Book review by Samuel D. Sinner, PhD.
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.
With the passage of time, Ronald J. Vossler's "We'll Meet Again In Heaven" will doubtlessly prove to be one of the most significant publications ever released by the North Dakota State University Libraries. From both a scholarly and literary perspective, there is little to criticize in this work which opens with a comprehensive introduction offering general readers the necessary historical background required to fully appreciate the second section consisting of translated letters from the famine years of the 1920s and 1930s in Russia. Vossler's introduction offers an admirable and historically sound interpretation of Soviet history in the 1920s and 1930s. Having worked extensively with primary sources of Soviet archival documentation, I can corroborate Vossler's claim, based on his own research in archival materials, that in the 1920s, the so-called New Economic Period (NEP), life in Russia, at least among Russian Germans, was not as rosy as historians generally portray it.
Though not as catastrophic as the famine years 1921-1924, the years 1925-1927 were also extremely difficult for a large segment of the Russian-German population in Ukraine, as well as in the Volga region. After the so-called "breathing space" of the late NEP period, mass repression and mortality returned to Russia, and especially to the Russian Germans, with the introduction of executions and mass deportations during Stalin's Collectivization drive of 1928-1932 and with the resulting "famine" of 1932-1933 when possibly as many as 350,000 Russian Germans may have perished (see C. Böttger, I. Biereigel, G. Dittrich, W. Förster, A. Hilzheimer, "Lexikon der Russlanddeutschen. Teil I. Zur Geschichte und Kultur." Berlin: Bildungsverein für Volkskunde in Deutschland DIE LINDE e.V., 2000, page 156). The chaos and suffering of the late 1920s and 1930s is amply documented in Vossler's letter translations.
When one reads letter after letter in Vossler's work, one grows psychologically numb by the confrontation with a human tragedy which was obviously intentionally orchestrated by the Soviet regime and its countless local functionaries in the individual villages, including even some Russian Germans who for various reasons turned against their own people, or even against their own families. The letters Vossler assembles from the Ukrainian region corroborate the picture which emerged during this reviewer's own research in thousands of Volga-German letters from the same time, namely that the starvation of Russian Germans in the 1920s and 1930s was by no means the result solely of bad harvests or draught. One is justified here speaking of "enforced" famine. Vossler's evidence also dispels the myth that Party philosophy alone motivated the political and physical repression of Russian Germans. Naked ethnic and racial prejudice also played a role in this respect. The anti-German animus in Russia which erupted openly in World War I was by no means a mere historical memory in the 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union.
Several Soviet historians in the west who after the USSR's dissolution were able to gain access to formerly sealed village letters from the 1920s and 1930s housed in Russian archives, made claims that only "now" were western historians in the position to know what village life was like during Collectivization. Vossler's work dispels this historiographical myth, demonstrating that thousands of such village letters had been sent to and published in the west already in the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately, many western historians before Glasnost were blinded by various political and ideological motivations and often labeled references to mass starvation and executions in Russian-German village letters of the 1920s and 1930s as "exaggerations," if not outright "falsifications." The voices of the victims who wrote the letters in Vossler's work were defamed, denounced, and even ridiculed for decades by not a few western historians. Unfortunately, only after Gorbachev could the historical record be set straight for the doubters. Collections of famine letters such as Vossler's new book will help to preserve memory and protect it from the assault of future critics who may one day attempt to revise the historical record once again.
Vossler has done an excellent job translating 270 pages of German-language letters from Black Sea Russian-German village inhabitants. In these letters, the voices which for decades had been silent on dusty scraps of paper in attics and on aging microfilms in libraries and archives, once again speak to us. The authors of many of these letters no doubt ended their lives as victims of needless starvation, freezing, deportation, separation from families, friends, and an entire way of life. Vossler has performed not only a scholarly service, but a noble deed in giving a renewed voice to so many victims of the Soviet regime.
"We'll Meet Again In Heaven," Ronald Vossler's
true magnum opus, is illustrated by his son Joshua Vossler. His
drawings are as gripping and emotionally powerful as any of the
art work presently being produced by Russian-German artists in Russia
or Germany. The illustrations,
especially those on the front and back covers, remind the reader of a fact which should be kept in mind while reading Ronald Vossler's letter translations, namely that the price paid by the authors of the letters was a precious price indeed - that of life itself.
One can only wait with anticipation for Vossler's future publications mentioned in the book's beginning pages entitled "Why I Never Called Death the River, and Other Voices from the Valley of Hope" and "Kulak." Judging by the achievements of "We'll Meet Again In Heaven," Vossler, one of the most talented Russian-German poets and fiction writers of America, will certainly not disappoint his readers when these upcoming works appear in print.