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Conversations with Greilich Braun

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. 

Clara Greilich Braun (born 1911)

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

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

Clara Braun turns 85 on October 5, and her eyes are so bad that, in a well-lighted area, she can see only a few meters in front of her. Just to write a brief letter, she simultaneously balances two different pairs of glasses on her nose, sits near a bright light, and positions her head very close to her desk so that she can see the Cyrillic script that she painstakingly creates on a sheet of paper.

No longer able to live independently, she has joined her middle-aged daughter's family in an apartment along the Stalovarov Street bus route. Despite Clara's physical limitations, every Saturday and Sunday she struggles through the crowds that always pack city bus number 42, and she travels to Mass at Immaculate Conception Parish. The trip is a test of a much younger person's stamina, but she wouldn't think of omitting it from her weekend routine.

Actually, Clara did not become a regular churchgoer until about three years ago. Unlike many other German-Russian Catholics of her generation, she has no childhood memories of a grandmother teaching her the rosary or of the whole family attending Mass in a pretty little village church. In the early part of this century, Petropavlosk had no church and no priest because it was located in frontier territory, in the north-central part of present-day Kazakstan.

Nonetheless, the Catholic residents of Petropavlosk did what they could to keep their faith traditions alive. Clara remembers, for example, that adults gathered regularly to recite the rosary in each other's homes - although she was too young ever to learn the rosary herself - and she knows that she and her seven brothers and sisters were baptized by a village elder.

In the home of her parents, meal prayers and morning and evening prayers were recited every day. But she was never taught very much about God or about the Christian faith, and today she comments as she points to her 20-year-old grandson, who belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, "He knows more about his faith than I know about mine."

Clara's father, Jacob Greilich, was born in 1878 in the Crimea. Her mother, Josefina Tauberger, was born in 1877 in the Odessa region. As a young man, Jacob was a farmer facing a critical land shortage in his part of the country. So, early in 1901, shortly after his first child, Clementina, had been born, Jacob decided to move his young family to a new settlement in Kazakstan.

After the Greilichs settled into their home in Petropavlosk, other children followed in rapid succession, all born in good health and surviving all the usual childhood diseases and perils: Amelia (1903), Augustina (1904), Eleanora (1905), Alexander (1908), Eugenia (1909), Clara (1911), and Johannes (1913). Being one of the youngest in the family, Clara knows very little about those years, but she is not aware of any serious difficulties faced by her family during that time.

The End of the Peace
In 1914 things changed. The German Kaiser lured the Russian Czar into war, and Clara's father was drafted into the Czar's army. As Adam Giesinger reports in his book about Russia's Germans, 250,000 German-Russian men loyally served their homeland in the First World War, but they endured mistrust and discrimination as the tide of the war turned against Russia.

After a year of bitter defeats on the battlefield, in 1916 the Russian government gave in to unfounded suspicions about its soldiers of German background, and it transferred most of them to the Caucasus. There they were to fight Turks and not Germans, and they were placed under the strict military leadership of Grand Duke Nicholas. (See From Catherine to Krushchev: The Story of Russia's Germans, pp. 249-251.)

This transfer of military personnel explains why, two years after Clara's father had answered the call of his country, he died from typhus in the Caucasian republic of Armenia. Clara still possesses a professional portrait of Jacob Greilich standing proudly in his military uniform but the man himself she hardly remembers. She was only three years old when he died.

What was Clara's mother to do now? She was a widow with eight children between the ages of 1 and 13. Clara's grandparents in Odessa wanted their daughter to give up "the frontier life" and bring the entire Greilich brood back to Ukraine. But such a long trip with so many children would have taken a large sum of money, not to mention nerves of steel. So, to provide for her family as they continued to live in Petropavlosk, she sold the land that her husband had been farming.

Then, following the custom of the day - which required that a man, not a woman, manage the affairs of a fatherless family - she turned over the money to her sister's husband. An irresponsible man, he soon drank it all away, leaving the Greilich widow and children now truly penniless.

The family dealt with their crisis, in part, by acquiring some sheep that they could raise for wool. Because Mrs. Greilich was too busy with her home and children to take on any extra work outside the home, the older children became servants of the village's wealthy citizens, and everything they earned was used for the support of the family. This however, created a new problem: the children were not always paid in rubles, but with various items of food or cast-off clothing.

Thus, what the children received in payment was not always what the family most needed. The Greilichs knew days of hunger and nights of cold, but somehow they always got by. One year, in 1922, a typhoid epidemic swept the town and the whole family became sick. Other families lost two or three members, but all of the Greilichs survived. For the next nine years, nothing else of significance happened to the family, at least nothing that stands out in Clara's memory now.

The Promises and Betrayals of Collectivism
Then, in 1931, life changed for everyone in Petropavlosk, not just for Clara's family. The communist government collectivized all of the farmland in the area. Did that make life better for poor and struggling people like the Greilichs? Yes and no. In the summertime, when the community garden produced an abundance of vegetables, there was plenty of food for everyone, but wintertime was a different story; there was nothing to eat except what people could steal. So everybody stole.

"But how could you steal if there were no rich people to steal from?" we asked, perhaps naively, trying to comprehend the everyday realities of life in a classless society. Clara then explained that in the collectivized system, the government required all produce to be turned over for centralized administration and distribution. Individuals "stole" by failing to turn in all of the fruits of their labors and secretly withholding a portion. Clara added that this was easily done because each family had been assigned the care of one cow, four sheep, and ten chickens.

Clara has fond memories of how well, in general, the people on the collectives worked together and of how united they were. She says that at first collectivization had seemed like a good idea because, in the old system, the poor who worked for the rich seldom were fairly rewarded. But as time went on and the people's material well-being did not substantially improve, most began to realize that the government had taken more away from them than it had ever given back to them. That realization, however, came only with the passage of time.

The year after collectivization occurred, Clara left the home of her mother to live and work on a nearby collective. Two years later, while fulfilling her tasks as a milkmaid, she met Vladimir Dektorov, a veterinarian. The two were immediately attracted to each other and, after a swift courtship of only a month or two, were married in a civil ceremony. No religious ceremony was possible - even if they had wanted one - as far as Clara knew, all religious activity in the area had ceased.

Sometimes while teasing Clara about how slowly she was learning his language, her new husband would say, "When will you finally know how to speak Russian?" Clara would tease back, "As soon as you know how to speak German!" Then he would comment matter-of-factly, "Ah, yes, but I don't need to know German, and you need to know Russian," Given the time and place in which they were living, he could have made no truer statement. On July 17, 1934, a son was born to the young couple, and they named him Vladimir, after his father.

For the Dekterovs, if not for other people near and dear to them, the 1930s passed by relatively peacefully. When Clara's widowed sister Augustina died in 1937, leaving behind a five-year-old daughter also named Clara, they adopted the young girl and raised her as one of their own. That same year, tragedy hit another of Clara's family members when the husband of her sister Eleanora, Emil Postyan, was named a kulak and was taken away to prison, never to be heard from again. Although Clara might not have known it at the time, her sisters' misfortunes were like distant thunder warning of a storm that was about to strike her own home and family.

Another War, Another Draft
In 1941, another war with Germany broke out. Because Clara's husband was an ethnic Russian and not a German, she did not experience the heartbreak of seeing him transported into the trudarmiya - the heavy labor corps into which thousands of German-Russian men were sent during the course of the war. But she was spared this particular heartbreak only to endure another, for what had happened to her father in the First World War now happened to her husband in the Second. At the outset of the war, Vladimir Dekterov answered the call of his country to serve in the army. Two years later, Clara received official government notification that he had died while in uniform.

In that hard-bitten year of 1943, Clara barely had time or opportunity to mourn her husband, for other tragedies were rapidly consuming nearly everyone she cared about:

- The husband of her sister Clementina, Gregor Madering, was sent to the trudarmiya and starved to death in Sverdlosk. At age 16, the couple's daughter Elizabeth also was ordered into the trudarmiya.

- The 14-year-old son of her deceased sister, Augustina, starved to death in the trudarmiya.

- The Soviet government trusted the husband of Clara's sister Amelia well enough to make him a supervisor over a large group of people. Peter Bushel, however, wanted no part of that job or of the government's trust, so he deliberately appeared late for his duties one day. For his offense, he spent the next 10 years in jail - until 1952. Meanwhile, the couple's oldest daughter was called into the trudarmiya.

- Clara's brother Alexander and his wife of eight years, Anna, were sent to the trudarmiya in Sverdlosk. (Both survived and later moved to Omsk.)

- The husband of her sister Eugenia, Damon Klements, was sent to the trudarmiya in Sverdlosk. There he died from hunger, probably during the last year of the war.

- Her brother Johannes, who had never married, died in the trudarmiya in Sverdlosk.

- During the four years following her husband's death, Clara continued to live among ethnic Russians on the collective that had been her home since her marriage in 1933. She still had her son and her adopted daughter to raise, who were ages 9 and 11, respectively, when they were left fatherless by the war.

The Post-War Years
By 1947, Clara's mother had gotten old, was living alone, and needed help. So Clara, with her children who were now teenagers, moved back to her mother's village. There she found work as a shop clerk. Eventually, she became acquainted with a widower who lived on the same nearby collective where one of her sisters lived. The man was Cornelius Braun, a German Russian born somewhere in Ukraine in 1905. Speaking today with 20/20 hindsight, Clara says, "He was not a good man.

Clara married Cornelius in 1948, had a daughter with him in 1949, and left him in 1950. Early in their marriage, Clara learned that he was a womanizer. She reached the end of her tolerance when she discovered that he had fathered their child around the same time that he had fathered the child of another woman in the village.

Clara returned to her mother's home, again found work in a shop, and started life over. Fortunately, her youngest child grew up to become a great blessing to her mother. As a young woman, she was an accomplished student of the German language at the university in Tashkent. Today she works as a supervisor at a cement factory in Chelyabinsk. She is married and has two children, Yuri and Iona, who are studious and polite, and with whom Clara enjoys a caring and affectionate relationship. (Clara's only complaint is that they don't seem to have much time for her now that they are older and much busier than they were when they were younger.)

The Best Years of Her Life
Clara insists that her life since 1950 has been uneventful and uninteresting. In all that time, the only significant change she made was to move to Chelyabinsk in 1966. In this city, she is able to be near her adult children - Vladimir, Clara, and Clara - and their families.

With that said, we pressed Clara to name, then, the best years of her entire life. Without hesitating, she named the nearly-30 years when she was able to live independently in her own little apartment in Chelyabinsk. She loves her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren - and she appreciates their willingness to take her in now that she can no longer live alone - but she misses the simple pleasures of her previous life. She busied herself with a small garden plot near the Miass River. She knitted and crocheted. She wove huge tapestries from wool that she had processed and dyed herself, letting their colorful floral patterns emerge from her own imagination.

Some of her handiwork she had been able to sell, adding the profits to her monthly pension allotment. She also enjoyed entertaining guests, especially her grandchildren when they visited. Last but not least, her old apartment building was the place where she had met Josefina Herrspiegel, who "was always going to church." One day when Josefina told her about the city's thriving little Catholic parish, Clara said, "Why, I'm a Catholic, too." Soon after that, Clara was regularly accompanying Josefina to Mass.

"Why do you like our parish? Why do you keep coming to Mass even when it is difficult?" we asked Clara. Again she had no problem answering. She said that when she is in church, she no longer feels alone. She feels part of a community. She feels as if she is among friends. She feels warmth.

Clara's voice then lowered a little, and she seemed to be groping for words. We thought perhaps she had finished answering our question, but finally, with a definitive air, she said she would tell us something and we could make of it whatever we want. Clara said that she often has dreams that she remembers upon awaking, but about a year ago she had an especially vivid dream. She saw lightning flash across the sky of a stark landscape, then she saw a huge cross appear from out of nowhere. She woke up filled with a sense of awe, certain that this had been no ordinary dream - hopeful that, in fact, it had been a sacred sign to her.

She is amazed at the comfort she is finding in her religious faith during these last years her life. "I don't," she responded when we asked her about the source of her faith. "Maybe God looked for me and found me - or maybe I looked for God and found Him. I just don't know."

[This interview took place in early September of 1996. In a letter written to friends on September 14, 1996, Sister describes what is involved in recording the Conversations.]

In the past month Sister Mary Elise and I have visited two different parishioners' houses and have spent the afternoon with them, just letting them talk in German as Sister Mary Elise translates into English for me. I take notes on everything they say and take their pictures. We 
explain that Americans are very interested in knowing about their experiences, and they seem to feel very honored by that.

The visits always end up being pastoral visits, too. If something is bothering these people, they find it easy to open up to Sister Mary Elise and she seems to have something helpful to say in response. One time a woman we spoke with felt that she had committed such serious sins in her lifetime that God would never forgive her no matter how much she prayed and did penance. Sister Mary Elise helped her see that nowhere in the Gospels is Jesus ever shown withholding forgiveness from anyone, no matter what they have done. The woman wept tears of relief as Sister Mary Elise explained this to her.

It always takes several hours to do each interview. Then when I get home, I have to set aside a day for writing a rough draft, working continuously from, say, 10 in the morning to 7 or 8 at night. Then I let the rough draft 'cool off' and take another half-day later in the week to revise it.