Ucieczka przez Konin
Jak mój ojciec uciekł Stalinowi
A Family Story
In late 2018 my wife and I were in the beginning stages of planning a trip to Europe for the spring of 2019. We both have an interest in our respective family histories so we resolved to visit some of the places that were important to the story of my family.
While we are not of Polish ancestry, Poland, and in particular the Konin region, played a brief but important role in my family’s history. While searching the Konin website I came across a reference to the PTTK Konin. I took the liberty of emailing the organization detailing some of my informational requests, and shortly thereafter I received an introductory response from the PTTK Konin’s Wanda Gruszcynska.
The following is the story of how Konin, and indeed Poland, came to play such an important role in the history and fortunes of my family.
I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Ms. Gruszcynska and the PTTK Konin for their support and insights as my wife and I sought to better understand my family’s story.
Our Family Story
My father’s (Viktor Fix) family emigrated to Russia from Alsace, in about 1800, as part of a wave of thousands of families that moved from the region to south Russia near Odessa and the Black Sea. These German peasants were invited by Tsarina Catherine II (Empress from 1762 to 1796) of Russia to establish agricultural settlements on these fertile but unfarmed lands known as the Steppe. My forebearers, along with other families, established the German speaking colony of Franzfeld (now Nadlymanske) in the region, and thereafter its smaller sister colony, Bischofsfeld (now Jeremejewka).
Our family, along with others in these communities, lived relatively peaceful lives and were modestly prosperous as farmers for a number of generations. That ended with Josef Stalin’s rise to power in the mid-1920s. Stalin became the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the Soviet Union – and its de facto dictator. During his tenure Stalin implemented the persecution, deportations and mass murder of millions of its citizens that he determined to be enemies of the state.
In October 1928, Stalin announced his ‘Five Year Plan’ that proposed to “revolutionize the peasant”. As a first step in his plan, industrial workers were sent to rural towns and villages in the Steppe to help with the process of establishing collective farms and liquidating those farmers that were known as ‘kulaks’ (a Russian term used for a comparatively wealthy peasant class, viewed by the communists as oppressors and class enemies). At the time kulaks (of which my family was one) numbered more than one million families. Within three years 320,000 kulak families from ethnic German regions in the southern Soviet Union had been forcibly deported to labour camps.
It was then, in 1931, that my grandfather, Karl Fix and his wife Thekla, fled their farm and home in Bischofsfeld with their young children Albine (born in 1924) and my father Viktor (born in 1928) to Odessa (40 kilometers to the southeast). Karl thought it wise to leave Bischofsfeld before they too were evicted and perhaps forcibly relocated to a labour camp in the outer reaches of the Soviet Union.
In early 1936 the family had to leave Odessa as ordered by the State and so they moved to Krivoy Rog (300 kilometers northeast of Odessa). The four of them lived in one small room and literally survived for months on bread and water.
In the summer of 1936, just a few months after arriving in Krivoy Rog, a group of Bolsheviks came to their small, single room late one evening while the family was sleeping and demanded Karl come with them. The Bolsheviks confiscated all pictures, letters and other references of Karl, their objective being to extinguish any record of him having ever existed. They took him into the night, and placed him in a vehicle that was known in the ethnic German community as a ‘Black Maria’ – a black station wagon where enemies of the state were transported to places unknown.
For reasons that are unclear Karl was taken to a prison in Odessa. In the spring of 1937, after nine months in prison, Karl was released. The caveat to his release was that he would have to leave Odessa within 48 hours, or be subject to arrest again. He and his family immediately left for Krivoy Rog (Thekla and her children had moved to Odessa in late 1936 to be near Karl once they learned where he was, but they were not allowed any contact with him).
After a few weeks together as a family in Krivoy Rog, Karl was conscripted to build or repair a bridge over the Dnieper River in Dnjepropetrovsk, about 145 kilometers away. Again, he was compelled to leave his family behind and, like the other forced labourers, was required to live in communal barracks.
Just before Christmas 1937, Thekla made a trip to Dnjepropretrovsk to visit Karl. When she arrived Thekla was informed that just a few days earlier, on December 18th, Karl had been arrested and charged with espionage. The accusation being that he, along with some other ethnic German bridge labourers that had been conscripted, were plotting to blow up the very bridge they were assisting to build/repair. He was arrested and forcibly deported to a labour camp in the gulag.
Karl was never heard from again.
Thekla, Albine and Viktor returned to Odessa in 1939 and continued to reside there for the next five years. Seeking respite from further Soviet persecution that would certainly increase for ethnic Germans with the inevitable German army’s retreat from Odessa and the Steppe, Thekla and Viktor and a small group of their extended family left Odessa on March 19, (St. Josef’s Day) 1944.
They fled in what was a wagon train or caravan, escorted by the retreating German army that had occupied the region, along with Bulgaria, since 1941. Albine had left Odessa by train to Krakow, Poland on March 17th as she was too ill to travel by wagon. Odessa fell to the Red Army just three weeks later on April 10, 1944.
They traveled south (along the Black Sea – south of Moldova) into Bessarabia, crossed the Dniester River and journeyed into Romania. They then traveled south into Bulgaria and thereafter moved northwest into Yugoslavia (now Serbia), and then north into Hungary. From Hungary they took a train through present day Slovakia to Lodz, Poland – arriving towards the end of June, 1944 where they resided in a local refugee camp.
After a few weeks in the Lodz refugee camp, Viktor and other young Russian-German males were notified to report to Konin, Poland which was where the eastern war front was moving. Once they arrived in Konin Viktor was conscripted to dig defense trenches for the German army in the surrounding area. He was 15 years old.
During this time Thekla was living in Zdzary, a small village about 10 kilometers from Konin. Thekla visited Viktor on the trench line when it was permitted and observed that he, and others digging trenches, were bordering on starvation. When possible, Thekla and other mothers/wives would bring whatever food they could muster to their trench digging loved ones.
Thekla and Albine were reunited in November, 1944. Albine had taken the train from Dresden and remembered walking up the road to Zdzary with luggage in hand. Zdzary had been largely destroyed and rubble surrounded them, but when Albine and Thekla saw one another for the first time in eight months they ran towards one another and embraced. Thekla and Albine subsequently moved to Konin.
Viktor continued digging trenches uninterrupted for 4-5 months until just before Christmas, when German officials granted him a Christmas leave to visit his family in Konin. Prior to his leave, Viktor started to receive military ‘draft’ notices at Thekla and Albine’s Konin residence from German authorities demanding that he report for military duty. Thekla and Albine wrote back advising the authorities that Viktor was digging trenches near Konin. They continued to respond in this manner even after they learned that Viktor was coming to Konin for Christmas.
Although Albine couldn’t recall the circumstances, they somehow learned just a day or two before Christmas 1944 that the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) were coming to get Viktor that day and draft him into military service. With no place for him to hide in their one room, they proceeded to strip Viktor’s cot-like bed in their attic lodging and he laid face-down on the bed springs (face-down so he could breathe) with the bed frame supporting his body weight - his weight and size being much diminished from trench digging and a severe lack of food. Thekla and Albine then made up the bed so that he’d be unseen.
Within a half-hour, two SS officers came into their attic room and asked for Viktor. As he lay motionless under the mattress and blanket, the SS officers were told by Thekla and Albine that he was still digging trenches for the German army in close proximity to Konin. After glancing around the room for a few moments and not finding any evidence that Viktor was there, the SS officers left. Thereafter, Viktor rarely left the attic for fear the SS might randomly check his papers, in which case he’d be charged with desertion and likely executed.
In January 1945, an alert was issued by German authorities in Konin that German refugees should leave immediately as the Red Army was fast approaching. With only the belongings they could carry, Viktor, Albine and Thekla boarded a train to Poznan, Poland. There was a sea of refugees at the Poznan train station when they arrived, all trying to get out of the city. Viktor decided that they would take whatever train was leaving next regardless of where it was going. Shortly thereafter they observed that a train was indeed preparing to depart Poznan. Albine recalled later that a flood of people tried to get on the train, and that she and Viktor had to push Thekla from behind to get her through the mass of people and through the train door. Once on they learned the train’s destination was Berlin. According to Albine, Viktor believed that because it was the German capital and was also where Hitler reportedly was along with much of the remaining Nazi leadership, that Berlin would almost certainly be a destination of the Red Army.
Consequently, when the train made a brief stop in Cottbus, Germany enroute to Berlin Viktor decided they would leave the train. They learned later that indeed all of the many the Russian-Germans that had gone to Berlin were captured and deported back to the Soviet Union when the war ended – including some of the brothers and sisters of Karl and Thekla, who had separately undertaken the journey west from Odessa a year earlier.
Thekla, Albine and Viktor moved from Cottbus to Serba, (in the province of Thuringia) with the help of the Red Cross. At the time Thuringia was in the American controlled sector, but at the end of the war American agreed to that Thuringia would come under Soviet control. Knowing he couldn’t stay in Serba because he and his family would be deported back to the Soviet Union at best – or worse executed. With the help of a translator Viktor was able to convey to the Officer-in-Charge at the local American military office in Jena their dire situation and what would happen to him and his family if they were still in Thuringia when the Soviets assumed control of the sector. Consequently, the Officer-in- Charge provided them the necessary passes to leave Thuringia.
On June 22, they left Serba with the help of a friend and his wagon and travelled to Euerwang, Bavaria, Germany where Viktor found a job as a farm labourer in return for food, accommodation and small monthly stipend for him and his family. Viktor was 16 years old, Albine 20 and Thekla 44.
Most of the information contained in this article came from my aunt, Albine Zacher (nee Fix) during a number of conversations we had in 2008 and 2009, specifically regarding this period in her family’s life. The balance of information came from discussions with other family members who lived through similar experiences, or through research I undertook.
During the spring of 2019 my wife Lynn and I traveled to Europe on vacation. This particular European vacation included a trip to Poland and to Germany to visit those places where my father, Viktor Fix, had spent time while trying to escape the monstrous clutches of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.
While my wife and I have no idea where my father and his family stayed in either Lodz, Konin or Proznan, we visited and explored all three cities and tried to imagine what my father, his family and so many others lived through 75 years earlier. Among the places we visited in each of these cities were the train stations where my father and his family would have arrived and/or departed. These were profound experiences for me.
I was particularly interested in Konin, where my father spent the better part of five months digging trenches. With the generous help and guidance of Wanda Gruszczynska of the Konin PTTK, I was able to determine those areas around Konin where trenches were dug during that period through the provision of forced labour. They included areas near: Klodawa, Brdow, Nowa Wies, Grabow, Slesin and Biatkow Gorny.
Given the limited time we had in Konin, we chose the two areas that were closest to Zdzary, where my grandmother Thekla lived during this period. We made the assumption that she would try to remain as close to her son as possible so as to allow her bring him food when she was able. Of those referenced above, the two closest to Zdzary are: Slesin and Biatkow Gorny.
While we had no success finding the location of these trenches in Slesin, even after inquiring at the municipal office and at some local businesses, we did have more success in Biatkow Gorny. We initially had no luck obtaining any insights from the residents of Biatkow Gorny regarding the location of any trenches or bunkers that may be nearby. Then, as we were about to leave Biatkow Gorny we saw a gentleman by the name of Kristof and his wife working in their yard. I approached him and he spoke just enough German and English that I was able to convey my interest in finding the trenches/bunkers. He kindly joined us in our car and directed us to drive a kilometer or two from his farm to the nearby forest. There, he walked me into the woods until we came across a very well- hidden bunker.
While I have no idea whether or not my father had been in these woods digging trenches near where the bunker was located, it was nonetheless an emotional experience to be in a place, or a place similar to, where my father was as a boy of 15 and 16, near starvation and being forced into what amounted to slave labour by the Nazis. I am so very grateful to both Wanda and Kristoff (whose last name I regrettably failed to secure) for supporting me in this quest. Thank you!
From Europe to Canada
I will close this article by providing a very brief summary of how the lives of Thekla, Albine and Viktor unfolded:
- Thekla: Emigrated to Canada in 1958 with her son and his family. Thekla died in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1988 at the age of 87.
- Albine: Emigrated to Canada in 1957 upon meeting a Russian - German - Canadian visiting Bavaria. She married Mathias Zacher and they had two sons. Albime died in 2012 the age of 87 in Regina.
- Viktor: My father emigrated to Canada in 1958 with his Bavarian born wife, Theresia and their two young sons and his mother Thekla. He lived a good life and was both a devoted father and husband. Viktor died in Regina of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 51.
The author of this article, W. Michael Fix, is the youngest son of Viktor and Theresia. He resides in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.