Heimatbuch der Gemeinde Neu-Elft, Bessarabien

Book review by Ingeborg Smith, Western Springs, Illinois

Zaiser, August A. Heimatbuch der Gemeinde Neu-Elft, Bessarabien. 1975.

"Loyalty to God, loyalty to the community and loyalty to ourselves." Principles of Neu-Elft.

This book is a memoir and a memorial to a Bessarabian village which no longer exists, in memory of forefathers and their works. The author, a native of the village, gives a short geographic and historical introduction of the region, a poem written by him, then the more recent history of German settlement.

The name, "Neu-Elft" (New Elft), comes from the number "elf" (eleven), the number of the steppe-area given to the settlers. The official names of Alt-Elft and Neu-Elft were Fere-Champenoise I and II, given at the highest level of the Russian government in memory of the victory over Napoleon at a French town of the same name by the allied Russian and German armies.

The original settlers arrived in the promised land in winter, completely impoverished and disappointed in the treeless, barren steppe. Like immigrants everywhere, many would have returned had they been able.

The two villages were divided because some of the fields were too far away to be able to work easily. The new village was founded in 1825, its land parceled out by a lot for 63 families. There was good black soil, which was very fertile, given enough rain. It didn't need fertilizer until after 1918. During drought conditions the harvest was better without fertilizer. They grew sugar beets, melons, and maize. Of 88 flourishing vineyards, 16 used American hybrids. Soybeans became popular, but Sudan grass did not grow well. (This is the first reference to Sudan grass that this reviewer has seen since the 1930's, when her father grew it). We hear of canned watermelon; fried watermelon was mentioned by Thomas Wolfe in one of his novels, but it seems even more unbelievable in canned form.

During a smallpox epidemic in 1829, the authorities divided the infected part of the village from the sound with a high board fence. The dead were removed through a window by means of a long hook, loaded on a particular wagon, and buried in a special cemetery, the pest cemetery. There were 15 deaths. Cholera claimed 65. It's a wonder that anyone survived the hard work and privation.

The village had to give up land for a railroad. Rumania stopped construction at the time of the Russian Revolution. In 1940 the Soviets finished the railroad for strategic reasons.

There are those, among the Viktor Suvorov, a former member of the Soviet secret service, in "The Icebreaker," who say that the Soviets were eager to overrun Bessarabia in 1940 in order to be ready to capture the Rumanian oil fields, on which Germany depended.

There are lists of founders and their origins, photographs of people, buildings, and documents. We learn about the most prominent citizens. By law, upon the death of the father, the oldest son inherited the farm. The other sons must find other work or move away. We are told of sidewalks, trees and flowers, and detailed description of house plans and building materials. Everything including matters of inheritance was voted on in town meetings. They had their own system of voting with balls dropped into different drawers.

In 1874 the government canceled its promise of perpetual freedom from military service, and instituted three-to seven-year service, quartering of soldiers, and requisition of horses, wagons, and grains. Neu-Elft lost 18 men in World War I. There was a great deal of anti-German feeling and even though only 15-20% of the people knew Russian, the use of German was forbidden. Our author says that winter, January and February, 1917, was chosen to deport the colonists to Siberia, because it was hoped that some or all of these "bad" traitors would not survive the trip. Unusually deep snowfall made all transport impossible until spring, when the people were saved by the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

The village was abandoned in 1940; the people trekked to the Danube in covered wagons and were sent to scenic spots in upper Bavaria. After a year or two they were resettled in the provinces re-conquered from Poland, on farms that in general were in bad shape, the houses dirty and full of bugs, and the fields only partly under cultivation.

This book also describes, in hair-raising detail, the flight in the winter of 1945. He does not, however, describe the problems of the ones who stayed. Most of the Neu-Elfters ended up in the East Zone of Germany. Only a few managed to flee into the English or American Zones. Twenty-seven of those former Neu-Elfters, dragged off to Poland or Siberia, died as a result. Ultimately, 1,000 people were resettled, 45% in the DDR and 55% in West Germany. Five families went overseas. As 90% of these people had been farmers, they had to retrain for new occupation. The middle and younger generations are active in all occupations.

The book is typical of the genre, nicely laid out, with well-designed, readable print. At the time of publication the author resided in Stuttgart.

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