Ida Bender as a young woman
Serving the German Mother Tongue

Im Dienst der Deutschen Muttersprache

On the 80th Birthday of Ida Bender -- a Portrait by Konstantin Ehrlich

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, Boulder, Colorado

1927 ...
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 German village.

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 painter Andreas

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 realize.

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 the land.

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 the time.

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 2.)

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 with.

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