Escape by Troika: The World War II Chronicle of a Bessarabian German

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Zimmermann, Oskar, as told to Worth Lawrence Nicholl. Escape by Troika: The World War II Chronicle of a Bessarabian German. Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003, 242 pages, Softcover.

Even those who may have read other accounts, such as those by Elvera Reuer and Martha Liebelt, and who think they know what happened when ethnic Germans were pushed westward during World War II, will want to read this one. Oskar Zimmerman was born in Kaschpalat, Bessarabia in 1929. Bessarabia was governed at the time by Rumania, not Russia, so his family farmed normally and went to church during years when the communist takeover disrupted the lives of most Germans in Russia. In 1940, Bessarabia became Russian property and most of the German population (Volksdeutsche), by agreement with Hitler, was evacuated to farms in Poland. This in a generally orderly fashion.

The large extended Zimmerman family lived in relative peace in Poland, but Oskar's father, who had been excused from military service for medical reasons, kept a sharp eye on events and prepared for five years for what he believed would be a rapid retreat to the west. In 1945, with the explosions of the Russian army advance lighting the eastern sky, they took off on the three-month trek that would put them safely in the American zone.

That the Zimmerman family made the journey successfully to Wuerttemberg, the area from which their ancestors had migrated in the early 1800s, was due largely to the prescience of Oskar's father. The family had good wagons and young, reliable horses with special shoes that helped them grip icy roads, excellent military maps, the good judgment not to take along tons of household items that would slow them down, some money, and a sense of purposeful direction that kept them from going where so many others did--to Dresden and other German cities that were Allied bombing targets in the closing days of the war. They were linguistically flexible, able to take on the coloration of whatever loyalty was demanded of them at the moment. Add to that a good measure of luck--finding people that would feed and house them if only minimally--bunking down in the building that was not bombed rather than the one that got hit, finding relatives fortuitously, getting off the road just before the strafing,... He and his family had access to a radio, which they knew fed them propaganda, but they had information that helped them counter the scary rumors that fly in stressful, disorganized situations like this. They understood the competing ideologies of Russia and Germany. They were always aware that injury and death awaited them if they were careless even for a moment. Oskar tells of his eventual immigration to
Canada, then his life in the United States, but not in detail.

Oskar, who was a young teen during the war, kept a diary which helped jog his memory for the writing of this memoir. The brief accounts are dated, which is excellent for following the sequence of events. The choice of Nicholl as a writer was a good one. He gave the memoir a professional shape and added information at the ends of chapters rather than crowding the body
of the chapters with too much detail.

The book has a lot of pictures, black and white, which are often not too clear, but they help to bring the story to life. A picture sequence with captions, at the end of the book, retells the story for readers who may not wish to read the whole book. Fairly large print. Excellent accounting
of the experience with personal feelings and clarifying interpretation.

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