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Wanderings: 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, Germany.

"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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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