The Living Dead!

Ivits, Ellen. "The Living Dead!" Ausländerbote, November 2012, 10.

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

Cleansing actions, deportation, de-kulakization [dispossession and banishment of the so-called wealthy farmers], being dragged off, and Trud-Army [Forced-Labor Army] – the Germans in Russia suffered many horrors. And Olinde Fischer clearly knows what it means to be called an “enemy of the people.”

The old photo is yellowing and fading. It pictures a young girl, smiling, her white summer dress standing out brightly in the midst of a group of happy children, the August sun reflecting from the leaves of the trees. A young man is leaning over to the girl. “He was my friend at the time,” reminisces Olinde Fischer, “but fate separated us, and we would never see each other again.”

Her thoughts elsewhere, she gazes at the photo. It was August 13, 1941, the day Olinde Fischer celebrated her 19th birthday. For two months the war between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s forces had been raging. A few days hence the effects of the war would catch up with this young elementary school teacher. The print she is now holding in her hand was the last photo taken before her life ceased to be her own. “August 29, 1941 was a black day for our family. It was the day when we would be dragged off, dispossessed, deported,” recounts the by now ninety-year-old woman.

Olinde Fischer, nee Fast, is sitting at the large dining table in her Hamburg apartment. An antique organ stands in a corner, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker glistens on the record storage rack, and a panorama of her new homeland decorates the wall -- Michel’s Tower, the green roof of the Rathaus, the burned-out ruin of St. Nicholas Church. Since 1993 has Olinde Fischer has been living in this Hansa League city. She is one of those German Russians who have found their way back to the homeland of their forefathers.

It was Catherine the Great who had invited Germans to Russia, and they went there in great numbers, especially from regions of economic plight such as Swabia and the Palatinate. For a considerable time, these Germans enjoyed many advantages in Russia, and they developed enclaves with German schools, German churches, and German communities.

World War I brought an end to their special status, and the Twentieth Century would entirely be marked by a dismantling of privileges the Germans had once enjoyed in Russia, by dispossession and, finally, by the disaster which World War II engendered. Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and soon thereafter Stalin ordered the deportation of all German Russians to Siberia and Kazakhstan. They were dispossessed, their rights were taken away, and they were subjected to forced labor. [Translator’s note: not all ethnic Germans in Russia were deported in 1941. For one thing, the German Army controlled some 350,000 ethnic Germans (including this translator) when the German forces  occupied parts of Southwest Ukraine, until early 1944, when the retreating German armies resettled that entire contingent in Western Poland.]

Olinde shared her fate with hundreds of thousands. “Like animals, we were crammed into railroad cattle cars, taking practically only what we were wearing, and then we were dragged off into work camps.” The horror of those hours can still be seen in Olinde’s eyes. The first destination for her family was the small city of Tugan in the Omsk region. Along with many other German Russians, this young woman was forced to perform work in the fields and forests of a collective, where living conditions were catastrophic. Yet, in comparison to what was to come, that work seemed almost tolerable. Toward the end of 1942, Olinde Fischer and her sister of just sixteen were ordered into the so-called Trud-Army.

The Trud-Army was a horrific concept of the time. Like inmates in the GULAGs, Germans in the Trud Army were forced to perform the heaviest labor imaginable, ostensibly in order to atone for the crimes of the German Wehrmacht [collective term for the German ground forces – Tr.]. It affected [nearly] everyone -- men between 16 and 55 and women between 16 and 45 years of age. Between 300,000 and 400,000 of them died in the work camps, some from starvation, some from the freezing temperatures or of serious illness, and some were plainly shot.

Olinde was inducted into an ammunition factory near Novosibirsk. For twelve hours a day she stood at the conveyor belt turning out ammunition cartridges. Each unit of completed work weighed 48 kilograms [ca. 100-plus pounds]. “About one hundred of us lived together in one boarded-up barracks.” The furniture consisted merely of wood-planked beds and one small stove, and our daily food ration consisted of 800 grams [ca. 28 ounces] of bread and some thin soup. Anyone who did not fulfill her quota of work product would receive less and might finally simply starve,” recounted the retiree.

Life in the camp was characterized by barbed wire, hunger, cold, foot marches and fleas: “We had more vermin on our heads than hair. But the worst ordeal was the daily early morning roll call.” Every morning the women workers, most with mere rags on their feet, had to line up outside for the daily counting [of the “inmates”]. Sometimes it might take hours before everyone was accounted for, especially those who seemed to be missing -- some women simply died on their wooden perches during the night. Following that, the women would be ordered – in rain, in snow, or in cold reaching minus 40 degrees -- to walk the seven kilometers [ca. four miles] to the ammunitions factory.

“There was no life, no joy, no memories, no wishing. Every thought was on enough bread. “We were the living dead -- like robots, without soul or will.” However, she was fortunate to survive that hell. Of every ten women perhaps two would live to experience the day of victory. Her sister Gerda also survived the Trud-Army, although an errant bullet crushed her foot, and she would be under psychiatric care the rest of her life. Three aunts and a best friend of Olinde Fischer did not survive the Trud-Army.

Finally, in January of 1946 Olinde was allowed to leave the Trud-Army and to return to her family. During the summer of the same year she met Friedrich, her future husband. They had two daughters, and she was able to receive nurse’s training. Still, even after the war, reprisals [against the German Russians] continued unabated. Every month German Russians were obliged to report to their respective local authorities and were not to leave their places of deportation without explicit permission. The Fischer and Fast families were also prohibited from returning to their homeland Volga region. Even as chief doctor in a hospital, Friedrich Fischer was constantly shadowed and observed.

German Russians would continue to suffer under the stigma of being called Fascists. “After the monthly reporting scheme was rescinded, we were able to move to Kazakhstan and to start a new life there,” recounted Olinde. The Fischer family would live in the vicinity of Karaganda before they emigrated to Germany. “In Germany we immediately felt at home. For some time we had seriously debated whether to stay or to move to Germany. However, when it became quite clear that the Volga German Republic would never be restored, we and many others simply left.”

With a smile, Olinde Fischer pulls out another photo from the album on her dining table. It shows a wedding party and an aging couple standing in front of a church entrance. “On our fiftieth wedding anniversary we renewed our vows, and this time it was in a church! By now we have lived together for fifty-eight years, and it has been a happy life!” Olinde Fischer carefully leafs through the photo album. The faces of her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren smile at the onlooker. She did not forget the horror of the GULAG, but she survived it.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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