The German Theater

By Ida Bender and her son, Rudolf Bender, Hamburg, Germany

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Below are my mother's memories regarding German theater in Russia.

I never heard of a German theater in Russia that might have existed during the time of the tsars. Neither did my father mention anything in his diaries of German theater, although in his notes he wrote fairly extensively about literature of those days.

Before 1917, the German villages had no electric lights, no radio. The church was the guardian of culture, of the mores and customs, and of the German mother tongue. Schools were usually taught only for the first four grades (only larger settlements boasted seven-year or, in very few settlements, even ten-year schools). The clergy and the teachers attempted to shape a life of culture in the villages. Thus there were the occasional stagings of minor village scenes, especially at Christmas and Easter.

After the establishment of the autonomous Volga region in 1918, cultural life there experienced an upswing. In 1924 the Labor Commune was transformed into the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic for Volga-Germans [German acronym: (ASSRdWD)], the administrative center was transferred from Katharinenstadt (then Marxstadt and, after 1941, simply Marx) to the geographically more conveniently situated settlement of Pokrovsk, which was renamed as the city of Engels. Here the German Pedagogical Institute was founded in 1928, and gradually other higher schools of learning, and special vocational and scientific schools as well.

At the time, there were the so-called "lay artist collectives" in many villages. As of 1928, churches everywhere were banned and closed, and the clergy was arrested. Residents could satisfy their cultural needs only quietly via cultural performances by lay artists, namely choirs and theater pieces. The establishment of the National German Theater was agreed on in 1931. The Commmissar for Culture and Public Education for the ASSRdWD, Alexander Weber, formed a team that visited many lay artist collectives in order to select talented actors for the theater. Thus, for example, the two teachers Konstantin and Amalia Roth were recruited for the upcoming theater. During the years 1932 and 1933 they, along with other colleagues, were able to improve their abilities by attending the Moscow School of Theater of the MCHAT [in Russian, MXAT - moskowvskyi chudoshestvennyi akademitcheskyi teatr] while still working in the national theater.

During those years the German theater in Engels offered several stage productions for its visitors. German antifascists fleeing fascist prosecution arrived in 1935 from Germany, and some worked in the German State Theater in Engels and in Marxstadt. I still remember a number of productions such as Friedrich Schiller's Kaballe und Liebe [Cabbala and Love] and Die Raeuber [The Robbers]. In the latter piece Nikolas Baumann played the role of Franz Moor wonderfully). Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm, in which Leo Glaeser gave an excellent portrayal of Tellheim, and Herta Joersch depicted very naturally the idiosyncrasies given by the author to Frauelein von Barnhelm. The actress Hein played Franziska. The leading actor, Faller, played the hypochondriac in Molier's Der eingebildete Kranke [The Hypochondriac].

The program also included Goldoni's Ein Glas Wasser [A Glass of Water]; Lessing's Emilia Galotti; Ibsen's Nora (ein Puppenhaus) [Nora (a Dollhouse)]," in which Hilda Faber portrayed Nora wonderfully; Diener zweier Herren [Servant of two Masters]; Die 12. Nacht [Twelfthnight] by Shakespeare; and stage productions by the Russian dramatist Godol, such as Die Heirat [The Marriage] and Nikolay Ostrovski's Balsminows Heirat. I still remember the production Das fremde Kind [The Strange Child], but have forgotten the author's name.

The Volga-German writer and dramatist Andreas Saks worked for some years as literary advisor at the Engels Theater. I still remember very well his stage piece Der eigene Herd [One's Own Hearth], which deals with the time around 1914, and especially its well-known folk scenes of village life. There was also a performance in which Konstantin Roth played Lenin, but I've forgotten the title and the author's name. It may have been the "must"-perform piece Die Kremluhr [The Clock at the Kremlin]. Speaking of stage productions, in a country where the Party recommended (i.e., ordered) which pieces were to be included in the program there was no indulging of objections.

Fest und treu oder der Kirgisenmichel und die schoene Ammiee aus Pfannenstiel [Firm and True, or, Kirgis-Michael and the Beautiful Ammie from Pfannenstiel] was a historical festival production for the one-hundred, fiftieth jubilee of the arrival of the first German settlers at the Lower Volga; a play in three acts, by Gottlieb von Goebel and by the teacher Alexander Hunger. This piece was based on historical events during the years 1771 to 1778, on attacks by nomadic Kirgis tribes on German settlements and the gruesome slaughter of the Germans. The strong loyalty to their Christian faith and their love for people of action impressed the German colonists in the Volga settlements, culminating in a legend that would be told by grandparents to their grandchildren. If you would like to have [a copy of] this legend, I can send you the text. More than once, I was born in 1922, I personally heard the tale of this legend from my grandmother during long, dark winter evenings between 1927 and 1929. The names Kirgis Michael and the Beautiful Ammie became symbols for love and loyalty, just as in Romeo and Juliet.

After the booklet with this theater piece appeared in 1914, teachers here and there would stage selected scenes from it. My father, too, the young teacher Dominik Hollmann, who in 1917 was working in the village of Rothammel in his second year as a teacher, participated in such a production. And in 1926, when he was school principle in the village of Marienfeld, he staged this piece in the village school, using his pupils and older youth. I remember well the lively preparations, even that my mother made wigs from hemp fibers for the actors who were playing the elder farmers in the piece. At the time this was an extraordinary event for our village, and many of the residents would happily remember the production much later. Father told me that the piece did have several flaws, but then, too, it had not been written by professional dramatists.

In 1940, the German Theater in Engels set out on a Decade for the Arts of the Volga-Germans in Moscow. I was fortunate, as a student in the 10th level and as enthusiast of literature, to accompany my father when he, an expert in literature and linguistics, attended rehearsals of the theater production team and provided them with advice. He continually admired the leading actor, Leo Glaeser, especially for his language and phonetics. Unfortunately the edict of August 28, 1941 by the Soviet Government, dealing with the deportation of all Germans [from the Volga region] to Siberia, caused the cessation of the German National Theater. In 1942 Dominik Hollmann would meet some of the actors working as lumbermen and firemen in the forced-labor camp of Vyatlag.

I still remember the actress Herta Joersch. She and her husband had come from the Sudetenland [former German part of Checkoslovakia]. Margot Joersch, nice of the actress, was in my class in school. During the deportation of 1941, my family and Herta arrived at the same Siberian collective, and for a month we worked together in the wheat harvest. Soon after, Herta and her husband were allowed to move on to a Siberian city. She had left with us her large valise containing books and the muzzle for her shepherd dog. Her dog had been taken away just before the deportation. Many years later, possibly in 1953, after my stint in the forced-labor army, and when I was living under military commandature in the city of Krasnoturinsk, my older brother, who was an actor at a Russian theater in the Urals, told me that in the city of Nishni Tagil he had suddenly received a piece of paper from Herta Joersch. She was working in a tobacco factory, she asked about our mother, whom she remembered very well. By that time, mother had already died in the forced-labor camp.

I heard of Herta Joersch yet another time. In July of 2000 I visited the archives in Engels in search of documents concerning my father and the German Pedagogical Institute. The female director of the archives (whom I gave some presents beforehand!) and I were looking at a map that bore the indication "SECRET." A denouncer was informing the Security authorities that he and the teacher (So-and-so) had expressed opposition to the teaching of the Russian language in advanced German schools, but that Dominik Hollmann seemed to hold no such objections. Also, it stated, that the actress Herta Joersch had not sent letters outside the country, but that her own mother, who was living separetely from her daughter, did keep up correspondence with and had sent a package outside of the country. This archived document stemmed from the year 1937, which saw, after an edict by the Party, the onset of a major action called Entlarvung von Volksfeinden in den Reihen der Kulturanstalten [Unmasking of Enemies of the People Within the Cultural Institutions].

From 1941 until 1956, we German-Russians were to be completely quiet, without any rights, without books, films, theater -- nothing! We were careful not to say a single word aloud in our German mother tongue, simply to avoid being exposed to any cruelty. But as soon as the obligation to report monthly to the military commandature was officially lifted, the boldest representatives of our ethnic group began to express their concern over the disappearance of our culture, language, mores and customs. Authors such as Dominik Hollmann, Reinhold Koeln, Victor Klein, Johann Warkentin, the actor Nikolaus Baumann, and others, appealed to the highest parts of the Soviet government, in effect saying, "We have no schools in which our children can learn their mother tongue; no films, no theater, no lay art; no publishers where our authors can publish their works -- how can this be equated to conditions enjoyed by other ethnic nationalities in the Soviet Union?? Our people have no opportunity to satisfy their cultural needs -- a violation of human rights, a violation of the Constitution of the Soviet Union!!"

After several of these accusations, the Soviet government found itself to give a few promises in order to "stuff the mouth of these rebels." However, the reestablishment of the unjustly dissolved Volga-German Republic was gruffly denied. But promises were made to provide a few German classes somewhere in Siberia, IF (!) more than ten students DESIRING (!) to learn the German language would participate. Further, it was promised that about twenty talented boys and girls would receive training at the Moscow School of Theater, so that these could then form a national German theater to satisfy the needs of German-Russians. It was even promised that a theater building would be erected or provided. The German theater students finished their training successfully, then they were sent to Kazakhstan, where most of the exiled Germans were by now living, but still there was no theater building. The actors would rehearse selected scenes in homes, and when the Kazakh National Theater freed up its building, the German team was able to perform its pieces.

There was no lack in diligence or enthusiasm, they even had received beautiful costumes from Germany. Again the actors performed Schiller and Goldoni, and they did it masterfully! However, in order to reach the Germans who were so widely scattered all across Siberia and Kazakhstan, the actors were continually on the road, going from village to village. They worked very hard and garnered frenzied applause and enthusiasm. Their audience was in tears, because finally (!!!) they had the opportunity to experience a performance in their mother tongue!!! During the German troupe's open-air performance of Deutsche Hochzeit [German Marriage] in a Volga area in honor of the 225th year of existence of the village of Dobrinka, my son took several pictures. If you can use some of these, we will be glad to send them to you. Yet there was no hope for their very own theater building, and many pieces that were not permitted from above. "Only foreign material!!" said the authorities. Yet of authentic Soviet pieces there were only Russian ones.

Victor Heinz, a young author, dared to write a theater trilogy Auf den Wogen der Jahrhunderte [On the Waves of Centuries], but the author was leery of producing the piece. Since Gorbachev's glasnost had just been announced, the director of the theater, a Kazakh, said, "I will make it happen. Nobody will keep me from doing it." And what a piece of theater it was! We the audience had our mouths wide open with admiration. The entire history of our persecuted German ethnic people in Russia was there on the stage: our betrayed ancestors; the first settlers in the Volga area; the de-kulakization; deportation; and finally, images that were so familiar to so many in the audience, wooden beds in barracks behind barbed wire fencing. Even the supervisors, often so cruel and brutal, whom so many of have endured, were also depicted.

Glasnost was tolerated by the Soviet government as long as it was advantageous for the powers on top. The theater team once again took a courageous step and turned to the Soviet government seeking restoration of equal rights for Germans in Russia akin to that of other minority nationalities within the Soviet Union. However, after Gorbachev's visit to the Ural city of Nishni Tagil, where tens of thousands of German-Russians had given their lives in forced-labor camps, it was said that the territory of the former Volga-German Republic had been resettled with other people, who must not be insulted. It became clear to everyone: The Soviet Government does NOT WISH to do ANYTHING for the Germans in Russia. Gorbachev had in fact spoken untruths. Entire former German villages stood empty although their houses were beginning to decay, few fields were being worked on, and they were overgrown with weeds. Yet at that time there was a great lack of food in the Soviet Union. City dwellers were given coupons for only about three hundred grams of oil, four hundred grams of rice per person per month, and similarly for other food needs. Much too little for normal nutrition. Nearly in unison, the actors in the German theater emigrated to Germany.

I hope that I have hereby been able to provide you with a good amount of information about German theater in the Volga Republic.

I wish you good success with your project and remain, with friendly greetings, yours,

Ida Bender (nee Hollmann)

With friendly greetings,

Rudolf Bender

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this text.

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