It was at a holiday family gathering when my grandmother discovered I had taken up an interest in stamp collecting. I was ten years old.
“Bobby,” she said, “I have some old letters in the basement with stamps on them. Would you like them? They are from ‘The Old Country’.”
My grandparents always called the land of their birth “The Old Country.” I never knew why (and still don’t). But whenever they used that phrase I always sensed that they felt they had lost something special when they came to America. Even at age ten I knew that they would like to return for a visit, but I did not know why.
“Sure, Grandma,” I said. In the basement, she opened a steamer trunk that years before had carried all her earthly possessions to America.
She handed me bundles of covers, made of flimsy paper, faded and fragile. The stamps were not pretty. Mostly the stamps on the covers were heavily duplicated. I did not know from which country the stamps came.
“These came from Russia,” she said. “That’s where Grandpa and I were born.” The year was 1954 and I had been taught Russia was not a friendly country. This confused me greatly, since I knew my grandparents to be loving, upstanding people.
It was my custom at the time to place all my duplicate stamps into an envelope and give them to a classmate at school. He did the same with his duplicates and passed them on to me. I assumed this is what stamp collectors did with their duplicates. However, in order to pass on these stamps I first tore them from the envelopes and soaked and dried them. Dozens of covers were ruined to obtain the bare stamps. The correspondence in the cover was simply discarded. It was not of any use to me as the writing was in German. At the time I had no idea I would ever learn German. Besides, what ten year old is interested in letters people in Russia were sending to their grandmother?
I was nearly complete in my goal to ruin my cache of German-Russian postal history, a few soaked stamps at a time, when I happened to read an article in a stamp paper about the horrors of destroying valuable covers to obtain relatively common stamps. I suddenly was struck with guilt. I had destroyed what could have been philatelic treasures! Perhaps I could have sold these covers and made some money! I told no one of my folly. I was quite ashamed.
Yet more tragic was the fact that these letters from The Old Country were likely from one or more of the Volga German villages populated by ethnic German immigrants nearly two hundred years earlier at the invitation of Catherine the Great. My grandparents grew up in the village of Grimm which had been founded by German immigrants in 1767.
At the age of 18 both my grandparents bid farewell to their parents, family, and friends and came to America to escape escalating harassment of Germans who lived in Russia. They never returned there.
I saved just one of the covers from my grandparents. Today it bears a treasured spot on a page of its own in my Russia collection.
As an adult, now fairly fluent in the German language, I would love to be able to read what messages were contained in the letters I destroyed. What suffering did those letters convey as the Bolsheviks came to power in Germany? How did my great grand-parents feel about their children leaving them for America? Did some of those letters convey a message that my great grand-parents had passed away? Or were they perhaps exiled to Siberia at the outbreak of WWII along with most of the remaining Germans from the village of Grimm?
The family history, the history of the village of Grimm was lost. However, I learned important lessons for my life long hobby. I don’t just refrain from destroying postal history, but I look to expand the history found on the covers I accumulate. I’ve learned that a great many covers selling for only a dollar or two can have fascinating history behind them, even simply in the names of the addressees. I now have an exhibit focusing on the addressees of many of my covers. But the most important of these is the cover I retained, addressed to my grandmother from The Old Country.
Bob Grosch has been a worldwide collector for 65 years and a member of APS since 1997. He has many specialty collections in U.S. philately, but his current interest is to build a postal history collection of the Volga German colonies in Russia.
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