At Peterstal - A 'Container Village' in the Ukraine

Vossler, Ron. "At Peterstal - A 'Container Village' in the Ukraine." Grand Forks Herald, 21 July 1996.

Heinrich Giesbrecht's house - and his container - in Peterstal, Ukraine.

PETERSTAL, Ukraine - Heinrich Giesbrecht hopes that he is part of a solution to a half-century old problem: what to do with the displaced ethnic Germans living within the borders of the old Soviet Empire.

Giesbrecht is one of 1,000 ethnic Germans, resettled from homes in Kazakhstan, who now live in "container villages" in the Ukraine.

On the windswept steppe an hour from Odessa on the outskirts of Peterstal, he gestures proudly at his new home, which consists of several square meters of space: "I built it myself," he says in a German dialect, rusty from years of speaking only Russian. "A German must work."

Beside his solid-looking two-story house sits what looks like large shipping crate. It's about the size of a small travel trailer - a "container," where he lived while he built his house, just like the other settlers in Peterstal. Hence the name "container village;" there are 15 such villages in the Ukraine.

Giesbrecht had help building his home. There was financial support from Germany. There was also material and manpower from the government of Ukraine. This house-building is a joint venture by the two countries to help ethnic Germans settle in Ukraine after a half-century diaspora in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union.

Ethnic Germans, including Giesbrecht's great-grandparents, settled in Russian Empire from as early as 1763. The migration from Germany continued into the first decades of the 19th century. It was by invitation of the czars, who wanted talented craftsmen and farmers to rejuvenate and occupy a buffer zone with the Turks and other nearby people. After initial hardships, their prosperous, orderly villages were established along the Volga River, around the peripheries of the Black Sea, and on the Crimean Peninsula.

It was a short-lived prosperity in those ethnic enclaves: 100 years of settled life. The original colonists had been promised exemption from taxes and conscription for an eternity; eventually, the autocratic Russian regimes, redefining an eternity to mean 100 years, rescinded those earlier promises.

There were demands that the Russian language be taught in the schools in the German villages and that personnel books and other records be kept in Russian. Young men served in the army, fighting against the Turks and Japan. Between 1880 and 1915, many villagers, including this writer's relatives, left for America, Canada, and South America. Currently, Black Sea German descendants constitute early 40 percent of North Dakota's population.

From left: Olaf Gunther, German consultant; Heinrich Giesbrecht; and Ron Vossler.

Those who remained behind in Russia endured the politics of the 20th century. There was civil war. There was requisitioning of grain - Stalin's terror tactics. Famines were created. The population of entire villages, entire provinces starved in the 1920s and the early 1930s; one elderly lady in Tarutino told this writer that there were other famines about which the West knew nothing, such as the Bessarabian famine of 1947. Sometimes the last contact between ethnic Germans in the Ukraine and their relatives in America took place in farewell letters documenting their own starvation - poignant, heartbreaking letters published in German newspapers in the United States.

In those first several decades of the 20th century in Russia, there was also forced collectivization as the country became Sovietized. (This writer learned the fate of two of his stepfather's relatives from the Catholic village of Mannheim - both shot because they refused to comply with that collectivization.)

Then World War II dissolved an entire way of life. Though many German villagers fought and died for the Soviet Union, Stalin feared ethnic Germans would help the invading German army. So Germans living in the Soviet Union were relocated forcibly, often at night, to the Russian hinterlands. After decades in exile the fall of Communism brought them the opportunity to emigrate and travel freely again - which is why the "German problem" exists in Ukraine and Russia today.

Swept by memory and loss as he stood on the gravel street in front of his new home, Giesbrecht told his story. As a 12-year-old living in a village near Simpferopol in the Crimea, he was roused from sleep by special contingents of the Russian army, led by komosomols, fanatic commissars. At rifle point, everyone in his village was crowded into railcars, 50 or more to car. Those refusing were shot. During the week-long journey overland to Siberia and Kazakhstan, without food or water, many people succumbed, suffocating where they stood. Almost without exception, all babies and young children died.

As many 1 million ethnic Germans may have died.

However, Giesbrecht saved his 7-year-old sister, wiping away tears, his body shaking, Giesbrecht showed how he huddled over her in the train car. It was, he said, the best thing he ever did. In the farthest distances of Soviet Empire, the survivors stumbled from the trains, met by children who marveled that these Germans did not look so fierce, that they had no horns sprouting from their heads, as the propaganda bulletins of that time depicted them.

Giesbrecht survived. He worked in coal mines, doing demolition that damaged his hearing. After decades, as travel restrictions were limited, he moved to Kazakhstan. His sister also survived. Now she lives across he street from him in Peterstal, in a container home of her own.

The population of ethnic Germans in the old Soviet continues to grow. It is estimated that 2 million now live in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Germany has the capability to absorb at least 1 million over the next 10 years. The rest, if they want a better life, might relocate in "container" villages, whether in the Ukraine, or the Trans-Carpathians, of other parts of the old Soviet Union.

As it is now, these people are scattered, cut off from their families, too often ignorant of their own history, uncertain of their own identity; they are a lost people, disdained as "Fluchtlinga" by Germany, looked down on by the Russian or Ukrainians if they remain where they are now. By all accounts, Giesbrecht is one of the lucky ones. A consultant of the German government who works in the area claimed that of the five "Liebental" villages in the area, including nearby Neuberg (where this writer's grandfather was born), there has not been one single person heard from since the deportations.

For all they have suffered, these ethnic Germans are a testament to the human spirit. Resilient, like Giesbrecht, they want to start a new life, to assume at least a part of their old identity. Yet many of these settlers are neither German, nor Russian, but some mixture of the two, in behavior and customs. Their history has made them wary. They want to develop a work ethic that will lift their children out of poverty to a more productive life. But it will be a slow process. Half a century of repression under communism has left scars.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, ND.

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