The Dark Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival

Book review by Harry Loewen

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

Established in 1924 on both sides of the lower Volga River between the Saratov and Stalingrad (now Volgograd) oblasts, with the city of Engels as its capital, the Volga German Republic consisted of the descendants of Germans who, upon the invitation of Catherine II, had come to Russia between 1764 and 1767 - some twenty years before the first Mennonites established the Chortitza colony. The Volga German Republic was dissolved in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and most Russian Germans, including Mennonites, were suspected of sympathizing and possibly collaborating with Germany. Some 400,000 Volga Germans were forcibly "resettled" to Siberia where they had to live in wretched conditions and many of them died in hard labour camps. In 1964 the Volga Germans were "rehabilitated," but they were not allowed to return to their former homes, which by then had been occupied by non-Germans.

Ida Bender's well written story of her and her family's suffering in Siberia, based on the author's personal experiences and parts of her father's diary, is similar to many such accounts in Russian Mennonite writing (see, for example, Anita Pries, Verbannung nach Sibirien/ Exiled to Siberia, 1979). These stories describe in graphic detail the initial shock that comes with deportation, the loss of their material possessions, the long train rides in cold cattle cars, separation from loved ones, hard work in labour camps, and hunger, starvation and death far away from their former homes. The general difference between Bender's book and many of Mennonite stories is that Bender laments much more the loss of her people's cultural values and institutions than Mennonite writers do. Moreover, she expresses disappointment and a feeling of betrayal at the government's treatment of the Volga Germans who considered themselves loyal citizens of the Soviet Union. In Mennonite accounts a greater emphasis is placed on the loss of freedom of worship and religious institutions, and on the exiles' attempt to preserve their faith and ethical values in the face of overwhelming odds. Bender's book hardly mentions the church or religious faith.

Of great interest to this reviewer is Ida Bender's view of art and life during the Soviet period and her family's involvement in the cultural activities of Soviet-Germans before and after the Volga Germans were exiled. Bender's father, the well-known Soviet-German writer Dominic Hollmann (1899-1990), remains a somewhat shadowy figure in her book. Bender admits that he and his family welcomed the Communist regime in 1917 and hoped that the Revolution would be of social, cultural and political benefit to the Volga Germans. Hollmann advanced to teaching positions, published stories and poems, and was admitted to the Soviet Writers Union. Ida Bender was also privileged to study foreign languages in Leningrad and later worked as a translator in a Soviet-German publishing establishment. Only committed and loyal Party persons were able to advance thus in the Soviet Union.

How deeply committed a Communist writer Hollmann was is difficult to know from his published writings. For example, his story "Rote Reiter" (Red Riders) (in Heimatliche Weiten, 1, 1989) is about a young Volga-German Soviet soldier who fights for the ideals of the Revolution against kulaks, counter-revolutionaries, and other enemies of the state--and in the end is victorious. Bender insists, however, that her father's writings were heavily censored and implies that whole sections were either omitted or rewritten by the censors.

Ida Bender is no doubt on a crusade to make her father and his work known in the west. After her immigration to Germany in 1991 she came to live in Hamburg where she seeks to preserve her father's literary legacy, publishing much of Hollmann's unpublished writing. Of special interest are her diaries, the many letters he wrote to the Soviet authorities on behalf of the Volga-Germans' plight and loss of homeland, many of which are housed at the Stanford University archives on War, Peace and Revolution. Hollmann died in 1990, a disappointed man, without seeing his unrealistic dream of a re-established Volga German Republic fulfilled.

Dominic Hollmann as a person and writer was fortunate to survive the Soviet regime, publishing, even though in censored form, in Soviet papers to the very end. There were others, including Soviet-Mennonite writers such as Gerhard Sawatsky (1901-1944) and David Schellenberg (1903-1954) who did not survive the Stalinist terror. Like Hollmann, they sought to promote Communist ideals and achievements in their writings, but in the end these writers were dispensable. Schellenberg, one of the most prominent among them, was exiled to Magadan in the mid-1930s where he died in 1954, a disillusioned man.

Originally written in German, Ida Bender's manuscript was ably translated by her first cousin Carl Anderson, his daughter Laurel Anderson, and William (Bill) M. Wiest. The book includes numerous black and white photographs, including pictures of the author and her father. Students and readers of Russian-German and Russian-Mennonite history and literature will find the book both interesting and worthwhile.

Reprinted with permission of the Journal of Mennonite Studies.

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