A Voyage into the Past

Reiser, Alexander. "A Voyage into the Past." Volk auf dem Weg, December 2011, 35-36.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.  Editorial assistance provided by Nancy A. Herzog, Ph.D.

For a very long time I was determined to travel to the village on the Volga where my parents were from and which I had heard so much about in my childhood. So I was immediately agreeable when it was suggested to me that, as a member of the Board of the Landsmannschaft, toward the end of August of this year I might visit certain places and participate in memorial events in regard to the seventieth anniversary of the deportation of Germans in the Soviet Union.

From Berlin we flew on an Airbus to Moscow; but the remaining flight to Saratov, which we took on an old Jak 42 from Soviet times, provided us with a rather uncomfortable feeling. Judging from the facades of the old houses and villas with stucco that is decaying and crumbling, Saratov itself is certainly not experiencing its best times.

During those first few days, those of us who had left Russia fifteen to twenty years earlier, were generally under the impression that time had stood still here. While in Moscow one senses indications of a dynamic, western style of life, at the central plaza in Saratov there remains a meter-high statue of Lenin, and next to it a mural on an administrative building still praises the heroes of the Revolution.

Yet, all that and so many other things proved to be beside the point. The main thing was that it was now possible to speak openly about our people’s tragedy via a multiplicity of forums and during official events.

What also mattered a great deal was the fact that the International Association of German Culture had made the impossible a reality, namely, that many hundreds of graying old countrymen from all of the places of banishments in Russia, the true victims of deportation, were now given the opportunity to sojourn in their old homeland.

The dedication ceremony for the memorial “To the German Russians, Victims of repression in the USSR” in a green site on the central plaza in Engels, right next to the State Archive for Volga Germans, proved to be a very moving experience. Picture this: a multitude of people, a sea of flowers, boys and girls dressed in the traditional folk costumes of German Russians, moving speeches, solemn music of mourning.

Veterans of the Trud Army [forced-labor troops] and very young folks, too, approached the foot of the memorial to spread a handful of soil from places of “eternal banishment” such as Tyumen, Krasnoyarsk, Aktyubisnk, Karaganda, Omsk, Syktyvkar, Kirov, Vologda, etc.

For the third day of our stay in the Volga area the organizers had planned a drive to the former German villages in which ancestors had lived up to the time of their deportation.

Our group drove to the city of Krasnoarmeisk, once known as Balzer, where we were welcomed by the chair of the county administration. We were shown the county’s homeland museum, in which not a few objects and documents are displayed which describe the life and work of the colonists. Afterwards we visited the German Cultural Center and walked the formerly German streets.

One can emphasize that we were generally welcomed warm-heartedly and joyfully in the former German villages. Today’s residents seem to be able to empathize that the German Russians at that time were treated decidedly unjustly, and they even thanked us, the descendants, for the houses, farm buildings and fully prepared fields that were left to them by our ancestors, and which they are making use of to this day.

The village of Pfeifer on the border between the Saratov and Volgograd areas, the home of my forefathers, today goes by the name Gvardeykoye. As many as 4,000 people lived there at one time. They worked as weavers, wagon builders, tile makers, bakers, animal breeders and merchants. [Nothing said about famers – Tr.] In the current small settlements there are only a few dozen properties. The gardens along the river with many fruit trees no longer exist., the mills have disappeared, the oil factories are gone, the church is a mere ruin, there are no businesses left, and only a few decaying buildings of the former collective farm operation are somehow still standing.

We found the other once blooming villages of the German colonists similarly empty and without a genuine prospect for the future.

Among the few locales where some kind of German life is gradually becoming a reality again is the city of Marx, the former Katharinenstadt, where we stayed during the fourth and final day of our trip. Here the large building of the Lutheran church is actually being restored. On August 28, Catholic, Lutheran and Russian-Orthodox clergy conducted in it a joint service to commemorate those who were deported or killed unjustly. The German Cultural Center is also operating there. Following the service, the organizers laid a wreath at the memorial to Catherine in the center of the city.

I would like to close my travel report with the following tragic and at the same time conciliatory headline of an article written by the Saratov regional newspaper Neue Zeit [New Times]: “We remember everything – we mourn together.”

A view of Pfeifer.
This is how the church in Kamenka looks today.
The Memoiral in Engels.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translating and to Dr. Nancy A. Herzog for editing this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller