Book review by Lesia Chernihivska, Westerly, Rhode Island
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.
Lesia Chernihivska is currently compiling an annotated bibliography
about the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933, under the auspices of the
research grant from the Shevchenko Society's Yuri Kuziv Fund.
Aside from the Famine, Lesia Chernihivska specializes in the subject of the forced repatriations conducted by Great Britain and the United States at the conclusion of Word War II, during which millions of Slavs and others were returned to the Soviet Union, whereat many were executed upon arrival by SMERSH, or consigned to sentences of up to 25 years at some of the worst of the GULag camps. These actions were perpetrated agains Ost-arbieters, women, children, priests, as well as POW's and Vlasov soldiers.
Lesia Chernihivska has published reviews for H-RUSSIA, The Tolstoy Studies Center at Toronto University, and the journal, "Historie Russe" (History of Russia), including these topics: the writing of Tolstoy's "War and Peace"; Soviet women fighters of World War II; women's experiences in the Soviet GULag; and the book, "Man Is Wolf to Man", about the experiences of a Polish man incarcertated in the GULag at the beginning of World War II.
ETHNIC GERMANS IN THE USSR REVEAL SOVIET REALITIES: 1925-1937
During the early Soviet years, it was still possible for Soviet citizens to communicate by mail with their relatives in America and Germany, who had emigrated from Russia during the late Tsarist era (1870-1914). North Dakota University Professor Ronald J. Vossler translated and edited two hundred such letters sent by ethnic Germans in the USSR to their American relatives detailing the series of escalating repressive Soviet policies and actions during the years, 1925-1937. We'll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write to Their American Relatives, 1925-1937, is divided into five chapters delineating this escalation process: "Things Are Not As They Once Were (1925-1927), "Hold Your Tongues (1928-1931), "Crucifixion by Hunger (1932-1933), and, "All the Signs of the End Are Here (1936-1937). By arranging his material chronologically, Vossler makes it possible to trace the effects of dekulakization, forced deportations, forced collectivization, and the early years of the purges, thereby gaining a fair understanding of this period of Soviet history.
Some "Famine deniers" question the veracity oral testimonies
gathered about the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933, charging that
nationalistic points of view influence these testimonies. The letters
in Vossler's book are, therefore, of singular historical importance,
as they are "contemporary firsthand testimony.from those actually
suffering the famine as they wrote."[i] These German-Russian
primary source documents consistently confirm Ukrainian charges
regarding the deliberately fatal nature of these Soviet policies.[ii]
A letter of 20 July 1933, describes the situation quite clearly,
"We have nothing but a cat, and I will butcher that today.
After the cat is eaten, we are finished."[iii]
That many of these Famine letters sent to Germany, where they were publicly displayed, is another significant nail in Stalin's coffin.[iv] The German diplomatic corps, however, proved a fatal disappointment to these German-Russians. In March 1930, a delegation of twelve approached the German ambassador in Moscow seeking political asylum. "The German embassy put forth no effort in trying to allow us to emigrate. .If we can't emigrate, then we are hopelessly lost. We are facing starvation. .The ambassador robbed us of our last hope."[v] Vossler provides a comprehensive introductory historical overview helpful to those unfamiliar with the various aspects of Soviet history discussed in his book. For documentation of the points made in his Introduction, Vossler endnotes scholarly works of other historians, but the letters themselves stand forth on their own merit. The Index of Family Names is helpful to those examining the book for genealogical purposes. A subject index would be a useful addition in future editions. Evocative artwork by Joshua Vossler includes charcoal drawings such as, "The Hunger Pieta," in which a Famine victim is grasped by a Communist skeleton wearing a Budennovka military cap with a prominent Hammer and Sickle emblem. The illustration on the front cover, "Writing in Blood," shows a hand pierced by a pen, the bloody ink from which seeps into the ground below, thereby bringing to mind the biblical story of Cain and Abel: And the Lord said, 'What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your own hand.'"[vi]
Many of the letters reflect the abiding faith of the writers, and, as illustrative of their own agonies, refer to biblical prophecies of doom, and to the sufferings of Job, Lazarus, and Jesus Christ. Some of the victims believed dispossession, deportation, and starvation that they suffered, and from which so many loved ones died, were divine punishments for their lack of resolve to leave Russia when they had the opportunity to do so: "'Congruent with the thought processes of traumatized people of all ages. [they] search for faults in their own behavior.' They blame their own sinfulness, or the sinfulness of the world, and behind the famine see 'God's purging hand'" (xxxv). Victimized by governmental policies and practices way beyond their ability to control or counteract, nevertheless, they shouldered unwarranted blame because of their self-sufficient work ethic and sense of responsibility for their family's wellbeing. This feeling of personal responsibility for governmentally sponsored tragedies that befell them was not exclusive to the German-Russians, or to this part of the world, or at that particular time. Social historians of American history of this same time-period observe this same psychological phenomenon among American poor, who were unable to work their way out of their poverty-stricken situations even by assiduous application of hard work.[vii] Such self-blame was especially evident among those who had fallen to poverty from the position of self-sufficiency, as was the case with most of the German-Russians under discussion:
I am already 62 years old, with pains that press in the bottom
of my being, for I know my husband and child are near starvation.That's
why, dear brother, along with your children, send us alms, if you
can. My confident trust is in you, and if you can't help, then we
must go on and live out our misery until the loving God brings it
all to an end. I am ashamed to write to you for help, but the need
is just so great.[viii]
A cadre of modern historians perceive and present Stalin as nothing worse than an interesting example of a misguided, misunderstood man, who later led his country to victory in the Great Patriotic War. Stalin's policies led to the deaths of millions of people during the Great Famine 1932-1933, as well as those tortures, deportations, and deaths resulting from his various
governmental policies definitive of his extreme paranoid destructiveness. Some may prefer to focus on cold statistics, and to shun the emotional aspects of these events under consideration. In this regard, Vossler's book is a vital contribution to Soviet historiography as, within its pages, the victims of Stalinism speak for themselves about what was happening to them, their families, and their neighbors. We'll Meet Again in Heaven is not a heavy tome of dates and places, kings and commoners, that sometimes puts the reader to sleep. Instead, it is like reading a book of letters from one's aunt or father or pastor, and, thereby, the reader forms a heartfelt reaction to the material presented. Its forthright prose makes this book appropriate teaching material for students at the advanced high school or undergraduate levels, as well as those with more expertise in Soviet history. Teachers of political science or religious studies will find Vossler's book a rich resource, as, like Solzhenitsyn's The GULag Archipelago, We'll Meet Again in Heaven reveals man's endless capacity for cruelty to his fellow human beings. Risking severe punishment for writing to foreign relatives as they did, and especially for describing the true conditions in the USSR, these writers persevered, often noting that the particular letter was likely to be their last farewell before death. Some lucky ones received blessed help from family and friends overseas, for which their thankfulness overflowed. However, many, many others received no reply at all. The hurt of these forgotten ones is painful to behold:
Our sister Karolina doesn't write anymore either. When we gather here, one always asks the other, 'So you haven't had any letters from America either? I don't know why our friends don't write. They don't want anything more to do with us. They avoid all of us."[ix]
Another letter asks, "There are many in America who doubt the satanic power of the Bolsheviks, or are they themselves thoroughly steeped in the Bolshevik spirit?"[x] During the 1930's, Walter Duranty wrote his infamous famine-denial articles in the New York Times. Malcolm Muggeridge, who independently toured famine-stricken areas of Ukraine, lost his job at the Manchester Guardian in England and relocated to work at a newspaper in India because his articles spoke the truth of the disastrous and cruel Soviet realities.[xi] A letter written about the lies of the American press, dated April 1932, states, "When a person reads in your newspapers that in Ukraine people are starving to death, that is the complete and full truth. .I know, I live here."[xii] Propagandistic articles in Soviet newspapers presented to the starving citizenry the "fact," that foreign observers toured the Soviet Union and were favorably impressed with what they saw. A writer from a German village in Ukraine discusses this: Delegations from other countries stay in the big cities, and in the best hotel, and hear only what the communists want them to hear. If they'd come to the villages, they'd learn the truth. Just today, in our newspaper, we read that Kupper, who sits on the board of directors of a Russian-American chamber of commerce, traveled 55,000 miles through Russia, and nowhere saw any forced labor. It is easy to say that he lied, but another question is where did he go, what did he see, and what did the communists show him? It is another lie, just as people lie that they are shipping out of the country only unnecessary grain, when they are really taking the last piece of bread from the mouths of the hungry."[xiii]
One of those, who painted the pretty picture for the foreigners' benefit, wrote in a letter entitled, "Cry of Despair," the following confession: There is nobody to speak with, and in front of the mirror I stand ashamed...most of all, we hate the guests, the neat, fat, lucky foreigners. I have a declaration to give the foreigners, for I have, to my great detriment, a knowledge of speech. I lied for them, the Bolsheviks. And now I am ashamed to remember that. How often it pressed upon me, that I should say to the official: 'Don't you understand, you polished idiot, that I am lying?' But I held myself back. I wanted to shout out:.'Don't take any food away, that is why they die, why they starve, why they die like animals from hunger.'[xiv]
After seeing the desperate situation, some Red Army soldiers refused to follow orders, and gave their rations to the hungry villagers: No more Red Army units are sent to places of unrest. Now, they send only communists who get their rations from the G.P.U. secret police. One Red Army division, sent out of Samara at the beginning of March, came through a peaceful village and found such a situation there that they divided up their provisions to the people, refusing to go any further.[xv] The Stalinist Era was, in many ways, a time of evil incarnate. Its political polices affected, and starved millions of people in a manner of death that causes unfathomable physical and psychological suffering:
We have three small children and nothing to eat. That is the saddest, when day breaks and the little ones weep and cry for food. Oh loving God, have pity on us, and help us to endure their frightful moaning and this miserable time. The smallest of our children weeps and says, 'Oh dear Momma, go and look for something to eat because I have such awful hunger.' Where should I look, and to who [sic] should I go when nobody has anything? So that is how we fill ourselves, with weeping. There is nothing else. You can imagine how it makes one's heart bleed, when your own children come to you and you can give them nothing to quiet their hunger.[xvi]
Some of the letter-writers note that many of the Communist officials were of Jewish heritage, and that in some villages Jews were not as severely affected by the Communist policies.[xvii] "The Jews now have an upperhand (sic). No Jews have been deported to Siberia."[xviii] However, it is important to note that a collective farm overseer threatened the German-Russians based on ethnic reasons: Now you will see that wherever you insects have settled in Russia, we have you in our hands. No God will help you with manna from heaven. No matter how hard you pray, there will be hangings, shootings, starvation, and freezing to death. All if you can't meet the demands of our plan with your work."[xix]
From these primary source documents written in the intimate tone
of familial correspondence, one learns the details of the daily
struggle to survive that took place during some of the most deadly
years of the Stalinist Era. In North, and South Dakota, and Minnesota,
recipients submitted these letters to German-language newspapers
for publication, so other relatives and the community-at-large could
learn the true situation of those family members, friends, and neighbors
in the Soviet Union. Concurrent with diplomatic recognition of the
USSR by the American government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Autumn, 1933), these published letters provided information to
the reading American public about the ill-effects of Soviet agricultural
and political policies. An editorial note from the original publisher
of the letter, Dakota Freie Pressse noted, "Jacob Graf of Medina,
North Dakota, who received this letter.also wrote, 'I can't read
this letter from Russia without weeping. .I will write to our Senator
Nye what I know about this situation in Russia.'"[xx]
The fiscal benefits to American industry of the opening of the new Soviet market is obvious, but these profits were perceived quite differently by those German-Russians deported to the north to work in the lumber industry: The capitalists seek to enrich themselves by buying wood that has through our own blood and sweat cost us dearly to produce for market. .To our great misfortune, America sends its machinery to Russia which is the reason why we must work here. [Refers to deportees in northern regions that cut timber under forced labor conditions for the international market. Soviets traded wood products, as well as confiscated grain and other agricultural products, for western industrial fixtures and technology].[xxi]
It was not secret that Stalin deliberately instituted destructive policies that ultimately resulted in the death by starvation and related diseases of millions of people. Institution of the system of internal passports and travel prohibitions forbade persons traveling to find food that was plentiful elsewhere. "We would like to leave here and look for work, but they won't give us the papers to do that, and without papers a person can't go anywhere."[xxii] Many letters also refer to typhus, measles, and other more hunger-specific diseases that further ravaged the already starving population, as is often the case in famine situations.
Despite the Depression financial situation in the United States, many letters received a positive lifesaving response from members of the German-American community. Money was sent to Torgsin stores on the recipient's behalf. There, they could purchase food and other items not available for sale unless purchased with gold, silver, or foreign currency. The Soviet government used these stores as an additional way to extract money and valuables from the people via the inequitable exchange rate given for the true value of money exchanged. Some money appears to have been stolen:
We still haven't received the money that you sent us. The money arrived in the 'Torgsin' store in Tiraspol, along with a receipt, but we still haven't gotten a receipt ourselves, which is necessary, as they tell us before we can receive anything."[xxiii]
Significantly, one of the letters mentions this facet of the collectivization process: "But in the end, I was forced to sign that gladly and with my free will I gave away everything I owned."[xxiv] Eventually, it became too politically dangerous to receive letters from America at all. On February 28, 1935, Christina Flemmer wrote to her brother:
I would have written you earlier but we are not supposed to write
for help from out of the country. Dear brother, you write that you
sent me 5 dollars. But I don't dare inquire if I have received,
or might receive, the money. You shouldn't have sent it because
now I am in much anxiety if they find out. .We are in constant fear,
for from here many more families are being deported, and for that
very reason, that they've received help from outside of the country.[xxv]
The value of Until We Meet in Heaven." is its ability to re-emotionalize history. Statistical profiles demonstrate the demographic extent of Stalin's vengefulness, but these letters compel the reader to form his own opinions about Stalin, the man who said, "To choose one's victims, to prepare one's plan minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed ... there is nothing sweeter in the world."[xxvi] It is important to look history square in the face, whether it is ugly or not. On November 28, 1930, a pastor wrote to his daughter, "If the entire world remains completely silent, without a word from the believers, gazing into this misery with hands in their laps, then it is ripe for a downfall."[xxvii] Specifically addressing Americans, a letter of 21 March, 1933, recommends, "don't spit in strange wells, for the time will come that you may also have to draw water from them." [xxviii]
[i] Ronald J. Vossler, We'll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives, 1925-1937 (Fargo, North Dakota: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2001), xxxiii.
[ii] See the book, Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book, S. O. Podhainy, et al, eds., the second volume of which deals similarly with the various aspects of the Famine.
[iii] Letter by Phillip and Rosina Hauck, dated July 20, 1933, quoted in Vossler, 208.
[iv] Vossler recommends in endnote # 45: For photos of stacks of "hunger letters" sent from Soviet Union to Germany, particularly during 1932-33 see Dr. Adolf Ehrt (ed). Brueder in Not! Dokumente der Hungersnot under den deutschen Volksgenossen in Russland (Berlin-Steglitz: des Evenaglischen Presservebandes fuer Deutschland, 1933?0), 4-5.
[v] Letter dated 20 March 1930, quoted in Vossler, 103-104.
[vi] Gen. 4: 10-11. The Holy Bible, King James Version.
[vii] See articles demonstrating this same assumption of unnecessary guilt by Americans in Stud Terkel's Hard Times, and Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941, by Michael E. Parrish. A letter signed, "Mrs. H. B." of Illinois, who wrote to the Children's Bureau about her distress at being unable to adequately feed her children:
I also have a little girl 8 years old who is frail, and the school doctor tells her to eat fresh eggs and milk and lots of it, but where am I to get it? I can see her going into decline right along, but what am I to do? .I trust you will look at this in the right light and excuse me for crying out my soul to you. .Please do not use my name in publication as the children would be jeered at by the neighbor's children.
Quoted in Major Problems in American History, 1920-1945: Documents and Essays, ed. Colin Gordon.
[viii] Letter dated 6 December 1931 from the Odessa region, quoted in Vossler, 149.
[ix] Letter by Katherina Boschee, 4 July 1935, Ibid., 244.
[x] Letter dated 24 July 1931. Ibid., 134.
[xi] Malcolm Muggeridge, My Life in Pictures (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1987), 28-30.
[xii] Letter by J.F.K., quoted in Vossler, 160.
[xiii] Letter by Ustja, dated 24 April 1931. Ibid., 130.
[xiv] Letter dated 29 August 1930, Ibid., 106.
[xv] Letter from the Volga Region, published 20 May, 1932, Ibid., 160-161.
[xvi] Ibid., xxxiii.
[xvii] Ibid., xxvii.
[xviii] Letter by E., dated 1 September 1930, Ibid., 107.
[xix] Ibid., xxxv.
[xx] Letter dated 14 April 1933, Ibid., 189.
[xxi] Letter dated 27 March 1931. Ibid., 124.
[xxii] Letter dated May 3, 1933. Ibid., 193.
[xxiii] Letter dated 3 June 1933. Ibid., 213-214.
[xxiv] Letter dated 21 March 1930. Ibid., 97-98.
[xxv] Letter dated 15 March 1935. Ibid., 242-243.
[xxvi] Josef Stalin quoted in Robert Conquest, "Lenin's Guffaw," New Republic (Washington: September 15, 1986) in The Columbia World of Quotations, Robert Andrews, Mary Biggs, et al, eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Online edition. July 2001. www.bartleby.com/66/ (August 27, 2002).
[xxvii] "Letter from an Exiled Pastor," Vossler, 113 28 Letter dated 21 March 1933, Ibid., 179.