Pilgrims in the Valley of Tears

Vossler, Ron. "Pilgrims in the Valley of Tears." North Dakota REC/RTC, February 2000, 20-21.

The Boschee family of rural Wishek, circa 1906. Valentine, the patriarch (center, middle row), and his wife, Phillibina (to his right), are great-grandparents of author Ron Vossler. Valentine's brothers stayed behind in Kassel, Russia; his brother's children and their spouses wrote several of the famine letters asking for help from North Dakota relatives. Valentine's sons, John V. (back row, second from left) and Adolph (back row, second from right), both North Dakota farmers born in Russia, spearheaded efforts to send money to their relatives during the "terror famine." Author Vossler's grandmother, Justina Boschee Woehl, is seated to the left of her father; her husband, Henry Woehl, is standing directly behind Valentine. (Photo courtesy of Ron Vossler)
How did evidence of one of the 20th century's worst crimes against humanity surface in my sleepy hometown of Wishek, North Dakota? Let me tell you the story:

It started the summer before last. I was in town to help celebrate Wishek's centennial anniversary. One day over coffee in the L and L Cafe on Main Street, Leon, my mother's distant relative, handed me a faded, well-worn Xerox that he kept in his billfold.

"Can you read this?" Leon asked."I think so," I said.

Squinting at the barely legible script of what I realized was a letter, I could feel Leon's eyes on me. He didn't say anything. German-Russians and their descendants who settled around the Wishek area are stoic and reserved, more unique than they themselves realize.

I knew from Leon's silence that the letter contained bad news. How bad, I didn't know. And from whom, I hardly knew, either--just that the writer, a 62-year-old woman named Katherina Boschee, carried my grandmother's family name.

In the letter, Katherina wrote that just the past February she'd lost her husband from starvation; that in her village of Kassel, South Russia, there was a "terrible grieving and moaning" as people slowly died from lack of food.

The letter ended with a poignant appeal: "Oh, please, send whatever money you can...or else I must go to the ground, from that most terrible of deaths, starvation...Begging is not my way...but you, and God, are our only hope."

The letter was written in expressive German-Russian dialect, and the voice of the writer came alive on the page. The events seemed real, immediate. For an instant, lost in my own thoughts, I started to say, "We should help." Some of our relatives, I knew, still lived in the former Soviet Union. Then I caught myself: The date at the top of the letter was March 1933.

"Yah, they sure had a rough time over there," Leon sighed, fingering his coffee cup.

By "they" he meant those German-Russians, including our own relatives, who had not immigrated to America. By "rough time" he meant all they had endured in Soviet Russia.

With that faded Xerox between us, we sipped our coffee in silence: Leon, who'd stumbled on the letter by accident and realized its value; and I, full of questions about Katherina Boschee, the letter writer, and that time which she called "The year of hunger."

As we parted that day in Wishek, I tried to hand the letter back to Leon. "Keep it," he said. "You'll make good use of it, I'm sure." That letter eventually led me into a six-month period during which I found hundreds more letters similar to that one.

Written in Russia in 1933, sent to relatives in North Dakota and printed in old German newspapers like The Wishek Nachrichten, the letters were signed by people whose last names belonged in the phone books of many small towns in North and South Dakota, like Wishek, Beulah, Lehr, Rugby, Long Lake, Eureka. There were Ketterlings, Martels, Kramers, Heupels, Goehrings, Knolls, Reichs and Schritters. There were Langs, Herrs, Eckmans, Wanners and Kloozes.

Later I'd appreciate those letters as a personal and scholarly treasure trove--first-hand accounts of an event of historical significance. Reading and translating the old German script into English took time, even though many of the dialect words were familiar to me--from my grandparents' speech, from their prayers: words like "Sorge" (sorrow), "Helland" (savior), "Freundshaft" (family) and "Jammer" (grieving).

Often the letters were poignant, laden with pain. Translating them, I'd feel my cheeks wet with tears. Often I laid the letters aside. "Someone else should do this," I thought. Eventually I'd translated enough of the letters to fill a small book. After that, I felt drawn to research the event that precipitated those letters.

'The Terror Famine'

A few soviet apologists believe the "terror famine"--which swept Ukraine, the lower Volga and northern Caucasus areas in 1932-33--was a natural disaster, the result of Soviet mismanagement, or a combination of circumstances, including drought. But almost all of the famine letters I translated, the survivors I spoke with and the sources I consulted, told a different story.

Crops that year were average, even above average. So how could people starve? More than one source--particularly Robert Conquest in his book "Harvest of Sorrow"--states directly that the resulting famine was "created" by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and to force all of Ukraine's independent farmers, including German colonists, to join collectivized Soviet agriculture.

After initial resistance to Stalin's collectivization plan, the dictator dispatched more than 10,000 communist militants (called "twenty-five thousanders," forerunners of Mao's Red guards) from Moscow to Ukraine, to force Ukrainian farmers into compliance. Police units and Red Army troops sealed off roads and railways during the famine year. Nothing entered, or left, Ukraine. Hitler strung barbed wire around concentration camps; Stalin created an Auschwitz out of the entire Ukraine.

The famine letters, and survivor interviews, confirm the following: Villages were searched, house to house. Metal rods were poked into walls to locate hidden caches. All grain was confiscated. People caught stealing, even mouthful of grain they'd grown themselves, received lengthy prison terms.

The famine letters published in the Wishek newspaper document the terror: "The children whine continually for food...people here die like flies...There is no pity...Yesterday the commandant of the district told us, `Wherever you insects have settled in Russia, there will be hangings and shootings and starvation if you don't fill the requirements of our harvest plan.'"

In 1933, the year of the "terror famine," the Soviets exported 750,000 metric tons of wheat, much of it confiscated from Ukraine. Dumped on the world market, this grain depressed prices for American farmers, including--ironically enough--German-Russians on the prairie, who were often direct relatives of the people who'd grown and harvested crops.

Villagers turned a ghastly color. One woman wrote that she looked so horrific that her children ran from her. Their limbs swelled. They were to weak to work.

Dying, many cursed Kaganovitch, known as "the Soviet Eichmann," who used hunger instead of bullets to destroy Ukrainian resistance to collectivized farming. The world hunted down Nazi perpetrators of war crimes; Kaganovitch died peacefully in Moscow only a few years ago, still wearing his Order of the Soviet Union medal.

The starving people ate pets, bark, roots; they died of typhus, hunger, cold. In the long, fragmented historical memory of German-Russians in North Dakota, there remain whispered stories about relatives left behind in Russia who stayed alive by eating whatever they could, even their own dead children.

The letters carry a terrible eloquence: "We are a lost people, forgotten by all but God. Our world here is a vortex of evil...A great yoke of suffering has been placed on us...I am a worn-out pilgrim, here in this valley of tears."

Many letters contained final messages to the writers' American relatives: "Oh, forgive me, sister, if I have ever wronged you...I want to go to our Lord with a clean heart...We will meet again, but not in this life. My hope is in heaven. Live well."

Helping Hands

Not all was bleak. Though financially strapped themselves, German-Russians in the Wishek area and elsewhere often responded to those desperate requests for help.

During the height of the Depression, my grandmother's brothers, John V. and Adolf Boschee, spearheaded one effort. Born in Kassel and brought as children to America with their parents in 1884, these two Boschee brothers gathered money, particularly from members of their extended family, their "Freundschaft," who'd settled on farms in south-central North Dakota. A quarter here, a dollar there, the money collected was sent to their impoverished kin in Kassel, who journeyed to the nearby city of Tiraspol in Ukraine, to a free-enterprise store called "Torgsin." There, in exchange for gold or American dollars, they bought enough food to keep themselves alive.

Money from America saved many lives. Some letters reflect that fact: "If your letter would have arrived a week later, we would have all died...I thank you a thousand times, dear brother...I fell on my knees and whined, crying to God in thanks for your letter...thanks for the great gift from your heart, which saved us from certain death."

Katherina's Fate

Around 250,000 Germans living in Russia died as a direct result of the 1932-33 "terror famine" in Ukraine, North Caucasus and the lower Volga. Estimates of the famine's entire death toll from this famine, hardly even mentioned in history books, range from five million to twelve million.

Was Katherina, the writer of the letter that Leon gave me that day, among the victims? Probably, although with help from her American relatives, she may have survived.

It is unlikely, however, that she survived what followed: the trek of German villagers in 1944, in the wake of the retreating German Army, back to Germany; and after the war, their forcible repatriation and return to the Soviet Union, where they were deported to Siberia and other points east.

This coming summer, I hope to visit the "Bundestreffen" in Stuttgart, Germany--the huge gathering of Germans from Russia who, after the fall of communism, have returned from the far reaches of the former Soviet Empire to their original homeland. There perhaps I will meet Katherina's children, or some of my grandmother's other relatives, who were lucky enough to survive the time when they were pilgrims in the valley of tears.

Reprinted with permission of North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine.

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