Conversations with the Exsners
August Exsner (born 1909) and his wife Elizabeth Leiker Exsner (born circa 1913)
© Copyright 1997, Sisters of St. Agnes, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, all rights reserved
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.
[Note: The following account is based on notes taken by Sister Mary Elise Leiker, C.S.A., when she traveled to Korkina to interview the Exsners in early January, 1996. The conversation was in German.]
He is 86 years old and she is 82, and they can hardly believe they are still married after all these years. In fact, they can hardly believe that they are still alive.
August Exsner was born on Sept. 10, 1909, in Obermonjou - at that time a very large Volga-German village of perhaps a thousand families. His parents were August Exsner, Sr., and Rosa Klaus. Elizabeth Exsner was also born in Obermonjou, four years later, into the family of Joseph and Clara Leiker. Elizabeth never new her father because, one year after her birth, he was drafted into the Russian army and never returned from action in the First World War. An unusual set of circumstances eventually brought together in marriage August Exsner and Elizabeth Leiker, but that is getting ahead of their story.
August grew up the son of a humble farmer and gardener too poor to be considered a "kulak" when that designation later became important in Russian history. August had three brothers and two sisters, and he received the kind of education that was typical for Volga villagers of modest means. He studied four subjects for four years in the local school. His father could not afford further schooling for him, which would have meant going away either to Katharinenstadt or to Saratov. As things turned out, August needed to grow up fast, anyway.
When August was only 11, his father died from a stomach ailment. Soon after that, in 1921, famine gripped the entire Volga region. To survive, people needed to be imaginative. The family of a friend, for example, survived through resourcefulness of their grandfather and the generosity of the American Red Cross. The friend was Joseph Leiker, an elder brother of Elizabeth. The grandfather was Carl Leiker who wrote to the Red Cross requesting food. In return, the family received several bags of rice and several bags of flour. "This saved our lives," Elizabeth firmly asserts 75 years later - making it clear that she will always be grateful to America for this timely help.
When August was 19, his mother followed his father in death. Then, in 1929, famine again reared its hungry head in the Volga region - largely because of oppressive communist policies. Throughout that year, kulaks and priests were rounded up and shipped out of the villages, property was seized, and crops were destroyed. By the end of the year, one Catholic priest was left in the entire region. His name was Father Alexander [Staub], and he lived in Katharinenstadt. August cannot remember the priest's surname, but he recalls that Father Alexander was a Russian who could speak German very well.
Word went out among all the Catholic young people that they should quickly visit this priest and become married within the Church while they still had the chance. At that time, August was 20 and Elizabeth was 16. They didn't really know each other, but nonetheless August asked Elizabeth to marry him. She balked. Up to then, she had known him only as the friend of her brother. Besides, she thought hat she was too young to marry. Then her mother has a word with her. "Marry him!" was her urgent advice. And so, as the fateful events of 1929 continued to unfold, August Exsner and Elizabeth Leiker entered into a marriage that was to last through difficulties and tests more trying than most men and women are ever asked to endure.
In 1932, when another famine struck Obermonjou, August and Elizabeth decided to leave the town of there birth. They had no bread, and they had already consumed the meat of camels and of other animals that only hungry and desperate people would consider eating. With only a few belongings to their name, they headed north for Penza. Today Penza is a medium-sized city about halfway between Nizhny Novgorod in the north and Saratov in the south of European Russia. The couple stayed in Penza one and half years, working on a kolkhoz: milking cows and tending horses.
Their lives didn't really settle down, however, until they moved to the Caucasus and lived in a village near the present-day city of Baku. They remained there ten years in Azerbaijan as a relatively peaceful time. They were welcomed and helped by the villagers, and somehow they were able to bear the loss of three children who never survived infancy. It probably was a blessing that the couple was childless when war with Germany broke out in 1941. Suddenly, that year became for all Russians of Germany extraction what 1929 had been for all Russians labeled kulaks - a year of almost boundless sorrows.
Along with other German Russians then living in the Caucasus, the Exsners were arrested and placed on a boat that took them on a 10-day trip across the Caspian Sea. Upon reaching land, they were sent by train to Dzusaly, Kazakstan. During their entire journey by sea and by land, they ate only what they had been able to carry with them from their village. The were not given any additional food.
At their destination in Kazakstan, locals met them at the train and transported them to their "new" living quarters on a nearby kolkhoz - some unoccupied pig sties. The couple was in that place only two months when August and his brothers Christian and Paul were shipped north to Urals, to live and work as prisoners of the trudarmiya in the village of Korkina.
Authorities never told Elizabeth and her sisters-in-law where their husbands were sent. The women were simply expected to continue working obediently and quietly on the kolkhoz, and this they did - pressing hay for use by the military on the front lines.
At the time that August left, Elizabeth was again pregnant, but this child lived only to the age of three, and August never saw him. In the meantime, the wife of August's brother Paul died, and Elizabeth this woman children and, with another sister-in-law, paid to secretly transport them to Tashkent. The women and children eventually settled in Dzambul, a little north of Tashkent. There they worked on another kolkhoz as the war with Germany continued to grind on.
Meanwhile in Korkina, a Urals village near the large industrial city of Chelyabinsk, August lived in a poorly heated dugout, endured regular beatings and did the strenuous work of railroad repair, which involved much heavy lifting without the aid of machines. He worked 12 hours a day and at night slept on boards using rags and other discarded materials for bedding. Somehow he managed to survive on the single kilo of bread that each man was given to eat each day, plus whatever other scraps he could find.
In 1945 the war ended, but that didn't mean liberation for the prisoners in the trudarmiya. Elizabeth still did not know where August was, and August couldn't have known that Elizabeth had moved Dzusaly to Dzambul. The following year, a woman told Elizabeth and her sister-in-law that she knew the location of their husbands and could supply the men's mailing address. Elizabeth did not know how to write but found an educated man to write a letter for her, and she sent this letter to August at the address the woman had given her. To Elizabeth's surprise, a letter from him arrived by return mail.
Existing laws required August to continue living at the work camp in Korkina, but the commandant at least granted permission for August's wife to come join him. Their reunion was happy beyond description, a real dream-come-true. But for ten more years, until 1956, the life they shared was life in a prison camp. At first they occupied dugouts with other prisoners and later barracks, but they never enjoyed the privacy of single-family dwelling, In Korkina were born all their children who lived into adulthood and are still alive today: Anna Emma, Adolph, Rosa, and Clara.
The once-childless couple now have 11 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. The five Exsner children grew up in a different Russia from the one that August and Elizabeth had known as young people - a Russia mostly at peace with itself and with the world and, in many way, a Russia with a kinder face. When August and Elizabeth speak of their lives in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, they get the feeling that their children simply do not believe them.
Looking back over their experiences, August and Elizabeth do not know how they survived, but they are thankful that they did. They are among the regulars who attend Mass whenever a priest from Chelyabinsk visits Korkina. Elizabeth says she got through the difficult times by being grateful to God for whatever she had - even when she wasn't sure of what the next day would bring. And August simply says, "My faith was my strength."