Conversations with the Elders: Personal Stories of Soviet Labor Camp Survivors

ABOUT Alice Peifer

Alice Peifer
Since 1975, Alice Pfeifer has been a Roman Catholic sister. She has a master's degree in English from Marquette University and a master's degree in Pastoral Studies from St. Joseph's College of Maine. Over the years has worked as a teacher, editor, writer, and foreign missioner.



What few people know about WWII concerns the fate of thousands of Russians of German descent who were exiled to Kazakhstan and Siberia after Hitler invaded the USSR. From 1995 to 1997, two US Catholic sisters interviewed 22 labor camp survivors whom they met while serving in a Catholic parish in Chelyabinsk. How these men and women managed to survive will both inspire and astound you.

Photos of most of the interviewees accompany the stories. In the appendix is an interview with the author by free-lance writer Katie Edwards, as well as a list of all the surnames and place names mentioned in the interviews. These may be helpful to any readers currently researching their own German Russian roots. 

From 1994 to 2001, a small group of Sisters of St. Agnes lived in Chelyabinsk, Russia, while engaging in a variety of ministries in the city's schools, hospitals, and sizable Catholic parish. How the sisters got there is a story in itself, but that is not the focus of this book. Rather, this book tells the story of one particular group of babushki and dyedushki (grandmothers and grandfathers) whom the sisters met during those years. They came from places all over the former Soviet Union. All were German in their ethnic background and nearly all, bilingual in their speech; they were equally comfortable communicating in the distinctive German dialect of their forebears and in the contemporary language of their homeland. Each was a full-fledged, documented Russian citizen whose family roots in Russia extended as far back as the 1600s, 1700s, or 1800s. Most of them were founding members of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Chelyabinsk. These women and men had founded their parish in an informal sense during the years following their WWII imprisonment in Soviet labor camps. They belonged to the Trudarmei, a name literally meaning "army of heavy laborers." Although they shared the common fate of being targeted by a government distrustful of all things German during a time of war, each man and woman could tell a personal story unique in its details. These biographical sketches are based on interviews that Sister Mary Elise Leiker conducted in the same German dialect that she had learned while growing up in Munjor, Kansas. (In the 1870s, Munjor had been named for its parent village along Russia's Volga River, Obermunjour.) While Sister Mary Elise engaged each interview subject in a free-flowing conversation, she translated their words into English for Sister Alice Ann Pfeifer, who took the notes that became the basis for these sketches. They conducted their interviews from 1995 to 1997.

"This was a fascinating read. It made me remember why I love reading oral histories. These people are truly astonishing in their perseverance and dedication to their faith. I'm glad their stories have been preserved." (Katie Edwards, free-lance writer)

". . . the English speaking world needs to hear these stories of stamina and perseverance when things get rough." (Dolores Lytle, retired educator)