On the Search for Traces of One’s
Forefathers in Bessarabia
By Professor Dr. Waldemar Ternes
As a youth, growing up in Germany, one experiences
at a certain distance the pain of one’s parents and grandparents
at the loss of their homeland and the hope to see it at least once
more. At some time or other, mostly during one’s later year,
one’s interest in the life of one’s ancestors begins
to grow. When it is a matter of putting one’s genealogy on
paper, because of their name changes, the mothers can only trace
their ancestry back for a few generations. As a participant in a
trip to Bessarabia, I wish to pull together a few impressions and
thoughts about the trip.
While eating and praying together with the travel group of Bessarabian
Germans, one experiences the piety of our parents’ and how
much the church and its teachings must have meant to them. This
attachment to their beliefs also led to the situation, that the
religious denominations (communities) of the Catholic and the Protestant
churches in Bessarabia kept apart from each other. Considering their
common heritage, it is hardly understandable that in several flights
in 1993 not one additional family from the Catholic place Krasna
was present, but very likely several families from the surrounding
protestant villages. The result was bus trips for the former inhabitants
of Krasna, making for a certain strain, particularly for the older
people, and probably also demonstrates the “toughness”
of the Bessarabian Germans. At the time, I become conscious of the
fact that there had been no possibility for my father even to get
acquainted with a protestant girl from the surrounding villages.
In this connection, the concept “disapora” became very
clear to me, in which one had lived in the heart of Bessarabia for
five generations. The closer relationship in double cousins is reflected
During the search of the traces of one’s forefathers, the
questions of cultural inheritance also arise. This is expressed
in the variations found in the gable windows of the houses, as well
in those of the Catholic as also in the Protestant villages. In
the one version the attractive ornamentation and distinctive framing
come together in a pointed top; in the other there are two columns
and a rounded arch. The two photos show both kinds. No one has been
able to tell me why this decoration was chosen and what possible
meaning it had.
When one sees the church of Sarata, whose exterior expresses itself
in straight-lined simplicity, but presents an inviting entrance
with its Greek columns and their surmounting capitals, questions
arise, that go beyond its function. So also the question, why such
a portal was built in Sarata and not a high pointed church tower,
as in other churches in Bessarabia. The organization of the trip
with visits to typical examples of life in Bessarabia, like the
cemetery and school are Neu-Elft, gives one a vivid (graphic) picture
of the life of our forefathers—as impressive as any description
by our parents could be. It is deeply moving to hear experiences
recounted at the places where they actually happened, whether it
be the account of the marriages in the face of resettlement, the
explanation of school life or memories of the religious life of
the communities. It is living history, which affects us ourselves.
Our generation has only a few more years in which to experience
these things, so important to our own experience, to be able to
experience the impressions of people who were there. Stages of the
search for traces in the home village (Krasna) aim for the church,
the family home and the cemetery. Only a few fragments of these
traces still exist. The gravestones, the church, and the family
home consisted from the Alt-Elft quarry, that were particularly
suitable for building the barracks of Paris.
In addition to these details, it is interesting to see the walls
that were whitewashed every spring, the cellars, the buildings,
and courtyards, which we only know from photos or the accounts of
our parents, such as the threshing of grain with threshing stones
at the threshing place, that can likewise sill be found there. The
use of the threshing area for bringing out be wondered at for hygienic
reasons. One only becomes conscious of these details on the spot.
The checkerboard layout of the villages stands out, while the size
of the farms is correlated with the time of settlement, as newly
cultivated properties are visibly smaller. The uniformed visitor
infers from that possibly a certain impoverishment or overpopulation
was occurring and as a result the land per family had become scarce.
It is also seen in the Krasna’s section, “Sampasui”,
that out-of-the-way public housing has been built as well. If one
attempts to pull together the family history, one discovers that
by the turn of the century a considerable number of inhabitants
of Krasna must already have emigrated.
It became very clear that our parent’s generation remembered
their houses as being larger than they actually were. That shows
us that they saw them from a childlike and therefore small point
of view, and for them the small rooms remained much larger in their
Were one to drive from Paris to Tarutino by way of Krasna, one
would find on the street in Krasna a larger than life “iron”
stork. The meaning of this stock is thought to go back to the “stork
village,” Krasna, as over 50 years ago one could find many
stork nests there. Today, however, after the rerouting of the Kogilnik
River and the loss of the wetlands, we no longer find any stork
nests. The stork, as a metaphor for future life, could be an inspiration
for us to prepare for the heritage of our fathers and mothers in
their homeland for the future.
The encounter with the present inhabitants, who we must remember,
have also been resettled, shows us, however, what problems one must
contend with in Ukraine. Today we return, rich and privileged, into
the land of our forefathers. I will never forget how candy for the
children was tossed out of the Hotel von Akkerman. This is certainly
not dissimilar to what our parents in the postwar era experienced
when they begged for chocolate from the soldiers of the occupation.
Many of those did not grow up in Germany in the postwar era and
did not themselves feel the pain of the loss of their homeland,
show a certain skepticism regarding Landsmannshafts in general,
in view of the reactionary conduct seen on various television programs.
The Landsmannshaft of the Bessarabian Germans, however, presents
a completely different picture. In addition to keeping up the old
customs, it shows itself open to the problems in Ukraine; it supports
medical installations there and produces a modicum of hope for the
current population through its activities and so also appear as
an ambassador of a changed Germany. Thus it can clear away whatever
preconceptions may exist there.
If we are successful in awakening the understanding of the present
population for the preservation of what still remains from the time
of our forefathers, it would not only be for our benefit. Because
in the coming unification of Europe the evidences of German settlers
in Bessarabia will surely be important for the region; they certainly
contributed to its identity and are a part of the history of this
area. Therefore, we ask ourselves what life was like in the land
of the rulers of Bessarabia before of our forefathers came here,
because the heaps of Scythian bones show us that the fight for survival
also took place in the steppes of long ago.
I also enjoyed the supporting program. With an angelic voice and
instrumental accompaniment, Frau Kelm introduced us to tones and
texts, in which some of the younger people were no longer so fluent.
Herr Kelm passed on to us a part of Bessarabian history and life.
We also learned much about Ukrainian culture in the short time of
a week. All of the travelers surely have a great deal of respect
and recognition for the participation of the Kelm family in this
For me the question is, how can we preserve for future generations
the culture of the Bessarabian Germans that still remains on the
spot? Because when in the future, our descendants are searching
for their roots, they will, insofar as they may and can, seek the
traces on the spot in Bessarabia. Furthermore, it will not be possible
to keep the customs alive through several generations, because the
Bessarabian Germans no longer live in one place. Much has been done
by the generation that was driven from their homeland. A great deal
has been documented in books and corresponding material has been
brought together in homeland museums. Borne by their own experiences
and the wish to pass them on to their children.
My wife and I are grateful for the opportunity of experiencing
the past at very close quarters. We hope that all of the descendants
of the Bessarabian Germans will make use of this same opportunity.