Ronald J. Vossler reading letters from Ukraine.
The Old God Still Lives: German Villagers in Czarist and Soviet Ukraine Write Their American Relatives, 1915-1924

By Ronald J. Vossler and Joshua J. Vossler, with illustrations by Joshua Vossler

Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2006, 368 pages, appendix, index of names, softcover

At least three of four ethnic Germans living within the Czarist Empire did not immigrate to the United States. What happened to these German-speaking villagers is the primary focus of this volume of letters, translated from the German, as the co-authors indicate, with "an effort made to retain the distinctive wit and phraseology of the writers."

Written by ethnic Germans to their American relatives and friends between the years 1915 and 1924, these letters form, as the co-authors indicate, a companion volume to We’ll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives, 1925-1937, published in 2001. Together, these two books -and the over twenty two years of correspondence included in them- surely must comprise one of the most tragic odysseys of suffering of any ethnic group.

The letters present an intimate glance into three very different periods in the German villages in Ukraine: the final years of the Czarist regime; a chaotic interim period including both the Russian Revolution and Civil War; and the first years of Bolshevik rule, marked by a devastating famine, caused, in part, by Lenin’s ruthless war communism policies, when his armed requisition squads removed grain from villages.

Some letters describe bloody episodes of almost unbelievable cruelty; the Bolsheviks, however, weren’t the only ones who used violence. If provoked, the German villagers sometimes retaliated, like those in Grossliebental, who in 1919 murdered twenty five communists, "bludgeoning them where they stood" with spades and pitchforks and hammers, for making unjust demands.

Joshua Vossler, one of the co-authors, illustrated the text, including the front and back covers, with a series of simple, yet evocative drawings of hands, as well as envelopes and letters, which depict the elaborate, and archaic, Germanic script in which letters were originally written.

Arranged chronologically, the one hundred and fifty letters - they were drawn from five German language newspapers in North Dakota in which they were first published - were written by, and sent to, people with names still common in the Central Dakotas - including Boschee, Morlock, Wanner, Schauer, Dockter, Bender, Ketterling, Ackermann, Doerr, Kurtz, Bohlander, Schock, Mindt, Wiest, Schoepp, Schaible, Wacker, Bauer, Kessler, Frank, Schaeffer, Rohrich, Wolf, Heinle, Stockburger, Hieb, Spitzer, Huber, Rueb, Sauter, Ammon, Schweigert, Rohrbach, and Wenz, among others.

These letters chronicle a substantial and on-going correspondence between the ethnic Germans who left Ukraine between 1873 and 1914, and who sent much money, food, and clothing to those wishing that they had left South Russia also. There are a number of surprising revelations about the explosion of hatred of the German minority in Czarist Ukraine during WWI, a hatred that continued under the Bolsheviks, mainly because the German colonists in 1919 - "they now have a deep respect for our fighting abilities," as one writer said-staged an unsuccessful revolt against the "murder, rape, and torture" under Bolshevik rule.

There is much in this volume to interest the general reader of Russian history, as well as those of German from Russia ancestry, who wish to learn more about villages which were the source of one of North Dakota’s most distinct, and most numerous, ethnic groups. This book also is a valuable source of knowledge about the first years of Bolshevik rule - which were, in effect, a training ground for genocidal policies, like using food as a weapon, and which culminated in 1932-1933 in Holodomor: one of the greatest human rights tragedies of the twentieth century, starving both German villagers and Ukrainians alike.

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The Old God Still Lives: German Villagers in Czarist and Soviet Ukraine Write Their American Relatives: 1915-1924

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