Two Journeys to
One Wondrous Life.
It was 1973 in Lincoln, Nebraska. My father, Heinrich Klein, had died weeks before after a long illness, and it was time for us to clear his closet. My sister Rose found a small suitcase that was falling apart tucked far in the back of the closet, apparently the one his parents had packed for him when he left Russia, never to see them again. It was empty, with only a cardboard bottom, so she tossed it into the discard pile. My sister Kay then noticed some faint writing near the bottom of the cardboard.
The portraits had been hidden away since he and my mother started raising our big family of four boys and four girls in 1906. I think that having nearby the only connection to his childhood home in Russia gave him some comfort all those years he was bedridden. After his parents kissed him in a final goodbye, who could fathom his emotions as he was on the train to the port and the ship the Hamburg bound for Ellis Island and an unknown future to a new life? He was still in his teens, with little money. We were known as the Volga Germans, and in New York, he would be met by others in that ethnic group who had arrived earlier.
The Volga Germans went to Russia at the invitation of German Catherine the Great’s reign. She issued a manifesto in 1763 that promised her native countrymen “land and freedoms in perpetuity from military service.” They would also not have to pay taxes, would have freedom of religion, and could keep their German language and customs, and she promised them housing in small communities near Saratov. Her hope was that these craftsmen and farmers would be a good influence on the serfs.
Catherine’s manifesto appealed to our ancestors from Baden in the Black Forest of Germany. They were peace-loving Christians who had survived the famines, wars, and religious upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Germany. They were yearning for a place where they could live in freedom and raise their families. They accepted Catherine’s manifesto by the thousands, not only in Germany but also in surrounding countries where it had been published.
So the Volga Germans began the long and difficult journey to the promised land, which many of them did not survive. Those who reached the sea in winter had to survive there until spring to begin the journey to the Volga.
When the fortunate Kleins and others arrived near Saratov, they found none of the promised houses. The Russians were still living above their animals in barns. The Germans established their own small communities far from the Russians and then built imposing houses of worship. They had little interaction with the Russians, and the disdain they had for each other was mutual.