From "The Other Side of the River"

Chapter 1

Alexandrovka, Slavgorod Colony, Western Siberia — 1926

The schoolhouse door burst open, ushering in a cold March wind and two Soviet officials, their guns directed at the group of young adults gathered for a Sunday afternoon songfest.

Luise Letkemann’s fingers froze on the strings of her mother’s violin, and her bow skittered off the strings as she whirled to face them. From the corner of her eye she saw Daniel move across the room to her side. A frown had replaced the look of love that had lit his eyes a moment ago.

Luise slipped the violin beneath a pile of coats. She would not let them take the only keepsake she had of her mother.

“What are you doing here?” The sternness of Commissar Victor Magadan’s voice sent a chill up Luise’s spine, but it was the limping step of the second official that set her to quaking. Senior-Major Leonid Dzerzhinsky of the GPU—the dreaded Soviet secret police—had that effect on people.

“We’ve gathered to sing,” said Daniel. “Would you like to join us?”

Luise heart skipped a beat at Daniel’s arrogance.

“There is a law against the German, you know. You are breaking that law.”

Daniel stepped forward to stand before Magadan, and Luise’s breath caught in her throat. “It’s our mother tongue, the language of our hearts.” He said this in fluent Russian. “When we sing, that’s what comes out.”

Dzerzhinsky elbowed his junior officer aside, his lip curled like a snarling dog as he stared at Daniel. He lacked the stature of Magadan, but his eyes beneath their bushy brows shone with a coldness that more than made up for it. Even so, Daniel did not back down. Luise willed herself to breathe.

“Don’t speak so freely to the GPU,” said Dzerzhinsky. “It’s not healthy.”

He turned from Daniel and limped to the food table where he helped himself to zwieback, platz, and barley coffee while the young people stood wide eyed and waiting. Then, with a grunt, he heaved the table onto its side, spilling food and drink across the plank floor.

Gasps and whimpers traveled around the room like an electric shock, but terror stole Luise’s breath when she felt Dzerzhinsky’s arm reach around her waist. She stood motionless, watching Daniel’s face as he struggled to free himself from Magadan’s firm grip. The GPU could do anything they pleased. They lived beyond laws of state or conscience.

Magadan looked none too pleased with the situation, as it was he who kept order in the village of Alexandrovka, but he could not over-ride a senior-major.

Dzerzhinsky leaned closer to Luise. She felt his breath on her neck. “Another time, my little Mennonite sparrow.” And then he was gone, leaving the echo of his uneven steps to match Luise’s erratic heartbeat.

The biting cold seeped in through the open door, wrapping itself around Luise’s soul.

* *

While she mixed the biscuits for supper later, Luise reviewed the disaster of the afternoon social. Consumed by the memory of Dzerzhinsky’s arm around her, she didn’t hear the voices outside. When the door burst open, the cup of flour she held flew from her hand to the floor.

Anna Letkemann entered the house, all flutter and fuss, shooing her children before her. “Hans, take off your boots! Nela, you’re getting snow all over!”

Coughing from the cold, she slipped out of her coat and hung it on one of the pegs beside the door. “Luise, wipe up the floor. We can’t have your father coming home to a dirty floor, and you’ve spilled flour all over when there’s none to waste.”

Luise recalled Tante Manya’s wise counsel not to allow the burrs of her stepmother’s meanness to fasten themselves to her soul. She swallowed the retort that formed on her lips, and pushed aside memories of the afternoon. “Supper is ready, Mother, such as it is.”

Luise kissed Nela and helped her with her coat, then reached out to tousle Hans’s hair. In his five-year old independence, he pretended not to like it, but Luise’s wink roused a grin. She reached onto a shelf for a rag and wiped up the melting snow and spilled flour.

“Did you have a nice visit with Tante Manya?” She didn’t mention the Soviet officials at the Sunday afternoon social. If Anna found out, she would demand endless explanations.

“Nice visit? How can one have a nice visit? The Soviets have taken everything of worth, and then they demand more.”

“They haven’t taken everything, Mother. We still have our family.”

Anna’s sallow eyes burned into hers. “Do not contradict me, Luise. Just because your father allows you to speak so to him does not mean you may talk back to me. Someday, girl, you’ll be brought to the reality that not every cloud has a silver lining.”

Luise turned away. Why did Anna insist on goading her? Of course there were hardships— hunger and fear and uncertainty—but as Papa said, each day on this side of the sod is a good one.

As if her thoughts invited him home, her father entered the house, slapping snow from his pants and removing his boots. Luise detected heaviness in his step, but as usual, he masked it with good humor.

“Good evening, my girls—and Hans. Luise, I hear you survived an unannounced visit from the authorities at the social this afternoon.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Luise glanced at her stepmother. “Yes, Papa, but all ended well.

“What authorities?” Anna paused from setting the plates around the table. “I didn’t hear about it.”

Abram bunched his lips together. “Just a routine check, Anna,” he said.

He crossed the room to wash his hands in the basin on the countertop. “Dzerzhinsky felt called to pay a visit to the neighboring village of Chernovka, and we were spared again. Always something for which to be thankful!"

“You two and your false cheer. It’s enough to—” A deep, ragged cough cut off Anna’s sentence and shook her slim form. She tried to finish her speech but gave in to another fit of coughing. Luise noted Abram’s concern and quickly brought the bean soup and rye bread to the table.

“Nela! Hans! Come and eat.”

Her younger brother and sister could share her portion; she had eaten a zwieback at the schoolhouse before the officials arrived. Hans and Nela needed the food more than she did.

* *

Daniel Martens’ boots crunched through sun-glazed snow as he slipped from his horse at the gate of the Letkemann yard. He led his bay Don gelding past the house and into the barn.

“Move over, Samson,” he said to the old grey workhorse as he opened the stall and led his horse inside. “I’ve brought Prince to visit.”

He removed the saddle and bridle from his horse and hung them over the rail, then closed the stall gate behind him. He loved his horses. He knew his father needed machinery to seed and harvest their large farm and to help the neighbors, but he still preferred horsepower on four legs instead of four wheels.

Prince leaned over the gate and Daniel patted the sleek neck of his fine mount, but he was lost in his thoughts. Even the multi-hued canvas of the sunset sky had not cooled his anger. Frowning, he pushed through the barn door into the large porch connecting it to the house, and knocked at the door.

It was bad enough that the Reds poked their noses into everyone’s business, bringing new rules that prevented ordinary hard-working people from succeeding. But when they threatened the well-being of young people gathered to enjoy each other’s company, to sing in their mother tongue, those devils were crossing a clearly defined line. How dare they touch Luise? Next time he would not be so self-controlled. He would give them something to remember.

Daniel’s anger eased when he entered the kitchen and spied Luise at the table washing up the supper dishes. She bent over the large bowl, her dark hair wisping out of its pins, clear brown eyes wide, full lips slipping into a smile at the sight of him.

He answered her smile with his own, and nodded to Anna, who rocked in her chair, knitting needles clicking.

Abram looked up from his newspaper. “Good evening, Daniel. You look worried tonight.”

Daniel warmed his hands near the cookstove. “I’ve had more than enough of Stalin’s henchmen,” he said. “They take everything but our souls.”

“There, you see, Luise? Your Daniel agrees with me.” Anna’s hands did not remain still as she spoke. “Those Reds leave us with nothing.”

Daniel turned to Luise. “You don’t agree they are out to rob us of all our material belongings? I’ve told you how much my father and I have paid in taxes this year. And what about this afternoon?” He glanced toward Anna and decided not to expand on that incident.

Luise wiped out the washing bowl, dried her hands and took the chair Daniel held for her. “I know what you mean, Daniel, but I prefer to count my blessings from time to time so the enemy does not destroy my soul as well.”

He smiled as he sat down beside her, reminded of why he loved this girl. “Listen to the preacher.”

Sobering, he turned back to Abram. “They interrupt our gatherings, cause disturbances, destroy perfectly good food when we have little enough of it, and they spread fear. The situation will only become worse if we do nothing.”

“What can we do about it?”

Sometimes Daniel grew frustrated with Abram’s easy acceptance. He was a gentle carpenter all the way, like the One he emulated, but surely he should be anxious for the safety of his family.

Anna’s knitting needles stilled. “We should emigrate,” she said

“We should what?” Luise’s voice joined Daniel’s

“Emigrate. To America. Thousands have already gone. My family has all gone. If we hurry, we can still go. I don’t wish to die at the hands of these evil men.”

“We’re a long way from Moscow,” said Daniel. “You would have to sell everything you own, obtain passports, undergo medical examinations—and you’re not well.”

“There is nothing wrong with me but a winter cold, young man. Once spring returns to this frigid Siberian wilderness, my cough will disappear.” Her cough robbed any more words she might have added. Daniel cast a glance in Luise’s direction and saw the worry creasing her forehead. He knew she didn’t accept Anna’s self-diagnosis any more than he did, but they both knew better than to contradict her.

Daniel waited for Abram to speak, as head of the home, but when he did, his words were not what Daniel wanted to hear.

“Emigration is a possibility I’m reconsidering. As much as I grieve to think of leaving our home and country, I also worry about our future here. Our situation is getting worse, as you say, Daniel, and we can’t change that. Perhaps Anna is correct. Perhaps we should leave this country while there is time.”

“How can you say that, Papa?” Luise’s words spoke Daniel’s thoughts. She sat on the edge of her chair, tense as a treed cat. “How can you talk of leaving Alexandrovka? This village is our home.”

Daniel felt her eyes on him, awaiting his response. He knew what she wanted him to say, but it wasn’t up to him. Abram would have to make the decision for his family.

Anna spoke up. “Soon there will be nothing to leave behind if we don’t act. Then where will we be?”

“Daniel,” said Abram, “what do you think about emigration?”

“I haven’t considered it for myself. I love the farm. We’ve done well, Father and I. I can make a life for myself and a family, if I am so blessed.” He glanced at Luise, and then looked back at Abram. “I have no wish to give up my future here. I have plans …”

“What about the rising taxes you spoke of earlier? The growing Communist interference? You told me of the trouble your father encountered by purchasing a new Fordson tractor.” Abram’s words hung in the air.

“Father says there are ways to settle the matter.”

“We’d have to go all the way to Novosibirsk for the medicals,” said Luise. “How would we accomplish that?”

“There are trains even in this frozen wilderness, Luise,” said Anna.

Daniel saw Luise’s lips pull together in a thin line, and her words came out in measured tones. “I realize that, Mother, but can we afford it? We’d have to take the little ones along.”

“Of course we take the little ones. They’ll be emigrating with us, you know.”

“Now Anna,” said Abram, “I’m sure Luise didn’t mean we would be leaving anyone behind. She just wants to know how it will go.”

“You always know what she thinks, don’t you?”


Daniel pitied Abram, living in a house with two women who didn’t see eye to eye. His lifelong friend, Phillip Wieler, said it was up to Daniel to change that by taking Luise to his own house, one he would build on the plot of land directly behind his parents’ house. “Why do you wait?” were Phillip’s exact words. Daniel wasn’t a carpenter like Luise’s father, but he could learn. He’d ask for her soon. Meanwhile, if the rest of Luise’s family planned to emigrate, he could help.

“The train ride from here to Novosibirsk isn’t terribly expensive. I could lend you some money for travel and accommodation if you need it.”

Luise glared at him, and he knew he had said something wrong. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew he would find out shortly.

“Well,” said Abram, hands on his thighs, “we will sleep on this and talk further tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Daniel. “I should find my bed, too. Goodnight.”

Luise stood with him, reached her coat down from its peg by the door and slipped it on, then stood waiting for him, her beautiful eyes icy.

Daniel looked to Abram and Anna for salvation, but they turned away to their room, and there was Luise walking out the door ahead of him. He followed her through the porch and into the barn. The smell of manure and fresh straw melded with the munching of Samson, Prince and the milk cow, and the soft groan of the building settling itself in the Siberian night. The chickens had long since taken roost, their heads under their wings, and Daniel wished he could do the same.

When Luise turned to him in tears, he stepped back in surprise.

“Luise, why are you crying?” His sisters said Luise was an emotional sort, and if you wanted smiles from her, you must also accept tears, but he didn’t know what to do with tears.

She dashed them away with the back of her hand. “You really don’t know? Didn’t you hear yourself in there?”

Daniel tried to recall his exact words. “I suggested your family get medical examinations so they know if they can go to America. You know Anna won’t leave the matter alone until something is done.”

“Daniel, you say your future is here. Then you suggest we get our physical examinations to prepare for emigration. I have been under the impression, since I was twelve, that we had a future together. Has something changed your mind?”

Daniel reached for her but she stepped back, keeping her eyes on his face. Casting about in his mind for how to go on, he said, “Nothing has changed between us, Luise. You’re part of my future. We’ll marry before your family leaves for America—if they go.”

Luise stared at him as if he had struck her. “Let my family leave without me? Papa and the little ones and Anna, without me?” She shook her head in denial. “I can’t be separated from them. They need me.”

“But how else? I can’t leave, we wish to be together, and your family wants to go. How else would you arrange it, Luise?”

She stood with her arms folded, blinking furiously.

“You know I love you, Luise. Isn’t that enough?”

She stared at him through shimmering eyes, turned on her heel, and stalked back into the house.

About the Author

Janice L. Dick

Janice L. Dick of Guernsey, Saskatchewan, has published a historical trilogy, Calm before the Storm (2002), Eye of the Storm (2003) and Out of the Storm (2004), with Herald Press. The first two won The Word Guild Canadian Christian Writing Award for Best Historical Novel. Her short story “The Other Side” won the first place prize for fiction by InScribe Christian Writers’ Fellowship. Some of her short stories and articles have been published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. The manuscript from which “Chapter 1” comes is based on the true story of the escape of 217 people from Shumanovka in far eastern Siberia into China in December 1930.