Looking for Traces in the Caucasus

Spurensuche im Kaukasus

Schelssmann, Pastor Mag. Frank. "Looking for Traces in the Caucasus." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2007, 26-27.

This translation from the original German text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

(Translated) SUBTITLE: Looking for Schwabian Traces in the Caucasus

Translator's Note: modern German usage of the word "evangelisch," literally, "evangelical," is synonymous with "Lutheran." To avoid confusion, the term herein used will be "Ev.-Luth.," except when the word "Lutheran" is used directly.

Debates with Christian faith communities across the world and, especially, with a desire for searching out locations of remote Ev.-Luth. "islands" of German ancestry have captured my interest for many years and have enriched my life through many adventure. So during the late summer of last year, my eldest son and I undertook an adventuresome journey that led me to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. In these republics in the Caucasus region there are Ev.-Luth. communities that, despite difficult base conditions, are able to display lively and ambitious structures. In the following brief report I would like to reflect on meetings with the locals, on getting to know their material and spiritual situation, and on the multifaceted impressions I was able to gain there.

Pastor Mag. Frank Schlessmann, community pastor and official representative of the Martin Luther Association of the Steiermark/Austria


The Ev.-Luth. church in Baku
Arrival in the Azerbaijani capital Baku was a climatically overwhelming experience. At 4 AM, exhausted and sleepy, exposed to high temperatures and considerable humidity, I immersed myself into this foreign city. It was entirely unclear to me how to bring into agreement the life and mentality of the population with my own fantasies of the people and the land in Azerbaijan, and this made me feel correspondingly tense.

An important intent of this trip was the search for German roots in the Caucasus states, not in the least because personal (though historically distant) familial traces connect me with the ethnic German group in Georgia. During the early 1800s, about 1,400 impoverished families from Wuerttemberg traveled along the Danube into Russian regions with the intent of finding their fortunes there. In various regions they established village-like structures that also included Christian churches. As a result of the discovery of crude oil on the Caspian Sea during the 1940s, Baku developed well into the 20th century into a city with an international populace, and in 1880 an Ev.-Luth. community was established in Baku. During the course of the extensive deportation of the ethnic German group in 1941 to Kazakhstan, these structures were basically leveled, and only when Azerbaijan seceded from the USSR in the 1990s, was an Ev.-Luth. church formed again, that is, primarily by a small group with German ancestry. But it was not until 2002 that they finally received official sanction from the state.

Pastor Shclessmann (right) and Pastor Hering during a visit of the oldest member of the community
Today the Lutheran [sic] Redeemer Community in Baku is a compact system with modest, but very effective structures. Besides adult baptisms, confirmations and a small number of funerals (we are talking here about a very young community), there are also many organized activities for children and youth (e.g., a camp on the Caspian Sea). The church building is still the property of the state, but is made available to the community. Pastor (ret.) Wolfgang Hering is caring for the community at this time, but his service is limited to two years. Along with his female coworkers he shapes the Ev.-Luth. life in Baku, with much idealism and rather scarce financial means.

My stay in Baku was enriched by many moving moments. Especially strong in my memory is my meeting with a 91-year-old German woman who - originally from the Volga region and, like so many of her relatives of German ancestry, was deported to Kazakhstan - later returned to Baku. During a long conversation she shared her memories with me, showed me her hymnal, which accompanied her through those difficult years as support and solace, and sang one song after
another for me. "Thank God, that you came to see me!" was how she expressed her joy about the fact that her fate had been attentively acknowledged again in her last phase of life.

Katharinenfeld, Tbilisi

The Ev.-Luth. church in Tblisi
The trip continued via night train from Baku to Georgia - an experience of a special sort. From the border onward we continued to Tbilisi via taxi. There we were able to celebrate Sunday services with the local pastor and a visiting pastor from the North Caucasus region, and with about 100 community members and the local youth choir, in the Atonement Church that had been reconstructed in 1995. The Ev.-Luth. Church in Georgia is composed of about 1000 members that are spread across five communities.

The afternoon was especially exciting for me, because it took me to the Schwabian village of Katharinenfeld (Bolnisi), where I have familial roots, and where I promptly encountered a "shirttail relative," Frau Klara Walker. There is a church in Katharinenfeld. but in recent times it has been utilized as a sports arena. A lector from Germany. Heike Walter, conducts services each Sunday in the rented house "House of German Culture." In the meantime another house has been rented, primarily for religious and cultural purposes, and is adapted according to use.

A Schwabian homes in Katharinenfeld
Toward evening we continued to Tbilisi, where the Ev.-Luth. church maintains a home for the elderly, in which residents of both genders, and of German ancestry, can live a quality life and maintain their identity.


From Tbilisi the journey continued toward Armenia, which has its own incomparably scenic character. In the capital city, Erivan, we visited, in addition to many typical sights, the Armenian-Evangelical church that was founded exactly 160 years ago by the Basel mission. On the occasion of this anniversary there was an official celebration that was also attended by the Armenian head of state, Robert Kocharian.

German women on their way to services in Katharinenfeld
There are various Protestant churches in Armenia that number about 80,000 members, of which 30,000 are Lutherans and the others belong to neo-Protestant communities (Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, etc.), all of which exist in addition to the Armenian-Apostolic State Church in the country. The Ev.-Luth. Church in Armenia is composed of 40 communities, which are cared for by 25 pastors. Its infrastructure is maintained through financial contributions from outside the country.

We used our stay in Armenia to the hilt, in order to be able to see the many beautiful cloisters of this country, which established Christianity as a state religion as early as 301 A.D. The seat of the "Armenian Catholicus," the so-called "Armenian Vatican" was also key part of our tourism program, also including the legendary place where "Gregory the Inspirator" had been imprisoned for 15 years in a dungeon, above which the cloister Chor Virap was built later on.

One is reminded of a dark chapter for this country, one which remains anchored very strongly in the collective conscience of the population, via the Genocide Memorial in Erivan, which was constructed between 1965 and 1967 and which we visited as well. It is dedicated to the memory of those Armenians who during the Armenian war of independence at the beginning of the 20th Century lost their lives during a killing spree organized by the Osman Empire (forerunner of modern Turkey).

We returned to Austria with many impressions and with unforgettable menatl images. Above all, it was the stories of the people that continue to move me after all this distance imposed by time, and I am already looking forward to my next journey of inquiry into far-ranging regions where contemporary witnesses have much to tell us.

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

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