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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 here.

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 memory.

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 trip.

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.

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