Dark Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival

Review by Dr. Irma E. Eichhorn, retired professor of history, San Jose State University, San Jose, California

Bender, Ida. Dark Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000.

The opening event in Ida Bender's autobiographical account is the radio announcement of June 22, 1941, about Hitler's invasion of Russia. Bender was nineteen and had returned for the summer to her parents' home in Engels, after completing her first year at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Leningrad. Soon the war and the consequent decree of the Supreme Soviet on August 28, 1941, announcing the mass deportation of the Volga Germans, changed the lives of Bender's family for ever. The Dark Abyss of Exile is the author's well-told story of surviving her Siberian exile but with a changed attitude toward the Soviet state.

The journey of horrors began on September 2, when Bender's family and other Volga Germans left Engels in crowded freight cars and ended several weeks later in a Russian village in the Krasnoyarsk region. In January 1942, however, her father, older brother, and almost all German men were conscripted into a labor army (Trudarmiia) and doomed to hard work in forced labor camps. Then the same cruel fate befell German women. Bender and her mother went to a fishing camp at Verkhne Imbatsk on the Yenisei River. They were fortunate that they could bring along the younger children, two boys and a girl.

Bender's richly detailed narrative impressively creates the daily struggle for survival in the camp against brutal physical, mental, and psychological obstacles. The women fished with nets until late fall, standing barefooted in the icy water because they had no boots. During the Arctic winter months they fished through the ice or felled trees in deep snow, often without a noon break, and then cold, exhausted, and hungry trudged several kilometers back to camp and their wretched lodgings. These were a crowded room with a resentful Russian family or a room in haphazardly constructed barracks, with one small window, bug-infested walls, tree-stump furniture, and a makeshift stove, all visually real for the reader, even without the author's drawings.

Fish were plentiful but were shipped to the military and were forbidden food for the women. Stealing even one fish was severely punished. The daily ration was 600 grams of dark, heavy bread with meager monthly rations of oats, sugar, and margarine. A full ration depended upon the women fulfilling their assigned work quotas. Hunger and scrounging food, whether berries, birds, and even muskrats, were daily preoccupations in an environment where the women were at the mercy of the supervisor and the local inhabitants who called them "fascists" and "traitors."

Conditions varied in the fishing camps along the Yenisei River. A German, Alexander Mueller, efficiently and humanely supervised the camp at Iskup. He enabled Bender and her family to transfer there in August 1944. They still worked hard but without starving. "Iskup was like an oasis" (p.128).

After the war and then the removal of some restrictions on the Germans (but not the vigilance of the police), Bender and her husband eventually moved to Kazakhstan and later Kamyshin on the Volga. From Kamyshin, her father's birthplace, Bender came to Germany and now lives in Hamburg. An American cousin encouraged her to write about her experiences. She did so because she wanted her children and grandchildren to understand the Germans' fate in the Soviet Union. The present work is the English translation of the German manuscript.

In telling her story with a fresh immediacy, Bender reconstructs conversations, especially with her parents. Frequently she also quotes her father's diary, even inserting a long excerpt (pp.97-109) about his labor camp ordeals in the Kirov region. The theme, though, that infuses meaning to her life experiences is survival. This is the author's justification for daily choices and actions in the camps and for her earlier participation in Communist youth organizations. The Communist ideals of equality without poverty appealed to her, but joining Communist youth groups also helped her chances for a college education. During her year in Leningrad she noted the blatant favoritism bestowed upon Party officials, and she "began to lose respect for the Soviet system" (p.55). Yet she writes, even after arriving at the fishing camp, "I still believed in our government" (p.50). The erosion of her faith in the Soviet state (as distinct from the country) is a repetitive motif throughout her chronological treatment of each year in the camps. "Finally in Siberia, I came to understand that the promise of the Soviet state was nothing but empty words" (p.56).

Understandably she also defends her father, the well-known Volga German author, Dominik Hollmann (1899-1990), a former Dean and faculty member at the Pedagogical Institute in Engels. He joined the Communist Party under pressure, but according to his recent critics, he wrote excessively propagandistic works. Bender insists that her father "praised the Soviet system, for no creative person could hope to get a word published unless he included such praise" (p.175). He used his Party membership, moreover, to plead for the restoration of rights to the Germans in the postwar period.

Until 1987-1988, Germans in the Soviet Union could not mention in print their labor camp experiences. Recent autobiographical writings appearing in Russia as well as Germany present an important literature for study from literary, social, cultural, and historical perspectives. Among these works, Ida Bender deserves praise for a thorough, poignant, and thoughtful portrayal of German women's lives in the Soviet Union during the war and postwar years.

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