A Watcher at the Gate
A Watcher at the Gate
Originally published in Gonzaga Quarterly, Spring 2008written by Peter Tormey, Ph.D.
The ideal of the self-made man says we determine our own destiny. It may be pretty to think so, but Gonzaga English Professor Mike Herzog knows better. Events and decisions made by Herzog's ancestors halfway around the world and nearly a century ago set the course of his life. It was in Russia, after the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks began the spread of communism, that Herzog's father Valentin, then 14, made a decision that irrevocably shaped the Herzog clan's future.
Valentin and his family lived in Krasna, a German village on the Black Sea populated entirely by German-Catholic families. He was the sixth child of Michael and Ursula Herzog, whose ancestors had emigrated there from Germany in 1804 at the behest of Alexander I, who envisioned golden fields of wheat swaying in the fertile black dirt of the Ukraine.
The Herzogs worked hard, using many strong horses, the lifeblood of an unmechanized farm. Valentin's father rose at midnight each night to feed those horses and fed them again at dawn's first light. The children ran alongside the plow, pulling weeds from the plow's teeth. The girls could not hide centimeters of mud caked on the hems of their school skirts. But for all the hard work, the Herzogs' cares were few and simple - until the Revolution.
"The Bolsheviks simply took our horses away from us, one by one, and forced us - that is, everyone in the village - to deliver all of what we harvested to the commune," Valentin wrote in his memoir, "A Watcher at the Gate." His father fell into depression. For an estimated million German colonists in the Ukraine, the aftermath of the revolution was death through starvation, murder or exile to Siberia.
A new life
The events sparked in young Valentin a yearning for a better life. Realizing education might be his ticket out, he began reading everything he could find, attended night school, and was tutored by a friend - all in hopes of being educated beyond the fourth-grade level of education that was typical of that time. Through faith, prayer and extra drinks for a communist official, Valentin was admitted to higher education and completed three years of the four-year curriculum before it was discovered he was not the waif he had represented himself to be. In 1929, he abandoned all possessions and fled the school in the dead of night, fearing capture by the communists.
Many hardships later, Valentin landed a teaching job in a small Russian town. Life was not easy. He refused to join the Communist Party and often was moved to new teaching assignments. During that time he also met and married Elisabeth. They began a family while he completed his studies by correspondence. When war broke out between Russia and Germany in spring 1941, the men of the villages were ordered to march toward Odessa. Fearing exile if identified as the "poverty-stricken Valentin Herzog," he fled the forced march and returned to his wife and children. Along with other German families, they gathered their most important belongings and began the long exit from Russia, the line of horse-drawn wagons moving through Romania, where Mike was born, on to Hungary and by cargo train via Czechoslovakia to Poland.
"The wagon train of which we were a part stretched out 35 kilometers, wagon after wagon filled with families trying to survive the journey, which eventually lasted nine full weeks," Valentin noted.
The day for boarding a train to Poland came in 1944 - only after all were "deloused." In Poland, Valentin became principal of a German school, but two weeks later was ordered to report to the German Army.
On her own with their five children, wife Elisabeth commandeered a horse to pull a wagon carrying herself and the children from Poland to Berlin. It was six days into their journey in January 1945, before the children could put any real food into their thin cold bodies and tiny Mike had his diapers changed for the first time since the journey began. The Herzog family, minus Valentin, arrived in Berlin, only to endure nightly Allied bombings.
"It's a miracle that we survived," Mike said.
East or West?
Valentin was among troops moved to Budapest to stop Russian troops from moving west. Then came April 1945. A German officer told the soldiers: "Gentlemen, the war is over. It has been our misfortune to have lost the greater part of our men, that is, our division, in the last few days." He told his soldiers to take a vehicle and gas and go west if they wanted to be captured by the Americans, or east if they wanted to be captured by Russians.
"My father wasn't about to go east," Mike said. "He knew the Russians were taking anyone like him and sending them to Siberia. He made a very definite decision to be an American POW." Valentin became a prisoner of war in May 1945. He was freed in Vienna a year later and it was another year before the family reunited. On the morning of May 7, 1947, Herzog awoke to a friend shouting: "Herzog, your family is here!"
"In a moment the room was filled with my wife and children - our first meeting after nearly three years," Valentin wrote. "The embraces and kisses were long and emotional." Maria was 16, Willi 14, Hans 12, Alex 9, and Michael, who was but a few months old when Valentin had seen him last, was 3.
Valentin began teaching again in 1948 and improved his fourth-graders' exam pass-rate from 20 to 80 percent. Still, the Herzogs worried about being deported as Russians combed Germany looking for escaped "citizens." Valentin and Elisabeth talked of going to America for "reasons all having to do with the current and future welfar of our family," he wrote. Five years later, their documents were finally ready for the boat trip to New York.
"When we finally did step on American soil we did so with a total debt of $1,400," Valentin noted, adding that he never regretted the decision.
A janitor who could teach
They took a train to Joplin, Mo., where a cousin lived. In 1954, Valentin took a good-paying job as organist at a Catholic parish in Hays, Kan. Another five years, and the family moved to Spokane, joining other relatives. They bought a home and paid it off in 10 years, with each family member contributing.
Valentin lacked documentation of his education and teaching experience. So, he was pleased to find work as a janitor at Gonzaga University. That part of his career was happily cut short by Father Jack Leary, S.J., then Gonzaga's president.
"One day (Father) Jack Leary starts chatting with this guy and discovers he's got a janitor who is a teacher. It was post-Sputnik time and (Father) Jack Taylor, the academic vice president or dean, hired him to teach German and Russian," said Mike, who, himself, graduated from GU in 1966 and earned a doctorate from the University of Washington in 1970. Despite a job offer from Stanford University, Mike returned to Gonzaga.
"Stanford is the kind of place where you turn out a book a year and I wanted to teach. That was a no-brainer," said Mike. "I had a great undergraduate experience here at Gonzaga and I wanted to replicate that for others."
Another draw for Mike was family and the idea of teaching with his father.
"When I first came here, I taught German and English. That is when I worked in the same department (modern languages) as my dad," Mike said. "Dad would have been in his mid-50s by the time he started working here. And he retired around the late 1970s," Mike said. "I think he was probably around 70 at that time."
The Young Turks
Mike recalls the year he returned to GU to teach, 1970, when Gonzaga welcomed an astonishing 17 new tenure-track faculty to the College of Arts and Sciences. "We new faculty members came from a different era than a lot of the faculty at Gonzaga and were perceived as being very radical," Mike said. They became known on campus as the Young Turks - or sometimes even the Young Turkeys.
Mike sees great irony in his current role as English professor and senior faculty adviser after gaining the reputation of an outstanding teacher who was not afraid of engaging the administration to improve conditions for faculty.
"You can imagine how surprising it is for me that I am working with the academic vice president these days," he said. "I was the jackass playing in the outer office and all of a sudden I am invited in by an academic vice president."
Mike has served many roles at GU, including soccer coach, director of the Honors Program and president of the Faculty Assembly in his third year. In that post, Mike, along with English Professor Tony Wadden, spoke his mind.
"Our theory was, if this is the kind of place where we can't be who we are then we don't want to be here," said Mike, who remembers being so careful as a boy in Germany not to say the wrong things. A similar feeling came over him not long ago.
"When the (Iraq) war first started, there was that kind of climate in the United States. It felt a lot like what we tried to get away from," he said. "I am a believer in free speech. Free speech is not relevant unless you are saying something unpopular. That was an attack on free speech."
Eleven Herzogs are listed in Gonzaga's Alumni Directory, and the family name is well-known throughout Spokane in leadership and educational circles. Mia (Herzog, '88) Bertagnolli, Mike's niece, recently rose in rank to professor of biology at Gonzaga.
This first-generation American family that escaped communism still sticks together as though their lives depend on it. The clan started out with seven people and has burgeoned to 67. Mike gathered with about 50 Herzogs for Christmas last year. Mike and all the Herzogs cling to the twin virtues of freedom and family, imprinted indelibly in their collective psyche by struggles against fascism and for democratic freedom.
The Herzogs gather each summer at Spirit Lake for a family get-together and fun run. Recently, they pooled their resources to name a refurbished classroom at Gonzaga Prep for Valentin and Elisabeth. Mike is delighted that the younger generation of the family organized the event, indicating the legacy of love and concern for the common good that resonates throughout the family.
Mike continues to make his annual family calendar, taking pains to make sure each family member is pictured at least once. After all, the family counts on it.
Those who stayed behind...
Germans who remained in south Russia were sent to Siberia during World War II. From Siberia some of the Herzog relatives eventually got to Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, and finally back to Russia. By some accounts, life in the old German farming villages today is similar to the conditions of 100 years ago.
"We had a visit from some of my cousins for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary about 1980. It was a real eye-opener for them," Herzog said. "'You mean you don't have to do laundry on Thursdays? Really?' It's the little things in that kind of culture that constrain you.
"It has taken a long time to develop all the accoutrements of freedom. My younger cousins, they get it, and they do so largely by watching American movies, American news and by coming to this country repeatedly."