Dedication and Obituary for Johann Warkentin - "My German Mother Tongue: my Pride, my Sorrow, my Dream, my Trauma"

Paulsen, Nina. "Dedication and Obituary for Johann Warkentin - 'My German Mother Tongue: my Pride, my Sorrow, my Dream, my Trauma'."Volk auf dem Weg, May 2012, 38-39.

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

Translator’s Note: The obituary mentioned in the title appeared in Volk auf dem Weg as an inset in the original for this article. Here you will find it at the end of this translation. Please also note that all book titles cited herein appear only in translated form. A.H.
The death of Johann Warkentin on April 9, 2012 in Berlin marks the end of a fateful span of time for post-war German Russian literature. It must be pointed out that only a few contemporary witnesses and contributors from those decades are still with us.

It was my pride, my sorrow, my dream, my trauma,
My anchor, my parachute for times of free fall

It was frenzy for my soul

That is what was my German mother tongue
During times when we could barely breathe
And while Stalin used his tobacco-stained, yellow thumb
To keep digging deeply into our throats

This passionate declaration for his German mother tongue was not only the leitmotif of many of Warkentin’s writings, but in addition to his avid struggle for a better fate for his ethnic group, there and here, it was also his life’s essence, his life’s credo. Even “… in the land of our forefathers, which gifted us, who were dispersed far and wide, with our mother tongue,” caring for his mother tongue and keeping it strong remained the true pillar for his integration.

In 2002 he was awarded the German Cross of Merit in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the political, intellectual, and social integration of the German Russian Spätaussiedler [late-arriving immigrants to Germany from the former Soviet Union].

From 1981 on, this most renowned German Russian poet, literary critic, language researcher, prose writer, essayist and lecturer, author of numerous books and treatises – many of them on German Russian literature – has been living in Berlin. He was strongly involved in digging up that sometimes controversial German Russian literature from the rubble of the post-war period.

Warkentin was born in 1920 on Crimea, attended a German school in Spat, and until the start of the German-Soviet war in 1941 studied English literature in Leningrad. During the subsequent winter siege he served as an interpreter, but was then deported. Between 1942 and 1946 he performed forced labor cutting down trees in the Siberian Taiga. Later he taught languages (English, German and Latin) at schools and universities in Gorno-Alataisk, Alma-Ata and Ufa

As soon as it became at all possible, Warkentin and others attempted to rescue from the depths the German language, which had in effect been buried between 1941 and 1955. A skillful writer and journalist, he stood at the cradle of rebirth for the German-language post-war press and put his mark on the revival of German Russian literature with strong contributions of his own. First he worked as editor of the paper called “Arbeit [Work],”, which lasted only from 1955 to1957 and was dissolved because of  certain “endeavors toward autonomy.” From 1969 until he immigrated to Germany he was the editor of the literary department of the German-language weekly “Neues Leben [New Life]” published in Moscow.

As co-author of texts for “German Literature” in schools that taught German as a [foreign] language in places to which Germans had been deported, Warkentin was one of those who worked hard at least to slow down the loss of the German language. Importantly, during the 1960s he was at the forefront of the movement to restore [Volga German] autonomy, and in 1965 he participated in a delegation of German Russians toward that end. As in everything else, for him it was all or nothing.

Finally, he experienced as intensely as anyone the disappointments and defeats that “elsewhere in the provinces were not as noticeable,” including uprooting, loss of language and identity, and rejected hopes for justice. 

To his numerous works of poetry, prose, literary criticism, portraits and various tributes that had appeared while he was still in the Soviet Union, that is, in Alma-Ata and Moscow, in Germany he added numerous other publications, mostly in book form.

His assimilation into the DDR [the so-called German Democratic Republic, that is, East Germany – Tr.] of the 1980s in some ways proceeded differently than that of most Germans from Russia who had gone to the West. Still, Johann Warkentin noted some parallels. In his publications and via numerous readings and presentations, being a contemporary witness and co-creator [of the German Russian literary movement], he continued to pursue the sensitivities of the German Russians, here and elsewhere -- always critically and without compromise, under certain circumstances even provocatively, sharply ironic to satirically sarcastic.

For example, in the German Russian Berlin Sonnet (!996, Stuttgart), he sketched the history of the German Russians, the trauma of the Aussiedler [those German Russians who left Russia for the land of their ancestors], the divided and reunited Germany – all with pointed humor, biting satire and moving lyricism. This work, consisting of sonnet-form snapshots of a participant, conveys how a German Russian sees the country, himself and his kind.

In the book History of German Russian Literature (1999, Stuttgart) he attempted to write himself free of the deep frustrations of the ever changing and even hope-filled times of the post-war decades in the Soviet Union. From his personal perspective, he held a mirror up to an entire epoch of the German Russian literary movement.

The dual-language anthology Translations. Highlights of Russian Lyricism (2000, BMV Robert Braun Publications) points out the central themes of the best creations of Warkentin the essayist, and it depicts him as a mediator between two great peoples and cultures, as a builder of bridges who is familiar with both shores and in excellent command of both languages. The book A Translator’s Frustrations and Joys (2001, BMV Robert Braun Publications) describes the peculiarities and similarities of the two languages. Both books constitute an attempt to measure the comparative expressiveness of German and Russian.

With his book Where to, German Russians? From Catherine II (the Great) to the Present (2006, BMV Robert Braun Publications; the first edition having been issued in paperback book form in 1992) Warkentin continued earlier decades of his struggle against the “ruination” of the German language [in the Soviet Union]. It was in their mother tongue, in its various dialects, too, that this scattered and hushed-up ethnic minority – banished from public life, “hemmed in, restricted to cow barn, kitchen and chamber” - would find its true home.

In his peculiar manner, Warkentin’s sober look at “Here and Today” and into the question “Where to, German Russians?” hardly ever admitted any compromises. If you wish to be a German, then speak German. “We people of the Taiga and the desert must finally let go of the illusion, of the conceit, of the childish mistake that that partial identity of ours has any value or is a cultural heritage worth preserving. Only that which is of true interest has value – besides, who in this country really cares about our little bit of German-ness!? Nothing can be more damaging than to insist on a very special German Russian identity, a being different.

To this topic of the contradictory sensitivities of the German Russians, of being inwardly torn, and  of their efforts to find again or rediscover their identity in the land of their ancestors, Warkentin returned repeatedly in the book Traces in the Sand. Collected Verses (2005, BMV Robert Braun Publications). Via many poems and essays that had come to his mind during his whole life, he reflects on differing viewpoints that he had registered over decades, in quiet moments or during arguments. In these texts he elucidates from a purely personal view the developments and events of his life and of his ethnic group.

A decisive factor in Warkentin’s works is the manner– linguistically as well as by content--in which he questions things. His sometimes sharp tone and cryptic trains of thought cause readers to sit up and take notice, and they provoke thought, thinking along with him, changing one’s thinking, and even further thinking.

And again and again, for Johann Warkentin his German mother tongue was his “dream,” his “trauma,” his “anchor,” and his “parachute for times of free fall.”

Nina Paulsen, on behalf of Ida Bender, Johann Schellenberg, Waldemar Spaar, the Kramer family and many others who learned to know and to appreciate Johann Warkentin

Johann Warkentin has Passed from us

We received the sad news that between April 8 and 9, 2012 Johann Warkentin passed away at ninety-two years of age. His death signifies a major loss for our ethnic group.

Literature was everything for him, the poet and literary critic, bookworm, and lover of language. His great passion for his German mother tongue and for the culture and literature of the Germans from Russia was unsurpassed. Like no one else, he was wholly aware of his profession and of his calling. He was the nestor for German Russian writers, their literary pope. He was also a pugnacious spirit, one who was greatly admired, and one who made all bunglers and backward thinkers uncomfortable.

He wrote poems, articles and essays, he edited and corrected, composed texts and gave various talks. And everything he undertook made one take notice and left his mark. His essay writing is considered to be of world-wide significance. He leaves behind a multiplicity of essays he translated from Russian to English to German, where his deep knowledge of languages and literature, his wide reading and marked lyrical talent came into full development. Unfortunately his lifelong work remains largely unfamiliar to the German public.

Johann Warkentin.

Viktor Heinz, Wendelin Mangold and Waldemar Hermann, on behalf of all friends of German Russian literature, and all poet and writer colleagues.

Our appreciation is extend to Alex Herzog for translation, and to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editorial assistance for this article.

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