In memory of Sarah Derksen Siemens
Sarah had an idyllic beginning. She was born on April 10, 1912 in the small village of Altonau. This was one of 16 villages in the larger Mennonite colony of Sagradovka (present-day Ukraine). The Ingulets River flowed nearby – a safe place for swimming, fishing, picnicking and community gatherings.
Sarah remembers the watermelon, peaches and cherries growing in almost every garden: “I crawled under a hedge to the neighbor’s yard to eat their cherries”. Grandparents, cousins and friends lived in the same village. But as the community expanded, land for farming became scarce. Sarah’s family and grandparents left their village to settle in the fertile Caucasus region - a three-day journey.
It was here that Sarah’s father (a conscientious objector) was assigned to the forestry service by the Tsarist regime. She rarely saw her father during his 4 ½ year term, even at Christmas. With increasing unrest in the region, Sarah’s mother and grandparents decided to move the family back to Altonau. Their home housed the local school. Sarah started at age seven but sadly her education was often interrupted.
The terror of the Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing Civil War disrupted their lives. When Sarah was seven years old (1919), Mennonite villages in her colony were attacked. Famine, poverty, disease and brutal warfare claimed many lives.
Sarah remembers an officer searching their house for eggs, flour and meat. More soldiers were gathered in the south end of the village. Sarah’s mother instructed the children to “Open all the doors and windows. Spread straw on the floor for bedding. Then welcome the soldiers in.”
Red and White armies crisscrossed the countryside, demanding food, fresh horses and shelter. Sarah’s family always welcomed these strangers for a meal and a bed. Sarah remembers walking over sleeping soldiers to help her mother make breakfast: “You never knew who would be sleeping there. Reds or Whites – all came to our house on different nights. But they were good to us. Some of them gave us children sugar candy.” Sarah believes her family was spared many horrors because they did not resist. Their open doors might have saved their lives.
When survival seemed almost impossible, Sarah’s family left Russia in 1925. She was 13 years old. Sarah remembers riding the train to Moscow and staying in a hotel. While the parents completed all the documents necessary to emigrate, the four children stayed in the hotel room. For seven days they entertained themselves. But Sarah clearly remembers that “A kind lady in the hotel gave us children a book of fairy tales. Oh we loved that book.”
This book encased the train tickets when the family finally boarded a train in Moscow. “The train was very crowded,” Sarah explains. “For one and a half days we could only sit. No one could lie down or stretch out.” Military officers boarded the trains at various stops and were not always trustworthy. The family’s bag of blankets, pillows and a dried ham was stolen on their way out of Russia. But the book holding the tickets was protected – their guarantee of travel to Latvia, and finally to freedom in Canada.