Johann Warkentin, Grand Old Man of German Russian Literature, Turns Ninety

Kampen, J. "Johann Warkentin, Grand Old Man of German Russian Literature, Turns Ninety." Volk auf dem Weg, May 2010, 14.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Johann Warkentin

Our eldest person celebrating a birthday in May 2010 will be ninety. His name is Johann Warkentin. In his life he had to overcome far more difficulties than any West German “normal citizen.” At eighty-five, he critically sought answers to questions about the role of his generation:

            How do we classify these old fogies?

            Wise and above things?

            Slobbering, doddering oldies?

            Role models? A millstone around the neck?

Yet, even as a man in his late forties, he already had one answer at the ready:

            Do not regret anything plaintively.

            Be young again,

            Just as once in Crimea!

Johann Warkentin was born on May 11, 1920 in the largest Crimean Mennonite village, Spat. It was the time when the final battle between the Reds and the Whites was still coloring the Black Sea blood-red. A Bolshevik with the German-sounding name Frunse was winning over a general of the last Tsar, and a man of German origin, Baron von Wrangel, and he chased him away.

Following the Civil War, there came overwhelmingly difficult times for German Russians, for the Warkentin family, for all Soviet citizens. After the murders and plundering came terror and hunger. Following a brief respite during the era of the New Economic Policy (1922 – 1928), hunger and terror returned as normalcy. And after the deceptive pause stemming from the German-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, all remaining illusions came to be burst in the summer of 1941. The Crimea Germans were the first of all citizens of the USSR to feel the total hatred by the Soviet system of all things German. Even before the infamous ukase [edict] of August 28, 1941 condemning all Volga Germans to banishment, they were already being exiled.

At war’s beginning Johann Warkentin was actually not on the Crimean Peninsula. A gifted student, he had been able to aim for a successful career.

At the young age of seventeen he had completed the secondary school in Spat. Although any further studies would be a luxury, “our Hans” [nickname for Johann] somehow succeeded in just that and even was able to spend the years 1937 – 1941 studying English literature and language at the remote University of Leningrad. Soon he acquired full command of three world languages: German, English and Russian -- a good fit for many areas of endeavor. Warkentin became a military interpreter in the Soviet navy.

However, in just a short time, there would remain only one path for this man, this German Russian, the path leading to the “Trud Army” [forced labor brigades]. Johann Warkentin landed in the largest labor camp in the entire world, the Taiga of Siberia.

In his book Spuren im Sand [Traces in the Sand] he writes that in the fall of 1946 he actually succeeded in returning to his studies “illegally.”

There followed half a century of ups and downs. He became a language instructor in the Altai and in Kazakhstan and an active contributor to the first post-war German-language newspaper in the Soviet Union, “Arbeit [Labor, or Work]” in Barnaul, Altai. However, when he became a participant in 1956 in the movement clamoring for Soviet German autonomy, he was dismissed from the editorial board. From 1969 on he once again became part of a newspaper, working as literary editor of the Moscow organ “Neues Leben [New Life],” until his emigration to the German Democratic Republic [Soviet satellite East Germany] in  May, 1981.  In East Berlin, however, he was not one the authorities dared to trust, and so his efforts to find a job as a lecturer of Russian Literature or as a translator went without success.

At the time of German reunification Warkentin was already in retirement. Selflessly, he immediately dedicated himself to volunteer work on behalf of his ethnic group. He became chair and social advisor of the Berlin chapter of the Landsmannschaft, as well as a board member in the cultural council and a member of the authors’ circle of Germans from Russia. His presentations at conventions, meetings, literary readings and symposia were widely admired, although the products of his sharp pen were not always understood properly by those who were dyed-in-the-wool “Wessies” [colloquialism for Germans in the West]. However, his thoroughly based knowledge on questions of Russian and German literature is recognized absolutely. For most of his countrymen he is the Number One among German Russian authors.

These days the ninety-year-old finds himself in the care of his daughter Lilli Sieski, who is also the best conduit for communicating with him. His hearing is not as he might want it to be. His strongest weapon, language, is therefore effective only in one direction, and unfortunately he was hospitalized at the time this article went to press.

On behalf of his large community of fans, “Volk auf dem Weg” sends this most loyal reader and honest critic, Johann Warkentin, best wishes for quick recovery and for much happiness in his remaining years. 

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

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