Helenendorf Celebrates 100 Years of Existence – A Look into the Past (Part 1)

"Helenendorf Celebrates 100 Years of Existence – A Look into the Past (Part 1)." Volk auf dem Weg, July 2013, 35-36

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

“Situated on the North slope of the Lesser Caucasus, there is a romantic and lovely site, a German presence, a genuine German village that once took root among wild tribes in far-off Asia … There it lay, at the foot of that wonderful mountain chain, picturesque and not unlike a German or Swiss mountain village. It was the German colony of Helenendorf, a town that under Russian rule has developed mightily in recent times. … There we spent some pleasant and interesting days among some terrific members of our German tribe.”

That is how Hans Hermann Graf von Schweinitz, the noted researcher and traveler of Africa and Asia, expressed it all in his book published in 1910, Helenendorf. Eine deutsche Kolonie im Kaukasus [Helenendorf. A German Colony in the Caucasus]. (Subsequently referred to as Bibliographical Listing 1.)

I wish to introduce the article appearing below with a quote from page five of this small encyclopedia on Helenendorf. The sentence sounds quite like the beginning of a German fairy tale.

“ …It was the Tuesday after Easter in 1819, about three quarters of a year after they had left their old homeland, when they set foot on the place that was to become their new home … they thereby founded a German colony, which would presently be given the name Helenendorf. …”

After many years of tough and effortful toil passed, despite everything, Helenendorf celebrated its fiftieth founding anniversary on April 22, 1869. In attendance were many guests from other colonies and representatives of the government in Elisabethpol. On this day, under the watchful direction of the chief of the Cossack regiment resident in the colony, cannon shots were fired to salute the occasion.

A small group of settlers had become a large, well organized community. With tenacious effort, the desolate steppe had been transformed into thriving vineyards and blooming fields of grain.  

After another fifty years, the economy in Helenendorf continued to flourish and the prosperity of the Swabian settlement increased correspondingly. Still, its existence was frequently in doubt.

In 1905 the first Russian revolution broke out. The Cossacks, the protective shield of the colony, departed. A consequence of the revolution was a spate of Armenian-Tatar massacres with many victims and accompanying extortions perpetrated by the social-revolutionary party “Dashnakzutyun.” An unfortunate employee of the “Vohrer” firm, who was unable to come up with demanded ransom money, was shot on the veranda of his house. With the permission of the Russian government, the Helenendorfers, in an attempt to put up a deterrent, organized a citizens’ defense group (1, pp. 40-42.).

After the onset of World War I, Germans suddenly were transformed from former friends into new enemies. In every German settlement, the common outcry was “What is the Tsar going to do with us?”

The year 1915 brought the enactment of the liquidation of lands owned by Russian citizens of German nationality. Tens of thousands of German colonists in Poland, Volhynia and South Russia lost all their normal rights as citizens.

At the beginning of 1917, enforcement of the liquidation laws was to have begun in the Caucasus, and only the outbreak of the February Revolution averted this misfortune for the Germans in the South Caucasus. A terrible “storm,” the destruction of German culture in the Russian Empire, had blown over.

On March 3, 1918 the Brest-Litovsk Pact between the German Empire and Russia was signed. One result of this pact was that Soviet Russia was to give official recognition to the Ukrainian People’s Republic. A civil war ensued and, along with it, the dissolution of the Russian Empire.

The three trans-Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan declared their independence from Russia, and in Azerbaijan a center of power calling itself the Massavat Government was formed.

At this point it should be mentioned that until the October revolution of 1917 the Cossacks had provided  measure of order and security, but with the complete transfer of power they were forced to pull out.

By May 29, 1918 the first Turkish troops arrived in Helenendorf and, with them, security returned. Concurrently, as part of an agreement with the Georgian government, the “Kaiser’s German Delegation,” consisting of military unit of 3,000 men under the Bavarian general Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, was stationed in Tbilisi. Its success came as a surprise. The mere presence of these German troops in the country resulted in the return of calm and order, and in a renewed, hopeful flourishing of economic and cultural life, particularly for the urban Germans in the city and Gouvernement of Tbilisi.

A battalion of German troops from the Kress von Kressenstein mission arrived in Helenendorf in August, 1918, causing, the oppressed hearts of the Swabians to begin beating more quickly and in a more positive manner. Suddenly, the future looked so much safer as to encourage thoughts of celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the settlement’s founding.

But like the flash of a meteor, this period passed quickly, leaving behind only unpleasant memories. The euphoria lasted a mere three months, and shortly after the collapse of the German Empire the German soldiers departed. Again the future loomed darkly.   

At the time, the young Azerbaijan Republic (which existed from March, 1918 until May, 1920) was still in its initial development stage and held no real power. In the provinces, various well-armed tribes with their so-called Speks (tribal chiefs) caused a lot of mischief.

The Central Committee of Germans in the Trans-Caucasus formed a protective regiment from able-bodied colonist sons. The government approved and provided weapons and ammunition. This protective unit initially had its desired effect, but only for a brief time.

The year 1919 turned out to be the most troubled one in the Helenendorf area, particularly along the rail line between Tbilisi and Baku. Tatars and Armenians fought each other, with casualties on both sides reaching a total of 12,000.

Helenendorf did, however, reach its 100th anniversary in April of 1919. Despite instability, lack of security, and serious misgivings, the community decided to stage a delayed celebration. On June 3, 1919, Theodor Hummel, the leader of the Helenendorf community, received notice from the governor stating that “concerning the celebration in Helenendorf on the occasion of its 100th years of existence, there will be no impediments placed in your way on my part.”

A session of delegates set June 9, 1919 as the date for the festivities, and immediate preparation efforts began. At the same time a research project on the history of the colony was commissioned, resulting in a manuscript entitled “History of the German Colony of Helenendorf in the South Caucasus.” An extensive program was prepared, and the following invitation, written in Russian and German, was distributed in Helenendorf and other settlements:

“1819 – 1919. On behalf of the Helenendorf community, the honor of your presence at the celebration of one hundred years of existence of the Helenendorf colony on June 9 of this year and in that very colony, is requested by Mayor Robert Kuhn. Helenendorf, June, 1919.”

The scheduled events included the following: a formal walk-around between 8 and 9 AM, a church service from 9 to 10 AM, reading of memorial citations between 10 AM and 1 PM, lunch for invited guests from 1 to 4 PM, viewing of an exhibition of school projects and of agricultural equipment between 4 and 5 PM, and singing and other musical presentations between 5 and 6 PM. 

The July 3, 1919 issue of the “Caucasus Post” newspaper reported on all the festivities, citing the report’s author as follows: “For HaBeGe, E. Wiederspan.” A somewhat abbreviated version of the newspaper report follows:

“HELENENDORF. The celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Swabian colony in the Trans-Caucasus proceeded here with the participation of the entire colony in a solemn and lofty manner, at times even under unfavorable weather conditions. The heavens, which had earlier been active almost constantly, on the night from the 8th to the 9th of June opened up with such heavy rainfall that the streets became very soft, and the success of the festivities was thereby made questionable.”  

Helenendorf, Caucasus and the Gandya River

(To be continued)

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