Stories That Have Come Down to Us Over the Years   

Stories That Have Come Down to Us Over the Years

In 1925, a man of twenty-seven years was standing on a street corner in Mexico City, Spanish-German dictionary in hand, asking people, in rough Spanish, “Do you speak German?”

After two hours, a friendly Jewish man agreed that he could help and it was soon negotiated with Mexican authorities for Lehrer Heinrich Regehr, to register the birth of a son to his wife, Katarina, newly arrived I Mexico.

Of course, the Stories That Have Come Down Over the Years, did not come in historical sequence. They were told in connection with circumstances, or as memories were triggered, in odd places and times.

My father’s stories of his in-laws’s extended family and a group of Mennonite refugees from Russia’s communist regime came out in bits and pieces. How they had found their way, by freighter, from Europe to a promised colony, developed by an American Mennonite, in Mexico. It was clear within a few months that this plan was not working out.

Only bit by bit the stories were revealed.

The detailed story of the birth in Mexico, and the death of Katarina’s father In Mexico and her episode of depression, came from Katarina’s sister, Helen, many decades later, when she told Katarina’s daughter, that Katarina had been sick through the pregnancy and the journey in the freighter. She gave birth on arrival in Mexico. Her father, the patriarch of the Siemens family, died unexpectedly and for unknowable cause, and was buried in Mexico. For a full day Katarena sat on the steps of the hacienda and cried her heart out. Her two-year-old son sat down beside her and wordlessly comforted her.

Many years later Katarina’s brother told another chapter in the narrative. Thieves often dug up graves to steal the clothes of the deceased. Katarina’s brother, forced to stay in Mexico because he had become involved with the Nazi Party, buried the wooden cross at the head of grave so that no one would recognize it as a burial place.

Father told the story of six months of difficult living in Mexico, being harassed by residents, of being blamed for the drought that year by local religious leaders and the decision to leave, en masse, for Canada. Lacking visas did not discourage the group, and they hired a railway coach to take them all to Canada. At the American border, a seal was placed on the doors, and finally removed when the train arrived at Emerson, Manitoba.

At other times the family heard the dramatic stories of the escape from Russia. The local new communist authorities did not have the paperwork to grant exit visas, so they were loudly scolded for their inefficiency and were finally convinced to allow permission for the family to leave. Bags were packed, train tickets to Moscow were bought, and the extended family was on its way. Three days after their departure from Moscow, Heinrich was requested to report to authorities on the loudspeaker systems in the notorious Moscow railway station. It was too late. By then they had arrived in Berlin.

Before those frightening days, another story told by Father, occurred at age eighteen. As a non- resistant Mennonite, after several years of teaching school, Heinrich was living in a little guard shack in a birch forest in central Russia, performing his alternative service. He was assigned the duty of protecting the trees from local woodcutters. He was lonely and cut off from everything familiar. Late one night a drunken local citizen came by the shack, and in his fear of what may happen to him, he held an axe near the door to protect himself should the man become belligerent.

By age twenty, we were told at another time, he was conscripted as a secretary into the white Russian army, was taken prisoner by the red army, escaped, then became secretary in the red army and was demobilized in 1918. He went back to his teaching career, and married Katarina at age twenty-four.

In the evening, after his funeral, the family sat, together, in a comfortably large living room in Abbotsford. It was a time of remembering. And gossip. Father’s sister-in-law, having carried some resentment over the years, told the story of our father and mother’s engagement with considerable relish. On a Sunday afternoon Father came to the Siemens family carrying a loaf of bread. The bread was the traditional introduction to a request for marriage. Father requested to see twenty-year-old, beautiful Katherina. She saw herself as unworthy of the Teacher’s proposal and refused the engagement. Not deterred, Heinrich walked to the home of another young woman, proposing marriage. This young lady, on hearing that it was the second proposal of the day, suggested he go back to the Siemens. This time Katarina was finally convinced, and a few weeks later they were married in the local church, following the morning service.

Father told stories of his family of origin. He was the last child of his parent’s second marriages, an unplanned late arrival. Both his parents, we were told, had little time for their new son and he spent many hours alone. His arrival in the Siemens family made up for the loss of affection and time from his own parents during his growing-up years.

It was taken for granted, then, that he join the Siemens family as they planned emigration in 1925. Heinrich’s extended family all remained in Russia. He often told stories of his siblings, of the great admiration he had for his oldest brother. There was great sadness as he imagined what had become of them. Only in the years following the collapse of the Soviets did he finally hear of their fates which he shared with us in his storytelling. Some died of starvation, others were arrested and shipped to the Siberian gulag. All suffered terribly.

These are some of the printable stories. So many more are lost to forgetting.

  1. Katie Teigrob

    Thanks Henry! Great stories – I could related to the one of the 90 year old – I was 90 on Tues. Oct 10. Had a great party of celebration with family and friends here in Abbotsford. Our history is so similiar – leaving Russia – relatives left behind, suffering so much – and even name connections (what else is new among us mennonites) my mother was born Anna Siemens.
    I lead a group of 7 singers, singing at 4 Care Homes 2x each every month. In between I read stories – and have the singers act them out – as best we can!!! The people enjoy our efforts – stories like the inventors of anesthetics, insulin, the sewing machine, etc.
    I am looking forward to reading all of your stories – With Cheers – Katie

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