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Conversations with Ekaterina Risch Starikova

Family Histories of the following older parishioners and friends of Immaculate Conception Parish in Chelyabinsk, Southern Urals district, Russia, and its mission parishes are being recorded in a series of "Conversations" by Sister Alice Ann Pfeifer with Sister Mary Elise Leiker, her interpreter and interviewer. 


Ekaterina Risch Starikova (born 1923) 

by Sister Alice Ann Pfeifer, C.S.A.
with Sister Mary Elise Leiker, C.S.A.

© Copyright 1997, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, all rights reserved

The cheerful face of Katya Starikova readily breaks into a broad toothless grin when you talk to her. Long before she begins telling how "lustig" her parents and grandparents were, you notice their joyful, buoyant spirit still alive in her. Yet there is also something dignified and noble about Katya - the way she wears her Sunday best, the way her simple jewelry accents her pretty clothes, the way a luxuriant growth of snow-white hair crowns her wise old head.

Life began for Katya on August 21, 1923, on Molutovka Kolkhoz near Kopeysk, which is a village near the city of Chelyabinsk. Her father, Johannes RISCH, was an animal doctor. He had been born on August 1, 1900, and Katya's mother, Ekaterina SCHLEICHER, on October 6, 1901. Katya's family background is completely German and completely Roman Catholic, yet she cannot say when the Risches and the Schleichers first came to the Urals, why they came, or from where.

As a child, whenever she asked her father questions about the family's history, he laughed and made up tall tales for answers. Then he concluded, "It's not important. What matters is that we are here now." And where they were then was indeed a good and pleasant place. Today Katya has nothing but happy memories of her childhood and her early teen years on the kolkhoz.

After Katya, the Risches' oldest child, was born in 1923, two sons and two additional daughters followed her. Jacob (May 28, 1927); Margareta (February 15, 1928); Peter (January 21, 1932); and Magdalena (February 23, 1936).

Death certificates that Katya obtained in the early 1990s record a few additional facts about her predecessors' lives. For the sake of Risch and Schleicher family historians, here are those facts. Her paternal grandfather, Sachres Risch, was born in 1872 the son of Anton Risch. Sachres died of tuberculosis on May 12, 1943, in the village of Sinkovo in Kurgan Oblast [east of Chelyabinsk]. Katya's paternal grandmother, Kunigunda Risch, was born in 1870 and died of a lung condition, also in Sinkovo, on October 18, 1944.

Katya remembers that her grandmother had been a FLUGEN; the death certificate shows that Kunigunda Flugen's father had borne the first name of Joseph. Katya's maternal grandfather was Peter Schleicher, the son of Jacob Schleicher. Peter was born in 1875 and died of tuberculosis on November 7, 1943, in the village of Pokrova in Kurgan Oblast. Peter Schleicher's wife, Regina, was also born in 1875, but she lived until the normal ravages of age took her life on February 13, 1955, in the village of Sinkovo. The first name of Regina's father had been Johannes, but Katya has no recollection of what their family name has been.

Lives Filled with Prayer and Dancing

What jolly times the Risch family enjoyed together! Even their work they turned into play. When it was time to sweep the yard with straw brooms, the children used their brooms as dance partners and waltzed around the yard in rhythm to music they hummed and sang. When it was time to butcher an animal, they dressed up in its skin and its horns and skipped around like primitive people performing exotic ritual dances. Sometimes Katya's brother Jacob dressed up as a woman, padding himself generously for ultimate comic effect, and entertained the family with comic sketches.

Katya's Risch grandparents, who lived nearby, often joined in on the fun - if they were not the ones actually instigating it. Grandfather and Grandmother Risch were full of the joy of life. They loved to dance, and Katya's father and her brother Jacob both were able to oblige them with German dance music played on the family's accordion. Katya felt very close to the elder Risches and appreciated the nice clothes that her grandmother sometimes bought her. Her Schleicher grandparents, however, were more reserved, and Katya never felt comfortable with Grandmother Schleicher's frequent criticism of the Risches as people who were "too rich." But Katya respected both sets of grandparents as industrious, salt-of-the-earth people with solid and stable family lives. "Nobody ever got drunk and started hitting people, as we have in so many families today.

Katya remembers well a time when her grandparents took her to visit the huge Polish Catholic church in the nearby city of Chelyabinsk. "It was where the Pushkin Cinema now stands," she says with obvious nostalgia. She was six years old. The statues of the 12 Apostles, raised high on pedestals inside the ornate church, seemed so lifelike that her grandfather had to explain to her that they were made from stone; they were not visitors from heaven! This was the church where, years before, her parents had been married and she herself had been baptized. (Katya was the only Risch child to be baptized publicly in a church, not privately by a grandmother.) It was a sad day for all the Catholics in the area when this stately, twin-steepled church was razed by the communists in 1932. It had been in use for only 18 years.

In the meantime, however, Catholicism thrived within the Risch family home. "We had six rooms in our house," Katya recalls, "and one that was decorated with holy pictures we always used as a place of prayer." Family rituals include praying an Our Father together before every meal, plus another short prayer: "Gott sei Dank fur des lieve Esse. Wille Gott nicht vergesse. Wille sage Gott sei Dank fur alle gute Gabe" (God be thanked for this precious food. I will not forget God but will give God thanks for all good gifts). Before the family retired at night, they prayed the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles" Creed, and another short prayer: "In Gottes' Name shlaf gange. Morgen frueh wieder gluecklich aufzustehen" (In God's name I go to sleep, early in the morning happily again to arise).

Christmas, New Year's Easter - every holiday brought great fun and celebration. What Katya loved the most, especially after she reached her teenage years, were the dances. On holidays the German people gathered together from all the surrounding towns for joyful evenings of music and dancing.

One New Year's Eve just before she turned 17 a daring young man named Jacob Muntanyon actually "kidnapped" her from a dance. (Not, however, without her consent.) Jacob put her in a horse-drawn sleigh and drove her to the nearby village of Shishminka. That night Katya stayed in the house of an aunt who lived there. The sleigh ride to a home that was not her home was more than just a New Year's prank, though, for Jacob sincerely wanted to marry Katya. In March of that year, 1941, the two were married. In June, the war started. At age 22, Jacob was taken away to be a soldier, and Katya never saw him again.

Gunfire on Golden Mountain

Hard as it was to lose her young husband, this was not the first big loss in Katya's life. Just three years earlier, her father had been taken away. Decades later, Katya learned the truth of what had happened. He was shot to death on April 26, 1938. A mass execution of people whom Stalinists had declared "enemies of the state" had occurred that day on Zolotaya Gora (which means "Golden Mountain") near Chelyabinsk. Intellectuals, teachers, prosperous farmers, and other "undesirables" - representing a variety of ethnic groups including German, Russian, and Tartar - were rounded up, shot, then covered with earth on the spot where they had fallen.

There the victims' bodies remained until 1992, when surviving family members from all over the former Soviet Union were invited to the site. The victims' bones were excavated, were reverently placed in large burial caskets, were incensed and blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest, then were reburied on Zolotaya Gora with a monument erected in their memory. Katya was present for the occasion, took pictures, cried, remembered. Residents of the nearby villages of Shishminka and Barsuche were there, too, and removed earth from the site. They took the soil back to their village cemeteries, where they erected additional markers in memory of loved ones killed on Zolotaya Gora.

One by one, the tragic events of the late thirties and the early forties began taking the place of the carefree joys of Katya's earlier days. At the beginning of the war, not only was Katya's husband drafted, but her mother and her brother Jacob were ordered into the wartime trudarmiya, a heavy labor corps in which many men and women literally were worked to death. Katya left the house she had shared with her husband of less than six months and returned to her family home.

Young Magdalena, Margareta, and Peter now were parentless and needed the help of their older sister. For two years their mother worked in a nearby place and maintained contact with them. But then she was transferred to a camp in distant Orenberg, and for two years they heard nothing from her. Eventually they got word that she was sick with a lung disease.

The children decided to make and sell butter, as much as they could as fast as they could, so that they could send their mother money to buy food and medicine. Between their help and the efforts of a kindly doctor in Orenberg, the children's mother survived her six and a half years of forced labor in the trudarmiya. Their brother Jacob, who had been put to work in the nearby coal mines of Kopeysk, also survived. Before the end of 1944, however, the children had lost three of their four beloved grandparents.

Sticking Together and Staying Alive

During the war, hunger afflicted everyone Katya knew. Those who had more, though, did try to share with those who had less. Stealing to survive was par for the course. Her younger brother Peter fashioned a large sack with a drawstring that he wore around his middle, underneath his clothes. With this sack, he was able to conceal the food that he stole for the family.

Katya's work on the kolkhoz was picking and hauling fruit in a horse-drawn wagon. She always made sure that she kept back some of the fruit for the family. Bread she had to buy in the nearby town of Kopeysk. That meant hours of walking in snow that was hip-deep. Still today Katya has badly discolored feet - "black feet," she says - from the years when she walked long distances in freezing weather.

A family with a dairy cow was in a no-win situation. If they got so hungry that they slaughtered the cow for beef, they no longer had a regular source of milk and cheese. A similar choice confronted people with egg-laying hens. Life bore down hard on those whose food supplies ran short. If they got so weak from hunger that their output of work decreased, they were beaten for laziness.

The best time of year was the summer, when people could go fishing in the area's many teeming lakes. The area around Chelyabinsk was different then, Katya says. It was wilder, more undeveloped. There was little evidence of human habitation and much water, many trees. When the snow melted in the spring, huge bodies of water appeared in low places. As the driver of a fruit wagon, she often had to ford these bodies of water.

One spring day when she was 21, she did not accurately guess the depth of a patch of water that she tried to cross with her horses She would have drowned if she had not quickly wrapped their reins around her body as she lost control of the wagon. Rescuers heard her screams and quickly appeared on the scene, pulling her out of the water by grabbing onto the other end of the horses' reins. She was then taken to the hospital, where she stayed for three months. Her body had suffered considerable injury from exposure to the freezing water.

Katya was working on the kolkhoz with a team of horses when the joyful news of the war's end reached her ears. There, ethnic Germans and ethnic Russians had been living and working peacefully together throughout the war. How did she and the others react? The first thing they did was unbridle the horses and set them free. The tall, intelligent animals acted as if they had heard and understood the news as well as the humans did, joyfully bolting away, their manes and tails flying high in the breeze.

The supervisor of the kolkhoz then ordered that an ox be butchered and a big celebration be held that evening. After sunset, the kolkhoz became a scene of unparalleled joy, lively music, and endless hugging and dancing. The schnapps flowed freely, and so did the tears. People cried for joy that the long struggle against Nazi domination had finally ended. But they also cried for grief over those who would never return from that costly struggle.

Wife, Mother, Nurse, Clown

One soldier who did return was a Russian neighbor of Katya's, Dimitry Starikov. He had spent six years and six months serving his homeland in the Black Sea region.

After the war, Dimitry and Katya married and moved to Chelyabinsk, where Dimitry thought there would be more opportunities. This definitely proved true in Katya's case, for she soon found employment in a hospital as the assistant to a very fine medical doctor, Alexander RUSH. Originally from the Caucasus, Dr. Rush was of German stock. Seeing that Katya was a good worker and also that she had an aptitude for the medical profession, he arranged for her to receive two months of nurse's training in the nearby city of Sverdlosk (present-day Ekaterinberg). Between that period of intensive study and all of the "on the job" training that she received directly from Dr. Rush, she became a professional nurse.

Katya remembers with a twinkle in her eye the 36 years she spent as a nurse, the first six in the hospital operating room. The working relationships among the doctors and nurses were cordial and sometimes even playful. When Dr. Rush took cat naps during his night shifts at the hospital, Katya liked to secretly paint his face. Then when a call would come from a patient and the doctor had to be awakened, he would run to the bedside and wonder why the patient would suddenly burst into laughter upon seeing him! "Just because you can't sleep at night," he once teased Katya, "you don't want anyone else to, either.

In those years, Katya says, there were five especially good German doctors in the city. She remembers the full names of three of them: Alexander Rush, Alexander WENZEL, and Edward ILLGA. Following the Russian custom of basing their second names of the first names of their fathers, the other two were simply called Karl IVANOVITCH (meaning "Karl, son of Ivan") and Gregori YAKOVITCH (meaning "Gregori, son of Yakov". If Katya ever heard their German family names, she does not now remember them. "Dr. Rush," she says fondly, "has a big monument out in the cemetery now. It is written in German: 'Hier ruht Alexander Rush' and so on"

Over the years, then, Katya learned to balance the roles of wife and mother with the roles of hospital nurse - and clown! She and Dimitry had four children together: Valya (September 12, 1952), Lyooba (May 21, 1955), Mikhail (February 2, 1957, and Natasha (June 13, 1958). Today, the three grown daughters are working mothers, just as Katya once was. All four children are married and have presented her with a grand total of 15 grandchildren - an unusually large number for a Russian grandmother today.

Sources of Her Strength

All through her life, whenever Katya has reached a crossroads requiring a personal decision, she has asked God to give her a dream to help her decide what to do. She says that she has always received sound spiritual guidance in this way, and she has made good decisions as a result. Sometimes, too, God has sent her dreams to help her prepare for coming events. If she sees a cross or a cemetery in a dream, she knows that she must brace herself for something sorrowful. If she sees flowers or a sign of celebration, she knows that a happy surprise is about to occur - or that some matter of personal concern is going to turn out all right.

One night 20 years ago, she had a frightening dream about her husband Dimitry. The two of them were swimming together in a sunny open area. Where she was swimming, the water was clear and beautiful, and she could see many colorful fish swimming all around her. Where he was swimming, however, the water was black and threatening. He seemed to be in danger, and she began screaming in her sleep. She woke up feeling her husband's hand over her mouth and hearing his voice trying to reassure her, "I'm here - I'm here - why are you screaming?"

Three days later, Dimitry had a weak spell at work. Knowing that he needed medical attention, he went to the doctor for an examination. Later, during exploratory surgery, the doctor found that Dimitry was full of inoperable cancer. On April 4, 1977, with two children still living in the home, Katya again became a widow. "I said to myself what I have always said to myself at times like that," Katya recalls. "I reminded myself that I must go forward - because in life there is never any going backward."

She pauses thoughtfully, then adds, "There is also a German saying that I have never forgotten. It is - 'If you are a child of God, then get up and help yourself!'" She looks at us intently, giving us time to ponder the meaning of the proverb. Then, as if she has decided that we are getting entirely too serious, she breaks into one of her timeless grins.