Tim and Rosalinda Kloberdanz Have Been Wo die Wiegen der Vorvater Standen*

* Where the Cradles of the Ancestors Once Stood

McMullen, Cathy. "Tim and Rosalinda Kloberdanz Have Been Wo die Wiegen der Vorvater Standen." Forum, 6 February 1994, sec. 1B.

That August evening in 1991, Tim and Rosalinda Kloberdanz feared they'd made a terrible mistake.

They just put their two sons on an airplane - on their way to stay with relatives in Colorado. The next day, they'd begin the trip they'd spent seven years arranging - to the Volga River region in Russia, to study the folklife of ethnic Germans who lived there.

"That night - and this isn't just in retrospect for the sake of drama - we both felt something awful was going to happen," says Tim Kloberdanz, associate professor of anthropology and sociology at North Dakota State University.

"We weren't sure what it was, but we hoped it didn't have anything to do with the safety of our children," says Rosalinda Kloberdanz, a telecommunications specialist at NDSU.

Enough for a book

Maybe it was the warning of a German-Russian friend who begged them not to go and predicted they'd never be heard from again.

But it wasn't a suspicion that the Soviet Union would collapse when they were there."We'd say 'Just so nothing happens to Gorbachev, ha ha,'" Rosalinda says.

"We said that so many times it turned into a joke," Tim says. "We didn't know what was causing us to feel so bad that night - such a strong sense of foreboding and a deep loneliness - but neither of us slept all night."

The next day they began their trip to Russia. By the time they'd returned a month later, the coup they'd long joked about was history, and so was the Soviet Union.

And the Kloberdanzes came home with more information than they bargained for about German-Russians - enough for a book, and with an empathy for the uncertainty and fear German-Russians have lived with for centuries.

The story of their trip, and of their study of the Volga Germans, is told in a book, "Thunder on the Steppe: Volga German Folklife in a Changing Russia," published in November by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia based in Lincoln, Nebraska. More than 1,000 advance copies of the book have been sold in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Ancestors from the Volga

The Kloberdanzes have studied German Russians, formally and informally, all their lives. Both are of German-Russian heritage, and grew up in German-Russian communities in Colorado. They met while doing college research on German-Russians; they soon discovered that their ancestors were from the same village, Rothammel, in the Volga River valley in Russia.

Tim and Rosi Kloberdanz with some German-Russian artifacts.

Rosalinda did her master's thesis at NDSU on German-Russian women, and Tim is nationally recognized as an expert German-Russian folklife. Both grew up speaking German, and were familiar with the folkways of German-Russians in America.

And for years both wanted to travel to Russia and study the folklife of the German-Russians who live in villages near the Volga River. The opportunity finally came in 1991, with a study grant from the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

When the Kloberdanzes went to the village of Frank, Russia, they did not contemplate writing a book-length study. "We expected that we'd have to live in the Volga region for months or years before accumulating enough data for a book," Tim says. "But the time we spent there turned out to be very full, and the people with whom we spoke proved to be incredibly rich sources of knowledge. Actually, we hadn't expected to find so much evidence of Volga German culture in a region we knew had changed dramatically since the mass deportation of 1941."

Stalin's ruthlessness

The first Volga German colonies were established in 1764, during the reign of Catherine the Great, the German-born czarina who invited them to settle in the sparsely-populated Volga region.

They lived in the Volga region for six generations, influenced somewhat by their Russian neighbors but unassimilated into Russian culture.

Lenin, whose mother was German-Russian, created the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Volga Germans, and the Volga Germans lived unharassed - until Joseph Stalin came to power.

The Volga Germans were among 7 million peasants Stalin sought to exterminate by forced famine in the early '30s. Then, in 1941, nearly half a million Volga German villagers were herded into cattle cars and banished to Siberia and Kazakhstan. In exile, families were separated - children taken from their mother's arms and placed in Russian homes or orphanages - and the men and women were forced to labor in mines, forests and "special internment centers."

The exact number of those who died under Stalin's rule will never be known, Tim says, estimates range from 14 to 20 million. In the late 1950s, a small number of exiles returned to their forbidden Volga homeland. Today, the returnees number about 50,000, less than 5 percent of the total German-Russian population of the former USSR.

Their culture is intact

The German-Russians who live in the Volga region have a remarkably intact culture, which allowed the Kloberdanzes to gather a wealth of information on their folklife - traditional culture and behavior as expressed through architecture, beliefs, medicine, religion, songs, speech, food.

Many examples of those folk ways are given in the book, often in the context of a story or a conversation Tim or Rosalinda had with their hosts. The book reads not like a dry sociological study but an entertaining, detailed and literary travelogue.

"The first night we were there, many of the villagers gathered around the tables and began to sing one old folk song after another," Rosalinda says. "It just gave me goosebumps. And as we realized the great extent to which their culture was still intact, and that we have access to so much of it, we thought maybe our plane had gone down and we were on the other side, in German-Russian heaven."

Surviving the coup attempt

A few weeks latter, they felt they'd visited German-Russian hell.

The morning of August 19, the Kloberdanzes awakened to find several people huddled around a small transistor radio in the kitchen of their host family. "We knew from looking at them that something terrible had happened, and all they could tell us was 'catastrophe' and 'something has happened to Gorbachev.'"

No one knew what had happened until, on August 20, the Kloberdanzes were able to make a phone call to relatives in America. "The coup plotters had forgotten to control the international telecommunications lines," Rosalinda says. "If they'd remembered to halt the telephones, the fax machines, the computers, things might have turned out differently."

As it was, the Kloberdanzes felt more than the usual fear Americans feel when caught in a country in turmoil. "We were afraid that if the Communist hard-liners prevailed, they might make life very unpleasant for anyone who wasn't a gung-ho communist, such as the Volga Germans," Tim says. "And we feared that our hosts might suffer terrible retribution for sheltering American 'spies.'"

Their hosts did their best to make them comfortable, Tim says, though they also made a point to show them a root cellar where, if necessary, people could stay for several weeks.

Not only did the Kloberdanzes experience the collapse of the Soviet system from a grassroots perspective, sharing the experience with their Volga hosts gave them a sense of empathy to the Germans' long suffering.

"That's when they really opened up to us and shared their lives," Rosalinda says.

She and Tim write in the book: "Many of the villagers did not want us to return to America until we had heard from them the stories they carried like heavy stones in their hearts: stories that dealt with famine, unjust arrests, incarceration, separation, war, exile, forced labor, beatings, executions, rape, and every other conceivable type of human suffering."

Yet the book that came of their research is not filled with tragedy. "We worked to make sure it wasn't all doom and gloom," Tim says. "But we wanted to emphasize that though the Volga Germans have gone through so much, theirs is still a culture rich in the joy of living."

The future is uncertain

The future of the Volga Germans remains uncertain, Tim says, just as the future of a free Russia remains tenuous. Many Volga Germans are emigrating to Germany, despite dim hopes for the establishment of an autonomous Volga German republic.

The Kloberdanzes hope to return to Frank in the not-too-distant future - not to do more research, but to help their distant relations build a bell tower for a church. A letter dated May 10, 1933, sent by a Volga German village elder, was full of hope and optimism.

In the letter, he tells of the refurbishing of an old house into a church.

"Also, we have discovered the whereabouts of a large church bell, and the government has consented to return the bell to us. Soon we will build a bell tower.

"With God's help, we have made it through another hard winter... Many people from our village are immigrating to Germany. But for the time being, the majority are not budging..."

"Here life goes on as always, following pretty much the same old pattern. We have what we need and do not suffer great want. After all, we are Volga Germans. Others can try to sway us to and fro, but our feet are firmly rooted in this soil."

Reprinted by permission from The Forum.

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