Quest For Ancestors

A Digital History and Photo Archive for the Beresan District, Odessa, Russia


The Letters

The conditions and circumstances that our ancestors had to deal with during the 1900's were extreme...and nothing describes this better than letters from the actual families that survived (or perished from) the ordeals....


This letter was written by John Renner, describing the murder of his father, Gregor, by the Bolsheviks to his Uncle Joseph Renner.  It was originally written in German and translated years later by Joseph's son, John J. Renner.

January 1, 1922

"Dear Uncle Joseph,

Received your letter Dec. 17, it made us very happy, also shared it with my mother and sisters and brothers, first I want to thank you for being so friendly toward us.  The money you are going to send me is almost worthless here, no matter from where it is.  So your goodwill is
holy to me.  Russia has more paper money than the whole world, so there is no shortage.  But of bread, there is the greatest of need.

This winter millions will die of hunger, our village has 85 homes, and one of the more productive ones, and now more than 400 are without bread.  I with my family and sister, 5 persons have bread for about 3 months, then we are not sure we live til spring.  The hand of the hungry like a shadow is all day with us begging for bread, it is impossible to say no.

Yes, dear Uncle, Russia is an area where one catastrophe follows another; first it was the war, then the revolution, the murders, then the dry spell and hunger deaths.  I could write a lot more, but you will see in the news how things are going in Russia.  And now I will try to fulfill your wish in a few lines to describe the murder of my father.

October 27 (1919) 1:OO p.m. that the village of New Karlsruhe with 33 homes was surrounded by about 500 men bandits on horse and foot.   The shooting and hollering brought great fear to the people, at first they thought it was just a robber gang going by.  The people thought they were more intent on goods than killing, therefore the people didn’t flee but hid in their houses.   But they soon found out that this hellish brood did not come to rob, but to organize the people against the army of Dinikins, so they should not fear.  And all men should go to school right away, and as always our father was the leader and first in the schoolhouse, and trusted the devilish band.  By and by almost all the men came to the school, then the hellish work started.  First they demanded that all the money be brought in, the demand was obeyed. When the robbers had the money, they made the men undress to the underwear, locked them in a schoolroom and locked it from the outside, and shot them through the windows.  To the number of those unlucky ones belonged also our dear father and two of my brothers.  The second oldest and the youngest were to be shot, but through God’s intervention they both lived.  The oldest was saved by a small favor of his wife.  The youngest was saved in a wonderful way by the death of his father and that happened this way:  before the beginning of the shooting father stood in the corner of the room between the door and window.  My young brother and Uncle Frank Joseph Lanz kneeled behind the stove and prepared to die.  But when the shooting began, father wanted to join the two behind the stove.  He got barely to the corner of the stove as a bullet went through his head and silently he fell on the other two kneeling ones, and covered them as a blanket with his lifeless body.  The shooting finally ceased,  the robbers looked the place over and all lay in a bloodbath looked dead to them so they left the school and went to rob the homes.   Meanwhile the two under the dead body of father took the opportunity to flee.   Seventeen men were shot that day in Neu Karlsruhe.  Our mother with two of our sisters, and six children of my formerly murdered brother Jakob, sat all afternoon between two straw stacks soaked from rain that came down like in buckets.  In the eveninq she fled to the wine hill about 300 meters from the village, where they hid in a night hut.  Finally the noise of the robbers in the village ended.  Mother found courage and went back to the village, to poorest but good people that kept her overnight.

Next morning she started on foot with the children for the nearest village where she stayed for a week.  Then she made it to Jewish colony, Tesingar, stayed a month.  My sister Margaretha went on foot to the town Nikolyev to get transportation to Karlsruhe.  By and by, my sisters and brothers gathered there from the villages of Halbstadt, Schonfield and Steinberg.   Mother lives now in Steinberg with my youngest brother Theobald who is still single and village secretary.  And so my dear Uncle, this is what my mother, brothers and sisters told me.  And now best wishes to all your family.

With love, John Renner and family"

Translated by John Joseph Renner 1977


From old issues of the Nord Dakota Herold, Dickinson, ND, and also found in an article written by Phyllis Hertz Feser in the Heritage Review, we find other letters which detail the conditions of drought, hunger and famine that prevailed during the late 1920's and 1930's in our German villages of Russia.

Speier, Russia
1 July, 1928

Alexander, Elizabeth, Valentine and Barbara Schaaf
Greetings brothers, sisters-in-laws and children,

I wrote to Hieronymus Schaaf and told him that father and sister Katherina received $20.00 and a newspaper that you sent.   I am your brother Johann, writing for our father, Valentine Schaaf.  My wife Celestina, my children and I are healthy.

Because of the dry conditions we seeded late this year but nothing grew.  So we seeded again but still everything remained black.  The crops are dry and most of the livestock has died and that leaves father and me without cattle.  We drive to the market every day and try to buy horses but, as yet, have none.  Dear brother, we are now without food and no hope of getting any.  It wouldn't be this bad if we hadn't had to seed twice and three times.   Our government needs so much money, we have been paying all winter, more than this I am not allowed to say...

Our dear old father, with tear-filled eyes and trembling hands, tells me to write to you.  He says he gave life to fourteen children, doing everything possible to bring them to maturity, and all grew up healthy.  In spite of this, now in his old age, he must starve along with these fourteen children.  Dear brother, how would you feel if you were in my place and father said that to you?

There is no way out of this.   Be concerned and help us so that father need not starve, otherwise my children and I will have to bear this endless guilt.  If given a choice, out of respect for father, I would sacrifice my children's lives rather than me so that I do not come to that shame.

Father says that you should ask Uncle George's sons to help too.  Send us $100.00, which is 200 rubles, it will enable us to buy a cow and some food.

If we four brothers had not been so poor and so harassed to begin with, things wouldn't be this bad, we had no choice but to sell our livestock to the Bolsheviks.  Especially did they have Mathias and me in a constant turmoil, for we did not inherit the "gift of gab" when we were born.

So this is how it is with us, dear brothers.  If help doesn't come from you we are finished...need I say more?

In 1921 we came through a lot but it is worse now.  But if you help, perhaps we can come through again.  Father says, please don't deny what we ask, you must help, even if you have to borrow the money...we are people with feelings and we are hungry.

Now father wants to write something to you.

Your true brother and brother-in-law,
Johann Schaaf (son of Valentine)

The letter of 1 July also had a note from (father) Valentine Schaaf.  The note was written with a shaking hand:

Kindest greetings from Uncle Valentine to my brother George's sons.  You have only one uncle living, don't let him live without food and clothing.  Please don't deny our request.

Our Lord God says...people help and I will help too.  Our needs are far greater than we can write.  Dear children, Alexander and Valentine, I am asking you, please don't deny us, send help as soon as possible for our need is very great.  Alexander, you are the oldest, be sure that they take this appeal to heart.

Signed with my own hand,
Your father, Valentine Schaaf, son of George


Speier, Russia
7 November, 1928

Alexander and Elizabeth, Valentine and Barbara Schaaf, heartfelt greetings to you my brothers, sisters-in-law and your children,

My wife Celestina, children and I, your brother Johann Schaaf are still alive and healthy.  However, our dear old father died October 31 (1928) at 4 a.m., he was 85 years old.  All of our brothers and sisters were with him at the end except George and I.  We had gone to look for food and he was ill for six days.   But we did get back before the funeral.  As you would expect, when we were coming home at twilight and I saw my family walking to meet me, I knew in my heart that father had died.  I felt as if the earth would no longer hold me.  Father and I were always together and yet in his last moments I was not at his side.  This distressed me so, but that is as it was meant to be.  When I saw him I thought he must again speak to me but all the crying and mourning did no good, he remained still and quiet.

He was buried on All Saint's Day and there were few people from Speier that did not many were there.  We four brothers, Mathias, George, Otto and I, carried our dear father to the cemetery, to the grave where, from now on, he will rest in peace.  The priest had a very nice sermon, everyone cried.

The funeral cost us 80 rubles.  We had a picture taken of father in the coffin and all of us brothers and sisters with our wives and husbands, are standing next to him.  When the photographs are ready we will send you one so that you may see all of us and our dear old father...but father is dead.

That is what we have done with the money you, dear brothers, sent to father.  We were glad that we had the money so we could give him a good funeral.  By the time we had paid for everything there were only 10 rubles left from the money you sent father.

Now, dear father is gone, the money is gone and my children and I are still without food.  It is bad for us...if you can, please send $50.00 so that my family and I can come through this without starving.  I am sorry that I have to beg so, but if you don't help we are lost.  Over here we cannot help each other.   I have not heard anything about the $30.00 you sent, I don't know why it doesn't come.  If you do send something, send it in my name, because father is dead now.

Your true brother,
Johann Schaaf, Valentine's son

P.S.  Heartfelt greetings to Uncle George's sons, Franz and Hieronymus Schaaf, from your first cousin Johann Schaaf.  our father, Valentine Schaaf, is dead, he was your last Uncle on the Schaaf side.  Before he died he wanted me to write to you and let you know he was very thankful and pleased with what you did for him.  Dear cousins, Franz and Hieronymus, I have written you several letters but I've received no answer, so I don't know if you've received my letters.  I have asked my brothers for help, perhaps it will be difficult for them, so maybe you can send some too and help a poor man in the greatest of need.  Our Dear Lord will not let you go unrewarded...from His hands come all Blessings.  It would be good of you if you could help your Uncle Valentine's son Johann so that he doesn't have to starve with his family.   Don't write this off, my need is great.

Johann Schaaf, Valentine's son

As a footnote to these letters, Otto and Bertha Schaaf died in Russia in 1933, of starvation.  There was no further word from the Johann and Mathias and their families.  George and Katharina with their 3 children tried to escape to Germany at the time the German Army was retreating out of Russia.  Katharina died as a result of an accident, and was buried next to the road in a shallow grave.  George Schaaf and his family made it into Germany.  (This according to the article in the Heritage Review, written by Phillis Hertz Feser)

It should be noted that not all of the difficult times and experiences were occurring during just the early part of the century.  This next letter describes what happened to another group of the Renner family during the years of 1936-1991.  This is from a first cousin, Selestina, who has just recently found me, and is now living in Leverkusen, Germany with the remnants of her family.  In a prior letter, she'd told me that her father was arrested in 1937 by the Russians, and shot in 1938 for being a German.  She was born in 1926 in Speier, Russia.  The family was taken from their home in Speier in 1941 by the Russians, and was held in Kazakhstan until 1991, when the surviving members were finally granted permission to leave and enter Germany. 

April 12, 1999

Dear Valerie,

I received your letter which was so important for me together with the photographs.  I thank you very much for your care and feeling but I feel sorry for that I cannot write in German and therefore cause you alot of trouble.  I already learned reading German here.  I had Russian in school for 5 years, then the war began and school time was over.  For us Germans, the war brought lots of harm and did hurt our entire life.  Before the war, our family worked in the coal-mine settling Konratjewka (Donezk District)...from there they also took away our father.

When the war began they took my brother Georg to the front and our family (mother with 4 children:  Leo, Franziska, Thomas and I) were forced to settle in Kazakhstan.  All that we had we had to leave behind.  They forced us into cattle wagons and we traveled for a whole month.  There was an entire train full with us Germans.  When we arrived, they allocated us to kolkhozs (collective farms)...two or three families in two small rooms in the kolkhozs clay houses.  We had nothing, we slept on straw.  We worked wherever they sent us.

We lived like this for a little while and then they began to conscript us into the labor army.  First they took Leo, then Thomas and then Franziska and me.  I was 16 years old at that time.   Our mother stayed alone.  All were sent into the Ural mountains but everybody to a different place.  Leo came to Swerdlowsk, Thomas to Rscheljabinsk and we came to Saranul.  There were 500 people, men, women and teens.  The shack in which they brought used to be filled with prisoners.  They allocated them and put us into the shacks.  The shack was big, cold and had continuous plank beds on which we slept.   They gave us special clothes (uniform)...pants filled with cotton wool and the same jackets, and boots with wooden soles.  In these clothes we worked and slept.

In the shacks we had an oven which was heated with wet wood.  We worked outside for 12 hours a day, at -40 C to -45 C....sometimes even -50C.  We were brought to work under surveillance and also on our way back from work.  The shack was surrounded by barbed fence and guarded.   I don't know why we were treated like criminals.  We didn't receive any wage for our work.  We got one piece of bread to eat every morning.

We worked, they guarded us, the guardians changed because of the cold, but we had to stay outside for 12 hours.   What was the use of our work?  but they told us openly that they did not need our work so much, but they should destroy us.  We survived, but not all of us.   Us innocent did God protect from cold and hunger.  Yes, my dear, that was our bitter life.  For what?

The war was over, we were happy.  But they still kept us under surveillance.  We were not allowed to leave the place we were sent to.  Every month, we had to sign at the commandant until 1957.   After the war, they were not so cruel to us anymore.  1957 they took away the surveillance from us and we could go to Kazakhstan.  But we were still not allowed to go to Russia or the Ukraine.

In 1950 I was 25 years old and I married a young man, a German from us, who lived under the same conditions we did, Josef Rau.  We got a little room and started from the beginning again.

In 1957, we moved to Kazakhstan.  We had two children, two sons.  The oldest one, Peter, was born in 1952, the younger one, Valerian, was born in 1955.  Both got an education - we tried to give the children everything.
Both are married, both their wives are German.  Peter's wife is called Rosa, they have two children, two girls.  The older one is called Irina, 20 years old, the other one Eugenie, 15.  Valerian's wife is called Maria, they have two sons, the older one is called Roman, he is 20, the younger one, Peter, is 15.  Our children both married on the same day.  They are also in Germany and live in the same city, not far from us.  They don't work in their job but what they could find for work to earn a little money.  We live better here than there (in Russia) although we had to leave everything behind, including a big house in which we invested lots of our health.   Nothing was too more worth, we were just happy that we could escape from there.   But we don't know if this happiness will last long.

Yes, my brother Leo was married to a Russian woman, there in the Trudarmee (the labor army).  The need (poverty) forced him to marry her.  Coldness, starving in the labor army, the Germans died like flies and she worked in the kitchen and helped him.  He always said he owes his life to her.  He lived with her till his death.  My sister Nina, better Petronella, was married with Johann, that's the son of Philip Renner.  They both died.  Both their children are here in Germany.

My sister Franziska was not married, she died here in Germany.  My brother, Georg didn't come back since the day he was conscripted into the army.  My brother Thomas was married, his wife Hilda Hubert lives also here but he died.  They have two children, one daughter, Titjana and one son, Waldemar, both married.  Tatjana has two girls, Waldemar has two daughters and one son.  My sister Maria never wrote about a marriage.  Her last letter was with the name Reyner.  She lived and studied in Makejevka and lived with Petronella.  And Petronella lived with her husband Johann in a house with his father, Philipp and all of them, all his sons and also Philip wrote her name for some reason as "Reyner".  I don't know anything about Aunt Anna and her daughter Lydia yet.  I will try to find something out.  About grandmother Barbara I can't write anything.  I didn't even know what her name was.

The family of my husband went through the same experiences that we did.  They arrested his father Georg Rau in 1936.  He was in prison until 1941.  In 1941 when the front came closer, they shot him and some other Germans.  The mother stayed with four children and was forced to leave, like we did, in the same train to Kazakhstan.  His sister, Piada, born 1919, was not married and died in Kazakhstan.  His mother died in Kazakhstan.   His sister, Elena, born 1922, is married and she came with her family to Germany.   His brother Georg, born in 1925, he didn't make it into Germany.  Shortly before the departure, he died...he was very sick.  My husband, Josef Rau was born in 1927.

Dear Cousin, I would like to know more about all of you, least the most important things.  I tried to answer all of your questions, wrote what I could and I hope it is understandable.  I am very, very happy that I learned so much new, especially from the side of your father.   Again, thank you very much.

Write me, ask me, I will answer, so that our connection will not get lost.

Your cousin,

Selestina Renner Rau

(The original letter was written in Russian, and was gratiously translated by Mrs. Regina Mock and her son, Peter.)




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Last Update:05/02/10