Conversations with Therese Gross Herman
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.
Therese Gross Herman (born 1915)
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
In 1941, life was so hard in the little Crimean village of Rosenthal that, for Therese (Gross) Herman, news of her deportation to Kazakstan actually came as a relief.
Roots in Romania and the Caucasus
Therese was born on March 3, 1915, in the Crimean town of Simferopol. She was the fifth of 13 children in the family of Lawrence Gross (1877-1947) and his wife Philippina (1885-1977). All together, the Grosses raised eight daughters and five sons.
Therese's parents had made a number of moves before finally locating in the Catholic village of Rosental [13 miles east of Simferopol] for the majority of Therese's growing-up years. Therese's father had been born in 1877 in Romania, in what was then a part of the Russian Empire. His parents were Daniel and Therese Gross. Therese's mother had been born in 1885 in the Caucasus. Her parents were Matthias and Clara POSCH.
Lawrence Gross and Philippina Posch had married before World War I. While he was still a young husband and father, however, Lawrence was called to serve in the army of the Russian Empire. When he returned to his family after fulfilling his military duty, he decided on a move to the Crimea.
Today Therese remembers her Gross grandparents better than her Posch grandparents because the Grosses had lived in Rosental when she was a girl. The Posches, however, had remained in the Caucasus. She remembers Grandfather Gross as an avid reader and a smart dresser. Grandmother Gross was a talented seamstress and a fashionable dresser, too, she loved to wear elegant hats with big feathers in them. Grandfather and Grandmother Gross had raised six children all together, three sons and three daughters. All three of the girls had elected to become nuns when they became of age. Therese remembers that her father often had remarked, "I have three good sisters. They are in the cloister."
Therese's Posch grandparents were too poor to be smart dressers. Her grandfather was a small, sickly man who often could not work. For reasons that Therese did not explain, he also was often in jail. Grandfather Posch was a quiet man, the opposite of Grandmother Posch, who was lively and energetic. She worked as a house servant to the wealthy. She had a very kind and generous disposition, but in her circumstances she also had learned to be thrifty. "She never threw away anything," Therese remarks today. Occasionally, her grandmother - but never her grandfather - came to visit Therese's family in the Crimea.
A Good Catholic Family in a Nice Small Town
When Therese's family first moved to Rosental, it was a small Catholic town with only one street. The living quarters of the Gross family, which by this time included six children, was one big room. On one side of the room was a large bed for three of the children, and on the other side was another large bed for the other three. At first the family lived in great poverty, but Therese's father worked hard and eventually was able to afford better things for those in his care. On his carefully managed shoemaker's earnings, he was able to build a new house from bricks made of straw and lime. He obtained land and planted fruit trees on it. He bought a cow and a horse, and he began raising bees for honey.
Therese enjoyed a normal childhood for that time and place, one which included four years of elementary education. All of the subjects were taught in the German language by two teachers whom Therese remembers as Mr. KONRAD and Mr. WECHSEL. Mr. Wechsel was especially popular among the children because of his talent in music. Therese chuckles as she remembers one of her classmates named Agatha KLEIN. Jokes were always made about big Therese Gross and little Agatha Klein - gross meaning big in German and klein meaning small.
Therese's upbringing from her parents was strict. The qualities of piety and industry, which were so much a part of her father's life, Mr. Gross expected to see in the lives of his children as well.
Therese remembers that both of her parents were quick to answer the call to worship whenever the village church bells rang. At the services, her father would sing "Grosser Gott" with such gusto that her mother would tease him afterwards. "We always hear you over everybody else!" On all of the big Catholic feastdays, the family prayed the rosary together in their home. One time when Therese laughed in church, her father disciplined her severely. He did not want any of his children to grow up taking religion lightly or being disrespectful to God.
Therese's father was equally adamant in teaching his children the value of hard work. Sometimes in the evening when the family gathered in the living room and busied themselves with various tasks, he would order a daughter who had just finished knitting an article to take it apart and do it over again. While this kind of instruction might seem harsh by today's standards in later life Therese felt enormous gratitude for this training. She believes that as an adult she would have starved to death if, as a child, she had not learned her father's lessons about patience and hard work.
The Beginning of Rosental's Reign of Terror
Therese remembers that the Catholic church in Rosenthal was big and beautiful for a village its size. This made all the more tragic its closing when the forces of atheistic communism arrived with a vengeance in the early 1930s. Parishioners themselves were forced to do the dirty work of destroying all the sacred art on the walls inside the church. Therese poignantly recalls a beautiful scene of Christmas in Bethlehem being scraped off the wall like so much worthless old wallpaper. Then the church pews were removed and replaced with tables and chairs so that the building could be used as a social club.
Actions taken against the worshippers, however, were even worse than what was done to their beloved house of worship. First the old priest was arrested, then the young priest. The parishioners' initial response was to continue gathering for prayer, as they begged God for the safety and well-being of their jailed priests. Next to be arrested was a woman who was the parish bellringer. Therese also recalls harsh treatment of two friends of the priests - Johannes KELSCH, husband of her sister Rosalia, and Johannes' mother, Katerina.
Before religious persecution had begun, the priests had boarded with Katerina Kelsch and she had been their cook. After it had begun, her son Johannes had taken the priests' religious books into his own home for safekeeping. Communist authorities soon arrested Johannes and interrogated him about the books, then demanded that he sign a confession saying that they were his books. The communists threatened to place his hand on a red-hot iron if he did not confess. After conceding to their demands, he was taken away to be shot.
A true reign of terror had erupted upon the people of Rosental. Spies and informants were everywhere. Accusations, false and true, filled the air, and people disappeared in the night. One evening while the husband of one of Therese's sisters was drinking with some friends, he picked up a stone and said, "This is for Stalin." Soon after that, he was jailed and never heard from again. In 1937, during the night of May 1, 23 men were taken from their homes and placed before a firing squad - among them, Therese's grandfather. Therese says that she will never forget the morning when her mother broke the news of Grandfather Gross's arrest.
Most feared of all were members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. Some members of the Komsomol were overzealous believers in their cause, capable of great cruelty, but others had joined the Komsomol mainly in self-defense. In the latter group was a young man named Anton Herman, son of Michael Herman, Jr. After his father was executed on October 8, 1938, Anton felt sure that a similar fate awaited him if he did not "join the cause." So he became part of the Komsomol, in time actually doing much good from within the organization. After reaching a position of responsibility, he became one of the kinder, fairer local officials, more eager to see to the equal distribution of work and of rewards than were certain other officials.
In the meantime, however, Therese had some nasty encounters with the worst of them. One experience in particular, when she was 18 years old, cured her of any remaining youthful naivete that she might have had toward local leaders in the new era of communist domination.
Wolves in the Woods
When the incident happened, Therese was working in a brigade of six teenaged girls whose daily task was milking cows. One day a communist supervisor dropped by the place where the girls were tending cattle and said to them, "Go home and put on some nice clothes. We'll drive to the village to see a movie." For the girls, the prospect of riding in his car was as exciting as the thought of seeing the movie. Eagerly they ran home to dress in their Sunday best. ("Home" was actually a large unheated room that the girls shared as members of a work brigade.)
When the girls returned to the appointed place, they happily piled into the supervisor's car. Their high spirits soon came crashing down, however, when they saw that they were heading not for the cinema or even for the village, but for the dense woods in the countryside. Eventually the car squeeled to a halt under some trees, where two other men were awaiting the girls' arrival. The men had a big feast spread out on newspapers, and they were drunk from the wine and the vodka they had already guzzled. One of them was holding a gun in his hands. As the girls noted the men's drunken condition and a nearby jug full of bullet holes, terror gripped their hearts.
"Get out of the car!" the driver ordered. As the girls huddled together on the ground near the food and beverages, "Drink!" the two inebriated men commanded. With trembling hands, the girls began sampling the lemonade, carefully avoiding the alcoholic drinks. Then the driver returned to his car and sped away.
A girl named Maria caught the eye of one of the drunks, and he ordered her to come to him. When she did, he began fondling her. Convinced that it was time to take action, another girl called out to the remaining five, "Run!" as she sprung from the ground and darted into the woods. Only one other girl responded and followed her, but both runners did safely escape. Then the second man chose a girl to begin fondling. That left Therese and one other girl to watch in fear as the two drunks continued molesting the two girls whom they had chosen.
Soon the driver returned with his car and called for the two men and the four girls to join him for a joyride. Once inside the vehicle, the girls screamed in terror as the car leaped wildly forward. As the passengers rocked about inside the racing car, one of the drunks then turned his attention to Therese. Like a wolf, he began biting her all over her face and arms, leaving painful purple bruises and scarlet teethmarks.
Meanwhile, the man with the gun was firing shots through an open car window as the girls continued filling the air with their screams. Eventually the speeding car passed through a Tartar town. The townspeople heard all the noise, and local communist officials ordered the car to a halt. Right on the spot, they arrested the men who were terrorizing the girls. Then the men were jailed and the girls were safely escorted home.
Her eyes full of tears as she recalls this incident, Therese concludes, "I don't know why they acted like that. They were all married men with beautiful wives."
From the Work Brigade to the Married Life
Sometime later, along with two other brigades of young women, Therese's brigade was put to work on a road-building project. Their task was to build a second street for Rosenthal. Her crew labored from dawn to dusk everyday, then slept at night in that same big unheated room where Therese continued to live as she grew into womanhood. She will never forget all the heavy lifting and hauling of bags that she and the others did under the harsh eyes of stern supervisors - lazy and dishonest German men who had joined the commuists during the time of forced collectivization. When these supervisors weren't driving the road-builders to work harder and faster, they were drinking and womanizing - as they were doing the day they had lured Therese and her five young companions into the woods.
Later, after sinking to new depths of vice, one of the supervisors kidnapped a young woman of the village and kept her as his mistress in an illegally obtained apartment. When Therese directly confronted him about his cruelty toward the girl and his dishonesty toward the system, he threatened to have her put in prison. But he never carried out his threat. Therese says, because his accusations against her would have brought into the open his own corruption. And the corruption could not have been tolerated.
In 1937, when she was 22 years old, Therese Gross agreed to marry Anton Herman. (This is the same Anton Herman previously mentioned - the young man who joined the Komsomol to protect himself after his father had been shot.) The couple was dirt poor when they first married and could afford to live in only one small room with a narrow aisle beween two beds. Money was scarce, and baby clothes were made from Therese's own cast-off clothes. The first baby came in 1938, a healthy son named Aginus. Then a daughter named Rosa followed. Although Therese held a full-time job, she refused to have little Rosa cared for in a children's home. Instead, she wrapped up the baby well and took Rosa with her to work every day.
One Sunday the baby fell ill with a fever. Therese's eyes moisten with tears as she recalls what happened next. "There's a saying, you know, that if a child gets sick on a Sunday, it will not recover." Rosa never did.
One summer day in 1941, about two months after war had broken out with Germany, Therese's husband told her that he had heard that all German Russians were soon to be deported from the area. "You have a week to get ready," Anton secretly confided to his wife. The Hermans owned two pigs, some chickens, and a cow. Therese decided not to do any butchering but simply to set the animals free. She put some clothes and fried meat into a sack for her husband to carry, and she held their little son in her arms as a truck pulled up in front of their house one August day. Man, wife, and child simply walked out of the house, closed the door behind them, and joined three other families in the back of the truck.
First the exiles were taken to a large cattle barn, where they spread blankets on the ground, built fires, and spent the night. Then they were put on a train to an unknown destination. Although occasional stops were made during the week-long trip, Therese never responded to the invitation to leave the train for air and exercise. She was afraid of being left behind if she did.
Somewhere in the Caucasus the train stopped and deposited its passengers. The exiled families then were dispersed to live among families residing in the area. The exiles remained in the Caucasus for a month, helping with the field work, then were brought together again for a trip by cattle car to Asiatic Russia. By October of 1941 the Hermans were boarding with a family in the Kazak village of Byeli.
A Mother's Sorrows
In 1942 Anton was ordered to Chelyabinsk to serve as a slave laborer in the Soviet trudarmiya. He left behind a young son and a wife in the advanced stages of another pregnancy. That April, in a cold and underequipped hospital in Kazakstan, Therese was surprised to find herself the mother of twin boys. She named them Michael and Lawrence after their two grandfathers. The doctor who delivered them, however, was concerned about their weak condition and immediately asked Therese if she could baptize them. Therese said yes and hoped for the best.
In Chelyabinsk, Anton was happy to receive the news that he was the father of twins. In a prompt reply to Therese's letter, he urged her to take good care of the boys so that they would grow up strong and healthy. In Kazakstan, however, food was scarce. After two months, Therese's starved body no longer was able to produce enough milk to keep the babies well-fed. Therese returned to the compassionate doctor who had delivered the twins and asked for advice. The doctor said, "Bring them to the children's home, and you can stay there, too. We will give you work." Eager to save the lives of her little boys, Therese did so.
The home was so poorly equipped that Therese did not even have the rags for scrubbing the floors, so she cleaned them with a knife. Despite the best efforts of everyone working in the home, however, baby Lawrence died a month later. Soon after that, baby Michael developed a big blue swelling on his stomach, and he also died. Therese was heartbroken.
At least one comfort was that she still had her firstborn child, Aginus, who now was four years old.
Therese returned to Byeli to work in the fields and to live with her sister Amalia. When Amalia also received orders for the trudarmiya, Therese moved to another town, Pokrova, where another sister lived. Rosalia, the mother of three children, was a hard worker but was house-bound because of lameness. Thus a natural division of labor occurred between the two sisters; Therese handled all the outdoor work while Rosalia did the indoor work.
They lived in an apartment owned by an elderly couple who had agreed to share their living space with the women and children. The old people were very kind and agreeable, but after three years, Rosalia and Therese decided that they and their active, growing children had strained the generous old couple's patience long enough. So with the help of some German friends, the two sisters built themselves a dugout. Later a local supervisor took pity on them and found them an apartment in which to live.
In 1946, after the end of the war, Anton received permission to visit his wife and son in Kazakstan. When Anton returned to Chelyabinsk, Therese again was pregnant. She was still expected to work, however, and so she spent every day of her pregnancy caring for cattle and keeping the cattle barns clean. On March 25, 1947, Therese gave birth to another baby girl. Noting that it was the feast of the Annunciation, she named this baby Maria.
Six months after Maria's birth, Anton again received permission to leave his work camp in Chelyabinsk for a quick visit with his wife and family. This time the couple had a serious talk about trying to live together again as a family - but where? Therese did not want to remain in Pokrovka for many reasons, one of which was the village's big drinking problem. The following year, Anton obtained the necessary government papers for Therese and the two children to move to Chelyabinsk.
Back to the Future
In Chelyabinsk, the Hermans again started life together in one small room, but this time they shared it with their growing son and their baby daughter. After her big move from Kazakstan to the Urals, Therese still sometimes went hungry, and her work hours remained long and hard. But one bright spot in her life became her membership in Chelyabinsk's Catholic parish.
Therese remembers well the little house on Domenniya Street and how it looked in 1983, when it was first bought for conversion into a prayer house. The original structure of four rooms had interior walls that all needed to be torn down to create one large assembly room. Then builders had to receive the necessary government permission to add a room for use as a sacristy.
Leo Schmidt (born in 1909 but now living in Germany) was the supervisor of the building project; he also did much of the necessary electrical work. Anton Meyer (born in 1913 and also now in Germany) labored every day, from dawn to dusk, making the wooden benches and doing all of the necessary carpentry work. Every day, too, Kamalach Klement traveled from a place near Korkina to help turn the humble little house into a house for God. One time when Therese remarked on how hard the long daily trip probably was for him, Kamalach's eyes sparkled as he replied, "Oh, but this makes our life golden."
Therese remembers, too, how hard all the women of the parish worked - Helena Krug, Leo SCHMIDT's wife Amelia, Anton MEYER's wife Rose, and others. She remembers how the people saved their rubles for the church's upkeep after the remodeling had been finished. Every adult
member of the parish pledged a ruble a month. "In those days a ruble bought something, Therese explains. "A ruble bought five loaves of bread!" (Today, by contrast, it takes 2,500 of those same rubles to buy just one loaf of bread.)
Fourteen years later, Therese remains a faithful weekly visitor to the Lord's house on Dommeniya Street. For a resident of the city's distant northwest side, this is no mean accomplishment. Doubtless from another world her father is watching and smiling as she makes her way to the crowded little church each Sunday - especially on the days when everyone is singing "Grosser Gott."