Review by Ron Vossler
Bender, Ida. Dark Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000.
This memoir, as the subtitle indicates, is a story of survival, not only of the author, Ida Bender and her family, but also the story of the survival of their dignity. Ably translated from the original German into rhythmic, evocative prose, this memoir makes compelling reading.
The story begins with the onset of WWII, as the German army invades Russia. Ida Hollman, later Bender, a first year college student in Leningrad's Institute of Foreign Languages, is stunned by the sudden reversal of their lives. An official governmental decree labels all Volga Germans as "spies and saboteurs."
Her ancestors, ethnic Germans, had lived for two centuries along the Volga River. Though loyal Russian citizens, they are now labeled "enemies of the people," along with the rest of the 400,000 Volga Germans deported to the far reaches of the Soviet Empire. This story of Ida Hollman Bender's family is a single drop in an ocean of suffering that was the fate of the "exiled minorities" who did not fit into Stalin's Soviet "paradise."
The author's purpose for writing this memoir, as outlined in the preface, was to explain to the next generation, "without stirring up hate in their hearts", all that "their parents and people" had endured during fifty years of exile from their beloved Volga homeland.
The eighteen chapter titles---from "Deportation" to "A Bitterly, Cold Life" to "Still Under the Watchful Eye"---chronicle the family's journey, which stretches over half a century. Gracing the book's cover is a dramatic, colored painting. It is a forest scene that shows women, their backs bent in labor, as under armed guards they haul logs in the snow. The book also includes a series of primitive, yet powerful pencil drawings, by the author and her brother, as well as numerous photos of Siberia and the author's "beloved Volga homeland."
Throughout this book, the author writes fiercely, with the clean flame of outrage, about her family's determination to survive, to maintain their dignity, to seek justice for their family and people. Based on her father's diary one powerful chapter, "Skeletons Concrete", recounts his labor camp experiences.
The deported Volga German men, separated from their families, abused as "fascists," endured cruelty that rivaled Nazi treatment of Jews in concentration camps: "The place began to resemble a death camp...Two thirds of the men had died...the man was then taken to the construction site...and shot...becoming part of the foundation."
Meanwhile, the rest of the Hollman family, including the author, do whatever is necessary to survive. They reconstruct their lives, sewing, bartering, and fishing the icy waters of the Yenisei River in Siberia, enduring frequent struggles with Soviet officials, and other Russians, who see Volga Germans as "fascists," responsible for Hitler's wartime acts.
After marrying, the author discovers that even her own children are not safe from the stigma. Her blood boiling, she has to register her newborn baby, requesting the local NKVD official that her child's name be added to the roster of "exiled colonists."
Through it all---the gauntlet of bureaucratic tangles, suspicious officials, KGB surveillance, and prejudice---the author and her family work hard for "rehabilitation." With her father, she works, and dreams, of a return to their beloved Volga homeland, to make their culture "reblossom." At every turn their attempts to gain justice for their exiled people are stymied. Even the Soviet premier Gorbachev, "standing on the bones of the Germans who had died in the camps," disallows their return to their former homeland.
The process of immigrating to Germany, where the author and some of her surviving family eventually settle in 1989, includes a struggle against the bureaucratic machinery of the Soviets, who make it near impossible to fill out the many forms because they do not want to release any records that these people had once been "slave labor."
The final chapter, "A Surge of Bodies," describes both the rush of Germans in Russia to get their visas from the German embassy in Moscow, to escape the Soviet Union, as well as the author's "wicked dream" which ends this story.
In relating her dream, the author tells us that the struggle for justice and dignity within the Soviet system was not without its price. Still haunted by all they've suffered, she sees her family and her people "in stormy, un-ending ocean, struggling with waves."
This memoir was written with passion and sorrow and love; it is fast-paced, vivid, and the author does not hesitate to comment on good people, on the small kindnesses, wherever she finds them. A welcome addition to Germans from Russia literature, this book paints a vivid picture of this ethnic group's years of exile in Siberia and Kazahkstan. More importantly, this book shows how a single family, on the long, costly journey through the last half of the past century in the Soviet Union, maintained their dignity, against all odds.