We’ll Meet Again in Heaven,
Letters from German-Russians in the Ukraine to their Relatives
in Dakota (1925-1935)
Im Himmel sehen wir uns wieder, Briefe von Russlanddeutschen in der Ukraine an ihre Verwandten in Dakota (1925-1935)
By Alice Morgenstern
The book, We'll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives: 1925- 1937, by Ronald Julius Vossler, was published in 2001. The wesite for this book is: library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/nd_sd/vossler2.html
About the Author
Alice Morgenstern was born in 1928 in Nuremberg. She taught German and English for many years at a Gymnasium in Munich where she now lives, retired from her post as deputy principal. She first made contact with Germans from Russia through the Germans from Russian Heritage Collection (GRHC) at North Dakota State University and its bibliographer, Michael M. Miller. For GRHC she provides English-to-German translation on subjects concerning American Germans from Russia and occasionally writes overview articles she has gleaned from newspapers such as the Sueddeutsche Zeitung or Volk auf dem Weg, on topics ranging from Aussiedler [emigrés] in Germany to German-Russians in the former Soviet Union.
Particularly in Europe, the 20th century is remembered as an age of suffering, persecution, banishment, forced labor and genocide. The survivors continue to tell their stories for years to come. So it is even more significant when we still hear voices from those times -- voices that help us to feel deeply the suffering and hope, desperation and acceptance of a fate deemed to be willed by God.
It is of such testimony that we report here. What we shall examine are letters by a small group of German-Russians in Ukraine written to their relatives in America during the years 1925-1935.
The writers of these letters were German farmers from the so-called Glueckstal Colonies (Glueckstal, Bergdorf, Neudorf, Kassel and the more remote Hoffnungstal) whose ancestors had been there from the early 19th century onward. These places all used to belong to former Ukrainian territories, but today are for the most part in Moldavia and only a small part of South Ukraine. Recipients of the letters lived as farmers in the United States, mainly in the area of North and South Dakota. Beginning with the 1870s, and in greater numbers from 1884 till 1914, they had left their old homes in Russia desiring to gain new land and greater freedom in America. There in the "Wild West" they had put the prairie soil under their plows.
Contact between the Glueckstalers in Russia and America did not break off. Close relatives had been separated, parents and siblings and other relatives had stayed behind, yet they continued to remember each other with great longing and homesickness. A glimpse of this is apparent in one of the letters: "As high as the morning star, so far am I from you!" All they had left to depend on was to write to each other.
They wrote most of all about what was truly important in their lives as farming people. They wrote about the weather, seeding, harvest, weddings, births, deaths and other events in their families and in their village. The Glueckstalers were not proficient or practiced writers. They reported with simplicity and without literary flourish. They wrote the way they lived and felt in their hearts. Those letters that survived time and circumstances are not easy to decipher since they were composed in the old-fashioned German (Suetterlin) style of handwriting, and their spelling often corresponds to the spoken dialect. Where they lacked the proper words they sought refuge in Biblical phrases or in old rhymes, adages and folk wisdom they had acquired. At times they used formal phrases such as "I must take up my pen…"
We can be grateful to a special circumstance that many of these letters have become available to us. Two German-language newspapers in the Dakotas, the Eureka Rundschau (later the Dakota Rundschau) from South Dakota and the German-language portion of the Wishek News in North Dakota provided their readers with what they usually entitled, "News From the Old Home." For this purpose they frequently printed letters sent to them, which they transformed into carefully smoothed High German.
The fact that this occurred mainly during the years 1925-1935 is due to contemporary political conditions in the USSR. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war, the dispossesions and first period of great famine from 1921-1922, the Dakotans needed to be informed about what was happening in their old villages now under Soviet control. The letters served as proof for all that.
"Things are not as they used to be" (1925-1927)
By 1925 the situation of the farmers appeared to have begun to ease, in a way. The first breakdown of Communist-conceived agricultural policy had led to Lenin's "New Economic Policy"; and after four years the original goals of socialism were already being modified. Witness the fact that farmers were being given back a modicum of independence making it possible, for example, to buy or lease land again, even if to a very small extent. In reality, conditions still appeared not to be developing very favorably. Magdalena Bratzel, nee Krein, of Glueckstal writes to her sister in Dakota if she could only believe that she, too, could get to America, "I would get on my way today." And H. Eckmann of Kassel wrote to Fred Schumacher in Eureka that "conditions in this community..." were "the worst since its original establishment." Having been forced to sell or trade foodstuffs during the previous years of want, many Glueckstalers were now so poor that they were going about "barefoot and, more or less, in [their] birthday suits." Terrible times, "hard days" and "sleepless nights" during the revolution and the famine were still fresh in everyone's memories. Some letters contained pictures of deceased relatives. "Six of our children died of typhus in only one week," write Johann and Margarete Just in 1925 in a letter to Friedrich Rueb of Eureka. "Four of them we buried immediately. Things are just like in Job's time. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh. Praised be the name of the Lord."
Actually, the farmers were once again allowed to acquire land, but certainly not to the extent they had in earlier times. Purchase was limited to two desjatins (1 desjatin = 1.09 hectare) per "soul." Adam Warner of Kassel stated it this way: "We are barely allowed to possess any land at all...and we cannot lease land either." This village also greatly lacked draft animals, forcing the men to put themselves, two or three at a time, in harness and pull a plow. After a Glueckstal resident had been able to buy a horse with the help of American dollars that had been sent to him, the following happened: "Ever since 1921 things have gotten worse. That year we bought our horse and thus managed until 1923. Then, but only with great difficulty, we acquired a second horse. The whole time we had bad harvests. Every year except 1923 we had to buy bread. The harvest in 1925 was again a poor one so we saved everything we had harvested and kept it for seed. But then, without bread or feed, we were forced to sell our two horses for food."
Money and packages arrived by mail in Glueckstal again and again during the subsequent years. Two things must be said in this regard:
1. A complete reversal had taken place in the social standing of the Russian and American Glueckstalers, one which no one could have predicted at the time of the emigrations. Before the revolution, farmers in Ukraine were, as a rule, prosperous and respected, even as they were progressively experiencing the Russification process and restrictions to earlier privileges. Although those who had emigrated enjoyed greater freedom and new land, the rocky prairie soil and the raw climate brought only minimal harvests during their first years, and those new settlers were initially forced to attempt to survive by the most primitive means. Due to their pathetic living conditions, they were for a long time regarded by Americans as "dirty Russians." They longed for the mild climate and former wealth of bread and wine in Ukraine. However, thanks to their untiring work, in time they were successful, establishing the largest wheat growing areas in the United States. Even though they always feared bad harvests and economic crisis, they generally lived under secure conditions. In contrast, the Ukrainian Glueckstalers had become impoverished. "Even though I once was one of the richest farmers in the area, today I am a poor man," writes Jakob Kollwes of Kassel in 1926. "Everything I had has been taken from me and distributed to 'the people'... The regime has confiscated my mill and two threshing machines. I was sentenced to nine months in prison, where I sat along with other rich people. Two thousand, eight hundred and seventy-four people just like myself were sitting in prison with me."
If in past years the Glueckstalers might have deemed immigration to have been an ill-considered step, consider Johann and Christine Hofer of Neudorf writing in 1926 to Jacob Kirschmann in Havelock, North Dakota: "My dear friend Jacob, when you left here, we could only wonder why you were so dumb. But now we realize that it was your good fortune that you left. We understand that now, but it is too late for us." Or consider how Marie Reiss, from a village near Hoffnungstal, starts to think about why she stayed behind: "Ever since times have become difficult here I often think about the reasons why we did not go to America. Georg always said to me: 'Come, let's go to America!' But my answer always was, 'As long as my parents are alive, I simply cannot leave.' Oh, how difficult everything has become."
The Russian Glueckstalers had been transformed into charity cases.
2. The deep emotional bond between the two groups did remain intact. On the prairie and on the steppes people often talked of relatives "over there." "You tell us that whenever you get together, you always talk about us," wrote the Schlichters of Hoffnungstal in 1927 to Johann Veil in Streeter, North Dakota. "With us it's the same." Another Glueckstal resident states: "During my whole life I will never stop to think that both my parents and all of my siblings are now in America... And my wife and I are the only ones who remained in Russia." Christian and Elisabeth Hafner of Bergdorf attempted to get over the separation in a different way. They write: "...in order to send to you our warmest invitation to the wedding of our youngest son... Please share it and take part in it with all your children and with my dear sister and her husband and all their children... However, since that is not possible, we wish that you may travel here at least represented by means of your pictures... If only I could see you just once more in my lifetime! That is often my soul's desire."
This particular letter indicates the special importance the concept of relationship had among German-Russians. By that they really meant a circle of "friendship," a word they used to denote an entire network, one that included blood relatives, relatives by marriage and their families. Most importantly, "friendship" to them meant banding together and helping one another in every need, whether on the rocky fields in Dakota or in mutual acts of assistance among people in Ukraine. A particular letter explains how this system works: "If each of you gives only a little, it will not hurt you, but it would help us greatly." Also, "Our friendship has multiplied us all by two." During the great famine, Magdalena Martel pleaded for help from her brother in this way: "My dear Jacob, we still have our grand Martel friendship, and you know where they all live... I don't think that the grand Martel friendship wants me to starve."
For many Glueckstalers asking for help was not an easy matter. Thus Katharina Boschee wrote to her relatives in Wishek: "You know very well that begging is not my nature." However, increasing poverty and need forced them to it.
"Keep your mouths shut!" (1928-1931)
In October 1928 Stalin announced his first five-year plan, which had as its goals the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union and, once and for all, the collectivization of agriculture. It meant that those farmers who had remained independent would now be forced to join the collective, and its completion was a matter that seemed to justify any means. If they did not "voluntarily" cede their properties to the collective, they would be branded "kulaks" (according to Soviet thinking kulaks were large farm owners who were suppressing the people) and there were threats of the worst of reprisals. The villages were visited by Communists loyal to the party line and usually without any experience in agriculture, but who were to carry out the new measures, rapidly and with tough ruthlessness. This, together with a tax burden that was simply way beyond realistic proportions, brought to an end any normal village life that had survived.
Some families were still hoping to be able to emigrate. "Many here want to emigrate," writes Anna Kludt of Hoffnungstal, "but they are totally unable to obtain the requisite passports." Anyone who did not "voluntarily" join the collective was treated as an enemy of the state, driven out of home and property and banished. Occasionally, people would still surround the wagons on which the "kulaks" were being transported off, and they would intone familiar church hymns such as "Jesus, Go Before Us," or for example, "God is Love." The Glueckstalers were generally rather pious folks -- Protestants with a pietistic touch. In 1928 they reported to their brothers in faith in Dakota about the prayer meetings of their "brotherhood," and in 1926, for the first time since the revolution, the Glueckstalers had actually celebrated Christmas in their church, even with a decorated Christmas tree.
These times were now forever gone. Yet their faith often remained as their only solace even during the years of deepest deprivation.
Daniel Kraemer reports about the oppressive taxation burden: "They demanded 300 pud (1 pud = 16.38 kg) of grain from me and gave me only two days to come up with that much. But we don't have any grain. So we had to sell everything we had in our property and our home, and finally the house as well. We have nothing left but that which we can wear." There were also some letters that were not signed. For example: "It's horrendous, what is happening here! Any who don’t wish to join the collective are branded enemies of the state and treated with the most extreme cruelty. Their homes are attacked at night, then a rope is slung around the farmer's head, and he is dragged behind a cart until he accedes to everything demanded of him. Some are driven naked out of their homes."
Christian Eisenbeiss and Walther Schaeffer, two elderly men of Glueckstal, were unable to come up with their hard taxes. First they were driven out of their homes, then "stripped naked in the cemetery and forced to crawl on all fours while carrying two men on their backs, all the way to the steps of the church." There they were forced to kneel and pray... In these ways people are being made fools of." After Eiseinbeiss was murdered and strung up in the village so as to make it appear that he had committed suicide, "the uproar and lamenting in the village were so terrible that it is impossible to describe it all."
"They took away my very last suit," we read in another letter. "Here we are, naked and in despair, just as it says in the old song, 'We are poor and suffering, miserable and naked, but our Savior will make us rich and great.'" Thus there was still an attempt to submit with piety to a fate inflicted upon them. "We will go the way that our Lord indicates to us... If we remain on His path it will lead us to heaven. We find ourselves at the twilight and know that He will soon call us home."
On the other hand, suspicion and mistrust also arose among the people. Village residents denounced each other to save their own hides. "Your own brother and your nephew have reported me to the village council," writes an unknown Glueckstal resident to his relatives in America. "They claim that I have received a lot of money from America and that I even sent some of it to my father who was banished as a kulak... The case has been handed over to the police... As a friend, I just wanted to help your father... They also claim that I am hiding a cow that belongs to a kulak. Brothers can sometimes be worse here than the Communists... The Communists are trying to catch up with America, but that will be very difficult. You drive around in cars, and we trudge behind, barefoot in the snow."
At this time letters from the banished also arrived in the Dakotas. They were published under the heading, "Letters from Exiled People in the Urals." People from the Odessa area were also dragged off to Archangelsk on the White Sea. A number of 40,000 was mentioned. The deportees reported about their forced labor and deprivations. "As our sole reward, our overseers gave us hard blows with a stick on the head."
One particular letter clearly expresses the mood and situation: "Dear sister, after very hard and difficult labor in the forest and with horrible hunger, I am taking pen in hand to write a few lines to you. We are asking all our dear friends for help so that we do not die from hunger and that this extremely heavy plague may not get us completely down... Thank you for everything you have already done for us poor, innocent, deserted and half-starved people. Send this letter to your newspaper so that the entire world can see what's being done to us. For 14 months now we've gone to work hungry, lay down to sleep hungry and got up hungry... Oh, merciful Heavenly Father, when will our misery finally end, or must we die a bitter death in the Urals? Many have starved already... We have come to believe that we are living in the time of Revelation, chapter 18... help us to pray that we may be able to love those who hate and persecute us."
"The great famine" (1932-1933)
The great famine of those years was actually not a result of failed harvests or natural catastrophe. Rather, it should be blamed on Soviet economic policy. Large amounts of grain had been sold abroad in order to obtain hard currency for the country's industrialization effort; taxes were therefore hiked even more drastically. At the same time grain production had decreased, not in the least due to the incompetence of the party's bureaucracy that was accountable for this sector. The annihilation of the independent farmer had horrendous consequences. These factors led to one of the worst famines in South Russia. According to some estimates, a total of six million people would be counted as its victims. Was it perhaps genocide? Even if they did not intend it, they condoned it.
Desperate letters to the Dakotas convey an image of the situation.
In this vein Karl and Elisabeth Lang wrote to their relatives in the spring of 1933: "I would like to let you know that Father has been dead for two years now. But God be thanked and praised, because at least he didn't have to suffer this terrible hunger the way we are. We have three small children and nothing to eat... It's so sad at the beginning of the day when the little ones begin to cry again and scream for something to eat. Oh, loving God, have compassion for us and help us to endure their terrible cries and these miserable times. Our smallest one cries and says, 'Oh, dear Mother, won't you go and look whether you can find something to eat, because I am so terribly hungry.' Where am I supposed to look and to whom shall I go when no one has anything? And in this way we fill up with tears. There is nothing else. You can imagine how my heart bleeds when my own children come to me and I can give them nothing to stop their hunger. This is why we are turning to you, dear friends, and even to your children... We'll remain friends till death."
Among other topics, Eva Mattwich of Bergdorf on June 11, 1933, reported to Ludwig Scheuffele in Wishek: "Now almost all the people are getting heavy from all the hunger, and they fall over and die. There are many that resort to eating rotted horsemeat, nettles, tchavi and various herbs. You can imagine how it is to live like that. People are all black and blue from hunger." Karoline Heupel of Kassel informed her cousin Adolph Boschee in Zeeland, North Dakota, that her husband Jacob and two of their children had starved to death, and their other children would "run away at the terrible sight of me."
To make things worse, people were still being dragged out to work. Conditions were especially unbearable in Kassel. Anyone at least 13 years of age, up to the very oldest, was sent out to the steppe. "In deepest snow and grimmest cold" they felled trees and brought in the wood. No Sundays. No Christmas. No New Years. No Easter. During that winter six people a day were dying in Kassel.
Once again it was their faith that the Glueckstalers clung to. "When the need is greatest, God is closest," they wrote. Or "The harder the yoke, the closer is heaven." In this vein they gave expression to their hope: "We'll meet again in heaven."
"I dream of you all so often" (1934-1935)
Not until 1934 did conditions improve somewhat, in Kassel as well, if only a bit later. The year 1935 brought a good harvest to the Glueckstal area, of which the people of course received very little. And again deportation orders arrived; this time they hit those who had received assistance from abroad. Christine Flemmer of Glueckstal warned her brother Christ Stock in Wishek about sending money and admitted: "We live in great fear... No time is safe." After 1935 contacts ceased between the Glueckstalers in Ukraine and in the Dakotas, at least according to what can be found in newspapers. As a final example we'll select a letter that clearly shows a great deal of what the Russian Glueckstalers were feeling. Katharina Boschee wrote in May of 1935: "I have not received any letters from you ever since 1933... Surely it is easier for you to write than for me here. I would dearly like to write, but I don't even have the money for sending a letter... Oh, dear ones, if I could only join you at your noonday meal. Surely you have potatoes and bread. I dream of you all so often. I believe you don't want to hear from me anymore since you don't write, or perhaps you are no longer alive." When we get together around here, people always ask, 'So you haven't received any letters from America either? I don't know why our friends do not write anymore, but perhaps they do not wish to hear anything from us anymore.' What can I say? I am completely alone here, abandoned by everyone... Whether I will be able to survive it all, I don't know. I have had a very hard time with work. We did sow a few potatoes, beans and other things in our garden, but it'll be a long time until we'll be able to eat it... You can imagine the tears I have been shedding, day and night. I often think I won't be around anymore the next day, and I don't want to live any longer. Here there is nothing but grief and deprivation, crying and lamenting."
In the final analysis there was not much the American Glueckstalers were able to help their unfortunate relatives with, and there were certainly those for whom the petitioners and their "begging letters" became an annoyance and, particularly during the years prior to the great famine, there were those who believed people should be able to help themselves.
Yet we are also impressed by one odd fact: in later times the Glueckstalers in the Dakotas simply clammed up. As a rule they were not telling their children or grandchildren about their past, and it did not occur to the offspring to ask.
What kinds of reasons might be given for this behavior? For one thing, it is quite conceivable that two world wars which found Germany and America aligned against each other might not have been suitable times for the Germans from Russia living in the United States to confess loyalty to their "Germanness" or to any sort of German destiny. They were completely taken up with being good American citizens and stood loyal to their new fatherland. One's own past was thus forced into the background, even if amongst themselves at home they were still talking their familiar and comfortable "Schwabian" dialect.
For another matter it often happens that people tend to suppress bad experiences, especially when the kind of feeling creeps in that one might have failed in something. In reality the Dakotans simply had to leave their relatives in the Old Country to their own fates, and this thought was a bitter one and one difficult to bear. After all they also had their own worries and problems, which were in the foreground and began to eclipse matters of old.
Be that as it may, it was not until many Americans, and among them the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas, began to look for their family roots that those letters from the Glueckstal area, along with their family histories, came to light. The horrible events of the past suddenly appeared very close and affected everyone with great shock.
Yet, an awareness of these written testimonials also provides a measure of remembrance that is needed by all Germans from Russia, not the least by all Germans who today come in contact with established and recent Aussieldler.
It must be said once again: a small group of people in the Soviet Union, a minority among a minority, were able to bring witness in those letters for the many victims of a catastrophe that played itself out during the 1920s and 1930s. They achieved this with simplicity and without histrionics, but with great immediacy. And thereby they have achieved something of enduring value.
In the United States, Ron Vossler, faculty member at the University of North Dakota, published the essay "We'll Meet Again in Heaven" in February 2001. My work is based on this essay.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.