Saturday, July 4, 2015

52 Ancestors: Halfway

"Week 26 (June 25-July 1) – Halfway: This week marks the halfway point in the year — and the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge! What ancestor do you have that you feel like you’ve only researched halfway? What ancestor do you feel like takes up half of your research efforts?" (No Story Too Small)

Sometimes I've felt like I only know my paternal grandmother's ancestors halfway compared to my other ancestors. I easily identified with my Irish, English, Scottish, and Welsh and when I learned of my Ennis lines, I felt a connection with my Dutch, French, and other lines. But it took some time to warm up to my Germans who settled in Russia, for a number of reasons. But that has changed a little as I've researched them and since I visited Germany.

Still, my Germans can be tough to research. When I was a child, the Soviet Union still existed and it was commonly believed that the records for the Volga Germans had been destroyed, that whatever information had been passed down to us was all that we would ever had.

Volga German pioneer family statue, Victoria, Kansas, USA
Photo by Kevyn Jacobs, Wikipedia

That's a little discouraging when your great-grandfather says the following (as mine did):
"[Regarding his great-grandfather:] DO YOU KNOW WHAT HIS NAME WAS?
No, I don't know. We don't have much talk about it. So, I don't know what the heck to tell you."

And then, in the late 90s, some years after the fall of the Soviet Union, records started coming forth from the archives. Censuses used to keep track of the settlers and first settlers' lists made their appearance. Great strides have been made in tracing our family. Still, records are more sparse than with, say, my colonial New England and New Netherland ancestors and there's quite a bit of uncertainty.

This is true of my great-grandmother Rose Catherine (Knoll) Mahler's ancestors but it's even more true about my great-grandfather Jacob John Mahler's ancestors. So, for this challenge, I've chosen his parents, Peter and Margaretha (Mueller) Mehler.

Peter and Margaretha and one of their daughters

Peter Mehler was born about 1857 in Leichtling, Saratov, Russia. According to "The History of Leichtling," publish on my father's site about Leichtling, "The town of Leightling was founded in the years 1767 by 143 German immigrants. The town was also known as Ilavlya or Rasowka. Leichtling is situated on the hilly side of the Volga, on the left side of the Ilavlya River. The colony was in the province of Saratov, in the district of the city of Kamyshin. It is 131 versts (86 miles) from Saratov, 54 versts (35.8 miles) from Kamyshin, 14 versts (9.3 miles) from Vodyanoi Buyerak (Stephan), 9 versts (6 miles) from Ust-Gryaznukkha (Gobel),   5 versts (3.3 miles) from Panovka (Hildmann), 3 versts (2 miles) from Karaulny Buyerak (Kohler), 17 versts (11.2 miles) from the Volga, and 25 versts 16.7 miles) from the boat landing. A verst is a unit of measurement of about 3500 feet or .6629 miles."

Detail of a map, showing Leichtling

It goes on to say that, "In 1910, the colony had 185 farmyards with 1,836 people. All were Catholics. 295 males and 275 females could read and write. 37 families lived out of town. In 1910, there was no church in the colony. The church services were held in the school. (A new church was built in 1919.) There were two schools. One was a community school, and the other was a national school. The colony had 15 shoemakers, 4 weavers, 2 vatmakers, 2 wheelwrights, 2 carpenters, 1 tailor, and 2 musicians. The town had a small store, a tobacco shop, an oil mill, and a flour mill.

A map of the Volga German colonies (Leichtling is on the left side of the map, to the right of the Ilawla River)
Map by Chipppy, Wikimedia Commons

The community land use divided an area of 5,193 desyatinas. 5,117 desyatinas were used for farm land, 80 desyatinas were used for vegetable gardens, 11 desyatinas were used for the threshing floor, 50 desyatinas was used for hay lands, 154 desyatinas was used for forest, and the rest was used for animal grazing. One half of the land was black earth or soil, and the other half was clay loam and gravel. The land was hilly and divided by two valleys. In the fields were two drinking places or dams for the animals. The big road from Saratov to Astrakan went through the colony. The residents still sold their grain in Kamyshin. The residents of Leichtling paid 4,661 rubles in taxes." (Earlier, it stated that 10 desyatinas was about 27 acres.)

The ruins of Leichtling
Photo from

According to Great-Grandpa, Peter was the son of Nicholas and Margaret Meler. A Nikolaus Meler is found in Leichtling census records and through these censuses, we can trace Nikolaus' paternal line: parents Georg and Elisabeta (Teil) Meler, grandparents Friedrich and Agnesia (Treghtsen) Meler, and great-grandparents Franz and Margareta (Ewald) Meler. From there, I've been able to trace Franz and Margareta into Germany itself (see this post for details). I haven't been able to find any Treghtsens but I've found possibilities for the Teil family.

As for Margaretha, Great-Grandpa called her Margaret Miller. However, she appears on church records as Margareta Mueller, so he probably anglicized her name after years in America. There were several Mueller families, including Franz Meler, who early on in the records, appears as a Mueller. But I rule any of the families out or exclude the idea of her coming from another village. Of all my great-great-grandparents, Margaretha is the only one whose parents are unknown. This makes her my most recent brickwall ancestor.

The time in which they lived was a time of great change for the Volga Germans. The website Norka, A German Colony in Russia explains, "In 1871, many of the privileges originally provided to the Volga Germans when they first settled in Russia where withdrawn. The decline of the Russian German community started with the reforms of Alexander II. In 1871, he repealed the open door immigration policy of his ancestors, effectively ending any new German immigration into the Empire...The Russian nationalism that took root under Alexander III served as a justification for eliminating in 1871 the bulk of the tax privileges enjoyed by Russian Germans, and after 1874 they were subjected to military service...The resulting disaffection motivated many Russian Germans, especially members of traditionally dissenting churches, to emigrate to the United States and Canada, while many Catholics chose Brazil and Argentina."

While settlers from colonies like Herzog and Graf, my great-grandmother's family's colonies followed this pattern, Leichtling residents don't seem to have done the same. The History of Leichtling states, "In 1910, the emigration to foreign countries was limited to two families who moved to the Caucasus in 1861, 12 families who moved to Samara in 1884, and 6 families who moved to South America in 1886." The Norka site states, "Many Germans remained in Russia, particularly those who had done well, as Russia began to industrialise in the late 19th century."

While the Mehlers seem to have been involved in agriculture still, they owned land and had the use of farm machinery, as seen in Great-Grandpa's interview:
Oh, he had, I don't know how many. He had a lot of land. Oh ya, he gave my father a section of land, five-hundred and some acres. That's what we got and we got a pair of oxen and four head of horses, cows, sheep, hogs, chicken, anything and that's what I got my father from his dad, that's what he got from his dad.
My father, he was an inspector. He was a man, find out what the world does. Now here, they had a section of land or more and you know we bought machinery and out there the neighbors, I, and the machine. On a machine, we harvest, we scythe it, we plant our seed, we farm a farm. And I used my machine, whatever it was and the neighbors used it but they had four or five men and they helped me."

But eventually, the Mehlers too felt the neccessity of leaving. Peter and Margaretha sent son John to America. Later, Jacob arrived in Baltimore, Maryland 14 July 1913 aboard a steamship (S.S. Koln) from Bremen, Germany. A daughter, Magdalina (Mehler) Mildenberger, also immigrated. But the parents and a sister Barbra (called "die Younge, the little one" by Jacob) were still living in Leichtling when the Communist Revolution took place and Russia became the Soviet Union.

Jacob Mahler, 1913

The Norka website describes the situation, "The Russian Bolshevik Revolution occured in October 1917 abolishing private ownership in land and property and forever changing the country and life of the colonists in Norka. Many Volga Germans were consider kulaks - a category of relatively affluent and well-endowed farmers. According to Marxism-Leninism, the kulaks were a class enemy of the poorer peasants. Many farmers and communists were killed, fields were burned, and many privately owned operations were destroyed. This often caused pronounced hunger and created large problems in agriculture and the economy of the new Soviet Union."

Alexander Schmidtlein elaborated, "For Russia, the war followed a disastrous course with Germany winning one battle after another. The search began for a scapegoat. Wherever one went, on trains or in crowded streets, the question could be heard: "Who is responsible for this disaster." The government circulated reports that it was the Germans living in Russia who were responsible. "We have too many Germans among us. They betray us! And the Tsarina is surely one of them."...With no weapons the Volga Germans colonists could do little to protect themselves.
During this period of anarchy, the economy broke down altogether. Transportation was no longer functioning. Sugar ran out and there was no more lamp oil to light homes. Prices spiraled upward with wheat prices increasing tenfold in only a few months. The Bolsheviks took advantage of these circumstances, promising farmers sugar and oil if they would organize into soviets. But the soviets must represent the poor and this largely meant those who did not work. Respectable working farmers and craftsman were to be left out even though they were far from rich. Those who should get the power would of course be answerable to the Bolsheviks whether it was popular with the other villagers or not. Anyone speaking out against the soviet agitators risked being branded to the district soviet as a counter-revolutionary and faced being hauled before the Revolutionary tribunal. We all knew very well what that meant."

The Mahler children in America attempted to get the rest of the family out. They sent them money so they could join them in America. Peter and Margaretha and the rest of the family only made it as far as the border, however, when the money was taken from them. They were forced to return to Leichtling.

"Bolsheviks" by Ilya Repin, 1918

Things quickly broke down in Leichtling. One Leichtling resident, Michael Lang wrote, "...rumors or communistic activities stirred up rebellion among the farmers and civilians. Many were killed and the rest were forced to yield to the communistic demands. If not they would lose all their property and perhaps also be shot. A little later they came to our village. The villagers were organized. Since our village was the county seat the communist had their head quarters there. Five villages belonged to this section. From here they went to the other villages and demanded a certain tax from the farmers. If the farmer said he was unable to pay so much he was struck and kicked or imprisoned. Our parish secretary was the predecessor of the communists. When they wished to eat they would go to a farmer and demand food for so many men, but they paid nothing. The dissatisfaction was increasing between the farmers and the commies. The most of the solders who had fought in the war sided with the farmers. When the communists saw that, they grew furious and listed 60 men as having conspired against the government. Conspirators were shot. Such was communist law. When the farmers and the soldiers who had been in war heard this they organized 7 or 8 villages to fight the communists because they said they would shoot God out of the church. The communists began to draft the younger boys about July 1918. As these didn't want to go they were imprisoned. This was the firebrand for the insurrection. They had said no mobilizing. Now the 8 villages formed a compact that at a designated time every farmer and soldier would come to Leichtling where the Communists had their head quarters. This happened. Armed with guns, spades, and pitchforks they entered our village...

At the same time the communists had placed a guard around our village and as the other villagers drew near our place the guard fired a few shots and then disappeared. Now the crowds entered the village and drew near the courthouse. When they arrived there the communist leader appeared and shot a man. He was shot immediately. It was terrible. The soldiers and men of our village joined the others and they were forced to tell where the communist lived and these were either shot or killed. Now it was day and if the communist was seen the church bells would ring so that the people would congregate and the commie killed. This butchery lasted 3 days."

Battle map of the fighting between the Red & White forces near Kamyshin (July 1919)
From Kamyshinskaia operatsiia desiatoi Krasnoi Armii. Iiul’ 1919 goda. S 3 skhemami na otdel’nykh listakh. Kliuev, L:1928.

According to Verschollene Heimat an der Wolga by Edmund Imherr, "Uprisings in the Volga region were not unheard of during the Russian Civil War...However, none were comparable in scale or brutality to what happened in Köhler and Leichtling where on the first day alone 96 Bolsheviks and their sympathizers lost their lives. And that was only the beginning as many more deaths followed." The History of Leichtling states, "In 1912 the population was 2,535. By 1926 then population had declined by 1,330."

Peter was shot to death during this period on the steps of the Catholic church in Leichtling, Saratov, Russia by the Bolsheviks.

Peter Mehler

The 1920s in the Volga region saw famine. The Norka website explains, "The Volga Germans experienced periodic famines caused by both natural and man-made causes. The famine in the early 1920s stemmed from both causes, but was made much worse by the actions of the communist regime." A second major famine took place in the 1930s.

The Norka website continues, "In 1928, Stalin launched his first five-year plan, which was an ambitious attempt to boost industrialization in the Soviet Union. The plan was to double steel output and triple both pig iron and tractor production within five years. The investment for industrialization was to come from the agricultural sector through collective farms. The aim was to create modern 'socialist agro-towns' which would produce massively increased yields. The collectivization campaign, which began in 1929, was violent, brutal and sudden...The peasants violently resisted collectivization through armed rebellions, and destroying crops and livestock. Stalin's response was draconian. All collective land, agricultural produce and implements were declared state property and anyone guilty of destroying or damaging them was to be shown no mercy. Peasants were forbidden to leave the countryside without permission while rich peasants (kulaks) were expelled and killed or sent to labor camps. Agricultural production fell by 40 percent...Famine ensued. On average, the peasants were left with a third less grain than they had between 1926 and 1930."

Famine poster

American Relief Administration Poster asking for aid for the Russian Famine

The spring of 1932 and 1933 were brutal: "Vasily Grossman, a Soviet writer recorded: 'When the snow melted true starvation began. People had swollen faces and legs and stomachs. They could not contain their urine...And now they ate anything at all. They caught mice, rats, sparrows, ants, earthworms. They ground up bones into flour, and did the same thing with leather and shoe soles; they cut up old skins and furs to make noodles of a kind and they cooked glue. And when the grass came up, they began to dig up the roots and ate the leaves and the buds, they used everything there was; dandelions, and burdocks and bluebells and willowroot, and sedums and nettles...'
...The famine which struck the Soviet Union in the winter of 1932-33 was unlike 1921 and appears to be instigated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin whose main goal was to force farmers into collectivization. It is estimated that between 2 and 7 million people died from this man-made famine in Russia." (Norka website)

Margaretha died of starvation in about 1934 in Leichtling, Saratov, Russia. Adam Kreiger, Barbra's husband, was forced at some point to serve in the Soviet Army. This could be brutal service and his chances of survival would have been low. Barbra’s fate is unknown.

Margaretha (Mueller) Mehler

How do we know what happened to the family left behind in the Soviet Union? Because of the secrecy of the Soviet government, letters going to America were heavily censored with anything objectionable blacked out. The Germans in Russia sent potentially objectionable news to their relatives in America by writing it on the envelope instead of the letter and covering it with the stamp. The recipient would then steam off the stamp and read the real news. The Mahler children in America, who had been working with the Red Cross to try and get their family out of the USSR, learned of their parents’ deaths in this manner.

As for the other children, while they did experience the Great Depression and World War II, they they found safe, relatively secure lives in America. Magdelina Mary Mehler married Joseph Andrew Mildenberger before she left Russia. She died in 1953 in Ovid, Colorado. John Mehler married Catherine Monhieser in 1938 in Denver, Colorado and became a foundry worker. He lived to 1962. To my knowledge, they did not have children of their own.

John and Jacob Mahler

Magdalina (Mahler) Mildenberger
and Jacob Mahler

Jacob John Mahler married Rose Catherine Knoll in 1921 in Denver. He farmed sugar beets in Colorado. After his crops froze and his farm was lost, he worked at an iron smelter, then in public service, both in Denver. Unless Barbra somehow survived revolution, famine, and deportation to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other remote locations during World War II, Jacob was the longest lived of his siblings, dying in 1988 in Denver. He also left nine children and they and their descendants may possibly be the only descendants of Peter and Margaretha.

Jacob and Rose (Knoll) Mahler and all but one of their children, 1943

Next week's challenge from No Story Too Small: "Week 27 (July 2-8) – Independent: This is the week for Independence Day! Which one fought for (or against) America’s independence? Or which of your ancestors was independent?" From the Russian Revolution to the American Revolution...the next challenge will feature an ancestor who fought as a patriot on both land and sea. You also see a connection between this particular ancestor and Captain Jack Sparrow...not kidding! Happy Fourth!