Archive for the ‘German’ Tag

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIV, (14), Part 2 ‘Jacob’s Story’

Note: The below portion of ‘Jacob’s Story’ is Part two of a lengthy chapter. It will be continued in Part three, maybe four. The entire story, The Informant’s Agenda is fiction, but is based on actual facts and the history of ethnic and German Jews from Russia, and much of my 30+ yrs. of research on my own paternal German family from south Russia.  My story characters and plot are fiction, and were created to better tell their story. I want to thank those who are following the story, or just reading bits or pieces as they visit here and hope you have enjoyed the story. All comments, questions and feedback are always welcome. In between chapters posted here there will be other varied posts of poems, photos, misc. prose and writings with a few Christmas related ones coming up in the next two weeks.

Joyce E. Johnson

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‘Jacob’s Story’, Part two

“I will tell what I know. But, I was very young…when my father died, so…”

 “That will be fine. If you can start from the beginning of their settlement period that will help fill in the gaps of history I don’t have. Do you mind if I run my recorder while we talk?”

“No. I guess that is alright.”

“They came from Prussia, Germany, Wurttemberg, and other East European countries. They were given sections of land to farm by the Czarina, Catherine the Great in the late 1700 s. They first settled in Grigoriopol, but later migrated to villages in Bessarabia, or southwest Russia, a part of what is now known as Moldova. It joined the countries of Ukraine and Poland that was eventually partitioned and divided up between Romania, Prussia and Russia, all a part of the ‘Pale of Settlement.’”

“Was your family Jewish, then?” I asked.

“Yes. The Jews lived near the ethnic German colonists in villages of their own.”

“Has your family always been Jewish, or did they convert at some time?”

“They came here as Jews, but was told the Czar tried to conform them, make them convert to the Orthodox Russian faith. When the new laws were sanctioned the Czar claimed all the Jews and Germans must dress, talk and be educated alike, but neither group liked that. They wanted to keep their own culture, language, and traditions.”

Jacob continued.

“Many Jews converted to the Lutheran religion. When they were baptized, their names were modernized, their traditions, kosher diet, culture, all changed. It was during the “Age of Enlightenment,” when there were a lot of changes and reforms. Others refused to convert and kept to their Orthodox Jewish dress style and laws. They became known as the Hasidic Jews, very devout.  They were targeted by everyone because they were ‘different’. So, the pogroms continued. They were later blamed for all the wrong in the anarchy, for starting the revolution, Bolshevism, even assassinating the Czar.”

“What about your grandmother, Magdalena? Did she convert?”

“No. She did not want to be baptized.  Jews suffered terrible things when the pogroms came. She denounced God and would not believe in the Messiah sent to save us. She said, ‘There is no God that can change those things which we Jews have suffered.’”

“When the Christians talked about their Messiah we did not judge them if they did not judge us. God is the creator of love and does not judge us for our ignorance. When they continued to preach to us, we just continued to listen, patiently, even if we did not want to hear,” he said with a slight smile on his face looking at me.

“The Jews listened to the stories about a ‘Cross of Redemption’ which the Christians spoke about, teaching them from their Bible. Some tried to help the Jews and were kind in their heart, not just in deeds. When the Jews lived in the colonies the Germans taught them how to farm, grow gardens, harvest crops. They told about the Messiah sacrificing his life to save all.”

“But, my grandmother thought one must die first to be worthy of being saved. She said she felt as if she ‘died when the Cossack soldiers came’ and violated her, and said she, ‘lived in a hell that only the Jews could know.’ She could not understand how a man would give his life to die for the sins of all so that all would be reborn if only they believed”.

“The Czar’s laws were made to force restrictions on the Jews that would not convert. They could not own property, attend their synagogues, go to schools or universities, work as agriculturists any more, or reside in their villages. They were forced to move to the large cities. Revision Lists were drawn up forcing taxation, even when they lived in poverty”.

“It seemed at the time all the Jews were getting baptized so they could be like all the other Germans who were much better off. But they were really not much better off when the Bolsheviks came to power because even the Christian Germans were being taken away to Siberian prison camps by the train loads and most starved to death or were executed. That included Jews who were baptized if they became Christians. The Soviets took away all our freedom, our faiths and right to worship and closed down the churches and synagogues. It did not matter if you were Jew, Gentile or Christian. They all were taken away. Our family was spared that, though. I don’t know why. Maybe, because they still outwardly lived like Jews, because they were not Christians. But we were not spared later when worse horrors came”.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

 

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIII, ‘Revelation’

Chapter XIII

Revelation

 We called them our “coffee talks.” It was a recurring memory I had of grandmother Lisle making me more homesick for Nebraska.

We’d finished the pot of coffee long before. The plate of cookies sat empty too.

“Magdalena was Jewish! Like all the Mengelders, before they converted. It was a long-held secret your great-grandfather did not want known. In order to survive the pogroms and massacres of old Russia they denounced everything Jewish. Culture, diet, circumcision, all the orthodox traditions.”

She smiled, obviously enjoying my surprise and shock at the news.

“Wait a minute… the Mengelders were… Orthodox Jews?” I swallowed the remains of my cookie, and took a gulp of coffee. “And you and grandfather Jacob kept this a secret never telling any of us. Why? Why keep that information from us?”

“To spare the family, Moni from hatred, bigotry, and Antisemitism.  That is all the Jews had ever known wherever they lived. Of course, it was more widespread in East Europe than other places at the time. Jews from the ‘Pale’ lived in absolute poverty, shunned like outcasts. They were thought of as “unclean” themselves like the pork they refused to eat. When German Jews converted to the Christian faith they never talked about their past again, especially to immigration officials. They wanted to conform, to just be German. Later, they came to be known as the ‘Germans from Russia,’ but many of the real ethnic Germans did not want to associate even with the German Jews who converted. They were antisemitic, too.”

Journal pages contained entries about the Germans, Jews and exiled Christians who defied the government and regime during the Czarist, Bolshevik and Soviet era by speaking their mind, expressing their thoughts. Initials were included of those sent or taken away by the secret police during the night.   

The journal was their way of recording secretly or corporately the tragedies, pogroms, even critical opinions of the anarchy and Czar they suffered under, then the Bolsheviks and finally the Soviet era. It was a kaleidoscope of all they went through, a mix of everything endured in their lives, the happy and the sad, their despair, tears, cries, fears and prayers.

When I was finished documenting and updating files, saved and sent, I shut everything down and climbed into bed, completely drained from the long day. The nighttime pain relievers were becoming a regular habit. Within minutes I drifted off, asleep.

I ran clutching the journal, a speeding car chasing me once again down the same road I’d walked before. I tripped, stumbling in my effort to get away. The car came to a sudden halt behind me. Two men got out, walked to my crouching body as I tried to get up from the graveled road, tightly clutching by bag. Familiar faces, the men in the hallway at the consulate’s office in Odessa. One was the man in the accident on the road I had witnessed. They were not dressed in suits as before, but wore tunics with ballooned sleeves secured at the waist with wide belts, vests and suede boots like the Cossacks of old Russia. Thick fur hats covered their heads.  Long bushy mustaches grew wild above their mouths smelling of vodka. They laughed, prying the journal from my hands. I was forced to go with them as they shoved me into the back seat where another person sat waiting. I could not see that person’s face. It was too dark. But I heard a laugh, cynical, taunting. “Well, Monica we meet at last.”

Feeling trapped, I pushed frantically at a door, trying to get away, but it wasn’t a door, and I was not in a car. It was then I woke up, shivering in my bed.

Dear God, it was so real. What does all this mean? If only I could make sense of it.        

I did not know how deep or strong my roots were until I began to unearth my family’s secrets that lay buried like grandfather Jacob. They took possession of not only my past, but my present and future as well. God. What should I do?

The following morning I called Irina telling her I needed to take a few days off, catch up on some sleep and work on files in my room.

Massaging my stiff neck, I took a hot bath, dressed, walked up the street to the café for breakfast, and then took a long walk.

When I came back to my room, I opened up the journal to the last and final entry. It was 1944. Hitler’s army and SS occupied Russia…

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter VII, Part two, – ‘Discovery’

The Informant’s Agenda

Chapter VII, Part two

Discovery

Pridnestrovie Cemetery, Transnistria, Ukraine

Under layers of paper was an old book bound together with frayed shoelaces.

Brittle black leather binding no longer kept the pages intact, loosened and barely attached to thin threads from the spine when I pulled back the fragile cover. Stain, dirt, and the passing of time had yellowed the thick coarse pages making the handwriting almost illegible, but not impossible for one with keen transcribing skills and knowledge to decipher antiquated rare books. A pair of magnifying glasses from my bag brought the names, dates, and journal logs in closer as I turned carefully the fragile pages.

Oh, my… I can’t believe this! 

Guessing it could be maybe a hundred years old from the looks of the scrawled German script and dated entries I realized there had to be more than one person who recorded information, judging by the name or initials at the end of each entry. It had been remarkably preserved through the years wrapped in paper and protected in the tin. Loose scraps of paper with more notes were stuffed inside the tin, all the journal pages filled up.

The words of grandmother Lisle came back to me, as I sat staring blankly out across the steppes, the journal in my lap. She had a way of teaching us kids things in life using object lessons. One especially, I remember, when I was ten. Her freshly baked batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies – my favorite – sat cooling on the stove. With no one around, I took one, gobbled it down, then took another, just as she walked in. She always told me, “Moni. First, ask. Don’t just take something, unless you have permission.” She caught me eating the cookies, and reminded me of the rule, “It’s too close to dinner time. Dinner first, then dessert. But, since you have already eaten your cookies, you will not be allowed any with ice cream after dinner.”

Consequently, I went without my dessert after dinner.

The memory was still as fresh as the smell and taste of her cookies. As I sat contemplating whether I should take it, I tried to vindicate myself from the guilt, feeling like a thief.

It is the ultimate treasure! I cannot leave something this valuable behind. It will just rot in the earth, maybe never found, the truth never learned, a story never told. If I can transcribe its contents, it may disclose vital information on the history of this cemetery and its occupants. Maybe it holds the key to some of those padlocked doors, a portal to their world, their era. When I am through with it, scanned and transcribed it all, I will bring it back and return it. No one will ever have to know what I’ve found.

An hour had passed before I realized I was running late. Irina will be livid.

Wrapping the journal up in the paper I placed it back inside the tin and tucked it down into my backpack then patted the soil down around the hole and tried to reposition the gravestone again in its place. It was too heavy, so I gave up trying. After repacking my cameras and notebook I walked out of the cemetery with my bag.

With the journal I had no doubt that whatever wealth of information and history it held it would maybe help in answering some questions I’d had since coming here. What really happened with the German Jewish groups that settled in these parts? Did they go into hiding during the Holocaust? Were they discovered? Are there any still living?

It was all I could think about, all I could focus on right now, not worry about whether I was wrong in taking the journal.

Delving into the pages of history here was like entering a long, black tunnel. A dark, cold place to be, but the only way through, to find a way out. Feeling drawn to that tunnel now, I entered it, not knowing where it would lead, determined not to turn back.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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