Those who Stayed Behind

Herzog, Karen. "Those who Stayed Behind." Bismarck Tribune, 28 December 1997.

The German-Russians who did not flee to America faced varied hardships, tragedies

Some stayed behind.

For more than a century, industrious German immigrants had worked hard tilling the Russian soil, coaxing abundance from vast Eurasian steppes and building churches and schools and homes in their clusters of colonies flung like beads around the Black Sea and the Volga River.

But by the end of 1800s, the czars no longer sounded so friendly, so welcoming, so accommodating. The Germans were to be "Russianized." Gone was their exclusive German language in their schools, their military exemptions. The lands were filled to their capacity to farm it by hand, and what land remained was expensive. To leave or to stay? That was the question. The Dakotas are filled with the offspring of those who chose to leave. So what happened to the others, those who chose to stay? In a word, tragedy.

Pray for us

During the 1920s, the Dakota Freie Presse and other German-language newspapers described the suffering of the (Germans from Russia's) kinsmen who had remained in South Russia. Civil war, mass executions and widespread famine were reported in excruciating detail. Wheat prices were extremely poor in the Northern Plains in the 1920s, but when compared to descriptions of (their Russian kin) searching the fields in Russia for kernels of grain, they realized how fortunate they were. The image of the Old Country as a lovely paradise on the steppe was destroyed, gradually giving way to a grudging appreciation for the rock-strewn prairies in North Dakota.

In the 1930s, there wee disturbing reports from Russia that moved stoic-faced Black Sea Germans to weep -- purges, nightly arrests and Siberian labor camps. The Black Sea Germans in North Dakota, many of whom were struggling to hold on to farmlands that were literally blowing away, could only write back, "Dearest brother, dearest sister, we have so little ourselves and feel helpless. Pray for us, dear ones, as we shall continue to pray for all of you!"

"Plains Folk," ......

Twenty-nine German-language newspapers were published at one time or another in North Dakota. By the 1950s, these newspapers had died out. But for more than six decades, they connected the homesick "far-scattered" German-speaking people.

Newspapers like the Dakota Freie Presse, published in Yankton, S.D., later Bismarck, the Staats-Anzeiger in Rugby, later Bismarck, and the Eureka (S. D.) Rundschau carried letters with news from the "old homeland" of South Russia -- a litany of war, famine, lulls of bounty, revolution, dispossesion, expulsion. Politics and history, however, always yielded first place to the true center of German life -- the land -- crops, sowing, yields, harvest, prices, weather.

Embedded in the writers' own words is a tragedy -- what happens to the "little people" caught under the wheels of history. In chilling images, the letters reveal the warping weight of a totalitarian regime on the people in its power.

These "letters to the editors" were published in the Dakotas in the German-language newspapers of the time. Dates are the day of publication. (Letter collection courtesy of Mike Rempfer, Bismarck)

Man proposes but God disposes

From Georg Biederstedt, Merricourt, Dickey County. (Dakota Freie Presse, Feb. 17, 1909)

"We began our journey to America on March 8, 1890. (After arriving in Ellendale) we could build nothing more than sod houses because there was no other construction material. We still had enough time to sow 40 acres of flax, but we got no harvest from it, which was a particularly hard blow at the outset. In the spring of 1891, we sowed once again. Naturally we did everything with oxen, for horses were rare in those early days. The grain was marvelous and stood well until it was ripe. But then we had a terrible hail storm which destroyed everything. At that point all of us lost our spirits and in despair began making plans to return to Russia. But "der Mensch denkt und Gott lenkt." (Man proposes but God disposes).

In the spring of 1892 I got married and decided not to go back to Russia after all. This year we also got a very good harvest and from that time on everything started turning out for the better."

Leaving it all

From Karl and Ottilie Biederstaedt, South Russia (Dakota Freie Presse, March 13, 1917).

"We received your precious letter on Nov. 5. We are all still well. I cannot write about the war, as then you would not get the letter. However, this much I can write, that the war is terrible.

Another letter from the Biederstaedts, published Jan. 9, 1920:

"Dear Brother, It has been over five years since we have corresponded. We are now in Germany. We escaped out of Russia with the German occupation troops. We had to leave everything behind in Russia. We have abandoned cattle, horses, furniture and machinery, house and land. In total, we have left assets of 200,000 rules here. Christoph, our oldest son, is living there, if he is still alive which we do not know, for very many have been killed by the Bolsheviks. ... how disordered Russia has become. Today is Kerensky with his party; tomorrow he is overthrown. Then comes Lenin and Trotsky, Denikin, Judenitsch. As of February, the revolution in Russia has been continuing for three years. ... nothing but rabble, who are only robbers and murderers.

There are no workers and no employees; there are only "Towarischtchi," (comrades). He slings a rifle over his shoulder, sticks a revolver in his belt and attaches himself to a gang, after which rises robbery and murder.

How the accursed war has changed everything! (Our son) Karl was killed at war on the Austrian Front on June 7, 1917.

Seeing the Red

From Eduard Nill, Germany. (Der Staats-Anzeiger, March 22, 1921)

"Just now the (South Russian German) colonies of Lustdorf and Grossliebental are badly afflicted by the communists. In Lustdorf, it is said there are only five males in the village. The others are said to be murdered or fled. Mother's brother, Heinrich, has been arrested and imprisoned by the communists. One can say nothing of this, or otherwise one is denounced as counterrevolutionary and shot.

The little money we have here (in Germany) does not go far. I would go back immediately (to Russia) if only I could. However, the Bolsheviks have also sought after my life."

Hunger drives tears

From Ludwig Beutespacher, Neu-Beresina (village), South Russia (Eureka Rundschau, May 4, 1922)

"Now certainly you have heard already about the great famine in Russia; there are already many people dead from starvation in our vicinity. I still have one horse and two cows. For each cow and also for the horse, they give two Pud (36 pounds) of flour. How long would this be enough for our family of ten? We have already gone one month long without any more bread, eating only watery soup with a little meal mixed in. I write this letter under tears with a heavy heart as it is not easy for me to beg, but the hunger drives one to it."

Pleading for assistance

From Michael and Christina Bindewald, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Eureka Rundschau, June 22, 1922)

"First the crop failure and second, we had everything taken away. We have no more livestock to sell, having only two cows remaining. If there is no help from another country, then we are lost. Throughout the whole winter, we have had only two meals each day, and a man cannot endure this for a long time. There are eight in our family; we have sent to Poland all the clothes we could sell for food. Pleading for your assistance.

Hard to understand hardship

From Margaretha Helm Mehlhaff, Woinitsch, South Russia. (Eureka Rundschau, June 22, 1922)

"My dear nephew Friedrich, For you to know what a farmer is up against, you would have to be here. There is not a kernel for planting or for bread. When one has nothing to seed, you know there is nothing also to harvest. My son Friedrich was killed in the war. A frightening rise in prices is with us. And so the hunger is already here, and the crop is indeed still four months away.

Everyone had to give

From Christine Losing, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Eureka Rundschau, Nov. 9, 1922)

"Our entire household was sick with typhus in the winter. Those who had enough to eat, the Reds took it away. Everyone had to give, if they had enough or if they had nothing.

Appreciate the help

From Johann and Barbara Freier, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Eureka Rundschau, Dec. 10, 1925)

"Much beloved sister and brother-in-law, We received your nice letter on Sept. 9 and the fifty dollars on Sept. 19. We have divided it into six equal parts. We have taken this money and driven to the market and bought ten Pud (one Pud=36 pounds) of wheat; with this we again have some flour to eat. We were happy. But God knows how will we fare through another year; we have harvested nothing at all, and with a hoe, put up only one stack of thistles. We have only one horse and one young cow -- this is all.

"Still, I would write that the government provided every farm with seed for five dessiatines (13.5 acres) and the oldest men took it to the fields and seeded it all.

Blood gone to water?

From Johann and Barbara Freier, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Eureka Rundschau, Jan. 28, 1926)

"There are only five houses here where there is no illness. Dear sister, how happy we would be if we could receive help with which to buy flour, because starvation is a difficult death. Is there no one else, other than you, who has a tender heart? Dear friends, help us before it is too late, as we are hungry and without adequate clothes. Where are my brother and my sister? Look for them, that they might help us also. Has blood already turned to water?

I cannot beg

From Christian Troester, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Eureka Rundschau, May 13, 1926)

"Lately our people have been writing to America asking for money. They probably think that in America the dollars grow on trees. My need is also very pressing, but I cannot beg. My horse is so weak, that I could almost not lead it out of the stall.

When one hears how rich people are in America, and we so wretchedly must endure, then one becomes bitter. May our God care to protect you from the misery with which we are afflicted."

A chilling report

In a letter published in Der Staats-Anzeiger, Nov. 5, 1926, Christian Moessner's report includes this chilling paragraph.

"Johann Heberle, two years after being taken to prison in Odessa, recently was sentenced to death as a leader of the colonist rebellion, and as a fugitive from his first arrest, when he wounded a secret policeman. It was a short time from the verdict of the trial to the carrying out of the execution.

Turning to crime

Theodor Roedel, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, April 24, 1928)

"On Feb. 1, in the small market town (nearby) a gypsy who had taken a rope was arrested. The rope would not be so consequential to him if a cow had not been attached to the other end, and therefore today, the poor gypsy is confined under lock and key. For my part, I think that for the homeless gypsy, this was little to do about a cow, but about free room and board, which are both now guaranteed to him. This encourages scoundrels to perform such pranks.

Losing faith?

Theodor Roedel (Der Staats-Anzeiger, June 12, 1928) "Many allow their seats in church to become thick with dust, and so also is their place in heaven. They either stroll about or attend the soccer matches. I wonder if they have thought on it, that there are no soccer matches in hell?

No seed stock available

Theodor Roedel (Der Staats-Anzeiger, July 10, 1928)

I wanted to buy a Pud (36 pounds) of corn at the market in Katarschino today, but did not find any. There is little available seed stock of sunflowers, corn and millet, which in all likelihood has been allocated to the communes, collectives and other organized work units.

Back in the fields again

From Heinrich Hermann, Neuglueckstal, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, June 21, 1929)

Our spring seeding is proceeding slowly. Our horses are so weak that, throughout the day, they must be unharnessed and fed frequently and often we have to use manpower to help them to their feet. Our winter wheat froze out, so we must plant the fields with summer (spring) crops. Luckily, our government furnishes the seed stock, for obtaining it is beyond our own means.

Go with the times

From Friedrich Kuebler, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, May 13, 1930)

We read the newspaper eagerly, hearing how the people in America live, how you make trips by auto hither and yon, and by which, unfortunately, many men are also injured. Now, for us, we quietly live our working days, and envy not at all your American gas-horse.

Yes, it has become totally different, and everything must be relearned. The watchword (is) "You go with the times or it is hard times."

We do what is required. And the citizens who submit, who are true and honest, with nothing to hide, who are not speculators or active in hidden (underground) politics, for these citizens it is not bad, for they have a livelihood and secure life in Soviet Russia.

There have been deportations from other villages, but believe me, those concerned have always been guilty. Yes, the speculators are a noxious element and the sooner one is rid of them, the better for society. And kulaks, who do not put obstructions in the way of collectivization by word or deed, are left alone. However, many think they are more clever than others, and must, of course, be reeducated.

Yes, we have a so-called collective to which we have handed over our livestock and machinery. Our collective has 52 workhorses and one tractor. In our soviet-state, work is the highest honor. The collective has planted 350 hectares of winter wheat, 60 hectares barley and oats, 40 hectares of potatoes.

Government support

From Friedrich and Katharina Kuebler, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, June 24, 1930)

The winter crops flutter in waves like the sea. The pasture is a genuine paradise, a field of high grass and beautiful flowers such as we have never before seen. The vineyard is thriving beautifully.

We wish to inform that we are building a large school, but not with our money, rather the government is doing it. Our Artel (collective) is progressive and receives recognition as one of the best in the district.

We have been without a (church) sexton for ten months, and have not had any more divine services; many of our people are themselves to blame, they no longer took part in religious affairs and supported the church no more. The government then took over the building and accommodated the Artel (collective) in it.

Day of Collectivization

From Friedrich and Katharina Kuebler, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, Nov. 21, 1930)

"On Sunday, Oct. 26, we grandly celebrated the harvest day here, that is, the Day of Collectivization. Our village is now a so-called Red village and is called "Krasna Selo." The Red flag was dedicated and many speeches were made.

Everything is in fine order for us. Hopefully, everything will also remain in the future as it is now."

The 'greater-farm'

From Friedrich Kuebler, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, Feb. 10, 1931)

"Always the farmers are locked in more and more to the collective or "greater-farm," slowly realizing that the soviet government's only intent is to advance the well-being of the farmers and workers.

On government's side

From Friedrich Kuebler, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, April 3, 1931)

There is still much unthreshed grain in the fields of our neighboring village. Truly what a sin this is, after dear God has given us a good harvest. It is no wonder that the soviet government takes severe, suitable action to bring about an end to this mismanagement, to which only the enemies of the "Five Year Plan" are responsible.

Crops need rain

From Friedrich Kuebler, Neu-Beresina (Der Staats-Anzeiger, June 19, 1931)

"The (crops) need rain, and if it comes in time, everything will give a good harvest. The farmer always lives with hope, and this is nothing to be ashamed of."

Better than ever

From Christian Haerter, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, Aug. 4, 1931)

"We have never had as good and as many vegetables as since the irrigation. We have our soviet government to thank for this and yet other setups (innovations).

An additional new establishment in our village is the kindergarten. By this Art (workers collective) mothers with many children can turn them over to the kindergarten and then work in the home undisturbed, or go out to the fields."

Kulaks expelled

From Christian Haerter, Neu-Beresina, South Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, Nov. 24, 1931)

"During the threshing time our Artel (collective) was "cleansed" and several persons expelled after they were exposed as Kulaks. Among them are Friedrich Kuebler, Jakob Nill, Gottlob Haerter, Christian Troester and Jakob Breitling (Ed. writers of several of the previous letters). They were removed from their houses."

Breitling has departed

From Mathilde Zimblemann, Hoffnungstal, Soviet Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, Sept. 23, 1932)

"In Odessa, Jakob Breitling, (Ed. mentioned above, one of those "cleansed"), 58 years old, has departed from the living. The deceased, who formerly lived in Neu-Beresina, now worked his trade with the carpenter's plane."

Poor grape harvest

From Mathilde Zimblemann, Hoffnungstal, Soviet Russia (Der Staats-Anzeiger, Nov. 4, 1932)

The grape harvest turned out very poor as well. We harvested only a third of what was expected. Indeed, the splendid time of grapes has flown by much too fast for everyone this year."

During World War II the Germans in the old Black Sea colonies and in Bessarabia searched their old family Bibles and records, looking for names of relatives who had moved to America.

War was on between Germany and Russia and correspondence was desperately renewed as the Germans who had stayed behind looked for help.

One of these, Emil Bendewald, told his story in 1962 in Germany. His horrifying story is just one of scores of thousands:

After the beginning of World War II, the Germans living in Bessarabia when Russians took over in June 1940 were invited to leave. No one wanted to go, but after the Russians started explaining communism, the German farmers began to realize they had to leave, though they hated to leave their homes. The women left Oct. 5, 1940, the men followed on Oct. 18 -- 92,000 Germans left Bessarabia headed for Germany, only to be routed to Poland to farm the lands that Germany had taken away from the Polish people. All the men were drafted into the Army or the Wehrmacht (German air force). The women and children farmed the lands, in constant fear of the partisans trying to reclaim the land the Poles rightfully owned.

On Jan. 12, 1945, the Russians began their big offensive (westward toward Germany). On Jan. 18, 1945, the mass movement of the Germans fleeing Poland began. The (westward-moving Russian) front caught up with many of the women and children on foot. The Russians shot many and put the rest of them in cattle cars and shipped them to Siberia. Bendewald spent two years searching for his family, finally finding them in Hannover.

In "The Central Dakota Germans," Shirley Fischer Arends writes:

"The old German colonies are gone forever. Their inhabitants are in Germany and in Siberia. They had tamed the steppes, cultivated the fields, drained the swamps, planted orchards and vineyards. They left as beggars and undesirables. After World War II, there were still two million Germans left in Russia, citizens who had sacrificed their property, their lives, for the country of their birth and had wanted to stay.

"They were disowned as aliens, jailed as revolutionists and sent to concentration camps in Siberia as traitors."

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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