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A Trip to Katharinental

The Last Traces of German Colonist Life in the Beresan in Peril.

Kosyrewa, M. "A Trip to Katharinental." Volk auf dem Weg, October 2006, 24-25.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English by
Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Nearly two centuries separate us from the founding of the German colonies in the Beresan, so named after the small river Beresan in the South Ukrainian steppes. The fateful events during the middle of the Twentieth Century permanently robbed the descendants of the founders of this colony of their home that they had turned with such great effort into blooming gardens. The homes left behind in 1941 by the Germans were filled by Ukrainian resettlers from the border regions near Poland, who had likewise been forced to leave their homes. In spite of it all, the Nikolayev region remains to have contemporary material witnesses of German colonist life, and there still are people who carefully and with great engagement maintain memories of those times.

Nina Denisjuk

In December of the past year we answered the friendly invitation of Nina Denisyuk, the club directress of Katerinovka (Katharinental) and traveled with a small group to the former Beresan colonist district in order to, among other things, familiarize ourselves with exhibits on the history of Katerinovka, which have been gathered and put together by the tireless club directress.

Among the group were Dr. Alfred Eisfeld, who works at the Nordost-Institut and is Director of the Goettingen Department (Institute for Culture and History of Germans in Northeastern Europe, an association registered with the University of Hamburg); Larissa Levchenko, Directress of the State Archive of the Nikolayev region; and the author of this article. Our travel took us in a northwesterly direction from Nikolayev to the rayon Vesselinovski, the area of which the former Beresan colonists had settled in. On the way, we stopped in the village Stepovoye (formerly Karlsruhe) to look at the local sight concerning the colonist past, the Catholic church, which was originally built between 1881 and 1885. The scene was a shock for us, for the church is in a completely dilapidated state, and without a roof, even though it had one just a few years ago. The interior looked even more wretched. Everywhere one sensed desolation and neglect, The village folks told us that the current state of the church is to be blamed on the sloppily executed renovation work, during which not only the tin roof was damaged, but the old trusty trusses were sawn through. This only strengthened the image of destruction and an oppressive impression.

The "renovation work" was then discontinued, and the formerly practically undamaged church walls, which still show a few old murals, were simply exposed to all sorts of weather conditions the year around. There are barely any hopes for better times. The local administration complains about lack of funding (even though the economic consolidation with the village of Stepovoye was
deemed o be one of the leading economic localities in the Nikolayev region). Furthermore, the leadership of the Orthodox community, to which responsibility for the church was transferred, so far is neither a moving force toward restoration, nor is it the spiritual center of village life, so report the village residents. They rue the fact that the church is literally falling apart in front of their eyes, and constantly rising renovation costs condemn the church to its final decay. Those in responsible position do not seem to be particularly concerned. With these joyless impressions in mind we continued on toward Katerinovka.

Nina Denisyuk was already waiting for us at the door of the heated -- only in winter -- village club and led us to two small rooms that contain the entire collection of the exhibits, mainly the items or witnesses to the German colonists' everyday life: various agricultural equipment, irons, roof tiles, maps, books, architectural elements, lasts for making shoes, grave plates with German inscriptions, and many other items. The collection is the result of long years of searching and researching by Nina Densiyuk, who loves her home village more than anything else and remains tirelessly on the search for contemporary witnesses to the former Katharinental. The exposition also contains valuable archival documents, which the club directress searched for painstakingly in the Archives of the Nikolayev region. Based on these archival documents she has put together a book on the village of Katerinovka. Nina Denisyuk is also the author of two editions of poems on her home village.

She invests a great deal of effort and time in the work of researching and collecting. Increasingly, she is also worrying about what might happen with the collection next. The club room provides anything but an ideal place for the exhibits. Rain seeps through the roof, and these rooms are not heated in the winter. To save these unique exhibits, Nina Denisyuk has even made an offer to the local authorities to house the exhibits as a museum in a home she bought for her son, but which is still standing empty. She wishes that it might have the status of a home country museum. However, this seems to be counter to a legal regulation which prohibits the use of private property for such purposes.

Unfortunately these are not the only problems. Nina Denisyuk has been worrying for some time now about how to preserve the collection of exhibits. For one thing, it does not yet have the status of a museum, which requires the exhibits to be illustrated and catalogued, and there are other requirements, such as a display window, easels, and properly equipped spaces. All of that could require considerable sums of money. The worst case would be that the future of the collection remain uncertain. Employees of the Home Museums of the cities of Nikolayev and Odessa who are acquainted with Denisyuk's collection do confirm the unique nature of the collection, but are unable to provide any support from their own museum budgets. The situation is really a vicious circle: the experts are unable to help, because the Katerinovka exhibits do not enjoy museum status, and the legalization of the collection is impossible without participation of those experts.

So far the burden of maintaining the collection, including financial outlays, has been resting on the shoulders of Nina Denisyuk and her family, whose own financial possibilities are certainly not unlimited. Still, despite all these difficulties she keeps expanding the collection with new items. Among other things, these new ones include family relics that have been sent to her from descendants of former colonists after they had seen the exhibits in Katerinovka. Intensive research activities, search and collection work all contribute to the enrichment of the exposition, although it should be said that not every find will become part of the collection. One time the local youth brought around an unexploded piece of armament stemming from World War II, but
for this discovery an emergency squad had to be called.

On the grounds of the devastated German cemetery we discovered among ruined grave plates the foundation walls of a unique chapel, a fact which resulted in strong interest in research. The museum employees in Odessa had to admit that they had not seen anything comparable.

Dr. Alfred Eisfeld and his group during a stop on their trip to Katharinental

In view of a generally hopeless situation, the problem of preserving the material contemporary witnesses to the past is gaining urgency. What will happen to the Katerinovka exhibits, which neither enjoy museum status nor any sponsorship, when Nina Denisyuk, who just recently recovered from a serious illness, will no longer be able to tend to it? The outlook is not a happy one. The collection will likely be lost. Still, perhaps the enthusiasm and the good will demonstrated by Nina Denisyuk, who has collected a unique treasure, will not leave the descendants of he colonists who founded Katharinental indifferent? Katerinovka is indeed part of the tourist route for descendants of the colonists seeking out the homes of their ancestors. That would be enough reason for the potential and regrettable loss of this unique collection.
Should the children and grandchildren who wish to visit the home of their parents and grandparents perhaps never be able to see who their ancestors lived and what they achieved?

Our trip to Katerinovka was unexpectedly extended when following a suggestion by our tireless Nina Denisyuk, we decided to visit the neighboring colony of Speyer (now called Pestshanyi) and to witness the restoration of the Catholic church, which is being reconstructed by the local Orthodox community. The Catholic church in Speyer was originally erected by colonists during the 19th century. Today it is called the Svyato-Pokrovskaya Church which, like the church in Stepovoye, is part of the Nikolayev diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate. During Soviet times, the church was once used as a club, once for grain storage, and also for storage of chemicals. There had even been suggestions to tear down the Catholic church and to build businesses on its site.

In 1990, the church passed into the responsibility of the Orthodox community. Restoration work was begun via contributions from community members and from the collective "Sorya," and the work took on intensity in 1992 after a graduate of the priests' seminary of Kiev, Ioann Fetchko, assumed the pastorship. He is the restless organizer and proponent of the church's restoration. Under his leadership the community has done much to return the church to its former glory. Restoration work was executed with renewed vigor, colorful windows and central lighting including 90 lamps were installed, and the facade was decorated with icons. In 1995 a new bell tower was built, and new bells were installed. The room that formerly contained chemicals was renovated in 1997 and now houses the church library. However, the room remains contaminated so badly that a lengthy stay in it is still fraught with peril.

But that is not the whole problem. Rain seeps in because the roof was renovated sloppily, so each year the community makes an effort at its own expense to minimize the damage. In 2002 the altar area was damaged by a storm, which also resulted in damage to the altar itself. So now the roof finally is going to be replaced. In searching for sponsorship the church leader and the church council turned to all possible authorities and business people. Father Ioann is very optimistic that the restored church might in the future become an attraction for the faithful from all nearby communities.

The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Beresan colonies. It is very desirable that this anniversary might not be overshadowed by devastated cemeteries or neglected church buildings. The collection by Nina Denisyuk may also not survive until that time. Did our ancestors deserve this? And should we permit this and stand by indifferently as the last traces of the German colonists' lives in the home country of our ancestors might disappear forever?

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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