. Why are you carrying a suitcase if you are visiting the cemetery? Were you planning to stay a while, check in?”
OK. This old man has a sense of humor.
“No, sir. Just passing through, visiting.” I said with a nervous laugh. “Actually, I am an archivist from the United States. It is my job to photograph graves and document records and cemetery registries for families, working in connection with the archives here in Russia. I have to carry my cameras and equipment with me while working. The noise startled me. I was…, not sure who you were, so thought…”
“As I told you, this area is private, not open to the public.” he said, glancing at the metal rod I still held.
There was no other alternative but to trust him and follow him out of the brush. Nodding, I replied. “I’m sorry.” Tossing the rod back into the heap pile I let it go, hoping I would not regret my action.
Thinking to direct his attention away from my trespassing I went into my ‘reporter mode,’ hoping to dispel the unease and apprehension.
“Could you tell me a little bit about the history here? In Transnistria? Are there any residents still living in these little towns?” I asked.
“There are a few older ones still around.”
“When were the settlements founded?”
“The late 1700’s.”
“From where did the first colonists come?”
“Germany, Prussia, some from Austria and Wuertemberg.”
“What did they do for a living?”
“Most were farmers. Some worked at other trades.”
“Are you a descendant from one of the first families?”
A long pause followed, before he answered.
“My family was.”
“Were they all ethnic Germans?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Well, I’m a historian, an archivist. I want to learn the history of your people for my research. It’s my job.”
He turned to me, with cold, piercing dark eyes. “Our people suffered many things. They do not want foreigners uncovering their… exposing their past.”
Yikes! There’s nothing like getting belted in the gut with a direct comment like that. If he only he knew what I’d ‘uncovered’, ‘exposed’.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I did not mean to pry into your private life, it’s just that…you see my job is to help people in our country – in the United States – to learn about their ancestral families, maybe descendants still living here, get information of their whereabouts, make connections, learn their history, their story, and document it for future generations. That’s what we do.”
“Alright miss. I will tell you a little bit about us, but I will not give you names or allow you to go through here hunting for those still living. People here wish to remain anonymous about their past.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you. Whatever you can share is fine. And I am grateful.”
“In most things, they remained ‘ethnic German’. But, the Russians forced their own dialects and the Czar’s laws on us, even their Russian Orthodox Church. But, the Germans are a strong people. Proud and defiant. Most were thrown into the gulags because they refused to conform.”
“That is very sad. Was your family among those sent away?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry. Do you know what religion they belonged to when they came to Russia?”
“Most were Lutheran, or Catholic.”
“I see. Do you know if there were any Jews who settled here too, when the colonies were founded?” I asked boldly, not wanting to leave any stone unturned. After all, I am getting good at turning ‘stones.’
Another long pause before he answered.
“I read that the Jews had their own settlements in the Pale, but I just wondered if they had much contact with German colonists. Before, or after World War I.”
“My grandfather told about pious Jews who came from regions in Germany and Prussia when the early colonists came. And others that settled after, migrating here or there. The Orthodox Jews were always so righteous acting with their own set of rules. They built their own synagogues, but were burned to the ground by the Cossacks.”
“How sad. Do you know if the two ethnic groups ever got along? Colonizing and working together?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I was told about German farmers who taught the Jews how to farm, manage their village operations. But, the Jews wouldn’t listen to the Germans. They had their own ways. Then the government stepped in and made them move back into the cities. The rest you probably know, if you’re an ‘archivist'”, he said. There was more I wanted to know, but sensed he was through sharing things on the subject, so I stopped with the questions.
The sun had gone down, obscured into the horizon’s red, gold blur. The wind calmed. Only the sounds of crickets and night owls could be heard and our steps on the gravel road.
The man struggled with his gait, shuffling along, his limp becoming more noticeable as he walked. Bad knees or hip, maybe.
The soft glow of street lights in Grigoriopol could be seen from the road.
“I will leave you here to go the rest of the way by yourself. It is not far. Stay on this road and it will take you into town.”
“Thank you for your help and for sharing your story. I’m sorry, but I failed to get your name, sir.”
“It’s not important.”
“Oh. Well, thank you, just the same. Mine is Monica Mengelder.”
He nodded, as if anxious to be rid of me. Then turned, looking back.
“Did you say…Mengelder?” Furrowed eyebrows came together, and his eyes, penetrating with a look of consternation.
“Yes, sir. Monica Mengelder.”
“Well, good night, Ms. Mengelder. It is growing dark. You best be on your way. Please remember in the future, this area is off-limits. It is private property.”
“I will. Thank you.”
He nodded again, then turned around and headed east the way we had come, as I turned west towards the lights of Grigoriopol and Olga’s Inn.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)