Years of Persecution and War: Reports from Contemporary Witnesses
Bender, Ida, "Years of Persecution and War: Reports from Contemporary Witnesses." Volk auf dem Weg, July 2011, 43 & 44.
This article is continued from similar reports in Volk auf dem Weg, 06/2011 and before. It contains an excerpt on the events during the 1941 deportation of the Volga Germans, from Ida Bender’s recently published book Schön ist die Jugend – bei frohen Zeiten [Lovely is our Youth—in Good Times]
Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Ida Bender, nee Hollmann, was born on June 18, 1922 in Rothammel in the Volga region. She is a daughter of the well-known author, journalist and man of literature Dominik Hollmann (1899-1990).
Ida Bender speaking about her life at the presentation of the Landsmannschaft’s traveling exhibit in Soest.
I was nineteen, had just completed a year’s studies in foreign languages at an Institute in Leningrad, when World War II entered the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. How fortunate that I was in Engels to spend vacation with my parents and siblings. City officials were reminding the residents to be watchful because various spies and subversives might surface in Engels. This was cause for astonishment for us: why here, far removed from the nation’s borders, where we have no armaments or military operations? What would spies be looking for here?
Then, on August 30, when the newspaper “Nachrichten [The News]” published the August 28 decree by the Soviet government, we Germans understood that those rumors had been spread to justify our deportation. And it now dawned on us why the upper-classmen of the German School Number 10 and the German students of the Pedagogical Institute, along with their teachers, had not been released on summer vacation and had instead been sent out to the kolchose [collective farms] to help with the year’s abundant grain harvest.
My younger brother and my father had also been ordered to participate in this harvesting effort in the German villages. So it was only mother, I, and my under-age siblings who were at home when the Commandant came to announce the date of our leaving. The transport was scheduled to take place in three days. Without our father and brother? What a terrible, tense situation! The family torn apart in strange lands!? By order of the city authorities, the buildings of the Pedagogical Institute were to be vacated as quickly as possible to make room for newly arriving naval students.
At the same time the Soviet government had brought sufficient numbers of armed military personnel to Engels to be able to suppress any potential uprising. We obedient Germans, of course, did not realize this until later, simply because we were loyal citizens of our country, and it never occurred to us that we might contradict the government.
By the second of September, father and some students had returned, and a little later my fifteen-year-old brother had hurried home as well. The Commandant came to our house several times a day to check whether we were prepared for departure, each time repeating, “Don’t take many things; you’ll have to manage hundreds of kilometers on foot. Take only as much as you can carry yourselves.”
On September 4 we, along with an eighty-year-old couple (who had not been allowed to reunite with their children living in a village near Saratov), were taken by truck to railroad tracks outside the city. Numerous Germans, along with their bundles, were already camped out on the grounds adjacent to the tracks. We were free to choose any group we wished to be with.
Finally, during late afternoon, a train arrived. It was pulling nothing but red cargo cars. The Commandant ordered people to enter according to a list he carried. Inside the railcars were simple cots made from rough wood planks, arranged to stretch from one wall to the other. Finally, the two hinged doors were closed from the outside, and a metallic click startled all—as if a trap had snapped shut.
Slowly the train began to move. Through a small, square, barred grill high on the side wall of the rail car one could see that a light rain was coming down. Our mother homeland was quietly weeping for her diligent children, half of whom would soon see their lives end much too early...
The side I was lying on the wooden cot on was aching as I awoke. Many in our rail car were already awake, all plagued by a single thought—toilet! Our cargo cars did not have any such facilities. Finally the train stopped, the wide doors were opened from the outside, and two soldiers, armed with revolvers and daggers, posted themselves on both sides of the opening. From far away came the command [announced with poor German pronunciation], “Get out! Take care of your needs!”
The train had stopped on a wide-open steppe without a bush, a stone, or even a small mound, or anything else one could go behind to take care of a task that is normally not to be observed by others. Old and young, women and men, girls and boys—side by side in a long row, like animals, we had to take care of our business under the alert eyes of our guards; and we had to hurry to make sure we finished by the time the command “Get back in!” might come. Unbelievable humiliation! This was only the first act of soul-shattering degradation and dishonoring of our human dignity. How many more such acts would we experience merely because we were born to German mothers!
For eighteen days the train moved onward to Siberia, and those of us inside the crowded rail car had been without toilet, without water, without a warm meal, with merely a daily ration of 300 grams [ca. ten ounces] of bread and a mug of water per person, and all with our dark thoughts of further humiliation. In the Decree one could read as follows: “… The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR has found it necessary to resettle the entire German population residing in the Volga rayons [districts] to other rayons, that is, in a way such that those being resettled there are to be assigned land and be given government assistance.” In reality, of course, we were completely dispossessed and treated like criminals, even though we were not aware of any blame.
We arrived in a small village called Miroslavka in the Tyuchtet Rayon of the Krasnoyarsk region. There we found that oats had not been cut, that potatoes and beets and cabbage had not yet been harvested, and that the local Russian collective workers were eager for help from diligent, helpful hands. All the while, however, they treated us with caution: “Although you don’t have horns on your heads, and many of you even speak Russian, you are still our enemies, Fascists.”
During January of 1942, the German men were inducted into the so-called Trud-Army [essentially a military-style slave labor troop created specifically for the resettled Germans [whom the Soviets called the “mobilized” Germans – Tr.]. This included anyone from fifteen to sixty years of age, without any selection criteria or medical control, not even excluding heart patients or those recently operated. Soon we received triangular letters containing only this brief information: “I am doing no worse than all the others, don’t worry about me.” The letters were censored. But by certain code words agreed on ahead of time, families knew how to read the news, more like this way: “We are kept like criminals, behind barbed-wire fences and guard towers.” “Oh God,” the women moaned, “for what reason?"
During subsequent months, death took away many of those in the work camps. Reinforcements were taken—now it was the women’s turn. On June 22, 1942 my mother, I, and my by then 16-year-old brother were taken into a forced-labor camp. We were transported to the northern Yennissey [River] area. There I spent seven years felling trees in the Siberian Taiga. Barefoot, also towing cargo barges along the Yennisey banks and, at times, again barefoot, pulling a fishing net 130 meters in length [ca. 425 feet], long enough for the sand on the banks to freeze as hard as stone.
Germans were not allowed to wear occupational clothes or uniforms. “If you die, there will be one less Fascist,” we were told by our overseers. Also, “You Germans need to compensate for what Hitler has destroyed in Russia.” Entirely without any rights, for seven years we German girls and women spent our difficult existence near the North Polar Circle [Arctic Circle?].
What happened next? There followed years of further humiliation under military-style surveillance. And after that? Disappointment and emigration to the homeland of our ancestors. About these and other events of my life, and the lives of the German Russian ethnic group, please consult the stories in my book Schön ist die Jugend … bei frohen Zeiten.
Ida Bender’s autobiographical novel Schön ist die Jugend … bei frohen Zeiten (608 pages) may be ordered at a cost of 20 Euros from
21079 Hamburg (Germany).
from the Geest-Verlag [Publisher]
Lange Str. 41a
48377 Vechta (Germany)
Phone [from the US]: 011-49-4447-856580
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.