Serving the German Mother Tongue
|Ida Bender as a young woman
Im Dienst der Deutschen Muttersprache
On the 80th Birthday of Ida Bender -- a Portrait by Konstantin
Zum 80. Geburtstag von Ida Bender. Portraet von Konstantin Ehrlich
"In Service of the German Mother Tongue." Volk auf dem Weg, August/September 2002, 37-38.
Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog,
Marienfeld -- a colonist village in the wide steppes of
the German Volga region. It is now ten years after the October overthrow,
which at the time and for many fateful years to follow was designated
as the People's Revolution.
Inside and outside of conversing neighborhood groups preparations
are running in high gear for the presentation of a festival production
by Gottlieb Beratz and Alexander Hunger entitled "Firm and
true ... or Kirghiz-Michel and the Beautiful Ammie from Pfannenstiel."
It is a stage production with a central theme that deals with a
serious chapter from the history of the Volga colonists, with many
crowd scenes and several main characters. Abducted and incarcerated
by Asiatic nomads, the colonist son Michel is sold to a rich Kirghiz,
father of the beautiful Suleyka. Father becomes fond of Michel and
wishes to make him his son-in-law.
This gripping tale, handed on by Volga-Germans from generation
to generation, was now taking form on a plain stage in a modest
The story has a happy-sad ending: Suleyka falls in love with the
blond foreign lad, but realizes very soon that his heart really
beats for another. She confronts Michel, and he confesses that in
his faraway home in the steppes he has his beautiful Ammie.
Suleyka decides to deny herself her own happiness, supplies Michel
with horses and provisions, and assists him in his escape.
Outside in the yard a festive mood prevails: people in wigs, clad
in colonist garb, are leaning on a fence. Dominik Hollman, the village
school teacher, is providing last-minute instructions to his cast,
to the beautiful girl Ammie, in real life Jacob Schmeer's daughter
Lisbetchen, and to Kirghiz-Michel, the slender young lad played
by Jakob Schmal.
A soft melody, sung by the community (and former church) choir,
emanates from a window. Everything that the church had meant to
the life of the colonists earlier on has by now completely disappeared.
The pious descendants of those Hessian immigrants now pray only
in secret, and the new powers are without exception merely a group
of militant, godless atheists.
"For 160 years we've made our home here. Millions have
suffered want and grief, but poverty has vanished and, thanks to
the Soviet Government, we are now free, just like other nations."
|Ida Bender conversing with the German-Russian
Tiny five-year-old Ida, normally a shy little blond girl, with
freckles on her snub nose, has been gripped by the festive mood.
It is a gala without equal. For a whole week she has been working
with her mother on her linen dress, both making sure it did not
turn out too short or too long; a blue vest on top, adorned with
various cloth ends depicting the Schneegloeckchen [snow drops],
flowers that commonly bloom in the spring along the hillside shore
of the Volga. "Just like the one her great-grandmother wore,"
exclaims Grandma Susanne.
It is Grandma who all along has been initiating the curious little
girl into the secrets of her ethnic history, its legends and myths,
and its rich Hessian folklore.
"But poverty has vanished and, thanks to the Soviet Government,
we are now free, just like other nations" -- the song
still wafts through the open window of the "good room."
Ida does not know yet that these words actually constitute a kind
of self-deception, a measure of hope that the German colonists,
for years, for decades, even for generations, have been hoping to
Well, the Germans never had been like the other national ethnic
minorities. Stated more correctly, they had never been treated like
the other national minorities.
It was no easy matter being a German in this desolate spot on the
steppes. How many dashed hopes has the Volga carried into the Caspian
Sea? How many German fates have been crushed by the mill of history?
At the time when Ida Hollmann-Bender's ancestors -- driven by hunger
and want, by the horrors of the Seven-Year War raging in their homeland,
when people were eating grass and roots just to stay alive -- were
making their way to faraway Russia, they had no idea what awaited
them. The first generation would be hounded by death, the second
by poverty, and only the third would be rewarded with bread -- thus
went the tradition retold so often by Grandma.
Ida Bender's life had a rather promising beginning. She attended
German classes in a school for ethnic minorities in Kamyshin, the
birthplace of her father, the Volga-German poet Dominik Hollmann.
Then followed the family's move to Engels, capital city of the Volga
German republic, where her father received employment in the local
Pedagogical Institute, and where Ida was given the opportunity to
complete middle school.
In 1940 she travels to Leningrad to study English at a technical
school specializing in foreign languages.
The Hollmann family is fortunate to be spared from the epidemic
wave of arrests spreading in the Soviet Empire. But when the war
breaks out, the Hollmann family is exiled to Siberia.
On June 22, 1942, Ida Hollmann, along with her mother and her brother
Ewald, is forced into the so-called Workers Army and -- irony of
fate! -- ends up in faraway Turuchansk, the former place of exile
of the great man-eater, Stalin, who had been forced to do penance
there for his crimes during Tsarist times. At this time, father
Hollmann was already performing forced hard labor in the forests.
It was her fate that Ida Hollmann-Bender was to partake fully from
the chalice of her people's fate: she was accused of collaborations
with Nazi-Germany, banished from her place of origin, forced to
slave in the worker columns that had been organized expressly for
the German-Russians, put under special surveillance by the military
command, permanently barred from returning to her home, and exposed
to various other restrictions on freedom of speech and movement.
But life went on. Together with another exiled German, Rudolf Bender,
Ida Hollmann started a family. Two daughters were their first children.
The year 1956 finally brings the lifting of military surveillance.
The first postwar German-language newspapers begin to appear. Ida
Bender subscribes to "Neues Leben [New Life]" and spreads
the longed-for printed word among the exiled Germans, occasionally
writes reports on the life of her fellow people. Between the lines
of her severely censored writings, a watchful eye could ascertain
a strong longing for one's mother tongue, for one's beloved and
dear, sweet home.
The year 1957 saw the birth of son Rudolf, whom, incidentally,
I would meet in Moscow thirty years later, among those fighting
for self-determination of Germans in the Soviet Union.
In 1965, her husband, who through his own determined studies had
developed his skills to the point of acquiring the prestigious position
of an engineer, was transferred to Zelinograd, and the Benders were
given residence in that uncultivated new city.
During the autumn of the same year Dominik Hollman also arrives
in Zelinograd, where he is asked to assist in the establishment
of a German-language daily newspaper. Ida Bender, without any influence
by her father, acquires a job as translator.
It was the beginning of interesting times, in the midst of contemporary
events, and in the midst of a persecuted people scattered across
Fate had it that Ida Bender was actually able to return to her
father's birthplace, despite the fact that Germans were strictly
forbidden to return to their hereditary homes. It so happened that
Rudolf Bender, the splendid engineer, was given a position of chief
engineer in that very city.
Ida Bender works there for five years until 1977, when she is pensioned
by the postal service. But she does not sit back idly. Too much
work needs to be done, even if on a volunteer basis, but the kind
of work she has wished for all her life. In collaboration with her
father she establishes a "Neues Leben" club. She arranges
authors' lectures, meetings with prominent personages of the region,
German-Russians among them; she organizes festivals, German celebrations,
a readers' circle, and a theatric studio. The name "Hollmann-Bender"
resounded within "Neues Leben" and in the newspaper "Freundschaft
[Friendship]" (later to be known as "Deutsche Allgemeine
Zeitung [German General Newspaper]"), which I was editing at
Dominik Hollmann's strongest yearning was for complete rehabilitation
for German-Russians. I was fortunate to get to know him well. As
director of a German editorial staff of the publisher "Kazakhstan,"
I even had the honor of publishing several of his books. His own
yearning also became that of Ida Bender, and it was naturally passed
on to her son Rudolf.
However, during an official visit to Nishniy Tagil in the Urals,
the then head of state, Michail Gorbachev, made it clear that this
hope would remain unfulfilled.
The head of the family, Dominik Hollmann, soon dies. The Benders
decide to take the next logical step and to return to the original
land of their ancestors.
Here in Germany, Ida Bender's contribution to the preservation
and continued development of German-Russian cultural heritage remains
unequaled. She was and remains a passionate proponent of her culture.
Immediately after arriving in Germany, she insisted on making public
all of her father's works. Those familiar with history know only
too well that artists in the former Soviet Union were subjected
to the constant pressure of severe censorship. Thus it was not at
all unusual that specific editors would take the liberty of striking
or even rewriting entire chapters of literary figures. Many artists'
works were never published.
Ida Bender decided to print all unpublished works by her father,
even those that had been disfigured by "party-line" editors,
as well as all correspondences and notes which clearly marked the
writer as a fighter for "German-Russian interests."
From 1998 through 2001, with the support of members of the family,
she managed to publish five books by Dominik Hollmann. They have
enjoyed enormously positive reception among their readers. Of prominent
importance are two volumes entitled "Ausgewaehlte Prosa [Selected
Prose]," which present various works of the writer in a wholly
new literary historical light.
Letters by the writer to Soviet Party functionaries, in which he
addresses questions of justice and equality for the German minority
within the USSR and the preservation of German-Russian culture permit
us to see Hollmann in a new, much more glaring light. (See also
Ida Bender's contribution "Ich betrachte es als meine Pflicht
[I consider it my Duty]" in the Heimatbuch 2001, part
On the jubilee day of her birthday we wish Ida Bender good health
and continued creativity, so that she may be able to do justice
to the many difficult responsibilities she is still burdening herself
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.