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Escape by Troika: The World War II Chronicle of a Bessarabian German

Zettler, Marie. "Escape by Troika: The World War II Chronicle of a Bessarabian German." Hofbräuhaus News, July-August 2004, 7.

Zimmermann, Oskar, as told to Worth Lawrence Nicholl. Escape by Troika: The World War II Chronicle of a Bessarabian German. Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003, 242 pages, Softcover.


A resident of California who spent almost a decade in the Ottawa Valley in the late 50s and early 60s, has co-written a gripping account of his family’s odyssey as refugees during World War II. Oskar Zimmermann is a native of Bessarabia, which was a small country adjacent to Romania before it was swallowed up by the Soviet Union. He collaborated with author Dr. Worth Lawrence Nicholl to produce Escape by Troika: The World War II Chronicle of a Bessarabian German.

Mr. Zimmermann recorded his story, based on a diary he kept throughout those tumultuous years, for Dr. Nicholl in German. Dr. Nicholl then researched the historical background and translated it into English so that this piece of their history is not lost to succeeding generations, including descendants of Mr. Zimmermann and his compatriots of his generation.

While the storyteller may have had an intensely personal reason for committing his memories to paper, the result is a compelling read for anyone with an interest in history-or in the human condition. As one reviewer stated, even those who may have read other accounts of this era of history, and who think they know what happened when ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) were pushed westward during World War II, will want to read this one.

The book tells the story of the family’s forced exile from their beloved homeland of Bessarabia. The family wandered first to the Third Reich, then to occupied Poland, and back through Germany and eventually Würtenberg in Germany, west of the Iron Curtain, where the older generation lived out their days and some of the author’s generation and their descendants still live.

The book recounts some of the horror and terror experienced by the teenaged Oskar and his younger siblings. They watched the bombers descending on Dresden from the nearby city of Meissen, and for three nights watched the bright glow in the sky of the city burning. When an aunt temporarily “lost it” and went missing, Oskar and his father spent a day and a night searching for her. Their search included a morgue with more than 50 bodies, all with grisly wounds and burns.

The aunt eventually showed up and rejoined the family in the abandoned brick factory where they were camped out.

Throughout the account Mr. Zimmermann stresses that his story is really “nothing special,” but that there are many thousands of people with stories that parallel his.

The book skillfully combines the personal story of the Zimmermanns with a wealth of historical fact. The latter is presented in footnote form at the end of each chapter and so does not interrupt the flow of the story, making it a very good read even for those with little or no previous knowledge of the subject matter.

On both occasions when the Zimmermanns’ odyssey took them through Eastern Germany, they spent time in Saxony. There they met the family of Bernhard Zettler, the husband of this writer. For a time in 1945, the Zimmermann family stayed with the Zettler family.

After the Zimmermann family left to travel west, the two families remained in touch, and in 1958 it was Oskar Zimmermann, then residing in Renfrew, who introduced a young newcomer to Canada, Bernhard Zettler, to some new friends of his, the William and Olga Reiche family of Rankin. Bernhard and the youngest of the Reiche daughters, Marie, were married five years later.

Mr. Zimmermann and his wife, Waltraud, whom he married during his time in Renfrew, and their first daughter, Heidemarie, moved to California in 1963 after Canadian winters proved to be too much aggravation for lingering health problems resulting from harsh living conditions during the war years. A second daughter, Caroline, now a prominent artist, was born in California.

The current generation of Zimmermanns and Zettlers have stayed in contact over the years just as the previous generation did earlier. However, Bernhard was surprised and overjoyed to receive an autographed copy of Escape by Troika earlier this year, with a note from his long-time friend thanking him and his family for caring for the author’s family as they were passing through the area.

Bernhard has not only enjoyed the book, but has also found that it answers many of his lingering questions from that time, as well as many that have arisen in later years.

“I was only nine years old at the time,” he said. “I was fascinated by these people and by their stories. But there was so much of the underlying history that I didn’t know.”

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North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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