German Russians: a Saga of Terror, Intolerance, Pride

"German Russians: a Saga of Terror, Intolerance, Pride." Forum, 3 December 1978.

The average American, well fed and comfortably housed, can scarcely comprehend the lost feeling of the homeless. But for Americans of German Russian ancestry, that understanding runs in their blood.

Most of those who settled in North Dakota, where there are more German Russians than in any other state, are secure now, and their children are rooted in America. But many feel a tug of fear when they think of those who stayed behind, suffered through a revolution and two world wars, and still face restrictions on their religion and their language.

Tim Kloberdanz, instructor in anthropology at North Dakota State University, descends from Germans from Russia who settled in Colorado. He says local German Russians are trying to contact and possibly help their families emigrate from the U.S.S.R.

But Kloberdanz compares the plight of German Russians to that of Soviet Jews; they are not easily allowed to leave.

An article published in the Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia states that Soviet officials hesitate to let German Russians leave because they are good workers and because mass emigration would create a bad impression of the Soviet Union.

The Germans are anxious to leave because they feel their religious and cultural life slipping from them in the U.S.S.R. But generally they are considered for exit visas only if they have relatives living in Germany who have invited them.

Some in North Dakota are reluctant to discuss their efforts on behalf of their relatives, fearing that any publicity might impede the delicate negotiations.

Mrs. Christ Leingang, however, hopes publicity may lead to locating an aunt, possibly two, whom she knows to be living in Siberia.

Her father, Adam Baumstarck, left Russia in 1913 for North Dakota, where he planned to work on a farm and send for his family within a year.

He never saw any of them again. War broke out in 1914 and seven brothers were lost. His parents died of starvation in 1922. And during the "eastern holocaust" of German-Russian fighting in World War II, his three sisters were shipped to Siberia with other Germans living in Russia.

Although Baumstarck died 10 years ago, a letter addressed to him was received this summer by his wife, of Linton, N.D. The letter was from a sister, Liza Huber, now living in Norderstedt, Germany, and she told of another sister still in Siberia.

It had been 11 years since the last letter, and although Mrs. Baumstarck had informed the sisters of her husband’s death, they apparently did not receive the information.

Asked how she believes the relatives are faring in the U.S.S.R., Mrs. Baumstarck shakes her head sadly and says, in her heavy German accent, "Not good." She believes they would like to leave.

Kloberdanz says Germans remaining in Russia are often working as unskilled laborers. Gone are the close-knit colonies and prosperous farms of fertile western Russia, where Germans were invited in the 18th century by Catherine the Great to show the Russian peasants how to farm.

The closeness of the German Russians (hated for being German and hated for being Russian), their wish to preserve their fading traditions, and a newly developed pride in ethnicity have renewed their efforts to find relatives in the old country.

But besides that, they are just beginning to learn the story of those who stayed behind—a story untold for years because those who lived through it have tried to forget it. Only the curiosity of the younger generation is now drawing the painful memories out.

Ingrud Rimland
Ingrid Rimland, 42, Stockton, Calif., told the local Historical Society of Germans from Russia what happened to those who had hoped to remain in the land they had known as home. She visited Fargo-Moorhead recently to talk about her novel, "The Wanderers: The Saga of Three Women Who Survived." The book draws on her own terrifying experiences as a German born in Russia.

But hers was not an isolated case. Kloberdanz’s wife, Rosie, said her grandmother’s story of the eastern holocaust is almost identical.

While other Germans left in the early 20th century, Rimland’s ancestors, who were Mennonites, tried to stay in Russia as long as they could, believing the country which had welcomed them would protect them.

The Germans were an industrious and self-contained group within Russia, with their own language, churches and schools.

But with the Bolshevik revolution beginning about 1917, it was no longer good to be different, religious or middle class. "It seemed as if hell’s gates had opened, as if Russia had betrayed them," Rimland said.

The German Russians were terrorized and stripped of their land in those days of anarchy, which were followed by a wave of starvation in which many of Rimland’s family died—the same famine which killed Baumstarck’s parents.

More Germans fled the country in the 1920s, but still some stayed, believing Russia would recover. Instead, Russia shut its gates and sent whole villages of the "outsiders" to Siberia.

And that is where the Germans—though no longer in labor camps—remain. But their villages have Russian names, and the German culture is being lost.

Rimland, born in the Ukraine in 1936, scarcely remembers her father, who was sent to a hard-labor camp in Siberia in September 1941. Women and children were to be deported.

The night Hitler’s army marched into Russia one month later, Rimland, her mother, grandmother and sister were waiting at a railroad station for deportation. It was a brutal night, filling with crying, praying, cursing—when suddenly a silence fell which lasted all night.

When the sun rose, the German army was there, the beginning of a two-year occupation that provided some relief and restoration of cultural identity to the German Russians.

But when the German army was forced to retreat, the German Russians also fled—on foot. For two vicious winters and a summer they marched through hell on earth, Rimland said.

Toward 1945, "it was just a scramble for life." She was only 9, and had been on the road two years.

At last, close enough to see bombed-out Berlin burning beneath a red sky, they were overtaken by Russians and held for six months.

"The killing, maiming, torturing would take years to tell," she said.

Once, her family was held in a house where the Russians had set up a radio station. She said the soldiers stuffed doors and windows with dead bodies to keep their captives in and protect the radio station.

Finally one night Rimland and her family escaped, fleeing in a brief reprieve of darkness when the searchlight stopped, fixed on another family which had tried to escape.

In the allied zone they were safe, though destitute. When both Canada and the U.S. banned German immigrants for a year, a Mennonite relief organization found Rimland’s family a refuge in Paraguay, where two older Mennonite colonies existed.

They were given land in the remote Paraguayan jungle, where it took two days to hack their way through the bush to the next colony.

There were few men, most having been exiled in Siberia. (Rimland later found her father in the U.S.S.R. He had remarried, having been told his family was dead.) The Germans in Paraguay were incredibly poor, bitten by ants and infested by insects—a depleted people.

Curious, intelligent, but with no outside intellectual resources, Rimland was restless. She married in 1958, and in 1960 was able to leave the jungle. Her husband had relatives in Canada who were willing to sponsor him.

Her life since then needs another book to tell. Her quest for knowledge led her to college in Wichita, Kan., in 1967, although she had only three years of formal education before that. Now a doctoral student, she is in private practice in the education of exceptional children.

She learned English only 11 years ago, yet with that tool she has found a voice to express the plight of the German Russians.

Her novel, which received the California Literature Medal Award this year, tells of three generations of women. The first, representing her grandmother’s times, speaks of the religious steadfastness, the cultural unity of her people during Czarist Russia.

Her mother’s counterpart represents the times of great upheaval, when faith seemed to disappear.

Her own counterpart represents the children who came out of the war and no longer fully understood the heritage or how all the trouble came about.

"As a Russian German and a person who has come incredible distances, in the beginning the intolerance in me (for her own culture) was hurting me," she said. "I knew only to throw out the entire experience, never call myself German again, never call myself Russian again."

Like the German Russians in North Dakota, once taunted for their ethnic background, she raised her two sons the American way. They do not speak German.

The strength of the German Russian historical societies, their relentless quest of their history, manifests the same feeling Rimland expresses.

She turned from her culture toward American culture "with all my passion," she said. "Now I am sorry. There is a great big ache in me. I did not know the treasures that were there."

The book by Ingrid Rimland, "The Wanderers: The Saga of Three Women Who Survived," is available from the North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia headquarters in Bismarck.

A message from the Red River Chapter of NDHSGR as a service to the other chapters in North Dakota!

Reprinted with permission of the Forum.

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