"Pious and Industrious Folks …" The German Settlements in Bessarabia

An Exhibit in the Modovan National Museum for Archeology and History in Chişinău, in the Republic of Moldova, October 12 – December 1, 2010

Schmidt, Ute, Dr.. "'Pious and Industrious Folks …' The German Settlements in Bessarabia." Mitteilungsblatt, December 2010, 4-5.

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

On October 12, 2010 a large exhibit on the history of German settlements in Bessarabia was opened in Chişinău, the former capital of Bessarabia and today the capital city of the Republic of Moldova. Site for the exhibit was a large hall in the Moldovan National Museum for Archeology and History. Today’s museum building was erected in 1900 as a Russian gymnasium [classical secondary school] for boys.

The exhibit depicts not only the history of the Germans in Bessarabia from their settlement until their evacuation and resettlement. It also emphasizes their everyday life and community life, their culture and mentality, as well as their relationships with other ethnic groups in Bessarabia.

Numerous pictures and documents presented on thirty-two banners from a circular tour through the exhibit that is housed within a spacious hall measuring around 300 square meters [ca. 3200 square feet]. Frames measuring about ten feet by three feet present a series of images that the viewer can walk through as if leafing through an open book. Each chapter is headed in large letters by a historical quotation, akin to a motto, that aligns the viewer’s emotions with the theme.

As an example, immediately at the entrance one sees a family tree that depicts the tight entanglements between the Tsarist dynasty and the Württembergian and Prussian royal houses. The transformation from Russian to Romanian citizenship is illustrated by photos of Bessarabian Germans in various uniforms. Other pictorial sections show the development of agriculture, the crafts and the trades.

The exhibit was to be anything but an antique and nostalgic depiction of a dead past. Rather, our goal was to shoe the reality of the life of Bessarabian Germans in all its multifaceted aspects. Thus their 125-year settlement period is not presented merely in black-and-white, but in color – a history that was continually marked by decisive and dramatic, radical changes. This same history, by the way, also offers impulses to relevant discussions of migration and of historical experiences in the side-by-side coexistence of various ethnic groups.  

The strong colors of the banners also constitute a kind of visual system to guide the viewer: for example, a “Russian-green” forms the background for the section on conditions and beginnings in the Russian Tsarist Empire; red tones back up the depictions of the vitality of life in the village, including church, schools, agriculture, the trades, and the community. Themes such as relationships with other ethnic groups, or the differences in citizenship aspects and officialdom, are backed in blue, and later history (between-the-wars and the final resettlement) bear a neutral gray background.

Highlighted in yellow is the community of Alexanderfeld, founded in 1907 in the Cahul/Moldova County. This particular example shows how, during World War I, Germans were branded “enemies within”, and the manner in which in this particular community the dispossession of German landowners was executed in practice. Another banner presents a photo montage of the community whose current residents voted via popular referendum that the village’s former name of Alexanderfeld be readopted.

Large-format background images in the upper and lower areas of the banners are intended to catch the eye of the viewer even from a distance. A “reading zone” at eye level contains series of photos and explanatory text in Romanian and in Russian.

At the entrance to the exhibit there is a so-called “Info Block,” which is intended to provide the viewer with an initial impression and with an overview. The map of German settlements is framed by the [text of the] invitation by Alexander I (1813) by which the German settlement period in Bessarabia had its beginning, and also by the Call for Resettlement of 1940, which ended that period rather abruptly. In the “Info Block,” interested viewers can also find a time table, statistics and other information. A PowerPoint presentation shows a series of photos covering various aspects of daily life in the German villages.

Due to customs and transport issues, it was not possible to include items from Germany in the exhibit. For this reason, in a friendly gesture, Prof. Sava, director of the National Museum, personally saw to it that documents on specific German personalities were supplied from local museums and archives and exhibited in table-height glass cabinets. Among these: Karl Schmidt, mayor of Kishinev, who contributed in a major way to the development of the city. Following the pogrom against Jews in 1903, Schmidt made special efforts to have the events investigated and that those responsible for terror and murder were prosecuted in court. A. Ostermann was a renowned natural scientist and the founder of the Ethnographic Museum of Kishinev. Among other works of his, he wrote a book on “The Birds of Bessarabia.” 

The initiative for the exhibit in Chişinău came from Prof. Dr. Eugen Sava, director of the National Museum. The renowned archeologist, prompted by the book Bessarabien – Deutsche Kolonisten am Schwarzen Meer [Bessarabia – German Colonists on the Black Sea] by Dr. Ute Schmidt, in 2008 came up with the suggestion that, in collaboration with the author, an exhibit with the theme “German Settlements in Bessarabia” be organized. This period of Bessarabien history had been completely ignored in Soviet historical writing, and in the consciousness of today’s Bessarabia it is mostly forgotten, although in recent times the topic has slowly been attracting more interest.

Thanks to financial support from the Representative of Culture and the Media of the [German] Federal Government, and due to support from the German ambassador Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff, the exhibit project became reality in 2010. The organizing body was the Moldova-Leipzig Institute, and cooperative partners were the German embassies in Moldova and Ukraine, the Bessarabian German Association [in Germany], the Berlin Free University, The German-Moldovan Forum, the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation of Bonn, which also financed a panel discussion on the topic “Migration and Muti-ethnicity,” and the author Dr. Ute Schmidt, who was responsible for the overall concept. Responsible for the execution of the exhibit was Prof. Ulrich Baehr.

The exhibit was designed to serve as a traveling exhibit. After two further locales in Moldova, the exhibit is to be shown in Odessa in 2011, and thereafter, in a German-English version, in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Leipzig, and in the US during the summer of 2012.

During the opening of the exhibit, Prof. Dr. Sava, director of the National Museum, gave an introduction to how the exhibit came about. The German ambassador in the Republic of Moldova, Dr. Berthold Johannes, included in his speech the importance of an active multiple-language capability in Bessarabia, of olden times and in today’s times. He reminded the audience that not only German life, but also Jewish life in Bessarabia, was brought to an abrupt end by the policies of Nazi-Germany and its allies. Prof. Dr. Gheorge Postică, deputy cultural minister for the Republic of Moldova, and Dr. Igor Corman, former Moldovan ambassador in Germany and currently the chairman or the German-Moldovan Forum, pointed out that the German settlers had contributed in considerable measure to the socio-economic development of Bessarabia, and that the Moldovan government intended to support further activities leading to the strengthening of German-Moldovan relations. Ingo R. Isert, chairman of the Bessarabian German Association, provided some personal comments, in which he emphasized the good contacts between Moldovans and Bessarabian Germans on a personal and political level. Prof. Dr. Klaus Bochmann, chairman of the Moldova-Institute, expressed his pleasure over the fact that the exhibit could be opened at such a central locale as the National Museum and in the presence of representatives of the Moldovan government. Dr. Schmidt summarized the content and concept of the exhibit.

To conclude the opening events, the German Embassy had issued invitations to a small reception. Various conversations confirmed the fact that many visitors had found the exhibit to be exhilarating. And for us there emerged many links for a continuation and intensification of cooperative efforts with Moldovan historians, archivists, and museum experts. There are clear indications that future cooperation and projects are definitely possible.

Dr. Ute Schmidt during an interview with Cornelia Rabitz of the Deutsche Welle
Opening remarks by Prof. Eugen Sava; standing behind him are Dr. Berthold Johannes, Dr. Igor Corman and Prof. Gheorge Postica
l. to r.: Dr. Ute Schmidt, Ingo R. Isert, Prof. Klaus Bochmann, Dr. Berthold Johannes, Prof. Eugen Sava, Dr. Igor Corman, Prof. Gheorge Postica

Photos by Baehr, Sava

BOX on p. 6:

Words of Welcome to the Exhibit
“Pious and Industrious Folks …”
The German Settlements in Bessarabia, 1813 – 1940
in Kishinev, October 12, 2010

Your Excellency, Ambassador Dr. Johannes,
Esteemed Professor Sava,
Esteemed Professor Bochmann,
Honored Guests!

Today’s exhibit constitutes yet another step toward our getting to know each other better and, thereby, a milestone on an – alas -- long path toward a common future.

As a Bessarabian German and, in with a particular consideration that this exhibit covers German settlements in Bessarabia, I shall limit my words of welcome to a personal experiences level, namely, to the inter-personal relationships between Moldovans and Bessarabian Germans.  

Mutually fruitful contacts began in the 1990s, as (by now) thousands of Bessarabian Germans traveled to their original homeland. In the villages there were direct encounters between former German residents and folks who reside there now. If the initial coming together was somewhat insecure and hesitant, soon there emerged an unexpected cordiality and hospitality, which those Bessarabian Germans recalled with pleasure, again and again, upon returning to Germany.

And what had become the norm at a personal level between individual people would soon become part of the political scene as well. In the early 1990s the German Bundestag [the German Parliament’s Lower House – Tr.] invited a delegation of approximately twenty parliamentarians from the Moldovan Republic. The answer to their question of what their first stop should be promptly came as ”Stuttgart!”

As we received the representatives of the Moldovan Parliament, we were promptly greeted by the leader of the delegation with these words, “Dear brothers and sisters!” We were overwhelmed.   

During the evening dinner there was ample discussion of the past, but also of what the future might be like. Suddenly, a Moldovan parliamentarian took the floor and said, “We are well aware of the traits those Germans brought to Bessarabia. They were hard-working, they loved orderliness, and so on. But which traits did the Bessarabian Germans take with them when they left Bessarabia in 1940?” A hush settled on the crowd. His glance swept over several persons and then stopped with me: “What do you think?”  Without hesitation, I replied, “Hospitality!” “Indeed,” he said, and I saw how his eyes began to moisten.

Truly, the Germans in Bessarabia learned from their neighboring peoples not only about formerly unknown plants like paprika, melons, and eggplants, and how to prepare them for eating, but also a high degree of hospitality, which would form a core value of their lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, and delegates from the Moldovan Parliament: We have received visits from your Presidents Snegur and Voronin, and in May of 2010 from your Prime Minister, Vlad Filat. Particularly friendly contacts have now been established with the ambassadors of Moldova in Berlin. Until recently it was Dr. Igor Corman, and now it is Aurelia Ciocoi. 

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to make this point: The Republic of Moldova is seeking a path to Europe. For this, it must cross abridge that is supported by several pillars. Remember that one of these pillars is the Bessarabian German Association! 

Today’s exhibit on the German settlements in Bessarabia clearly demonstrates that once there was a good past. Together, let us work toward a good future!

                        Ingo Rüdiget Isert,
                        National Chair of the Bessarabian German Association [in Germany]           

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