Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Vossler, Ronald Julius. We’ll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.
During the twelve years 1925-1937, Germans from Russia in the United
States and Canada and Germany received thousands of letters from
relatives in the Soviet Union asking for money and packages of food
and clothing. The communist system was strengthening its hold and
life had become very difficult for a proud and industrious people
accustomed to taking care of themselves in times good and bad. Ron
Vossler has translated from German a representative sample of these
letters. He included a few from Ukrainians and a Jew, who were in
similar straits. The letters still exist because many who received
them sent them on to German language newspapers for publication.
The newspapers, Eureka Rundschau and others, received some directly
and, when the suffering was especially dire, started the process
of collecting relief supplies or money.
The first Five Year Plan, which began in 1928, required steppe-dwellers to deliver food for the urban folk, who would industrialize the country, plus grain and wood for sale abroad. All this while relinquishing without payment their stored grain, land and animals, and sometimes their homes and all that was in them. They were being collectivized, as mandated by the communist leaders, which meant their farming villages had to be restructured. In addition, farmers became the victims of an ideology that labeled as kulaks (a strange word meaning fist) anyone who had done a bit better than the rest, and targeted them to be marginalized. Huge numbers were removed from their homes and the village society, imprisoned or deported, and their children expelled from school. The lists of those killed outright are long. The result was a stressful life made worse by the resulting famine that, for many, could be eased only if they received personal help from friends and family who had emigrated to the west 20 or more years before.
The letters are emotionally not easy to read, but readers will be grateful to Ron Vossler for translating a range of them and dividing them by years of changing circumstances, 1925-1927, 1928-1931, 1932-1933, 1934-1935, and 1936-1937. Most were written in the villages of the Glueckstal region, Bergdorf, Neudorf, Grigoriopol, Kassel, Hoffnungstal, and Glueckstal, though similar abuse and famine was commonplace throughout the region. Other letters come from the prisons in which once-thriving farmers found themselves held for the crime of being prosperous; still others were sent from camps in the icy far north where men and women with limited shelter, clothing and food suffered and often died cutting and stacking wood.
The letters tell of being caught in an untenable system that got steadily worse even that seemed impossible. Ideologically indoctrinated overseers from the cities, sent to the villages of the Ukraine with vague instructions, set up harsh rules. Everything produced belonged to "the regime," and people could not satisfy their own needs until quotas, often beyond the productive capacity of the land, were fulfilled. Ruling authorities levied taxes erratically, and, after homes and goods were sold to pay them, added more. Gangs hunted for hoarded grain even when it was clear that the people whose yards and homes they probed were starving.
The religious life of the people, which sustained them in the early years, was suspended by the communists, the churches turned into cultural centers or put to other uses. Ministers and priests were deported and the sextons who kept the churches running between pastoral visits followed. Food, clothing, kitchen utensils, and furniture were taken by persons who showed up at the door. Men and often women and whole families disappeared into the night (verschleppt or dragged away).
Single cows and horses, on which families depended for sustenance, were led away to the collective, where neglect often killed the animals. Sometimes the animals remained but someone came and got all their fodder. One woman spoke of surviving on the income from a hen. Persons without resources were ordered to deliver a set amount of meat. Villages expected to produce large quotas of grain were virtually without men, who were drafted into the military, sent to the labor camps of Siberia, or imprisoned in regional jails. Those who joined the collectives often were not given the promised pay or received only a measured amount of poor bread, and then often only the worker received even that, not the wives or children or old or sick persons. Fuel was short in winter because the villagers could no longer make the bricks of dried manure they customarily burned in winter. Prices of necessary items were high, out of proportion to what anyone was able to earn.
Drought and crop failure continued to plague the Ukraine every few years, a factor not taken into account by the oppressive government, but even when conditions were favorable, the lack of seed and persons to do the work limited the harvest. Oddly, a people accustomed to hard, productive work were ordered to work--or else. They rarely had their oppressors in very good focus. They had a sense that a faceless "they," persons without reasons or empathy but plenty of power, inflicted these horrors on them.
The writers of the letters describing these conditions expressed
obvious humiliation at the need to ask for help, but their deprivation
was so great that they used every device they could think of to
elicit a favorable response. They were, after all, the parents,
brothers, sisters, and other relatives who, for reasons that seemed
sensible at the time, did not leave to the west with the others.
They reminded recipients of the "freundschaft" their blood
connectedness, naming long lists of family members and asking for
addresses of persons who, one suspects, may have preferred not to
give them to the needy old-world family. They appealed to their
family's Christian charity and sometimes simple humanity. As the
years went on, the pleas for help did not stop, but conditions got
worse and feelings of helplessness on the part of both givers and
So how did the relatively comfortable families in the west respond to these pleas? Those who remember getting the letters recall their own great anguish. In America and Canada, recipients put together boxes of food and clothing and often sent money they could hardly afford, especially when the depression kicked in. The letters themselves tell some responses. Some in the west did not reply at all or said their children no longer wished to have anything to do with Russia. Sometimes the westerners gave rather dumb solutions to their relatives' problems. One suggested his relatives borrow bread. Vossler, in his introductory material, observes that many recipients of the letters appeared to be traumatically locked into silence by the unimaginable pain those they loved were experiencing, so they said little either to each other or to their children.
Neither the money nor the packages from the west always got through, but when they did it was the occasion for great joy. The money, even very small amounts, could be used to buy flour, cornmeal, lard, and sometimes fruit at special stores called Torgsin stores. There only foreign cash or gold or silver was accepted, no rubles. Late in this period, money had to be sent directly to the stores and persons received a receipt; sometimes the stores were agonizingly slow to issue the receipts.
Vossler begins his book with introductory material, which this reviewer suggests reading twice, before then after reading the letters. Most of the book consists of the letters themselves, with only minimal comments to put some in context. Joshua Vossler met the challenge of illustrating the book, not by drawing emaciated people but by letting the hands that did the writing stand symbolically for whole persons. A list of sources and an index of names mentioned by the writers will help those wanting to know the experiences of family members who remained in the Glueckstal colonies.
This reviewer hopes that this book will enjoy a wide readership. Scholar-researched sources such as Richard Conquest's "Harvest of Sorrow", describe what happened, but these letters are primary materials that match named human beings with the statistics. Those statistics are sobering. An estimate is that, during this period, 100,000 Germans in Russia died of starvation and many more of other nationalities, especially Ukrainians, also died. One reads this book with a feeling that those who perpetrated these crimes will have much to answer for before God. We do well to spend a few hours to learn the experiences of our family members who endured those difficult times.