Pandemic Perspective

Rudolf and Christine (Beck) Schott with family

I’m an explorer. Whether it’s traveling to explore ancestral towns, traveling to explore new places with friends and family, checking out new hiking trails in the mountains, or simply trying a new restaurant in my neighborhood, my life is all about being out and about.

So being in lockdown for weeks, with no known end date (at least, no reliable end date), strikes to my very core.

One of the projects I’ve been working on during lockdown is indexing obituaries of Germans from Bessarabia. Thinking about their lives as I’ve indexed names/dates/places is a bit of a kick in the pants to realize just how fortunate I am.

Bessarabian Germans had made a pretty good life for themselves in their villages near the Black Sea. Sure there had been a little bit of upheaval in 1918 after WWI when they suddenly switched from being Russian citizens to Romanian citizens, but all in all, they had prosperous farms and peaceful lives.

Our lives today have been unexpectedly turned upside down by a pandemic, just as theirs were turned upside down in June 1940 when they learned the Soviets were re-taking the area. The German villagers would have to leave their family homes of more than a century and would be resettled by the Nazis to farms in Poland.

One of these villagers was my grandfather’s younger brother, Rudolf Schott. At the age of 54, just when he probably thought he’d made a pretty comfortable life farming and could slide into years of watching his children and grandchildren grow, he and his wife had to pack up their six children and everything they owned in a wagon and leave.

They stagnated for two years in a resettlement camp near Chemnitz, then were assigned a farm in eastern Poland to build new lives there. They farmed by day, and by night they fought off Polish partisans (who were justly angry at the Nazi invasion and seizure of their land).

In January 1945, Rudolf and family had to flee to escape the approaching Russian army. Rudolf’s daughter Ida told me that to this day, when she hears a plane overhead she stops and listens to see if it was a normal plane or one that would drop a bomb. “I got to know the difference,” she said.

After the war, Rudolf (now about 60) and his wife Christine started over again, this time in Eastern Germany. Their older sons had probably lost years of their lives to service in the Wehrmacht.[1] Their younger children had several years of schooling disrupted. For five or six years, Rudolf and his family’s lives became unrecognizable from what they had been in June 1940.  So much so, that when my grandfather offered to sponsor them to come to the U.S., they turned him down. After a life in Bessarabia, limbo in the resettlement camp, starting over in Poland, and starting over in Eastern Germany, they just didn’t have the energy for one more do-over in their lives. Their future had changed in ways they could never have guessed.

So when I feel depressed about the inconvenience of  staying home, or am concerned about what the future will bring financially, or am sad about the restrictions on travel, or feel desperate to have things be normal so I can run an errand and buy a Starbucks coffee without reaching for the disinfectant—well, then I just think about Grand-Uncle Rudolf, whose life was changed much more dramatically than it is likely I will experience.


[1] This is typically what happened to the young men. But the documents to verify that are not readily available at the (COVID-19 pandemic) moment.