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Conversations with Maria Haverkand Lang

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. 


Maria Haverkand Lang (born 1936)

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

"Maybe if my grand parents hadn't changed their minds, today I, too, would be an American," Maria said as she gazed at us thoughtfully across her kitchen table. At first she had been surprised to learn about our Volga German roots - especially about me because I do not speak the German dialect that Sister Mary Elise knows so well.

But Maria was better able to "place us" upon hearing the story of our ancestors' emigration to the United States in the 1870s. She then asked us the same question posed by so many German Russians after they have learned about the great number of American "cousins" they have: "But if your great-grandparents wanted to leave Russia, why didn't they just go to Germany?"

After Maria heard our explanation, she fell into the short reverie that resulted in her announcement that she, too, might have been born an American.

It seems that while her mother had still been a very young child - before the outbreak of World War I - her grandparents had migrated to the United States. Within six months, however, homesickness overwhelmed them and they returned to their native village on the hilly side of the Volga River. Mathias Reising had been one of the richest men in Goebel in those days. Had he lived longer, he perhaps would have seen the day he would have been persecuted as a kulak. As it was, however, no one in the Reising family experienced exile until all of the German Russians of Goebel were sent to Siberia at the start of the Second World War.

That included all five of Mathias' children who had lived into adulthood. (Two of them are still living today, in the same part of Western Siberia where they were sent more than 50 years ago: Rosa Reising, age 82, and Anna Reising Goet, age 85. Their sister, Maria's mother, died 14 years ago and is buried in a well-tended grave in the village of Novoyeh Derevneh.)

From the Banks of the Volga to the Forests of Siberia

Born May 26, 1936, Maria was only five years old when the people of Goebel received their order into exile. She had a brother three years older than she, Johannes; a brother two years younger, Jacob; and a little sister on the way - Anna, who would be born in Tyumen Oblast on June 17, 1942. Her parents were Johannes and Maria Haverkand, both born in Goebel, he in 1911 and she in 1908.

Tears come to Maria's eyes when she remembers her mother. She could sing so beautifully, Maria says, All the old hymns. Songs like Grosser Gott. I felt like crying whenever I heard her sing. I still cry today when I hear those hymns sung in our church. I feel sorry that I can't join in. The hymnals are printed in German, and all I can read is Russian.

Maria's mother was a woman who prayed constantly and who diligently taught her children to pray. Although the communist government had turned Goebel's large Catholic church into a social club and had forbidden people ever again to assemble for prayer, that didn't stop families from continuing to pray within the privacy of their own homes.

Maria is not sure how many families in Goebel continued to pray after the restrictions on religious practice were introduced, but she knows of at least four families, besides hers, that did. Those who had prayed " before there was atheism still prayed after that, and those who had never prayed before did not suddenly start praying," she recalls.

Maria's mother made sure that all the Haverkand children knew the Ten Commandments, the Our Father, the Apostles' Creed, and, of course, the Sign of the Cross. The children were instructed to make the Sign of the Cross often throughout the day - upon arising in the morning, before leaving the house to play, before going to bed at night.

In the fall of 1941, however, all of their peaceful routines were suddenly disrupted. Like all of the other German Russian families of Goebel, the Haverkands were given 24 hours to pack, and under the cover of darkness, a horse drawn wagon came to their house to take them away.

As they boarded the wagon with all they could carry, they asked their driver, also a German Russian, "Where are you taking us?" He snarled, "To the Volga - where all of you will be thrown into the river!" The next morning they arrived at the riverbank, but no one tried to drown them. In fact, nothing happened to them for three days. They just sat and waited for a boat to come, and when it did, they boarded it and chugged upriver to a place where they could be herded onto a freight train headed east.

In Tyumen Oblast in Western Siberia, trucks met them at the railroad station and transported them on the final 18 kilometers of their long journey into exile. Their final destination, the settlement of Okenyuka, was nothing like home. A dense growth of tall birches surrounded them on every side. They soon learned that they were to work on a Soviet sovkhoz [state farm], different from a kolkhoz [collective farm] because they would receive small salaries in return for their labors. In time, her brothers became tractor drivers and she, a milkmaid.

In May of 1942, Maria's father was ordered to report to Sverdlosk for service in the trudarmiya, the dreaded Soviet heavy labor corps. (The industrial city of Sverdlosk lay to the west of them, in the Ural Mountains that divide the more temperate lands of European Russia from the frozen forests of Siberia.) The following month, Maria's little sister, Anna, was born, but her father didn't live long enough ever to lay eyes on his youngest child. The hunger and deprivations of life in exile had been taking a slow, steady toll on him. Six days after arriving in Sverdlosk, he died.

Simple Pleasures and Sharp Deprivations

Despite her eight-hours-a-day job on the sovkhoz, Maria's mother did all she could to provide her children with a childhood as happy as possible under the circumstances. Just as they had done on the Volga, they continued to celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

"I was so afraid of the Christkind," Maria says with a chuckle, "that I hid under the bed when he came!" She was always happy, however, to sample the Christmas candy and cookies that he had brought. For the Easter holiday, her mother always fashioned a beautiful lamb out of butter, and the children surrounded the lamb with eggs they had colored. They kept the lamb and the eggs on display throughout Easter Sunday while they feasted on rivvelkuchen and other baked treats.

Although Mrs. Haverkand worked hard to make holidays special and bright, other days brought unavoidable discomforts and deprivations. Family members slept on straw mattresses. Sometimes they had shoes to wear; sometimes they didn't. There was little meat to eat, mostly bread and potatoes, and sometimes not even that.

When staples ran low, Maria's mother made soup from boiled grass and from different kinds of plants that grew in the forest. Maria recalls that one plant, in particular, made them break out in an itchy rash whenever they consumed it - but putting up with the bothersome rash was better than feeling the pangs of unsatisfied hunger.

Despite all of Mrs. Haverkand's best efforts; however, Maria nearly starved to death when she was twelve. "I can still remember how white my skin was," she says pensively, stroking her arms, an expression of pain stealing over her face like a dark shadow - discouraging us from inquiring any further.

"Everything I Could Have Wanted"

Years passed. Almost before she knew it, Maria was 26 years old and still unmarried. An older woman on the sovkhoz, however, began thinking that Maria would be the perfect match for her 24-year-old nephew in Chelyabinsk. So the woman arranged for a meeting to take place between the two young people.

"He wasn't anything like any of the men in my own village," Maria exclaims almost girlishly, her eyes dancing as she recalls her first meeting with Leo in 1963. "He was tall, strong, handsome - everything I could have wanted."

Leo Lang had been born into a German Lutheran family near the city of Saratov on the Volga River. His family also had been exiled during the war, but to Kazakstan instead of to Siberial. Eventually the Langs ended up in the city of Chelyabinsk - like Sverdlosk a short distance north of it, a major industrial city that was heavily populated with Trudarmy workers during the '40s and with their descendants during the subsequent years. Leo's parents were Karl Franzovitch Lang and Maria Fyodorovna (Rutz) Lang, and he was their only child.

The attraction between Maria and Leo was instant and mutual. Well before Leo's 10-day visit to Okenyuka was over, Maria had agreed to return to Chelyabinsk with him. Although Maria's mother objected that everything was happening too fast, Maria did as she had decided and soon was in Chelyabinsk, the bride of Leo Lang.

"How could you have been so sure of someone you hardly knew?" we asked - innocently enough we had thought - but Maria's face suddenly turned as red as that of a child caught stealing from a cookie jar. "Such questions you ask!" she humorously scolded as her face reddened even more. Then she offered us another cup of coffee and told us about her first years in Chelyabinsk.

They weren't entirely wonderful and easy years, but the passage of time did prove her right about Leo. He was and remains an excellent husband and companion. The challenge of their first nine years togethr, however, came in the form of having to share an apartment with Leo's parents. His mother was immer boese - always angry, always scolding.

She didn't hide her dislike for anyone, not even her obvious dislike for her own grandchildren, Ira and Andrei, born in 1965 and 1968. By 1972, thankfully, Leo and Maria were able to move into an apartment of their own. It is the same seventh-floor, two-bedroom apartment where they continue to live today. By Russian standards, it is quite comfortable and spacious.

"When the New Church is Built"

Maria has been a member of Immaculate Conception Parish ever since it was first organized in the early 1980s. Her cousin, Maria Frick, had acquainted her with the parish. In those days there was no resident pastor, but Mass was regularly offered by the traveling priest whom Siberian Catholics have fondly nicknamed "the Iron Monk" for the great courage of his spirit and the strength of his physical endurance. He is Father Joseph Swidnicki, as energetic and as active as ever, but now living in the city of Omsk and leaving the care of the Chelyabinsk parish to four missionary priests from Germany.

Lately, Maria's husband has been expressing an interest in becoming a Catholic. "But he doesn't even know the Our Father yet!" she says with a laugh. "I told him he must go see our priests. He says that he will when the new church is built." In the meantime, whenever he rises in the morning for work, he gives her a nudge and reminds her that she, too, must rise - to be on time for Mass.

"When the new church is built" is becoming a phrase frequently heard these days. Ask an elderly couple when they will seek a religious blessing for their civil marriage, and they say, "When the new church is built." Ask a man when he will begin accompanying his wife to Mass, and he says, "When the new church is built."

In the Metallurgical Region of Chelyabinsk, the skyline is taking on a distinct new appearance as the Gothic spire of the new church slowly rises above all the other shapes and forms surrounding it, sharply contrasting them in its solemn stateliness and its singular beauty. The new church rises like a monument to the power of one man's dreams, for Father Wilhelm Palesch saw the need for a larger worship space for the city's Catholics long before anyone else did. The new church testifies to the skill of its German architect as well as that of the Russian and German workers who are following the architect's plan.

The new church stands like a big "Danke schoen" to the many foreign donors who have agreed with the worthiness of Father Wilhelm's dream. Not to be forgotten, either is the fact that it stands on the very spot where barracks once housed hundreds of German-Russian exiles who had been torn from their homes in European Russia during the cruelest war of this war-ravaged century. It stands there where the barracks once stood, shining like a promise, a strong and silent symbol of what endures when all else has been lost.

[In a cover letter sent with this "Conversation" Sister Alice Ann added:]

In the final paragraph of my story, I make reference to the new church, which is literally becoming the talk of the town, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet much remains to be done on the church, and funding it is a constant worry for Father Wilhelm. His heart's wish is that all the work can be paid for and finished by next October 13, so that he can honor Our Lady of Fatima by dedicating the new church on her day. Everyone here, as I'm sure you've heard, considers Our Lady of Fatima the special patroness of Russland.

[At Sister's request, therefore, the Sunflower Chapter of the American Historical Socxiety 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 2700 Elm Street, Hays Kansas 67601-1712.