From Blumenfeld to America
Excerpts from the Life Story of Adam Franzovitch Ebel
by Jerry Henry, written in 1970
Courtesy of Sheila Seifert
Note: The information and spelling of names and places relied on Adam's memory and on old maps he had kept.
|In the village of Stephan, a
woman awoke from a nightmare. She had dreamed that her husband was lying
in tall grass soaked in his own blood. The next morning they (the village
authorities) found Franz (EBEL) lying in a low spot in the road to the
tannery, his skull crushed by a blow from a coal chisel, his body covered
with blood that spilled onto the tall grass.
It was surmised robbery was the motive but Franz had fooled his killers. He had thrown his 35 rubles and some coins into the grass during his final struggle for life. The would-be robbers had been unable to find them in the dark. The search party picked up the roll of bills shortly after they found the body.
The woman later re-married and her new husband, Gottlebb GLOBEDANZ, took her from the west side of the Volga River far to the east - to the little village of Blumenfeld. It was in Blumenteld where I was born February 25, 1886, according to the old, or Julian calendar. I, of course, never met my real grandfather who died so violently beside that peaceful dirt road by his tannery.
During my early years, life in Russia was good. According to custom, as each man turned 21, he was granted a portion of the village land to farm. There were 1,200 male residents in Blumenfeld, and therefore my share was one twelve-hundredth of the acreage our village claimed.
My father eventually became a reasonable well-to-do farmer. He supplemented his income by horse trading, a profession he became adept at while a young man. He was a wiry, thin man with b1ong-reddish hair and usually he sported a red stubble beard. Father hired most of his farm work done and often could be seen touring his fields in his buggy, overseeing the workers. Although he was a horse trader he was extremely honest. He once served as mayor of Blumenfeld for about three months and also served as food administrator for the village.
Mother was the opposite of father in many ways. While he was outgoing, she was introverted and shy. She was dark with long flowing black hair. She Cooked, washed, took care of us when we were ill and remained a sort of silent bystander in our lives, always calm and reassuring when a crisis arose.
My mother's maiden name was SCHEIDT, but her father died when she was young and her mother re-married. My step-grandfather, John DINGES, was one of the wealthiest men in our part of the country. His money came primarily from farmland he owned and his own ability to manipulate money and make it grow. He reportedly had 112,000 rubles in a bank in Saratov and many of the businesses in our area owed their existence to old DINGES who loaned money at 12 percent interest.
He was thrifty to the point of absurdity and watched his holding and hired men constantly to detect the slightest waste. He would go out into his wheat fields during planting and, using his crooked cane, he would tamp into the ground kernels d wheat which had been left on the surface.
It was hard to please the man. Once a hired boy driving through one of his fields with a stubborn oxen team panicked when one of the oxen lay down while DINGES was watching.
Fearing the wrath of the old man, the boy feverishly whipped the animal in an attempt to force it back to work. DINGES walked over to the boy and asked him his name. ''TAUBERT,'' the youth replied. ''You are worse than a beast," the old man cried. "lie down with that ox and I'll whip you the same so you know how it feels." The boy stood dumbfounded. II know you TAUBERTS," the old man went on. "You are the worst of your vile family. All of you are swine but you are the worst." TAUBERT was badly shamed. After the old man went back to his tamping, the boy picked up a stick and also began tamping kernels of grain into the ground. After awhile, DINGES noticed the boy and his manner softened. He puffed on his cigar and watched the boy for a time.
''TAUBERT,'' said grandfather, as though talking to himself. The hired boy cringed fearing another outburst. "Oh yes, TAUBERT," the old man mused, stroking his chin. "I know your family. They are basically good people." He went on to name all of TAUBERTís relatives.
As the old man praised TAUBERTís family the boy began to feel at ease. But the smoke from the old man's cigar bothered him. He wanted to smoke himself. Even though he knew it was irnproper to smoke in front of an elder, the boy rolled a cigarette - while DINGES talked on, gazing at the horizon - and struck a match to light it The rasp of the match brought the old man's head around as if it were linked to the match by a string. "What are you doing?" he demanded. "Smoking." "You are filth and slime," shouted the old man, pointing his crooked cane at TAUBERTís face. "And that should be no surprise to anyone because you are a TAUBERT, and worst of that miserable lot at that." He went on to upbraid TAUBERT and his family worse than before.
While Grandfather was a man of unpredictable behavior, he always was a strong traditionalist. His staunchly conservative attitude and the tremendous influence he wielded over his family, resulted in the undoing of the old man's favorite grandson, my cousin Georg DINGES.
DINGES sent George to the University of Moscow. Although he had to put up a 25,000 ruble bond to do it, he wanted the boy to have the best possible education. Still, the old man fretted about what effect the university influence had on my cousin's religious beliefs. While Georg came home from the university on holidays, old DINGES insisted George not only go to church, but that he sit with his proper age group during service. Under no circumstances was George to show off by sitting in front as most of the university students did.
When the revolution came, Georg became one of its victims. Although I was gone from the country for nearly seven years, I heard the story of young DINGES from relatives. He was, at the time of the revolution, a professor at the University of Saratov. When the communists took over, George refused to accept their books and continued to teach from the old texts, which were larded with religious precepts. Thus, he disappeared about 1920 and was never seen again.
The Lutheran faith permeated every facet of my life from the time I was a baby. If a man lived in the village and was a German he also was a Lutheran. The main pastor of our church was a very Important man. He was responsible for six villages and handled not only religious needs but also was charged with hiring teachers for the schools and keeping vital statistics on the people in his area. Our church, like the Greek Orthodox Church, was supported in part by taxes, 8 sensible arrangement in view of the numerous government tasks the pastor was required to perform. Still taxes were not prohibitive. I remember my father usually paid seven rubles 8 year which didn't seem excessive.
We were not required to tithe to the church. During services an elder in the church passed around a sack on the end of a long handle for donations. There was a bell attached to the sack and he would shake it in front of patrons. But most people would just nod and look the other way. Some would drop in 8 few small denomination coins. Everyone knew the church wasn't being supported by the collection and so it didn't seem very important. Neither the pastor nor his school teacher - minister ever complained about the collection sack scarcity.
The school teachers hired by the pastor also conducted most of the Sunday church services. Since our pastor was in charge of six dorfs (villages) and he could only be present in one on a given Sunday, he made it to our village for Sunday services only about eight times a year. The school master handled services the rest of the year.
I remember only one incident of strife over religion when I was a boy. A Baptist preacher, whose last name was HAMMER, wandered into the village and began preaching. He barely got started when one of the villagers collared him and took him before my stepgrandfather GLOBEDANZ, then mayor of Blumenfeld. "Gottlebb," he cried, "I have here the antiChrist. What should we do with him?" Grandfather peered at the shaking Baptist for a few moments and asked him to present his credentials to the town secretary. HAMMER did as he was told. It so happened his papers had been printed with go/d-colored ink - something neither the secretary nor the mayor had encountered before. The secretary turned to GLOBEDANZ shaking his head. "Gottlebb," he said. 'This man's credentials are printed in gold. We must let him go at once." The mayor concurred but warned HAMMER to get out of town as soon as possible. He complied but promptly got himself into a jam in the neighboring village of Strasburg.
The schoolmaster, SCHMIDT, tapped his stick sharply on his desk and his lips disappeared into a thin tight line. He was getting angry and we all knew it. But there was
precious little we could do. Little Catherine BRAUN, who was only eight, was having difficulty reciting her lesson. We older children knew she was smart enough to do it, but SCHMIDTís impatience made her frightened and confused. He insisted on perfection, even from the youngest children in school.
'You will start over," he snapped. Still she couldn't get it right. "Begin again," his voice cut into the middle of her stumbling recitation. She stuttered and mumbled, not knowing what to say next, having by this time forgotten everything. There was a long silence. Finally SCHMIDT tapped the stick on the desk again. "Come here," he said. Slowly the little girl walked to the desk. "Put out your hand," he said. He took the hand and rapped it sharply with the stick. The little girl's eyes filled with tears. "Now you will remember," he said.
As the sobbing girl walked slowly back to her desk some of the other children began to cry. Suddenly the whole roomful of pupils burst into tears. SCHMIDT looked up angrily but suddenly his manner changed. He stared, unbelieving, started to say something and closed his mouth, caught in a feeling of helplessness. Finally he went on with his lecture. He never referred to the matter again. A/though his volatile temper remained intact, I don't recall ever seeing him strike a child again.
Despite his impatience with students, George SCHMIDT was good teacher and highly thought d in the community. He taught religion, math, music, reading, writing and all his classes were conducted in German. Toward the end of my eight years of schooling SCHMIDT and I became good friends. He often asked me to help grade papers and do other chores for him.
Since we lived in Russia, we also were taught Russian, but by another teacher. The Russian instructor also was German and just the opposite of SCHMIDT in temperament Ivan SCHLOTHAUER was only 18 when he first began teaching at the two-story wooden Blumenfeld school, which also served as the village church. He was very lenient and seemed to get very involved in hi. subjects, especially literature. SCHLOTHAUER taught the same classes as did SCHMIDT with the exception of religion. All his classes were conducted in Russian.
He had a very thorough method d keeping the students from lapsing into German during class. At. the beginning of class he would hand a slip of paper to the first pupil who spoke in German. The student would then hand it to the next classmate who lapsed. At the end of the class, the pupil with the slip would get a rap on the knuckles from SCHLOTHAUER's stick. That may not sound like a lenient form of teaching but the manner in which it was done made it tolerable.
Our formal schooling began when we were seven years old and ended eight years later.
School was conducted four hours a day, six days a week, beginning October 1 and ending March 25. I liked school and did well in my subjects as did my older brother, Henry and Jacob, my younger brother Franz and our little sister Margaret. Alter I returned from the army our pastor asked me to take a job as a minister-teacher in a dolt northwest of Blumenfeld. I had three months to take or leave it. I not only left the job but the country as well.
Life in our town when I was a boy was much like small town life in the United States before the turn of the century. Everyone knew everyone else and there was very little conflict.
As a small boy I remember having only one major fight and that didn't amount to much. It was in May 1899, on a beautiful spring day. I was 13. For reasons which I cannot remember, a group of fellows about my age started a quarrel with me and my cousin. They kept taunting us and surrounded us, allowing no way for escape. The situation got worse and worse until finally I could see there was no way out I took a chance and decided to go after the leader, Frederic STIENMARK When he got close enough. I suddenly struck him on the head with all the force I could muster. He went down with an astonished look on his face and the others also took a few steps backward. Alter a bit more argument, Frederic and friends left. Later he and I became good friends.
But most of the time we were content to play our innumerable games, eat the incomparably good cooking of our mothers and have fun. As a child I had to do very little work.
While our family was not rich, we certainly were not poor, at least not to the point I felt deprived.
Our food consisted mostly d what we grew in the fields. When we had to buy clothing or other items, my father charged them at local stores. The shopkeepers were paid when the wheat was sold in the fall. Our flour came from the wheat we dept for ourselves. We would take a load to the mill and it would be ground into flour and placed in a large wooden flour box storeroom . In the grainery. My mother used it to bake all our bread, pies, cookies, etc About the only foodstuffs we got at the store were tea, sugar, salt, and other necessities which could not be grown in our area. We also made our own farm machinery or had it made at a local shop.
In winter months we had little to do but amuse ourselves. The adults would spend much of their time visiting each other with the women in one room and the men in another room placidly smoking their pipes and carrying on a low key conversation.
The winters in central Russia were severe and just about the only way to get around winter was by horse drawn sleigh. One of them almost did me in when I was about eight years old. I remember standing in the street and feeling dizzy for some reason. I don't remember what caused my dizziness but my reactions were not as sharp as usual. Suddenly a sleigh pulled by three horses, the classic Russian Troika, loomed above me and before I had a chance to get away the vehicle rolled right over me. Somehow the horses' thundering feet and the sleigh runners managed to miss my body. I got up and shook the snow out of my clothes, amazed that I was alright. The driver stopped and bawled me out for getting in his way.
Sleigh racing was a popular sport during winter and men would be on the races although the stakes weren't usually as high as they are at American horse races. Still the money involved must haw been considerable because many riders made a fairly good living by touring the villages. When the snow melted n the sleigh runners were replaced with wagon wheels, the work d the villagers began. The men would trod out to the fields of wheat and maize and begin to work the In with oxen, camels and horses. Often they stayed out on the land for a month or longer, taking along a supply d food, cooking gear and large tents so they could live close to the fields until the work was done.
It was during the early summer that I experienced one of the most memorable events of my life. the crowning of the Czar. I was a boy of nine when Nicholas II was installed May 14, 1895. Nicholas, the eldest sane of Alexander III, actually became a Czar November 1, 1894 at the age of 26 when his father died. But he was crowned with great pomp the following year. The February activities consisted of everyone swearing allegiance to the new Czar. We heard a great many speeches on behalf d the new Czar and the Romanov reign.
In May came the crowning. Each householder was required to raise a flag on a pole twice as high as his house, the idea being that a traveler approaching the village could see the flags before he saw the rooftops. It was a festive occasion. Each child was given three pieces of candy and the hazelnuts. They were handed out by the local storekeepers but paid for by the government. During the day there were games for all, children, teenagers, adults and old folks and free food and vodka abounded.
The main spectacle of the day in our village was the drill by local members of the Russianl Reserve Arrny. While the drill team didn't wear uniforms they came as close to it as they could by all wearing white shirts and dark trousers to give a somewhat regimented appearance. As they marched we boys ran behind. The hero of the day was a young drill sergeant named Phillip HERONIMUS. He marched backwards in front of his men and could go backwards faster than they could go forward. We chased them until the the day was nearly done. That evening all the boys were talking about Phillip HERONIMUS, whom I was to meet again in my lifetime but in a far away land and under less festive circumstances.
My school days ended in 1901 when I was 15 and literally became a free soul. The time between my graduation from school and being drafted Into the Army undoubtedly was the best time of my life. We had one great advantage over today's American teenagers... we didn't worry about the future. In our village a young man was not expected to do better than his father. He was. as a matter of fact, not "expected" to do much of anything. If one was extremely lucky, he could become wealthy or famous. But the possibility was so remote we hardly gave it a thought. We had the best of two worlds. We were respected by the adults, for the first time, and yet we played like children. Sports, especially wrestling, were our most popular diversion and at the same time we became interested in the opposite sex.
A lot of young men from other villages came to Blumenfeld to learn trades because the village had several good machine shops, shoemaking shops and an iron works which couldn't be found in other dorfs. The Blumenfeld boys often resented the intrusion, especially when the
outsiders would take up with our girls. Sometimes I took the side of the outsiders because our boys used to get pretty rough and it didn't seem fair to let the poor fellows be ridiculed and beaten up just because they wanted to talk with some of the local girls.
We weren't bad lads in the modem sense, but we did get into occasional mischief, stealing apples and the like. And there was always the flirtation with alcohol. Every holiday the men had an abundance of alc0hoi on hand, and youths our age, if they weren't too brazen, could get their share. The big thing was to drink enough to "make the houses totter" and if a man drank enough, he had the distinction of "making the dogs run away." For as folklore had it, no matter how mad a dog was, he had the presence of mind to be afraid of a drunkard.
As I neared my 21 st birthday I also neared the perennial thorn in the side of the German colonists... the military draft. Most of the colonists felt the lifting of the exemption to the draft was a form of Russian persecution and the families as well as their sons dragged their feet all the way. My oldest brother, Henry, was exempted automatically because when he came of age, my second oldest brother, Jacob, was not 18. The law provided that if a man did not have a son over 18 to help him make his living, then his 21 year old son could not be drafted.
Jacob was not so fortunate. I was over 18 when his time came so he had to go to the drawing at Nobor. Despite his prayers, his number was low and he was inducted into the Army.
He wrote us letter after letter telling about how horribly he was treated. He finally took to eating only candy and eventually became so weak and sickly he could not perform his work. The Army shipped him home for a rest. During his leave, Jacob and another soldier home on leave cooked up an idea to keep from going back. They blew lime into each others ears through a tube, the idea being the lime would eat out the eardrum and leave them physically unfit, although still reasonably healthy.
What Jacob didn't realize was that lime and human tissue are not compatible. Following the experiment Jacob's head began to swell and the pain was almost unbearable. Fearing the Army would find out what he had done, Jacob refrained from going to a doctor until he could stand the pain no longer. Eventually he was taken to a hospital in Saratov where specialists cut into the side of his head and cleaned out the infection. The operation saved his life but left the muscles in the left side of his face badly damaged. His face sagged grotesquely for the rest of his life. The ordeal took several months and after it was over, he did not have to return to the Army. The government, by this time knowing full well what he had done, took no punitive action. His face was his punishment.
After Jacob's experience I began to believe the disease was better than the cure. In fact, I thought Jacob had greatly exaggerated his plight and I actually began looking forward to serving with the army. It was a cool brisk October 17, 1907 when I went to Starajo Poltwlka to draw my number. The armed service required 631 men from our sector that year. I didn't want to go back to Blumenfeld a civilian and my heart thumped just a little when I drew my card. I peered at it quickly and saw it was a high 626. But unless they suddenly changed the requirements I was in.
After the drawing we received our first orders. We were to report for induction November 20 at Novusinski. That meant a whole month to ourselves. The month at home passed quickly.
I loved it all. I was the center of attention. Even those I didn't know well treated me with a certain deference. It was a time filled with much laughter - but a time in which I felt a deep sense of fulfillment.
I went into the Army only about two years after the Russo-Japanese War and got out about two years before the outbreak of World War I. I was released from active duty October 23, 1910. Yet had I remained in Russia I would have been subject to recall for nearly 20 years.
Under the terms of my release, I would remain in the first reserve category for seven years. In this category a man was subject to first call as soon as the nation went to war. After 1917, I would have passed into the second category and been discharged from the Army in 1929.
Although I was discharged officially in October, I didn't get home until November 17, 1910. I was married the following February 22. It was a busy two months in between.
The first task upon returning home was to be re-accepted into the community. Each dorf kept very close watch on its citizenry, one purpose being to keep crime at a minimum. Where
everyone was, where they were going and what they were supposed to be doing, it was easier to pick out prime suspects when a crime was committed.
When I had gone into the Army, the clerk at our equivalent of the American courthouse had signed me out of the doff. My record showed I was no longer a part of the community, but a member of the armed forces. When I returned. I went to the same clerk, showed papers and he amended my record to show I was once again a resident of Blumenfeld. When I came home I lived with my parents but spent a good deal of time wotj ,u brptjer-in-law, Adam SCHLOTHAUBER. He had married my sister Margaret and she died while I was in the Army.
My situation was perfect. Just back from the Army and still wearing my uniform I was probably the highest ranking eligible bachelor in the doff. Everyone knew that Adam and I were in the marriage market, which meant we could afford to be selective. I was getting in gear to marry a girl Iíd been watching. Catherine BRAUN. the same little girt Old SCHMIDT had struck in
the schoolhouse so many years before. She had grown into a comely dark-haired young .
whose father was the village shoemaker. I was well acquainted with her family. Her father was well-to-do and was popular in the village. As a young girt Catherine had traveled to Argentina with her family where BRAUN attempted to ply his trade at a more profitable rate. However, they didn't stay too long. They left in 1899 and while they were gone, Catherine's grandfather, whose name was SCHREINER, committed suicide.
It was spring time and apparently the old man was very lonely. The year before he had harvested a large amount of wheat but heavy rains had prevented thrashing. During the winter mice got into the stacks of unthrashed wheat and practically wiped him out. Depressed and lonely, the old man stayed home one Sunday while his son Peter, the only member of the family still at home, went to a funeral. later the hired man found SCHREINER hanging in the attic of the house. He had thrown a rope over a rafter and fashioned a noose at the other end. They found footprints in the snow leading to the well and many footprints around it, indicating SCHREINER had paced back and forth by the well for a long time. Apparently he had concluded that hanging himself was a better way to die than by jumping into the well. The BRAUNs in South America received word of his death some time later and shortly afterward returned to Blumenfeld.
Catherine was one of the prettiest girls in the village and in setting my sights for her I felt a challenge to my ego. I was told she had once before agreed to many a man but had thrown him over at the last minute.
Courting and marriage were somewhat different for us than they are in America today.
Then, a young man picked the woman he wanted and asked her parents for permission to marry her. If the parents approved the marriage was as good as sealed. Actually it wasn't as impersonal as that. The parents naturally asked the daughter if she wanted to marry before they gave her suitor their consent.
But a woman had even more latitude than that. For example, Catherine had decided against marrying the first prospect after allowing him to make his declaration. A declaration of intent to marry customarily was issued three weeks before the ceremony to determine if there were persons who had good reason to believe the couple should not marry. Catherine had rejected the other man only days before they were to be wed. While this broke custom, a young woman's decisions on such matters generally were respected by her parents and the community as a whole.
It was CatherIne's cousin who first touched on the subject of my marrying her. We were talking on the street one day and the topic inevitably turned to the eligible young ladies in town.
He asked if I would be interested in Catherine. I replied I certainly was. He suggested I go to her house and ask her father about it The first person I encountered at her house was her brother. He told me I may as well go home. "She's not interested in you," he told me bluntly.
But I wasn't satisfied with his view of the situation. I went directly to her to ask her myself. The proposal seemed to take her by surprise and she got very emotional. She wept as we talked but she refused giving me a definite answer. Finally, her father came into the room and said he thought I would make a good husband. He urged her to accept. After much talk and a few tears, she agreed and I rushed out to find my Freierschmen.
Freierschmen were two male members of the community who vouched for the worthiness of the groom-to-be when he went to the preacher to make his declaration. One of my Freierschmen was Catherine's cousin, who had suggested I marry her in the first place, and the second man was one of his friends. I made the declaration and three weeks later we were married.
The marriage ceremony itself was a simple affair. It was performed at the home of the circuit preacher, or pastor, KOSCIOL. (KOSZIOL), who lived about 18 miles from Blumenfeld.
Catherine and I went to his house alone where the ceremony was performed. Afterwards we sat around his parlor, had a few drinks andn discussed the condition of the world in general before climbing into our buggy and heading back home.
Life was easy and serene during the first months of our marriage and the time we had together was precious. But a germ of restlessness was beginning to develop under my breast. I had a yen for adventure and excitement, a desire that was soon to carry me thousands of miles from my native village never to return again.
I was the first male member of my family to marry and, according to custom, I was allotted 45 acres of land, which amounted to one twelve-hundredth of the community. Catherine and I first lived with my parents and later moved into our own little house. In the summertime I bootlegged whiskey to supplement my income. life was calm and predictable but under the surface a new excitement was sweeping the village. Everyone was talking about America.
In winter when we would gather at someone's house to visit the talk always seemed to drift to America. Each time we heard new stories of how someone's brother or cousin had made the voyage and was now a wealthy aristocrat. Other times we heard tales that were not at all encouraging. Several people from our village had gone to America and returned saying the United States was a brutal nation of cut-throats who thought of nothing but the dollar. Yet many of us, especially those my age, wanted to see for ourselves, and I suppose we wanted to believe the stories of easily found riches rather than the more realistic tales of struggle and sacrifice.
It was late 1912 when I made the decision. The suggestion came from Henry SNIDER, whom I had known for years. He asked me if I was interested in what was involved in making the trip. I was interested and he outlined the details. We shook hands on the deal and he left my house. Catherine wasn't terribly excited about the prospect. She had been to South America and the thought of another transcontinental voyage didn't impress her. She was worried about our new baby, Katherine, who was then four months old. But she agreed to it and it was settled.
We were going. As I was getting things in order and preparing for the trip, Henry SNIDER, who worked as a clerk in a store across the Volga, said he couldn't make it as planned but would go at a later date, which he did.
I wanted another family to go with us so I managed to talk two other friends, LIND and KAISER, into going with us. By this time I was the local expert on procedures in making the trip. My friends and their wives gave me the money and I took care of the paper work. I went to Novosinsky to get the passports and it was on a chilly January morning in 1913 when we boarded the train in Saratov, the first leg of the journey.
In retrospect it must be said we did very well by coming to the United States. We didn't become millionaires as some of the stories we heard in the old country had led us to believe we might. But neither did we suffer the hardships and privations which swept Russia during and after the revolution. Most of those men I knew in those days when I first came to America Jacob SPADE, Jacob SCHREINER, and the DUMMLER brothers . all did well here. Henry SNIDER, who had talked me into coming to America in the first place, later came to Ohio and then went to Hoisington, Kansas, where he married a rich widow and returned to a life of relative ease in Ohio.