Why are you still alive?: A German in the Gulag
Book review by Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein
Hildebrandt, Georg. Why are You Still Alive?: A German in the Gulag. North Dakota State Univesrity Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.
Julia Hildebrandt, et. al., eds. Aber wo sollen wir
hin: Briefe von Russland-mennoniten aus den Jahren der Gefangenschaft,
Verbannung und Lagerhaft in der Sowyetunion (Frankenthal:
Verlag Hirtenstimme e.V., 1998), 306 pp.
These two volumes from the genre of Soviet Union imprisonment memoirs
and documents may seem commonplace articles by now. Many have been
published and widely read. The English title noted here actually
appeared as Wieso? lebst du noch? Ein Deutscher im Gulag
in 1993, but has been expanded and somewhat revised in the translation.
Each account is still unique and always a tribute to its author,
whose story deserves to be told to others.
George's journey of imprisonment began with his first arrest at
the age of 16 in Kondratjevka, Ukraine, in March, 1930 (he is still
living, now age 90). A brief period of freedom, after his escape,
was followed with nearly twenty years of intermittent incarceration
in labour camps, ultimately also including Kolyma. After 1953, at
which time he was reunited with his family, he was transferred to
parts beyond the Urals where he spent time in prisons in Magadan,
Nakhodka, Vladivostok, Sverdlovsk and other sites. After his release
he was able to pursue his profession (technical draftsman) from
1961 until his retirement ten years later and emigration to Germany
in 1974. The details of his experiences during literally decades
in prison cannot be retold here. They comprise the entire volume,
and make it readily understandable that a KGB officer should ask
him in astonishment many years later: "What? You are still
alive?" A great many of George's fellow prisoners of those
years, of course, were not.
The book has a number of sketches done by the author and reads
easily. A number of maps and several charts of prison camp layouts,
as well as family photos, are also included. The Germans from Russia
Heritage Society in North Dakota has done well to offer this new
edition to the public.
Aber wo sollen wir hin is a collection of letters and
poems that were actually written in prison and have survived in
the files of addressees and elsewhere. The letters were written
in the period 1930 to 1970. About two dozen authors are listed in
the Table of Contents. Among the writers are Elisabeth Reimer Teichroeb,
Anna Rempel Toews, Frieda Mathies Hamm, Elizabeth Martens Plett
(whose letter to her daughter included the line which became the
title of the book) and Susanne Tiessen. There are also letters from
well-known Aeltesters such as Jacob Rempel, Johann Toews and Alexander
Ediger, as well as leading ministers (perhaps also elders) from
the Karaganda Mennonite Brethren congregation, Heinrich Woelk, Henrich
Klassen and David Klassen. The letters naturally contain very personal
and deeply emotional parts since they were written for much-loved
and greatly missed family members and friends. As testimonials to
intense struggle and yearning, one can discern more clearly the
feelings of intense suffering and pain, but also the hope and faith
which helped many of the authors of the letters to survive their
ordeal and join Mennonite communities again.
A glossary explaining Low German and Russian expressions completes
the book. There also are some notes, maps and a list of prison locations,
which give one a better picture of the gulag structure as a whole.
Some sketches of prison quarters as well as photos of persons and
prison documents were added.
This is also a well-edited volume, with very readable print which
as in the case of the memoirs, will make it user-friendly for older
readers. Both of these works help to insure that the difficult experiences
of many will not be forgotten. As such they can inspire readers
who encounter hard and seemingly insurmountable experiences today.
Much credit goes to the Society for the Study and Preservation
of the Russian Mennonite Cultural Legacy, headed by Dr. Gerhard
Hildebrandt in Goettingen, Germany, for publishing this letter anthology.
Mennonite bookstores may not carry these books regularly, so it
behooves our libraries to secure them for their reading public.