The German Theater
By Ida Bender and her son, Rudolf Bender, Hamburg,
Translation from German to English by
Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Below are my mother's memories regarding German theater
I never heard of a German theater in Russia that might have existed
during the time of the tsars. Neither did my father mention anything
in his diaries of German theater, although in his notes he wrote
fairly extensively about literature of those days.
Before 1917, the German villages had no electric lights, no radio.
The church was the guardian of culture, of the mores and customs,
and of the German mother tongue. Schools were usually taught only
for the first four grades (only larger settlements boasted seven-year
or, in very few settlements, even ten-year schools). The clergy
and the teachers attempted to shape a life of culture in the villages.
Thus there were the occasional stagings of minor village scenes,
especially at Christmas and Easter.
After the establishment of the autonomous Volga region in 1918,
cultural life there experienced an upswing. In 1924 the Labor Commune
was transformed into the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic for
Volga-Germans [German acronym: (ASSRdWD)], the administrative center
was transferred from Katharinenstadt (then Marxstadt and, after
1941, simply Marx) to the geographically more conveniently situated
settlement of Pokrovsk, which was renamed as the city of Engels.
Here the German Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928, and gradually
other higher schools of learning, and special vocational and scientific
schools as well.
At the time, there were the so-called "lay artist collectives"
in many villages. As of 1928, churches everywhere were banned and
closed, and the clergy was arrested. Residents could satisfy their
cultural needs only quietly via cultural performances by lay artists,
namely choirs and theater pieces. The establishment of the National
German Theater was agreed on in 1931. The Commmissar for Culture
and Public Education for the ASSRdWD, Alexander Weber, formed a
team that visited many lay artist collectives in order to select
talented actors for the theater. Thus, for example, the two teachers
Konstantin and Amalia Roth were recruited for the upcoming theater.
During the years 1932 and 1933 they, along with other colleagues,
were able to improve their abilities by attending the Moscow School
of Theater of the MCHAT [in Russian, MXAT - moskowvskyi chudoshestvennyi
akademitcheskyi teatr] while still working in the national
During those years the German theater in Engels offered several
stage productions for its visitors. German antifascists fleeing
fascist prosecution arrived in 1935 from Germany, and some worked
in the German State Theater in Engels and in Marxstadt. I still
remember a number of productions such as Friedrich Schiller's Kaballe
und Liebe [Cabbala and Love] and Die Raeuber
[The Robbers]. In the latter piece Nikolas Baumann played
the role of Franz Moor wonderfully). Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm,
in which Leo Glaeser gave an excellent portrayal of Tellheim, and
Herta Joersch depicted very naturally the idiosyncrasies given by
the author to Frauelein von Barnhelm. The actress Hein played Franziska.
The leading actor, Faller, played the hypochondriac in Molier's
Der eingebildete Kranke [The Hypochondriac].
The program also included Goldoni's Ein Glas Wasser [A
Glass of Water]; Lessing's Emilia Galotti; Ibsen's
Nora (ein Puppenhaus) [Nora (a Dollhouse)],"
in which Hilda Faber portrayed Nora wonderfully; Diener zweier
Herren [Servant of two Masters]; Die 12. Nacht
[Twelfthnight] by Shakespeare; and stage productions by
the Russian dramatist Godol, such as Die Heirat [The
Marriage] and Nikolay Ostrovski's Balsminows Heirat.
I still remember the production Das fremde Kind [The
Strange Child], but have forgotten the author's name.
The Volga-German writer and dramatist Andreas Saks worked for some
years as literary advisor at the Engels Theater. I still remember
very well his stage piece Der eigene Herd [One's Own
Hearth], which deals with the time around 1914, and especially
its well-known folk scenes of village life. There was also a performance
in which Konstantin Roth played Lenin, but I've forgotten the title
and the author's name. It may have been the "must"-perform
piece Die Kremluhr [The Clock at the Kremlin].
Speaking of stage productions, in a country where the Party recommended
(i.e., ordered) which pieces were to be included in the program
there was no indulging of objections.
Fest und treu oder der Kirgisenmichel und die schoene Ammiee
aus Pfannenstiel [Firm and True, or, Kirgis-Michael and
the Beautiful Ammie from Pfannenstiel] was a historical festival
production for the one-hundred, fiftieth jubilee of the arrival
of the first German settlers at the Lower Volga; a play in three
acts, by Gottlieb von Goebel and by the teacher Alexander Hunger.
This piece was based on historical events during the years 1771
to 1778, on attacks by nomadic Kirgis tribes on German settlements
and the gruesome slaughter of the Germans. The strong loyalty to
their Christian faith and their love for people of action impressed
the German colonists in the Volga settlements, culminating in a
legend that would be told by grandparents to their grandchildren.
If you would like to have [a copy of] this legend, I can send you
the text. More than once, I was born in 1922, I personally heard
the tale of this legend from my grandmother during long, dark winter
evenings between 1927 and 1929. The names Kirgis Michael and the
Beautiful Ammie became symbols for love and loyalty, just as in
Romeo and Juliet.
After the booklet with this theater piece appeared in 1914, teachers
here and there would stage selected scenes from it. My father, too,
the young teacher Dominik Hollmann, who in 1917 was working in the
village of Rothammel in his second year as a teacher, participated
in such a production. And in 1926, when he was school principle
in the village of Marienfeld, he staged this piece in the village
school, using his pupils and older youth. I remember well the lively
preparations, even that my mother made wigs from hemp fibers for
the actors who were playing the elder farmers in the piece. At the
time this was an extraordinary event for our village, and many of
the residents would happily remember the production much later.
Father told me that the piece did have several flaws, but then,
too, it had not been written by professional dramatists.
In 1940, the German Theater in Engels set out on a Decade for
the Arts of the Volga-Germans in Moscow. I was fortunate, as
a student in the 10th level and as enthusiast of literature, to
accompany my father when he, an expert in literature and linguistics,
attended rehearsals of the theater production team and provided
them with advice. He continually admired the leading actor, Leo
Glaeser, especially for his language and phonetics. Unfortunately
the edict of August 28, 1941 by the Soviet Government, dealing with
the deportation of all Germans [from the Volga region] to Siberia,
caused the cessation of the German National Theater. In 1942 Dominik
Hollmann would meet some of the actors working as lumbermen and
firemen in the forced-labor camp of Vyatlag.
I still remember the actress Herta Joersch. She and her husband
had come from the Sudetenland [former German part of Checkoslovakia].
Margot Joersch, nice of the actress, was in my class in school.
During the deportation of 1941, my family and Herta arrived at the
same Siberian collective, and for a month we worked together in
the wheat harvest. Soon after, Herta and her husband were allowed
to move on to a Siberian city. She had left with us her large valise
containing books and the muzzle for her shepherd dog. Her dog had
been taken away just before the deportation. Many years later, possibly
in 1953, after my stint in the forced-labor army, and when I was
living under military commandature in the city of Krasnoturinsk,
my older brother, who was an actor at a Russian theater in the Urals,
told me that in the city of Nishni Tagil he had suddenly received
a piece of paper from Herta Joersch. She was working in a tobacco
factory, she asked about our mother, whom she remembered very well.
By that time, mother had already died in the forced-labor camp.
I heard of Herta Joersch yet another time. In July of 2000 I visited
the archives in Engels in search of documents concerning my father
and the German Pedagogical Institute. The female director of the
archives (whom I gave some presents beforehand!) and I were looking
at a map that bore the indication "SECRET." A denouncer
was informing the Security authorities that he and the teacher (So-and-so)
had expressed opposition to the teaching of the Russian language
in advanced German schools, but that Dominik Hollmann seemed to
hold no such objections. Also, it stated, that the actress Herta
Joersch had not sent letters outside the country, but that her own
mother, who was living separetely from her daughter, did keep up
correspondence with and had sent a package outside of the country.
This archived document stemmed from the year 1937, which saw, after
an edict by the Party, the onset of a major action called Entlarvung
von Volksfeinden in den Reihen der Kulturanstalten [Unmasking
of Enemies of the People Within the Cultural Institutions].
From 1941 until 1956, we German-Russians were to be completely
quiet, without any rights, without books, films, theater -- nothing!
We were careful not to say a single word aloud in our German mother
tongue, simply to avoid being exposed to any cruelty. But as soon
as the obligation to report monthly to the military commandature
was officially lifted, the boldest representatives of our ethnic
group began to express their concern over the disappearance of our
culture, language, mores and customs. Authors such as Dominik Hollmann,
Reinhold Koeln, Victor Klein, Johann Warkentin, the actor Nikolaus
Baumann, and others, appealed to the highest parts of the Soviet
government, in effect saying, "We have no schools in which
our children can learn their mother tongue; no films, no theater,
no lay art; no publishers where our authors can publish their works
-- how can this be equated to conditions enjoyed by other ethnic
nationalities in the Soviet Union?? Our people have no opportunity
to satisfy their cultural needs -- a violation of human rights,
a violation of the Constitution of the Soviet Union!!"
After several of these accusations, the Soviet government found
itself to give a few promises in order to "stuff the mouth
of these rebels." However, the reestablishment of the unjustly
dissolved Volga-German Republic was gruffly denied. But promises
were made to provide a few German classes somewhere in Siberia,
IF (!) more than ten students DESIRING (!) to learn the German language
would participate. Further, it was promised that about twenty talented
boys and girls would receive training at the Moscow School of Theater,
so that these could then form a national German theater to satisfy
the needs of German-Russians. It was even promised that a theater
building would be erected or provided. The German theater students
finished their training successfully, then they were sent to Kazakhstan,
where most of the exiled Germans were by now living, but still there
was no theater building. The actors would rehearse selected scenes
in homes, and when the Kazakh National Theater freed up its building,
the German team was able to perform its pieces.
There was no lack in diligence or enthusiasm, they even had received
beautiful costumes from Germany. Again the actors performed Schiller
and Goldoni, and they did it masterfully! However, in order to reach
the Germans who were so widely scattered all across Siberia and
Kazakhstan, the actors were continually on the road, going from
village to village. They worked very hard and garnered frenzied
applause and enthusiasm. Their audience was in tears, because finally
(!!!) they had the opportunity to experience a performance in their
mother tongue!!! During the German troupe's open-air performance
of Deutsche Hochzeit [German Marriage] in a Volga
area in honor of the 225th year of existence of the village of Dobrinka,
my son took several pictures. If you can use some of these, we will
be glad to send them to you. Yet there was no hope for their very
own theater building, and many pieces that were not permitted from
above. "Only foreign material!!" said the authorities.
Yet of authentic Soviet pieces there were only Russian ones.
Victor Heinz, a young author, dared to write a theater trilogy
Auf den Wogen der Jahrhunderte [On the Waves of Centuries],
but the author was leery of producing the piece. Since Gorbachev's
glasnost had just been announced, the director of the theater, a
Kazakh, said, "I will make it happen. Nobody will keep me from
doing it." And what a piece of theater it was! We the audience
had our mouths wide open with admiration. The entire history of
our persecuted German ethnic people in Russia was there on the stage:
our betrayed ancestors; the first settlers in the Volga area; the
de-kulakization; deportation; and finally, images that were so familiar
to so many in the audience, wooden beds in barracks behind barbed
wire fencing. Even the supervisors, often so cruel and brutal, whom
so many of have endured, were also depicted.
Glasnost was tolerated by the Soviet government as long as it was
advantageous for the powers on top. The theater team once again
took a courageous step and turned to the Soviet government seeking
restoration of equal rights for Germans in Russia akin to that of
other minority nationalities within the Soviet Union. However, after
Gorbachev's visit to the Ural city of Nishni Tagil, where tens of
thousands of German-Russians had given their lives in forced-labor
camps, it was said that the territory of the former Volga-German
Republic had been resettled with other people, who must not be insulted.
It became clear to everyone: The Soviet Government does NOT WISH
to do ANYTHING for the Germans in Russia. Gorbachev had in fact
spoken untruths. Entire former German villages stood empty although
their houses were beginning to decay, few fields were being worked
on, and they were overgrown with weeds. Yet at that time there was
a great lack of food in the Soviet Union. City dwellers were given
coupons for only about three hundred grams of oil, four hundred
grams of rice per person per month, and similarly for other food
needs. Much too little for normal nutrition. Nearly in unison, the
actors in the German theater emigrated to Germany.
I hope that I have hereby been able to provide you with a good
amount of information about German theater in the Volga Republic.
I wish you good success with your project and remain, with friendly
Ida Bender (nee Hollmann)
With friendly greetings,
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this text.