Looking for Traces in the Caucasus
Spurensuche im Kaukasus
Schelssmann, Pastor Mag. Frank. "Looking for Traces in the Caucasus." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2007, 26-27.
This translation from the original German text to American
English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
(Translated) SUBTITLE: Looking for Schwabian Traces
in the Caucasus
Translator's Note: modern German usage of the word
"evangelisch," literally, "evangelical," is
synonymous with "Lutheran." To avoid confusion, the term
herein used will be "Ev.-Luth.," except when the word
"Lutheran" is used directly.
Debates with Christian faith communities across the world and, especially,
with a desire for searching out locations of remote Ev.-Luth. "islands"
of German ancestry have captured my interest for many years and have
enriched my life through many adventure. So during the late summer
of last year, my eldest son and I undertook an adventuresome journey
that led me to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. In these republics
in the Caucasus region there are Ev.-Luth. communities that, despite
difficult base conditions, are able to display lively and ambitious
structures. In the following brief report I would like to reflect
on meetings with the locals, on getting to know their material and
spiritual situation, and on the multifaceted impressions I was able
to gain there.
Pastor Mag. Frank Schlessmann, community pastor and official representative
of the Martin Luther Association of the Steiermark/Austria
Arrival in the Azerbaijani capital Baku was a climatically overwhelming
experience. At 4 AM, exhausted and sleepy, exposed to high temperatures
and considerable humidity, I immersed myself into this foreign city.
It was entirely unclear to me how to bring into agreement the life
and mentality of the population with my own fantasies of the people
and the land in Azerbaijan, and this made me feel correspondingly
The Ev.-Luth. church
An important intent of this trip was the search for German roots in the Caucasus
states, not in the least because personal (though historically distant)
familial traces connect me with the ethnic German group in Georgia.
During the early 1800s, about 1,400 impoverished families from Wuerttemberg
traveled along the Danube into Russian regions with the intent of
finding their fortunes there. In various regions they established
village-like structures that also included Christian churches. As
a result of the discovery of crude oil on the Caspian Sea during
the 1940s, Baku developed well into the 20th century into a city
with an international populace, and in 1880 an Ev.-Luth. community
was established in Baku. During the course of the extensive deportation
of the ethnic German group in 1941 to Kazakhstan, these structures
were basically leveled, and only when Azerbaijan seceded from the
USSR in the 1990s, was an Ev.-Luth. church formed again, that is,
primarily by a small group with German ancestry. But it was not
until 2002 that they finally received official sanction from the
Today the Lutheran [sic] Redeemer Community in Baku is a compact system
with modest, but very effective structures. Besides adult baptisms,
confirmations and a small number of funerals (we are talking here
about a very young community), there are also many organized activities
for children and youth (e.g., a camp on the Caspian Sea). The church
building is still the property of the state, but is made available
to the community. Pastor (ret.) Wolfgang Hering is caring for the
community at this time, but his service is limited to two years. Along
with his female coworkers he shapes the Ev.-Luth. life in Baku, with
much idealism and rather scarce financial means.
(right) and Pastor Hering during a visit of the oldest member
of the community
My stay in Baku
was enriched by many moving moments. Especially strong in my memory
is my meeting with a 91-year-old German woman who - originally from
the Volga region and, like so many of her relatives of German ancestry,
was deported to Kazakhstan - later returned to Baku. During a long
conversation she shared her memories with me, showed me her hymnal,
which accompanied her through those difficult years as support and
solace, and sang one song after
another for me. "Thank God, that you came to see me!"
was how she expressed her joy about the fact that her fate had been
attentively acknowledged again in her last phase of life.
The trip continued via night train from Baku to Georgia - an experience
of a special sort. From the border onward we continued to Tbilisi
via taxi. There we were able to celebrate Sunday services with the
local pastor and a visiting pastor from the North Caucasus region,
and with about 100 community members and the local youth choir, in
the Atonement Church that had been reconstructed in 1995. The Ev.-Luth.
Church in Georgia is composed of about 1000 members that are spread
across five communities.
The Ev.-Luth. church
The afternoon was especially exciting for me, because it took me
to the Schwabian village of Katharinenfeld (Bolnisi), where I have
familial roots, and where I promptly encountered a "shirttail
relative," Frau Klara Walker. There is a church in Katharinenfeld.
but in recent times it has been utilized as a sports arena. A lector
from Germany. Heike Walter, conducts services each Sunday in the
rented house "House of German Culture." In the meantime
another house has been rented, primarily for religious and cultural
purposes, and is adapted according to use.
Toward evening we continued to Tbilisi, where the Ev.-Luth. church
maintains a home for the elderly, in which residents of both genders,
and of German ancestry, can live a quality life and maintain their
homes in Katharinenfeld
From Tbilisi the journey continued toward Armenia, which has its
own incomparably scenic character. In the capital city, Erivan,
we visited, in addition to many typical sights, the Armenian-Evangelical
church that was founded exactly 160 years ago by the Basel mission.
On the occasion of this anniversary there was an official celebration
that was also attended by the Armenian head of state, Robert Kocharian.
There are various Protestant churches in Armenia that number about
80,000 members, of which 30,000 are Lutherans and the others belong
to neo-Protestant communities (Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes,
etc.), all of which exist in addition to the Armenian-Apostolic State
Church in the country. The Ev.-Luth. Church in Armenia is composed
of 40 communities, which are cared for by 25 pastors. Its infrastructure
is maintained through financial contributions from outside the country.
German women on
their way to services in Katharinenfeld
We used our stay in Armenia to the hilt, in order to be able to see the many
beautiful cloisters of this country, which established Christianity
as a state religion as early as 301 A.D. The seat of the "Armenian
Catholicus," the so-called "Armenian Vatican" was
also key part of our tourism program, also including the legendary
place where "Gregory the Inspirator" had been imprisoned
for 15 years in a dungeon, above which the cloister Chor Virap was
built later on.
One is reminded of a dark chapter for this country, one which remains
anchored very strongly in the collective conscience of the population,
via the Genocide Memorial in Erivan, which was constructed between
1965 and 1967 and which we visited as well. It is dedicated to the
memory of those Armenians who during the Armenian war of independence
at the beginning of the 20th Century lost their lives during a killing
spree organized by the Osman Empire (forerunner of modern Turkey).
We returned to Austria with many impressions and with unforgettable
menatl images. Above all, it was the stories of the people that
continue to move me after all this distance imposed by time, and
I am already looking forward to my next journey of inquiry into
far-ranging regions where contemporary witnesses have much to tell
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.