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Conversations with Ilse Wiens Weber

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. 


Ilse Wiens Weber (born 1939)

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

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

Ilse Weber can speak Russian, German, and English with almost equal fluency. In her leisure time she is an avid reader and an informed connoisseur of the arts, but during her hours of volunteer work with children, she is a dedicated teacher and an amiable companion.

Not only that, but with the help of a little makeup and an oversized costume, she readily transforms into a jolly clown who an gladden the hearts of this city's saddest and most abandoned children. Perhaps it is the children who will miss Ilse the most, now that she has moved to Germany.

Ilse was born on July 31, 1939, in Azerbaijan. She was the first and only child of two parents whose lives later would be destroyed by the second major conflict of the century between Russia and Germany.

Ilse's father was an engineer who, by 1939, had practiced his profession in the great Baltic port city of Leningrad and in the Northern Urals city of Nizhni Tagil. Specifically, in the middle 1930s, he had worked as a specialist in a newly-formed machine plant in Nizhni Tagil.

By that time, the Soviet government was intent upon building up the industrial potential of cities throughout the metallurgically rich Ural Mountains area.

The young engineer's contribution to this great Soviet cause, however, became something of a sad irony when he perished in a Ural Mountains work camp less than a decade later. Doubly ironic was the fact that during Russia's civil war earlier in the century, his father, Daniel Abramovitch Wiens, had been firmly committed to the Bolshevik cause.

Young Revolutionary

Daniel Abramovitch had been one of approximately 10 children, all given biblical names, who were born to Abraham Wiens, a great Mennonite leader well-known among his co-religionists throughout the North Caucasus.

Young Daniel, however, soon developed his own ideas about how he wanted to live his life, and he openly displayed them when he violated his parents' wishes concerning the taking of a wife. He spurned the Mennonite woman his parents had chosen for him in order to marry a Catholic woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Not only that, but he had consented to a Catholic baptism. This permanently estranged Daniel from his family and, of course, from Russia's entire German Mennonite community.

For the reason that Ilse's Grandmother Wiens was a spirited woman even in old age, Ilse could easily picture a scene from her grandmother's youth that later was described for her. Disturbed and upset, the woman who had expected to be Daniel Wiens' wife confronted the "other woman," saying, "You have stolen him away from me!" Coolly and curtly, Ilse's grandmother replied, "I? I have? Then steal him back if you can!"

A bookkeeper by trade, Daniel Abramovitch eventually became interested in communist ideals. More than that, he decided to fight on the side of the Bolsheviks in the civil war that followed the resignation of the Czar.

His Mennonite upbringing, however, had so impressed him with a repugnance for violence that he would not consent to killing anyone. So he worked for the Red Army as a photographer, secretly penetrating territory held by the Whites, photographing troop movements and places of strategic interest.

In the meantime, his young wife often participated in the risky business of secretly giving shelter to Reds in her home.

Despite her support for the revolutionaries, all her life Grandmother Wiens remained a devout Catholic. When the new communist regime tried to eliminate religious faith and practice from the people's lives, she repeatedly resisted their efforts to change her own faith and practice.

One day when a young communist came to her door, urging her to throw away her Bible because "there is no God," she said to him, "How do you know there is no God?" Can you prove it? When you can prove it to me, then I will give up my Bible." The young man quickly departed, too confused to offer any kind of response to her challenge.

Growing Up in Kazakstan

Ilse knows more stories and anecdotes about her Wiens grandparents than she does about any other relative, including her own mother and father, both of whom died when she was quite young. Two years after she was born, war with Germany resulted in the exile of her family to a camp in Kazakstan.

Shortly after reaching that sparsely populated Asiatic republic, her father was ordered into the trudarmiya in Sverdlosk, the location of some of the harshest of all the wartime trudarmiya camps. Within the year, her father wrote her mother to say that he was very sick, and after that, the family never heard from him again.

Years later, after communism had fallen and government documents were easier to obtain, Ilse investigated her father's life. She learned that he had died in Sverdlosk in 1942, "But I know that what they say was the cause of his death wasn't really the cause of his death," she says today. "He died from hunger--the same way my mother died."

It was wintertime when Ilse's mother passed away, nighttime, and Ilse was alone with her mother in a miserable little hovel that always was cold. It was the year following the end of the war, and Ilse was only seven years old.

Not knowing what to do after her mother had quietly slipped away, Ilse simply spent the night sitting by her deceased mother's side. That same night, she later learned, a good friend of her mother's was having a terrible dream in which she saw that Ilse's mother had died, and little Ilse was all alone with no one to care for her.

The following morning, the woman went outside to beckon a Kazak man passing by in a cart. She pleaded with him to stop at the Wiens home, which lay in the direction he was going. The man reluctantly agreed, and when he found Ilse with her deceased mother, he loaded them both onto his cart and continued with all of the business he had planned for the day.

That evening he deposited them at the house of the family friend who had seen everything in a dream. Cold, hungry, and frightened, Ilse was welcomed into the warmth of the woman's home.

Soon after that, her mother was buried in a place nearby. But Ilse remembers that her mother had to be re-buried several times. Either Russian or Kazak neighbors, still bitter from the war, kept digging up the body and generally disturbing the peace of the starved woman's grave. "They were still calling us fascists and Hitler lovers," Ilse sadly remembers.

Ilse then went to live with her Wiens grandparents, who also had been deported to Kazakstan at the start of the war. She has many fond memories of her life with them - and of their great affection for one another.

If Grandfather Wienswork or duties brought him into contact with younger and prettier women, he always would say to his wife, "but you are my best one!"

The couple had a great love for Russian authors and, when Ilse was older, they often asked her to read the classics aloud. "Perhaps that was the beginning of my love for performing," Ilse muses.

Many times Ilse had a chance to witness her grandmother's faith, and she even saw her grandfather's return to faith. "In a way, it was very strange how it happened," Ilse says.

"It was the 1960s and by that time most people had a good life. We were beginning to feel the benefits of communism. But that was exactly when he became disillusioned with it. He saw some things, you know, that others weren't seeing just yet.

Then my grandmother got very sick, and he got very worried. So he promised God that he would return to religion if she got well. She did, and he kept his promise." Throughout the years when her grandparents were still alive, however, Ilse herself remained without any personal belief in God.

Out on her Own

As a young woman, Ilse received a good education and eventually married a man named Weber. Theirs was not a marriage made in heaven, however, and the couple did not stay together long. When she was 28 years old, Ilse moved away from Kazakstan to become a teacher and a librarian in the city of Miass to the north.

Not long after that, she moved to Chelyabinsk, where she spent a short time as an educator in a children's club, then 23 years as a translator in the city's large tractor factory.

Deeply interested in her German roots, Ilse became involved with the city's German cultural center. In Chelyabinsk, also occurred a chance meeting with a Lutheran cousin who helped her learn the fate of several relatives whom she had never known personally.

Most of the men in her mother's family had been grape growers who learned about all the latest growing methods at agricultural schools in Germany, then returned to Azerbaijan to put them into practice.

(Throughout the family's 200-year history in Russia, Ilse explains, they not only maintained close ties with their German cultural heritage, but also with the land of Germany itself.) 
The men's quality German educations, however, ended up being their curse after the communist takeover of Russia. One uncle, after being designated an enemy of the state simply for having been educated in Germany, was shot to death.

Another uncle fled to Iran, where he sought and received the help of the German embassy in becoming a German resident and citizen. Still another uncle, who had been studying abroad in 1937, decided not to return to Russia after hearing about his homeland's growing hostility toward Germans.

These developments among the relatives of Ilse's mother helped create the situation that exists for her today: most of her relatives now live in Germany, very few in Russia. "If I were to stay in Russia and if something were to happen to me, there would be no one here to care for me," she frankly assesses.

Ilse was not a Catholic the first time Father Wilhelm Palesch visited Chelyabinsk, but she remembers hearing about his visit.

In the summer of 1990, he had arrived from East Germany to investigate the possibility of returning for a lengthier period of ministry among the city's Catholics.

"People wondered if he would come back," Ilse recalls. "They wondered if they would ever see him again." At that time the members of Immaculate Conception Parish met regularly in a small church building - a converted family residence - for community prayer, but they seldom enjoyed an opportunity for Mass.

There was no resident pastor. Instead, they had to content themselves with the occasional visits of Father Joseph Swidnicki, the "Iron Monk" who considered all of Siberia to be his mission territory.

When Father Wilhelm returned to Chelyabinsk, Ilse met him for the first time. She was immediately struck by his talent for crafting a homily and, simply, by his gift for speaking the German tongue with beauty and grace. By then Ilse also had met Father Joseph, who had impressed her with his gift for talking to youth.

As Ilse began considering membership in the Catholic Church, her cousin protested, "But we are Lutherans--why do you want to go to the Catholics?" As with so many of life's important choices, there was more than one reason for her ultimate decision. She wanted to embrace the faith of her Grandmother Wiens, but she also felt drawn to the Catholic faith "on principle." She felt Catholic in her heart.

In 1991, after Father Wilhelm had made Chelyabinsk his new home, Ilse received instructions and was baptized a Catholic. Almost immediately, she began lending her considerable energy and talents to the parish, working as a children's catechist and also as the priests' interpreter.

(In time Father Wilhelm was joined by three other priests, all of whom publicly preached in German while privately studying Russian, which is the only language the young people can understand.)

Ilse has composed songs and plays that have been performed at parish functions. She also has taken a clown act "on the road" - dressing up as a clown to cheer up the children in the city's many orphanages and children's hospitals.

A Trip to the Volga

In the summer of 1992, Ilse took advantage of an opportunity to visit what some Russians still call "the Volga Republic." She spent 10 days in Marx, where Bishop Joseph Werth had been a pastor, and met his sister Rosa, one of eight Blessed Sacrament Sisters ministering in the Volga area.

Ilse enjoyed her visit with the sisters very much, noting that the oldest among them was perhaps only 32 years old. They lived a very simple life, dividing their time among a variety of tasks and activities: caring for farm animals and vegetable gardens, taking correspondence courses from a Catholic university, praying the breviary and attending Mass, providing catechism lessons for both children and adults.

The sisters traveled around in a car clearly marked "Mission of the Catholic Church." It was driven by a young German who was taking advantage of his government's humanitarian service alternative to military service. Working as a volunteer in the Catholic parish in Marx, he was a cheerful, helpful, and musical addition to the parish staff - for he could play guitar and sing beautifully. He also could speak Russian.

Ilse greatly enjoyed meeting with the German Russians living along the Volga, and she repeatedly was impressed with their large houses, spacious yard, and well-kept gardens. But she encountered a sadness whenever she went, too. Most families had moved back to their ancestral lands only within the previous eight years or so, and most had begun to see that they would not be able to stay.

Too many years had passed since the area had been predominantly German, and their return was viewed with great suspicion by members of other ethnic groups who had moved into the area.

One sad tale that Ilse heard concerned a German-Russian youth who had accidentally struck a Kazak neighbor with a tractor, killing him. The victim's enraged family, practicing "eye for an eye" justice, promptly carried out the revenge killing of someone in the boy's family. After that, the family filed for their papers to move to Germany.

Now Ilse herself has emigrated. On November 13, [1996] she attended Mass in the little converted house on Domenniya Street for the last time. She had weighed her decision carefully. From Germany, her relatives had been urging her to join them.

Here in Russia, her sense of personal security had been slipping away month by month - each time the tractor factory failed to pay its employees their monthly wages. Finally, like thousands of other German Russians in recent years, she, too, opted to break strong family ties with Russia, ties 200 years in the making.

[The interviews for this conversation took place at various time in 1996. Since Ilse speaks fluent English, Sister Alice Ann conducted the interviews herself.

In a previous conversation, Sister spoke of the new church being built at Chelyabinsk on the very site where the German Russians lived in barracks during the days of forced slave labor. Sister expressed the hope of the local pastor that the new church be paid for and finished before October 13, 1997, the 80th anniversary of the last apparition of Our Lady of Fatima, whom the Catholics in Russia consider the special patroness of Russia.

At Sister's request, therefore, the Sunflower Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia has agreed to collect and forward donations for completion of the new church.
Checks should be written to "Chelyabinsk Church Fund, c/o Sunflower Chapter," and mailed to Sunflower Chapter, 2700 Elm, Hays Kansas 67601-1712.]