Hunger Eighty Years Ago: Germans from the Former USSR Remember 1933

Kampen, Johann. "Hunger Eighty Years Ago: Germans from the Former USSR Remember 1933." Volk auf dem Weg, April 2013, 36-37.

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

For people of both nations from which the German Russians derive their name, 1933 is clearly associated with two bitter memories: it was the year when Hitler—thanks to willing helpers—grabbed power, while in Stalin’s Russia cheap executioners were already solidifying their power by the most brutal means. For millions of people in Eastern and Western Europe, that fateful time remains a permanent memory. In the Soviet Union, 1933 brought the additional catastrophe of hunger. Even a centenarian will never forget hunger experienced in childhood, and many generations will certainly take to their graves the memories of the consequences of National Socialism. All this applies to Germans and other peoples, regardless of which side of the walls and steel wire fences they found themselves during those fateful years.  

Whenever older Germans from Russia today speak of famines, they are referring to the years 1921, 1933 and 1946-1947, when they were personally impacted—in their old homeland or in exile—or to descriptions they had heard from their parents. In contrast, experts and smart-alecks talk about hunger without ever having been affected by it. Large numbers are mentioned—up to nine million a year in the whole world—of those who may have died from hunger. Now there is talk of gen-tech, of causing the world to become one steppe, and of the immanent dynamic of misery because oil and water reserves are steadily lessening while food prices and the number of people on this earth are on an inexorable rise.

One can say without exaggeration that hunger is not a pressing topic in today’s Germany and surrounding countries. This applies especially to the generations who did not experience in person the war and post-war years. This is a chapter left to the “eternally old,” some surely think, while failing to realize that in other regions of our earth hunger remains a scourge for not fewer people than those affected by natural disasters, terror, or war.

Even during the very early years of settlement in the Volga region, the German Russian colonists came to suffer famine in their unfamiliar environment. But massive dying was averted thanks to the Tsarina Catherine II’s supply system, which was a relatively good one for those times. More importantly, during the succeeding years the colonists learned to exercise more and more control over nature with its raw climatic conditions.

Still, the “costly time” years between 1915 and 1818 provided the first decisive trigger for return emigration. “At the time there was real famine, even among our own… The elders often told about how sparse their meals sometimes were, especially among the poorer classes who did not have reserves from earlier years. Instead of regular bread they ate bran cakes. Herbs and roots were gathered and eaten, and the general shortages caused many illnesses,” wrote M. M. Friesen in Geschichte der Alt-Evangelischen Mennoniten-Brüderschaft in Russland (1911) [History of the Old-Evangelical Lutheran Mennonite Brotherhood].

New heights of hunger in Russia were experienced following the October Revolution of 1917. The thorough implementation of the policies of “Militant Communism” gradually destroyed decades of ties between cities and the rural areas.

During the period between 1918 and 1920, measures stemming from the prodrasvyorstka policy (compulsory delivery [of goods to the State]) were carried out especially ruthlessly in the Volga region. These sorts of measures taken under Militant Communism have generally been cited as the causes for the famine of 1921 and 1922, one of a scale never suffered before. During the winter of 1920/1921 farmers’ entire reserves, including the entire supply of grain seed, were confiscated. As a result, farmers in the Volga region, in Ukraine, in the North Caucasus, in the Urals and on Crimea were left entirely without seed for grain.

In other regions of Russia, the 1921-1922 famine did not reach quite the scale as in the Volga region and in Ukraine, although many Germans were likewise suffering hunger in the Altai and in Siberian Tomsk.

Barely ten years later, mortality rates in the German villages soared, reaching their highest point during the winter and spring of 1932-1933. In the ASSR [Autonomous Social Soviet Republic] of Volga Germans, between 1925 and 1928 the average annual number of “normal deaths” had been 12,365, but for the year of 1932 the number of deaths reached 20,162 persons, and for the year 1933, A. Herrmann (in Enzyklopädie der Deutschen Russlands [Encyclopedia of the Germans in Russia]) puts that number at 50,139 deaths. During the same year, thirteen percent of the population died in the German city of Balzer on the Volga, nine percent in Engels, and six percent in Marxstadt. Between 1929 and 1939, some 54,000 people died of famine in the Volga region.

Among the many exaggerated or even played-down numbers of all people who died during the worst years of famine in the Soviet Union, I would prefer to underscore the estimates given in the Lexicon of [the newspaper] “Zeit” (Hamburg, 2005): 1.5 to 5 million between 1921 and 1922, and 5 to 6 million between 1932 and 1933.

In my own memory, the famine years around 1933 and their horrible impressions stand second only behind the terror era of 1937-1938, the nights of bombing in Berlin (1944), and my experiences on the German Western front 1944-1945. In this context I cannot of course remember the famine of 1921, my birth year. I am told that at that time it was American and Dutch people who provided assistance to our people on the Dnieper River, thereby easing the worst problems among our German families. And after the capitulation of May 8, 1945 it was Americans again who, in my POW camps in Heilbronn and Kornwestheim, provided me with enough calories for me to survive that brief phase of my life at a weight of weighing 42 kilograms [ca. 93 pounds] (toward the end), and never less than during the famine year of 1933. Thank you, Mister President!
Regarding the famine year of 1933 and for 1938, when my father was liquidated by the Soviets, I would like to express sincere gratitude to my German and Ukrainian neighbors for their solidarity and assistance.

Personally I am not able to subscribe to the assertion that the worst famines under hammer and sickle were arranged purposely by Soviet State policies. I prefer to leave that judgment to historians like Benjamin Pinkus and Ingeborg Fleischhauer. In Die Deutschen in der Sowietunion [The Germans in the Soviet Union], (Köln, 1987), they summarize the causes as follows: “The famine of 1932-1933, triggered by a farming system that had been severely weakened subsequent to compulsory collectivization and de-kulakization, left many gaps in German agriculture.”

During my many years of volunteer work for the Germans from Russia I have been able to collect many [recorded] voices concerning the events affecting our ethnic group. The following memories described by contemporary German Russian witnesses are from extended letters and conversations.

Susanne Isaak, b. 1927, writes as follows:

The famines I still remember strongly. Through both winters of 1932-1933 and 1933-1934 we couldn’t get either “Konjor” or a porridge-like flour-streusel mess. “Konjor” is a soup made of potatoes and millet, but without any meat, the other “traditional” fare being gray flower streusel boiled in water.

In 1941, Kushagi in the Novosibirsk area became our new “home” [deportation destination]. We Germans were outcasts and at first fed ourselves from what we could get in exchange for pieces of clothing or bed linens. Our people in Siberia had the following three choices: suffer hunger, steal, or beg. Well, our parents had never taught us to steal or beg. It was bad.

Johann Kempen, b. 1921, author of this article, reports as follows:

In 1932 I was eleven. Our family had good German and Ukrainian neighbors. Their own possibilities, however, were limited because nobody had much of anything. Still, how helpful these people were capable of being was demonstrated five years later, when my father was dragged off by state organs and my mother Else was left to her own devices, with children who were sixteen, thirteen, ten and three years of age. But the time of 1937-1938 did not bring famine to us on the Dnieper River, in contrast to 1932-1933, when hunger did not make any distinction between Germans and Ukrainians.

Our family lived among these two peoples and a mere seven kilometers [just over four miles] from Zaporozhe and its “model” company “Dnieprostroy.” There David Kampen, my father and the collective’s gardener, during the famine years was given the opportunity in the well-known factory to work as a cabinet maker. The result was some needed cash every week. Our family survived because every pay day we were able to go to Zaporozhe to buy dried herring or small sprats, which in our broken Russian we called tulyki (instead of kilyki). This enhanced our winter menu consisting of mangel-wurzel, pumpkins, and an occasional baked gooey mixture of uncooked barley and barley roasted as ersatz coffee. During spring we added acacia leaves, sorrel and stinging nettles. Some of our neighbors ate ground squirrels.

Hilde Wurster, cousin of this author with the same birth year, describes the strange case of her uncle Jakob, who was a particularly strict vegetarian and in 1933 had become a ghost-like figure of skin and bones. Doctor Chorochmonenko recommended that he eat dog meat: “Boy, you need protein.” It is said that uncle Jakob vomited upon receiving this medical advice. Still, he survived and attained the age of seventy-five in his banishment locale in Central Asia. It should be added here that uncle Jakob and his Christian religious community observed Biblical purity laws as strongly as the seven brothers and their mother in Maccabees, chapter 7, who would rather die a martyr’s death than to sin by eating pig’s flesh.

Christian Kronhardt, b. 1928:

I was four years old at the time, but I still remember well that many people in my home village of Gorodok died of hunger. Salvation for our family consisted of a small garden and our cow, which gave birth to a calf in 1933, but was confiscated nevertheless. But we were lucky that a certain Communist lover of animals took pity [on the calf], and Mama was able to take the cow back. In 1945, however, we were less fortunate, because we lost our cow, our garden and our home forever, and via a detour to Poland and Germany we were eventually deported to Siberia.

Emma Bayer, b. 1925:

In August of 1933 I was sitting next to our kitchen window and dreamt, eyes wide open and just as I had done the previous year, of the upcoming first day of school. Then, as I observed that dead horses were being transported past our house, I said, prophetically: “This year it’s dead horses, next year it will be people.”

I remember that horses played an important role in our family, since my father was the caretaker of horses in the “Klara Zetkin” factory in Balzer on the Volga, and I remember that one day he surprised us with the question, “Would you like to eat horsemeat? A certain horse broke its leg and will be slaughtered. I could get a half horse!” “Yes, we’ll eat it,” my mother and my older sister said, nearly simultaneously. 
[The author] Emma, who at that time still was Emma Weisheim, since 1979 has been living in Augsburg. She survived nearly all of her own Volga Germans by several years. Her father reached only sixty years of age, her mother got all the way to ninety, her sisters sixty-four, eighty-three, and ninety-nine (!). That is not a bad average age, despite hunger, deportation and Trud Army [Soviet Forced-Labor Camps].

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

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