Heimat: Steppes of Russia: My Country, My Home

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Nitschke, Shirley Wegener. HEIMAT: Steppes of Russia. Jamestown, North Dakota: HEIMAT, 2001.

A novel that covers the sweep of German Russian history is shown through the lens of the life of a woman, Helga Baden. The account, told in 49 short chapters, begins with Helga’s birth in 1824 at Hessenburg near Munich in Germany. This is a time when life is becoming ever more uncertain. When Helga is just five, her mother Martha dies giving birth to her eighth child. Johannes Baden, the children’s father, parks the children with relatives while he spends 3 years on a personal quest. Upon his return, he collects his children. They go to a city called Ulm, from where an open boat takes them down the Danube River to a quarantine area at the old fort of Ismail. Russian soldiers guide them to the open steppe, where they become part of an agricultural pioneer village called Alt Posttal.

Nitschke’s thorough researches enable her to create the conditions of life in a German Russian village. Readers, through Helga’s eyes, witness the unfolding of Alt Posttal. Homes, a church, and a courthouse go up. Farm production burgeons with small grains, fruit, and an impressive variety of vegetables. The colonists breed the red cow and raise horses fine enough for the Russian army. Technological advances--harvesting machines, wagons, a better plow--ease the heavy work of farming. The community gets together through the year for festivals including May Day, harvest celebrations, weddings, Christmas, Easter, and confirmation. Children go to school. The foods of the German Russians on the steppe appear on the table: kucken, sausage, plachinda, sauerkraut, holopsie,... Medical care is do-it-yourself with a doctor sometimes available. The village receives a visit from Adolf Keller, a writer who records what he sees. Helga’s family browses a farmers’ bazaar in Odessa. A matchmaker arranges, well, matches, and a newspaper becomes available. The book is sprinkled with German sayings (translated) most persons of this ethnic group will remember. She notes the presence of antisemitism.

Helga’s life unfolds along with the development of the village. She cooks (some recipes given) and sews and cares for her sister Gretchen, who is blind, finding herself displaced when her father remarries. The matchmaker is called on her behalf, and she also marries. A daughter arrives. Helga is a deeply religious person, often troubled because she has visions of her mother warning her and guiding her when she has decisions to make. A romantic thread maintains interest throughout the book.

The Russian government disrupts village life when it decides that German young men must enter the military. Helga is among those who emigrate to America. She finds herself in Alfred, a small town near Jamestown, North Dakota, where she endures the hardships of a second pioneering experience and builds a new life.

A troubling aspect of the book, for this reviewer, was the relationship depicted between the colonists and the Russians. There is a complex set of interactions in the story line, with Russians probably entering the scene more frequently than they actually did in the German Russian colonies. Relationships dramatized in the book are very positive when a Russian woman who sheltered Helga early in the migration period becomes her surrogate mother. Helga tutors a class of Russian children, and Russians arrive to take part in a building project and in a community festival. Bad feelings surge forth when Russians who greet the colonists show distrust and hatred, promises made to the newcomers are fulfilled slowly or not at all again and again, and when Russification policies sour what had at least been coexistence. Historically, a few Germans and Russians married each other, but the form romance takes in this story seems far from probable. Nitschke, unfortunately, buys into accounts that depict Russians as illiterate, lazy, dirty, and unproductive.

Nitschke ends the book with an epilogue and nonfiction essays about the sufferings the German people endured under communism, the expropriation and collectivization, and exile to the camps in the far north. She closes with an essay about the character of the Germans from Russia in North Dakota.

Should you read this book? This is a first book for the author. There are anachronistic references; some ways of thinking didn’t surface until years after the time in which this book is set. Sometimes Nitschke loses the child’s voice in her eagerness to impart information. Yet, if a reader wants a painless overview of Germans from Russia history, the author has certainly done intensive background reading, and a reader will come away with a generally accurate knowledge of the history of this ethnic group.

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