|Rotfront is a bit of Germany nestled in Kyrgyzstan's
Tidy Germans Cling to Central Asia
Germans Cling to Central Asia." New
York Times International, 11 October 1999, sec.
Rotfort, Kyrgyzstan - With the stroke of a pen, Irene Pauls
can change her life forever.
Because she is descended from German immigrants, Ms. Pauls is eligible
to move to Germany whenever she pleases. The German Government will
give her a plane ticket, help in finding a home and a job, and the
prospect of a higher living standard than most citizens of this remote
and mountainous former Soviet republic could ever imagine.
|Parishioners of the German House of Prayer
Church in Rotfront, Kyrgyzstan, leaving the church recently.
"Naturally I'm tempted," Ms. Pauls said in fluent German as she
paused along Rotfront's tidy main street. "My whole family and my
husband's whole family have gone. They're always writing to tell
us we should go, too."
"What holds me back is that in Germany, we'll be penned up in
an apartment, maybe in a big city," she said. "Here we live in a
beautiful place with clean air. The children have the whole outdoors
as a playground, plus animals to play with. There are plenty of
problems here, but still, it's my home."
Ms. Pauls and the 300 other ethnic Germans who live in this well-kept
town are part of one of the world's most rapidly disappearing ethnic
minorities: Germans in the former Soviet Union.
These Germans, whose ancestors moved eastward for a variety of
reasons during the last 250 years, have made substantial contributions
to their adopted communities and nations. Many have distinguished
themselves by hard work, thrift and orderliness.
When the Soviet Union went to war with Germany nearly 60 years
ago, ethnic Germans here found themselves under deep and sometimes
violent suspicion. For decades afterward they suffered insults and
Now they have the last laugh. While their former tormentors are
mired in poverty, the Germans can pack up and leave for one of the
world's most prosperous countries.
Most already have. There were 100,000 ethnic Germans in this land
when Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, but only 11,000 remain.
The doors to Germany were always open to these people, but during
the Soviet period, they were not allowed to leave. Now that they
are free to go, they are doing so in droves - not just from Kyrgyztan
but from across the former Soviet Union.
About three-quarters of the nearly four million ethnic Germans
who were living in the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991 have
moved to Germany. Most have integrated well, relying on language
skills and social patterns passed down through generations.
Here in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Germans live scattered across the country.
Rotfront is their largest community, but even here they constitute
only about one-third of the population.
Residents still call the town Bergtal - Mountain Valley - its
original name. The Soviet authorities ordered it changed to Rotfront,
which means "Red Front," after World War II.
"Even though we work hard, we were always considered enemies."
said Paul Neuman, who left with his wife in 1993, when he was 64,
and who had returned here for a visit.
"Our teachers beat us and told us we were fascists," Mr. Neuman
recalled during his visit. "We couldn't get into high schools or
universities. My brother married a Russian girl and took her name
so people wouldn't know he was German. But in the last few years,
things have gotten a lot better."
The Kyrgyz Government is doing all it can to persuade remaining
Germans not to leave. President Askar Akayev visits Rotfront regularly
and always appeals to residents to stay and to contribute to Kyrgyzstan.
A sign of the esteem in which Germans are now held here may be
found in real estate classified advertisements. The phrase "built
by Germans" or "formerly occupied by Germans" is presumed to denote
a solid, well-kept house that can command a higher price than a
comparable one built by Kyrgyz or Russians.
The German Government, which prefers to help ethnic Germans improve
their lives where they are rather than to bring them to already
crowded Germany, gives them various forms of aid. When residents
of Rotfront wanted to buy a flour mill recently, for example, the
German foreign aid agency provided a loan guarantee and located
a used mill that a German company wanted to sell.
With flour from the mill, people here make bread for a flourishing
bakery. They also make butter, cheese and other dairy products.
"From childhood, we've been taught to work and to earn," said
Abraham Falk, 45, who is the elected leader of the ethnic Germans
in Rotfront. "That made a lot of people jealous of us, especially
in Soviet times, when it was considered wrong to have goals of your
own. But now, people are starting to learn from us. You can see
the changes starting in other villages near here."
Mr. Falk's seven brothers and sisters are all in Germany, and
they write regularly urging him to come. Their appeals have become
especially urgent in recent weeks, as a military conflict has broken
out in Kyrgyzstan between the army and fundamentalist guerrillas.
People in Rotfront do not fear that the conflict will spread to
this part of the country, but they worry that the army may draft
their sons, violating the pacifist religious beliefs that many of
"Serving Christ is the main reason I stay here," said Mr. Falk,
who like many ethnic Germans in Kyrgyzstan is practicing Mennonite
in the largely Muslim land. "I think I'm doing something positive
by maintaining a Christian witness in this part of the world."
This month a pastor from Germany is visiting Rotfront, and part
of his mission is to persuade ethnic Germans to stay where they
are rather than move to Germany.
"Many who go are not happy," the pastor, Wolfgang Buehne, said
after delivering a Sunday sermon.
"They've learned that material wealth is an illusion, and that
earning more money doesn't fulfill their inner needs. They go to
Germany to gain something, but they also lose something that may
be much more valuable."
Reprinted with permission of the New York Times International.