David Regier had walked the six versts (6 km., 3.7 mi.) from Felsenbach to Nikolaithal in the late afternoon to play the trumpet at the scheduled celebrations there. He was the only musician from Borsenko, the nearby Mennonite settlement. The local Soviet council had organized the orchestra to keep the people in a good mood, said the farmers. It was 1938 and the situation was difficult following everything that had transpired in the previous year, for Joseph Stalin had attempted to purge the Soviet Union of all suspicious elements and enemies of the state, and that included the Mennonite settlers.
Gradually the club house in Nikolaithal filled up; attendance was watched. The chairman gave a fired-up opening speech lauding the achievements of Lenin and Stalin followed by three cheers. Everybody got to their feet as the orchestra played the Internationale, the socialist hymn.
The older people around the outside wall joined in the cheers, raising their feebly clenched fists barely to eye level. The younger folks were more carefree, for they did not have the ability to compare the present with former days. The young men and women flocked onto the dance floor as the band began to play.
David played his trumpet as hard as he could, yet emotionally he was absent. He was thinking of his mother, who, at this hour, would have returned dead-tired from her job in the milking barn of the kolkhoz or collective farm. For months already she just barely managed to put something on the table for her children’s supper before she collapsed on to her bed.
He knew about something that was bothering his mother even more than her concern to keep food in the house. And this greater concern distracted David at this moment, too. A letter lay hidden under her pillow. It was from her husband, David’s father, and had arrived just a few days ago via a circuitous route. This was the first word of his whereabouts since his capture a year ago. The letter was from Khabarovsk, more than 4,000 miles to the east, on the outer extreme of the Soviet Union, where David’s father, Jakob Regier, had been exiled to a labor camp.
This was not the first time that Jakob was in exile. Already in 1932 he had been sent north to Archangel when he had been accused of stealing grain at his workplace. Four years later he was able to return home, but after a year at home he was again picked up and taken away one night. The family had almost gotten used to life without a husband and father.
What really tormented his mother were the final sentences of the letter. There it said that Jakob Enns and Heinrich Fröse, his mother’s bosses at the kolkhoz, had signed the indictment against her husband. The charge was premeditated sabotage. They also accused his father of having said that in the event of war with Germany he, Jakob Regier, would poison all the horses on the collective farm. Everyone knew, of course, that this was total nonsense; but in order to validate the reprisal, the KGB needed plaintiffs. And willing plaintiffs signed because it might bring them a promotion on the kolkhoz, or at least give them immunity from a possible accusation of some crime they never committed.
Every day now his mother had to work under the supervision of the two men who were responsible for her husband’s exile. If she did not want to endanger herself, she dared not let anyone catch a clue of what she knew. She had made her children promise that they would not breathe a word about the letter. David, her oldest, had to bear heavy responsibilities and was his mother’s confidante.
When the celebration finally ended at midnight, many of the supervisors in attendance were already quite tipsy with the samogan, the cheap potato brandy. It was too late for David to return to Felsenbach, so he stayed with acquaintances before returning home early the next morning.
At his tender age David had already experienced famine, dekulakization, and forced collectivization. He was an inquisitive young man and inwardly questioned the atheistic doctrine taught by his teachers. He learned early on not to ask questions in school. At home his mother shared her deep faith with him, and he learned about the parables of Jesus, the stories of his miracles, and about the Sermon on the Mount. She told him about the Mennonite beliefs, about not swearing oaths, about non-resistance, even though there was no provision for any of this in the Soviet Union anymore. He was deeply impressed by the stories of the martyrs and of his ancestors who had been willing to move from country to country to live out their beliefs. He, too, felt ready to stand up for these beliefs.
When the war descended on Russia in 1941, David, at age eighteen, joined a brigade of ten men from his village to go and dig trenches. Getting the order to dig the trenches suggested that the German army was approaching. And, indeed, soon Felsenbach was under German military occupation. There was rejoicing; the fear of the KGB knocking on the door at night was gone, and the women and children in the village knew that they could harvest the crops in the field for their own consumption, for the Soviets would no longer demand their heavy quotas. Pastor Olfert, the only grown-up man in Felsenbach, who had been overlooked by the KGB because of his age, now even led a Sunday worship service, while the women formed a choir. As the church reorganized, they needed to choose a new leader, and, since women were not eligible to serve, eighteen-year-old David was elected.
An important faith touchstone presented itself to David at this time. The letter from his father was no longer just a remembrance when word was received in 1939 that he had died in Khabarovsk; now it was a piece of evidence against Enns and Fröse. When the German civil authorities followed the army, they announced that Russian Germans—the Volksdeutschen—who had been disadvantaged under the Soviets, could receive compensation. David and his mother knew that the letter would be sufficient evidence to indict the two before the German court.
What to do with the letter? On the one hand, David and his mother craved justice as they saw the two opportunists Enns and Fröse again holding important positions, this time under the Germans. Enns even ascended to the position of mayor of Felsenbach. God is a God of justice; doesn’t that mean that the evildoers must be punished? On the other hand, does not the Lord say, vengeance is mine, I will recompense? When David and his mother agreed to leave judgment in the hands of God, David felt a burden rolling off his shoulders. He promptly went to the attic to retrieve the letter from its secret hiding place. Returning from the attic, he and his mother watched the letter turn to ashes in the kitchen stove.
A few days later two German officers came to their home. Probably well-meaning neighbors had referred them. They asked about Jakob Regier’s deportation and the reasons for it. David’s mother answered their questions, not mentioning any names. The officers jotted the information down and left. David was glad that the letter had been burned, for it could have led him into temptation.
The hopes for a just and humane order under the Nazi Germans, to which the Regiers and other Mennonites had held, were quickly shattered. While conditions had improved for them, their Ukrainian and Russian neighbors, many of whom had suffered as much under Communism as the Mennonites, went from the oven into the frying pan. Jewish acquaintances of the Regiers were being shot or they disappeared left and right. What really came as a shock on several occasions were the human screams coming from behind the woods at the edge of the village. On one such occasion Abram Falk, a fourteen-year-old, reported that on his way to work at the kolkhoz he had sneaked through the bushes, even though it was forbidden, to see what was going on. He saw long lines of Gypsies in their wagons forced to move towards a wide open trench. After undressing at command, the Gypsies were shot, falling into the grave awaiting them. Possibly a couple of hundred Gypsies were killed, Abram said. He did not think that anyone from Felsenbach had assisted the Nazis, although later it was learned that the ditch, actually a mass grave, had been dug at the behest of the mayor, Jakob Enns.
By 1943 the Soviet army was regrouping and moved west. Many Mennonites and Volksdeutsche attempted to flee west with the retreating German army. Some succeeded; others, like David’s family, were forced to return, put into over-filled freight cars, and shipped east to parts unknown. David was separated from his family in the maelstrom, he himself ending up in remote Kazakhstan. There he eventually heard that his family was now scattered in various concentration camps from Archangel to the Urals.
David had always believed that the Lord knows his own and that where two or three gathered in His name, there was He in their midst. This was what he had preached whenever he had the opportunity. But now, like the victim of a shipwreck, he felt utterly alone, as though he were hanging on to a plank by himself drifting out to sea. But then he found a small group of believers—Lutherans, Baptists, and a few Mennonites. Here, in an atheistic environment, the exiled church came alive as had the original church in the catacombs.
In this lonely environment David met the love of his life, Mika Neufeld, a young Mennonite woman who had also ended up here, separated from all of her family. Their same fate, their shared faith, and their common Plautdietsch language continued to draw them to each other; soon they were married. For them there followed a couple of years of family bliss, welcoming first one child into their family, and then followed by a second one just as things were changing for the worse once more.
Stalin continued to settle up with those of his citizens who might not have toed the party line or who had left any doubt about their loyalty because of their origin or their religion during the German occupation. Russian Germans, now scattered all over the Soviet Union, ranked high on the list among these undesirable elements. Many of them were sent into exile again and in 1953 David, too, was sent to prison in Karaganda, leaving Mika and his two children behind. From prison he was sent on by crowded freight trains, arriving in Vologda after a couple of weeks. When he came into a KGB jail for political prisoners there, he sensed that now they were going to try to unravel everything that had happened during the war with Germany.
The hearings at the prison followed the well-proven methods of the secret police. The prisoners were hauled from their beds at night to appear before the interrogating officer. The goal: to wear down the prisoner until he would be willing to sign a document prepared in advance with which he admitted his guilt. David believed that with God’s help he would be able to prove his integrity during the war and he vowed not to sign any document accusing him falsely. He was not aware of any guilt on his part, not even in his political behavior. On the other hand, he realized the KGB always achieved its goals, never stopping short of any means to do so.
After David’s first hearings, although they were calm and almost amiable, he quickly realized that the KGB had at their disposal all the information about him from Felsenbach, that everything was confirmed and, in most cases, signed by individuals who knew him well.
David admitted that, indeed, he had stood guard in the village under the Germans as well as earlier under the Soviets, for it had been a security matter. He was rudely warned that in these hearings the talk was only of what he had done during the German occupation. He also acknowledged that under the Germans he had refused to swear loyalty to the swastika flag and to serve in the active army because of his faith, and that he was a Mennonite. But here all this was like words spoken into the wind.
Then came the fourth and fifth hearings. The questioning grew ever more intense, even threatening, until finally David felt a pistol held to his head. Presenting him with a document, the officer said maliciously:
Read this and sign here. You have no choice.
When David Regier finished reading it, his head was whirling and he felt the last remaining ounce of energy draining from his body. The officer had gotten to his feet and now stood behind him. David, speechless, tried to jump to his feet, but he felt the gun barrel firmly pressing down on his shoulder.
This is not true, he whispered to himself, in tones barely audible. Then, gazing fearlessly into the officer’s eyes, he said in a firm voice:
This is a lie! I was not present there.
The indictment David was to sign described the massacre of the Gypsies in Felsenbach; included in the list of the Nazi accomplices present at this massacre was David’s name, along with those of other young men of the village.
Sign this, said the officer, pretending to be very relaxed.
You have no choice, for everything you did is documented and authenticated.
From hundreds of similar examples David knew that this kind of a document prepared by the KGB was irrevocable and tantamount to the death sentence. Yet in the face of this he sensed a deep calm.
Comrade Officer, he said clearly and firmly,
I will never sign this document. The officer sneered fiendishly and said:
OK, if you need evidence, we will obtain it for you, although for us this no longer plays any role. We know the facts. You may go now. The guards returned David to his cell.
The next night David Regier was rudely awakened from his uneasy sleep again and brought before the same officer. David was shocked when he saw Jakob Enns, his neighbor from Felsenbach, sitting at a table there. David remained standing at the door as though petrified. Like a movie at fast speed everything that had transpired in Felsenbach whirled past him: the deportation and death of his father, the destroyed letter, the Nazi officers, and Enns, mayor of the village under the Nazis, who had obeyed their command to dig the ditch at the cemetery for the Gypsy massacre.
Enns, waut deist du hie? (
Enns, what are you doing here?) David Regier said in their commonly shared Plautdietsch, his voice both shaking and threatening.
Jakob Enns turned away.
The officer enjoyed watching this encounter. He took his time as he condescendingly watched the interaction of the two former Felsenbach neighbors. Then the officer said:
Jakob Enns, your acquaintance from Felsenbach, affirms that you participated in the massacre of the gypsies. Then he turned to Enns:
Is that right?
Enns nodded, his face that of a dead man, his whole body trembling.
Enns, David now said in Russian,
you know very well that none of this is true, and you also know that I could produce witnesses, hundreds of them, who would confirm what really happened. Why are you doing this?
Jakob Enns did not respond. When the secretary finished the protocol and Enns was asked to sign, he complied. The secretary then shoved it over to David Regier, who shook his head in refusal.
It’s all the same, the officer said as the two were led to their individual cells.
Next day both were handed the death sentence. In handcuffs, they were taken to their cells in death row, where David remained in isolation for a whole month suffering the torment of uncertainty. Then one night he was fetched from his cell and only then did he hear what had transpired: Stalin was dead and as a consequence all those condemned to die had had their sentences commuted into twenty-five years of imprisonment. He was transferred to another wing of the installation. When they opened the door to his new cell he was shocked to see his new cellmate, Jakob Enns, lying on one of the two wooden cots.
Momentarily filled with revulsion, David remained at the door, stunned, unable to move. Jakob Enns, no less shocked at seeing David, turned towards the wall, shielding his face with his hands. David felt the whole confusing past caving in on him. After traveling thousands of miles from Felsenbach all over the face of the Soviet Union to this narrow dark cell here in Vologda the moment of truth had come. His mind was spinning, his entire past seemed lost in time and space. Then David reached out and touched Jakob’s shoulder. Jakob rolled over and squarely faced David, rank despair in his eyes.
Why did you do this, Enns? David whispered hoarsely.
First you sent my father into exile and now you signed this lie against me. Why?
Enns began to weep uncontrollably.
You knew everything, he finally stuttered.
And you and your mother refused to hand Fröse and me over to the Germans? And now I was promised to get off scot-free if I’d tattle on you. But everything was already decided, my verdict and your verdict. They knew that I was mayor under the Germans and everything that transpired during that time.
David spoke carefully:
You never thought of anything beyond that, Enns? Did you really think only about yourself, your own family? How you might improve your own lot?
Jakob Enns shakily raised himself on his cot.
Forgive me, David, he sobbed in agony,
in the face of our common distress please forgive me. I cannot undo what I’ve already done. I implore you, forgive this miserable, wretched human being.
Once again David was overcome with that peace and calmness of spirit which he had experienced so many times when he responded strictly by the firm tenets of his faith. Then he remembered the story of the thief on the cross which his mother had read to him many times before tucking him in at night. At this moment he realized that the profoundest meaning of forgiveness consisted in the ability of the victim to become truly liberated from that impotent rebellion against a lie, to become free of the disappointment over people who are capable of doing anything, who will not stop short of sending a fellow human being to his death because of fear and selfishness.
I forgive you, Enns, he said as he extended his hand to him.
I think of the words of my mother when we could have handed you over to the Germans. Vengeance is God’s, not ours, that’s what it says in the Bible. We burned the letter containing your name and that of Fröse. Now there’s no need for the two of us to talk about the massacre in Felsenbach.
Yes, the Bible, Enns said in deep thought as he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve.
There it also says: God, be merciful to me a sinner! That means me. Thank you, thank you, David, that you are able to forgive me. Imploringly and in deep gratitude he could not cease pressing David’s hand.
Peace entered the cell, a peace that permitted David Regier to fall asleep despite the very uncertain future facing him and his cell mate.
David Regier survived to tell this story. He was sent to Vorkuta, way north of the Arctic Circle, to serve his twenty-five year sentence, but was given amnesty in 1956. David eventually was reunited with his wife, his two children, and his mother and siblings in Kazakhstan. There they lived in limited freedom for some 25 years until they were able to resettle in Germany.