Presentation by Dr. Elvire Necker Eberhardt, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia Convention Calgary, Alberta, July 26, 1995
Transcription by Amanda Swensen
Edited by Linda Haag
She was born in Sofiewka, Bessarabia, Moldova, on August the 13`", 1936. That was a good year by the way. There were several of us born at that time. The different stages of her life: She was among those who in 1940 experience the exchange of the settlers to Poland. They took them out of the other eastern regions and moved them a little closer to Germany. In 1945 to 1947 she had an involuntary stay in Denmark for 2 years. Then from '47 to '60 she lived in Germany, and since 1960 she has been living in Canada, Alberta, to be specific. For her academic achievements: elementary teaching degree in Germany. Then she went to the University of Albert and received her Master's in Education and her Ph.D. She also went to Strasbourg, France, and got a diploma in French Studies from the Strasbourg University. The topic of her dissertation was "The Bessarabian German Dialect of Medicine Hat, Alberta", a linguistic analysis. So that is a little it of a tongue twister there, linguistic, linguistic.
Besides traveling to Europe, including Bessarabia, she has been teaching in elementary schools in Germany and at universities and colleges in Quebec and Alberta. Presently she is retired with her husband, Albert Necker. I guess she spends her time in Medicine Hat and Calgary. In the winter she goes to the warmer climates in Medicine Hat.
In November she finished her book on the history of Sofiewka, Bessarabia, that's her native village. It is titled "Sofiewka in Bessarabien 1892 1992", which you can order from her. She also will have it in English, which is going to be ready in August, I believe. Anybody who is interested in buying that book can put his name and address down. She'll let you know when it comes on the market. Actually I believe she'll give you her address. She brings us the history and wonderings of the Germans from Bessarabia to Germany. So it is to be from her beginnings in Bessarabia to Poland then to Germany, and then to our days here. Well, here's Elvire.
The History and Wanderings of the Bessarabian Germans
Thank you. Since I am a Bessarabian German and he has told you about my life, you already know everything, almost. I feel a little shaken as I see people here like Mr. Flegel and Michael who are really experts of my topic. So I welcome corrections at the end of my talk but I'll tell you what I have prepared. If you cannot hear me, maybe you would like to come more towards the front.
To start my talk I would like you to see a few slides, so that you know the area of the world I'm talking about, and more of what it looks like. I'll also give you the history of the people, the German people how lived there.
You have a map here of Europe, and of Bessarabia. I can't reach it, but if you see the Russian Empire there or the Soviet Union, and Romania; you see the Carpathian Mountains there between Romania and Russia. Bessarabia has changed hands between these 2 all the time, as I will tell you shortly.
The actual area of Bessarabia was between the rivers Prut and Dnjestr. The Dnjestr empties into the Danube and then into the Black Sea. Just to orient yourself.
Would you like to point out so that they can see exactly where it is?
Here you can see the pink area, which is Romania and the green area, which is Russia. Right there at the border, north of the Black Sea, you have. Bessarabia. Here you see it a little better, the area that the arrow points to, this is the area I am talking about and also of its history, that is Bessarabia.
I have little maps that show the wanderings from Germany. That would be going down the Danube, or over land over Poland from other groups. Here I have just the map of Bessarabia. You cannot see much, except maybe these black dots, which represent settlements. If you see in the middle there a concentration of black dots, that is the first area that they settled on. They got all this land to settle like an island. That was just for the Germans and they were surrounded by other nationalities. Later on they moved out from there and settled amongst the other nationalities.
Now like I said, it is between the 2 rivers, here is the Dnjestr River and then the prut River is the other one. The landscape looks something like our prairies in Canada or the United States. Here this slice was taken in 1986. You can see the landscape is very much like our prairie. They are known for, or were known for growing wine. They would have vineyards, you used to see these a lot, or corn. And again you can see the flat land like our prairies.
This happens to be a Sycamore tree, in German "Maulbeerbaurn". It had a little fruit, but the Maulbeeren besides the grapes were very important in their diet. A very rare commodity even today is actually water. Nowadays they have irrigation, but these wells, you still see them all over, were a very important part in their life. Talking about Bessarabian Germans you must know they lived in villages, and you can still see a lot of them. Once you saw one, you know how they look because they all look very much alike. They were founded along a street, so they're usually a long kind of a village. The houses faced the street with their gables. Beside the house you have a court then the stables and the barns. Here you have another house with a gable. I'm showing you pictures from different villages but they all look the same.
Some of the houses were rather elaborate, like this one. It was nice. But they also have different ones, like this one here, and again the gable faces the street. Like here toward the street there are two windows and the gables. They all look the same. You always can recognize a German village. You will always know them. I just show you a group of children, because the people are the most important part of this country. These triangles here are mud bricks which was their building material. I took this picture in 1986. They are still used nowadays.
You will see an entrance sign at most of the villages. Of course they are now in the Cyrillic alphabet. Some of the villages have the same name as before. Some have changed their name. This happens to be Sofiewka where I was born.
The most important part of this group of people was their religious life, so every village, I think anyway, had either a prayer chapel or a church. This happened to be a prayer chapel, nowadays it looks like that. Here is a little different view. Today it is a school. This is how a school in Moldova looks nowadays. At one time it had a steeple. In this particular village we have a very nice church. It happens to be Albota. Here is a very good view of it. And here again I have a few children of today in Moldova in 1986.
I want to address my talk to people who are interested in their ancestry, or to people who are interested in traveling to Bessarabia. So you have to forgive me if I don't satisfy everybody but I thought that was the greatest group I could address.
I have to start with the early 1800's and life in Germany. In the 1800's life in Germany was very different from what you might encounter nowadays if you go there. Germany for one thing did not exist yet; it consisted of many different independent little states. There was no welfare there; if you were poor, you could not expect any help from the state, nor did you get a pension when you were old. You were in the middle of war, political upheaval, famine, and if you believed differently than the state church, and you wanted to follow your beliefs, you couldn't do that. It was not at all the way it is nowadays. And on top of it all in the beginning of the l800's was the time of the Napoleonic wars. For poor people, and most of our forefathers were poor, it was a very hard life in Germany. So when they heard of an offer from the Czar in Russia they really perked up their ears, because that was really something.
The Czar at the time was Alexander I. In 1812 he brought out an offer to immigrants who wanted to come to Russia. The offer he gave was for land (I am just naming the main ones), for religious freedom. They could hold their own divine services. They could use German in their schools and meetings, and they did not have to go and do military duties. When the people in Germany heard this, they saw it really as a God sent. Also I have to tell you that at this time, in the early 1800's some Germans had already gone to Poland to find better conditions. But because of the Napoleonic armies going on into Poland and Russia, they had been swept over by these armies. They also had to settle in the rough parts of Poland. These people then too, when they heard the offer of Alexander I, they took advantage of it to come to Bessarabia.
Now why did the Czar offer these points? He had acquired this land that I showed you earlier on the map from the Turkish Empire. The Turks who had lived there moved away because now it belonged to Russia, and so Alexander I had this empty land. His grandmother, who was Catherine the Great, had already invited German people to Russia. You who are of Mennonite background know about this. So now her grandson, Alexander I, knew this was a good way to settle the land. He thought he should really get German settlers into this territory and he would do very well with that. He also had a German mother, she was a princess of Wuerttemberg, and her brother, Alexander's uncle, ruled in Stuttgart, so he could tell his uncle, I need settlers. His wife was a princess of Baden, which is in the Black Forest, so he really had German connections. So this offer was made known in Germany, and the people really tried to take advantage of it.
I want to stress that they came to Russia be invitation. Because of what happened to the Jews and what Germany conquered in the last war, Germans are thought of as a war loving kind of people, well, you know our history. But this time they were invited to come to Russia. They came by invitation. So between 1814 and 1842, in almost 30 years, 9,000 Germans took advantage of this, came to Russia and founded in Bessarabia 25 what they called "Mutterkolonien", i.e. original settlements. Old villages like Tarutino, Teplitz, Alt Elft, Arzis or Kulm you might have heard these names, 25 of them. And they were settled on one piece of land that Alexander I gave them, just to them. So they lived like on an island in the sea of other nationalities. This was very good for them because this way, they lived like in their own country, for a while anyway. They had their own German environment, really. They had their German services, their German schools; everything inside this really was German. Their settlements were German. I am saying this because when you are interested in genealogy, your records will most likely be in German. This is the reason, they lived in German settlements. And in the beginning they had all these German neighbors.
The roads they came were not easy. If they came over land, usually they came by oxen, or horse or any kind of vehicle, or just on foot. It often took a whole year to come from Germany to Bessarabia. If they came on the Danube, it took 3 months to get there. We know of a group who started out with 1,500 but only 800 arrived. So almost half died, it was very hard in those days, you have to believe that.
When they came there, they were offered a section of land, no a 1 /4 section of land, I am sorry. But the rest of the promises, like financial assistance, they were supposed to get a little house, a "Kronshaeuschen" as it was called because the Imperial Crown had offered it, these things were very slow in coming. Often they did not get these at all. Then the climate was so different. Continental Russian climate is something like Canadian climate in the 60's when we first came. Now it is not like it used to be. It has warmed up, and I don't believe Canada is so cold anymore.
It was very hard in the beginning but they had each other, they had their faith, and it was better than in Germany. Slowly they could work themselves up a livelihood. They had their houses. The original land was virgin land, but they farmed it well and they had an income. They grew in numbers, of course, and soon this land that they had received originally was not enough, and they had to expand from there. So they formed new villages but now amongst other nationalities. But they were very keen on keeping their settlements pure German. Nowadays we may think that is racist but they had their reasons for that and these are the reasons for you when you do research that the papers are in German. Later on the papers had to be in Russian but they tried to keep their settlements pure German. Even in the newer villages when they had to move out from the old ones because there was not enough land.
I want to say that all the villages, at first there were these 25 and then more and more were formed so in 1940 when we had to leave Bessarabia there were 150 German settlements. The settlements were grouped into parochial districts. A parochial district had 1 pastor and often he would keep the records. If you are interested in a certain village, you also should know what parochial district it belonged to and in which village of it the pastor was living. You may find material there. Sometimes parochial districts changed for a village. I know my own village during the time of its existence belonged to 3 different parochial districts. So you have to find out the different ones, and you might get more material when you know where your village belonged to.
Life could have been very good for these Bessarabian Germans in Russia, if it had not been for 2 things. One thing, I have mentioned already and that was that when they grew in numbers there was not enough land. So they founded other villages but again there was just so much land and eventually there was not enough. Now a lot of them took advantage to emigrate and then immigrate to other countries. North Dakota was one, Brazil was another. In the beginning they tried to move into neighboring countries. So they moved into Dobrudja or they went to the Caucasus, where ever there was land. A lot went to "Amerika" like they called Canada too and of course there was land. So one reason of their hardship was the shortage of land, but another reason was that between 1870 and 1875 you had the rise of "Russian Slavic Nationalism". That meant that everything that was not Russian was slowly either persecuted or at least not very well tolerated.
The Germans were one of the groups they could really target. What it meant was that slowly their privileges with the German services and German schools were taken away. One other thing that I may have forgotten to mention was that compulsory military service was introduced for every male Russian citizen. The Germans had to become Russian soldiers too, or soldiers in the Russian army. That doesn't sound so hard in our days but in Russia it meant 7 years of military training and often the barracks were so far away that they never could come home all the 7 years. Furlough practically was nonexistent. So it was very hard for families, on the farm to do without a male hand, and also of course to be without a father. Therefore many of them, once it was really enforced went away. And when you look at the lists of immigrants to Canada at the time, you notice a lot of young men who wanted to escape this hardship. Often they came alone; the rest of the family stayed in Russia. They didn't come to Germany, very rarely anyway, because Germany didn't have anything to offer them.
So this went on from the 1870's. In the late 1800's and early 1900's many tried to escape military service. They tried to find a livelihood, i.e. land somewhere else. Then shortly before WWI they had Czar Nicolas II at the time, the last czar, with a German wife. You would think people had a little compassion with the Germans. But they didn't and certainly she didn't. They made a law where all German property was to be confiscated and all Germans were to be deported to Siberia. I know in my own village, only 15 km away was the next train station. They already had trains there, and they were for the Germans who were to leave and be taken to Siberia.
I want to testify to the grace of God because you cannot explain
that any other way. In 1916/7 there was such a sever winter like
no one had ever experienced before. Snow was as high as up to the
roofs of the houses. The trains were just covered with snow, and
there was no way they could move. So this harsh winter of 1916/7
really was the reason they didn't get deported to Siberia.
Then in March of 1917 started the beginning of the Russian Revolution, in October then came the rest. Russia was in such turmoil that there was no way they were interested in deporting people. Besides in this turmoil, Romania came in which was the neighboring country to the west, and annexed Bessarabia. So from 1918 on Bessarabia was part of Romania.
I don't know about the United States but here in Canada I often hear people say, our forefathers came from Romania and another group says, my forefathers came from Russia. But if you track down their places a little more, then you really have the same place. The reason is, because from 1918 on, Bessarabia belonged to Romania and before it was part of Russia.
The Romanians wanted to remain friends with the Germans and at first they revoked all laws that would have taken away the land from the Germans. They tried to give back their German services and schools, a very nice move. But soon they introduced their own rules which were you could not have more than 100 hectars of land, Romanian was to be the language everywhere. So in the end there were only 3 villages that had German schools. And they only had them because they supported the schools themselves. They didn't get a penny from the state. One of these villages was my village. But now because the Bessarabian Germans were outside of Russia and the other Germans in Russia, they had to develop their own identity. And so nowadays in Germany, the Bessarabian Germans think they are Bessarabian Germans, nothing else, but here in North America you think Bessarabian Germans are Russian Germans. In Germany they have their own museum, their very own organizations and then there is another organization apart from them, the Russian Germans.
During the Romanian time too they developed their own economic organization. The church was connected with the one in Transylvania, the Lutheran church anyway. Now the church head quarters were in Sibiu formerly called Hermannstadt. There are documents there also. Anyway they developed their own way and did pretty well economically at the time.
Again everything could have been very well for them if it hadn't been for the war. In 1939 WWII started. In the beginning Hitler and Stalin were still friends. This was a blessing for the Bessarabian Germans. Hitler gave in to Stalin though. Stalin said: If I attack Poland from the east, will you let me do that? Then if Hitler would attack Poland from the west, he would be allowed to do that and you can have all the Germans in Bessarabia and other parts of Eastern Europe if I (Stalin) annex Bessarabia. In 1940 this agreement was made between Hitler and Stalin, Stalin would invade Bessarabia and the Germans there would be allowed to leave.
Before the Bessarabian Germans could get out of Bessarabia though, they had to prove that they were pure German. Again this is interesting for you who are interested in genealogy. I have seen many people who are not so good in keeping track of documents or making records, but at this time you had to. You had to prove 4 generations back that you were not Jewish. So when in June of 1940 the Russians occupied Bessarabia and in October the Germans were supposed to leave for Germany a frantic work started to get documents. You had to prove that your grandmother or whoever was all German. People were trying to get birth certificates, baptismal certificates. Everybody had to make an "Ahnenpass" which is a family tree, 4 generations back. This "Ahnenpass" everybody had to carry on him to Germany but other written material had to stay back. It was not to come out of the country, not in 1940 anyway, not officially. Secretly some documents were brought out, but most stayed there.
So in all those 150 German villages in 1940 records were kept of their families. These records were in German, often by the pastor or the teacher, and these several generations back. Now it is important too, that in 1920 Russia had changed their calendar, and the Germans in Bessarabia lived in Romania since 1918 anyway, where they had the new calendar. Between the old and the new calendar there is a difference of 1 I days. So if you are looking up a person born before 1920 there may be different dates depending what calendar it refers to. Don't worry about that, it might still be the same person. Sometimes they adjusted a person's dates in 1940 when they recorded the 4 generations. Sometimes they let it be and so you get this discrepancy. But don't worry about it if it is just those 11 days.
O.K. Then as I said there still was the official agreement between the Nazi German state and the Soviet Union. It was all well organized that the Germans could leave Bessarabia; the women left first then the men. There were trains there, then we came to camps in Germany. It was all organized; there were beds, and kitchens and all of that. About 93 000 came out, so there were 10 times as many that came out as had entered Bessarabia in the early 1800's. This moving was called "Umsiedlung". Like I said, this happened in 1940. And most documents, like church books, village records, had to stay behind. But shortly after Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union became enemies. Germany overran Poland and went farther even into Russia. During this time Bessarabia came within German territory.
During this time one man was authorized by the Bessarabian Germans to try and get as many papers out of Bessarabia as possible, those ones which had been left there in 1940. This man's name was Artur Kraenbring. He worked there from 1942 to 1944, and he did get a lot of documents out, but some areas he did not reach. He mainly worked on those oldest settlements which were all together in one area. The other settlements which were farther out, he just did not get to. Now what happened to those papers he did get out? They were collected in a place in Berlin or Potsdam which was called "Reichssippenamt". From there when the Russian army slowly moved toward Germany, and as you know German cities were bombed and rail lines were bombed so it took a long time to get to Berlin. So they thought it was better to move them to Poland which at this time was still in German hands. And the Bessarabian Germans had been resettled in Poland too as this was then German territory. In that time it was either "Warthegau" (Warthe is a river there) or "Westpreussen" that is West Prussia, in that area the Bessarabian Germans were settled. So because of the danger of the bombs in Berlin, they said, let's move out our records to "Bromberg'. It is now called "Bydgoshtsh". Mr. Kraenbring who was in charge of bringing these documents out also had his office in Bromberg.
Everything could have been fine but the war front came closer to Poland and then eventually to Germany. When this area was close to being overrun by the war front, they did not let anybody flee until the last minute. In great haste they had to flee. Now you can imagine, if you were in this situation, nobody would think of papers. You think of your clothes, because in January 1945 it was very, very cold. You think of food, and very few people thought of their papers and certainly not of the papers in Mr. Kraenbring's office. Some of them eventually did get back to Berlin in 1965 and were moved to Leipzig. You have the Genealogical Institute there in Leipzig. Now this happened to be in East Germany and it was hard to get to them. If you had saved your "Ahnenpass", you had your own family tree 4 generations back. But the official papers which were in Leipzig were hard to look at. I want to illustrate that the Germans had to leave Poland in great haste with 2 stories.
One story I have in my book, and you can read it there. This is the story of a family who was able to get a place on a boat when they fled. They took a boat in Gdansk and ended up in Denmark. It was a boat supposedly for 4,000 people, but at this time because they were so short of boats, they put 6,000 wounded soldiers on and in addition 5,000 civilians, refugees as they were called. It was so crowded that person was sitting next to another person to accommodate everybody. If you left your seat, you didn't have a chance to get back because people wanted to stretch out a little bit and filled in on your place. That wasn't the worst yet, but on the way to Denmark they were attacked by bombs and she describes this situation in the book. They survived that, women and children, and then there on the Baltic Sea they came on mines. You have to read that, it's an incredible story.
Another illustration I would like to make with a story I just read in the Bessarabian German yearbook of 1995. Every year they bring out a yearbook which is called "Bessarabischer Heimatkalender". There is a story of what happened to the president of the "Landsmannschaft" of the Bessarabian Germans in Germany, Edwin Kelm. He was amongst those trying to flee in January of 1945, and like I said you could not do it till the last minute. So that one morning in January 1945 somebody on their farm yelled: "Save yourselves, the Russians are coming." So they quickly threw something on a wagon and fled in great haste. Of course the streets were full with refugees, soldiers, and tanks. They tried to flee going west, away from the Russians, of course. But they found themselves in the middle of a group of tanks, and so to avoid them they went to the side into a little forested area. Then they saw in the distance people in uniform. It looked like German uniforms. So they thought, well, these are German soldiers, we'll go there and ask for help. As they got there, the family and some others, they approached this group of supposedly German soldiers. The soldiers called to them: "Come, we are Germans too." And as they came closer, they shot every one coming close. It turned out they were Polish underground workers and had only dressed as German soldiers. Well, here was this family seeing the dad shot right in front of their eyes, and so dispersed in all directions. Edwin Kelm who was 14 years old had just seen his father shot, he lost track of his mother, his brother and his sister, and just tried to get away from this scene. When he was out of the immediate danger, he was all alone, he had lost all of his family. So he tried to go on foot, at night, and don't forget this was January 1945, very cold, snow and ice everywhere. It took him 3 months to get out of Poland into what was then East Germany, to cross the Oder River. It took another 2 months for him to find his mother and the rest of his family in what then became West Germany. This is just a little illustration of what happened at this time. So you understand that documents were the last thing that people had on their minds. If you don't find what you are looking for, have compassion. Just ask them what happened. Because people say, why didn't they keep records.
When people fled, a lot of them did make it into either East Germany or West Germany, to settle there. But some didn't and they were deported back to Russia for slave labor if they were alive at all. But the group in West Germany, which was the largest group, formed organizations which might be helpful to you to approach. For one thing, the Bessarabian Germans organized themselves into something called "Landsmannschafl", and right now the president of the "Landsmannschaft" is Edwin Kelm who had this experience when he fled with his family. They have a museum in Stuttgart and the museum has all kinds of rooms where you can find a lot of material. They have a "Hilfkomittee" which is an organization which in the beginning of 1945 tried to help a lot of people. They told me that Americans helped a lot of German people, Bessarabian Germans, through this organization the "Hilfskomittee". They have a religious organization called "Gemeinschaft Nord Sued" which often has retreats. They have 2 homes, one in North Germany, one in Schorndorf close to Stuttgart. And if you want to, you can go to their retreats. The museum is very good to look at for their archive and the material they have. They have a nursing home in Backnang which is between Stuttgart and Schwaebisch Hall, if you know your area. And all these places, the nursing home, the Hilfskomittee in Hannover, the "Heimathaus" in Stuttgart where the museum and the Landsmannschaft is, they have tried to collect material from people who have something. What they have there, they collected and accumulated. They tried to organize it, it is not that well organized yet but if you are interested in their material you'll find something there. What ended up in East Germany, some of it you may find in Leipzig, in the place that is very useful for genealogical work. Now after the unification you'll have no problem to get there. I have to relate to you something here, because I have a little time, about what happened to me before the German unification. I was working on my book, and I knew they had something in Leipzig of my village which is called "Familienbuch", a register of different families of my village of the time of 1940. I knew one of the volumes had somehow survived and was kept in the Genealogical Institute in Leipzig. When I wrote to them, they told me, you cannot get it and we will not give any information out. Then I wrote, can I look at it if I come there. They told me, no, this is only for citizens of East Germany. Well, this was now May of 1989, after Glasnost and Perestroika, and I thought .I'll try anyway. And would you know, in the train I met a lady from Leipzig. I told her my story. So she said, you know I'll pretend I want this book for me. So we went to the Genealogical Institute together. First thing they asked,: "Are you all citizens of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik" as East Germany was called in German? Well, I kept very quiet, the lady said: "They are my friends." Then she asked for the book, they showed it to us. I saw it, and it was the original document. It was what I wanted. Then the lady asked if she could have a copy of the 8 or 9 pages, that this book only had. It is only the second volume of the register of my village. The first is lost. Could we get copies of these pages and could we take them along. Yes, we could have it but that takes 3 weeks to get that done. So my lady friend gave her address, and they sent it to her. And I got them from her. So sometimes you are lucky that way. But this was then. They are very different now, and you can get material from there now.
Another experience I had in Sibiu, formerly Hermannschadt in Romania. There is a lady in Germany, she is working on her doctorate degree on the Churches of the Bessarabian Germans. She knew that there was a lot of material in Hermannstadt which is now Sibiu. She got into Romania already at the time when Ceaucescu was still alive and it was very dangerous for her to get into Romania. Since then Romania is still not as open as East Germany. Now of course there is no East Germany. She nonetheless succeeded in getting out material and some of it was very helpful for my area which I was interested in. So there you can find material also.
I don't know what else I should touch on. If you have questions, maybe I could answer them. But I would like to say to people who are interested in taking a trip to Bessarabia. Bessarabia is only an area. Politically the southern part is owned by the Ukraine, the rest of it is now, since 1992, an independent country, the country of Moldova. Up to 1992 it was the "Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic". Moldova has its own money, the name is "leu", the same name as Romanian money. But the southern part nowadays belongs to the Ukraine. So if you want to go to Bessarabia, you need 2 visas. Another thing is, your village may have changed its name. Over the years I have tried to collect the new names. I have copies here of the list if anybody is interested. So Katzbach is now Lushanka, Borodino is still Borodino and so on. Some of them have changed. I know of one person who went to Bessarabia, 2 or 3 years ago, he tried to find Alexanderfeld. Well, nobody knew about Alexanderfeld, so you have to know the name nowadays.
If anybody is interested, I have a list of different places where you might find material and also a list of the new names of the villages.