Unaware I had drawn the stares of others in the café I sat tapping the fork on the rim of the plate, my food untouched, cold, my mind and thoughts thousands of miles away.
“Moni, your grandfather told me about an old journal their family had. A story his father passed down to him. The journal contained information on the family, their thoughts and things about the changes and political upheaval during the czar’s rein. He said they wrote even of the horrid pogroms. The journal stayed behind with family members who could not immigrate.”
“Are there any family members still living in Russia?” I asked her.
“Maybe. I don’t know. But, there was one,” she replied. “A long time ago, in the 1930 s, a woman, by the name of Magdalena. She was your great, great grandfather’s younger sister. The Russian officials told him once that her husband and children perished in the Stalin purges when they rounded up the Christians and political dissidents. They were exiled to Siberia. They were Christianized Germans. All died in the gulags, or prison camps, they were told. The authorities claimed they committed crimes against the state. A letter came once from another German villager telling him she was alive at that time. But they did not allow her to write or contact him. When the family inquired to the authorities about her they claimed they had no information at all except to say they could not locate her. All correspondence stopped after that letter.” Grandma continued.
“After World War II ended and reports of displaced persons and refugees were filed family members sent more inquiries out, this time to the International Red Cross. If she was still alive by the time the Nazis occupied Ukraine and Bessarabia she might not have survived especially then. She would have been perhaps in her seventies then.”
“You mean because she was ethnic German? Which put her in danger with the Russians if she sided with the Germans, accused of collaboration and all?” I asked.
Grandmother Lisle paused, sighing deeply, quiet for a while. “Possibly. But, she was probably not safe anywhere over there, particularly with the Germans!”
“Why? Wasn’t she Lutheran like the rest of the family? A “Christianized German,” like you said?”
“No, she was not.”
He was perhaps in his late seventies, hunched in the shoulders. His worn work clothes showed the signs of one who was used to the toils of hard labor. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead as we walked. His hair was graying, thinning, his skin with sun spots showing age and time spent outdoors.
Our chance encounter was not what I would call a coincidence, but rather one destined to help enlighten me on family secrets and histories buried here like the graves I documented.
He pointed to an area just down the street where shade trees hung heavy with limbs full of summer’s foliage and grass that grew thick and coarse. A little park nestled in the middle with old swings, slides and empty benches. We walked to one and sat down.
“Jacob, could you tell me what you know about your family? Where they came from? Where they settled”?
He nodded, quiet at first as if collecting his thoughts, then began. “I was born here in Transnistria, in Colosova. My families were farmers. My mother’s name was Raisya, my father was Anton. His family came from Wurttemberg, Germany, originally, but lived in Prussia before they immigrated to Bessarabia”.
“Were they part of the original German Lutheran groups of colonists that settled here in the early 1800 s”? I asked.
“The Mengelders were German, but they were not Lutheran.”
“Do you know the names of your relatives further back in the Mengelder family?”
“There was Johann, Adam, David, Rueben, Elizabeth, Jacob…” He went on, as he named all those on the Mengelder family graves in Pridnestrovie cemetery.
“My own grandfather’s name was Jacob. He always wanted to be known as just German, although his family were registered as Lutherans on church records. He always said that a ‘good German could be proud of their heritage.’” I said, smiling.
“Ms. Mengelder. I am not sure one can define an ethnic group either ‘good,’ or bad. It is like separating the blacks from whites, like they did in your country before your civil laws changed all that. There are good people to be found in any ethnicity. Just as evil touches all groups, there should be no divisions in race or religious affiliation.”
Jacob’s reply to my comment was like a firm rebuke, leaving me embarrassed over my remark, yet I did not feel the sting of his correction. It made me appreciate his perspective, and I felt admiration for this thought-provoking man.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)