Wedding in the Darkness

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Vossler, Ronald J. Wedding in the Darkness. Fargo, North Dakota: North Dakota State University Library, 2008.

A review by Edna Boardman

The men of the NKVD arrived in Neudorf, in the dead of a July 1932 night, dressed in striking sky-blue tunics trimmed in red piping. But what they were about to do was anything but elegant. Working systematically, they forced some 18 families--the most prosperous in town--from their homes, drove them in carts to the train station, and put them into cattle cars headed for work camps in the forests of icy Siberia. Women pulled out their hair as their children, some infants, were returned to the village, to be cared for by whom?

This story is told in one of three accounts that lay bare in the starkest detail the experiences of three villages and individual persons during the 1930s, the collectivization period of communism in Russia. Such events happened again and again in villages of all Russian ethnic groups, but the focus of the book is on the Germans of the villages of Ukraine. Vossler describes scenes of starvation, torture, deprivation, and abuse of epic proportions. This is as raw a depiction as you are likely to see. Men whose only offense was to write to or receive letters from American relatives were beaten beyond recognition and subject to tortures such as having their fingers slammed in doors. Keeping grain from an abundant harvest for their families’ normal needs, an act defined by the authorities as stealing state property, was a capital offense. The story of the wedding in the dark, the title story, is especially poignant.

Vossler did not make up this stuff. He drew from public sources, including the writing of Robert Conquest, McLoughlin and McDermott, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and others noted in his essay on sources. He also read and recorded primary accounts such as interviews with those who survived the actual experiences and letters written to relatives in America and published in German language newspapers of the period.

The author envisions two primary sets of readers for this book. First his fellow academics (Vossler teaches English at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks) who, he has observed, often admire Marxism and applaud Stalin’s rapid collectivization and modernization of the country, downplaying or casting a blind eye on the human cost. The other audience is German Russian readers who may not be aware of the fates of their blood relatives who remained in Russia when their ancestors emigrated to the west. Vossler tells of the difficulty of piecing together these accounts from a host of often fragmentary sources; he describes the book as a work in progress. It does have the feeling of a galley because he did not do the final proofreading that would have cleaned up inconsistencies in spelling, misplaced punctuation, and spacing on the page. But this is a reviewer’s quibble. It is a brief work (just 57 pages) of immense power, a wake-up to anyone who has ever had warm feelings for “Uncle Joe” or imagines that relatives, who did not emigrate, lived on in some idyllic agricultural paradise.

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