A Day in Katzbach, the Village of my Forefathers

Translator’s Note: this article appeared in two separate issues and is here combined into one translation.  - AH

Derwenskus, Ulrich von, “A Day in Katzbach, the Village of my Forefathers” Mitteilungsblatt, February & March 2010, 16-17.

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

During a week’s travel (September 2 – 9, 2009), we visited Katzbach and other, formerly purely German locales. At the time, after many and long conversations, I was finally able to convince my mother, who was born and baptized in Katzbach in 1933 [to travel with us].  Also accompanying us would be a female friend of my mother, who is also living in Hankensbüttel –Emmen, a small village in the Lüneburg Heath region, and one who had spent her first years of life in Katzbach.

Within only a few kilometers on a very modest road, despite “initial” language difficulties, we got into a lively conversation with our driver Anatoli, a university graduate in technical engineering in the former county seat of Akkerman. Participating occasionally in the conversation as well were other passengers, the conversations dealing mainly with my wife Karin, my mother Herta Derwenskus (nee Stock), and her friend and best friend, Valerie (Wally) Herz (nee Knopp).

Along with our driver Anatoli we were astonished to see how many [so-called] Bessarabian/Swabian terms had been assumed from the Russian language by our settler ancestors.  We were driving through formerly German-oriented locales such as Sarata, Gnadental, Arzis, and past places such as Teplitz and Alt-Elft, in the direction of Tarutino.

Arriving in Paris, we left the relatively broad main road and drove on an unpaved path toward Katzbach, situated completely out-of-the-way of anything. The field path proved to be rather adventurous, but we were fortunate that the weather was beautiful, with bright sunshine and no rain in sight whatsoever.  I believe that we could otherwise have experienced considerable difficulties in reaching any village on that field road. Even our driver, having led excursions like this for ten years, had never been in Katzbach.

Very rarely do foreign folks come to this remote locale, and he told us later that he had approached it with mixed feelings.               

After seven kilometers [ca. 4 miles] of travel on the field road we arrived on a hill and below us we saw Katzbach, stretched out along a lengthy valley. It was a really beautiful, unobstructed view of the village, one that could not have provided a more peaceful impression on us. The only vehicles we were able to spot from above were an old bus and a horse-drawn wagon, both moving side by side on the parallel village streets.   

We approached the village from the south, via the so-called Lower Village, which for the most part is no longer in existence. Shortly after the 1940 resettlement into the former Old Reich, there had been an earthquake that seriously damaged the Lower Village. Only scattered, single houses still exist in this part of the village and, sadly, my grandfathers’ former farm property and those of other ancestors in that part of town were no longer to be seen.

During the course of that day, a village plat I had copied multiple times was to prove of great help to us. We started our tracing from the south end of the village.  But, alas, how bad the appearance of the streets was! Hardly anything was apparent from my grandmother’s wonderful stories of the cleanly swept and annually refreshed property walls, of the village streets lined with tall acacia trees. 

On the contrary, we saw many collapsed and hopeless-looking former properties. Yes, it was good that we had been prepared for this, but when one is confronted in person with this scene, the disappointment is overwhelming. 

I was particularly taken by my mother’s deep emotions during that day, which, given the sadness over the decay of the once beautiful village and her earlier anticipation of being able to see these sights once again, were clearly touching every part of her soul.

We found the Ev.-Lutheran church, once the special pride of the German colonists they had dedicated in 1894, but now in rather pitiful condition. The tower is no longer there, and the windows and the roof looked as if they would not be able to withstand the effects of the climate if direly needed repairs would not be undertaken immediately. There had been only this one church in Katzbach, and all residents were of German ancestry and belonged to the Ev.-Lutheran community.

In front of the church
(today used as a clubhouse).

Subsequently we were unexpectedly fortunate that a woman appeared suddenly and “explained” to us in Russian and in Ukrainian that she would fetch the key, should we wish to look inside the church building. Well, that was beyond question, and soon she reappeared indeed and led us into the church building in which my mother had been baptized in 1933.

I had earlier become aware that the church had been used for entirely unnatural purposes during Soviet times. Among these were a grain store and a so-called cultural house. Entering through the door I was reminded that many deeply faithful German people had entered here. Among them my grandparents, and had trod before us on the wooden planks in the interior.

Today the church building is completely empty. Where the pulpit and the altar must once have stood one could now recognize a sort of theater stage. Only on one of the long walls of the church nave were we able to discern two items from German times, namely, two large iron stoves that had once provided warmth for the church attendees.

Over the entrance there was the loft with its wooden balustrade, an area which once housed the organ in the middle. The friendly elderly “church watchwoman” led us all the way on an old, steep wooden staircase and, through a hole in the wood, where we were able to look down on the nearly completely empty interior.

Next to the former church there stands the old school building, now housing an archaic seeming shop. Our “church opener” then asked us via Anatoli whether we might wish to eat grapes, sheep’s cheese, and other specialties at her place.

Her question was posed in a non-urgent, non-pressing, non-commercial manner and, as we were to observe during the next two hours, Tatyana proved to be a modest, shy person. She described to us the way to her home that stemmed from German times and where we were to meet within an hour.

Meanwhile, in the shop within the old school, we bought something to drink and again our thoughts took us back to particularly the time of our grandparents who, during still Russian times of 1821 to 1918, might have sat in school benches there.

Even today, a small footpath still leads from the school across the Aliaga, the creek that flowed through the village that once stretched for 4 kilometers [ca. 2.5 miles] and separates the two parallel village streets.

Wally told us how her still living, 94-year-old mother has told her how she used to take this path to the church and to shopping. Naturally, we also walked this way. The former shop (lafke) is not around anymore. At least we were unable to locate it.

With Tatyana in Katzbach.

Next to the school used to be the property of my great-uncle Gotthilf Stock. This piece of land was easy to locate, and on it a “newer” home has been built. Apparently that was supposed to be a kind of inn or bar, but unfortunately it was closed. I was unable to discover with certainty the property of another great-uncle, Jakob Stock. 

Of the properties of ancestors of my grandmother Christina Schock, nee Groß, I was not able to rediscover any of them whatsoever. They had all been in the Lower Village.

The home of Tatyana, near the intersection, one of the roads formerly leading to Krasna, but now mere field paths, was easily found. Anatoli had parked his vehicle in front of it and was waiting for us outside.

Tatyana then arrived at her formerly German farm property and asked us to come inside.   

In the small yard we could see innumerable feathered friends walking around unhindered.

Tatyana preceded us on her bare feet. Entering the living room we saw a small table that was nearly bowing because it was laden so heavily with prepared foods. What a wealth of food she had set out for us!

With the help of our “interpreter” Anatoli, we got into a conversation of extraordinary cordiality, and no one was able to tear oneself away from this poor woman’s outgoing, genuine hospitality.

Tatyana, now 55, lives in this increasingly run-down and dying village and operates her property all by herself. She does have a 23-year-old son, but he works at a construction site in Akkerman. Having worked for forty-one years for the collective, she now receives as her thanks an extremely modest pension that in itself cannot possibly allow her to survive. Tatyana is actually a Bulgarian and came here after the war, along with her parents, from a Bulgarian village.

We learned from her that Katzbach had just over 200 residents at this time. Considering that, before the resettlement, over a thousand people of German descent had lived here in a village in full bloom, one can easily recognize that a steep decline has taken place.

Next we went to the cemetery. Would we even find any traces of former times? Amidst a great spread of weeds (“buryan”) and thorny bushes we were still able to discover a multiplicity of toppled and thrown-about gravestones. Unfortunately, on a majority of them no discernable inscription existed any longer, and some were situated face-down. Still, a few were actually recognizable, and a large gravestone of the Knopp family was still there, as well as a gravestone of an ancestor of my grandmother who actually had the same name. In some ways it was astonishing that we were able to find as many traces of the German village founders as we did after these sixty-nine years.

We continued onward, this time along the entire length of the second village street, north to south.

Homes that proudly faced their gables toward the street were not easily recognizable as those of German times. A few were in relatively good condition, but the majority was in rather bad condition. Between neighboring yards there were decaying, collapsing buildings and only partly recognizable fencing walls.

But wait. What was this curiously large stone on the side of the road that I was ambling along? Indeed we had discovered a threshing stone that was so common in our former Bessarabia. These large stones were cylindrical in form, with deep grooves along their lengths. How often this stone might have gone around in times past – and now it was simply lying there on the side of the street, completely useless. Later on we discovered two other threshing stones in front of a farm property. They had apparently been placed there to “improve the overall appearance” of the place.

I could have continued walking through the village for hours on end. Still, respecting my “beaten-down” mother, my wife Karin, and Wally, who accompanied me along with Anatoli and his slowly cruising taxi from the cemetery, and due to the late time, we simply had to take our leave of Katzbach.

It should also be mentioned that Katzbach/Lushanka, according to Tatyana, has no access to television or mobile phone networks. Fortunately there is a new school with a few pieces of sports equipment and a small soccer field. Perhaps this is a small glimpse of hope that the decay of the village might still be slowed.

With an extraordinarily good feeling, despite the lack of hopefulness we had observed, I left my village in which my ancestors on my mother’s side had spent their entire lives engaged primarily in hard corporal work. Finally I had been able to see the place with my own eyes. Perhaps the kind of restlessness I had always felt regarding the place may hopefully been taken from me.  

For me it is certain: this was not the last time for me to visit to the former Bessarabia.

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