Friday, August 08, 2008

Norka Farewell

There were a lot of children. And a lot of bags. What went through the minds of my father's grandparents as they bundled those children and bags into what, a wagon? Sweeping out hay and manure to make room for a brood of ginger children, for carefully picked belongings and the house, the furniture, the fields, the church, the life to be left behind there on the banks of the mighty Volga.

The wagon, full with thirteen of them, which uncle or neighbor chosen to stay behind and drive the wagon back to the land, the land not ancestrally theirs, this foreign steppe, but now, decisively, not to belong to their heirs either.

My grandfather, a toddler at best, but not the youngest, so carried by a sister no doubt. In clean sturdy clothes to last for the long journey. Red cheeks wiped of black Russian dirt, tear-stained? The hope of the journey, the pain of the friends and lives and families left behind. Wrinkled stained letters from distant uncles read and re-read, parsed for signs of hope and divined for clues to a hidden future.

Did the cart's wheels creak and strain as it passed the wooden church buildings that was everything to these simple people, strangers always in the land of their birth. Nine children, loud no doubt. Well-behaved, certainly, but the sounds of high children's voices teasing and playing in German as the Tsar's grim agents checked papers, and documents, and poked, and prodded, and vaguely disapproving of this alien entourage, yet glad to be rid of yet another cartload of privileged strangers, wondering what buonty was to be gained from the space left empty behind them.

Was it to a train station in Saratow, this cartload of German farmchildren from the little village called Norka, past the farms and villages and churches of their cousins, past the factories and the brick buildings of the big city, through the throngs of actual Russians and Jews and Tatars staring at them with curiosity, or disdain, my great-grandparents knowing enough Russian, surely, to interpret the sneers of good-riddance or the wistful glances of I wish that was me. Papers checked again by the young soldiers at the station.

The children, literate enough to read their German bibles and sing their German hymns, staring now at the proliferation of signs in Russian, the signs denoting arrivals and departures, that much was surely clear, warnings surrounding the crowded black train spitting steam. Uniformed workers scurried about seeming to placate this monstrous black machine lest it storm ahead on its iron and stone path. The smell of the fields was gone now, replaced with smoke and soot and coal and tar and sweaty bodies and fear and hope.

Children and bags carefully counted, thrown together now and none missing, not into the cheapest boxcar but not into the car with the plush red velvet either. Much shouting in frightening now foreign tongues, and the reassuring cluck of my great grandmother, and the doors were closed and the whistles blew and the faces of the people stilled and the train came to life and then, right then, my grandfather--was he drooling on a piece of sugar to keep him silent--ceased to be a little Volga German farm boy and became someone else, as did I, not yet a glint in anyone's eye.


  1. Sam Brungardt, St. Paul, Minn.Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 8:19:00 AM EDT

    As a native Kansan of Volga German decent, I very much enjoyed reading this post as well as the previous one on the German Russians and war. When I think of my relatives who were executed or exiled from the Volga colonies, I'm very grateful that my grandparents chose to emigrate to the United States (other relatives went to Argentina).

  2. thanks for the comment.

    interestingly, my grandfather sort of pretended the whole Russian thing never happened. My father had no idea; he thought his dad wasjust born in Germany. It took me finding Ellis Island records and reconnecting with lost relatives to figure all of this out.