As Merkel visits, some Germans prefer to stay in Siberia

April 27, 2006

Deutsche Welle, Berlin, Germany

Merkel with ethnic German children in Tomsk on Thursday
Germany's chancellor made time Thursday to visit ethnic Germans living in Siberia as part of her two-day trip to Russia. While Angela Merkel may be happy to return to Berlin, at least one family wants to stay put.

While their friends and family have long left their adopted land for Germany, Eduard Weber and his wife, Nina Hochweiss, chose to stay in the red-brick house in Siberia they now call home.

"My brothers, my sisters, their children -- everyone's gone," said Weber, 69, one of 900 Russians of German origin still living in Kozhevnikovo, a tidy farming village surrounded by a birch forest that's situated about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Tomsk, where Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin are meeting.

Germany remains far away for Weber and Hochweiss, who tend a vegetable garden and keep pigs and poultry to supplement their combined pension of just over 200 euros ($249) per month.

"That's the homeland of my ancestors," said Eduard, a former state farm engineer who visited Germany for the first time in 1998. "My homeland is Russia."

Two centuries of German settlers

Weber said Siberia is his homeland

Germans first came to Russia during the 18th century, invited by Empress Catherine II because of their technical skills to settle lands in the southwest Volga region.

But after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 they were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and the Ural Mountains region under orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

"I used to live in Saratov," Weber said. "My father was a manager at a collective farm. We had to leave in 24 hours with some things in a bundle," Eduard said.

For the family home he lost and the years when he was forced to "live on frozen potatoes," Eduard said he has received compensation from the Russian government of 250 euros.

Struggling to adjust in Germany

About 2.5 million ethnic Germans emigrated from Russia during the 1980s and 1990s. But many failed to find their bearings in Germany.

"Some families have come back to the villages around here," Weber said. "They were tired of being treated like second-class citizens."

For many Russian-Germans, however, the memories of living in Russia are no sweeter.

"We were ashamed of our roots," said Hochweiss, a retired nurse. "The Russians rejected us. Parents turned their children against us."

German lessons

"Welcome to our school," reads the sign at a school in Tomsk

In local schools, young people still study German in case they should move there one day. While Weber said he still speaks a German dialect, his wife admitted: "I'm German but I don't speak German."

Hochweiss said she remembers being deported from Moscow when she was six years old.

"They forced us into a train carriage, my mother and the three children," she said. "My father had to work in a hard labor brigade. It was terrible."

Still, she has no regrets about staying in this corner of Siberia that she likens to a "paradise" on earth.

"You know, here the summer is fantastic," she said.

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