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Continuation and Development of the German-Russian Identity -- a Personal Victory for Individuals and the Community

Reflections on Two New Publications from the Publisher for German-Russian Literature and Culture -- Robert Burau

Die Fortführung und Entwicklung der russlanddeutschen Identität - eine persönliche Eroberung für den Einzelnen und die Gemeinschaft
Zu zwei Neuerscheinungen des Verlages für russlanddeutsche Literatur und Kultur -- Robert Burau

Volk auf dem Weg, Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland, Stuttgart, Germany,
November, 2001, page 26-27

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Johann Warkentin, Übersetzers Frust und Freud [The Translator's Frustrations and Joys], 148 pages, 34.90 DM, ISBN 3-935000-07-3:

Johann Warkentin, doyen of Germans from Russia literature who was born in 1920 in the German village of Spat on the Crimean Peninsula, in his collection of essays entitled The Translator's Frustrations and Joys offers the reader some insights into his activities as mediator, or negotiator, between Russian and German, German-Russian and Russian, and German-Russian and German literature and cultures.

This constitutes the real value and appeal of this volume, which is not only a general technical text for translators and problems of paraphrasing text. It is also a rather uncommon publication dealing with the possibilities for mediating a German-language minority culture between their mother tongue and the language of their country of birth.

Warkentin begins with a generally comprehensible introduction of the linguistic history of laws governing the German and Russian languages (for example, aspects of verbs in Russian and various difficulties of rendering them in German). He complements linguistic explanations with specific historical facts and thereby attempts to create interest in a "healthy, autonomous" development of language, as well as to warn against excessive adoption of Anglicisms (the so-called "Denglish" component of [modern] German). At this juncture, he correctly points to the more delicate sensitivity for language that existed in the former GDR, where Anglicisms were actively checked by the State and the Party, while the populace itself fairly refrained from automatic inclusions from the Russian language.

This sort of concern for the purity of the language was, at least until 1956, nearly impossible for the German-Russians who had collectively been banished to Siberia and Central Asia, because they had been robbed of all their schools and of all other cultural institutions. Only after 1956, when they were no longer subject to Russian commanders, did a gradual awakening of German-language cultural life even become possible. A real beginning was made possible in 1956 in Barnaul, West Siberia, via the newspaper Arbeit [Labor], which was replaced in 1957 by Das Neue Leben [New Life].

Warkentin has given the German-Russians living dispersed across immensely vast Russia the designation of "Islanders" and points to the great contributions of then German-language writers arriving on the scene. Such people as Lia Frank from the Baltic region (Riga), Sepp Österreicher (actually Boris Brainin) from Vienna, and Rudolf Jacquemien from Cologne, who made the "Islanders" familiar with a more modern German language.


That was all the more commendable because it occurred immediately after the time when the German language had been condemned as being reactionary. Criminalizing the German language seemed particularly absurd given that it was the mother tongue of the founder of 'scientific socialism' and for this reason alone should have been especially treasured in the Soviet Union. But, like any other totalitarian system, Stalinism also depended upon an ideological image of an enemy, often by means of fantastical misrepresentations, to knit itself together.

Their translations from the Russian language made it possible for the surviving German-Russian authors at first at least "to report back" and at the same time, as loyal children of their country, carefully to stake a legitimate claim to cultural equality.

These cultural historical explanations make Warkentin's volume of essays extremely interesting even for the nonexpert.

Johann Bär, "Mit anderen Worten" ["In Other Words"], poems, 110 pages, 19.90 DM, ISBN 3-935000-04-9:

Johann Bär's life is, as is usually the case with lyricists, the path toward personal identity, the path toward his own voice. The relative power of poems determines how independent and, in the best case, how unmistakable this voice becomes.

For this reason the title In Other Words is a good choice, because those other words are to be those original, personal words of the author. Language as the key to the world and to life, but also the key to one's own inner self -- an age-old, eternally new, romantic, fundamental emotion, that naturally is familiar to Johann Bär as well.

Russian was the lingua franca in the gigantic country of Siberia where Bär was born a child of deported German-Russians in 1962, and in which he spent seven years. In 1969 he moved to Kirghizia, in 1982 to Uzbekistan, and finally, following the end of school, after attempts at journalistic and poetic writing and living with the irritations of censure, as well as subsequent to some work as a freelance photographer, he immigrated to the German Federal Republic in 1989. Here his first volume of poems in the German language has been published.

The romantic view of language mentioned earlier looks at the language of poetry as the language of the soul and its shaping in the respective national language as a multiplicity that is fed from the same poetic source and emotional experience. In Bär's poem Blume [Flower] it simply states that emotional experience limits the experience of the mind: "... and my soul / bathes in warmth / and is itself / glowing / becoming the source of warmth / so that I ask myself / do I pray to the Sun / or does the Sun pray to me."

Even before this, the early Soviet-era lyric poet and innovator Mayakovski was calling on the sun and allowed it in a poem to come to itself. With Bär, given his dual cultural background, the Russian and the German, the relationship becomes the individual -- the cosmos reversible, exchangeable -- because he succeeds in becoming entirely familiar with the cosmos.

It is the great talent of Johann Bär to create a concrete vividness with the help of imagery, the intellectual explanation of which cannot be translated into everyday language without further details -- other words, that is. From this one recognizes that Johann Bär must be a born poet, for the German language was learned in his case, as for most German-Russians under difficult conditions in the family, only in its rudiments in school. Only after later emigration, is it learned correctly and becomes a real part of him in its very own poetic way. "I was taught the foreign tongue / in silver paces," he says in his poem "Ich wurde stumm" ["I became mute"].

This poetic way of being able to make a new language culture one's very own bespeaks something dreamlike, yes, a dreamlike assurance that can lead to a new kind of existence, as Bär expresses hopefully in his poem Sanft [Softly]: "Brightly / as a summer afternoon / fills the pathway / - / I dream my existence / tomorrow and the day after / at the time / when the / creeping / painful / senseless / today / has passed."

Arrival into and a feeling of being really at home in a new language, one that may be only partly familiar from the dialect of the old homeland, demands time and, most importantly, effort: "Like heavy stones dropping, the difficult hours pass / and outside the snow falls all week long." A daring comparison between stones and falling snow, and at the same an antithesis, a contrast of heavy and light. All the while Johann Bär, without sentimentality or self-pity, succeeds in letting the reader see the difficulty and complexity of "growing into" new conditions. At the end of the poem Tausend Kerzen meiner Hoffnung ... [A Thousand Candles of My Hope ...] he practically states this conclusion: "... No pain is too great for me. / Scars have grown from the deep wounds / of my fragility." He also has grown with his work. With his scars he has overcome his fragility and the wounds of his soul.

The great German lyricist Bertolt Brecht writes in a poem: "When the wound hurts no longer, the scar continues to hurt." And even here, Johann Bär finds a way out of his pain, for he counters, "No pain is too great for me" on his way toward finding his identity. In the poem Merkmal [The Mark] he finds, in astonishment: "And when / on the cross I cry over myself / the whole world remains silent / forgets all envy / and all pains melt into hard stones / in the fire of my suffering." The birth pangs of the new identity provide power to the suffering, even to soften stones and to transform the gravest difficulties. There is also an admission here to a right for pain during the process of transformation, for without suffering there is no happiness, only eternal sameness, only superficiality.

Can I withstand the new challenges, Johann Bär asks himself in the poem Er kannte seinen Traum auswendig [He Knew His Dream by Heart], when he demands: "Leave me to myself. / I desire to be still, / to be able to hear the voice -- / the one inside me. / I wish to know: was I / or am I going to be?"

A new start is successful when the individual succeeds in facing the flood of all that is new, as Johann Bär shows in the poem Tausende Worte [Thousands of Words]: "Thousands of words / are floating in the air / as in a dance / I seek the fitting ones / and when I think / they are the right ones / they form / a question."

Language, any language, especially one's mother tongue, constitutes a lifelong responsibility. Whether one accepts this lifelong responsibility or not is what matters, as shown by this truly remarkable volume of poems by a still rather young German-Russian poet about his successful struggle for his own integration. From this point of view, the phrases "was I" ("in the East," one can now add) and "or am I going to be" ("in the West, following successful integration") receive new meaning in the synthesis of this volume of poems of a search for identity. A possibility of finding one's identity offers itself: I am going to be in the West through linguistic integration, but also with my Eastern background -- with my dual cultural background -- with my own, entirely personal preconditions that I have to work through.

With this, his first German-language volume of poems, Johann Bär has made a very impressive beginning.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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