Martin Pollack’s Potsdam Discussion of his Theses Regarding Emigrants from Eastern Europe Around 1900

Includes comments regarding Pollack’s book Kaiser von Amerika. Die große Flucht aus Galizien [The Kaiser of America. The Great Flight from Galicia.]

Saab, Karen. "Martin Pollack’s Potsdam Discussion of his Theses Regarding Emigrants from Eastern Europe Around 1900." Märkische Allgemeine, 3 December 2010.

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

POTSDAM. Anyone who is satisfied and does not suffer from hunger will hardly be able to put himself in the place of people whose only thought is to get away from their homeland, because hunger, lack of freedom, and backwardness are all they know. On the surface, a panel discussion on the subject of Eastern European emigration during the 19th Century might seem a damned absurd and rather intellectual exercise. One repeatedly hears mention of great misery, which is subsequently declared to be “the cause” or the “motivating factor.” Still, what does it really mean when people leave behind all certainty and begin to go far, far away?

At the end, Martin Pollack, who had just received the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding for his book Nach Amerika! [To America!], his thoroughly researched nonfiction work on Galician emigrants around 1900, mentioned three statements with clear relevance for today: “[1] Moscow today is a city of refugees, where hundreds of thousands are looking for work. [2] In Magnitogorsk in the South Urals there exists a symphony orchestra that was founded by musicians from Tashkent and Samarkand. [3] Suddenly, refugees from the Northern Caucasus region are populating ghost villages that had been abandoned by Volga Germans.”

Nach Amerika! also happens to be the title of an event last Wednesday held by Deutsches Kulturforum östliches Europa [German Cultural Forum, Eastern Europe] in Potsdam’s Nikolaisaal. It might just as well have been entitled “Nach Sibirien!” [To Siberia!], since the far expanses of Eastern Russia at one time also offered room for development to energetic new settlers. Nevertheless, it was the myth of America that provided the strong pull for folks toward the West. Pollack demonstrates in his book that this magnetism did not merely constitute a primal force, but in fact represented a definite, well planned enterprise. For the most part, it was on behalf of shipping concerns such as Lloyd and Hapag, which, after delivering their cotton and tobacco imports, desired not to have their ships return empty to America, so that untold numbers of pied pipers and “farmer catchers” took to roaming through Galicia and Bessarabia, Poland and Ukraine while promising the sky to the poorest of the poor. Dire need would enrich the coffers of the shipping companies by the millions. After all, it was still a time without mass media able to cover the globe and capable of providing information about life on other continents. As a result, the greater the need, the more receptive became especially the illiterate to be attracted by even the most absurd promises. For the grand estate owners of Galicia, there often came a rude awakening as their farmhands simply disappeared overnight. Because inheritance laws demanded that estates were to be divided up, fewer and fewer families were ending up being able to make ends meet. There was a gigantic “hunger for land.”

An important prerequisite that enabled the wave of emigration to the Western hemisphere was a new railroad network, which the folks from interior countries used just to get to harbor cities such as Hamburg. Not few of them eventually ended up in the Promised Land as members of a cheap labor force involved in building yet another railroad network, thus participating in opening up the Wild West.

A participant on the panel was Eric Schmaltz, a historian from Oklahoma, who is himself a descendant of German-Russian immigrants and whose research involves their difficult integration into US society. “Until 1950, marriages took place only within the ethnic group. Their level of education grew fairly slowly,” he summed up. With pride he mentioned the winter-resistant wheat grains which refugee women would sew into the hems of their dresses as they brought them into the US. He also pointed to the country music star [sic] John Denver, whose given name actually was Henry John Deutschendorfer. Schmaltz, who did not learn learned English before attending school, added: “The German Russians found it especially difficult because they were doubly stigmatized – as Germans because of the anti-German mood during the war, and as Russians due to anti-Russian attitudes in the struggle against Bolshevism.” He also noted that German Russians in Brazil, Russia, Canada and the US are meeting via the Internet these days.

During the panel discussion, Karl Schlögel, an expert on Russia and Communism, placed a great deal of value on the distinction between refugees (who do not assimilate culturally in strange lands because they desire to return to their homelands) and emigrants. Pollack was quick to point out that even among the Galician economic refugees there certainly were many disillusioned returnees: “They indeed engender an important push toward development in Eastern Europe, even if only due to the work ethic and purchasing power they had acquired in the US.” He cited one more, rather commonplace example: the first provable instance of a book shelf (American style!) was seen in a Galician famer’s home in 1880..

It has been reported that in today’s Hanoi there is a Vietnamese who, having left Berlin, has opened up a kebab stand there.

An Austrian with a Passion for the East

Martin Pollack, born in 1944 in Upper Austria, did not learn until he was fourteen years old that his father had been an SS-officer and chief of the Gestapo in Linz. He researched this part of history for his book Der Tote im Bunker [The Dead in the Bunker] (2004).

Through the Internet Pollack got to know many refugees from Ukraine. He became a journalist, worked for Der Spiegel, and published many books on Eastern Europe.

Today Pollack resides in Burgenland on a farmyard with its own meadow orchard. One of his hobbies is growing organic apples.

Martin Pollack: Kaiser von Amerika. Die große Flucht aus Galizien. Zsolnay, 280 pages. 19.90 Euros.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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