Book review by Beverly H. Wigley, Fargo, North Dakota
Nitschke, Shirley Wegener. HEIMAT: Steppes of Russia. Jamestown, North Dakota: HEIMAT, 2001.
"HEIMAT: Steppes of Russia" is a work of historical fiction by first time author Shirley Wegner Nitschke that personalizes the poignant story of the Germans from Russia through the precocious Helga Baden. The tale begins in the time before Germany was transformed from a collection of small states into a unified empire. The Badens live in a small village outside Munich. In October 1824, Helga becomes the sixth child born to Johannes and Martha Baden. Their family of two girls and four boys grows to include another daughter, Gretchen, two years younger than Helga and blind from birth. Tragically, when Helga is only five years old, her mother dies. The loss takes a heavy toll on Helga's father. Unable to cope, he sends Gretchen and Helga to live with their grandparents and the older children to live with their aunt and uncle. For almost three years, Helga's father travels throughout central Europe to pursue the meaning of his life and understand himself as a parent, all the while neither contacting nor writing his children. Suddenly, one day, Helga receives a letter from him implying he wants to leave Germany and take his children with him. There is talk of life in Russia offering a chance to establish a home without the limitations, restrictions, taxes and military service the German government was imposing. With bittersweet memories and trepidation for the future, Helga and Gretchen begin an odyssey to Russia with their father. As women they must decide for themselves either to stay in that land where life is increasingly frightening or, once again, become immigrants in search of peace and prosperity.
As a romance novel, this book creates a compelling story as Helga's adventurous life unfolds with all its joy and sorrow. It is difficult to remember Helga's young age in part one and the beginning of part two since her thoughts, dialogue, and confrontations are well beyond her years. Helga is quite a likable, even admirable young woman, until her fierce nationalism begins to surface. She makes no attempt to conceal her enmity of most Russians, peasants in particular. While she touts German cleanliness, orderliness and piety, shortly after marrying her German husband, Helga is pleasurably coming to terms with her sexuality with a handsome, forbidden Russian.
As historical fiction, HEIMAT's authenticity suffers from the use of modern expressions such as movers and shakers, clue me into, sounds like a plan, and big time, among many others. Throughout the work, stricter attention should have been paid to correct spelling and translations, avoiding contradictions and proper geography. The author sacrifices balance and historical accuracy in a passionate effort to convey the saga. Helga was born in 1824; according to the book, "Homeland Book of the Bessarabian Germans" by Albert Kern, her village of Alt Posttal, founded in 1823, would have been in existence when she arrived. Further, the founding colonists of Alt Posttal were not lied to and tricked by the Russian Crown. It was not until 1871, when Czar Alexander II revoked the preferential rights and privileges promised them, that the Germans were reduced to the level of Russian peasants and came under the same laws and obligations.
The against-all-odds survival story of the Germans from Russia is truly remarkable and heart wrenching without added dramatization or fabrication. An ambitious effort for a new author; however, the scope and depth of the material may have been better suited to a trilogy.