Ep. 1 An empty place called home

If you asked Gerhard where he was from, he’d tell you Russia. Then he’d recite the details: Nikolaipol, Matveyev Kurgan Raion, Taganrog district, Rostov province, south Russia. Where you were from was important to Gerhard. There would be a certain emphasis in his tone so as to say, don’t mistake this place for any other place. This is definitely the place.

But if you go looking for it, you might be fooled by the numerous other villages named Nikolaipol in southern Russia. When I asked him, he’d open the Rand McNally World Atlas to the Russia page and drop his finger on a vacant area not quite in the Black Sea, but not quite out of it either. That’s it right there he’d say. These were days before the internet, before Google Earth. Gerhard drew a tiny blue circle in ballpoint pen right on the map. Maybe he knew I could never find it otherwise. Maybe he knew it was already gone.

The spot on which his finger lands lies between two of the laziest rivers in all of Russia. Here the land gently rises and falls like the chest of a sleeping giant between the river Mius and the river Tuzlov. The rivers, streams really, curve and curl in oxbow fashion and take the longest possible route through the black Donetsk Highlands as they slope toward the Black Sea. On a map today you will find Rostov, a city of a million people, Taganrog, a city of 250,000 people, and if the map is detailed enough you may find Matveyev Kurgan with its 43,000 inhabitants. And 500,000 acres of rolling farm land. There will be no Nikolaipol. Gerhard’s death certificate says only he was born in Russia. His immigration record in Halifax says born in Nikolaipol, Ukraine, and his military record identifies Nikolaipol, Russia as his birthplace. But there is no Nikolaipol, Matveyev Kurgan.

Arrest Capture

1943 German military map

Yet if you look carefully at the countryside, you will find something there. On the green blanket of this agricultural zone a series of discolourations in the earth shows in an ordered row, stains perhaps, angling roughly in a northwest to southeast direction. And if you should happen to find a Red Army topographical map you would find a village at the same exact spot as the discoloured smudges that still lay on the land. The name of the village? Николай-Полье or Nikolaipol.

nikolai pole again 3 1936

1936 Russian map showing Nikolaipol

If you were lucky to lay eyes on a 1943 German military map of the region you would also find a village in that place, named Nikolai-Pole. Even a 1943 US Army map has Nikolay-Pol’ye in the right place. And if you should see a hand-drawn map of Dr. Karl Stumpp, the Nazi ethnologist who categorized the ethnic and racial origins of people living in southern Russia and Ukraine to determine who would live and who would die, you would find a village by the name of Nikolaifeld in the same place. And your search experience would tell you Nikolaifeld and Nikolaipol are one and the same. In the Directory of German Settlements in the Russian Empire (Moscow, 2006), which lists more than five thousand locations where Germans settled in Russia, you will find the following reference in Russian:

Nikolayfeld (Nikolaifeld; Nicholas Paul, Veneges – Weneges) [E] – Taganrog district, Bolshoi Kirsanova parish. – 114 (1915) [1],[2]

Matveev-Kurgan Raion red circle

Nikolaifeld, map courtesy of Willi Vogt. http://chort.square7.ch/

This Nikolaipol was considered a Lutheran village in 1915 with more than 100 inhabitants; a decade later the population more than doubled. Twenty farms shared nearly 3,000 acres.

Bolshoi Kirsanova lies 16 kilometres due east of Nikolaipol and Weneges is recognized as another name for Nikolaipol. This entry confirms Nikolaipol had 114 inhabitants in 1915.

As the evidence mounts you begin to feel confident there is a place which exists not only in Gerhard’s mind and memory, but now also in yours. In 1905 Heinrich Dirks compiled a directory to keep track of all Mennonite churches in Russia and he includes further evidence of a settlement named Nikolaipol, Matveyev Kurgan. The Kotlyar Mennonite Church, affiliated with the Memrik colony, lists Mosaijewka and Nikolaipol as member congregations both founded in 1900. At the time of publication Nikolaipol congregation had 45 members, 24 of which had been baptized.[3]

Found among the 1,000 pages of The Mennonite Brotherhood In Russia, 1789-1910 there is an entry for a church in a village of Nikolaipol, postal address Matveyev Kurgan in the Don district. The church was said to be in operation since 1903, and was at the time under the leadership of Jacob Wiebe.[4]

Let’s face it, this is the place.

Nikolaipol scene

Nearest Google Streetview image of the Nikolaipol area.

Nikolaipol sits on the height of land between the rivers, never more than a few miles from either one. The flatness shredded to the east and the west with gullies just deep enough to constitute an obstacle to agriculture and travel. Matveyev Kurgan lies 12 miles due west.

According to legend, Matveyev Kurgan village was named for a local Ataman (noble person) named Matthew, who protected passing merchants from the bandits that hunted in this region. When he was killed he was buried in a great mound on the sloping banks of the Mius River. The name means literally Matthew’s mound. The whole region is rich with burial mounds some dating back thousands of years. Matveyev Kurgan was settled as a village in 1780 under the leadership of Ataman Aleksei Ivanovich Ilovaiskaya. Military archive records are said to show 23 homesteads in 1801.[5]

Gerhard knew where you were from mattered. It shaped you, defined you to others. It was your social DNA, your commonality, your introduction to the world. Who you were and where you were from was sometimes the difference between life and death.

How Gerhard came to be born in this Nikolaipol is a very long story – we’ll get to that later. In the mid-1970’s he wrote his memoirs, in booklets, in long hand German. What he includes is as remarkable as what he leaves out. He begins:

GERHARD                I Gerhard Wall was born March 11, 1911 in Nikolaipol in the Matveyev-Kurgan Raion, Rostovskaya Oblast, Taganrog region, in southern Russia.  My mother was Helena (Wiens) Wall and my father was Gerhard Franzovich Wall. We were eleven siblings, seven of which were still living as of 1975. I Gerhard was the eldest, then Lydia (Wall) Borowski, Katja (Wall) Bergmann, Nikolai Wall who was exiled in 1935, Abram Wall who is presently living in Russia, Mariechen (Wall) Schmidt and Sonja (Wall) Gärnter who are also still in Russia.

Gerhard writes the village of Nikolaipol was first settled in 1787 on land purchased from the Russian government by a man named Wiebe and another named Abram Wall. He does not claim to be related to this Abram Wall or perhaps he thought the relationship would be obvious. Gerhard’s great grandfather was also named Abram Wall. We may never know.

What else do we know about Nikolaipol? Gerhard says it was a closed village, only Germans were allowed to live there. Gerhard never mentioned attending church services at any time but  says he was raised in a devout household and he had his own spiritual experience when he was just a little boy; he heard a voice telling him to repent of his nine years of sinning and thereafter considered himself a Christian.

Gerhard writes that his grandfather had financial difficulties in his agricultural equipment business and was forced to sell off a great deal of land to make his payments. Here is a mystery. Gerhard wrote: “…und so entstand das Dorf Nikolai-Pol.”  Entstehen is the German verb meaning to emerge, to originate. The simple translation is this: “…and so the village of Nikolaipol came into existence.” Did the sale of Gerhard’s grandfather’s land to other Germans create his village? He never says another word about it.

typical mennonite farmsteadGerhard lived in a typical Mennonite house which was connected directly to the barns. His house/barn was 12 metres wide and 100 metres long. The house had a great room, a small room, a summer room and a kitchen. The large brick oven was centrally located and provided heat to every room in the house. In the stove they burned straw and dried dung. Unfortunately drinking water had to be carried from a well half a mile away. In the attic above the kitchen the chimney was wide enough to hang meat and was used as a smoker.

The barn was divided into a small barn, a large barn and a chicken barn. In the barns were six horses, five cows and 15 heifers and 80 chickens.

GERHARD We had plenty of milk and separated the cream from the milk. The cream was then made into butter which we sold in the market. During the famine of 1921 we ate milk soup with millet two or three times a day.

In our family the women and girls milked the cows. After the cows were milked, the herder would chase the cows through the village onto the meadows with the crack of his whip. In summer if the girls slept in they would have to chase the cows through the village themselves after milking and that would be an embarrassment for them.

Gerhard’s father kept as many foals as needed and after three years they would be trained to work in the fields. In the winter when the horses needed to be run there would be sleigh rides for the children.

threshing stone

Threshing stone.

Gerhard’s father, also named Gerhard, owned 32 hectares of land including a six-acre vegetable garden. He grew grain, sunflowers and corn and was well equipped for farming: he owned a threshing stone, a seeding machine, three wagons, one with springs, a harrow, a single plow, a double plow, a triple plow and after 1919 a threshing machine with a motor. Their business was thriving. When his own threshing was finished, Gerhard’s father hired out his threshing equipment to nearby Russian farmers and also rented more land for his own use.

By the end of February it was time to sow the grain, and sometimes it snowed even after sowing. In dry years the wind blew away what snow there was and then blew away the soil too. When the grain was ripe in summer, Gerhard’s father mowed the grain with a horse-drawn mower and brought it to the barn yard. There a large circular area was flattened  for use as a threshing floor. The area was soaked with water and flattened and hardened using a heavy roller.

The cut wheat was tossed onto the threshing floor and Gerhard rode the horse that pulled the 800 pound threshing stone around and around the threshing floor. The wheat straw would then be turned and would be threshed again.  The straw that was left over was piled  high for later use as fuel in the stove and bedding for the animals. In the evening when the wind had died, the chaff and the wheat were separated by tossing it into the air. The breeze carried away the chaff and the wheat fell to the floor.

Threshing with the threshing stone from N.V. Krylov (Melitopol Pedagogical University).

Threshing stone in action from N.V. Krylov (Melitopol Pedagogical University) found on Willi Vogt’s Mennonitische Geschichte und Ahnenforschung, http://chort.square7.ch

When Gerhard was just old enough to sit on a horse, he and his father plowed the 12 acre sunflower patch. Sunflowers were planted three feet apart and because the weeds never slept, had to be hoed by hand. In Fall when the sunflowers were ready they were harvested using a sickle, and were laid in piles to dry. Then they were brought to the farm and threshed just like the wheat. The flowers were fed to the pigs and the seeds were processed into oil. And when the corn was ripe, in the evenings the young people of the village would go from farm to farm and shuck the corn.

Finally after all the harvesting was completed Gerhard’s father hitched four horses to a triple plow and plowed the fields, being careful to plow in a straight line or risk being made fun of in the village.

Gerhard’s known family tree is not very tall and its roots are largely unknown.

GERHARD As far as I can remember, my great grandfather was Abram Wall.  My grandfather Franz Abramovich Wall was born in 1842, my grandmother Augustina Balau[6] was born in 1844. She died in 1918.

I can still see her, she was a small person, I can remember how she protected me when I got in the way of the threshing machine where I was not supposed to be. But I still got a spank from father. I was always eager to help wherever I could.

My grandfather had a large business selling agricultural machines such as threshing machines, mowing machines, plows and harrows.

The first uncle, Franz Franz Wall built a little house on the property and stayed until the end.

There was aunt Marieche (Wall) Ratzlaff – they moved to Poland and had twelve children some of whom are still living in Germany and East Germany.

Then came uncle Abram, he and his brothers built a house across the street. He had four children in his first marriage and four more in his second.

Then there was Wilhelmine (born Wall) Dueck. They built their business near our business at the end of our village Nikolaipol. The Dueck’s had 12 children and during the Revolution 1917-20 an epidemic arose. My mother was like a nurse, she spent so much time with the sick. In a very short time all twelve children of the Dueck’s died. Only one grandchild survived and who is today living in Russia.

Marieche Dueck/Ratzlaff? married Heinrich Kuhn and they are living in Tashkent.

Aunt Sara (born Wall) Walde married Mr. Jacob Walde. They lived in Siberia, then they crossed the river Amur in the winter and lived in China for a couple of years until they were able to move to Paraguay, South America.

Then came my father Gerhard, born in 1883, who also lived in Nikolaipol.

Then came the youngest of Franz Abramovich Wall, David Wall. He too moved to Siberia and also wanted to go to China but the police caught them and they were never heard from again. Most likely they were exiled because there is no trace of this David Wall family.

End of story. Nobody really knows how or when the Wall’s arrived at Nikolaipol and why they lived among Lutherans and I have not discovered any other records relating to this Nikolaipol.

Gerhards family tree

[1] Dizendorf, V.F., German Settlements in the Russian Empire: Geography and Population. Directory. Comp. Academy of Social Sciences of Russian Germans. – Moscow 2006. Public Academy of Sciences of Russian Germans, p. 167

[2] Translated by Google.

[3] Dirks, Heinrich, Statistik der Mennonitengemeinde in Russland Ende 1905, Gnadenfeld 1906, Druck von Julius Klinkhardt, Leipzig.

[4] Friesen, Peter M., The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia 1789-1910, Halbstadt, Raduga, 1911, 2nd revised edition, 1980 translated by J.B. Toews, Abraham Friesen, Peter J. Klassen and Harry Loewen, pg 560.

[5] http://17mkurgan.wmsite.ru/rasskazy-i-otchety/matveevo-kurganskij-rajon-istorija-legendy/istorija-matveevo-kurganskogo-rajona/?_print_version=1, accessed February 27, 2017.

[6] Balau is not a traditional Mennonite name. Gerhard’s grandfather likely married into an ethnic German family.

10 thoughts on “Ep. 1 An empty place called home

  1. Hallo Edvin,
    ich habe die Episode 1 deines blogs mit Spannung gelesen. Denn ich war und bin ebefalls auf der Suche nach Nikolaifeld und auch nach dem Ort Ebenfeld in der Region Taganrog / Rostow.
    Ich arbeite gerade an unserer Familienchronik, welche ich meinem Vater zum 80. Geburtstag schenken möchte.
    Meine Großmutter hieß Susanna Retzlaff und wurde in Nikolaifeld, Kreis Taganrog am 6.2.1894 geboren.
    Mein Großvater hieß Johann Fiedler und wurde am 2.6.1894 in Ebenfeld, Kreis Taganrog geboren.
    Über meinen Großvater wissen wir leider nicht viel, er ist im 2. Weltkrieg gefallen.
    Alles, was ich über meine Urgroßeltern (Retzlaff) weiß, ist dass sie im Alter von 14 Jahren von Westpreussen nach Südrussland (Nikolaifeld) ausgewandert sind. Sie waren Baptisten und sind zusammen mit einem Nachbarn ausgewandert. Sie hatten 14 Kinder, 2 starben kurz nach der Geburt. Mir sind nur folgende bekannt: Susanna (meine Großmutter), Flora Adolf, geb. Retzlaff, Fritz, Minna und Helene.
    Die Familie ist nach Zanow in Pommern gezogen, als es in Russland “ungemütlich” wurde. Ob es alle Geschwister meiner Großmutter geschafft haben, und wo sie gelandet sind, weis ich auch leider nicht.

    Vielleicht gibt es ja Parallelen zwischen unseren Famlilien…[There was aunt Marieche (Wall) Ratzlaff – they moved to Poland and had twelve children some of whom are still living in Germany and East Germany.]

    Ich hoffe, dass meine Informationen für deine Geschichte etwas nützlich sind.
    Ich hoffe natürlich auch, dass ich aus deinem blog Informationen über die Herkunft und Geschichte meiner Großeltern erfahren kann.

    Viele Grüße
    Katja Barbion (geb. Fiedler)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like how the story begins with talking about what is not known and how Gerhard’s village is gone as if wiped from history – or geography, at least. It gives a good sense of how our traces are grown over with the passage of time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ed, thanks for taking the time to research and write this. Our parents have fascinating experiences and stories, of which many remain untold. Did you ever uncover any research on your mom’s side (my dad’s cousin)?


  4. Very interesting; I look forward to reading your blog, and hopefully, to get some ideas on doing something similar with some of my family history resources. It should be noted, however, that the irony is not lost on me that an unauthorized photo (Barn-House) is used, when the author clearly indicates that the contents of this site are not to be used without the author’s consent. 🙂


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