Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today

Two Tales of One Family

Wood, Carter. "Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today." Grand Forks Herald, 7 July 1994.

Beginning in the 1760s, German farm families migrated by the thousands to the Russian Empire in search of land and freedom. The same search later sent their descendants, now Germans from Russia, to settle the Dakotas. Those who remained fell prey to the worst horrors of the 20th Century: Two world wars, Communist repression and exile. Today, Germans from Russia in the former Soviet Union are wandering again, this time emigrating to Germany. Herald staff writer Carter Wood recently joined a delegation to the Ukraine and Germany to examine the conditions affecting Germans from Russia today.

STUTTGART, Germany - Soon after World War I broke out, Czarist officers rounded up Paul Krueger's parents and grandparents along with the other Germans of Volhynia, Ukraine. They crowded the villagers onto freight cars for the long trip into Siberian exile.

As Stalinist repression raged in the early '30s, the Kruegers fled to Kyrgyzstan, hoping to cross into Afghanistan on their way to America. Someone tipped off the border guards, and the family decided to stay. Two children later died of dysentery and malaria.

In 1942, Paul Krueger found himself in a slave labor camp, moving rock with a wheel barrow. He served in a "workers' army" ordered to build a railroad to supply besieged Stalingrad, a 500-mile-route competed over the span of the summer.

Fate reunited Paul with his father, Bernhardt, after 2 months in the camp.

"He stood right before me and didn't recognize me," recalled the now 70-year-old Krueger, a retired teacher. "I said, 'Papa, don't you know me?' I was crippled, swollen, in rags. He looked at me, and for the first time in my life, I saw tears in my father's eyes."

But for the vicissitudes of history, Paul Krueger’s life could have been that of any North Dakota teacher, farmer or even politician. Eight of his father’s siblings emigrated to the state; the oldest brother, Karl, came first in 1898, earning money to bring the others over.

Bernhardt's older brother, Otto Krueger - Paul's uncle - left Volhynia in 1910 and went on to serve 10 terms as Wells County auditor and a term each as North Dakota insurance commissioner and treasurer. He completed his political career in the U.S. House, representing North Dakota from 1953-59.

World War I disrupted the migrations. Of the children, only Bernhardt and a sister, Bertha, remained behind. It was Bernhardt's dying wish years later that Paul seek out his American family, but war and Communist tyranny prevented any connection.

Then came Gorbachev's political liberalization. Krueger saw an article in a German-language newspaper by Michael M. Miller, the bibliographer for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University. Miller offered help in rebuilding family ties, and Krueger gained the addresses of his U.S. relatives.

Another chapter in the Krueger family history was written this spring.

Paul Krueger arrived in Germany on April 29, completing the long-anticipated emigration from Siberian village of Piketnoje, Russia. Joining him were his wife, Anna, his son, Boris, and grandson Andreas. (Boris' wife had been murdered by a knife-wielding drunk.) Another son, Valeri, made the journey two years earlier.

A month later, some American Kruegers came to visit. Lorenz Krueger - Paul's first cousin - his wife, Marilyn, and their daughter, Lisa, traveled from Tennessee to Valeri's home in Siegen, Germany.

"One-hundred-and-fifteen years passed since the Kruegers were last all together, and now there was meeting with relatives," exclaimed Paul Krueger during a recent interview in Stuttgart.

Lorenz Krueger, a Fessenden, N.D., native, said his father, Julius, had talked of the family left behind.

"We were always aware of the fact that he had a brother and a sister there, but when they were transplanted into Siberia, we lost track," the 63-year-old Lorenz said in a telephone interview.

"We weren't sure whether our letters ever reached them or not, but when I met Paul in Siegen, he produced a card and a letter dad had written to them, one in 1945 and one in 1948," he said.

Paul taught German for nearly 50 years in Russia, and the Fessenden Kruegers spoke German at home, so the Americans managed to communicate with the new immigrants. Paul Krueger filled in a life story he had only touched upon in letters.
Paul Krueger then (left); Paul Krueger today (right)

It was a harrowing history. He credits a newly assigned camp commander for saving his life in 1942, by pulling him off a construction detail to make him his personal secretary.

The commander wrote out an order on a piece of paper and said, "So, go into the kitchen and take my breakfast, and yours too, and eat."

"I could not believe it," Paul Krueger said. "Everyone else heard it too, and said, 'Oooh. We've never heard of a boss like that who treats Germans that way.' We were used to being screamed at."

On the fortuitous visit a few weeks later, his father brought zwieback and butter. He also paid workers who could travel beyond the gates to supply Paul with a little extra food and water. A potato meant survival.

Conditions in the camp eased after Germany's defeat, and Soviet officials even allowed short vacations home. Paul got a pass in 1946, but only after he signed a document agreeing to an automatic sentence of 20 years hard labor for failing to return.

Upon arriving at his parents' home in Reinfeld - an ethnic German village near Omsk, Siberia - Paul found his father unwilling to let him return. A teacher and former Baptist minister, Bernhardt told his son that the town's grade school lacked enough instructors. The children spoke German at home, but the school allowed only Russian. They needed his help to adjust.

Father and son traveled to Omsk and then to the county seat of Maryanovka to plead their case. After a night’s reflection, the local commander agreed to act as if Paul simply did not exist, talking a personal risk for the young teacher.

Six months later, the order came down: "Arrest Krueger immediately and place him under guard. Transport him to the concentration camp for a 20-year sentence. Report back upon fulfilling this assignment."

The commander feared for his own life, and the Kruegers feared for Paul. Few could survive two decades of forced labor. But the commander mulled over the situation and told the Kruegers he would put his head on the chopping block for them one more time.

"We'll do it this way," he said. "You stay here. We'll behave as if nothing has happened, and I'll write your camp that I had you taken prisoner, and shipped off to the concentration camp."

The risk paid off. Paul Krueger worked as a teacher until his retirement in 1991.

"He was a good man," he said of the commander. "A Russian. A Russian. I have to emphasize that. You can't call all Russians bad. An entire people aren't bad, there's just some bad people among them. That's true of Russians just like Germans, as history well shows."

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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