By Dorothy Isted
Special to The Pioneer
Five-year-old Aurelie watched in Poland as, day after day, long lines of people with yellow stars on their sleeves trudged past and were loaded onto trucks. She asked her father what was happening. He replied they were going to a different place, turning away to hide his tears. Later, she learned the fate of those Jewish people. It was a sight that haunted her all her life.
Aurelie Labrentz was born in 1936 to a German Baptist family in Volhynia, Russia. Today its part of the Ukraine, and it was also ruled in years past by Poland and Belarus. The family had been there for
The majority of the German-Volhynians were Lutheran. The Baptists were evangelists, passionate to convert their neighbours. Arguments over infant baptism, regeneration and religious icons resulted in ridicule, beatings and destruction of property. The Baptists were opposed by Lutherans, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist and Stalinist governments.
In 1915, suspected of being spies for Germany, 200,000 Germans in Volhynia were exiled to Siberia and Central Asia, in spite of their Russian citizenship. They were permitted to return three years later. Only half did. Deprivation and disease killed many, either in exile while travelling or after they returned. Aurelies grandparents went to Siberia with 12 children. Only three of them survived.
The government imposed more and more repressive laws, culminating in the Great Famine in 1932-33, when millions starved due to government policies.
Adolph Hitler wanted the hundreds of thousands of German-speaking people living beyond Germany united in one area. He made an agreement with Joseph Stalin to conduct a reciprocal transfer of German and Russian people to each others countries. The Labrentzes, along with the other German-Volhynians, did not feel secure in Russia and were happy to go to colonies that promised freedom and a better life.
In 1939, the Labrentzes went to Wartegau, Poland. Initially, they didnt understand the bigger picture. Trying to explain the times Aurelie said, They didnt do anything, the Polish people. They forced them out… I dont know why Hitler did this. He was good to us and took us out from Volhynia and gave it back to Russia.
Aurelies father, whod fought in the Polish-Soviet War, was conscripted into the German Army around 1943. Life in Poland was good for the family. They had Polish employees who helped them in the house and fields. Aurelie knows some Germans treated the Poles harshly, but her family was always thankful for their help.
But millions of ethnic Germans living in Poland fled from an advancing Red Army. In 1945, Mrs. Labrentz realized she must go too, in spite of her husbands unknown whereabouts with the German army. She packed a wagon with food and bedding and loaded the children. A Polish employee told her, I wont leave you now. Youve been good to me.
He saw they got to East Germany safely and then returned to Poland.
Aurelie recalls thousands and thousands of wagons with horses and families, and soldiers with guns everywhere, protecting their advance across the Polish/East German border.
I never seen so many planes in the sky, protecting us. They wanted us out from Poland because the Russians were behind and we were chased, just go, go, go.
She learned years later that her future husband was a day or two behind her, in one of the last three wagons that crossed the border before it closed.
They came to a small town crowded with refugees. They found hay for the horses
and, with difficulty, a small room to share in a farmers house.
Aurelie recalls her terror: It was maybe 10 by 11 (square feet) with 17 people. In the middle of the night it was so noisy. The Russians were shouting and making loud bangs. They were stealing things and looking for women.
Though they had made it safely to Germany, trouble continued with the country divided and the Soviet Occupation Forces in control of East Germany (the Soviet soldiers were labelled some of the worst culprits of the 20th century for their war crimes).
Aurelies teenaged girl cousins were once hidden in a roof over the kitchen. Mrs. Labrentz pinched all the younger children and they were crying loudly when the soldiers barged in. They asked what was going on and she said they were sick. The men left as they didnt want to catch anything.
The family was allocated a small farm. Eight families shared a 20-room house. Mr. Labrentz returned from a Prisoner of War camp in 1946. Everyone in the family worked hard on the farm, but were hungry most of the time because the government took much of their yield. The youngest and eighth child was born in 1948.
Aurelie had the top marks in school, but was denied the honour and prize money because she wasnt a Communist. Her family decided to escape East Germany and she became a Communist to make the way easier. When she donned the red scarf and the party pin, she had to promise to stay true to the Communist Party.
I said to myself, I promise as long as Im here but when Im out of here the promise is gone. I was raised to be honest and not lie, this was hard to do.
At the age of 15, Aurelie, wearing her red scarf and pin, took several train trips into West Berlin over a period of six weeks, furtively transporting items an uncle stored for her. It was difficult to buy anything. They told no one their plans. Fear and informers were rampant. Families travelling together were suspect. On the day they left, her younger brother and sister took one route, her parents went through the woods and Aurelie took her three youngest brothers a different way.
It was her job to purchase the familys train tickets for three different trains. She took the little boys and hid them at various spots around the train station. Then she purchased a few tickets at a time, changing her appearance to avoid bringing notice to herself. The last train was late and we had no time to buy tickets and I said, lets go into the train no matter what happens. We went in and the conductor never came by. The heart was going, I tell you, pounding.
They travelled in different coaches on the train to prevent detection. Later that day, the authorities realized their home was empty and raised the alarm. The train behind theirs was stopped and searched.
Aurelies two oldest siblings had been able to escape earlier and emmigrate to Edmonton, Alberta, where they worked to aid their family. Church groups in Canada Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist etc. raised money to pay refugee fares. In 1954 the remaining family arrived in Edmonton. They got work as soon as they could to pay back the price of their fares.
In 1958, Assaph Gretzinger brought his parents from Milwaukee to a church conference in Edmonton. Both sets of parents knew each other from the old country. Seeing Aurelie was love at first sight for Assaph.
Aurelie was not impressed with this big shot with a shiny chrome Buick. He asked her parents permission to marry, but didnt ask Aurelie directly. She recalls he had one question for her, could she cook?
I just looked at him and said I have a question too: Are you stingy?
Aurelie soon came to love Assaph deeply. They married in 1959, moved to Milwaukee and had three children. In 1972, they returned to Edmonton and soon purchased Ottewell Meat and Delicatessen. It was sold in 1993 and the couple moved to Fairmont. After a long illness, Assaph died in July 2011.
Their daughter Hilde works for an airline in Edmonton. Their son Berndt is a fire chief in St. Albert, Alberta. Gerd, the other son, is a computer engineer in Edmonton. There are seven grandchildren.
Each one of Aurelies seven siblings became business owners in Alberta. One thing she wants people to understand about her family is this: Mom and Dad tried to raise us as honest, good people they had a solid born-again Christian background and thats the way we were brought up.
One historian called the Russian ethnic Germans the flotsam of world history, living as humanity tossed about on the ocean of space and time, one chapter of a greater tragic story.
As for Aurelie, every Christmas she says: Children, you know we live in a free country. The Lord brought us into this land and we need to do the best with it and thank the Lord.