Mueller: A Life Between Stalin and Hitler:
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Mueller, Otto and Yvonne Schmidhauser. Otto Muelle: A Life Between Stalin and Hitler. Nanimo, British Columbia: Loonbook by Island Art Creations, 1999.
Germans from Russia (not available on interlibrary loan).
This book covers a frame of time and events similar to that in
the memoirs of John Philipps, Elvera Reuer and Martha Liebelt (see
below for citations), and is a welcome contribution to the story
of the Germans from Russia in the twentieth century. Schmidhauser
interviewed Otto Mueller and composed the book from tapes of the
interview. Otto begins with a brief historical sketch that tells
of the movement of the Germans into Russia following Catherine the
Great's Manifesto of 1763, then details his experiences of life
growing up in the well-developed German-Russian village of Ebenfeld
in the early years of the twentieth century. He recalls the good
and bad--childhood mischief, the design of buildings, holidays,
spankings, a natural famine, grisly attacks by roving barbarians,
weddings, visiting on Sundays, and trips to market and the shoemaker.
He recalls the extremely hard physical work that motivated a bright
and studious boy to think about going to theological school (which
In the late 1920s, revolution blew in like a dark storm. A new
communist government he viewed abstractly as "the regime" upset
their ordered lives, beginning with language rules. Then, as it
consolidated its power, it moved to force the people onto collectivized
farms. Because of their relative prosperity, the Muellers found
themselves labeled kulaks and formally classified as state enemies.
Otto's much older brother Heinrich, who was discharged from the
army in 1927, foresaw what was coming, which enabled him to adjust
more quickly than other members of the family. But Otto's father
refused to believe things would get as bad as his son predicted
and protested the changes. The worst began to come true when, as
a result of the family's refusal to become members of the collective
farm, they were evicted from their home and their possessions were
removed. The men were sent off to the army or hard labor, and many
families who remained, including the Muellers, huddled in a shack
on the outskirts of the village. His sister Ida was sent to a hard-labor
camp in Siberia for three years for trying to cut some sunflower
seeds for the family to eat. For many reasons, they came for other
families too. Friends and neighbors disappeared from the Muellers'
lives, singing hymns whose words he still recalls. The Mueller family
attempted to go to America in 1928 but was not successful. Finally,
they did leave Ebenfeld of their own volition, thinking to take
up land opened to settlement in Siberia. They went to Slovgorod
and then eastward, living for a time in a town with many German
refugees. Otto came to view life itself a gift. "It was [my mother]
who taught me how to learn to accept one's fate, without hitting
back or hating the aggressor. She taught us that love is a much
stronger force than any hate. She used to say, "Just imagine that
you are in the other person's place and act accordingly." In 1933,
the family returned to the Ukraine and to Ebenfeld. His father also
returned, a shadow of his old self. His father's dying words were,
"You have to avenge my death." Otto long mulled the conflict between
these words and his mother's admonitions.
This time, the Muellers endeavored to accept life on the communists'
terms and settled into the collective farm structure. Otto went
to school at Achdus, became a young communist, and parlayed his
excellence as a student into a leadership position. Sensing a need,
he went to school to learn cattle husbandry. But fear remained a
central fact of their existence: "...the fear of banishment was
evident in everybody"s behavior. "Fear was a constant companion."
"The Jews were our saviors in those times because they were less
afraid of the communists."
Their lives changed again and yet another time. When the German
armies came into the area, Otto served as their interpreter, but
he and his family still had a sense of living with one foot in jail.
They tried to maintain hope and survive emotionally, physically,
and spiritually even after they became aware that the Germans had
killed the Jews who had been their friends. They remembered that
"Hate always generates more hate." Eventually, Otto was taken into
Germany along with thousands of other ethnic German refugees from
the Ukraine. Next he endured the coming of the Russian troops and
was caught up in the midst of the slaughter and suffering of active
warfare. He was caught both physically and psychologically between
the two armies even after the active fighting stopped.
In the effort to find a secure place to live in the last days
of war and the early days of peace, Otto's remaining alive at all
depended more than once on coincidence and luck. He worked and lived
in many places, chamelion-like assuming whatever identity would
help him survive the day. He suspects that he may have been the
only person of an original group of 1,500 to survive in the west.
He married in Germany despite not knowing what had happened to his
first wife (whom he married in Russia) in the war.
Otto and his family migrated to Canada in 1951, where they were
helped by Jews, Lutherans, and Mennonites. Their first years in
Canada were difficult, beset with many temporary jobs and poor housing,
their problems exacerbated by language difficulties. As time went
by, memories of the old days troubled Otto, but he endured in his
search for a better life. Fifteen years after their arrival in Canada,
the family, which now consisted of two boys and two girls, moved
from the Winnipeg area to Vancouver. Otto bought, fixed up, and
sold houses, sang in choirs, and involved himself with the German
Cultural Society. The children became educated, they moved into
a beautiful home, and then, in 1971, they became Canadian citizens.
"Finally I had arrived home," says Otto.
A negative in the book is Schmidhauser's erratic punctuation.
This weakens it, but this is not a reason to avoid reading it. Otto
Mueller is careful about dates throughout, using them in chapter
headings and in the text. The dates will be very useful when books
like this are used as anecdotal information by those who will write
the formal histories. He tells a most absorbing story of heroism
augmented by faith.
Also about this period:
Boardman, Edna. "Martha Liebelt: A Woman Who Wouldn't Return to
Russia for a Mountain of Gold." Heritage Review, a publication of
the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1008 E. Central Ave.,
Bismarck, ND 58501, March 1996.
Philipps, John. "The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans: A Story of
Survival." Bismarck, ND, Richtman's Printing. 1983, reprinted 1991,
Reuer, Elvera Ziebart, written by Marjorie Knittel. "The Last
Bridge: Her Own True Story." Midstates Printing, Aberdeen, South
Dakota, 1984, 167 pages.
Reuer, Elvera Ziebart, written by Glaphry Duff. "A Distant Promise:
A New Beginning." Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 1998,