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Ronald J. Vossler reading letters from Ukraine.

The Old God Still Lives: Ethnic Germans in Czarist and Soviet Ukraine Write their American Relatives 1915-1924

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Vossler, Ronald J. and Joshua J. Vossler. The Old God Still Lives: Ethnic Germans in Czarist and Soviet Ukraine Write Their American Relatives, 1915-1924. North Dakota State University Library, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2006.


This book starts with a brief introduction in which the Vosslers, father and son, put a collection of letters into a context of time and place. They have brought together letters written in South Russia and published in Dakota German language newspapers or handed to them by recipients who had kept them for many years. The authors say in their introduction, "Overall, the letters in this volume were written by people who, to use the infamous phrase, were the ‘eggs that were cracked’ to make the Soviet omelet; and it is our intention, in completing these translations, to let the writers speak for themselves -- bitter, anti-Semitic, resigned, dignified, thankful, desperate, lonely, and religious." The book is a companion volume to We’ll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives, 1925-1937 (A review by this reviewer is available at the GRHC website: http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/research/scholarly/book_reviews/boardman_review5.html.

The letters reveal a setting that is unthinkable. Through the writers’ eyes, we see put into motion a philosophy that set national and economic groups against each other -- German vs Russian, members of families vs each other, and all vs their Jewish neighbors. The bonds that had enabled them to live peaceably side by side for generations were shattered. Marauding groups combed the countryside, anti-German humiliations were supported by government policy, and whole families were systematically deprived of food, clothing, and ordinary household comforts.

Where did all that hatred come from? Why were people brutally slaughtered, their personal property carted away, the food they produced requisitioned by the government to support crash programs of industrial development? Even nature conspired against them in the form of drought. To exacerbate it all, their churches were closed and their ministers and priests were taken away.

The writers of these letters reach out to their traditional supports, their families, and to God. They plead for help--food, clothing, and especially money that can be used to buy food in the special stores cynically set up by the Russian government to gather in hard currency. They understand that family members who had emigrated may not be living lives of luxury in their new homes, but neither are they experiencing the degree of deprivation that exists in South Russia. Could it be that family in America, preoccupied with their good lives, are losing focus, and that they in Russia will perish as a result? They know that, in appealing to kinship bonds, they become supplicants; they sound whiney. Doing this puts them in an inferior position, but their need is so great. Their prayers are rarely answered in a way that eases their suffering, but their faith takes on new dimensions.

Some of the letters are so heartbreaking. To make things worse, the censor is always hovering, so they cannot express themselves fully. It is good that the authors point out coded references because the casual reader would miss them. One letter was apparently put into a wrong envelope by a censor and arrived in the mail of a stranger. The persons in America who were young when the letters were written were told little about them by their parents, for reasons guessed at but not fully understood, but many packages and money were sent to the Ukraine to try to ease the suffering, and sometimes the gifts meant the difference between life and death.

The Vosslers have elected to let the letters speak for themselves rather than summarize or select from them. The very bare-bones nature of this collection makes it so powerful. This is tough reading -- as it was difficult writing for the Vosslers -- but as we mature as an ethnic group, this aspect of our experience should be part of our knowledge.

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