Back to the Past

Spilde, Tony. "Back to the Past." Bismarck Tribune, 21 January 2007.

Otto Gienger knows about cutting to the bone.

The retired butcher traveled last fall to his homeland, and was confronted by memories he thought time had swallowed.

But upon walking back into his little village, the faded recollections emerged anew, like heavy stones cast long ago into a pond whose murky waters were now drained. There were the stones, ready to be picked up, dense with heartache, solid with pain, pock-marked by circumstance.

There is no one left in the little town of Neudorf from Gienger's boyhood. A statue of Lenin stares coldly, still, into the distance.

Yes, Lenin.

It is an anachronism in a town forgotten by time, but not misfortune.

Gienger's family were among the thousands of Germans from Russia forced to flee their homes during World War II. They rode horses and wagons to Poland, then Germany. Some of them never made it. Many who did left Europe for the United States, a lot of them relocating to North Dakota.

Gienger found success here, working for 55 years in the meat business, including 28 years as owner of Gienger's Sausage & Meats in Bismarck. But he always wanted to return to visit his hometown. The trip of a lifetime was nearly a lifetime in the making, but he finally made it. Gienger and his daughter, Ranee, spent six weeks traveling through Russia, Moldova, Ukraine and Germany.

"I dreamed of it for many years and finally thought, 'This is it, let's do it,'" said Gienger, 71. "We really should have done this years ago. It's a little late in the game, but now I have time. We didn't want to just go for a week and rush it. We wanted to get the feel of things."

They got a feel for things, and quickly. The Giengers found some locals to show them around, so they could get a close-up look at life near the Black Sea.

Much has changed in Neudorf, but much has stayed the same. The town, now called Karmanova, is located in a narrow strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine called Transdniester.

Transdniester proclaimed its independence from Moldova after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but is not officially recognized by any other country.

"It's still like a communist country," Ranee Gienger said. "There's a statue of Lenin in the town square (in the capital of Tiraspol). There are communist slogans all over the place, and the parliament is still called the Supreme Soviet. It's like going back in time. It's like a museum."

The Giengers said few improvements have been made in Karmanova since Otto and his family left in 1943.

"Time has stood still there," he said. "The only improvements are electricity and propane gas. They still have outhouses. Those people over there don't have the chances we have. Every family has a story about a relative that got murdered (during the forced exodus of the Germans). It was commonplace." Otto Gienger said there are no Germans left in the area. All of his relatives were gone.

They left when he was 8. He remembers the German army taking their good horses and leaving them with tired old animals to finish the trip to Poland. He remembers a Polish woman sneaking a ham out to his family as they passed by her house. He doesn't remember his uncle being captured and taken to a work camp in Tajikistan, where he would die of tuberculosis.

Those thoughts were gone for more than 50 years, but reappeared when Gienger reappeared in Moldova. It was hard for him to see the people there still struggling. But they appeared happy to see the Americans, he said.

"When you visit those villages, it seems like the people who have the least give you the most," Ranee Gienger said. "These people didn't know us. We were just tourists. But they put out huge meals and showed us their houses. We never expected that hospitality."

Now, when he looks back, Otto Gienger will have a handful of shiny new gems to put alongside those old stones.

(Click here to see more photos of Otto Gienger's trip)

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune

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