The Germans From Russia Today
A Simple Faith
Wood, Carter. "Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today." Grand Forks Herald, 8 July 1994.
ODESSA, Ukraine - The sermon, first given in German, then in Russian,
was simple, to the point.
Lazarus the beggar desired crumbs from the table of the wealthy
man, who feasted sumptuously every day. Upon their deaths, Lazarus
wound up in heaven, in the bosom of Abraham, while the wealthy man
suffered in hell.
Viktor Graefenstein, the Lutheran bishop for the Ukraine, aimed
the parable directly at the 75 worshipers in the shabby, rented
schoolroom. Most were poor people, ethnic Germans from Russia, whose
lives are filled with hardship.
"This is the fashion of service that we practiced in Kazakhstan,
and it carries over here," said Graefenstein, who oversees 25 congregations.
"The people who come to worship services aren't so highly educated
that you can use sophisticated words. You have to use simpler things,
and the simpler things they grasp quickly and well."
A simple faith continues to play a central role in the lives of
ethnic Germans from Russia in the former Soviet Union and Germany,
just as it did for their distant relatives who came to the Dakotas
around the turn of the century.
The religious roots extend back to the very start of their history
as people. The search for religious freedom helped motivate their
ancestors, who began emigrating from Germany to the Russian empire
in the late 1700s.
Entire villages moved, keeping their faith intact upon arriving
in the new homes. Confession determined community. Lutheran and
Catholic settlements, although a few miles apart, had little to
do with one another. (Until the advent of paved roads and modern
transportation, the same could be said of German from Russia towns
in North and South Dakota.)
Other German from Russia communities were Baptist or Mennononite.
The Soviet Union's anti-religious campaigns hit hard. In the 1920s
and '30s, the Communists shut down churches, arrested ministers
and priests and persecuted believers.
Yet this persecution often bolstered their faith, sustaining them
as a distinct ethnic group.
That's especially true following the deportations to labor camps,
the "workers army," and the closed settlements in exile, said Peter
Hilkes, an associate with the East European Institute in Munich,
"The faith of the Germans from Russia strengthened their ability
to keep together and served as an important contribution to their
identity," he said.
Indeed, religion became one of the many attributes that separated
ethnic Germans from the Russian population, Hilkes argued. In Russian
eyes, being German meant being religious.
Germans in Germany sometimes see it the same way: To be a German
from Russia means being religious. Lutheran immigrants in particular
maintain distinct religious practices, holding their own German
from Russia services after coming to Germany. Catholics tend to
assimilate more readily into the religious community.
Bishop Josef Werth, the Catholic bishop of Siberia, attributes
the separate paths to the different characteristics of the two churches.
Other ethnic groups - such as the Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians
- practice Catholicism in the former Soviet Union. In Novosibirsk,
Russia, he holds Catholic services in four languages. Germans from
Russia are hence accustomed to different religious practice.
Catholic Germans from Russia also see the church in Germany as
an extension of the same universal church headed by the pope, even
if the rituals and teachings differ, Werth explained recently.
Lutheran immigrants have a harder time adjusting to the German
church, which is far more liberal than in the former Soviet Union.
The congregation in Odessa, for example, runs into conflict with
German Lutherans who help support it financially. Graefenstein emphasizes
personal faith, relying on the Bible as the literal word of God,
and not shying away from hell as consequence for sin.
Besides providing spiritual support, the Catholic and Lutheran
churches operate social service programs that help Germans from
Russia adjust to their new lives in Germany.
Yet both Caritas, the Catholic organization and, to a lesser extent,
the Lutheran Diakonie have suffered cutbacks because of federal
budget reductions. Germany does not have separation of church and
state, and religious organizations often receive federal funding.
||The St. Pauli Lutheran Church in Odessa, Ukraine, finished
in 1897. Left, as it appeared in an early drawing. Right, as
it appears today, unused and littered with graffiti.
Click on the photo to view a larger image
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.