Und tut uns net Vergesse!
Paulsen, Nina. "And Don’t Forget About us!" Volk auf dem Weg, March 2005, 16-17.
Translation from the original German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Translator's Note: The title in the German original is actually in dialect -- its nuance is impossible to render in translation. -- A.H.
Forty years ago, "BILD am Sonntag" [German newspaper Bild, Sunday edition] went on a search for Volga-Germans missing without a trace. [12 point italics]
"Sing in German once more, Tovairsh!" This sort of optimism comes from a headline of a report in the February 21, 1965 issue of "BILD am Sonntag," which dealt with the life in Kazakhstan of Germans who had been deported there.
At the time, Johann Schellenberg, former editor of the Slavgorod newspaper "Rote Fahne [Red Flag]," had received a copy of the paper from a friend in the Federal Republic of Germany, and he has kept it for four decades among his private records. The yellowed pages, which contain an extensive report and very expressive photos consitute a contemporary witness to the history of previously lost, only partially rehabilitated German-Russians. Although it covers only a tiny fraction within only a part of the vast space and time span of postwar history of the ethnic group, it also reports in a very informative manner on the extreme cynicism with which the German-Russians were degraded to mere "work animals" by the Soviet propaganda machine, how these Germans delighted over even the smallest concessions from the regime, and how they, across the vast country, lived in the hope for restoration of justice (in another word, autonomy). Since in the final end, it [autonomy] was not restored after all, most of them eventually turned their backs to a country that had once been chosen as home by their ancestors, to find happiness and justice in the very original home country of those ancestors.
The report entitled "Sing in German once more, Tovairsh!" goes back to the time of the so-called thaw in the political climate of the Soviet Union, which gave some measure of hope for political relaxation even to German-Russians living in places of exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Following the 1955 visit to Moscow by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the assumption of diplomatic relations between the German Federal Republic and the Soviet Union, even the German-Russians began to receive some concessions. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR enacted the decree of December 13, 1955 "concerning the lifting of restrictions on Germans and their family members living in special settlements," by which at least the degrading so-called "Kommandantur" [mandatory, permanent surveillance by military authorities; Tr.] was finally abolished.
Johann Schellenberg, who today lives in Bochum, recalls: "During December, 1955, the first German-language newspaper entitled 'Arbeit [Work]' appeared in Barnaul, which only a year and a half later was shut down due to alleged 'autonomistic' activities. The next first real harbinger of spring for German-Russians arrived in 1957 with the appearance of the German-language nationwide newspaper 'Neues Leben [New Life]' (from Moscow) and the regional paper called 'Rote Fahne [Red Flag].' Both were party organs, but they provided a spark of hope simply because they were printed in the German language. Also added were German-language radio programs in Kazakhstan, Kirgistan, and Moscow; instruction in the 'mother tongue,' German; and, finally, the decree of August 19, 1964 by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR 'Concerning Changes to the Decree by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of August 28, 1941 on the resettlement of Germans living in the Volga Region.' Employees of 'Rote Fahne' learned of this decree only from the East German newspaper 'Neues Deustchland [A New Germany].'
The Russian (Soviet) press remained mostly silent on the decree of 1964. Only five months later, on January 5, 1965, did the Moscow newspaper 'Neues Leben' carry the [translated] text of the decree. The effects of the partial rehabilitation of Germans were experienced in person by over two million [German-Russian] immigrants to Germany."
The above-mentioned decree had in fact not been intended for publication. In the original, that rubric was eventually struck and eventually replaced with the indication "For Publication in the Advertizer," making almost sure once again that the text of the decree would -- at least for a long while -- fail to reach most of those affected by it.
"Sing in German once more, Tovairsh!" -- German-Russians in the Kazakh Steppes
The introduction to that story in "BILD am Sonntag" of early 1965 reads as follows: "In January of this year the Soviet government published a decree which acquitted the German-Russians of Stalin's accusation of 'having fully conspired with Hitler.' Stalin deported these 'Volga-Germans,' and where are they now?" Correspondent for Eastern Europe, Manfred R. Beer, and the Austrian Franz Graf Goess begin the search for these lost Volga-Germans. For decades the existence of such a German ethnic group in the Soviet Union has been concealed -- the so-called Great Silence. Among other places the Western journalists discover near the Chinese border of Kazakhstan traces of the exiled, previously lost Germans.
After a trip covering 8,000 kilometers and various attempts to discover information in the Soviet capital, they arrive in Kazakh Alma-Ata and are visibly impressed by the multicultural aura of this Central Asian metropolis, as well as by its radio broadcast facility. They report being confronted with a "Babel of languages as we entered the radio broadcast facility in Alma-Ata, which is situated in a new section of the Kazakh capital city. Kazakhs, Uigurs, Kalmucks, Russians, Kirkiz, and Ukrainians are hurrying busily through endless corridors. The faces, a very mirror of Asia and Europe, provide a reminder that not less than fifty nationalities were involved in establishing the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Even German sounds are heard in this hectic atmosphere, particularly on the second floor of the gigantic building, where the 'German Studio' is situated."
It is from here that three times a week, as on this January 22, the voice of the petite announcer, Lilly Warkentin, is heard: "This is Alma-Ata with its radio broadcast for the German-speaking population of Kazakhstan." Thanks to the two journalists, who have brought along a copy of the newspaper "Neues Leben," it has been made possible to inform the Germans living in Kazakhstan a week early of the text contained in the document of the long hoped-for decree.
Beer and Goess recall: "Two days earlier, as we began a five-hour, 4,000-km flight from Moscow to Alam-Ata, we had in our baggage a copy, hot off the presses, of 'Neues Leben.' That was the name of a periodical which appeared every two weeks in the 'Pravda' publishing company and was intended for German-Russians scattered in all directions across Siberia and Central Asia. And that issue had printed on its title page the full text of the text concerning their rehabilitation."
"And now things will be much better ..." -- Hope is the last to die
In an adjoining room the two journalists follow the broadcast and converse with the chief editor of the "German Hour" emanating from Radio Alma-Ata. Their comment: "His name is Dietrich Friesen, and he looks just like this: tall, blond, with blue eyes. He has never seen Germany, but speaks outstanding High German."
Dietrich Freisen is one of the first Germans the journalists are visiting. He literally rips the copy of "Neues Leben" from their hands. Demonstrating his enthusiasm, he says, "I'll rearrange the content of the broadcast immediately. This text must be aired. Had you not brought a copy of the paper, we would have had to wait several days for it -- you know, Moscow is far away."
The journalists are able to construct their own answer to a question Friesen does not wish to answer, namely, why one of his coworkers had not simply translated the text that has been available in Russian-language media for days now. They assume he fears that he might perhaps not translate to the dotting of an i this text as it appears in the Russian original. The smallest mistake might cost him at least his job, if not more, so he prefers to wait for 'Neues Leben" and its "official" translation.
As Lilly Warkentin completes reading the final words of the decree into the microphone, a powerful trumpet fanfare is sounded, and it provides the transition to the next segment, a report entitled "Working to the best of your ability" [literally, "conscience." Tr.]. A reporter by the name of Eugen Mueller talks "about the shining example that miner Wilhelm Lenz, a Volga-Germane exiled to Karaganda, provides to his Russian colleagues. Willy is the best!"
After the song "Horch, was kommt von draussen rein [Folksong "Hark, who enters from outside]" is played, "a new piece 'from the light muse' by the young Soviet-German composer Oskar Geilfuss, who 'earned his spurs' in Alma-Ata is already giving concerts in Moscow" is broadcast. Then comes another song, "Der Fliederduft hat mich berauscht [The lilac's aroma has intoxicated me]," performed with "gusto and emotion" by the Volga-German singer Elvira Muth.
"At this moment, nearly all Germans in Kazakhstan are sitting by their radios," enthuses Dietrich Friesen. For the estimated 800,000 listeners this program is of very special importance. For the first time it is possible to broadcast the entire German-language text of the decree by the Supreme Soviet, which is intended to rehabilitate "all Soviet citizens of German nationality" form the discriminatory accusations by Stalin.
This half-hour program is broadcast only three times a week. The journalists' comment: "This may seem like very little if one considers that one of each thirteen of Kazakhstan (which is twice as large as the Federal Republic of Germany) is German and 60,000 Germans live in the region of the capital city of Alma-Ata alone, so that German is the language of commerce right after Kazakh and Russian." At the station they continue to be told by these Germans that the program provides to Kazakh-exiled Volga-Germans (that is, German-Russians) a real feeling of happiness in just being able to hear their mother tongue publicly at least three times a week.
Friesen talks hopefully to the journalists of potential consequences of the decree: "Now many things will be better. The decree even promises assistance in our cultural revival. And so I hope very much that we might also be granted more broadcast time ..." In retrospect, it can be said "that was a nice thought -- hope blooms eternal." Between promises by the regime and the wishes of the ethnic group, who continue to be 'nourished' by the promises, there continue to exist large, insurmountable hurdles. Complete political rehabilitation is something the Germans in the former Soviet Union are actually still looking for. The dream of cultural revival, still alive in the 1960s and even into the 1980s, is now but a broken dream, especially after the massive wave of emigration to Germany.
German Enthusiasm for Work -- A Showpiece of the Soviet Propaganda Machine
Beer and Goess must have been the first Western journalists to show an interest in the exiled Germans. Consequently, Soviet national politics, via-a-vis the German-Russians, was presented to them from its very best side. Of real life and of the horrid past, of which anyone affected kept to himself out of fear of the regime, they learned, if at all, at best marginally.
Still, from day to day the two increasingly witnessed "the great extent to which Communist propaganda has already taken hold of the creativity of the Germans," and the cynical manner they are being used for its own purposes. Critically, the journalists are able to observe: "Volga-Germans are held up to the other nationalities as exemplars of rigorous fulfillment of work norms and even more than the norm. For some time now, the names of the best workers are not just Pyotr, Ludmilla or Bigoshim, but more and more they are Hans, Christl or Otto."
The journalists find German names listed prominently on the garish "Worker Fame" Signs in villages and cities, even in the museum in Alma-Ata. The German enthusiasm for work is praised from all sides as showpiece and example" Germans are the best tractor operators, the best milkers of cows, the best work brigade leaders, and so on. With amazement, the journalists report: "Not a day passes that the party newspaper for the cities of Alma-Ata or Karaganda does not sing the praises of German specialists, engineers or agronomists."
The multipage report of February 21, 1965 i9Bild issue] includes letters from readers with their impressions and suggestions on the topic "German-Russians," which implies that there must have been prior reports on the lives of German-Russians. They had obviously met with good response.
In one of the letters, reader Magel of Bonn writes: "As a native Volga-German and political refugee stemming back to the Lenin-Totzky era, I have read your published report on the Volga-Germans you discovered not only with great interest, but I was also greatly moved and filled with joy."
Another statement comes from Josef Moser of Recklinghuasen and deals with the difficult situation for the German-Russians who obviously are in need of assistance: "it is very difficult to send aid from here, but there may be one thing the Soviet government may not object to: asking the next German traveler to Alma-Ata to present the German-Russians with a few hundred records of German folk songs and Christmas songs. Perhaps the German Embassy in Moscow might even take up such a project. That would be something the German-Russians might wish to create a memorial (in their hearts) to the "German-Germans" with the inscription: "And don't forget about us!"
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.