Conversations with Lydia Ackermann Kuhn
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.
Lydia Ackermann Kuhn (born 1924)
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
"When the Kuhns come, they can be my guests," Lydia jokes when she hears that Americans with her same surname undoubtedly will enjoy reading her story. Lydia loves to cook and bake, and when she has guests for dinner, she joyfully transforms her warm and bright fifth-floor apartment into a grand banquet hall. She is probably not joking when she says she would welcome any Kuhns from America into her modest home.
Lydia's earliest memories reach back to the city of Stavropol in the Caucasus, where she was born in 1924. She says that Stavropol was also the birthplace of her father. Peter Ackermann, and possibly of his parents, Johann and Elizabeth Ackermann. Besides their son Peter, the elder Ackermanns raised four other children: Rosa, Jacob, Heinrich, and Katerina. Lydia remembers that her Aunt Katerina, although crippled since childhood, was always a big help to the family by knitting needed items of clothing for all its members. The Ackermanns' religious affiliation was Baptist.
Lydia was named for her mother, who had been born in February 1897 into the Lutheran family of Frederick and Katerina SIGMUND. Her mother's brothers and sisters were Frederick, Edward, Louisa, and Carolina. There was also a girl named Martalina, but she did not live into adulthood. The Sigmunds originally had lived in Odessa, Ukraine, but migrated to Stavropol when it had become too hard to make their living in the Odessa area. When asked specifically why the family had moved to Stavropol, Lydia replies, "Probably because of one of the famines."
Happy Early Memories
In 1917 in the Stavropol area, Lydia's parents met and married. What were her parents like: The German word lustig leaps to Lydia's lips when she recalls her father. He was jolly and outgoing, lively and fun. Other people loved him for his vivid stories and knee-slapping jokes. "How can you always be so cheerful?" her mother used to ask her father.
Lydia's mother was the quiet and serious type. Although in Stavropol it was not possible for her mother to worship in public with other Lutherans, Mrs. Ackermann nonetheless maintained a deep faith in God that she passed on to her children. That is why today Lydia can say she has been a believer all her life, although it was only two years ago that she became a baptized Christian.
In Stavropol Lydia's parents were ordinary kolkhozniks, workers on one of the area's many collective farms. Her father helped with the raising of vegetables and her mother with the baking of bread. People of several different ethnic groups harmoniously lived and worked together on the collective: Germans, Russians, Chechens, and others. Life was good. Her parents always had work, and the family always had food. Lydia's parents also had enough free time to enjoy some of their favorite leisure activities, such as reading books and singing German folk songs. In these favorable circumstances, the Ackermann family rapidly grew. Johann was born in 1918, Lydia in 1924, Martha in 1926, Peter in 1928, and Frederick in 1931.
There was, however, one big dark cloud hovering over Lydia throughout her early childhood. She was often sick. Plagued with mysterious headaches and dizzy spells, she couldn't run and play with the other children. She couldn't remain in school, either, and quit after completing only two years of a standard Russian elementary education. A thin and weak child, more than once she had seemed near death. "If my parents could rise from their graves and see me now," Lydia muses, "they would be shocked to see how big and healthy I have become!" Then she laughs self-consciously.
The Real Trouble Begins
In 1935, the year Lydia turned 13, her parents were among those whom the Soviets labeled kulaks. The family was stripped of their possessions, which had been "excessive." Exactly what had the Ackermanns owned? Two horses, two cows, some chickens and some geese. "Maybe it was really my grandfather who had been rich, and we were being punished for his wealth," Lydia says. "Who knows? I don't know."
For their punishment, besides having their farm animals confiscated, the Ackermanns were forcibly relocated to a place called Kista, 80 versts away. There they joined other relocated kulaks and again lived in an ethnically diverse community of Germans, Russians, Chechens, and others. Their trials weren't yet over, however. Two years later, in a stepped-up campaign against the kulaks, authorities arrested her father. The family never heard from him again.
The next few years in the story of the Ackermann family reads like the biblical book of Job. In 1940, Lydia's elder brother, Johann, was drafted into the Soviet army. The following year he was yanked back out of the army, however, along with all other soldiers of German background. They had suddenly become national security risks because of the war that had erupted with Germany. Johann then was ordered to Tadzhikistan to work in the trudarmiya, the Soviet heavy-labor corps established to meet wartime labor demands and to "reeducate" those admitted into its ranks. Johann wasn't in Tadzhikistan very long before he was killed by a falling tree in a logging accident. He left behind a grieving widow and two sons, Jacob and Johann.
That year, 1941, was also the year when all the rest of the Ackermanns were ordered to a detention camp in Kazakstan. It was one of many such camps for Russian citizens of German background. Sadly, the Ackermanns left Kista under guard and boarded a train. "We were promised that we would get our apartments back after the war," Lydia says, "but we still are waiting."
The trip to Voliva, Kazakstan, took a month. Along the way, the train passengers ate mostly what they carried with them, for little else was provided - occasionally a little soup or a little bread, and that was it. In Kazakstan, they learned that the kolkhoz that was to be their new home was named Pobeda, the Russian word for victory.
The Family Breaks Down
Somehow during their relocation to Kazakstan, the youngest Ackermann, then only 10 years old, got separated from the rest of the family. Lydia's mother did not live long enough to learn the whereabouts of her youngest son. In fact, it was not until 1961 that Lydia's uncle, Frederick Sigmund, finally learned the fate of his nephew and namesake. After two decades of tireless searching, Uncle Frederick found the younger Frederick living in Karaganda, Kazakstan. By then, he was the husband of a pretty widow and the father of three stepchildren and two of his own.
In 1943, almost two years after being exiled to Kazakstan, Lydia was ordered into the trudarmiya in Chelyabinsk. By then she was a healthy and strong young woman of 19, unlike the sickly child she had been in Stavropol. Her tasks in the trudarmiya included chopping stone, driving a tractor, and doing "a little bit of everything." That left her sister Martha to care for the two young sons of their deceased brother Johann.
In 1945, the year the war ended in victory for the Soviet Union, Lydia's younger brother, Peter, succumbed to malaria in Kazakstan. He was only 17. The next year, her mother contacted typhus and died in a Kazak hospital. Mrs. Ackermann had not yet reached the age of 50. With young Frederick still unaccounted for, Lydia and her younger sister, Martha, suddenly had become the last surviving members of the family of Peter and Lydia Ackermann. However, like the devil who made life increasingly difficult for the biblical Job, life was not yet finished heaping troubles upon Lydia and Martha.
The postwar years were hungry years for many people, including Martha and the two boys for whom she was caring. In desperation to keep herself and the boys alive, Martha stole. One day in 1947, she was caught stealing three kilos of wheat, and for that she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her imprisonment left young Jacob and Johann without any adult supervision or protection, for there simply were no other living adult family members to adopt them. The boys were forced to fend for themselves, living nearly like young, wild animals on the lonely Kazak steppes. Lydia was powerless to help because she was still living a life of close supervision and chronic poverty in Chelyabinsk. The end of the war not only had not brought the trudarmiya workers a restoration of their pre-wartime homes and property, it had not brought them a restoration of their freedom, either.
While still a tractor driver in Chelyabinsk, Lydia met another tractor driver who fell in love with her. Karl KUHN also sent to Chelyabinsk from Kazakstan during the war, had been born in 1915 in the Crimea. As the Kuhns' 19th child, he was "the youngest and the tallest," Lydia says with a chuckle. He and a wife and two children had been living in the town of Zhankoi when war broke out and their exile to Kazakstan began. After he was ordered into the trudarmiya, however, he lost contact with his wife. She never answered any of his letters.
Then one day he received a heart-breaking message from his sister, still living in Kazakstan. "If you find a woman there," the letter began, "marry her - because your wife has already married another man here." This jolting announcement deeply wounded Karl, scarring him for life. Only after he met Lydia did any healing begin for him. Seeing her working in the fields everyday, he soon found himself thinking - as he later repeated to Lydia, often and affectionately - "If that tall, dark, beautiful girl marries me, then I will marry again."
Lydia married him. Their marriage, at least in the beginning, was a completely private agreement just between the two of them. As Lydia now says, "not even the cat behind the stove knew" that they were married. Certainly not the government, which was still tightly regulating the lives of all those who had been sent into the trudarmiya during the war.
At the time of her marriage to Karl, Lydia owned only a blanket and a pillow; and he, not even that. Because he had worked so hard in the fields, however, he had been awarded a small room of nine cubic meters for his own personal use. That single room became the wedded couple's first apartment. Karl himself built all of the furniture that they needed in the beginning of their life together.
Their first child, Olga, was born in 1948. She was followed by two more daughters: Regina, born in 1951, and Rosa, born in 1953. Then in 1955, the Kuhns welcomed a son into their family and named him Alexander.
To this day, Lydia cannot imagine a more perfect husband and father - indeed, a more perfect man - than Karl Kuhn had been in the 16-plus years she had known him. His disposition was in many ways similar to her father's. When it was time to work, no one worked harder than Karl did. But likewise when it was time to have fun, no one had more fun than he did. One of his favorite activities was dancing, and he was good at it, a real high-stepper. The Kuhns knew an old man who could play the accordion as well as a professional. They used to invite their friends to their house, ask him to play dance tunes for them, and whirl around their yard for hours on moonlit summer nights.
New Year's Eve was a holiday Karl thoroughly enjoyed. On December 31 every year, he used to leave the house at 11:00 p.m. to begin a round of visiting to all of his friends - and always with the same instructions to Lydia: "Lock the door behind me and don't let anyone in while I am gone." He was afraid that someone would come and steal her away from him. A man haunted by his first wife's abandonment of him, he never quite lost his fear that someday his second wife would suddenly disappear, too. If Lydia took too much time shopping and running errands during the day, worry would steal away his usual jovial spirit. "I hope she hasn't left me" he would sometimes mutter within the children's hearing.
The fact was, however, that Lydia would no more have left Karl than she would have tried to make the sun stop shining each day. A housewife during most of their years together, she missed him so much while he was away at work that when the time neared for his return, she stopped whatever she was doing just to listen for the sound of his familiar step. As soon as he came into the door, he swept her into his arms, purposely making sure that she got as dirty from his work in the fields as he already was. Then they took a bath together. After supper, he again took her into his arms and held her as they sat in an armchair in the living room and watched their children play.
The dawn of each new day always brought another familiar routine with Karl. He knew that she liked to sleep long in the morning, so he always got up ahead of her and cooked breakfast. Then several times in the morning he would look in on her, saying it was almost time for him to go to work. Could he have her blessing before he left? He never left the house without first hearing Lydia recite a short prayer of blessing that she always used just for him.
Lydia had never forgotten the words of her pious mother, who often used to say, "Child, without God you can't even cross the threshold of the door." This thought impressed Lydia more and more deeply with the passage of the years. She eventually developed the habit of praying. "God, go ahead of me, and I will follow" everytime she left her house to run an errand or go to work. When she finally had children of her own, she taught them to say this prayer, too.
A Strange Glimpse into the Future
Early in Lydia's marriage to Karl, after the first child had been born and when the second was on the way, her husband had a strange brush with death - and with somehing or Someone beyond death, too. He fell sick with an illness that was giving him both the chills and a high fever. One day while he was lying sick inside the house, Lydia went into the yard to tend the cow. At just that moment, a rather strange, off-balance man whom everyone knew as "Vetter Paul" was passing by. "How is your husband?" he called out. "Very sick," she replied. "Make him some hot tea," he said. She went back inside and did as he had suggested. Karl drank the tea and immediately fell asleep, remaining that way for hours beyond the normal period of time that even a sick person would sleep. He slept so long that she finally became afraid that he had died. Near despair, she ran for a doctor.
When the doctor arrived and had finished examining Karl, he assured Lydia that her husband was still among the living. He also said that the most important thing she could do for him was simply to let him sleep, undisturbed, for the next day or so. With that, she took her child and left the house for a day and a half. When she returned and he finally woke up, he looked around in a daze and said, Oh, Lydia, what I saw I cannot tell you."
Her curiosity piqued, she coaxed, "Tell me just a little." Then he said, "There where I was, it was so beautiful." He tried to tell her how beautiful it was, then he told her that he had received a glimpse into the future. "We will have four children, two more daugters and a son - but Lydia, you will have to raise them alone." At that strange and abrupt announcement, her eyes started to fill with tears. Karl immediately felt terrible and said, "Oh, don't pay any attention to me. I'm just talking nonsense." At his urging, she tried to forget what he had said and, for the most part, she succeeded - until their fourth child was born. A son. A son who had followed the arrival of two more daughters.
When little Sasha turned six, Karl started getting mysterious pains that the doctors were unable to explain or to treat. Although Karl had always wanted his wife to stay at home to tend the children. Lydia insisted that the time had come for her to get a job. "You're often sick now," she told him. "I need to be working just in case you get so sick you can't work anymore." One day in the fields where he was driving his tractor, he suddenly collapsed. Death soon followed, and doctors discovered that the cause of his complaints had been cancer. The year was 1964.
From that time forward, Lydia devoted her complete attention to providing a good life for her children. "With God's help I raised them and taught them," Lydia says. All four children greatly missed their affectionate and "lustig" father, but especially Sasha, who often asked Lydia to find him "another father." But Lydia had no heart for marrying again. Where would she ever find another man like Karl? Finally she explained to her son that sometimes stepfathers are cruel and abusive to their stepchildren. If she married again, the man might turn out to be just such a stepfather. Sasha listened very attentively and never asked for another father.
To this day, Lydia enjoys a warm and close relationship with her four children. All of them continue to live in Chelyabinsk, and they visit her whenever they can, usually on weekends. Olga is a bookkeeper; Regina, a secretary; Rose, a store manager; and Alexander, a carpenter. All are married, and, remembering the religious lessons of their youth, all sought baptism within the Russian Orthodox Church after reaching adulthood.
Lydia's Spiritual Journey
In 1993, Lydia began feeling that she, too, needed to join an established Christian church. Her Aunt Louisa invited her to attend a Lutheran service and Lydia carefully considered the invitation, but in the end just couldn't make herself go into the church. Within her longing heart, she knew that she was beginning to feel drawn to the Roman Catholic faith tradition of her departed husband. Three different times, she made the long commute from her apartment on the northwest side of the city to the little church on Domenniya Street, but she simply could not make herself enter the building. Finally, on the fourth time that she found herself lingering near the door of the church, she felt a sudden compulsion to step inside, almost as if some invisible someone was standing behind her and pushing her forward.
From that moment on, her spiritual journey became easier. She introduced herself to Father Wilhelm, the pastor, and said, "I am 69 years old and I want to be baptized. What must I do?" Father Wilhelm told her what to study, she followed all of his instructions to the letter, and two weeks later she was received into the Catholic Church. She will always remember that day as one full of light and beauty.
Occasionally, Lydia still feels self-conscious when she attends the German-language Mass. She can neither read along in the German prayer books nor sing along with the other German women. Not only that, but she feels embarrassed about her size. Being unusually tall, she does not like the feeling of standing out in the crowd. Being heavier than she was formerly, she soes not like that feeling of being "too fat." But when all these negative thoughts start invading her mind and disturbing her soul, she tries to remind herself of a few basic facts. If she is uneducated, the life of an uneducated person is the kind of life that God gave to her. If she is large, the body of a large person is the type of body that God chose for her.
When describing her spiritual life, Lydia says, "I can't pray from a book. From a book I can't do anything! I pray what my heart tells me to pray" She likes to gaze at pictures of Jesus and Mary while praying. "When I look at a picture long enough," she says, "I begin to feel as though its eyes are looking back at me, resting on me, as surely as your eyes are looking at me right now."
When things happen that rob her of peace - the disturbances that regularly and routinely happen in everyone's life - Lydia always tries to remind herself that God is in His heaven, and He will make everything right. In fact, she once said that very thing within the hearing of a Tatar woman whom she knows. Ever since that time, Lydia chuckles, she often overhears the Tatar woman saying to others, "Well, it's just as the Kuhn woman says - God's in heaven, and He will make everything right!"