ESCAPE FROM BRUNNENTAL — 1921/1922 —-As published in the Summer 1994 Issue of the Frank/Brunnental Village Newsletter For more information, contact Sherrie (Gettman) Stahl, 4189 NW Spoon Pl, Portland OR 97229 USA / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Updated 3/2006
Several accounts have been written about the escapes from Brunnental during the early 1920’s. These have appeared in several issues of the AHSGR Journal (Spring ’82, Summer ’82 and Fall ’82). In these articles, the author, Adam Giesinger, gives us an excellent account of the history leading up to this exodus and tells us what was going on in the Volga colonies at this time. I would like to use direct quotes from his articles to give you a little history about that time period. Then we will bring to you several personal accounts from 3 different families, describing what it was like during that era in Brunnental and personal memories of their escapes from Russia.
But first, a little history according to Adam Giesinger: “During the years 1918-1920 the Bolshevik (Communist) regime, which had seized power in Russia in November 1917, was locked in a desperate struggle with the so-called “White” armies, led by former generals of the old regime. To feed its soldiers and its working class supporters in the cities, the “Red” government resorted to ruthless requisitioning of grain and livestock from the peasants, depriving them of nearly all reserves of food. When a crop failure hit the Volga region in 1920, there were immediate food shortages and soon widespread famine. The Volga farmers, both German and Russian, blamed the Red regime and its local collaborators, and in the spring of 1921 rose in armed insurrection against them. By this time all German villages had some Communists among their own people, mainly such as had been poor before the revolution and now saw hopes of bettering themselves. Won over by Red propaganda, they collaborated with the regime against their better-off-brothers, which led to bitter feuding within the villages and eventually to unbelievable cruelties on both sides.”
Then in another story Adam Geisinger goes on to say:
“An important factor in causing the flight of many German families was a traveling revolutionary tribunal which visited their villages in the early summer of 1921. The purpose of this special court was to mete out punishment to those suspected of having participated in or sympathized with the uprising against Communist rule in the Volga region during March and April 1921.”
“The uprising was a reaction against the violent requisitioning of grain and livestock in the preceding months, which left many families destitute and facing death by starvation. Both German colonists and their Russian neighbors rose up against the oppressors, the Communist officials and their local stooges, and killed many of them….eventually the Red Guard were sent in to suppress the insurrection.”
“When peace had been restored in this fashion, a traveling revolutionary court visited all villages to punish suspected participants in the uprising. The following article appeared in Mitteilungblatt der deutschen Arbeiterkommune zu Katharinenstadt (Newssheet of the German Labor Commune at Katharinenestadt). It was brought out of Russia by an individual and was published in the semimonthly Heimkehr in Germany. It read as follows:” “To liquidate banditry, by decision of the Traveling Session of the Battlefied Revolutionary Tribunal, the following persons from the village of Brunnental, dangerous elements, active participants in the insurrection,leaders of bands and known enemies of the Soviet government–
The following were shot:
1. Wilhelm Wacker, son of Heinrich, age 28
2. Friedrich Kister, son of Konrad, 47
3. Konrad Gruenwald, son of Heinrich, 43
4. Konrad Gruenwald, son of Georg, 61
5. Alexander Schaefer, son of Karl, 32
6. Heinrich Koch, son of Heinrich, 62
7. Wilhelm Schauermann, son of Georg, 32
8. Johannes Bier, son of Philipp, 48
The following were shot continued….
9. Johann Hartung, son of Heinrich, 35
10. Heinrich Hartung, son of Johann, 35
11. Konrad Ohlenberger, son of Jakob, 40
12. Georg Schauermann, osn of Johann, 40
13. Heinrich Wiederspahn, son of Adam, 23
14. Heinrich Stroh, son of Heinrich, 40
15. Heinrich Hardt, son of Heinrich, 37
Condemned to 5 years’ imprisonment were:
1. Johann Becker, son of Jakob
2. Georg Seibel, son of Georg
3. Jakob Weber, son of Jakob
4. Jakob Gruenwald, son of Heinrich
5. Leonhard Seibel, son of Leonhard
6. Daniel Stroh, son of Friedrich
Condemned to death by shooting, conditionally:
1. Johann Seibel, son of Nikolaus
2. Karl Klein, son of Heinrich
3. Konrad Becker, son of Konrad
4. Benjamin Kister, son of Benjamin
5. Georg Wittenberger, son of Friedrich
6. Jakob Mueller, son of Johann
7. Wilhelm Schmidt, son of Georg
Condemned to five years’ imprisonment conditionally:
1. Jakob Borger, son of Helferich
2. Jakob Loebsack, son of Heinrich
3. Alexander Schauermann, son of Heinrich…Giesinger also tells us about one group of Brunnentalers that left in 1921. He writes in the Fall 1982 AHSGR Journal (p. 21 – 26):
“The many thousands of Volga Germans who fled from their homes in 1921, left mainly because they were afraid of dying of starvation, but also because they were unhappy about the bitter atmosphere that existed within their villages.”
“On the Wiesenseite was the Protestant village of Brunnental. Many of its people also fled from their homes in 1921. One of the Brunnental refugees of that period, now living in Calgary, has written a brief story of his life. His family left Brunnental in the late fall of 1921 and traveled by wagon to the nearest railroad town, Krasny Kut. Here, 42 persons, presumably all from Brunnental, boarded a small freight car, in which they lived for six weeks on the road to Minsk. Other groups from their village came in a similar way. At Minsk they found shelter in a large partially destroyed building; and by working or begging for food, most of them managed to survive a hard winter. In most families some family members died. The rest were saved by the German Red Cross and brought to Germany in December 1922. Brunnental refugees who arrived at Frankfurt on 9 December 1922 were 68 persons, numbers 57 to 124 incl. On the list.” [see list at end of this article]
Now that you have a better idea of what was going on in Brunnental at this time in history, let me now bring to you a story that first appeared in the Sun Country Review, Sunday, June 30, 1991 in northern Wyoming. This story was written by Terri Tidwell, staff writer, and tells us the story of the KISTERs and the STEINMETZs who left Brunnental in 1921. I have also received accounts from both the Kister & Steinmetz/Weber families giving the exact same accounts of their escape from Brunnental:
‘Like a child out of fire’
OUT OF REVOLUTION TO THE ‘LAND OF OPPORTUNITY’
It had to be better than what they had. America was the land of opportunity, and Ben Kister had an eye for opportunity. The year was 1921 and times were horrible in the Soviet Union. According to history books and an oral history by Ben Kister, his forefathers “had come to Russia from Germany on the invitation of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. The Germans coming into Russia, settled along the Volga River, on both sides, in colonies. They became known as the Volga Germans. They were there for about 150 years.”
“Then, during the Russian Revolution in 1918 and on, Stalin completely annihilated these colonies, either killing the inhabitants or sending them to Siberia to work out their living in the cold wilderness”.
Ben Kister was born in Brunnental, Russia, in 1896. His father died when he was 3 years old. Three years later, his mother remarried, to Jacob Kindsfather. Ben stayed with his paternal grandparents and his maternal uncles after his mother and Kindsfather were married. The newly married couple went voluntarily to Siberia and the new colonies. Ben’s mother died of blood poisoning there after having a son, Ben’s half-brother, Jake Kindsfather. Jacob married again and came to America in about 1905.
Ben went on his own at age 17 and began working for Conrad Steinmetz. There, he met his future wife, Anna Maria Steinmetz, the boss’ daughter. In 1914, Ben was called into World War I for three years.
On Nov. 18, 1918, he married Anna Maria Steinmetz. Two months later, he was called into the army again — this time to fight in the Russian Revolution. For two and 1/2 years he fought for the White
(Byelorussians). He was captured by the Reds (the revolutionaries) and lined up with a group of other prisoners in front of an open pit. Across the pit was the firing squad. The guns of the firing squad erupted. When the smoke cleared, only Ben Kister was left standing. His intended bullet had misfired.
Ben was told, “We only shoot at a man once. Go free!” [notice that Ben Kister’s name appears on the list of men who were sentenced to be shot, conditionally….on page??].
A BOLD DECISION
Feeling that God’s hand had saved and was guiding his life, he was determined to make things better for his wife and young son, Victor. He was not going to return to the army. According to information gathered by Jeannette Hunter from Maria Steinmetz, Anna Maria’s sister, the following incidents contributed to the exodus of the Kister family from their home country.
1) The Russians came to Brunnental one night and shot 25 men. These men were buried in one common grave.
2) A cousin to the Steinmetz family was thought to be a traitor because he ran away when the Russian soldiers came to the village. They caught him and shot him on the school steps. They made everyone in the village watch. The bullet marks and blood could be seen for a long time as a reminder.
3) There was a mentally retarded man in their village who was so afraid of the Russians that when the soldiers came to the village, he ran and hid in the church steeple. The soldiers forced him down, tortured him and finally dismembered him, again forcing the villagers to watch.
4) Ben’s brother-in-law, Jake Steinmetz, left the army without leave to come home when his wife was due to have a baby. The Russians came to find him, but Jake was in hiding. They threatened to take his wife, but she was due to deliver, so they were going to take him mother instead. Maria stood between her mother and the soldiers and asked if they would take her instead of the mother. For 12 days, Maria was held captive. Each day the soldiers held a knife to her throat and asked her where her brother was.
If she told she would be killed, so she denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. She was released after Jake returned secretly to the army. According to Victor Kister, Maria Steinmetz was chosen by her mother to come to America with her older sister. Anna Maria had wanted to take her youngest sister, a 14 year-old. But Grandma Steinmetz said, “I will let Maria go — she’s 21 and you do need someone to go with you into this strange land”. (Ironically, several years later, the sister left behind, starved to death with her husband and two children. The only Steinmetz brother was shot and killed for refusing to join the Communist party or deny his God. His wife and five children were sent to outer Siberia to fend for themselves. They survived. Victor said, “Am I ever glad Dad had the courage to leave Russia. Their fate could have been ours”.)
OUT OF THE FIRE:
Ben Kister arranged a train trip on a stock car out of Russia [According to a letter written by Anna Maria Kister in 1922, she explained that they left on September 4th, 1921 along with 6 other families from Brunnental by renting a boxcar in Kraemuzei for 3 million rubles to take them to Smolenska.] While aboard the stock car, a man who knew that Ben Kister was AWOL from the army threatened to turn Kister in at the end of the ride. The rest of the occupants told him that if he did say anything, they would kill him. The man stayed quiet and the Kister family, Ben, Anna Maria, Victor and Marie (later Mrs. Joseph Weber) made it to the Russian border. Not everyone did. Disease was rampant and many died. In order to protect the health of the rest of the passengers, the bodies were thrown
off the train. Maria said, “God took us out of Russia like a child out of a fire”. Minsk was the border town. Trying to get across the border into Poland, they found their Russian rubles were worthless. Ben worked on the railroad, digging up the ground for the railroad ties for six weeks to earn the money necessary to buy Polish papers. Anna Maria had given birth to another son, Emil, but he died after six weeks. They arrived in Poland in November 1921 and posed as Polish prisoners so they could get to East
Prussia (Germany). With the crowded and miserable living conditions, life was no better than in Russia. Lice infested all the clothes. And in the large unheated barn-like structure, they were fed along with the other 1,000 gathered there. They cooked their food in a big can with a chimney in the middle of it. They heated water for tea in the chimney. Still people were dying. According to Maria Steinmetz, “Every day, they’d bring 4 or 5 people out of the building….there were so many sick people at this place.
[According to Anna Maria, they stayed there 2 months]
“The Polish talked to us in their language, but I couldn’t understand them because I only spoke Russian and German.” Ben said in a recorded interview. “There was a delegation from the German consulate and then we had to confess that we wanted to go to Germany. From then on, they took are of us.”
The German Red Cross provided the trip to Germany. They arrived in Frankfurt on November 18, 1921. [According to letters written by Anna Maria Kister, they arrived in Germany on November 10th, 1921, broke, with only light blanket and pillows, as all other items brought with them had been sold or stolen.]
COMING TO AMERICA:
The family stayed at a concentration camp for almost 4 months, until March 27, 1922, when the family went to work on an estate – Lansgrit Kirusheim — near Rotflies, Germany. Daughter Frieda was born there. Maria worked as a maid and Ben worked in the fields, then they moved to a bigger estate owned by Herr Von Damm. According to Maria, “They worked with horses in the field. They raised rye and potatoes for the farmer. The men would mow the grain down by hand with a scythe and the women would tie the grain together in bundles.” Anna Maria was very sick at this time, and Victor said, “Maria
Steinmetz was like a second mother to me”. For nearly four years, they waited for a visa to America, eking out an existence best they could. In their last two years in Germany, the family managed to acquire one cow, one hog and five or six chickens. During this time, the family was writing letters to relatives in America. First, to Lena Hoffman of Loveland, Colorado, a cousin of Anna Maria’s. When no help was forthcoming from that source, Ben wrote to his step-father, a man with whom he had never lived.
“My step-father and my step-brother, Jacob and Jake Jr. were living here in Worland, Wyoming, and they sent me the ticket”, Ben said. “Then I owed it to them to repay it. There were five of us — me, my wife and two small children, and my wife’s sister, Maria.”, said Ben in an oral interview in 1963.
They arrived at Ellis Island Nov. 9, 1925, finally arriving in Casper Wyoming in the early morning of Nov. 18. Victor Kister recalls his mother’s first reaction to the Big Horn Basin.
“First, all that barren stretch from Casper, then when entering the Wind River Canyon she said, ‘This has to be the gateway to hell’. She wanted to move to Colorado or Idaho where she had relatives, but we were so indebted to Mr. Kindsfather that we couldn’t leave.”
“By the time we paid him off, we had found solace and refuge in the German church that had just been started (Zion Lutheran), plus the community saw we were honest, hardworking people. They accepted us and treated us fairly, ” Victor said. In the 1963 oral interview, Ben recalled his first impression of Worland.
“There were about 1,000 living here at the time. Streets were muddy ruts. My first impression was, ‘If only I had the money to leave.’ But we were too badly in debt to leave. We stayed on and have been here ever since. I think this is a good place to work and prosper. Worland is one of the cleanest and friendliest towns in Wyoming.”
AT LAST, FREE TO PROSPER:
At first, times weren’t a whole lot better, even in America. “The first winter, I fed lambs for Gus Klein for $65 a month. After seven months, we moved across the (Big Horn) on one of Alex Healy’s unimproved farms. I worked at any job available — stacking hay (and) digging ditches by hand and then laying the tile in them along with John Bihr. My wife and small children hoed beans. In the fall, we worked beets for Henry Leikam. After a lot of hard work and sweat, we paid off our debt in 2 1/2 years,” Ben said in the oral interview.
Not only were they in a strange land, but they also had a language barrier to overcome.
In the oral interview, Ben continued, “I remember what a difficult time I had in working all day and then trying to study a little English at night. John Bihr helped me some with this.” He became proficient in English, becoming fluent in three languages– German, Russian and English.
Victor recalled being present at a wrestling match between his father and John Wessell.
“My Dad, Ben, was a strong, muscular man of six feet. Dad was quite adept in jitsu, karate and wrestling. See why I behaved, always? One time Mr. John Wessell, a big, burly blacksmith here challenged Dad to a round of wrestling. John Wessell thought he was the strong man in town”,
“After a few spars, John was laying on the floor pleading for mercy. He was a big German man and liked Dad, but now respected him. Dad did a lot of this in the army and just for exercise in youth. Yet Dad was a calm gentle, moral person. Very knowledgeable and interested in a broad scope of things.”
In 1934, Ben was able to purchase the farm he had been renting since 1932, the farm owned by Bill Pulliam north of town.
“We worked hard at farming and feeding livestock and have made a living ever since,” Ben said. “Two more parcels of land, 40 acres each, of alkali and sage brush were purchased from the county and added to the north of the farm. These two 40s were hard to manage for several years, but with constantly working the soil and using good farming practices, it has improved from very poor yields to a commendable income.”
In this same interview, Ben said, “Church and school were the recreation for the kids; Victor played some in church ballgames. I had too much work to do to let him play in the teams at school. There was
leveling, plowing and lots of work.” Victor became a partner in 1942, a year after his marriage to
Millie Lehman, and the father and son bought another 75 acres from the Wallace estate.
In 1943, one year after his marriage to Frieda Kister, Leo Scheuerman became the third partner. Four years later, the Mileski place was added to the growing Kister holdings.
“In 1948, I sold out to Victor and Leo, and let them take over, being content with just the rent,” said Ben in the 1963 interview. “I have always lived on the original farm and still do”.”Through all these years, Zion Lutheran Church has been my church home [this is the church located on 15th Street and Circle Road] and I have served many different capacities of the church, ” he said. “My family and I attended church every Sunday. Above all, my belief in God and in His power, has seen me through the difficult years of the revolution in Russia and these years in this great country of America.” Ben Kister died in 1974, three months after the death of his wife, Anna Maria. According to Victor, his father died of “a left aneurysm of his heart — actually a broken heart…They had gone through so much together and she worked so hard side by side in the fields and at home that he just didn’t want to go on by himself — he longed to be with her in eternity.” THE END
Now I would like to bring you the story of the WEBER family who also left Russia in 1921. This account was given to me by Elizabeth (Weber) Merritt, who lives in Riverton, Wyoming. Her mother is the Maria Steinmetz, who accompanied the KISTER family out of Brunnental in the preceding newspaper article. Maria Steinmetz was to later marry Joseph Weber in the U.S. Elizabeth tells us that most of the information came from tape recordings done in 1979-82 with her mother and from personal conversations with her mother written down in 1979. Other recollections come from stories her father and other relatives told over the years. As you read the following account, you will hear the story as told through the eyes of yet another Brunnentaler who escaped to freedom.
“On September 4th, 1921 Maria Steinmetz [my mother], Benjamin Kister & Anna Maria (Steinmetz) Kister [my mother’s sister], and their son Victor Kistor, with many other families, including my father’s [Joseph Weber’s family ], left Brunnental Russia for the last time, on a wagon. They traveled to Holzel and then by rail to Smolensk in red boxcars. The village of Brunnental was close to a “salt-sea” so they took salt with them to barter or sell as they had no salt to the west.” “The train engineers would only take them so far before they would side track them. They had small army buckets with them, which held about 2 quarts, and they would bribe their way across country by giving the engineer a bucket
full of salt. This was a welcome bribe.”
“It took about 3 weeks to arrive in Smolensk. There they became carpenters and worked on building small shacks. For their pay, they bought their way to Minsk (close to the Polish border). There they worked on the railroad by digging out ground for the new railroad ties. They were paid for their work with hard dark rye bread and a few cents. In Minsk they bought Polish papers and crossed into Poland as “Polacks”. My father [Joseph Weber] said, “We had to change our Russian lies into Polish lies”. They traveled into Poland on passenger trains and finally arrived there in November of 1921.”
“The Polish people they traveled with into Poland, were full of lice. (This was no ones fault….it was just a fact of life). So everyone got lice. When mother [Maria Steinmetz] arrived in Poland, she went into the forest and stripped naked and shook her clothes in hopes of getting rid of the lice. It didn’t work.”
“Mother said she remembered a woman that had on a felt coat, and on every fiber of that coat there were lice. This woman had a daughter about 5 and her eyebrows were scabs `alive with lice’. Many people got very sick with typhus fever, and many died during this time.”
“Here they stayed in an unheated barn-like structure with about 1000 people. Mother said it was so poorly built that the cold wind blew in one end and out the other. They stayed there about 10 days to two weeks. Their diet was lima beans and hasha. They cooked their food in a big can with a chimney
in the middle of it. They slept on boards that were on top of the others—-like bunk beds, and the lice would fall from one to the other like “rain”.
So they always tried to stay on top. Everyday they would carry 4 to 5 people out of the building that had died. The Red Cross took care of them here and they did not have to pay for their food.”
“They then went to Warsaw to the German Consul and told them they were German and would like to go to Germany. The Red Cross then provided them with food and their trip to Frankfurt on the Oder.”
“In Germany, they stayed in an old concentration camp under the Red Cross’s care through the winter. Their food consisted of bread and marmalade (hog-fat lard).
Now according to Elizabeth, her father’s story of escape was a little bit different…..this is how he told his story:
“According to my father, Joseph Weber, he and Mr. Hergert (who later lived in Portland, OR) walked to the town of Seelman which was about 30 miles from Brunnental, to find out how they might get out of Russia. There was no railroad in Seelman, so they then walked 30 miles north of Brunnental to another town. There was a railroad there and a man that would sell them box cars (red cattle cars). So they went back to Brunnental and sold clothes (which were very good clothes) to raise enough money for 3 box cars. The reason they walked was because the Bolsheviks had taken their horses and left them their skinny starving, half-dead horses. When the Bolsheviks took the horses, they cut their tails and the Germans could no longer claim them.”
“They collected gunnysacks full of bundles of money (which was not worth much at that time). My father said , “about 1 million dollars or rubles—no difference”.
“There were about 30 families that fled with my father’s group. My father’s entire family went together. It took them about 6 weeks to get to Poland. My Dad’s father, Jacob Weber, was a pretty good carpenter. They had falsified papers to carry with them, but they also had their “true” papers to take with them, and they needed a good hiding place for these.”
To be able to crawl in and out of these boxcars, they needed a ladder, so Jacob Weber drilled a hole in the side of the ladder and hollowed out the inside. He then hid their “true papers” in the hollowed out space and put a wooden plug back into the hole and rubbed it with dirt, so it would not be noticed. And they managed to keep their papers safe for the whole journey. Ironically one of my Dad’s favorite songs was ‘Jacob’s Ladder’.”
Elizabeth goes on to say, “We loved to hear their stories, but you could tell they were always afraid to talk about it. Terror such as they lived, never goes away.” “Daddy (Joseph Weber) was very good in languages, and spoke Russian fluently. Also some Turkish. When my Dad and Uncle Ben Kister got together at family gatherings, they would speak Russian to each other, much to the delight
of us children. I remember always begging Dad to say the months of the year in Russian because it was so funny. He also would demonstrate how he had to March as a soldier and he loved to do it.”
“Now there is also another story I remember my father telling many times——The Russian soldiers came to the village of Brunnental early one morning while everyone was still asleep. They came to get man for the army or kill those that had deserted. My father’s mother rushed to wake up my father and had a very hard time waking him, as she was trying to be quiet and yet she was terrified. (He was always hard to wake up). He hurridly got dressed and got up on the roof working his way to the barn. He was spotted and shot at. He said he could feel the wind from the bullets. He managed to get into the barn and hid under a big pile of straw. The soldiers went in the barn and poken into the straw with their bayonettes (guns), but with God on his side, he was missed with the poking. After he was sure they were gone, he crawled out of the straw and over to a “covered trough”. They kept their barns very clean and the trough was built for the animals urine to run to the outside of the barn. He took the board off the top of this trough and laid inside and pulled the board back on top. He spent 3 days in this because the soldiers stayed and terrorized his mother and family, asking where Joseph was. His sister did manage to sneak food to him during this time. He was terrified the whole
After both the Steinmetz and Weber families made it to the U.S., Maria Steinmetz went to McCook, Nebraska to marry Joseph Weber on December 26, 1926.