Alexandrovka, Slavgorod Colony, Western Siberia — 1926
The schoolhouse door burst open, ushering in a cold March wind and two Soviet officials, their guns directed at the group of young adults gathered for a Sunday afternoon songfest.
Luise Letkemann’s fingers froze on the neck of her mother’s violin, and her bow skittered off the strings as she whirled to face the intruders. From the corner of her eye she saw Daniel move across the room to her side. A frown had replaced the look of love that had lit his eyes a moment ago.
Luise slipped her violin beneath a pile of coats. These men harbored no respect for person or property, and she would not let them take the only keepsake she had from her mother.
“What are you doing here?” The sternness of Commissar Victor Magadan’s voice sent a chill up Luise’s spine, but it was the limping step of the second official that set her to quaking. Senior-Major Leonid Dubrowsky of the GPU—the dreaded Soviet secret police—had that affect on people.
“We have gathered to sing,” said Daniel. “Would you care to join us?”
Luise heart skipped a beat at Daniel’s insolence.
“You know there is a law against the German. You are breaking that law.”
Daniel stepped forward to stand before Magadan, and Luise’s breath caught in her throat.
“It is our mother tongue, the language of our hearts.” He said this in fluent Russian. “When we sing, that is what comes out.”
Dubrowsky elbowed his junior officer aside, his lip curled like a snarling dog as he stared at Daniel. He lacked the stature of Magadan, but the coldness of his eyes beneath their bushy brows more than made up for it. Even so, Daniel did not back down. Luise willed herself to breathe.
“Do not speak so freely to GPU,” said Dubrowsky. “It is not healthy.”
He turned from Daniel and limped to the food table where he helped himself to zwieback, platz, and barley coffee while the young people stood wide-eyed and waiting. Then, with a grunt, he heaved the table onto its side, spilling food and drink across the plank floor.
Gasps and whimpers traveled around the room like a gust of wind, but terror stole Luise’s breath when she felt Dubrowsky’s arm reach around her waist. She stood motionless, watching Daniel’s face as he struggled to free himself from Magadan’s firm grip. The GPU could do whatever they wanted. They lived beyond laws of state or conscience. Dubrowsky was a senior plenipotentiary; he made his own decisions.
Magadan looked none too pleased with the situation. It was his job to keep order in the village of Alexandrovka, but he could not overrule a senior-major.
Dubrowsky leaned so close to Luise she could feel his breath on her neck. “Another time, my little Mennonite sparrow.” And then he was gone, the echo of his uneven steps matching Luise’s erratic heartbeat.
The biting cold pushed in through the open door, and wrapped itself around her soul.
Later, while she mixed the biscuits for supper, Luise relived the disastrous afternoon. Consumed by the memory of Dubrowsky’s arm around her, she did not hear the voices outside until the door burst open. The cup of flour she held flew from her hand to the floor.
Anna Letkemann entered the house, all flutter and fuss, shooing her children before her. “Hans, take off your boots! Nela, you are shedding snow all over!”
Coughing, she slipped out of her coat and hung it on one of the pegs beside the door. “Luise! Wipe up the floor. It’s wet and there you’ve spilled flour all over when there’s none to waste. We can’t have your father coming home to a dirty floor.”
Luise swallowed the retort that formed on her lips, reminding herself of Tante Manya’s wise counsel not to allow the burrs of her stepmother’s meanness to fasten themselves to her soul.
“Supper will be ready soon, Mother, such as it is.”
Luise kissed Nela and helped her with her coat, then reached out to tousle Hans’ hair. In five-year old independence, he pretended not to like it, but Luise’s wink roused a grin. She reached onto a shelf for a rag and wiped up the floor.
“Did you have a nice visit with Tante Manya?” She did not mention the Soviet officials at the Sunday afternoon social. That would require endless explanation.
“Nice visit? How can one have a nice visit anymore? The Soviets have taken everything of worth and then they demand more yet.”
“They haven’t taken everything, Mother. We still have our family.”
Her stepmother’s sallow eyes burned into hers. “Do not contradict me, Luise. Just because your father allows you to speak so to him does not mean you may talk back to me. Someday, girl, you will realize that not every cloud has a silver lining.”
Luise turned away. Why did Mother insist on goading her? Of course there were hardships— hunger and fear and uncertainty—but as Papa said, every day on this side of the sod is a good one.
As if her thoughts invited him home, Papa entered the house and slapped snow from his pants before removing his boots. Luise detected heaviness in hisstep, but as usual, he masked it with good humor.
“Good evening everyone. Luise, I hear you survived an unannounced visit from the authorities this afternoon.” He smiled but his eyes conveyed concern.
Luise frowned at him. “All ended well, Papa.”
“What authorities?” Mother stood as if frozen, a plate held in mid-air above the table. “I didn’t hear about it. What happened?”
“Just a routine check, Mother.”
Papa bunched his lips together and Luise understood his silent apology. She steeled herself for her stepmother’s onslaught.
“No harm done, and we were spared again,” said Papa quickly as he crossed the room to wash his hands in the basin on the countertop. “Always something for which to be thankful.”
“You two and your false cheer. It’s enough to—” A deep, ragged cough cut off Mother’s retort and shook her slim form. She tried to finish her sentence but gave in to another fit of coughing. Luise read Papa’s concern and quickly brought the bean soup and biscuits to the table.
“Nela! Hans! Kommt essen.”
Her younger brother and sister could share her portion; she had eaten a zwieback at the schoolhouse before the officials arrived. Hans and Nela needed the food more than she did.
Daniel Martens’ boots crunched through sun-glazed snow as he slipped from his horse at the gate of the Letkemann yard. He led his bay gelding into the barn.
“Move over, Samson,” he told the old grey workhorse as he opened the stall and led his own horse inside. “I’ve brought Prince to visit.”
He removed Prince’s saddle and bridle and hung them over the rail, then closed the stall gate behind him. He loved his horses. He knew his father needed machinery to seed and harvest their large farm and to help the neighbors, but Daniel still preferred horsepower on four legs.
Prince leaned over the gate and Daniel patted the sleek neck of his fine mount, but this evening he was lost in his thoughts. Even the multi-hued canvas of the sunset sky had not cooled his anger. Frowning, he pushed through the barn door into the large porch connecting it to the house, and knocked at the door.
It was bad enough that the Reds poked their noses into everyone’s business, bringing new rules and limitations that prevented ordinary hard-working people from succeeding. But when they threatened innocent young people gathered to enjoy each other’s company, to sing in their mother tongue, those devils were crossing a clearly defined line. He would not allow Dubrowsky to touch Luise again. Next time he would not be so self-controlled. He would give them something to remember.
Daniel’s anger eased when he entered the kitchen and spied Luise at the table washing up the supper dishes. She leaned over the large bowl, her dark hair wisping out of its pins, clear brown eyes wide, full lips slipping into a smile at the sight of him.
He answered her smile with his own, and nodded to Anna, who rocked in her chair, knitting needles clicking.
Abram looked up from his newspaper. “Good evening, Daniel. You look like you carry the world’s worries tonight.”
Daniel warmed his hands near the cookstove. “I’ve had more than enough of Stalin’s henchmen,” he said. “They think they have the right to everything we own.”
“You see, Luise? Your Daniel agrees with me.” Anna’s hands did not still as she spoke. “Those Reds will leave us with nothing.”
Daniel turned to Luise. “You don’t agree they are out to rob us of all our material belongings? I’ve told you how much my father and I paid in taxes this year. And what about this afternoon?” He glanced toward Anna and decided not to expand on that incident.
Luise wiped out the washing bowl, dried her hands and took the chair Daniel held for her. “I am not unaware of our situation, Daniel, but I make it a point to count my blessings from time to time so the enemy does not destroy my soul as well.”
He smiled as he sat down beside her, reminded of why he loved this girl. “Listen to the preacher.”
Daniel sobered and turned back to Abram. “They interrupt our gatherings, cause disturbances, destroy perfectly good food when we have little enough of it, and they spread fear. The situation will only become worse if we do nothing.”
“What have you in mind?”
Sometimes Abram’s easy acceptance frustrated Daniel. Luise’s father was a gentle carpenter, like the One he emulated, but surely he should be anxious for the safety of his family.
Anna’s knitting needles stilled. “We must emigrate,” she said.
“We must what?” Luise’s voice joined Daniel’s.
“Emigrate. To America. Thousands have already gone; my family has all gone. If we hurry, we can go yet too. I do not wish to die at the hands of these evil men.”
“We’re a long way from Moscow,” said Daniel. “You would have to sell everything you own, obtain passports, take medical examinations—and you’re not well.”
“There is nothing wrong with me but a winter cold, young man. Once spring returns to this frigid Siberian wilderness, my cough will disappear.” Her cough robbed any more words she might have added. Daniel cast a glance in Luise’s direction and noted the worry creasing her forehead. He knew she did not accept Anna’s self-diagnosis any more than he did, but they both knew better than to contradict her.
Daniel waited for Abram to speak, as head of the home, but when he did, his words were not what he wanted to hear.
“Emigration is a possibility I am reconsidering. As much as I grieve to think of leaving our home and country, I also worry about our future here, of how my children will fare. Our situation declines instead of improving, as you say, Daniel, and we have no recourse, it seems, to alter that. Perhaps Anna is correct. Perhaps we should explore the opportunity to leave this country while there is time.”
“How can you say that, Papa?” Luise’s words spoke Daniel’s thoughts. She sat on the edge of her chair, tense as a cornered horse. “How can you talk of leaving Alexandrovka? This village is our home.”
Daniel felt her eyes on him. He knew what she wanted him to say, but it was not up to him. Abram would have to make the decision for his family.
Anna spoke up. “Soon there will be nothing to leave behind if we do not act already. Then where will we be?”
“Daniel,” said Abram, “what are your thoughts on emigration?”
“I have not considered it for myself. I love the farm; we’ve done well, Father and I. I can make a life for myself and a family, if I am so blessed.” He glanced at Luise then looked back at Abram. “I have no wish to give up my future here; I have plans…”
“What of the increased taxes you spoke of earlier? The escalating interference by the Communists? You told me of the trouble your father encountered when he purchased that new Fordson tractor.” Abram’s words hung in the air.
“Father assures me there are ways to settle the matter.”
“We would have to go all the way to Novosibirsk for the medicals,” said Luise.
“There are trains even in this frozen wilderness, Luise,” said Anna.
Daniel saw Luise’s lips pull together in a thin line, and her words came out in measured tones. “I realize that, Mother, but can we afford it? We would have to take the little ones along too.”
“Of course we take the little ones. They will be emigrating with us, you know.”
“Now Anna,” said Abram, “I’m sure Luise didn’t mean we would be leaving anyone behind. She just wants to know how it will go.”
“Jah, you always know what she thinks, eh?”
Daniel felt badly that Abram had to live in a house with two women who didn’t see eye to eye. His lifelong friend, Phillip Wieler, said it was up to Daniel to change that, to take Luise to his own house, one he would build with his own hands on the plot of land directly behind his parents’ house. “Why do you wait?” were Phillip’s exact words. Daniel wasn’t a carpenter like Luise’s father, but he could learn. He would ask for her soon. He would start building that house. Meanwhile, if the rest of Luise’s family planned to emigrate, he could help.
“The train ride from here to Novosibirsk is not terribly expensive. I could lend you money for travel and accommodation.”
Luise glared at him, and he knew he had said something wrong. He didn’t know what it was, but he felt sure he would find out shortly.
“Nah jah,” said Abram, hands on his thighs, “we will sleep on this and talk further tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Daniel. “I must find my bed too, already. Goodnight.”
Luise stood with him, reached her coat down from its peg by the door and slipped it on, then stood waiting for him, her beautiful eyes icy.
Daniel looked to Abram and Anna for salvation, but they turned away to their room, and there was Luise walking out the door ahead of him. He followed her through the porch and into the barn. The smell of manure and fresh straw melded with the sound of Samson, Prince and the milk cow as they chewed hay, and the soft groan of the building as it settled itself in the Siberian night. The chickens had long since taken roost, their heads under their wings, and Daniel wished he could do the same.
When Luise turned to him in tears, he stepped back in surprise.
“Luise, why are you crying?” His sisters said Luise was an emotional sort, and if you wanted smiles from her, you must also accept tears, but he didn’t know what to do with tears.
She dashed them away with her fingertips. “You really don’t know? Did you not hear yourself in there?”
Daniel tried to recall his exact words. “I suggested your family pursue medical examinations so they know if they can go to America. You know Anna won’t leave the matter alone until something is done.”
“Daniel, you say your future is here. Then you suggest we get our physical examinations in preparation for emigration. I have been under the impression, since I was twelve, that we had a future together. Has something changed your mind?”
Daniel reached for her but she stepped back, keeping her eyes on his face. He cast about in his mind for how to go on. “Nothing has changed between us, Luise. You are part of my future. We will marry before your family leaves for America—if they go.”
Luise stared at him as if he had struck her. “Let my family leave without me? Papa and the little ones and Anna, without me?” She shook her head in denial. “I cannot be separated from them. They need me.”
“But how else? I cannot leave, we wish to be together, and your family wants to go. How else would you arrange it, Luise?”
She stood with her arms folded, blinking furiously, her lips trembling.
“Luise, you know I love you. Is that not enough?”
She stared at him, then turned on her heel and marched back to the house.