Bessarabia: Homeland for the Homeless
"Bessarabien: Heimat für Heimatlose"
Haase, Wolfgang. "Bessarabia: Homeland for the Homeless." Globus Spezial, n.d., 120-125.
Translation from German to English by Claudia Müller
To begin with, to the readers of my childhood memories a few lines
for a better understanding. My father was a true Bessarabian citizen.
He lived here, sometimes under Russian, sometimes under Romanian
rule, until his studies in Germany where he met my mother. After
that he was separated from his homeland for several years. Only
his continual homesickness for Bessarabia drew him back there sporadically
for a certain length of time. I am not born in Bessarabia but grew
up there intermittently between my second and tenth birthday. (That's
why in the eyes of many countrymen I am not a true Bessarabian.)
At the beginning of my schooling I attended the Four-Nations-School
where I was the only German. I always remained a homeless auslander
because of all these circumstances under which I suffered very much.
When I was in Germany, I was called "Russian", when I was in Romania,
I was a "German". Such unpleasant situations have accompanied me
for many years of my life. Today, after decades, I have found an
answer to the question, 'Who are you, where do you come from': a
Bessarabian. Bessarabia, the land between Russia, Romania and the
Black Sea, is home to many who loved it, also to me. The here following
events should prove this.
My contribution is to be a reminder to all countrymen to absolutely
pass on to our descendants the experiences as long as this is still
possible because forgetfulness of our time is the tool with which
experiences and memories can be extinguished forever.
The heat of a late summer hung dry and muggy over the fields and
the village in the center of which was the estate of my grandparents.
I must have been seven years old; it was a Saturday afternoon and
I was sitting with my grandma in front of the house in the shade
of a mulberry tree loaded with fruit. The whole yard and the activities
could be well viewed from here. The entryway to the yard was between
a white brick wall and the garden, a colorful paradise of flowers
and bushes. Granary, barn and shed were connected to the long residential
building; they made up one side of the yard. The opposite side was
bordered by the back of neighboring houses and a row of poplars.
A wide barn and a group of oak trees next to it completed the upper
yard. Numerous crows' nests served as aim of unsuccessful attacks
by us children.
Between the barn and the oak trees you reached the threshing area
located outside the yard and the fence which were surrounded by
high barns for straw. The vegetable and kitchen garden completed
the estate. In the upper corner of the yard was the "Kellerbuckel"
which led to the cellar dug deep into the ground; next to it large
stacks of firewood and stacks of kindling wood where colonies of
sparrows were hopping and poking around - more frequently yet, endangered
by approaching cats, were flying off in a hurry with deafening chirping.
In the middle of the yard was a well with long troughs for watering
My grandparents mutually respected the responsibilities in the
family and on the farm. Grandma was the heart and soul of everything;
grandpa however, was the helmsman. While grandma and the farm girls
took care of a smooth daily operation in the home and in the family,
grandpa with the farm hands and laborers managed the yard and the
field. Both were honest and diligent, faithful people respected
everywhere by family and villagers. My father was driving into the
yard on a "Bedarka", a one-horse carriage with two wheels. Before
he could ask if I wanted to come along to the vineyard, I had already
climbed onto the seat. My small dog "Welush" immediately headed
under the axle between the two wagon wheels where he was running
along with us protected from the rays of the sun and attacking,
strange dogs. When we left the yard and turned onto the wide village
street, a "Djochet peddler" was driving through the village with
his covered wagon pushing his goods in a loud voice. As the colonies
were often far from the next town and a public connection, their
residents came only rarely to the trading centers. Therefore, peddlers
of this kind, who were selling furs, eggs, feathers, meat, corn and
other items, were frequently found in the villages. A covered wagon
with odds and ends was the store and sleeping area at the same time
to the adventurous appearing peddlers. Wagon and horse easily showed,
if the peddler was a Russian, Romanian or a Jew.
By the cheers and greetings I recognized their sympathy for my
father. Occasionally, pugnacious dogs coming from their yards followed
our wagon barking. In the protection of the wagon, my dog acted
fresh and loudmouthed towards these attackers.
The picture of the village of this so-called street village with
an upper and lower village was characterized by one-story high,
white and red farm houses facing the streets with their gables and
which were located at both sides of the street. Depending on the
age of the houses their flat roofs were covered with roofing tiles,
tin or reed. Not infrequently a stork's nest crowned the roof. Strong
wooden fences or brick walls decorated with artistic ornaments sheltered
the yards from the street. A walk way lined with smelling acacias
was on both sides of the street along the yard entry ways. In winter
the streets were frozen hard, in summer they were covered with ankle
deep dust that, after every shower, turned them into a hardly passable,
It was no fun to follow the peddler driving ahead in a cloud of
thrown up dust; that's why we drove slower. My father pointed to
the bustling activity of housewives and farm girls in front of summer
kitchens and ovens. The rising smoke and spreading smell of baked
goods were a sign of a Saturday when the meals for Sunday were prepared.
Due to the climatic conditions, a summer kitchen with an attached
oven away from the house was used in the summer months. The overall
picture of the village gave an orderly and clean impression, a characteristic
of a German colony. Except for a few merchants and skilled craftsmen
like smith, brick layers and carpenters the majority of the village
A breed of people largely marked by its environment, with rough
edges, hard in taking, even harder in giving, with a big heart and
soul, humor and dependability, diligence, endurance and a willingness
to sacrifice were prerequisites for the harvest of their soil and
existence of their families. They complemented and promoted each
other with their varied dispositions and abilities. They developed
a sense of community which was necessary for their continued existence
and the protection from outside influences and corruption of their
cultural and intellectual life. With a given loyalty towards their
host countries they gained a high degree of respect and at the same
time a guarantee for the preservation of their independence and
their colonies. Their character corresponds to the saying: "What
you have inherited from your fathers, take it to own it."
A low, primitive hut uninhabited and weathered was in a hiding
place in a garden by a street. Two small windows and a crude wooden
door were directly below a straw covered roof. It was the last hut
in the village still standing since the time of founding. Even before
we arrived at the cross in the center of the village large acacia
trees were seen enclosing the back side of the cemetery. I remembered
the accident in which a little girl I knew was tragically killed;
my parents had taken me along to the funeral.
The well kept grave sites with at times monumental head stones
were between winding trails just like a chess board. Small slabs
and simple crosses, where traces of weathering for decades were
visible, stood among ornate, carved crosses of stone. Dates on graves
such as: "born March 1829, died August 1908", or "born 1933, died
1937". "A cemetery is an outward and inward reflection of a colony",
noted my father. Our ancestors, our flesh and blood rest here after
a long journey filled with privation. Their destiny began almost
200 years ago: religious persecution, bad economic conditions, statute
labor as farmers in the former German small states were the cause
to follow their desire for freedom and to leave their home and their
fatherland. By nature they were never inclined to revolutionary
thinking; they wanted to prove their independence in other countries
and continents. They trekked eastwards to uncertainty with covered
wagons trusting in God and their abilities. Beyond the Transylvania
of today, the Banat and Bessarabia, from the Black Sea across the
Volga to the Caucasus and the expanse of the Russian steppe did
they follow the offers to settle made by Eastern dynasties. They
developed there their wonderful pioneering spirit. Their start-up
capital: ax, saw, shovel and hard work. They cleared vast virgin
forests, fought against the elements of nature, against invaders,
hunger and typhus; they turned barren steppes into fertile farmland
under great privation often risking their lives and they created
a homeland also for us. Their drive for independence paid off through
slow but continually increasing prosperity for themselves and for
their host countries. They gained a high degree of respect and high
regard for Germans abroad through their achievements and correctness.
Their courage and intrepid nature were taken note of by the Russian
Czar who made some of them even to generals of his army. In foreign
countries they were the custodians and upholder of German culture
and history and therefore the best ambassadors of their fatherland.
We can be proud of those ancestors, owe them much.
Our ancestors have let standing five huge oak trees as a reminder
of the virgin forest once growing here. Today, these oak trees form
the center of town; two wide streets intersect below them. After
our arrival we turned onto the northern cross road. As we had a
long way ahead of us, my father got the horse moving with a pull
on the reigns and clicking his tongue. Past the bell tower and the
school, we soon reached the upper end of the village and shortly
afterwards the first fields and pastures.
We had left the village behind long ago. I was sitting beside
my father, a little tired and listened to his soft and cheerful
whistling. The scorching heat made it especially difficult for our
horse; it was dragging its feet and its head was hanging down in
the hot dust of the street. Stamping its hoofs and the grinding
of the wheels raised the dust to a heavy cloud which followed our
wagon like a swarm of flies. A pull on the reigns and a short "Prrr"
brought the horse to a stop. Manja warded off the flies by continually
wagging its tail. Our dog Welush used the brief rest stop to lie
in the shade of the corn field with his tongue sticking out. My
father got slowly up from his seat, took his straw hat from his
head and wiped the sweat off his forehead and his hair.
"He is a true Bessarabian", I thought proudly; "a tall, handsome
man, courageous and diligent, honest and pious, a strict but just
father and to my mother the best husband on earth", as she always
said. His knowledge of languages made a friendly and almost amicable
contact with foreigners possible. Due to his knowledge and experiences
in life his advice was always welcomed in the community. He had
remained a member of the village community in spite of his absence
for a longer period of time and was more than happy when he could
once again be at home in his homeland. He stood like that, holding
his straw hat as a shield against the bright rays of the sun and
quietly humming melancholically his favorite song: "Wenn ich den
Wanderer frage..." (When I ask the wanderer)". Content he let his
eyes gaze over the vast fields; a never ending plain with ripe corn
fields was before us. At the horizon a horse-drawn vehicle that
you could only recognize as a small cloud of dust was moving slowly.
To the side in a depression corn and sunflower fields extended as
far as a rolling hill in the distance; a draw well was visible at
its foot. The blazing heat of the sun was yellow-golden across the
seemingly endless steppe. A few small clouds were in the deep blue
sky as if lost. The air was filled with an intoxicating smell of
dry, ripe corn, flowers and grasses. Meadow larks rose to the sky
quick like lightning remaining above the fields for seconds and
their cheerful warbling faded away in the endless summer sky. A
strange silence subdued the expanse of the landscape and let us
experience its beauty undisturbed. Never before did I perceive the
steppe so impressive although I had spent part of my childhood here.
"Pictures that are not only seen, penetrate deep into the soul and
mark man permanently", noted my father.
We had to have been standing for a long time because when we went
on, the sun had already turned westward. After a short time we reached
our destination, the vineyard of my grandfather. As a rule, older
farmhands were used as guards of the vineyard because it was an
easy task. So it was with our guard, a loyal servant by the name
of Stephan who had worked for us for a long time; a Tsherkese always
with unkempt grey hair and a long beard. A suspiciously big "red
nose" like a ripe radish protruding from his wrinkled, pink face.
The "Mosh", (old man) always clicked his tongue with pleasure after
a big gulp of wine, stroked his beard phlegmatically with both hands
as a sign of well being and closed his eyes tightly grinning at
the same time. We children were afraid of these guards and herdsmen.
To us they were inscrutable and almost wild people because of their
scruffy looking appearance and their strange language. They were
only rarely seen in the village because most of the time they were
living in the seclusion of the vineyard and pastures.
However, I was no longer afraid of "Mosh Stephan" as he was generally
called because I knew him for a long time. Every time he saw me,
he asked me impishly laughing to say the word "Brinse" (cheese).
As a German I was not in the position to pronounce perfectly the
sharp "R" and the "Br" of the eastern language. And so he always
roared with laughter about my tongue twisting "Pchinse". Like most
of the guards and herdsmen, he could neither write nor read but
instead tell tall tales. On occasion he told me stories about his
distant homeland, the Caucasus, whereby fear frequently raised the
hairs on my neck. He was, what is often encountered with Russians,
a sensitive and well meaning child of nature yet dependable and
always cheerful. Since his youth he lived among the German colonists
as a diligent farm hand, modest and simple; thus, an "Ocka wine"
was the highest recognition and praise at the same time for him.
We found him sitting in front of his earthen hut singing. When
he saw my father and myself, he pulled himself together with the
help of his "putka" (long club) which he always carried with him
and greeted us in a friendly manner. He really didn't inspire confidence
with his "papushen", the long pants of sheep skin, a very worn,
long coat and unkempt hair. Even his emaciated and tired "Tarkat"
(dog) could not improve the impression. After indicating a bow and
a word of greeting in Russian he helped us slowly off the wagon.
Curious he briefly looked to the bag under the seat which he knew
was meant for him. Then he reported to my father about the activities
wildly waving his hand in the air while both disappeared in the
vineyard to check the vines.
I used the opportunity to check out a little closer Mosh's earthen
hut. These "Buden" as we children called them, always appeared to
us a bit creepy and yet, the romanticism of it lured me. The size
of the small room dug one meter deep into the ground, a roof of
reed across the den and the "Bude" was finished. A bench of dirt
left where it was served as bed. The fire place was heaped with
field stones; the flue was to the side and above a large pot blackened
by soot served as the daily cooking pot. Our Mosh spent the whole
summer and fall in this isolation; he only returned for the winter
after the grape harvest to his small hut at the entrance to the
While I was still playing with the dogs, my father and Stephan
returned from their rounds. Stephan's reference to his dry mouth
from all the talking was made unmistakably clear to my father because
he took immediately the large bag with sausage, garlic, cheese,
bread, etc. off the wagon and gave it to the old man who looked
a bit disappointed; only when the wine appeared from beneath the
seat did the servant's face light up and with a servile expression
of thanks he promised to continue to be a loyal guard. Satisfied
with himself he lugged the "pickings" into his "Bude". As I expected,
before we left he requested of me to say the word "Brinse" one more
time. I did him that favor because I liked his broad and good laugh.
He waved after us for a long time.
The sun set on the horizon in a bloody red und a gentle breeze
swept across the peaceful fields. I looked back one more time but
Mosh was no longer seen; rising smoke came presumably from the fire
place where my old friend cooked his evening mamaliga (corn mush).
Without a word to anyone I envied his adventure. I saw him sitting
with his dog in front of his hut under the star lit night sky singing
the familiar songs of his homeland, of Don and Volga by the poorly
lit camp fire. A fearful barking of our dog awakened me from my
I cuddled against my father because the stillness around us, the
slowly upcoming dusk at the eastern horizon, the quiet rustling
in the corn fields which we slowly passed scared me. Worried, I
looked under the wagon for my dog; he trotted along faithfully.
So we drove quietly towards the village. Occasionally the muffled
creaking of our wagon and the quiet groaning of the harness were
mixing in the stillness. Again and again a cool evening breeze swept
across the fields and brought stalks and tops into slight movement.
Feeling uneasy I was thinking of the infamous gypsy village that
was only a few verst beyond the hills of the Tartars and of all
the short stories in which robbers and bandits had ambushed wagons
driving unescorted through the darkness. To my question: "Papa,
how far is it to home"?, my father lifted his finger and said: "Listen!"
Peals of bells barely audible drifted across the steppe to us. I
heaved a sigh of relief because we were soon at home in the protection
of our village and the house.
Although I heard but did not understand what my father was trying
to explain in a calm voice: "The bells are the pulse of the village
and its people, they are an indication for the presence of life
and life from the cradle to the casket." Nobody could overhear these
bells and their sounds from the iron tower with the simple tin roof.
The ringing of the bells at noon sounded tired while over the roofs
of the village all the way to the fields in the distance, the sound
of the bells in the evening announced to the farmers working in
the fields the end of the day.
People were rudely awakened by ringing alarm bells before they
hurried to the scene of a fire upon hearing, "fire, fire"! However,
who doesn't like to think of the bronze companions and their joyous
sound when they were ringing in the Easter morning across the country
and awakened people and nature from their winter sleep. Who can
forget the grand "bimbam, bimbam" which muffled by snow flurries
accompanied the people bundled up in heavy fur, wearing high boots
and carrying a lantern through the deep crunching snow. When saying
good-ye forever the almost lamenting ringing of the bells joined
the grief of the mourners when they were laying to final rest their
To my pleasure the first light gables were seen emerging from
under the arches of the oak and acacia trees which stood alongside
the garden ditches. The bells were still ringing and the last muddled
sounds of the village were softly heard over the roofs. Dogs were
barking in the distance. We had reached the first gardens and turned
onto a cross road. The tranquility after a busy work week descended
slowly on the village. Cracks of whips and the shouts of herdsmen
who drove their herds to the upper village were heard from the direction
of the lower village. A hazy gray veil was hanging over the street
of the village caused by the dust kicked up by sweeping yards and
walkways. Off and on the smell of fresh Sunday pies coming from
the ovens greeted us. Occasionally villagers were standing gossiping
in front of their yard entrances resting from a days's work; their
friendly calls carried over to us - my father returned the jokes.
It got dark when we turned into our yard. My mother and my grandparents
were sitting with friends of the family at a bountiful table in
front of the house under the old mulberry trees. They had been waiting
for us for a long time. The smells of fried peppers, grilled eggplants,
tomatoes and spices beckoned us to supper. A farm hand took the
horse and cart, unhitched and unharnessed the horse and brought
it to the others which were standing at a long trough under a group
of oak trees at the upper end of the yard. Way up in the branches
some guinea fowl had settled down for the night as usual. Upset
about the intruders several ravens flew croaking out of the tops
of the trees and into the darkness of the night sky.
In the chicken cube some hens were scuffling for a secure sleeping
place on the perches by audibly flapping their wings; they finally
settled down with a low clucking. A flock of geese known as dependable
guards of yards camped at the trough of the well in the middle of
the yard. Some sat head turned backwards and under their wings,
others stood on one leg eyeing suspiciously every unusual movement
in the yard announcing it quietly.
When I fell asleep I still heard in the distance Russian melodies
through the open window. They were melancholy songs from home of
the Russian farm girls and farm hands who every Saturday evening
camped outside in a yard and sang their songs with a jug of wine
accompanied by "harmoshka" (concertina) and balalaika. When the
first stars started to twinkle in the blue night sky, the moon rose
slowly behind the slender, high poplars. In the low light of the
stars their long shadows lay eerily over the yard. The slowly upcoming
cool of the night gradually stopped the laughter and the talking
of the cheerful crowd in front of the house. The last light of a
kerosene lamp went out and great tranquility spread across the small,
sleepy and peaceful village in the middle of the vast steppes and
forests between Pruth and Dniester.
Memories after almost 50 years are not only the cause of the melancholy
question, "Where did they all go?" but are also proof that this
border country between Romania and Russia is our homeland which
has given birth to us, characterized and marked us and continues
to live in our hearts.
The ringing of the bells has long since stopped, the soil of the
homeland devastated and over grown, the village empty and orphaned.
Uprooted, displaced, deported and homeless - this was the lot of
all of us; of those who still remember, of those who fought, suffered
and died always doing their duty for the fatherland, Germany, that
they hardly knew but loved nevertheless. They found their last resting
place far from their homeland: from the icy North Cape to the hot
deserts of Northern Africa, from the Atlantic to the swamps of Russia
and the snowy steppes of Siberia.
It is the continued tasks of those still living to pass on these
experiences and values in order to fulfill the legacy of our ancestors
who we had to leave behind at home and of those whose graves are
scattered on foreign soil and to keep alive the homeland in the
hearts of our descendants and to facilitate the answer to the frequently
asked question, "Who are you, where do you come from": From Bessarabia.
Reprinted with permission of Verein für das Deutschtum im Ausland
Our appreciation is extended to Claudia Müller for translation of this article.