Review by Dr. Nancy Holland
Bender, Ida. Dark Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000.
In a report on the Aussiedler project to the AHSGR convention last summer, I noted the need for a thousand voices to tell the story of the sacrifice and sufferings of the Germans in Russia. Now an important new voice has been added to that plaintive chorus, significantly augmenting chances our story will be heard.
Ida Bender's recollections of her experiences as a member of a suspect minority during the darkest period of Stalinist paranoia add vivid and haunting detail to the historic era usually glimpsed only in shadowy sketches. Her book, in a precise and lucidly translated narrative, delivers its impact with the emotional intensity of a novel and the integrity of historic truth.
The book begins in medias res, the fateful year 1941, when-on a sunny Sunday afternoon-the author, then a nineteen-year-old university student visiting her parents in Engels (capital of the Volga German Republic) hears the radio broadcast of the news of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The days that follow-full of nervous apprehension-plunge the family into the descending spiral that pulls them from their comfortable existence as members of the respected intelligensia, into suspicion, dispossession, deportation, separation, conscription, incarceration, starvation, and surprisingly, for some-survival.
Although the volume proves Ida Bender a writer whose work can stand on her own merits, the story gains immense stature when the reader recognizes that the dutiful father ripped away from his family, whom she describes in respectful and loving tones, is the illustrious scholar and poet, Dominik Hollmann. His name and works are well known to Germans from Russia eveywhere because of his valiant efforts to secure human rights for members of the ethnic group and for his poignant poems, many of which were first published in Neues Leben, the German language newspaper of the Soviet Union, and later anthologized. Bender's narrative provides a candid and personal view of the famous writer and activist, not omitting the long-kept family secret of his origins as the offspring of a priest and his housekeeper. Other family members also blaze into life on the pages, especially three-year old Lussya, whose tragic fate will not leave a reader unmoved.
No mere recital of facts, the book illuminates psychological and philosophical questions associated with the deportation of members of an ethnic group who (like many Jews in Nazi Germany) considered themselves loyal citizens of their adopted homeland, well-assimilated into the mainstream of the surrounding culture. Under Stalin, even dedicated Communists, eager to volunteer their services in the cause against the invaders, were sent into exile. Bender describes why the dispossessed did not struggle against the decree that transformed them from productive citizens into "enemies of the people," but reserved their energies for the less futile struggle for survival.
Throughout, the author's intelligent introspection and sweet temper raise the volume above the common memoir. As she notes in a preface, her children "inherited the stigma of being damned, exiled Germans. . . persecuted because of their ethnicity." Her decision to write the story of her experiences is an effort to explain to them why they were so treated, but she adds the caveat, "at the same time I did not want to stir up hate in their hearts." The Dark Abyss of Exile thus joins the company of recollections of the inhumane treatment of Germans in Russia that exist not to place blame on the guilty nor provide impetus to hunt down and persecute the persecutors, but rather to honor the memory of those innocent ones, some who survived, some who succumbed to unjust suffering.
Two suggestions might improve later editions of the book. The brief epilogue contains information that enhances reader appreciation of the work and would better serve as a prologue. (Perhaps Ida Bender, whose own academic career was cut short by the decree exiling Volga Germans, wishes to be judged as a writer apart from the shadow of her famous father, but it is curious that she does not use her maiden name and does not mention her father's name until page twenty-four of her narrative. The reader may therefore be puzzled by the sketches of interiors of the Hollmann house appearing earlier in the text and not make the connection between the poet and this family until near the end of the volume.) The epilogue also contains one error: the year 1767 does not mark the beginning of settlement along the Volga as is stated. Czarina Catherine's invitations were issued on 4 December 1762 and 22 July 1763. Colonists began to arrive in the Volga area in 1764. The most intense period of settlement, according to Professors Igor Pleve and Alfred Eisfeld who have studied the original settler's lists, was between 1765-1766. By 1767 most immigration had been completed, although colonists continued to arrive until 1772. (See Pleve, Einwanderung in das Wolgagebiet 1764-1767. Göttingen, 1999.)
The 197-page volume, in 8" x 11" format includes photographs, sketches, and a map showing the route of deportation of the Volga Germans. It is available in a paperback edition from the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia at $35.00 to members of the Society. A hardback edition is available in May, 2000.