“Pious and Industrious People …” -- The German Settlements in Bessarabia, 1814 – 1940

Vossler, Günther & Wiener, Erika. "“Pious and Industrious People …” -- The German Settlements in Bessarabia, 1814 – 1940." Mitteilungsblatt, January 2012, 14 – 16.

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

On October 15, 2011, in the German Ev.-Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Odessa, an exhibit opened that carries a great deal of significance for us Germans from Bessarabia.

The 126-year history of the Germans in Bessarabia is presented by means of thirty-two banners. The historical content was conceived by Dr. Ute Schmidt, while Ulrich Baehr, Professor of Painting and Art in the public sector [likely at a museum] was responsible for the graphic design. The textual material is in the Russian and Romanian languages.

Previously, between 2010 and 2011, the exhibit had been shown in Chişinau, Comrat, Cahul and Tarutino. During 2012 it will move on to Akkerman, Ismael, and other locales in Ukraine. Also in 2012 it will be seen in a German and English-language version in Germany (Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich and Bonn) and in the USA (Bismarck and other locales).

The exhibit demonstrates how a national minority, as the Germans were in Bessarabia, developed the land its own special way, how it carried on during particularly difficult political times, and how it worked with great passion on maintaining its culture and the interests of its people.

The opening ceremony for the Odessa exhibit included participation by notable representatives from the public sector. Bishop Spahlinger welcomed around 250 guests to St. Paul’s Church, among them many prominent personalities from Odessa and the surrounding area. He was pleased about the major attention the exhibit was evoking. During his introductory remarks he spoke of the historical roots of the Ev.-Lutheran Church in Russia as well as the German settlement areas in the Odessa region, in which he also included all of Bessarabia. He reported that today there are around 10,000 people of German ancestry in the Odessa region, although most of them have only a minimal command of the German language. The German Ev.-Lutheran Church is considered a center for Ev.-Lutheran faithful of various nationalities, which in itself underscores the significance of this exhibit in the newly renovated church in Odessa. During preceding days, an invitation had gone out for a press conference, when journalists and a television team received relevant information on the exhibit.

The event enjoyed a special honor by having in attendance at the opening ceremony the German Ambassador to Ukraine, Dr. Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, who presented his own welcoming speech. He paid tribute to Dr. Ute Schmidt’s exhibit and brought to mind that the German settlers in Bessarabia and in the Odessa region – despite a relatively brief settlement period – had written an important piece of history in Ukraine and had strongly involved themselves in the general life of the time, particularly in a cultural way. He deemed this to be a historically significant achievement, for which the exhibit by Dr. Ute Schmidt provides an important context and to which it draws considerable attention. The ambassador also spoke in detail about the book that underlies the exhibit, namely, Dr. Ute Schmidt’s Bessarabian – Deutsche Kolonisten am Schwarzen Meer [Bessarabia – German Colonists on the Black Sea (now available from GRHC in an English-language translation by James Gessele – Tr.)] and repeatedly expressed his great admiration for the book. He also expressed the hope that the exhibit might engender further intensive conversation between German and Ukrainian universities.

Svetlana Boeva, director of the department for external relationships of the city council of Odessa, expressed her great joy about the exhibit and about the fact that it was on display in the Church of St. Paul, a cultural gem of her city. She, too, wished for continued good relationships with the former residents of Bessarabia.

In his personal welcoming speech, Günther Vossler, president of the Bessarabien Deutsche Verein [Bessarabian German Association (of Germany)], took his audience back to the special “Colonist Status” the Germans were granted by Tsar Alexander I in the form of specific privileges. Vossler made it clear that Alexander I thereby created a new societal status of the free farmer, in contrast with the still existing serfdom status for Russia’s farmers. He deemed the phrase “Pious and industrious people …” to be a fitting description for the exhibit and, he would add the following: “… with privileges granted by the Russian colonial administration.” As a co-sponsor of the exhibit, the Bessarabian German Association was pleased to have the opportunity of attending it in the most famous city of South Russia.

Dr. Ute Schmidt, in turn, thanked all who had accepted responsibility for the exhibit and for being able to display the exhibit in St. Paul’s Church in Odessa. Her special thanks went to Bishop Uland Spahlinger and to the church’s pastor, Andreas Hamburg. She also thanked the sponsors of the exhibit, particularly the representatives for culture and media from the German government, as well as the Bessarabian German Association, the German Cultural Reform group for Eastern Europe, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Inernationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ [German Society for International Cooperation]), and the Association “German Wiedergeburt” [Rebirth] in Odessa.

Next Dr Ute Schmidt covered the content and format of the exhibit. The banners, each about three meters [ten feet] high, were designed with a specific color for each general theme. It all begins with the settlement history that started in 1814 with the appeal by Tsar Alexander I and the color green, that is, Russian green. The color red covers the entire settlement period between 1814 and 1940 and includes life in the villages, church, schools, agriculture, the trades, and community life. Themes such as relationships with other ethnic groups and membership in various different national governments and bodies of authority are presented in blue. Bessarabian Germans were always known as loyal citizens of the state. The banners in yellow depict the time during World War I when Germans were designated as “the enemy within” and, via the example of the Alexanderfeld community, how the dispossession of German land ownership was carried out. Each banner carries a large image to catch the viewer’s eye, with explanatory text, brief and to the point, appearing at eye level, and another large-format image toward the bottom completing the information on the banner.

The opening ceremony for the exhibit was followed with a buffet offering a variety of foods prepared by members of the German “Rebirth” Society.

All guests were invited for a panel discussion at 5 PM. Its moderator was Pastor Karl-Heinz Ulrich of the Ev.-Lutheran Church of the State of Bavaria. Pastor Ulrich had held the pastorship at St. Paul’s for four years, during which he gained many personal contacts with representatives of Ukraine, and he is very knowledgeable about the ecclesiastic and societal structures there. Members of the panel were Bishop Uland Spahlinger; Odessa-resident historian Dr. Elvira Plesskaya; Prof. Dr. Vladimir Shevchuk, Dean of the German Technical Faculty at the Odessa National Polytechnic University; Prof. Nikolay A. Shevchuk of the State University of Odessa; and Dr. Ute Schmidt of the Free University of Berlin.

Moderator Ulrich initially posed the following question: to what extent does Ukraine protect and support a minority, which the Germans certainly are? The ensuing discussion provided evidence that Ukraine’s laws regarding opportunities and possibilities for minorities are certainly positive, but that -- for various reasons – the laws are not applied appropriately. Female representatives of the German Cultural Society of Ismael and Tarutino expressed the view that the German minority does indeed find a hearing, and that much has changed toward the positive side in recent years. However, they added, the cities and rural districts simply do not have the financial means to support the work of German cultural organizations. Still, on a positively note, the city of Ismael has made space available to the German Cultural Society for various gatherings.

Representatives of the universities reported that many students were opting for “Deutsch” as their foreign language. The simple reason is that, with knowledge of the German language, these young people are hoping to open up occupational and personal development opportunities. So, clearly, many Ukrainians nowadays like to learn German as their primary foreign language. Mr. Tillman Hess, the director of the GIZ in Odessa, however, stated that he was puzzled as to why some people of German descent were showing little motivation for learning German. Basically, however, it is a fact that Germans enjoy the same opportunities as any other students in Ukraine, and many students are not even aware that some of their colleagues are of German origin. Contacts with German universities have been established. German professors are teaching as guest lecturers at the University in Odessa, that is, in German! A task for the immediate future is to maintain these contacts at the university level and to grow them for the benefit of the Ukrainian people. Participants in the discussion were in general agreement on that topic.

The exhibit was scheduled to continue at St. Paul’s Church through December 31, 2011.

The newly renovated St. Paul’s Church in Odessa.
German Ambassador Dr. Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth pictured with Günter Vossler.
Looking into the altar space of the Church of St. Paul.
Pictured during the panel discussion, right to left: Bishop Uland Spahlinger, Dr. Ute Schmidt, Pastor Ulrich, the interpreter, and Dr. Elvira Plesskaya.
Photos by Herbert Hablizel.

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


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