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Conversations with the Papenfusses

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. 

Herman Papenfuss (born 1932) and Albina Younger Papenfuss (born 1931)

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

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

When you meet Herman Papenfuss today, he seems as happy and as secure as a pampered son in a royal family. His face breaks into a ready grin when you speak with him, and he loves to strike a comical pose when you take his picture. His house is clearly his castle and his backyard his realm. Ask him about his property and he proudly shows you the premises, which include a summerhouse, a garden, rabbit hutches, and the prettiest little outhouse that you'll ever see anywhere! (This outhouse is painted, inside and out, with a cheerful flower design, and its furnishings include a wastebasket and a mirror - along with the usual adequate supply of torn newspaper sheets neatly tucked in a wooden rack.)

Herman's wife Albina echoes and magnifies her husband's contentment. Talkative and outgoing, she is quick to add up all the reasons why she and Herman harbor absolutely no desire to leave Russia and take up residence in Germany. "Why try to make such a big change at this time in our lives? We are old. We don't need very much, just food to eat and a place to live. Here we have our own house. He has work. What would we have in Germany that's better? Maybe no work - and both of us are used to working and we like to work."

If they could change anything about their life in Russia, they would have their pensions arrive on time each month. The current Russian government's failure to regularly and adequately pay its pensioners and workers is a well-documented story in world news, but when you meet people such as Herman and Albina, you begin to see how this news story works out in individual human lives. Not every pensioner, however, is as lucky as Herman and Albina are. When the couple's combined pension of 570,000 rubles (roughly $114) simply is not paid in any given month, they still have Herman's earnings as a security guard to fall back on. So, all in all, they don't feel as though they have much to complain about.

Two Lives That Have Gone Full Circle

In a way, the present contentment of Herman and Albina is an illustration of two lives that have gone full circle. Just as they are quite satisfied with their lives now that they have reached their 60s, the earliest memories of each are also fairly happy - memories that stretch back to their childhoods in two neighboring German Russian settlements along the Don River, near the city of Rostov, in a part of present-day Russia that once was considered a part of Ukraine.

Herman Edwardovich Papenfuss was born in 1932 on a very large collective farm in a village called Spartak. He was the youngest in a family of seven children. The religious background of his parents had been Lutheran, but what he most remembers about them is that they were highly educated. His father, Edward, was a teacher, and his mother, Carolina, was a local political leader. He laughs and points at his own small frame when he describes their physical stature. "They were so strong and stout," he says, "but look at me!"

Herman's life on the kolkhoz was that of a normal, growing boy until one day when World War II, quite literally, came crashing down upon his head. In the fall of 1941, near the beginning of Hitler's assault on Russia, Herman was staying at home with a 12-year-old brother, Paul, and a 13-year-old sister, Amalie, when they began hearing the puzzling sound of Nazi planes overhead. Soon the area all around them was exploding with bombs, and one struck closely enough to send the beams of the Papenfuss family home crashing down upon their heads.

Later when weeping and wailing neighbors began pulling bomb victims out from under the remnants of the village's destroyed buildings, they discovered that only Herman was still alive among the three children who had huddled inside the Papenfuss house when the attack had begun. Although the bombing had destroyed everything within a 30-kilometer radius, Herman later was comforted to learn that his parents and his siblings who had been out of the house that day - working at their various jobs - also had survived.

For almost a year after that, the war left the Papenfuss family alone. But their state of relative peace was not to last. In July of 1942, their family was among hundreds of German Russians of the Don River area who were sent into exile in north central Kazakstan. Their heartbreaking journey included a train trip north to the Russian city of Volgograd, a trip by boat on the Volga River to an unremembered point of disembarkation, and a final train trip east to an area near the Kazak city of Kustenai.

Questioned about these events today, Herman doesn't remember much - only a few bald facts related to his eventually becoming an orphan. In Kazakstan the living conditions and the food shortages were so severe that, within a year, he was the only member of his immediate family still living. "And only because I was the youngest," he hastens to add, "and I was always given what little food there was."

Victims of starvation included not only his mother and father, but also two older sisters, Carolina and Evelina, and two older brothers, Frederick and Anastas. He believes that his father and mother were ages 66 and 64, respectively, when they died.

Albina's memory of the war years in Kazakstan are more vivid. "Dogs today live better than we did then," she says. At first the people lived out in the open and then eventually in broken-down sheds that leaked when it rained. Summers they spend working in fruit orchards. Winters all they did was sit in their sheds and freeze and starve. "Schwer, schwer," Albina says several times as she recalls those years. She sometimes went three days at a time without eating a thing. People were so desperate for food that they dug under snow in search of a few stray beets that might have been missed during the fall vegetable harvest. They killed and cooked cats and dogs, and some of them were so crazed with hunger that they cooked and ate the fingers of their own dead.

Albina, too, saw members of her immediate family perish from the inadequate food, the poor water, and the extreme weather. In 1943, she lost a six-year-old brother, Alexander, and a three-year-old sister, Rosa. That left only her mother, Rose, and her nine-year-old sister Regina, still alive. She was 13. 

Her father, Adam, had already died, but not in Kazakstan. In 1941, the year the war had broken out, her father had been one of hundreds of German Russian men, ages 16 and up, who were ordered into a Soviet heavy-labor corps called the trudarmiya. He was sent to a camp in the city of Sverdlosk in the Ural Mountains. In the harsh conditions of his new "home," Adam lasted only six months.

Albina's Roots in the Volga

Although Albina was born in the village of Gruenfeld along the Don River, not far from Herman's native village, her roots are not entirely Ukrainian German. One set of grandparents, Aloysius and Amalia Younger, hailed from one of the Volga German settlements - Albina is not exactly sure which one, but perhaps the large, prosperous town of Katharinenstadt. Her father, Adam, had been born there in or around the year 1909, one of six children in the Aloysius Younger family.

Another point that is unclear to Albina is exactly when her Younger grandparents had decided to leave their native village on the Volga. She knows only that they fled the area because life there had become too difficult. (Any standard Volga German history book can supply the details of what happened to the people after Russia's Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. In a nutshell, harsh new agricultural policies forced immense devastation upon those who had not already been shot, imprisoned, or exiled.)

At any rate, by the time Adam Younger was of marrying age, he was living in Gruenfeld, so he found himself a wife from among the Ukrainian German women of his adopted village. The woman he married was Rosa Gietel, and the couple's first child, Albina, was born on March 17, 1931.

Adam supported his family as a worker in the coal mines. When Albina was around four years old, however, a bad mining accident more-or-less forced a change of occupation upon her father. Adam was so badly burned that he spent the next six months recuperating in a hospital. After that, his mother persuaded him to take up a less dangerous line of work. Thus, Albina's father became a kolkhoznik, a worker on the village's collective farm.

Although Amalia Younger did not want her son Adam to take any extraordinary physical risks, she was no shrinking violet and could be quite a risk-taker in her own right. The risk simply had to be for the right reasons. Albina recalls that her grandfather was questioned quite regularly about the strange goings-on at the Aloysius Younger house. Why, especially, were all those children observed coming and going on a regular basis?

Although Gruenfeld had been founded as a Catholic village in 1900, atheism had since become the law of the land - but it was a law that Grandmother Younger had chosen not to obey. Every day she gathered together willing children of the village to pray the rosary together in her home. When a villager died and a religious ritual at the gravesite was desired, she was available to lead, in secret, the Catholic prayers of burial. She also performed secret marriage ceremonies and baptism, drawing on her memory for words close to the words that Russia's Catholic priests had used in the days before the revolution.

A person of faith can only wonder - was Grandmother Younger's unbending devotion the source of her indefatigable strength? For she remained whole in body and in spirit against forces that sooner or later crushed numerous others during her eventful lifetime. She outlived revolution, famine, war, persecution, exile, and - by a full 17 years - even Old Man Stalin himself. Certainly one of her special joys must been living to see her granddaughter Albina carrying on the faith that she had risked so much to preserve. In 1970 Grandmother Younger died peacefully in Kazakstan.

After the War, a Gradual Return to Normal

After the war life got much better, Albina asserts. Her people, who still were being held captive, at least were allowed to build for themselves better dwellings, sodhouses that offered adequate protection from the elements. The food got better and more plentiful. The people obtained cattle and Albina became a cowherd on the kolkhoz.

But life wasn't perfect. The German Russians were under the constant surveillance of Soviet commandants, and they couldn't do much of anything without asking for permission first. They couldn't travel freely; they couldn't even marry without official approval. If the people protested - "Why are we imprisoned? We didn't kill anyone. We didn't hurt anyone. We only did our assigned work" - all they got for an answer was, "You were brought here to us, and so you must keep doing what we say." 

To people of other ethnic groups living in the area, those in the camps were fascists and devils. It was not unusual for the German Russians to be insulted and stoned when they went about in public, going to places where ethnic Russians and Kazaks also went. Strangers actually peered at their heads in search of the horns that Soviet officials had said were growing there.

In the early 1950s, Albina met Herman. He lived on a nearby kolkhoz, but because there wasn't enough work at that place to keep all of the young people busy, a group of them was sent to Albina's kolkhoz to help out. Soon groups of young people from the two collectives frequently socialized together.

Basically, it was friends of Herman and Albina who insisted that the two of them were a good match and should marry. Government permission for the marriage was granted, and so it was that in 1952 Herman and Albina wed. In secret, Grandmother Younger made sure that it was a Catholic marriage by leading the couple through a series of wedding vows as they stood holding hands in front of her. In 1953 the couple's daughter, Valya, was born and in 1955 a son, Alexander.

Before the decade was over, all German Russians were given their freedom. Like most of their neighbors, however, Herman and Albina remained in Kustenai. They noticed a gradual improvement in the attitudes of their Russian neighbors toward them. Soon the young people in the two ethnic groups, German and Russian, began socializing together to such an extent that marriages between the two groups became commonplace.

Children, Grandchildren, and a New Home in the City

The two children of Herman and Albina received the kind of education that their parents had been denied during the country's tumultuous 1930s and 1940s. Valya and Alexander received a standard high school education, which in Russia takes 11 years to complete. (Albina couldn't be prouder, using the German word for "learned" to describe her daughter and son.)

As adults, Valya became a manager of a bakery, and Alexander, a tractor driver - after he finished his obligatory term of military service. Both children married and produced offspring, although Valya's baby died before she herself died, at an early age, from liver cancer. This untimely loss of their daughter was the greatest tragedy that happened to Herman and Albina in all their years of married life. For a short time in the 1970s they lived near their daughter in the city of Orenburg, where she was hospitalized during her last illness, but they were glad to leave this city of unhappy memories after Valya's death and burial there. In 1980 they returned to Kustenai.

In the middle 1980s, before experiencing the debilitating inflation that perestroika was to bring, Herman and Albina put together the money to leave Kazakstan and purchase the house in Chelyabinsk that is theirs today. It is located in a heavily German part of the city. To hear the purchase price of this house and to compare it with today's food prices is to receive a quick lesson in just how bad the Russian economy has gotten. The Papenfusses bought the house then years ago for 10,000 rubles. Today that same amount would buy a loaf of bread and package of cookies.

The state of the economy, however, is nothing that the Papenfusses are ready to start a war about. They know something about war - what the little people always end up knowing about war - and they know that some things are better endured than defied. Besides, every day they wake up feeling glad simply to be alive. Why spoil such a good mood?