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Conversations with Monica Schaefer Harmel

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. 

Monica Schaefer Harmel (born 1936) 

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

Like so many German Russians of this century, Jacob Schaefer (1895-1983) and his wife, Katya (1901-1978), were continually on the move. Although originally residents of Ukraine, they also lived in Azerbaijan and Kazakstan before coming to a final rest in Russia's Ural Mountain region, in the city of Chelyabinsk. One of their youngest daughters, Monica, was willing to share with us what she knew of her family's story.

Monica's mother was born Ekaterina KUNKEL on June 29, 1901, in Donetsk Oblast - a part of Ukraine around Zhdanov (or Mariupol) on the Sea of Azov. Of Monica's father, she knows only that he was born sometime in 1895, somewhere in Ukraine.

Flight into Azerbaijan

Monica can say very little of her family's life in Ukraine in the years first following her parents' marriage. She knows only that her five oldest brothers and sisters were born there - Joseph in 1920, Lydia in 1924, Anna in 1926, Michael in 1928, and Katya in 1932. She also was told that her family was prosperous enough to have aroused envy and suspicion when Stalin's liquidation of the kulaks intensified in the mid-1930's. After assessing the danger they faced during the upsetting year of 1935, her father and a few other heads of families decided that their only hope of escaping persecution and possible death was to abandon their beloved Ukranian homes. So the families made a plan to steal away together in the night, traveling in loaded wagons, and go to Azerbaijan, where they would try to build new lives for themselves.

The plan turned out to be a good one which was proven in a most unfortunate way by a couple who second-guessed the plan and later returned to Ukraine. This couple was Monica's Aunt Maria (a sister of her mother) and Maria's husband. Shortly after their return to their native village, they were arrested.

Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, Jacob Schaefer found work on a sovkhoz, a kind of collective different from a kolkhoz because all the laborers were paid regular wages. There he helped build houses, quickly rising to positions of leadership and responsibility. There, also, his family grew in size. In 1936 Monica was born, and in 1939 another little girl. This one was named Lydia after her older sister who had died in the previous year.

Monica was quite young during the family's years of residence in Azerbaijan. She has vague memories of living in a long log house, of attending nursery school with her sister Katya, and of eagerly awaiting her brother Joseph's arrival home each day from his job. He worked in a vineyard and often brought bunches of fresh, delicious grapes for the children to eat.

Unfortunately, Monica also has one vivid memory from those years in Azerbaijan. It is of the day her brother Michael was fatally injured in a freak accident. He was 10 that year. One day when he playfully jumped on top of a big pile of stacked logs, some other boys began shaking the logs to make him lose his balance. When he jumped off the trembling woodpile, one log that had become dislodged began tumbling after him. It fell on top of Michael's abdomen, crushing his internal 
organs. That night Monica took her usual place in bed next to young Michael. She spent the whole night uneasy about him, and he spent the whole night softly stroking her hair, trying to comfort her, saying, "Oh, you poor child." The next day he died from his injuries, fully conscious until the very end.

Exile to Kazakstan

Monica does not remember if it was l938 or 1939 when her brother Joseph was drafted into the army, but he was the first of the Schaefer children to leave home. In 1941, two-year-old Lydia - the second Lydia - fell seriously ill with malaria, shrinking to skin and bones. While the child still struggled for her life, the entire family - along with other German Russian families of the area - were packed into cattle cars and exiled to Kazakstan. War with Germany had broken out, and Stalin was taking no chances with Russian citizens of German origin. Every time the train to Kazakstan made a stop along the way, Monica's mother ran outside in search of a stream for washing her sick baby daughter's clothes. Sometimes Mrs. Schaefer narrowly escaped being left behind.

When the train finally stopped in the Kazak town of Kustanai, most of the exiles were assigned local families to live with. Somehow, though, it happened that Monica's father and mother found a large, abandoned public toilet to claim as their new family home. They scrubbed it clean and fixed it up nicely, only to see all their work go to waste when a Kazak came riding up and chased them away, saying they had no right to claim the abandoned building. The Schaefers then found another abandoned structure with solid walls but no roof. Monica's father got to work roofing it and the family moved in. Amazingly, the Kazak climate seemed to agree with baby Lydia, for her illness broke, her appetite returned, and she grew into a healthy, beautiful child. The family later came to believe that their exile from Azerbaijan may in fact have saved Lydia's life

The years in Kazakstan, however, were especially hard and bitter ones for the father of the family. He spent his nights herding cattle belonging to the kolkhoz, ruining his feet by exposing them to harsh cold, and he spent his days trapping small animals. The animals' meat the family ate; their hides Jacob turned into articles of clothing that he sold for profit. He almost never found time to sleep. At one point during the war, he was ordered to a trudarmiya camp, a place where many prisoners literally were worked to death. But his feet were in such bad condition that he was sent home after only a few months. Again for the Schaefers, a seeming misfortune - assignment to the night shift that had injured Jacob's feet - may have saved a life.

Monica's sister Anna, at age 16, also was ordered into the trudarmiya She was sent to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where she met the man who later became her husband. Together, she and Ewald Roppel had four children, all of whom were born while they were still prisoners in the work camp in Krasnoyarsk. (Forty years later, her husband would be the talented artist who would paint all the holy pictures for Chelyabinsk's pretty little Catholic prayer house.)

Meanwhile, in Kustanai, Jacob Schaefer kept looking for ways to improve his growing family's life. In time he built them a house over a dugout on the harsh Kazak steppes. In the middle of the structure the placed a stove. On one end of the house, the family lived; on the other end, the family sheltered its one precious cow. In 1943, baby Maria was born, and in 1946, baby Elizabeth.

During those years Monica and her sister Katya had reached the appropriate ages for attending elementary school. However, they had only one good pair of winter boots between them. So Katya used the boots to walk to and from school every morning, and Monica used them to attend school every afternoon.

Quest for a Better Life in the City of Chelyabinsk

Eventually - in 1945, to be exact - the war ended. The family didn't know it, but during the war Joseph had been taken from the regular army and then had been sent to the trudarmiya in Chelyabinsk. As soon as the war was over, Joseph began a diligent search for his parents and brothers and sisters. After getting the information he needed, one day he walked right up to the front door of the family dwelling in Kustanai - the house that the family was sharing with their cow. The joy of the reunion was marred only by Joseph's disturbance at what he saw. He noticed that baby Elizabeth had only a pile of straw for a crib, the older children had only boards for beds. Before he left, he resolved to help them out of their poverty.

In 1949, when Monica was 13, Joseph sent the family all the legal documents they needed to officially change their residence from the town of Kustanai to the city of Chelyabinsk. The family, which at this time consisted of the parents and the five children still living at home, then journeyed to Chelyabinsk to join Joseph and his wife in the single room the couple inhabited in a trudarmiya barracks. A single barracks, Monica explains, consisted of a building with 15 rooms. It had no indoor plumbing, so everyone shared an outdoor toilet situated nearby.

Her father's first mission in the new city was to find a room in a barracks that the seven Schaefers from Kustanai could call their own. This he did in good time. Monica then went back to school, studying all the usual subjects (Russian, German, math, and so on) and completing seven grades. Monica's father found good work installing stoves in people's homes. Soon the family owned chickens, rabbits, and a cow, and the mother and daughters worked together at caring for the animals. One of Monica's frequent tasks was picking grass to feed the rabbits in their hutches.

In 1953 Monica obtained her first "real job" delivering mail. She remembers it as heavy work for it meant carrying weighty bags through piles of deep snow. She stayed with this for four years.

One day in 1960, Monica 's father fell into a conversation with an acquaintance - a conversation that later changed Monica 's life. Monica's father happened to mention to the man, "I have many daughters." The man replied, "I have a son." Before parting that day, the two fathers agreed that their children should meet each other.

When 32-year-old Wilhelm Harmel later showed up at the Schaefer residence, it was not exactly love at first sight between him and Monica. In fact, the daughter who first caught his eye was not Monica, but Lydia, who already was engaged to someone else. (Incidentally, she too was getting into an arranged marriage, for her father had selected her husband-to-be from a family that the Schaefers had known in Ukraine.) "You can't have Lydia," Jacob explained to Wilhelm, "so take Monica." The two young people eyed each other uneasily. Monica recognized him from her mail route and immediately had doubts about marrying someone so much older than she. Nonetheless, Wilhelm and Monica spent a month getting to know each other, then were married on June 19, 1960.

From 1960 to Now 

The match was not an altogether bad one. Monica did, however, find life with her Baptist in-laws to be quite different from the life she had known in her Catholic home. Her in-laws, with whom she lived for her first 20 years of married life, were overstrict and austere in their life-style. They rejected any form of relaxation that included drinking, dancing, card-plying, or singing (unless it was hymn singing). Before the Harmels' deportation to Siberia, they had lived in Rostov Oblast north of the Caucasus.

Wilhelm Harmel, who had been a trudarmiya prisoner in Perm during the war, turned out to be an industrious worker and good provider. He held a job at the city's steel-and-iron plant until his retirement at the usual age of 55. Over the years, he also proved to be a good father to the couple's four children: Lena, born May 1, 1963; Lydia, born January 14, 1965; Olya, born December 20, 1967; and Katya, born January 28, 1976. Monica herself was a busy working mother during the years the were growing up. After her four years at the post office, she spent 15 years as a signaller for the railroad, then seven years on the night shift at a milk-processing plant.

In 1978 Monica lost her mother; then in 1983, her father. Both lie buried in a large cemetery in Chelyabinsk. Still remaining alive and active today are her brother Joseph and her sisters Anna, Katya, Lydia, Maria, and Elizabeth - some still in Russia and some now in Germany. (Maria, one who remains in Chelyabinsk, serves as the busy, dedicated, and very capable secretary of Immaculate Conception Parish - much appreciated for her ability to charm government officials and cut through red tape in behalf of parish projects.)

Will Monica and Wilhelm ever move to Germany? It's not in their plans. Their children remain here, and, besides, they are expectantly awaiting the completion of the city's new Catholic church. Wilhelm, who practices no religion despite his Baptist heritage, says that he will become Catholic as soon as the new church is built. "Do you think he really will," we asked, half-teasing, "or is that just something he's saying?" Without hesitating, she firmly replied, "Oh, yes. It is something he will do."

Copyright 1997, Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Agnes, Fond du Lac, WI