A Soviet Genocide With Ties to the Dakotas
Tobin, Paulette. "A Soviet Genocide With Ties to the Dakotas." Grand Forks Herald, 20 October 2006, C-1 & C-3.
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.
To tell the story of Stalin's genocide against millions of Ukrainians and the Germans from Russia who were their neighbors 70 years ago, Ron Vossler went to what some might consider an unusual source: The small-town German-language newspapers once published in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Vossler, a lecturer in the English department at UND and the writer and narrator of the 30-minute documentary We'll Meet Again in Heaven, has spent 10 years researching what he calls a forgotten genocide against the ethnic Germans in Russia and the Ukrainian peasants.
In addition to trips to Moldavia and the Ukraine and interviews with survivors, Vossler returned to his hometown of Wishek, N.D., and researched a half-dozen area newspapers, including the Wisheker Nachrichten (Wishek, North Dakota) and the Eureka Rundschau (Eureka, South Dakota).
Between 1928 and 1938, these newspapers often published letters from ethnic Germans still living in the Ukraine, written to their German relatives who had migrated to communities such as Roscoe and Eureka, S.D., and Bismarck, Wishek, Linton and Strasburg, N.D.
Families torn apart
Those wrenching letters describe firsthand the conditions under Stalin that led to death by starvation, forced labor and execution. Families were torn apart as prosperous farmers were forced into collectivism and threatened with death if they didn't make grain quotas. In the end, their grain was taken to pay for the Soviet Union's industrialization while they died of hunger anyway.
The Germans in Russia wanted the world to know what was happening to them, and they begged their relatives to send them money and food. Despite the horror of it - or perhaps because of the horror - the story of the genocide wasn't usually spoken of to subsequent generations in America.
Our grandparents knew all of this, but they didn't pass it on, Vossler said.
The sorrow letters, as they're sometimes called, included some that were written by Vossler's relatives and others that never were published. The history uncovered in the letters and other research is almost unbearable. People kill themselves. Forced into cattle cars for almost certain death in Siberia, parents tear their hair from their heads as their children are taken from them. At night, secret police gather victims. In the village of Gluckstahl, ethnic Germans sneak into the ruined church at night to pray for death.
In one letter, a survivor described 40 people traveling for a week packed into a cattle car, then being unloaded into the snow of Siberia.
If no help comes, we are a lost people forgotten by all but God, the person wrote.
One woman interviewed for the documentary remembered when her father and other men in her village were marched away. She was a little girl then, and her mother packed a small wooden suitcase with a few clothes and some food and told her to take it to her father. After she gave it to him, she ran alongside him for a while, until he turned to her and said, You'd better go home now.
Full of controversy
The genocide is not without controversy; it even involves a campaign to pull the Pulitzer Prize from Walter Duranty, a New York Times correspondent in Moscow who won the prize in 1932 for stories that were said to show a profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia.
In 1932, according to a 2003 National Review Online article by Andrew Stuttaford, Duranty was telling his readers that there had been serious food shortages in the Ukraine, but no deaths from starvation, merely widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition. Today, some historians consider the 1932-1933 Ukranian famine, which killed an estimated 6 million to 8 million people - as Kruschev later said, no one was keeping count - the greatest manmade disaster in history.
Vossler believes the story of the genocide has been suppressed by historians and downplayed at universities because it undermines the credibility of the far left. Some academics say the letters are unreliable because they were written under stress, Vossler said.
They totally deny these letters have any credibility, he said. What the letters describe, he said, is the greatest demographic disaster since the Middle Ages.
Stalin in 1928 sent hard-core Communist activists, the shock troops as they were, the true believers, he said. Once they came in (to the Ukraine) and took over, they drained the grain out of all those areas, and they shipped it to the markets of the West.
All this also helps explain why the Germans from Russia communities in the Dakotas were so conservative. There was great fear in those communities that communism would spread and what it would bring. This wasn't some abstract idea to the Germans from Russia in America, he said, who knew they could get their relatives in Russia killed if the letters they wrote to them fell into the wrong hands.
The connections are still so close, Vossler said. My stepdad's uncles are on that list (of those who were executed). Many of those names are familiar. It reads like a Eureka or Wishek phone book.
The Germans in America whose relatives died in Russia under Stalin learned not to trust people who came along, like the Communists did, and said: We're going to make everything better.
Marxism leads to the camps, Vossler said. Academics are too busy splitting hairs to acknowledge all these bodies. But body counts do matter.
Tobin reports on arts and entertainment and coordinates the Teen Page. Reach her at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.