Review of the book Marienberg: Fate of a Village

By Paulette Tobin, Herald Staff Writer

Bollinger, Johann and Janice Huber Stangl. Marienberg: Fate of a Village (Marienberg: Schichsal eines Dorfes). Edited by Harold M. Ehrman. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000.

About one-third of all North Dakotans and thousands of other Midwesterners can trace their family roots to the Germans from Russia, who for several generations lived along the Volga River and in the Ukraine.

Invited to live in Russia by Catherine the Great and her grandson, Czar Alexander I, these Germans were promised autonomy and free land. In return, they made the Ukraine the breadbasket of the czars. But, by about 1870, Russia's rulers had begun to forget the promises of freedom that had been made to the Germans, and a new exodus began, this time to the Americas.

Although they considered themselves Germans, these people were very much attached to the land, and it must have been very hard to leave Russia. Some, in fact, decided to stay. "Marienberg: Fate of a Village," is the heart-breaking story of what happened to them.

This book was written by Johann Bollinger, who lived in Marienberg until 1935, and by Janice Huber Stangl, a native of Bowdle, S.D., whose ancestors lived there. "Fate of a Village" includes personal accounts, government records and - most moving of all - letters written by Marienbergers to their relatives in America between 1916 and 1926.

Historians have called the 1920s in Russia the Starvation Decade. The letters from Marienberg, including many written by village leader Jacob Ahl to the Eureka (S.D) Rundschau German newspaper, tell of starvation, illness and death.

"Our children, the little ones, don't know what white bread, sugar, coffee, tea, rice or matches are," Ahl wrote in April 1922 to his friend, Rundschau editor Gust Mauser.

Bollinger left Marienberg in 1935 for teacher training, was drafted into the German Army during World War II and remained in Germany after the war. His account includes a detailed drawing of the village and a list of who lived in each house. He described how the houses were constructed, the occupations of the people there, and a peaceful coexistence with Russians and Jews.

The Marienbergers were a self-sufficient lot. One thing in which they had particular pride were their beautiful horses. However, this tradition, and many others, were lost with collective farming.

Bollinger said a propagandist named Sandmayer came to a meeting of Marienberg farmers in the 1920s and said: "The horses will graze the hair from your head. We shall give you iron horses." The result was that horse breeding and raising was allowed to decline. And, of course, no "iron horses" ever arrived.

This book contains pitiful letters from once-proud German families in Russia begging their American relatives to send money, food or clothing. "Like Adam and Eve in paradise, we see that we are naked, we go in rags," wrote one couple.

"You don't know how it hurts," Ahl wrote in 1924, "when a child whispers in the ear of a father bent over with illness, 'Father, buy me a shirt so I don't have to go behind the stove anymore when someone comes.'"

Ahl and the other letter writers also tell about the births of babies, the burials of loved ones, who was getting married, who was building a house, who was fighting with whom over relief packages from America. In a 1923 letter, Ahl told of vigilante justice for a robber who was caught by some villagers ("he was forwarded to the other world without a passport and a ticket"), and the grim deaths of neighbors who had starved.

He also could be sarcastic, silly and funny, as when he wrote of a couple "who had the misfortune of having a small boy arrive in this world too soon out of sheer impudence, in order to be here for the wedding of his parents." He took very seriously his commitment to speak for the Germans who had remained in Russia, and defended them against rumors from America that they were crying wolf about their dire circumstances.

In 1923, Ahl wrote about being invited to come to America. "Wishes can't be fulfilled without money," he said. "Heavy sighs and wishes. Would that I had wings, would that I had wings, is all I can utter." Ahl died in Marienberg in 1935.

After years of mismanagement and starvation, Bollinger wrote, many Marienbergers reconciled themselves to collective farming and worked hard under the leadership of a capable chairman, Christian Morlock. In a few years they had a growing and prosperous collective farming operation.

But worse times were coming. The years 1936, 1937 and 1938 changed Marienberg into a community of mourners. Of about 100 families, 58 men and three women disappeared forever. Authorities appeared in the night, searched houses and took people away. (German records describe them as "verschlept.") Morlock, the community leader, was one of those taken. Women who went to inquire about their men were told the men had died of stomach ulcers. Records found years later indicated all had been executed.

During World War II, many Marienbergers fled to Germany before the Red Army. Some were able to stay in Germany, but many were deported and lived and died as slaves in Siberia and Asia. Today, their descendants find themselves caught between worlds, not really accepted in Germany or Russia.

This is a fascinating book, but very poorly bound. My softcover copy is already falling apart. I have been promised a replacement.

"Marienberg: Fate of a Village (Marienberg: Schicksal eines Dorfes)," by Johann Bollinger and Janice Huber Stangl, edited by Harold M. Ehrman. Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2000. 400 pages, English and German languages in one volume. Softcover $35, hardcover $55.

To order, make check or money order payable to NDSU Library. Shipping and handling: $4 in U.S., $5 in Canada, $6 elsewhere. All orders must be in U.S. dollars. Include name, address and daytime phone number. Write to: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Marienberg Book, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599; or call 701-231-8416.

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