NDSU Libraries publishes book on Germans in Russia writing relatives in America 1920s and 1930s
July 16, 2001
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection is pleased to announce the publication of this important new book, "We'll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives, 1925-1937," by Ronald Julius Vossler, freelance writer and university writing teacher.
This volume, dedicated to the "Germans in the Soviet Union who were deported, shot, starved, or worked to death under the Soviet regime," grew out of a 2000-2001 Larry Remele Fellowship, the author received from the North Dakota Council on the Humanities.
At the heart of this book are two hundred letters, arranged in chronological order over a twelve-year period, and translated from the original German into readable English. These letters, as the author indicates, just may constitute "one of the most remarkable odysseys of suffering of any ethnic group." Written by German villagers in the Soviet Union to relatives and friends who'd immigrated to the Dakotas in earlier years, the "sorrow-letters," as they were sometimes called, were then often sent to German language newspapers in the Dakotas for publication for a wider audience.
These letters-written by and sent to people with last names still known to many Dakotans, including, among others, Boschee, Veil, Dockter, Graf, Kirschenmann, Ketterling, Kraemer, Eckman, Stock, Goehring, Schauer, Speidel, Herr, Hauck, Flemmer, Lang, Melhaff, Morlock, Opp, Rueb, Thurn, Rudolf, Feigert, Heupel, Hochhalter, and Wanner - clearly show a direct link, one of "old love" and also of family ties, between the Dakota pioneers and those unfortunate family members who remained behind in Russia. At times, the letters, some penned by village correspondents, are folksy and relaxed. They speak of weather, harvests, and village life.
Often the writers add rhymes, poems, Bible verses, prayers, or just plain thanks to people in the Dakotas-"We'd long ago have starved or frozen without you Americans-who'd sent letters, packages, and money to villages where "their cradles rocked", where they'd spent a good part of early lives. As the Soviet regime consolidated its power, and with the onset of collectivization in 1928, the letters, always remarkably dignified, have an increasing element of desperation.
A few letters tell of brutalization by the tough cadres of Bolsheviks, collective leaders, who rule the villages with an iron fist, but from fear of censorship writers mostly avoid all direct comment or description of their overseers. Some letters are sent from distant places, such as "the primeval forest", where the death rate is high, and where tens of thousands of German villagers have been forcibly banished, to chop wood to bolster the Soviet regime's foreign trade.
In 1932-1933, in the section of the book titled "Crucifixion by Hunger" --- the period of Stalin's purposefully created "terror-famine" --- letter-writers describe themselves as "swelling up from hunger", eating slaughtered pets, grass, or anything else to keep at bay "the terrible hunger-death which stands black in front of us." That single event, the "terror-famine," according to a wide-range of sources cited by the author, was directly responsible for the deaths of at least six million people, and up to ten million or more, including at least a hundred and fifty thousand Germans from Russia. It remains one of the world's least known but also the worst human rights tragedy of the past century-all of which is chronicled firsthand by the letters in this volume.
Also included throughout this book are vivid illustrations by the author's son, Joshua Vossler, a series of powerfully rendered, yet simple, studies of hands, and figures. The front cover shows a hand impaled by a pen; the back cover, a poster-like drawing, titled "Hunger Pieta," of a starving figure gripped by a skeletal communist overseer.
To help explain the background of the letters, the author also wrote his Introduction and Historical Overview, an in-depth history of those twelve years, 1925-1937, gleaned from both historical sources and also from letters sent from one cluster of German villages, the Glueckstal region-which is "at least one of the main sources for immigrants to the Dakotas."
At the end of that same section, the author also briefly examines why many Germans from Russia remained "silent" about Russia, passing little or nothing to descendants about their early lives, or about family members left in Russia.
This silence, the author conjectures, may grow partly from the fact that the Dakota pioneer generation, who knew from the letters about the terrible fate of brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, parents and grandparents, had grown "psychologically absent," not speaking about the fate of loved ones in the Soviet Union because it was just too painful emotionally.
Reading these letters, one senses imminent death, hunger, and fear. The poverty and destitution of their daily lives is shocking. But readers of this volume will hear in the long buried voices the integrity of spirit of a people trying to survive in a world few of us can even imagine.
The price of the book, "We'll Meet Again in Heaven," is $35 plus $3 postage payable to NDSU Libraries. Mail orders to: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, We'll Meet Again in Heaven Book, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599. Website book address: http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/nd_sd/vossler2.html