Fate. The Long Way to Solothurn-Wittmann and Back.
A Conversation by Nadja Runde with the Author Valentina Sommer
Runde, Nadja. "Fate. The Long Way to Solothurn-Wittmann and Back." Volk auf dem Weg, October 2011, 42-43.
Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO. Editing by Dr. Nancy A. Herzog.
In her book entitled Das Schicksal. Der lange Weg nach Solothurn-Wittmann und zurück, or [translated title:] Fate. The Long Way to Solothurn-Wittmann and Back, Valentina Sommer writes about the serious strokes of fate that in the course of time affected the lives of her family and marked the lives of her German Russian people. Everything started with the fateful 1941 deportation of the Volga Germans to Kazakhstan. She dedicated the book to the seventieth anniversary of the deportation of the Germans in the Soviet Union and to its far-reaching consequences between 1941 and 1945. The following is from a conversation by writer Nadja Runde with Valentina Sommer.
Valentina, your book Fate. The Long Way to Solothurn-Wittmann and Back has just been published. In it you describe the difficult fate of your ancestors, the Volga Germans, during the time of the deportation in the Soviet Union during World War II. What motivated you to write this book?
For German Russians, the year 2011 marked a sad anniversary. On August 28 seventy years before, a government decree announced the deportation of the Soviet Union’s Germans to Siberia, Central Asia, and Kazakhstan, resulting in an entirely innocent ethnic group being blamed and forcefully removed from its inherited ancestral regions. And after being driven away from their homelands, these same Germans were not allowed to return to the Volga region. The succeeding generation grew up in banishment and in strange and foreign lands.
The saying that life writes the most beautiful and exciting stories is quite true. However, life also writes the saddest, most bitter and most gruesome stories. And it is these, the stories and fates of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors that I describe in my book. Punished though innocent, humiliated, and expelled, the Germans were scattered all over the Soviet Union, placed under cruel surveillance, and placed into forced-labor camps. My ancestors, my parents and grandparents all experienced that difficult fate, the long road from Germany to the Volga, and later the time of deportation in the Soviet Union during World War II.
In our family the past was always present. As a small girl, from my mother and grandmother I often heard stories about the persecution of the Germans. They told about the men of the villages having been arrested merely because they were religious and of faith, prayed an Our Father, or simply allowed themselves to speak in their mother tongue in public. Those who were arrested during dark and foggy nights, all without any judicial basis, disappeared forever.
The fate of families left behind, usually with many children, was thereby made even more bitter. Only their belief in God, only prayer kept people alive and gave them the strength to endure those grave strokes of fate and to hope for better times. The family became the only place where one’s mother tongue, the German culture, and especially one’s faith were maintained.
No Soviet propaganda, no arrest, nothing was able to suppress this process of passing down German customs and traditions.
After the practice of strict surveillance [through the NKVD] was lifted in 1956, my grandparents erected a three-meter high cross in each cemetery of the three deportation locales they had been forced to live in. The cross, welded together from steel parts, was put into a firm, concrete base, sunk deep in the ground, and then dedicated with a prayer.
These three crosses still stand today -- like a cry to heaven, a memorial to all those who were repressed, were shot, or died in the Trud Army [Group Labor Camps], and to all Germans who starved and were destroyed. These three crosses stand for all those whose strength did not suffice to survive their fate, those who were buried at the side of the road, without as much as an Our Father and with just a stone instead of a grave stone to mark their shallow graves.
These three crosses are a symbol, a warning for future generations who should learn from the past and henceforth not repeat the mistakes of that past. It was as if my grandmother somehow sensed that we had to leave behind the last place of rest of our ancestors and not be able to bring it forth into the future.
The silent expression of inner protest by my Oma against the policies of Stalin’s government entered into my real consciousness only after I reached adulthood. Those who paid with their lives for a better future for us are not forgotten. They will remain alive forever in the memories of our people.
These memories of the past and the interest of my relatives and people in the history of the Volga Germans were what motivated me to write about their stories. The book is dedicated to those who died and remained behind, those scattered to the far reaches from the Black Sea to Siberia and Kazakhstan, those buried in mostly forgotten, destroyed or disappearing cemeteries, and all those interred on the side of the roads of wartime wanderings.
What sorts of new experiences or insights have you gained during the writing of your book?
The idea of writing a book on the history of my ancestors has been with me for some time. I am very happy that I had the opportunity to speak with the few contemporary witnesses who are still around. The stories in the book are all genuine personal stories of these people. Unfortunately, many of them have died in the meantime.
Still, it is not just about life stories. The book also contains much material from archives. A very interesting fact for me personally is that in the archive books I discovered the passenger lists of my ancestors who on September 15, 1766 boarded a ship in Lübeck and, under the command of Captain Franz Nikolaus Schröder, began their emigration traveling on the Baltic Sea from Germany to St. Petersburg.
Of course, it requires time and money before one finds the requisite information. And it wasn’t always an easy process. But I was fascinated by getting in touch with the history of the 18th Century and with working on all those archive materials.
Your book constitutes a contribution to the history of the Volga Germans, and it is dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Germans in the Soviet Union. What was your own life like as a German in the former Soviet Union?
I am part of the post-war generation of children who were born and grew up in Kazakhstan during the time of the Kommandatur [strict NKVD surveillance regime]. Even at an early age, we children also came to experience the political persecution of the German minority in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, the terms “German” and “Fascist” remained synonymous for decades after the war. After the Kommndatur was lifted, Germans were again allowed to attend university. [Other historians, for example, Dr. Viktor Krieger, indicate that many were still not permitted to do so for a long time to come– Tr.] Following my pedagogical studies I worked for twenty-five years as a teacher of German in Kazakhstan. In 1991 my family and I returned to the land of our forefathers, Germany, and I have been living in Dingolfing, Bavaria ever since. After I completed re-training to become a nursery school teacher I worked in various early childhood centers. And now I have time for writing.
What in your book might interest other readers? After all, there are numerous publications of every kind on the history of the Germans from Russia?
For every person there comes a time when the wish to search for one’s own identity, to look for one’s roots, takes on real importance. Following lengthy research in various archival sources, in literature, and other available documents, I composed a brief essay on the history of the Volga Germans. That was the beginning. The book (ca. 200 pages, illustrated) is, among other things, also a history of the village of Wittmann on the Volga, and is supported by a great deal of archival material, memories by our people from various time frames, and stories by contemporary witnesses who once had trod a stony, tragic and dangerous path.
The book contains, for example, names of families who answered the call of Empress Catherine II and, taking hold of their walking stick, left their homeland forever. Those families founded the new settlement of Solothurn-Wittmann on the “meadow side” of the Volga River. There are lists of residents of the village for years 1768 and 1834.
In connection with the expulsion of 1941, the forced-labor times in the Trud Army, and life under NKVD surveillance, the reader will find stories by contemporary witnesses who are presently living in Germany. In the book, readers will be able to recognize their own fate, their younger years, their home villages on the Volga, and familiar names. And younger readers will be able to learn a good measure of the history and their parents’ and grandparents’ times on the Volga.
Your book also contains German folklore, which I find very interesting, Could you please cite an example?
One must not think that the Germans lived only sad and bitter lives or were resigned to their heavy fate. Even under the most difficult living conditions they secretly celebrated Christmas and Easter behind drawn curtains. Young people fell in love and got married. There was much singing, and there was music. We had learned the text of the songs in childhood and always sang along. Literary works were passed down orally and even in writing from generation to generation. Even outside of any festive occasion my grandmother would sing in her high, clear voice while working the spinning wheel during long winter evenings. Following is a verse from a folksong that is familiar to many Germans from Russia and was sung at weddings [translated rather freely, to the right – Tr.]:
Die Liebe macht selig, macht glücklich,
Love makes you blissful, it makes you happy,
Die Liebe macht arm, macht reich,
Love makes you poor and makes you rich,
Die Liebe macht Bettler zu König,
Love turns beggars into kings,
Die Liebe macht alles gleich.
Love makes everything equal.
For Germans from Russia who have returned to their original homeland, an important topic is the matter of integration into German society. What is your assessment of this process?
This is certainly a burning and timely question. For most Germans from Russia, integration is a long and difficult process of social development in the new homeland.
The main barrier for successful integration is the lack of adequate German language skills. Without command of good German, any kind of consultation, contacts with the authorities, occupational training, and simple person-to-person communication is impossible.
In my opinion, this problem should be addressed more seriously within the families. Of course, it takes time to acquire a language for everyday use. But if the parents make the effort to learn the language and to expand the knowledge acquired thereby, the younger generation will follow their example.
Moreover, positive examples of the integration process should be emphasized and reported on more intensively in the German media.
A painful aspect is the fact that some youthful Germans from Russia have not managed to make it in this society and are getting on the wrong track instead. Currently there are many arrangements and projects in the youth arena, but without personal diligence, without personal goals, integration cannot happen.
Where can one find the secret of the strength of German Russians? Does it have to do with special character traits?
The long road of emigration in the 18th Century from Germany to Russia, the deportation to Siberia and Kazakhstan, the expulsion from homes in the Volga region, the years of suffering under the Kommandatur, the ongoing humiliations of the German minority by the Soviet government, and the frequent requirement to make new beginnings in life certainly did develop a special mentality.
The strengths of the Germans from Russia lie mainly in the areas of their lasting faith, their belief in family and their family solidarity, all of which again and again provided strength and hope to a people that had suffered for centuries. Even the deliberate cruelty of the Soviet regime during the 20th Century proved incapable of eradicating them completely and lastingly.
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Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy A. Herzog for editing of this article.