Stages in a Long Life

Kampen, Johann, "Stages in a Long Life." Volk auf dem Weg, June 2011, 20.

Interview with Johann Kampen in the Haus des Deutschen Ostens

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

“Interview” is actually an English word with French roots. Fifty years ago I might have referred to it as “Befragen” [being asked a series of questions], and seventy years back I might have called it “Ausfragen” [Interrogation] or, its worst variation, the “Verhör” [being interrogated by a hostile questioner]. Sixty years ago I was involved in the latter kind of interrogation, which included a lie detector. Someone of my surroundings had cracked a safe in an American barracks, although it certainly wasn’t I.

Forty years ago I was able to play the role of the interviewer. Given my knowledge of languages, I preferred and was successful at selecting my interviewees from among the guest workers. And in May, 2011, in the Haus des Deutschen Ostens [House of German Eastern Regions], I was interviewed about my experiences as a young German from Russia, and about what I had accomplished as an active contributor to the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland. I did not have to prepare for either subject, because together they were my life.

Thanks to Dr. Renate von Walter’s very pleasant manner of directing the conversation, the most important stages of my life were once again reawakened. In fact, they became so vivid that, at least from my vantage point, our listeners were also being transported into the past, and that they seemed younger to me as time went on …

In my mind I experienced the original homeland of my ancestors, perhaps because a certain woman at a nearby table (with companions who had traveled with me from Augsburg) was from East Prussia or Pomerania, and I was imagining that a certain older gentleman at the large round table had, like me, often escaped death as a soldier fighting at the front. A lady at another table was certainly not even born then, although she knew a great deal about her own Sudetenland [a sizable former German enclave in Czechoslovakia], where I became a [German] naturalized citizen on March 20, 1944.   
Still, Dr. von Walter wanted to get out of me not what she and the host of the event, Dr. Ottfried Kotzian already knew, but rather what the greater numbers of Germans, including many Germans of Russia, might not already know.

At an earlier time I did not know much about my evacuation to Germany in the late autumn of 1943, but because of intensive research into history and into the present I have been able to catch up on many things. Thus it was easy for me also to answer questions outside of my own life story. In the following paragraphs, I would like to present to our readers a selection of questions and my answers.

Q. How did the German Russians fare following the October Revolution of 1917?   

A. Worse than other ethnic groups. Politically because they had served the Tsars with loyalty; religiously because they were not atheists; socially because they were not proletarians, but farmers for the most part; and ethnically/nationalistically because they were Germans, which they came to feel very clearly, and certainly no later than after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

Q. In 1941, what did the German Russians expect their future to be like under German rule?

A. After all those bitter experiences under Stalin during the years of terror (1937/1938), they believed that even under Hitler things could not get any worse.

Q. How did you experience the extermination of the Soviet Jews?

A, Between1941 and 1943 I worked in Zaporozhe on the Dnieper River. Far fewer Jews were living there than in the larger cities of Kiev and Odessa, from which we heard terrible news. But in Zaporozhe, too, columns of Jews under guard were being led through the street during 1942. It was said that they would “go to Palestine.” From my own workplace, the Agricultural General Commissariat of  Dnepropetrovsk, I witnessed the gradual disappearance of the tailor Melnik and of two very beautiful Jewish women who had worked for German officers.

Q. What did you do in Germany?

A. After I was naturalized, I had to do what most Germans of my age group had to do. For financial reasons, I was unable to work in my teaching profession, and due to the varying levels of training here [Germany] and there [in Russia], I did not teach here, either. So, in 1946, and again in 1953, I had to start from scratch, but thanks to my good overall education I was able to work my way up fairly quickly.

Q. How did you become an active contributor to the Landsmannschaft? 

A. In 1952 I learned of the existence of a Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland from none other than my mother, who had emigrated to America. She wrote, “In Stuttgart there is a German Russian association with its own publication, Volk auf dem Weg, which provides good information for us. You should try to look into it.” However, it took me several years more before the past caught up with me. That happened in the 1970s, during the first major wave of Germans from Russia returning to Germany. I even became the chair of the local and county chapter in Augsburg. 

In 1982, when the Landsmannschaft approached me with these words, “You know how to write, and we badly need an editor for Volk auf dem Weg,” I immediately gave up my various side jobs so that, with the help of my family, I would be able to work in my main occupation in the textile industry and in the editorial office for the monthly newspaper. And I had the benefit of good contacts with relatives and former neighbors, formerly deported to the Soviet Union, and now living in Germany, America and Ukraine. Soon I received more contributed articles than I was able to edit for or include in Volk auf dem Weg. …

Well, we completed the 2011 interview within two fours and, I believe, without any injuries. Thank you, Dr. von Walter, and thank you, Dr. Kotzian! It is sad that lately there are fewer and fewer such friends of the Germans from Russia. 

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