My mom’s name was Khristina Ioganesovna Gildman. Her parents were ethnic Germans living along the Volga river. They were born in Russia and had never been abroad. Mom was born in the vicinity of Potma station, in Mordovia. According to my mom, all the locals used to speak German there. In the beginning of the 30th famine struck the Volga region and mom had to escape. She was 15 years old back then. Barefooted and practically undressed she walked part of the way or was able to get a ride until she finally arrived in Moscow and found a shelter in a Catholic church. At the time there were no other German Christian communities around. Nuns took her in and she became their helper. She did everything that was asked of her. It was the Catholic church near Chistiye Prudy (Cathedral of St. Louis of France – Editor’s note).
I was born in 1937 in Moscow. Mom attended the same church. I remember that I would cry and beg her to take me along, but in most cases she would not. An excuse was different every time – it’s snowing, it’s raining, it’s icy, or there’s nothing to wear. Sometimes she would take me, sometimes she wouldn’t. My dad worked as a car driver. From time to time he would give us a ride, which made us feel overjoyed. I saw him last at the beginning of the war. He said to mom: “Take care of the kids for God’s sake”. We have never seen him again after that.
At the beginning of the war we used to live and hide inside the temple during air-raid emergencies. There was a very spacious hall and lots of tiny rooms with plank beds. We slept there and were kept clean and fed. Most of the time, though, we lived in a communal flat on Kalanchevskaya Street along with our neighbors. Our neighbors were Jews who would often give me clothes and food. Their son’s name was Igor. They trusted me to take him out for walks and even let us go to the cinema to watch kids’ films. They would usually give us twenty rubles which was enough to watch a film and even buy some ice-cream. Their surname was Tubman.
However, other neighbors would often ring up NKVD and complain that their “German neighbor attends a fascists’ church all the time.” This is verbatim what they were saying: “Our German neighbor attends a fascists’ church.” NKVD officers would hang up on them first but eventually after endless persistent phone calls mom was arrested. I assume I was about 8 years old when I lost my mother and was left alone. I witnessed her being taken away. It happened right after the war.
Then the “black raven” came again. This time they came for me. First, I was taken to Danilovka reception center (NKVD children’s reception center located at the ex (at the time) Danilov Monastery - Editor’s note.) We never saw people, we were never taken outside. There used to be a big window which was our only way to see the world. There were about 20 or 25 of us. We always tried to keep quiet as it was forbidden to talk much. One caregiver was good to us. I remember she once asked: “Who knows how to read?” I answered: “I do!” and began to read: “Poshel’, nashel’, ushel’, prishel’” making all the final L sounds very soft. The lady looked at me and asked: “Darling, where do you see a soft sign at the end of these words?” Little did she know that I simply mimicked the way my mother used to pronounce those sounds. The caregiver took pity on me and taught me to read properly. Other caregivers, though, would often scold me and hurt my feelings.
I had spent about half a year at the children’s reception facility when we were taken to Belorussky Railway Station. There all 25 children of the “enemies of the people” were put in a freight train which had been previously used for butchering the cattle. The floor was covered in blood, urine and dung. There were no seats, nothing. We had to sleep in the dung all the way. Autumn had set in, therefore it was getting cool. It took us a long time to reach Kaliningrad region. Finally, we arrived in the little town called Gusev. All dirty and untidy we walked down Moscow Street. Having reached our destination, we saw an old German church all broken and unrepaired. Because of multiple holes in the roof we couldn’t hide from rain and snow. That’s how we had to live. A big hall was divided into several rooms: a dining room, a bedroom and a playroom.
An orphanage building in Gusev.
We could have been called path breakers or pioneers because we were the first children who had been brought there. Some local Germans had lived in the area before we arrived. They never hurt or offended us, though. Our orphanage was set up in a church building and a bit further there was a cattle yard. So, before moving to Germany the local Germans gave us their cattle yard. They had neither poisoned the animals, nor burnt the facilities, so we had a cow, pigs and calves. I can’t recall whether we had meat, though. I loved the animals – I would always take care of them and clean up their stables.
Our caregiver was very kind to me. Her name was Maria Petrovna Kozlova. She was a good woman. I remember that she always held my hand and took care of me. I remember thinking: “Does she love me? Why is she holding my hand?” It turned out that while talking about me, two caregivers mentioned that Gildman was a German surname and one boy happened to overhear their conversation and later told everyone that I was German.
One time I was walking around the yard when someone stopped me and said: “They want to kill you!” I asked: “Why? What have I done?” They replied: “What do you mean why? You are German, that’s why!” I ran to my room, hid in the corner and sat there for a long time. Then several girls came in and said: “Nobody knows where she is. We looked for her everywhere and even yelled out her name but we still couldn’t fine her!” I was hiding for so long that eventually fell asleep. Then the girls came back into the room and the main bully turned her back towards me. I got out of my hiding place holding a thick sunflower stem. It was thick but very light. I’d prepared the stick to be able to stand for myself. After all, I knew that they were going to kill me. I raised the stick over my head and screamed: “Who wants to be the first to attack me?” Then I hit one of the bullies’ head with my sunflower stick and screamed again: “Who else wants one? Come on, stand in line!” They got scared and never touched me again. It didn’t take long before I was chosen to become our group’s prefect. I guess you can say that I was promoted in a way. I guess they began to respect me…
I had spent about eight years at the orphanage when my brother found me. I had a very good brother, unfortunately he’s already passed away. His name was August. He was five years older than me. He searched for me all over the Soviet Union and he did find me!
Brother August (on the left)
One time the headmaster invited me to his office and asked: “Where do you come from? Where were you born?” I said: “I don’t know… In some town.”
-Do you know where Moscow is?
-Yes, I’ve been to Moscow.
-Who is your mother?
-She is German. She was arrested because she went to church.
Then the head master showed me a picture. It was a picture of me, my mom and my brother. I was standing in the middle. I couldn’t help shouting: “It’s my mom and my brother!”
My brother and I began to write to each other. I wrote him: “My dear brother, please, find me and take me away from here! I promise to do the washing and I will do all the housework! Only, please, take me away from this place!” My brother found me and took me to Moscow. We were given a place to stay at when I came from the orphanage. August was a wonderful driver, he worked at the Academy of Science and was respected and well-regarded. He was working there for a long time. As for me, as soon as I’d left the orphanage, I decided to go to an evening secondary school.
Later I learnt that my mom had been sentenced to 8 years in prison without the right to correspondence. That’s why we didn’t hear anything about her for a long time. Suddenly, when I was 15, she returned! At the time we used to live near the Red Gates, in Kalanchevka, in an old five-storied building. When she returned we couldn’t recognize each other.
Mom several years after she had been released from prison
She came in through the back door and I went towards her. By that time she was able to speak clearly, without any accent: “What are you doing here without permission? It is not your flat!” I replied: “No, what are you doing here? Who are you?” Then my brother opened the door and saw mom. He immediately recognized her and gave her a hug. They cried so hard… It was so touching! We didn’t have much back then. We often went without food, I suffered from osteoarticular tuberculosis and was often so weak that could hardly move around. Mom saw the way we lived and said: “Even my life in prison was better than this.”
She came back from prison in 1953 and was in very poor health. Mom was rehabilitated in Khrushev’s years right after Stalin’s death. She was given a flat at that time, as well. Mom was acquainted with the Lurie family (a famous Soviet chemist – editor’s note). Their mother served a sentence in prison at the same time as ours. They made friends there and later kept in touch. They were very nice intelligent people.
With Ditrich Bauer, the Archbishop of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia
I have been going to church all my life. First, I attended a Catholic church and later I joined the Lutheran community (Lidiya Andreyevna is one of the oldest parishioners of the Evangelical-Lutheran St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral in Moscow – editor’s note).
Interviewer: Leonid Udalov
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