Writing letters to the “West” during Stalin’s regime is a criminal offense. According to NKVD documents, sending or receiving a letter can result in arrest without trial. For this offense, and other trumped up charged, millions are sentenced to Stalin’s Gulag of over 2000 prison camps. The survival rate is one winter.
In their home village in southern Ukraine, on a warm summer day in 1931, an entire family is arrested. Father Jasch Regehr, mother Maria (Bargen) Regehr and their six children are declared “enemies of the State” and sent into northern Siberia. A space 5′ X 5′ in a three-story barrack becomes their new home. From this space they write letters to they write letters to their family in Canada.
So far, Jasch has been a survivor. When he is born in 1885, infant mortality rates are extremely high. He is the only survivor of six children. His mother dies ten years later. As a young man, Jasch serves in the Medical Corp as a “conscientious objector” during World War One. After the war, at 26 years of age, he marries lovely Maria Goosen. Six children fill their house in Altonau, a small Mennonite village in southern Ukraine.
In 1929, the family attempts to escape to Canada. A few others had been successful, but the Regehr’s attempt fails. Jasch is immediately arrested and held in a local prison. Maria is allowed to visit him and bring him food, but he is weak and emaciated from the beatings, nightly interrogations and meager food rations.
He manages to survive his eight-month prison term. Escorted by guards in June 1931, Jasch is taken to a large granary where his family is being held. Then together with hundreds of others, the entire Regehr family is arrested and shipped in cattle cars on a nine-day train journey to the northern Ural region of Siberia. In the prison barracks, typhus and malnutrition further weaken his body. He tries to work to earn more bread rations, but he only grows weaker. Typhus is a menacing disease transmitted by fleas, lice and bed bugs. Days of pain, fever and muscle spasms confine him to the hard wooden platform in the barrack. Yet Jasch works whenever he is able. He also writes letters while he is strong enough. Desperation drives him. But his weakened body cannot sustain him. Jasch Regehr dies in a prison camp named Tarabunka on October 8, 1933. Maria drags his wasted body from the barracks and buries him in the frozen primeval forest near their barrack.
But while father Jasch has the strength, he pleads for his wife and children in prison. The paper available is a Soviet postcard imprinted with a red broom sweeping away “enemies of the people”.
Jasch’s Letter (approximately 1931/32)
[illegible] ….when she will experience it. And so we are robbed of all our children. One often gets close to despair. But God always leads out of the depths onto the heights. Many thousands have starved. Yesterday we received the 9 dollars from you. Oh, I just cannot restrain myself out of sheer thankfulness. Yes, dear siblings, if you were not here we would no longer be here either. “Remember us at all times” is our cry to God as well as to people. When will things change? Hearty thanks to all those who have given. May God reward them. How are things with your Peter. Fritz, be rescued while there is time. Greetings to all the children. Oh what advantages your children have over ours! God be with you. Your humble, Jacob.
My Marie just said we have no more flour. The dollar is worth about 1 r. 37 k. [rubles and smaller currency]. Things are looking very very bad for our Peter. Help Geschwister [siblings] please. — We can hardly carry our burden any longer. He can no longer walk. On June 27th we reported the news from grandfather to you. This night I dreamt a lot about him. “Auf wiedersehen” [we’ll see you again] Your humble, Jacob.