Why are you still alive?: A German in the Gulag

Book review by Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein

Hildebrandt, Georg. Why are You Still Alive?: A German in the Gulag. North Dakota State Univesrity Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.

Julia Hildebrandt, et. al., eds. Aber wo sollen wir hin: Briefe von Russland-mennoniten aus den Jahren der Gefangenschaft, Verbannung und Lagerhaft in der Sowyetunion (Frankenthal: Verlag Hirtenstimme e.V., 1998), 306 pp.

These two volumes from the genre of Soviet Union imprisonment memoirs and documents may seem commonplace articles by now. Many have been published and widely read. The English title noted here actually appeared as Wieso? lebst du noch? Ein Deutscher im Gulag in 1993, but has been expanded and somewhat revised in the translation. Each account is still unique and always a tribute to its author, whose story deserves to be told to others.

George's journey of imprisonment began with his first arrest at the age of 16 in Kondratjevka, Ukraine, in March, 1930 (he is still living, now age 90). A brief period of freedom, after his escape, was followed with nearly twenty years of intermittent incarceration in labour camps, ultimately also including Kolyma. After 1953, at which time he was reunited with his family, he was transferred to parts beyond the Urals where he spent time in prisons in Magadan, Nakhodka, Vladivostok, Sverdlovsk and other sites. After his release he was able to pursue his profession (technical draftsman) from 1961 until his retirement ten years later and emigration to Germany in 1974. The details of his experiences during literally decades in prison cannot be retold here. They comprise the entire volume, and make it readily understandable that a KGB officer should ask him in astonishment many years later: "What? You are still alive?" A great many of George's fellow prisoners of those years, of course, were not.

The book has a number of sketches done by the author and reads easily. A number of maps and several charts of prison camp layouts, as well as family photos, are also included. The Germans from Russia Heritage Society in North Dakota has done well to offer this new edition to the public.

Aber wo sollen wir hin is a collection of letters and poems that were actually written in prison and have survived in the files of addressees and elsewhere. The letters were written in the period 1930 to 1970. About two dozen authors are listed in the Table of Contents. Among the writers are Elisabeth Reimer Teichroeb, Anna Rempel Toews, Frieda Mathies Hamm, Elizabeth Martens Plett (whose letter to her daughter included the line which became the title of the book) and Susanne Tiessen. There are also letters from well-known Aeltesters such as Jacob Rempel, Johann Toews and Alexander Ediger, as well as leading ministers (perhaps also elders) from the Karaganda Mennonite Brethren congregation, Heinrich Woelk, Henrich Klassen and David Klassen. The letters naturally contain very personal and deeply emotional parts since they were written for much-loved and greatly missed family members and friends. As testimonials to intense struggle and yearning, one can discern more clearly the feelings of intense suffering and pain, but also the hope and faith which helped many of the authors of the letters to survive their ordeal and join Mennonite communities again.

A glossary explaining Low German and Russian expressions completes the book. There also are some notes, maps and a list of prison locations, which give one a better picture of the gulag structure as a whole. Some sketches of prison quarters as well as photos of persons and prison documents were added.

This is also a well-edited volume, with very readable print which as in the case of the memoirs, will make it user-friendly for older readers. Both of these works help to insure that the difficult experiences of many will not be forgotten. As such they can inspire readers who encounter hard and seemingly insurmountable experiences today.

Much credit goes to the Society for the Study and Preservation of the Russian Mennonite Cultural Legacy, headed by Dr. Gerhard Hildebrandt in Goettingen, Germany, for publishing this letter anthology. Mennonite bookstores may not carry these books regularly, so it behooves our libraries to secure them for their reading public.

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