FREEDOM - AN ELUSIVE WORD
Continued from front page
Like her predecessor, Peter the Great, she was determined to build a strong and independent Russia. To do this she needed people and labor. She turned to the people of her ancestors and promised them land, animals, machinery - and total freedom. They’d live and build in Russia, but remain German citizens without having to pay taxes or to serve in the Russian military. For many Germans, it was a dream come true. Thousands came to Russia and settled there.
The Romanov Empire fluctuated. Despite advances it made, it tended to be highly oppressive - particularly so with “foreigners” living on Russian soil.
In 1905 a minor revolution took place. One incident was promptly titled, “Red Sunday.” Citizens marched on the royal palace in Moscow. Soldiers fired on them, killing thousands of the unarmed peasants.
The rebellion was put down, but only on the surface. It went underground and grew stronger, driven by the ideas of people such as Karl Marx. The idea was that the rich had had it too good for too long at the expense of the common citizen.
Violence erupted again in March of 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution replaced the royal tyranny with one that was even worse.
Caught in the middle of it was the Gruber family. Their ancestors had moved into Russia at the offer of Catherine. The highly educated Herr Petre Gruber had served the public for years - helping to build power plants and telephone companies, and taking an instrumental part in the design and construction of the 5000-mile long Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Gruber family lived a good life in Odessa at the northern end of the Black Sea. They shared their wealth locally by supporting a local orphanage. But they committed two “crimes”. They weren’t Russian. And they were wealthy.
In the summer of 1917 an employee of Herr Gruber’s stomped into the office wearing the uniform of the Red Army. “I’m now in charge here,” he announced. “Here is the schedule. Meet it or you’ll be declared a saboteur.”
A matter of weeks later a unit of the Red Guard knocked on their front door with orders for the family to vacate their home and property by the next morning.
Petre Gruber managed to get passage for his family on the train. They had a perilous journey eastward, moving from town to town in an effort to stay ahead of the battles of the Red and White armies. Along the way they had to part with some of what they’d managed to take. It was given to guards and officials along the way as bribes to let them pass.
They had a second home in Kurgan near the Ural Mountains. For a short time, life became peaceful again. But soon the battles caught up with them. Young Ellichka Gruber was shot and trampled in one skirmish between the Red and White armies.
Herr Gruber soon found himself facing two conflicting orders. One was to rebuild the local power plant. The other was to leave that day to serve with the Red Army. Failure to complete either order meant imprisonment - or death.
His brother was also drafted. The two of them headed out with all the others. As soon as the chance presented itself, Petre ducked off into the darkness and then walked back home.
He became a deserter. By the time he got back to the family home in Kurgan he learned that the Red Guard had been there first, and had once again decided that they wanted the house for themselves.
The family had to run again. The grandfather stayed behind to be sure that the home wouldn’t be vandalized. A few weeks later he was dragged from the house, taken to the barn and hung.
The once wealthy family had nothing left but what they’d managed to carry away with them (mostly food), almost all of which had to be used to bribe officials to get them out of Kurgan and back to relative safety.
Typhus was epidemic. People were dying everywhere. Madame Gruber developed tuberculosis. Young Ellichka was dying from a tumor. Medical help was almost impossible to find, and even more impossible to afford.
The grandmother died of cholera. Another grandfather died of starvation during the crop failure of 1921. An uncle was arrested while walking along a street, accused of espionage, imprisoned and then executed. With the violence increasing, Herr Gruber made the dangerous journey back to Kurgan to bring his uncle, aunt and five children to safety. He arrived just in time witness the family being dragged into the backyard, lined up against a wall and shot.
Leaving everything behind once more, the family worked its way south to the Iranian border. Herr Gruber made contact with a group of smugglers; giving them everything the family had left to guide them safely across the border. One of the smugglers turned out to be a double agent for the Red Army. The family escaped into the dangerous mountains, with the Red Guard just 5 minutes behind.
On the journey through the perilous mountains, one of the people with them decided that he wanted to marry one of the Gruber daughters. She wanted nothing to do with him. His response was to attempt to throw her off the mountain path into the canyon below. Petre jumped in. In the struggle, the young maniac fell and was crushed by the rocks below.
They got into Iran and were met by the local police. The chief of this group immediately began to search them. He confiscated everything they had; leaving them with nothing but the soiled and torn clothes they were wearing.
They lived in relative peace in Iran for a number of years, despite the growing anti-foreign movements and the unrest that brought on World War II. Herr Gruber’s skill and knowledge as both an electrical and mechanical engineer made him valuable in Iran, just as it had made him valuable in Russia - often the only reason he and his family were allowed to live.
The family wealth began to grow again. Ellichka Gruber married the German Consulate in Tehran. After just 3 years Ellichka came home one day to find him dead of a heart attack.
Meanwhile in Europe, a young man named Adolf Hitler had seized power and began to spread his control. Russia was trying to do the same thing. Both felt that they had claims to Poland (while the Polish people wanted nothing to do with either). World War II exploded on the world.
It wasn’t long before the war got into Iran. The Soviets were invading from one direction, the British from another and the Germans from still another.
The Gruber family had little choice but to flee once more. It wasn’t quick enough. Petre Gruber and his son-in-law were captured and sent to a prison camp. They were fortunate enough to have been captured by the British. Their prison camp was in Australia, where they were treated decently. Many thousands of others refuges were taken to Soviet prison camps, where about half died of disease, cold and starvation.
Ellichka and her sister weren’t much luckier. Just a few miles from the Turkish border, Soviet soldiers seized them. Everything was taken from them and they were told to walk the last few miles into Turkey.
Penniless, they finally reached Vienna, along with thousands of other German refugees. From here they were sent to their ancestral home in Berlin.
Life was difficult. At last they found a small apartment. It was so small that they had to put nails in the walls so that they could hang up the few pieces of furniture to provide room on the floor for sleeping.
Then came the bombing raids. They again lost everything. In one raid they almost lost their lives. When the warning sirens went off, they headed for the only safe place - the subways. This time it wasn’t so safe. A bomb struck immediately above and collapsed the walls in on them. Worse, the explosion had caused a water main to burst. The little room began to fill with water.
They were trapped beneath the rubble, in the dark and with the sound of the rising water. It took more than a day for rescuers to get them out.
With just a few periods of peace, they’d now lived in danger for nearly 30 years. Enough was enough. They moved to Halberstat where things were quieter. They weren’t quiet for long. Halberstat was also bombed almost out of existence. The family hid in the caves outside of town. All they had left were belongings that would fit in a small wagon - and Ellichka’s new child.
The war ended, and troubles began all over. Germany was divided between the conquering powers. Halberstat was in the Soviet Zone. As if the normal oppression wasn’t enough, Herr Gruber was on a wanted list. Ellichka was in the process of trying to get a divorce from her husband. He beat her mercilessly and abused the child. When she told him of the divorce he became furious and turned the family in to the Soviets.
A friend warned them. They grabbed what they could in 10 minutes and fled, hoping to get to the British Zone.
They weren’t the only ones with that idea. The Soviets knew it and set up constant patrols along the roads. Again and again they had to dive into the bushes to hide, while swallowing the terror of watching the soldiers capture or shoot down those who weren’t lucky enough to find a hiding place.
Life wasn’t good, but at least they’d made it to the British Zone and were treated decently. Over the next 7 years the family was reunited and eventually ended up in Paris. From there they boarded a ship and ended up in America.
After so many years, they finally found peace and freedom.
Author’s note: I met the son-in-law of Herr Gruber when he and his large family purchased a home near mine in Lawrence, New York. He, like his wife’s father, was an electrical engineer. He was a “big-shot” with Lilco. We became friendly. One night he had a little too much to drink at his home, and he opened up to tell me this story. Not only that, he showed me papers, diaries, and documents that reinforced his story. I typed it that night, and then showed it to him and his wife as a courtesy. The wife, now known as Ella, said she didn’t care if I published their story or not – nobody would believe it anyhow, even if it was the truth. Perhaps Ella is right.