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Almost to Siberia

My Visit with Gotthardt Grauberger by Sue Kottwitz


Early on the morning of Saturday, July 24, 1993, I departed the Hotel Tselinaya in  Kustanai, Kazahkstan and set off on my journey to find my cousin, Gotthard Grauberger.  [for more about Gotthard Grauberger]  I was armed with a bag of presents for Gotthard, my National Geographic map of the , formlr Soviet Union and Gotthard's hand-drawn map with instructions from Cepreeka.  Volodya, a member of the Deutsche Wiedergeburt, had volunteered his car (a Lada - a very small Russian car similar to a Fiat) and to act as driver. Two University students, Helen and Alexandra, . came along as interpreters. Volodya's mother is German, however Volodya speaks only Russian. Helen and Alexandra's language skills were needed right away.

Soon Kustanai began to fade from view and the Kazakhstan countryside surrounded us. Grassy plains, punctuated by wooded areas of mostly birch. There were occasional State or Collective farms with large, 1,000 head or more, herds of cattle, sheep, or horses and I saw my fIrst Kazakhi cowboys. The further we went the less traffic there was on the road. Just a few big trucks, a few motorcycles, hardly any cars.  Soon there were even few farms to be seen. It was as if we were the last people on earth.  Not a building to be seen on the horizon.

It also became clear from our conversation that Volodya, Helen, and Alexandra had never been out of Kustanai before. None of them had ever even seen a highway map of the area before this day. This was a grand adventure for them, too. It began to sink into me what I was doing. I was halfway around the world from home, headed for a State farm roughly 15 miles south of the Siberian border. And none of us really knew where we were going or how to get there. Very sobering thoughts.

I lost count of the times Volodya flagged down an oncoming vehicle to check and re-check directions. To my amazement, all but one stopped and helped. The one who didn't was a wild looking Kazakh on a motorbike who slowed down, shook his head grimly, and just kept going. According to those who stopped, we were headed in the right direction.

The further we distanced ourselves from the city, the worse the roads became.  We began our journey on asphalt, which gave way to a kind of gravel, which gave way to hard packed dirt. The dust was terrible. In some places there had been rain recently and the mud just flew. Several times Volodya slowed the car to lean out and gather rainwater from ditches to fling it on the windshield to clean it. He didn't dare stop the car altogether for then we would have been stuck but good. There did seem to be a bottom to the mud and at times we traveled in tracks with mud up to the bottoms of the doors of the Lada.

At last we reached Cepreeka. Time to consult Gotthard's map. These roads were even worse. At times I feared that Volodya would simply have to give up and turn around. By this time, though, even he was determined to get to our destination.  Besides with all the mud, I doubt he could have turned around! Finally we arrived  at OMG #3, Gotthard's State farm. A few wrong turns later, a few villagers consulted and we found his house.

At first it appeared that no one was home. Volodya layed on the and at last I recognized Gotthart's wife, Dorothea running to the gate. All I got out of my mouth was my first name before the tears and hugs began. I knew enough German to understand that she kept repeating they just didn't. believe I would really come.  Dorothea dispatched a neighbor State farm barn to alert Gotthard of our arrival, invited us to help ourselves to their garden, and then ran off to get her nieces so they could help her cook a dinner in my honor.

The garden was beautiful. Raspberries, cherries, currants, gooseberries, apples and more. We were still gorging ourselves when Gotthard arrived. He is a big bear of a man and his hug included his wife and me. Then, with tears streaming down their weathered faces, Gotthard and Dorothea began to sing hymns and praise God for this miracle. I shall never forget Dorothea's reedy soprano and Gotthard's gruff bass, a little off key at times but singing from memory as it the songs were engraved upon their hearts.  There was not a dry eye in the place.

Gotthard grabbed my arm and off we went on a tour. Their garden really was a wonder. Gotthard has become a master at grafting different plants onto his apple trees. He has all kinds of heavy machinery parts attached to the limbs to pull them down. They never pick all the fruit. In winter he covers the trees and bushes with about three foot of straw. Then when they need fruit, they go out and pick it from under the snow and straw. They have a cow, sheep, chickens, a dog, and bees. Gotthard demonstrated how he spins the honey.

He also showed us their outbuildings. Gotthard's father was sent away from Gnadenthau to the concentration camps in Altai in 1937. In 1941, Gotthard, his mother, his brother, and his sister found themselves exiled to this place now called State Farm 3. The building they lived in from 1941 to 1956 now serves as a storage building. It is sort of part hut and part dugout. Roughly 12' x 18'; they and another family lived here together for several years. First Gotthard's brother, then his sister, were taken away to the concentration camps. He corresponds with them, but has never seen them since. Gotthard was young enough that he was allowed to stay with his mother, who labored twelve hours a day in the nearby forests. The floor of this hut is dirt. The walls are dirt about three feet up, then rough boards which have been whitewashed. The roof is steeL These would be very close, cramped quarters and impossible to keep clean, especially by German standards. It seems impossible to heat this building. Gotthard lived here for 15 years. In 1974 / 75, Gotthard and Dorothea built the house they live in now.

They improvised a dinner table which took up two rooms of their home. Their family and friends gathered with us for a feast. There were traditional German dishes, as well as Kazakh. State Farm 3 is predominantly Kazakh and the influence was evident. One dish I remember well is called "Three Fingers." It is a very old Kazakh main course - a mutton and noodle "stew" which is to be eaten with three fingers. Very tasty, too. The champagne and vodka flowed. I drink very little, but nothing would do that I drink vodka toasts. They downed whole portions; I sipped. Many toasts were made and everyone talked at once. English, Russian, German - it all made for an incredible babble.

Gotthard refused to speak Russian, though our interpreters spoke only Russian and English. He was very excited and spoke so quickly that communication \-vas difficult at times. I did my best with die Deutsch and everyone else spoke patiently through the interpreters. In all these years, these people have been no farther than about 20 kilometers from this house. They were hungry for news of the Volga villages, the Germans in Kustanai, Germany and America. Family photographs, stories and documents were shared and gifts were exchanged. I had brought them large quantities of aspirin and some over-the-counter asthma medication. Soaps, shampoo, lotions, lipstick, cologne, pens, pencils, paper - all were luxuries. A Bible printed in German and English.  Peanut butter, bananas, oranges, gum and candy were all a wonderment. American money was refused - the bills could not be spent - though a few coins were accepted as souvenirs. In exchange, Gotthard presented me with a book of Russian roadmaps, copies of the Neus Leben, a quart of honey, noodles, and the query I had written and he had clipped from the Neus Leben which began our friendship.

It was time for photographs. I had my Polaroid camera with me and we quickly exhausted the film. They had never seen such a camera before and thought it was magic.  They were thrilled to have the photos to keep. I took photos with my other camera so that rd have pictures and they were more than happy to use up that film as well. All too soon it was time to say good bye. We didn't want to leave any more than they wanted to see us go. But I had a plane to catch the next morning and it was getting late.

It probably took us about 30 minutes just to get out of the village. Volodya kept getting lost. Finally we got directions we could follow, then promptly got stuck in the mud just outside of the village. Back and forth Voiodya rocked the Lada. Finally we got going; reached a fork in the road and began to disagree which one to take. Helen and I prevailed and off we went. About 15 minutes later I realized that nothing looked familiar. Via Helen, I discovered that Volodya had decided to take a "short cut." Admittedly, the roads were getting better by the minute. However, there was no traffic and no one t flag down and check directions.

As I watched the Kazakh steppe flash by the window I began to lose the adrenaline high of excitement. I surely hoped this was the way to Kustanai. Suddenly, there was an oncoming vehicle. We were flagged over by the State Police. Volodya paled and issued instructions for us all to be silent. It was only at that moment that I realized that my passport and visa were still at the hotel in Kustanai. Here we were in the middle-of-nowhere Kazakhstan and we had no papers. V olodya got out and talked to the Police for some time. Finally, he came back and we drove off.   As we left the Police in the dust, the color returned to Volodya's face. He had successfully talked them out of searching the vehicle, which would have meant explaining the presence of an American who didn't have official permission to be there.

We had just begun to relax when we became aware that Volodya was nervously scanning the road ahead. We were going to run out of gas. There are no gas stations on Russian or Kazakh highways. One simply counts on running into a fuel tanker traveling from one city to another, or some other traveler with enough. fuel to spare. We'd already used the spare fuel that Volodya had carried in the trunk. There was definitely not enough fuel in the tank to get us back to Kustanai. Volodya began talking about finding a good place to pull over to spend the night. Just when I began to panic (1 knew if we didn't make it back to Kustanai this night, then I would miss my flight), we saw an oncoming fuel tanker. Thankfully, the driver agreed to sell us some fuel.

The rest of the journey back to Kustanai was uneventful. Volodya drove; the others napped. I was lost in thought, examining my fear of being stranded in Kazakhstan.

Trying for a moment to imagine the fear felt by my family in 1941. The family we left behind in Russia; my family who is still largely "lost." Looking out the window at the steppe, I could very well have been in the Nebraska frontier of old. I thought of all the German Russian people I had met - in Kazakhstan and in the former German villages along the Volga. They had showered me with food, drink, and gifts; welcomed me into their homes as if we were long lost kin. I realized that I had come halfway around the world and nearly to Siberia only to discover that I had come home again.