Interview with Alice Pfeifer

It has been over a decade since you served in Russia. Why did you choose to write and publish "Conversations with the Elders" now?
These essays were originally published in the Ellis County Star, but Sister Mary Elise has always hoped that one day we could put them all together in a book. However, they needed some good strong editing first, and that was something I wanted to do myself. I was waiting for a period of unemployment or under-employment to tackle the job, and that time finally arrived.
What inspired you and Sister Mary Elise to conduct these interviews?
We both grew up in Volga German communities in Kansas, and we long had wondered what had happened to the people our families left behind after they came to America in the 1870s. When we got the
chance to go to Russia in 1994, we met many German Russians who had been deported to labor camps during WWII. We wanted to collect as many of their stories as we could before the people of that generation died. As a matter of fact, the very first person we interviewed turned out to be a man whose birth date was the exact same as my dad's -- November 9, 1918 -- but Frederick Staab had already outlived my dad by 20 years.
You noted that many German Russians are reluctant to share their experience. Was it difficult to find people willing to talk with you?
In late 1995, when we first started gathering the stories, it wasn't so hard. But in 1997 the Russian Dumas passed a new law putting grave restrictions on any religious tradition the state considered a cult. But which religions did they think were cults? In Chelyabinsk we had Baptists, Lutherans, Jehovah's Witnesses,
Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims. No matter what your religion was, you were afraid yours might be targeted if it wasn't Russian Orthodox. Sister Mary Elise and I decided to stop interviewing people after the day a woman became very frightened by our line or manner of questioning. We had invited her to our apartment for the interview, but we didn't get very far before she suddenly burst into tears, left the room, and rushed out of the building. We felt really bad and decided the times had simply gotten too tense for
doing any further interviews.
Do you think that your service to the church made people more open to being interviewed?
We were in Russia under the best of circumstances, really. A faith community had invited us to come. They did everything they could to help us adjust to a new country and they always had our backs if local government officials got prickly about anything. They had lots of questions about faith and life in America and life in general, and they enjoyed sharing their culture and traditions with us. They trusted us, I'd say, but sometimes they worried about things like our apartment possibly being bugged.
Many of the interviewees talk about how their faith got them through the difficult times during World War II and the subsequent years. What lessons did you learn about your own faith from this project?
I learned that my faith couldn't hold a candle to theirs! I might be more educated in Christian theology than they were, but my personal faith has never been tested the way theirs has been. Someone who read one of our interviews in the Ellis County Star told me, "I gave it to my wife and told her she should read it the next time she thinks she's having a bad day!" I still think of that sometimes when I think I'm having a bad day.
You are from an area of the United States settled by German Russians. Were any of the conversations similar to stories you heard growing up?
My sister married a man whose dad didn't come to America until well into the twentieth century. There were lots of family stories about Mike, how he suffered from not knowing what had happened to parents and siblings he left behind in Russia. He was afraid they had died of hunger and, I think, suffered from survivor's guilt. Letters didn't get through in those days. They said sometimes he drove his car down a highway with a rosary wrapped around his fingers, tears streaming down his face, thinking about the ones he had left behind.
Which of the conversations do you remember most vividly?
Gosh, isn't that a little like asking a mother to name her favorite child? Different people we interviewed come to mind at different times. I will say that when one of our first interview subjects died, which happened while we all were still over there, a dark pall settled on all us sisters that night. We just couldn't shake off the thought that "our Albina" -- Albina Papenfuss -- was gone. I went to a kiosk and bought a bottle of cranberry-flavored vodka so that we could toast to her memory that evening and just sit around sharing memories of her. "She was the first babushka that we really got to know well," Sister Mary Elise remarked. "Maybe that's why this is so hard."
What do you think readers will take away from "Conversations with the Elders"?
I can't predict that. When I re-read the interviews all these years later, I was struck by how much love the elders had for Russia. It was their country, their homeland. Those who left did so mainly for practical reasons. In the 1990s their country was in a financial mess, far worse than what we have been experiencing with this Great Recession or whatever you want to call it.

I also was struck by how our subjects did not dwell on the tragedies of their lives or hold malice in their hearts toward those who had wronged them. Over and over again we heard the grandmothers and grandfathers say of their experiences, "Well, these things happen in times of war." I think most Americans don't have a clue about what war does to a country. We treat wars too much like football games and just want to be on the winning side.
Many of the interviewees talk about people who emigrated to Germany. Is this still a common practice in Chelyabinsk?
My understanding is that the emigration has slowed down considerably. One good thing Putin did was to stabilize the economy. Everyone started getting their pay on time -- teachers, doctors, pensioners. When I was there, teachers and doctors had to do a lot of moonlighting to survive -- extra jobs in addition to their real jobs. And the pay for their real jobs was only $30 a month despite the fact that store-bought goods had the same price tags in Russia that they did in the US at the time. A Coke was what, 75 cents here? Same there. Obviously, Coke was a luxury item reserved mainly for holidays.
Most of the people you spoke with were women. Was this intentional?
Well, most of the church-goers were women, and we tended to interview church-goers. Also, you have to understand that Russia had many more old women than it had old men. It still does. Russian men live, on average, only into their late 50s.
What were the most valuable lessons you learned during your time in Russia?
I learned that real life isn't black-and-white. I could give you lots and lots of examples of how my Russian experiences underscored that point for me, but here's just one observation. The elders often spoke of this or that communist official who was compassionate to them or this or that Jew or Tartar or atheist who helped out their families in a truly desperate situation. We really fall prey to a giant deception when we let individual persons or single events incite within us hatred for entire groups or classes of people. We lived in Chelyabinsk, where the Soviet Union manufactured its nuclear weapons. My heart hurts every time I think now of the beautiful lives that would have been lost if we had ever decided, sometime during the Cold War, to take out their nuclear installations. Even that phrase sounds so pure and antiseptic, doesn't it -- "take out their nuclear installations"? But the reality would have been anything but.
Published 2013-09-13.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Poems Hidden in the Secret Annex
Price: $1.49 USD. Words: 4,840. Language: English. Published: July 2, 2012. Categories: Fiction » Poetry » Spiritual, Nonfiction » Religion and Spirituality » Christian Life / Spiritual Growth
The title poem for this collection considers one of the simple everyday joys denied to Anne Frank during her cramped life in the secret annex. These poems include personal observations and memories, spiritual and biblical reflections, and social commentary. All are rooted in the life of a US Catholic sister whose work has taken her to several different US states and two foreign countries.
When Among Painted Icons
Price: Free! Words: 5,150. Language: English. Published: March 13, 2012. Categories: Fiction » Poetry » Spiritual, Nonfiction » Religion and Spirituality » Biblical Meditations / New Testament
This book contains 82 poems offering brief reflections on the Gospels, Gospel-inspired social concerns, and the author's personal life as a Roman Catholic sister. The author names the 20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a major influence on her writing for this collection. A study guide is included to aid both personal reflection and discussion in reading circles and book clubs.