A Journey Remembered

by Adolf J. Volk, Regina, Saskatchewan, member of the Journey to the Homeland Tour, May 16-26, 2013

In May, I joined a Germans from Russia Homeland Tour organized by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection situated at the North Dakota State University Libraries. It was a tour to Odessa, Ukraine and the German settlements of our ancestors who emigrated there at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. We wanted to see the life that they had and to understand our heritage a little better. I had an additional, unique objective – to visit my birthplace.

When we met as a complete group on May 17, 2013 in Frankfurt, Germany, we introduced ourselves, spoke about our family background, and gave the reason for joining the tour. We visited and quickly realized that our stories were similar and that we wanted to learn about our people and pay homage to our ancestors. It was with a sense of kinship and much anticipation that this thirty-six member group began a pilgrimage to the “homeland.” It was the beginning of an emotional roller coaster ride into our ancestral past. 

As I stood on the top of the aircraft departure stairway in Odessa on a 32ºC day and looked at the surrounding country-side, I quickly became aware that this was a prairie summer and the area looked much the same as the central plains of the American north-west and the Canadian prairies. I felt very much at home. In fact, I was at home in that I was born in Odessa, Ukraine SSR. I was anxious to visit the place where I lived and the Odessa places of which my parents often spoke with much fondness as they shared their experiences with my brother and me.

The excitement of the visit followed quickly. As we approached our hotel, our tour guide explained the economics of purchasing water and other refreshments at a store about a block from our hotel as opposed to the high price charged at our hotel. My friend Peter and I quickly followed this suggestion. As we crossed the street to the store, I had an uncanny feeling that I was near the place where I had lived as a child. When we started to return, I again had a strong feeling of being close to my first home and mentioned it to my travelling companion. We did not know where we were because there were no street signs to give that information and, because street signs were written in Cyrillic language, we could not understand them. We returned to our hotel and joined the group for our welcoming dinner.

At the end of the dinner, the tour guide again suggested the purchase of liquid refreshment at the store “just up the street on Pushkinskaya Street,” the street that we were on a short time before. We bolted from the room and within five minutes stood in front of 69 Pushkinskaya Street, facing the second floor apartment – my home for the first two years of my life. Ironically, I returned to that spot 69 years later.

We stood there in silence, staring at the apartment building. In my mind’s eye, I saw the life that I imagined in that apartment. I saw me sitting on a couch on the balcony of which I have a photograph. I saw my older brother playing with me. I saw my father in his German army uniform and my mother preparing a meal. Through my tears, I saw my father carrying two suitcases and my mother holding us by the hand as we headed to an awaiting car to take us to the nearby railroad station to leave Russia with the retreating army. My parents knew that they would be separated for some time and that they might never see each other again. Tears streamed down my face as these images stirred my emotions and as I realized, once again, that I am the last survivor of that family unit.  

I attended mass at the Church of the Assumption on the following day and I was impressed with the inside of the church and the number of people in attendance. It reminded me of another time when all the churches were closed, appropriated by the state, and converted into warehouses, granaries, or social centres. Lack of care and attention inexorably led to the decay of most of the church buildings. I imagined the agony that the Russian-Germans felt when they could no longer practice their faith.

Our tour of Odessa that afternoon was a journey into the past. Much of the old city has been restored although there is still much that remains unattended. We were taken to the area of the city that was once occupied by the wealthy and which is sprinkled with tributary statues among wonderful buildings and castle-like homes. We stood at the top of the famous Odessa steps that led to the ocean. We walked along the tree-lined promenade and we ended at the splendor of the Odessa Opera House. It was a “once-upon-a-time” glance into as city as it once was.

That evening, we attended the performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Iolanta” at the Odessa Opera House. While the outside of the building is beautiful, the inside is magnificent. It was wonderful to have prime seats and to be near the stage for a very affordable ticket price. It was heartening to look about the theatre and imagine my parents attending performances there seven decades before. I could feel their joy in being surrounded by this majestic theatre and its beautiful music. A good day ended.

The next two days were devoted to touring some of the Black Sea German villages. The people on the one hour drive down the Kurtschugan Valley to the first village in a twenty-passenger air conditioned van seemed to be pensive. Some quiet conversations could be heard but most people appeared to be wrapped in their thoughts as they looked at the same fields and gardens that our ancestors established and admired.  The first stop gave a clear vision of reality and was the harbinger of what was to come.

The first impression of each village is one of neglect and ruin. In all of them, the symbol of one of the most important things in the lives of these settlers was their church—their place of worship as a community. They were magnificent cathedral-like structures with great architectural beauty that now stood in ruin or were completely gone. They were the places where people met, prayed and sang to the glory of God. They were the places where infants were baptised, children were confirmed, young people married and old people buried. They were the centre of the community, easily identified by their massive spires. The spires were torn down; the churches were shut and the clergy was banished, imprisoned or killed. The freedoms that the settlers were promised came to an end as the communists attempted to end any kind of religious activity. The church buildings became granaries, warehouses, or places for social activity. When the Russian-Germans were driven out of their villages and forever banned from returning to them, their churches soon deteriorated to the decaying walls and crumbling pillars of today.

The second impression was that the once-established homes, gardens, orchards, vineyards and fields that were confiscated from the Germans and given to the Russians, were not maintained and had the same fate as the churches. The few homes that remain are those that have had some attention and are still used but collectively they did not resemble what they were like when my parents and forefathers lived there. Baden, the village of my father, has completely disappeared with only a few houses remaining and those are now incorporated into another community. However, Elsaß (Alsace), my mother’s village, remains viable.

When, on day two of our villages visit, we stopped on top of the hill on the entry road to Elsaß and disembarked, we beheld a beautiful and serene scene of fields with their emerging crops, cattle resting in the tall grass, summer skies and gentle breezes. We heard the distant sounds of activity in the village. I was standing at a place that my mother and her family once stood. I saw two women working in a garden and I imagined that this might have been what my mother would be occasionally doing as a teen-aged girl. The sounds and smells of the area made me feel at home. Our visit to the town school of 180 students brought us in contact with dedicated teachers trying to do the best that they can with limited resources. The students were interested in learning and were curious about visitors from America. The former church building with its absent dual steeples had had many iterations since its closure and now housed a community centre and a library. A new complex for the town was partly erected and still stands as it was in 1991 when Ukraine gained its independence but had no money to complete the building. The land surrounding the village remained as a state farm with most of the village people employed by the farm. I found my maternal grandfather’s house and saw, from a distance, the stone quarry that he once owned and operated.  The town was hanging on but its future may be in peril.

The third impression is one of poverty. Ukraine is poor and its people are poor, especially those who live in rural areas. The poor condition of homes, buildings and roads is very evident and they remain so because the Ukrainian government does not have the funds to maintain or repair them and most people eke out a living to enable them to feed their family and keep a roof overhead—to survive. There is little or no money to do anything else. Efforts are being made to improve their condition but the process will take time. Much of this is in sharp contrast with developments in the newer part of Odessa where glass towers and modern buildings indicate an influx of new money and new people seeking economic opportunities. There is a slow increase in entrepreneurialism and growth of the middle class which may lead to greater progress.

My fourth impression - the reality - is that there are virtually no German settlers remaining in Russia and Ukraine. The German Russian exodus began in 1871 when Czar Nikolas II took away the freedom from military conscription for the German settlers. It continued with Stalin’s subsequent deliberate genocide directed at getting rid of the German people in Russia by killing over one million of them by execution or by sending them to forced labour camps in Siberia or Kazakhstan or other parts of Asian Russia without proper accommodation or food. It came to a final conclusion as the remaining Germans in Russia emigrated to Germany in the 1980s and 1990s when communism ended and Germans were permitted to leave Russia and Ukraine.

Their absence was evident as we visited the cemeteries in many of these villages and searched for familiar names or graves of ancestors. We could not find any evidence of the old cemeteries for the headstones had disappeared and the grave sites could not be identified. It was as if all traces of our people had been erased. I could not find any trace of my ancestors nor the grave of my oldest brother who I never knew. Only in Elsaß did we see the newly-found, characteristic wrought-iron cross that once stood high on the old cemetery and now stood as a tribute to the German families who founded and built the village.

As I boarded the airplane to go to Germany, I realized that I, too, was a German from Russia who fled on March 19, 1944, returned to my homeland in May, 2013 and now was leaving again. The lump in my throat as I said my last goodbye remained with me for a while. I knew that I was to learn more as our journey continued in Stuttgart.

As we visited the offices of the "Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Rußland" (The Brotherhood of the Germans from Russia) and the House of the Bessarabian-Germans, and attended a most wonderful evening with representatives of both groups, we learned of the work that these groups were doing to help Germans from Russia and to help others understand the plight of their people. When we heard their choir sing the old German songs of our people and heard the life story of each choir member, stories of hardship, loss and suffering and stories of joy in their ancestral homeland, we were deeply moved. We also realized that these stories had to be shared with our children and with a world that does not know what happened to this disappearing people. We realized, too, that the Germans from Russia endured many unbelievable hardships but know how to laugh and to enjoy the company of others. Their interaction with the tour members and the excellent traditional food they prepared for the evening showed that there is joy in survival and we all have reason to celebrate. Our shared, common characteristics and history connected us.

My fifth impression, then, is that the Germans from Russia are a distinct people. The shared heritage and maintenance of a rich culture over two centuries champions a sense of distinctiveness. Their religious conviction, values, sense of family, recognition of importance of education, strong work ethic, willingness to accept challenges, strong convictions, determination, readiness to help neighbours, singular ethnic peculiarities, frugality and diligence are common characteristics that make us a unique people.

The stories of the Germans from Russia have to be told. Their stories reveal the odyssey of individuals and a people and unveil a horrific cruelty and injustice that offers lessons to those who would listen. They can guide us as we move forward in our lives and teach us how minimize the possibility of such atrocities from recurring. The roots of what we do today lie in the past. The experiences of yesterday prepare us for our future and the new lessons that it brings. Though painful and unpleasant, we cannot escape our past. The experiences of our ancestors have instilled in each subsequent generation strength and character that we must continue to pass on. We cannot ignore history. Who will carry the message when the voices of the Germans from Russia become silent?

I have a newfound respect and much gratitude for the people who are taking the history of the Germans from Russia to others. I am grateful to Michael Miller from the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the North Dakota State University Libraries for his selfless dedication to keeping our story and those of our ancestors alive. I am in awe of the work that is being done in Germany, America, Canada and Brazil in adopting the cause and actively pursuing an awareness and information campaign. I am thankful to my fellow travellers on the 2013 Germans from Russia Homeland Tour. As the poet, Tennyson, said through the words of Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,”… and they are a part of me.

The “Germans from Russia Homeland Tour” allowed me to learn about and reflect upon the lives of my parents and my ancestors and to understand my people and who and what I am. It made me realize the value of sharing my history with my children and grandchildren so that they too can remain connected to their history.  This I resolve to do.

Finally, thank you, mom and dad, for making good choices. 

Adolf J. Volk
[A proud German from Russia]

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