Women Taking Pen in Hand

Birgit, Markert. "Women Taking Pen in Hand." Volker Wieland, n.d., 14-23.

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

Subtitle: Using Writing to Conquer the Past and to Grapple with History

My visit with the then seventy-nine-year-old author Nelly Däs took place in September, 2009 in her home in Waiblingen. For a few days we had been having rather cold fall weather. Barely having entered her home, I hear her launching into how in autumn in Ukraine she had to walk barefoot in September. Even if she hurried as fast as she could, her feet would have turned blue by the time she got to school. The history of her childhood and youth is ever-present with Nelly Däs. Too much did this German Russian woman live through and, from today’s perspective, there was too much that seems simply incredible. Most of her childhood was spent fleeing from the Communists – experiences she can never forget and which often catch up with her in her sleep. Against this kind of trauma there was only one remedy for Nelly Däs: talk, talk, talk. And what felt like constant repetition she finally put on paper in, for example, “Ich war von meinen bösen Träumen befreit”[i][I was liberated from my bad dreams.] What’s more, several of her books became great successes, even as she delved into a chapter of history which in Germany was touched on only hesitatingly.

A Childhood under False Omens

Nelly’s[ii] ancestors had emigrated during the 19th Century to the East from the village of Friedrichsfeld near Heidelberg. It was in the Ukrainian Black Sea region, in Friedental near Saporozshye, where the [ancestral] family settled in 1811 and would establish a new life. By the early 20th Century, [Nelly’s] father was able to call 107 hectares [ca. 265 acres] of land his own, and additionally he leased another forty hectares [ca. ninety acres]. Things began to take a serious turn with the Russian Revolution of 1917. A farm operation using Ukrainian servant labor simply did not fit with the image of a “classless society.” “As part of the general process of collectivization [beginning] in 1929, land in Ukraine was seized outright from its German owners.”[iii] Working as a “servant laborer” in a collective, however, was out of the question for father. The threat of banishment to Siberia was a constant. After the first German Russians had fallen victim to the Stalinist cleansing operations, the family decided to flee in 1935.

For the five-year-old Nelly there would ensue ten adventurous and, especially later on, ever dangerous years before, finally, in February of 1945 she arrived in Birkenlohe near Schwäbisch-Gmünd. Still, the danger of falling back into the hands of the Russians was by no means over. In the “Josefle” in Gmünd the young woman could observe during the post-war years how Russian officers would force German Russians to repatriate. In “Wie war das damals mit Deutschland” [How were things in Germany at that time?] she describes the sheer dread that the renewed persecution triggered in the young woman.[iv] 

We lacked everything”[v]

Nelly was only five years old when her family left everything behind and fled in a horse-drawn wagon during the cover of night. The signs had become ever stronger that the family would be resettled. Siberia – for German Russians this was the “horrible word.”[vi] “Anyone banished to Siberia was considered as good as dead.”[vii] In her first book, Wölfe und Sonnenblumen, she describes the initial years of flight, which turned her into a homeless little girl.[viii] Despite the desperate situation, the family of five received considerable assistance and experienced much human kindness even from Russians.[ix] Still, in 1937, what they had feared finally did happen – father was seized during the family’s flight. The receipt of the sale of their house, a marriage certificate, and birth certificates of the children, plus a butcher’s knife, were enough “proof” [quotation marks added by the translator] that these were capitalists and fascists. Father would never return from Siberia, and thus mother Emma was forced to fend for herself from then on. The children helped as much as they were able. Despite grave deprivation and great peril, this courageous woman somehow managed to make it through the difficult times and to protect her children in the process. Wölfe und Sonnenblumen is certainly the story of [Nelly’s] childhood, but this first book of hers is no less a tribute to her mother.[x]

Toward the end of 1939, mother moved her three children to Andrenburg, her native village where she still had many relatives. “That was a nice summer for us.”[xi] Nelly and her two brothers Johann and Harry would once again experience the joys of childhood. After the work in the fields was done, there was still time for adventure and some pranks. For a brief time there was something akin to normality, and in retrospect, life in that German village in Ukraine constituted a world without problems.

“The time the sunflowers were cut was a very nice time in Andrenburg … In the evenings we would all sit around and beat the kernels from the sunflower heads. I liked that especially because our work was always accompanied by the singing of German folksongs such as ‘Am Brunnen vor dem Tore,’ ‘Schön ist die Jugend,’ ‘Im schönsten Wiesengrunde,’ and many others. I wanted very much to learn them all, because I liked to sing when I was by myself. Group singing would also accompany the shucking of corn. The men would drag the heavy baskets to the women, and friendly joking could be heard all the while.”[xii]                      

The time for sunflowers soon came to an end. Thus far the war had been fought far away, and hardly any news reached the German Russian village. All of that changed abruptly when Germany declared war on Russia in 1941 [or, perhaps to be more exact, Germany attacked Russia by surprise – Tr.]. Mother saw this as a glimmer of hope for escaping Communism. However, a veritable stream of Jewish refugees, all reporting “The Germans shoot everyone [of us], wherever we go” caused some serious consternation.[xiii] Then the Germans arrived. What seemed like liberation for the German Russians would provide some measure of independence, but for only a brief time. For Nelly, the process of fleeing resumed in November of 1943 as the Russians began to re-conquer regions the Germans had occupied. Again a trek got under way; again hunger and cold afflicted the refugees. Toward the end of 1944 they finally landed in an apparently safe harbor, the Warthegau [an area in Western Poland]...     
The World Went Completely off its Tracks

“By then we were the following: my mother and I, and what was left of the family Schmidt. Father had been banished to Siberia, brother Johann got lost during the long trek, and Harry, my eldest brother, who could not be separated from the horses, was therefore also still with the trek.”

Thus begins Nelly Däs’ second book, Der Zug in die Freiheit, which deals with the next chapter of memories from her childhood and youth. After nine unsteady years of uncertainty, those who remained of the family had arrived in Wronke, a small city in the Warthegau. The latter was the name of the area after the occupation of Poland in 1939, when the region became a Reichsgau, which for the SS and for the Nazis would become an experimental region for the National Socialists’ ethnic policies. 

The arrivals were welcomed to their Urheimat [ancient homeland] by a “man in uniform with many decorations and a tall, stiff hat.”[xiv] Nelly’s mother whispered in a low, laconic manner to her relative, Christliebe, “This is Poland. This is supposed to be our ancient homeland!? I believe this man must never have gone to school.” Her once high opinion of the government in Germany dwindled quickly, because she sensed the injustices being committed everywhere.”[xv]

For Nelly the stay in Wronke was, again, only a brief one. In April of 1944 she was “sent” for what was intended to be a year’s stay at a camp in the country at a castle in Staffanshofen near Posen [Poznan in Polish – Tr.]. In addition to her lack of “school material” -- due to those times of turmoil Nelly had completed only four and a half years of school, three of[xvi] them in the Russian language – she was also to study sewing, gardening and cooking, and Physical education was also emphasized rather strongly. “In Germany there was the general opinion that we had been raised without ‘culture,’ so that we should be inculcated with ‘culture’ there.”[xvii] It soon became quite clear that this sort of culture was closely connected with secondary virtues such as discipline and order. Despite her great homesickness for her mother, Nelly considers these months as the best time of her youth.     

“Since all work gives me great joy, I liked my time at the camp better and better. The war was far away, and there was a sense of serenity around the castle. We did not listen to the radio, nor did we read any newspapers. Where the front was situated, or what was happening – well, we were not aware of any of that. We were so shielded from the outside as if we lived in the deepest peace.”[xviii]

“More Than a Young Girl Can Endure”[xix]

However, some news actually did reach the forty or so girls and their leaders, namely, news about brothers and fathers dying on the front, but never anything about Germany suffering defeat after defeat. By this time, Nelly’s mother was already in Germany, but Nelly remained at the castle only because of the stubbornness of the Party loyalists, who did not wish to admit the impending downfall. And at a later time it would therefore become much more difficult for these young girls, who had constantly been misled by the Führer, to flee from the approaching Russians, who were reputed not to shrink back from anything. By January 20, 1945 even the camp district director considered the situation too dicey. From Poznan the “get ready to flee” order finally arrived.[xx] The young girl, having only recently turned fifteen years of age, had long given up on counting the number of flights she had been involved in. But she was able to grasp that this one might be the most difficult: they would face forty kilometers [ca. 24 -25 miles] on foot at minus twenty two degrees [ca. minus eight degrees F.].

“I was still a child, and so were thousands more. But we were not allowed to be children. The Russians [the approaching front] and the Brown Shirts pushed us mercilessly into the horribly cold night and onto iced-up streets … That was the most terrible night I have ever experienced. Horrible scenes played out in front of us. Many old folks and children died during the night. If their relatives noticed, they cried out loudly into the night, and some even tried to take their own lives.”[xxi] On February 2, 1945, her mother’s birthday, at the end of yet another escape, and suffering hunger to the point of unconsciousness, Nelly finally reached Schwäbisch-Gmünd, “a city I immediately fell in love with.”[xxii] She started an apprenticeship with the Otto Zapp family as a seamstress fashioning men’s clothing. The times of escape and displacement were finally behind her. Of course, in her dreams she would re-live them again and again.

Everything Begins with DIN A4 Notebooks

[DIN A4 is a European paper size close to the American letter size – Tr.] Nelly Däs felt a double impetus to begin writing: to conquer the past and to grapple with history. “I wanted to tell people who the German Russians are,”[xxiii] and how “the Communists dispossessed us in 1929 and made beggars out of us.”[xxiv] This process all began in 1966, with ten size-DIN-A4 notebooks. The chief editor for the Landsmannschaft [der Deutschen aus Russland, the Association for Germans from Russia in Germany – Tr.], Dr. Karl Stumpp encouraged her to capture her exemplary story in writing.[xxv] A story teller’s talent came naturally to this “fairy-tale-telling auntie at your service.” In her autobiographical writings she always remembers herself as a child endowed with the gift of a rich imagination: “I did not need to deliberate, stories simply came into being in my head.”[xxvi] Hans-Georg Noack, lecturer, and author of books for teens, became aware of her notebooks and made sure that the first part of her biography, Wölfe und Sonnenblumen, appeared in print via the publishing house Signal-Verlag. The first printing of 5,000 copies was sold out within half a year. Ten years later that book and the second part, Der Zug in die Freiheit, appeared together at the renowned publisher Oetinger. For Nelly Däs personally, those two books, which she self-published as a double volume on the occasion of her seventieth birthday, remain the most important.

The Story Continues, with More Books and Many Public Readings

Nelly Däs considers her third book, Mit Timofej durch die Taiga[xxvii] [Through the Taiga with Timofey] her favorite one. It also was published by Oetinger, and its “dtv pocket book” edition received a printing of 50,000 copies.

Many works would follow, and they consistently painted the fate of the German Russians in colorful and gripping images, as for example, in Russlanddeutsche Pioniere im Urwald [German Russian Pioneers in the Primal Forest]. In the book Laßt die Jugend sprechen [Let the Youth Speak], published in 1994, she gave voice to the late-arriving immigrants from Russia. In 1988 the book Das Mädchen vom Fährhaus [The Girl from the Ferry Boathouse], published by the Georg-Bittner Company, was later turned into a two-part TV film, first by Karin Brandauer and, after her death, by director Thorsten Näter, and aired by the nation-wide television station ZDF [Second German Television], and the show enjoyed a great measure of public notice. A good dozen books by Nelly Däs have been published, her more recent ones as self-published projects. Recently Nelly Däs began to delve into a genre completely new to her. It carries the title Mord im Morgengrauen [Murder at Dawn], but remains, unpublished, in her desk drawer. This is the first time she veers from her main, great theme and turns to mystery. During the 1970s and 1980s she received several awards, including the Zürich Children’s Book Award “La viche qui lit,” and her books have been included in a selection list called “Deutscher Jugendbuchpreis” [German Books for Youth Award].

Well, her story does not just consist of the process of writing in some quiet room. The author can now also look back on more than 2,000 public readings that, via the Goethe Institute, took her all the way to Kiev. Eckhard Scheid lauds her as “an excellent story teller who expertly adapts to any audience and keeps her listeners spellbound.”[xxviii] Her public readings and events at various schools have been supported financially by the “Literatur und Schule” Association [Literature and the Schools].

Her Life and Honors

It was in Birkenlohe where Nelly became acquainted with the man who would become her husband, Walter Däs, a son of the owner of the guesthouse “Lamm.” They were engaged in 1950 and relocated to Stuttgart. The economic boom in Germany saw the young family make great strides as well, and in 1954 they built their own home in Waiblingen. The youthful couple’s happiness was overshadowed by the loss of four children, all of whom died in infancy. Only later would doctors determine that Nelly was Rh-negative. The couple then had two children who survived infancy. The most severe blow to the family occurred in 1988, when son Harald died of a brain tumor at the age of thirty-one.

Nelly Däs spends her energies on behalf of Germans from Russia not only through her writing. She has been a member of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland since 1961. In 1982 she received the Federal Cross of Merit and the Golden Pin from the state of Baden-Württemberg, which also presented to her the state’s Cultural Award for Literature. Her creative drive remains unbroken to this day. 


i. See the special edition of the book Wölfe und Sonnenblumen/Der Zug in die Freiheit, p. 281 [Wolves and Sunflowers/The Train to Freedom]
ii. Her maiden name was Nelly Schmidt
iii. See the biography of Eckhard Scheld.
iv. See the third part of special edition of the book Wölfe und Sonnenblumen/Der Zug in die Freiheit, pp. 265 ff.
v. See. the special edition of the book Wölfe und Sonnenblumen/Der Zug in die Freiheit, p. 280
vi. See Rußlanddeutsche im Urwald, p. 207. [German Russians in the Primal Forest]
vii. Ibid. p. 232
viii. See the special edition of the book Wölfe und Sonnenblumen/Der Zug in die Freiheit, p. 8
ix. She loves the Russians, but hates the Communists, she said during our conversation on 09/25/2009
x. See the special edition of the book Wölfe und Sonnenblumen/Der Zug in die Freiheit, p. 272. Nelly: “Yes, that was my mother the way I knew her: upright, proud and courageous.”
xi. Ibid., p. 78
xii. Ibid., p. 82
xiii. Ibid., p. 98
xiv. Ibid., p. 171
xv. Ibid., p. 176
xvi. Ibid., p. 279
xvii. Ibid., p. 187
xviii. Ibid., p. 189
xix. Ibid.,, p. 268
xx. Ibid., p. 224
xxi. Ibid., pp. 232, 233
xxii. Ibid., 261
xxiii. Ibid., p. 279
xxiv. Ibid., p. 263
xxv. Ibid., p. 201
xxvi. Ibid., p. 188
xxvii. Comment made during our conversation on 09/15/2009
xxviii. See the biography of Eckhard Scheld

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