"Pastor Johannes Erbes, †1932; In Memoriam" by Johannes Schleuning; translated by April Reiter
To those familiar with the history of the Volga-German Lutheran Church, this name shines forth brightly and brilliantly. Johannes Erbes made exceptional contributions to this German community and to his church: It was not only his 31 years of pastoral work, in which he was able to serve his congregation with devoted faithfulness as a steadfastly modest and humble son of God. During these years, he also won the love and trust of even the poorest members of his congregation, so that they came and went as if he were a father to them—it means quite a lot if you can say this about a pastor. But Erbes was even more than this. Unlike most of our other local ministers, he was strongly rooted in Volga Germanness: A born Volga German, his grandparents immigrated to the Volga region in the 18th century because of Catherine the Great's manifesto. Within him dwelled a deep love for his Volga German brothers and their unique and rich history, with all its ups and downs—a history that drew his lively interest in his early years. He began his career as an elementary school teacher in Rosenberg, a village with about 4000 souls on the Bergseite (western) side of the Volga. During these years, Erbes discovered the importance of elementary school teachers in preserving and sustaining Volga German culture and its deep inner religiosity, as well as the great lack of elementary schools. But he also noticed that the work of individual teachers remained limited to narrow circles. Because of this, he longed for a larger sphere of influence, so that he could, from a better vantage point, act in the interests of his people. As an elementary school teacher, his voice remained only that of one crying in the wilderness.
As a result of this, he became determined to study theology. At that time, there were very few pastors in the Volga region who had been born there. Erbes believed this was the reason why the divide between pastor and community was often so large: The pastors there, who came from the Baltic provinces and to a smaller degree from Germany, lacked a deeper understanding of the steppe inhabitants, who historically had every reason for being mistrustful of anything foreign, despite the many outstanding foreign-born men who served the Volga Germans well. Erbes believed that only native Volga-German pastors can understand all the peculiarities of Volga-German communities and appropriately lead them.
It was no easy decision for a "simple" village school teacher to want to study theology, and one that caused a stir in the Volga colonies at that time. Doing so meant giving up a steady job and hitting the books for another 6-7 years (passing the Abitur [a comprehensive exam to gain admittance to a university] and then studying for years at the university itself), all the while facing an uncertain future. Erbes was the first to make this decision and pursue it whole-heartedly.
He went to Dorpat [modern Tartu in Estonia, which from the medieval period until the first half of the 20th century had many inhabitants of German heritage, particularly at the university] and spent two years preparing himself for the Abitur, which he took as a non-student. With full fervor, he then dedicated himself to the study of theology. He soon became the center of a circle of Volga German students who studied in Dorpat at the time. To each of the students in the circle, Erbes' influence became enduringly valuable, as Erbes was not only an industrious theologian, but above all, an enthusiastic German. He took up the best parts of the rich Baltic-German cultural life and incorporated them into his own. During these early years in Dorpat, he also began his exhaustive study of German history, particularly the history of the Volga Germans. He studied all the literature he could find in the university library on the immigration of the Germans and their settlement along the Volga and distributed it amongst his student circle. He continued his studies even after he had finally reached his goal of becoming a pastor and was permitted to serve his Volga Germans. Over time, all the assorted historical sources available on the beginnings of the Volga German colonies came into his possession.
And it wasn't only the history that captivated him, but also the traditions and customs, which the Volga Germans had brought from their homeland to the Volga area and had passed on from generation to generation. It was the folksongs that travelled from mouth to mouth, from village to village, folksongs that no reputable Volga German had bothered to concern themself with until then. On the contrary, narrow-minded, especially pietistic circles were always up in arms against this collection of songs. These folksongs were thereby brought into disrepute amongst wide circles; religious societies in particular strongly opposed them. Erbes was the first to energetically confront this misunderstanding. At every opportunity that presented itself, he pointed out the profound importance of the folk song, which bound the Volga Germans to their homeland, and which they, like their religious beliefs, shared in common with all Germans on Earth.
For the 150th anniversary of the Volga colonies (1914), Erbes published the first collection of "Folksongs and Children's Rhymes in the Volga Colonies" [Volkslieder und Kinderreimen in den Wolgakolonien] with the support of a Volga-German teacher, Peter Sinner. Sinner had collected almost half of the songs while Erbes took responsibility for the editing of the entire work. The small book contains 280 songs, proverbs, games and a puzzle corner section as an appendix. This was the first broadscale attempt to endear folksongs to the Volga Germans again.
Besides this work, the Volga-German school lay especially close to Erbes's heart. He, the born educator, worked tirelessly on enhancing the school system. In the synods of the Volga region's Protestant Church, he spoke up time and again in front of both pastors and laymen, recommending they treat maintaining the welfare of the school system as a holy duty despite the difficulties the Russian government placed in their way. Soon he became the specialist in these synods, the one responsible for all memorandums and petitions to the Russian government, insofar as they related to the enhancement and perpetuation of the German character.
In 1914, on behalf of the synod, Erbes launched a new testing program for sextons, also known as schoolteachers. Since they were responsible for providing religious instruction in the schools and organ services in the church, they were the only teachers still required to pass a test in front of the examinations board for admittance. In the same year, he devised a new "Method of Religious Instruction" [Methodik des Religionsunterrichts], a book for the young [Jugendlehre] as well as a comprehensive teaching plan for the primary schools. In all of these works, Erbes crusaded against antiquated teaching methods and fought for a modern, rational education, asserting himself as he had in Germany. And he did not speak out in the synods alone, but also made his voice heard amongst teachers and pastors. He brought ideas that stirred him to the press. The "Saratov German People's Newspaper" [Saratower Deutsche Volkszeitung], the "Odessa Newspaper" [Odessaer Zeitung], the "Peace Messenger" [Friedensbote] – all papers that had to do with the affairs of colonists – carried his articles, which were always calls to action.
These tasks kept him busy well into his final years. In June of 1930, after he was released following a brief imprisonment, he wrote, overjoyed: "I am going back home with Lisa and can pick up my scholarly work once again." A few days later, he wrote that he was working on his history of the German school system.
During the World War, his heart throbbed with intense love for Germany. Whenever he could help a prisoner or refugee, he did it, even if it meant risking his own livelihood.
Under the temporary government after the revolution, as the Volga Germans laid claim to their right to control their own German schools, Erbes was there. All eyes were fixed on him in high anticipation, as it seemed the task of his life awaited him. Thus, in April 1917, Erbes was appointed by the Volga German Congress as head of the school commission. With what devoted, selfless zeal did he take on this task and inspire the commission members, mostly teachers, with his enthusiasm for the issue, carrying them along with him!
My visit to him in his home in the community of Kukkus on the Wiesenseite (east side) of the Volga region is unforgettable.
Upon visiting the Volga colonies in the autumn of 1917 and giving lectures on the necessity of a tightly-bound national union, I discovered in Kukkus a crowded meeting hall filled with people who had heard similar thoughts before. In his sermons and confirmation classes, their pastor emphasized the special situation of our colonies in Russia and the source of their existence, their development, and their strength in a foreign land: Dedicated adherence to their cultural values that are manifest in the religious faith of their forefathers, in their language, customs, and folklore. In my presentation, the grateful audience got confirmation of all the things that had already been said to them many times. They were therefore ready to build upon this proven foundation even into the future. – After the service, we sat with each other for hours, during which I was able to inspect their collection of historical documents—the result of years of work— which still needed to be classified, ordered, and arranged before they were sent to the printer.
Unfortunately, the time of positive accomplishments was short. After the victory of Bolshevism, religious leaders were strictly forbidden from all their activities on school grounds. They were no longer permitted to enter schools, and only a few were permitted to write or speak about school-related matters publicly. Erbes suffered greatly under this latter provision, but he complied with it, since he was a man who understood the futility of fighting the inexorable. The more Communism ran amok in the following years, the more Erbes concentrated all of his writing and philosophizing on his spiritual ministry.
Erbes was allowed to remain living in two-three rooms of the parsonage until 1922, after which he was thrown into the street. With their last pennies, the congregation built him a small cottage. In those times of most terrible physical and spiritual trial, how the colonists needed a man with deep faith in God! To his congregation, Erbes was such a man.
Although the communists searched for a justifiable reason to snatch Erbes from his congregation, they could never find a way to lay a hand on the dearly-loved and highly respected minister. In this way, he survived the following miserable years of homelessness, starvation and freezing along with his congregation, but nevertheless remaining their comforter and leader with an unshaken faith in God. It was only after 1930, when a huge storm surge swept the land and destroyed both tangible and intangible possessions, that Erbes himself suffered daily persecution. He was ultimately forced to vacate his small home within 24 hours and settle with his wife into meager living arrangements at the home of a poor farmer on the outskirts of the village. Unafraid and stalwart, he carried on with his work.
Afterward, blow upon blow continued to fall upon Erbes, until he was finally arrested, brought to Pokrovsk, and thrown into prison there. He bore his difficult 13-month imprisonment by humbling himself under the hand of his God. His most bitter thought, second only to his worries about his wife, was his concern for his orphaned congregation and its future.
At the beginning of January 1932, the Bolsheviks held a very brief trial—that is, absolutely no trial—and transported the 56 year old to Siberia in exile. To him, the journey into the unknown and Siberian slave labor seemed more bearable than the tortures he was exposed to in prison. The last card he ever sent arrived in Germany at a train station on January 16th of the same year—"en route in Turkestan." In Semipalatinsk [now Semey in modern-day Kazakhstan], Erbes contracted epidemic typhus due to terrible living conditions, especially the fact that prisoners were locked in very cramped rooms and starved out. On February 26th, he succumbed to his illness.
Pastor Otto Harff, a loyal friend from the Volga Region and a fellow abductee, was the only one who paid this fellow-sufferer his last respects.
In distant, foreign soil, after a richly blessed, self-sacrificing life and bitter, torturous suffering, one of the best Volga Germans, Johannes Erbes, was laid to rest as a victim of the Bolshevik hatred of God.
He was not able to complete his work on Volga-German history. The documents he collected over years of arduous work—unique, irreplaceable historical sources that he left in the care of his wife—fell victim to the destructive rage of the "new Zeitgeist". But his radiant image lives on, held in grateful remembrance by all those who knew him. And to all those who read these lines, it should be a blessing and boon, a model of loyal devotion to the community and unshakeable faith in God, despite the trails of those times.
But our gaze should also shift from the grave of this martyr to the uncounted masses who remained loyal until death. Like a surrounding cloud of witnesses of the faith, they point the way. To those, however, who remain in struggle and suffering and turn their gaze yearningly toward us, we extend a brotherly hand in spirit and pray that God give them strength to persevere until their imprisonment also ends.