In Honor of Her 90th Birthday: Ida Bender - A Life Right out of the Book

Paulsen, Nina. "In Honor of Her 90th Birthday: Ida Bender - A Life Right out of the Book." Volk auf dem Weg, June 2012, 34-35.

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

“Literature helps us to keep some things,” Siegfried Lenz said in an interview. Ida Bender has done exactly that, with her life and, particularly with her authentic book, Schön ist die Jugend … bei frohen Zeiten[Youth is Lovely…During Good Times], which in a short time has engendered an astonishing amount of interest from readers. She calls it a biographical novel, which the Geest-Verlag published in 2010.

Why did I choose that title? As I was thinking about the story of my grandparents, then of my parents, and finally of my own, I began to see that the years of youth of these three generations were anything but lovely, or without worries. We could only dream of a lovely time of youth, or simply sing the old, familiar folk song that was always sung during festive times. Even in the Trud Army barracks on the Yenissei [northern Siberia], during the evenings we often sang German folk tunes and thereby tried to ease our pain, our suffering and our longings,” recounted Ida in an interview with Agnes Gossen-Giesbrecht.

In this book the author works through her experiences, her feelings and her thoughts. In a loving and sensitive manner, she describes the life and suffering of her ethnic group, through three generations, in its quest for homeland and residence.
“Dedicated to my Volga German people,” it says on an introductory page of the book. Just like her father, the well-known German Russian author Dominik Hollmann (1899-1990), whose literary and cultural heritage she diligently keeps fostering and spreading, Ida Bender, a Hamburg resident since 1991, has lived and struggled for what is important to these people. This book also contains detailed descriptions of the special efforts by Dominik Hollmann in Siberian exile subsequent to World War II on behalf of maintaining and even reviving the German Russian cultural heritage.

Ida Bender was born on June 22, 1922 in the Volga German village of Rothammel. “My parents were and remain for me exemplars of hard work, helpfulness, loyalty and good-heartedness. They were both artistically inclined. Love for their family and taking responsibility for it were the highest ideals in their lives. In 1932 mother took over sole responsibility for our family of five so that father could complete his studies. That was not easy, especially during the difficult years of famine in the Volga region,” Ida says.

After her father had finished his studies in 1935 and the family’s financial situation had improved somewhat, Ida was able to take piano lessons, and music would always be a part of her life. In 1940 Ida completed German “Model School # 10” in Engels and started her studies in foreign languages in Leningrad.

The start of the German-Russian war in 1941 thwarted all her plans. After she, along with her family, was deported to Siberia, she landed in a labor camp in the Far North, where she was forced to perform heavy labor felling trees [in the wintry woods], floating logs and fishing on the [Yenissei] river.

After the war she lived in the North Urals and in Kazakhstan and worked in a whole variety of occupations: a teacher of deaf children, a lumberjack, a fisherwoman, seamstress, installer of electric circuits, administrator, correspondent and translator for a [German-language] newspaper, mail carrier, club administrator and emcee and, recently, a writer.

Always at the center of her attention, however, were her responsibilities as a mother, and active continued learning were always part of her life. Immediately after the weekly “Neus Leben” [“New Life”] began to be published in Moscow, Ida Bender became a volunteer contributor. And when the German-language daily newspaper “Freundschaft” [“Friendship”] came into being, she worked for it as a translator.

After her return to the Volga [a surprising turn of events, made possible by the transfer of her husband’s work – Tr.] and her retirement, she became the co-founder and first president of the German club “Neues-Leben-Leser” [“New Life Readers”] in Kamyshin on the Volga, the very first post-war “post” of German culture in the Soviet Union. During those years Ida wrote several contributions to “Neues Leben,” to the Almanac “Phoenix” (in Alma-Ata), as well as to Volk auf dem Weg and to the series of Heimatbücher of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland.

Dominik Hollmann constantly encouraged her to write. “We often had conversations about literary works, writers and new publications, and we exchanged opinions on all of them. I admire his poems and works of prose that mirror his love for his people, and also his folksy language,” recounts Ida Bender.

All of these topics, and many more, are central to Ida’s novel of 600-plus pages. For Germans from Russia, her book is a renewing encounter of experienced suffering. For the native reader [in Germany] this biographical novel presents an authentic and gripping confrontation with the largely unfamiliar history of the Volga Germans. “I wrote the book more for the native Germans,” says Ida Bender, who again and again, via public readings, tries to help people become more familiar with that moving 250-year history. Her audiences include her very own people, who themselves are often strongly in need of enlightenment.

In Germany she had no problems with the German language. Once she realized that the local population of the Hamburg area knew nothing or only little about the story of the German Russians, she used this as an opportunity to provide enlightenment.

From the beginning she also became an active member of the Landsmannschaft, performed at Hamburg chapter events and, in the role of a contemporary witness, provided personal stories for the Landsmannschaft’s traveling exhibit. She also participated in the club “Kulturerbe der Russlanddeutschen” [“German Russian Cultural Heritage”] and in a Hamburg literary group.

She receives constant support from her son Rudolf. During the 1990s, her grandchildren Artyom and Yuri together recited poems by Dominik Hollmann at Volga German cultural events in Büdingen and in Kassel, as well as for literary events in Hamburg and in other cities.

“I have been a widow for decades, but I am not alone, not left all to myself. With my children and grandchildren I can always have a good talk, carry on interesting conversations, and exchange opinions. We have common goals, get along well, and all pull together,” says Ida Bender.

Ida began to write down notes and sketches even back in Russia, where her grandchildren formed her first audience when she told about catching fish in the Far North, or about her miserable life of hunger in cold barracks, and about many other experiences in her eventful life. Often her stories motivated the grandchildren to produce very moving drawings.

It took about ten years before the book took on its final form. She is especially grateful for the support from her daughters Ludmilla and Frieda and from her son Rudolf – during doubts, or during times of depression, but also with technical problems.

In the book she interweaves certain phases of time, and shows how political decisions by two states (Germany and the Soviet Union) impacted in the most gruesome way, and not only once, the lives of German Russians. Asked about how much courage it took to write the book, she says:

In working on this book, I relived all those difficult events of my life, and some nights I awoke from sleep with a big scream, and some days my eyes filled with tears while I was writing, and I had to pause, sometimes for days…

The book cover, using a photo from son Rudolf’s most recent visit to the homeland of his ancestors, begins to tell the story. The chain of hills on the [Volga’s] mountain side symbolizes her ancestors’ initial hope, but also the eventual pain from loss of home. The tree symbolizes the time on the Yenissei River in the Trud Army, the two tulips stand for drops of blood in memory of major losses – mother dying from the heaviest of work, hunger and the Siberian cold, and a sister losing her life from a horrible accident. The shrub on the right indicates the bitterness of the Volga Germans over the suffering imposed on them and without hope or any sort of compensation.

It was not by accident that she entitled the book with a line from an old folk song. Their cultural treasure and, especially, their folk songs, helped those German Russians to survive despite all the deception, all the chicanery, all that was forbidden them, and the deportation.

“As young girls in those Trud Army barracks and later, as seniors in the 1980s in our Neues-Leben-Readers-Club, we sang our German folk songs, and always this one, ‘Schön ist die Jugend bei frohen Zeiten,” says Ida Bender. And so the book stands “not only for the suffering of an entire ethnic group, but also for the hope that the future might bring only happy times – without wars and without misunderstandings between peoples, nations, and states.

In the near future the book is to be published in the Russian language.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editing of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller