Germans from Russia: 1914 to 1945
Presentation by Robert S. Benson, Sacramento, California
Lodi Chapter, American Historical Society of Germans from
Russia, Lodi, California, no date
Good Afternoon:My name is Bob Benson, and I am a second generation German from Russia. My Grandfather emigrated to the United States in the mid 1880's when he was a teenager. I was fortunate to spend long periods of time with him and knew him for the gentle man he was. While I was too young to fully comprehend some of the stories he related, I understood that he, his parents, brothers and sisters, lived and risked a great deal in adventurous times in Russia and their journey's which eventually brought them to the United States. These experiences are my and my children's' heritage and must not be lost if they are to know who and what they are in context with the historical perspective.
I am a student of history with emphasis in European history, including the classical Greek, Roman, medieval and renaissance periods as well as the modem period. That has been the focus of my academic training and I am a retired word-smith by vocation. Upon retirement I joined AHSGR as it coincided with my interests in history and genealogy. Historical research in the area of ethnic Germans in Russia is outside the mainstream of the usual inquiry. With glasnost and peristroika, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and new political processes in Russia, the Ukraine and other states in the CIS, the records so essential for sound historical research are now becoming available for objective study in this area.
Since attending our AHSGR meetings I have been concerned how you and I can create greater interest with individuals my age and younger. We are the ones who will have to carry the torch for this great heritage. You see, I am a quarter German from Russia, a quarter German from Germany and half, should I say it? English. My wife is at least half German, and a mix of Scots, Irish and a smidgen of some more German make up the other half. With every generation now, our progeny are likely to follow this profile of more and more complex heritage. And that is America, the great melting pot, regardless of divisive separatist influences, operating today.
Our posterity needs to know who and what Germans from Russia are and to know what a German is. When my ancestors migrated to Russia, they didn't come from Germany, there was no German state. They migrated from Hesse and considered themselves to be Hessians. That same nation whose misguided autocrat provided mercenary troops for King George III to fight the rebellion in the American colonies. When you studied US History did the historians call these Hessians, "Germans?" No!But that is not the story I want to pursue today, rather I would like to talk about those ethnic Germans who were left behind, who were not inclined to pull up stakes again and wander elsewhere into an unknown and murky future. Many were our ancestors dear brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and good friends. What happened to them? What was their fate? Now for some of you this recollection may not be pleasant, but we owe those left behind remembrance and we owe our children this memory. For others, you might feel, I know all this stuff, why are we plowing this field again? (note the agricultural metaphor).
I attend Church regularly, and I here the stories Christ told, for example the story of the good Samaritan. It is a compelling story, important because it preaches human kindness and generosity, even among those of other nations, such as Samaria. But I never tire on hearing it because it reminds me of my duty to others as taught by my Savior. The story of the ethnic German experience too bears repeating. Our story is different in the sense that human kindness and generosity are largely absent, with notable exceptions.
Let us set the scene. The Tsar has revoked the exemptions for military service afforded by Catherine and later rulers in Russia. Some Germans willingly accept Russian military service, while others are deeply disturbed and many start the great migration to America, the United States and Canada and South America. This migration will continue until those nations or regions can no longer tolerate immigration for economic and political reasons.
The future for those left behind is fraught with war, civil strife, revolution, famine, repression and forced relocation. Many will experience losses we would find unbearable, loss of property, separation from family, loss of loved ones, extreme deprivation, hunger, injury, illness and for many death.
The period we will be examining begins with World War I and ends
with the conclusion of World War II. This is a period of military
conscription, revolution, confiscation of property, repression,
and war. I have used a variety of sources, and a bibliography is
available for anyone interested.
World War I was fought between August 1914 and November 1918. The principle parties were the Central European powers, Hohenzollern Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs and Turkey against the West, (England, France and the low countries) and Tsarist Russia. The United States entered the war late and lent revived strength to the West. But this is not the theater that interests us today. Our interest is drawn to the Eastern front where Russia faces formidable enemies both external and internal.
The external threat is primarily posed by the armed forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. With the commencement of hostilities, the first of our ethnic German Russian brethren were affected, the Germans who lived in Volhynia. Here begins a story of dislocation that is to be repeated later in much harsher terms. With only a matter of days notice, the Volhynian Germans are ordered to dispose of their property and report to collection point for exile to Siberia. Their arduous journey in the fall of 1915 is told by a member of our Sacramento Valley Chapter where her mother and children traveled by rail in crowded cars intended for cattle and along the way two of six children perished and soon after arriving in Siberia, the youngest, a baby was also lost. This was a reminder to me, as I read this family's story, that what I am relating here are not impersonal facts, but common experiences of real people, like you - like me.
In addition to the external threats, the war allowed the alienated nationalist aspirations of the Poles and Ukrainian peoples to arise as well as alienated Jewish populations. These conditions led to a breakdown in government and law and order behind the Russian lines and were fertile ground for revolutionary and anarchist movements. As conditions worsened the supply of food, clothing, weapons and ammunition for the Russian army was impaired. Morale among the troops, mostly ignorant Russian conscripts with a representative share of ethnic Germans, was low. Revolutionary agitators against the Tsarist regime took advantage of the situation and large defections were the result.
The Russian Army literally fell apart and the Tsar, isolated from
effective levers of power and having lost confidence of his people,
was overthrown and Russia sued for peace. The consequence was that
regions that were not occupied by the Western Powers or their surrogate
Polish and Rumanian allies were left open to bandits, anarchist
and revolutionaries. Now all this is Russian history, but it profoundly
affected our ethnic German brethren remaining in Russia.
At this juncture let us leave the Russians and look at our ethnic German people. It seems fair to say that the migration to Russia was a great economic equalizer. When the colonial Germans arrived, generally there were not great or significant differences in individual wealth. In fact the Russian government periodically loaned the colonists money for implements and the necessities of life. As these colonists adapted to life in Russia they learned that the vagaries of the weather could bring crop failure and famine at any time. Their response was to encourage the retention of repositories of grain for these events. Each family was encouraged to hold grain sufficient at harvest to last through the next two harvest cycles. The villages too maintained granaries, held in common, to offset crop shortages or failure and avert the hunger that would ordinarily follow.
With the passage of, four, five, perhaps six generations, each successive generation was able to pass on the accumulation of wealth, some more, some less. Class distinctions became clearer as differences in wealth became more apparent. Sort of like a horse race, the horses leave the gate together and into the race a couple of horses clearly gain the lead followed by the pack with one or two stragglers bringing up the rear. And with class distinctions follows class envy. Our people included.
In the Volga all of the institutions of government had remained
intact, unlike anarchy that ruled further west, north of the Black
Sea. Soon after the Bolsheviks wrested power, the communists were
established in Saratov and found willing collaborators among the
population in the German villages. One of my favorite reporters
on this period is Conrad Brill who was a native of my ancestral
village of Norka. He is my favorite perhaps because he wrote some
kind remarks about one of my ancestors there. In any event Mr. Brill
observes that we often report the positive about ourselves and overlook
the negative. Let me quote him from his article in the AHSGR Journal
Volume 8, Number 4, Winter of 1985. "From...the articles that
have been printed in earlier issues of the Journal, [I feel that]
many people get the idea that we were a united village of Germans
who were all being repressed by the Russian folk, but that is far
from actuality. There were many townsmen who were pro-Bolshevik
and felt they had been victims of our own prosperous German merchants.
They embraced Bolshevism as much as did the poor Russian peasant."
Early in the revolution, the urban people experienced great deprivation
and famine, however rural Russia under communist or Western control
was relatively unfazed. In the Volga, those grain reserves our people
had grown accustomed to keep were soon emptied, but the people still
had their vegetables and animals to sustain them.
North of the Black Sea, those villages under western control were virtually unaffected. Not so, in the regions where control was contested. There the villages were under siege from organized armies of communists, anarchists or criminals. We would describe their leaders as war lords unfettered by any law or standard of conduct. The war, where the forces have been described as red on the one side and white on the other was more complex. Many of the so-called red forces were in fact lead by anarchist or criminals who gave not a whit for Marx, Engles or for that matter Lenin. Thus the occupation of territory ebbed and flowed and the civil populous, Russian and German suffered. There were heroic defenses and alliances of villages some successful others not. And when they were not successful it was the fortunate village whose population was liquidated, otherwise the most fit were either killed or conscripted, leaving the remaining survivors no food, no shelter, and almost certain death.
Those villages that enjoyed the protection of the West were soon in jeopardy too as first the Germans in 1918, and later the French left Russian soil, leaving the anti revolutionary White army as the only other contending credible force in the field. Villages were faced with siding with one or the other contenders or neutrality. Most elected neutrality, which to the contending forces was interpreted as hostility. "If you aint fur me yous agin me."
Back in the Volga where the communist regime held sway, matters were deteriorating. The communist government decreed that the farmers present their produce for virtually little in exchange. The farmers refused and openly ignored the order. The compensation offered was barely sufficient to pay for the next years seed. In 1934, Edward J. Amend, a native of the village of Walter on the Volga Bergseite recorded his experience and escape from Russia during this period. He described the farmers response as "Let them come and get it." And come they did to every village, large and small. And collect it they did, at gun point, all the grain they could find, paying nothing for it. Bereft of grain, with only their vegetables and animals to eat and share with the teeming masses from the cities, the forthcoming famine was certain. The confiscation of grain coincided with the confiscation of arms in the villages along the Volga as well as personal property and land.
Conrad Brill relates how the farmers in Norka hid their reserves
of grain from the Bolsheviks. His brother in law was caught hoarding
grain when it was wetted from melted ice or snow in a bin under
a hay stack and ignited from spontaneous combustion. The Bolshevik
cavalry just happened to be in the area and went to investigate
the smoke. All of his grain they could find including flour and
bread dough ready for baking was confiscated as well as his farm
machinery. He was arrested and spent
time in jail. Others burned their grain as fuel or threw it away rather than give it over to the new regime.
One rich farmer took another tack and when the Bolsheviks rode up and asked the farmer what he owned and needed answered "I own all you see here, and it is all at your disposal." They took what they needed, gave him a voucher and left telling him they might be back for more.
The communists' distinction between proletariat and bourgeois broke down in the agricultural con-text. There were large, medium and small farms as well as and landless peasants. In 1920, Lenin created Committees of Landless Peasants in every village including the Volga and Black Sea regions to dispossess the owners of private land. These committees divided the population into three classes, large land owners, small land owners and landless peasants. The large landowners (large being an undefined one size fits whomever the committee designated as large) were called Kulaks, Russian for fist. These Kulaks had on the whole opposed the revolution and it was pay back time for the communists and their sycophants. Kulaks were branded enemies of the people, exploiters of the poor, and counter-revolutionaries. They were the subject of total dispossession. Eventually the Kulaks who survived, German and Russian, were deported to labor camps in Siberia.
The immediate cause of the famine of 1921-1922 was drought. But
as we have seen the Germans in Russia had learned the rude lesson
of weather in this region and put away reserves for such events
in the past. Thus the famine in reality was the result of civil
disorder, war and an inept policy of confiscation, expropriation
and dispossession promulgated by Lenin, leaving the Germans bereft
of the means or inclination to bring crops into production. Well
after the die was cast, Lenin realized he was leading his nation
to ruin, and a New Economic Policy (NEP) was placed in force reversing
the most onerous sanctions on the Kulaks and middle class farmers.
It was too little to late to avert the famine that followed that
News of the famine and hardship reached America, and here we must
give credit where it is due. Herbert Hoover has been reviled because
he didn't take sufficient action to alleviate conditions during
the great depression here, as President. However, I chose to acknowledge
his leadership and organizational skill as the head of the American
Relief Administration. Many tens of thousands of ethnic Germans
in the Volga and Black Sea regions were saved by the intervention
of the American Relief Ad-ministration. We must also acknowledge
the intervention by the Volga Relief Society.
Meanwhile many ethnic Germans starved and were lost as were many Russian peasants. Edward J. Amend traveled across Russia and witnessed displaced starving and homeless people crowded into the railway stations until every square inch was occupied and overflowing with humanity. His description of the boxcars coincides with the boxcars depicted in the motion picture Dr. Zhivago. He observed that the people were wandering from place to place, without apparent purpose and without hope for relief. Mr. Amend's carefully planned escape to Austria took advantage of the repatriation of prisoners of war prompted by the famine. He posed as an Austrian soldier, who he had known some few years earlier, to get to the west.
Conrad Brill also escaped at this time. His story is not as suspenseful but far more tragic. In his es-cape, a child was lost due to exposure to the cold, his wife died in Poland of influenza and a black pox leaving him with two sons. Before leaving for America, Mr. Brill married a widowed member of his party whose eyesight failed, disqualifying her for immigration to the United States. The story ends favorably as good nourishment restores her sight and she joins him in Portland, Oregon.
As Lenin's New Economic Program relaxed the depredations of earlier communist policy, the hold on the economy eased and some vitality returned to the ethnic German villages that remained. The new law allowed farmers to rent land and hire labor for food production. Farmers were paid for the food produced and the concept of state economic planning was initiated.
The next terrible chapter of this story deals with Lenin's successor Stalin. Lenin passed away in 1924, no loss to humanity except it allowed an even greater evil, and the facts bear out a most evil man, to eventually succeed to power, Stalin.
The crisis emerged as agriculture failed to achieve levels of production after 1921 under the NEP that had been experienced prior to 1917. Prior to the revolution Russia had 210 million hectares of land in production. The non-kulak peasant had produced 50% of the grain consuming 60% of the product for himself. In 1927 with the non-kulak peasant farmed 314 million hectares of land, an increase of 104 million hectares. The problem was with this land agricultural production had dropped 15% from pre-Revolutionary levels and the peasants now consumed 80% of what they produced.
A second agenda, unrelated to this was the antipathy of Moscow
for the Ukrainian people, including the activist communists. This
antipathy was building as nationalistic trends underlaid the communist
cadre in the Ukraine. Finally, there was the unresolved issue of the kulaks who continued to experience persecution and forced exile to Siberia. Since the major focus was in the Ukraine, our brothers and sisters in the Black Sea region were in the eye of this forthcoming storm.
The communist formulated a second plan for forced extraction of grain to meet deficient production. That was the forced acceptance of production goals at the village or community level. These were typically unreachable and the party aparatchiks in the community then extracted the states portion based on the goal level of production. Extractions were initially leveled on the remaining kulaks, driving them further into penury. Then to make up the deficit, the peasantry in general was forced to give up needed grain to confiscatory levels. The burden of this policy rested greatest on the poorest peasants, 25% and mid level peasants, 64%, the kulaks (in reality the poorest and least able) bearing only 7%. Obviously, the policy was a miscalculation, the communist were drafting a well that had long ago gone dry. This now alienated the poor peasants against government agricultural policies. This policy was quickly repealed as it was acknowledged that the policy was in the nature of "tribute" or supertax.
Next the state again attempted to impose forced collectivization, and now with the loss of peasant support from virtually every class distinction within the peasantry, that effort failed too. This fueled Stalin's stated goal to eliminate, to liquidate the Kulaks as a class. Kulaks were now defined as "by `kulak', we mean the carrier of certain political tendencies which are most frequently discernible in the subkulak, male and female". Now we all know what a kulak is and so did the party aparatchiks. Essentially any peasant who was perceived as subversive or an enemy now fell within the kulak criteria.
Forced deportation to Siberia and central Asia of the Kulaks who failed to meet their quotas commenced again en masse in the Ukraine, North Caucasus and Lower Volga. Let me give an example, in one village sixteen kulak households were exposed and twenty-two horses, thirty cows and nineteen sheep were taken from them. These wealthy exploiters had therefore averaged 1.4 horses, 1.8 cows and 1.2 sheep per household!
The policy of forced deportation of the kulaks left these people no choice but to accept their fate, es-cape, usually to the cities or rebel. Those who chose to accept their fate were deported, to Siberia or central Asia, those that survived the trip were stripped of the meager possessions they carried into ex ile and were placed in forced labor. By October 1931 381,000 families are estimated to have been deported, about 2.5 million souls. Let me quote .one observers experience described in Robert Con-quest's book, The Harvest of Sorrow, page 137 "From our village ... the `kulaks' were driven out on foot. They took what they could carry on their backs: bedding, clothing. The mud was so deep it pulled the boots off their feet. It was terrible to watch them. They marched along in a column and looked back at their huts, and their bodies still held the warmth from their own stoves. What pain they must have suffered! After all, they had been born in those houses; they had given their daughters in marriage in those cabins. They had heated their stoves, and the cabbage soup they had cooked was left behind them. The milk had not been drunk, and smoke was still rising from their chimneys. The women were sobbing but were afraid to scream. The party activists didn't give a damn about them. We drove them off like geese". and " In a little park by the station, dekukalized peasants from the Ukraine lay down and died. You got used to seeing corpses there in the morning; a wagon would pull up and the hospital stable-hand, Abram, would pile in the bodies. Not all died; many wandered through the dusty mean little streets, dragging bloodless blue legs, swollen from dropsy, feeling out each passer-by with doglike begging eyes ... they got nothing; the residents themselves, to get bread on their ration cards, queued up the night before the store opened". A kulak tells us that "In Yemetsk camp in Far North, `On 18 April my daughter died. The three year old `criminal' had paid for her parents and grandparents `crimes'.
Our discussion about kulaks is applicable to the Germans in Russia as many were considered to be kulaks.
The communist regime, Stalin in particular next focused on the peasant class itself in what is right-fully called the Terror Famine. Terror for the peasants to force them to collectivize, terror for the Ukraine to heel to Russian Moscow's command and terror for the any person communist or otherwise who opposed or even criticized Stalin.
The Black Sea Germans were greatly affected, but I want to relate exactly what people thought and experienced from famine. Bear in mind, this famine was entirely artificial, intentionally imposed on the people as a matter of state policy. Behind all of this was the notion that "the peasant is adopting a new tactic. He refuses to reap the harvest. He wants the bread grain to die in order to choke the Soviet government with the bony hand of famine. But the enemy miscalculates. We will show him what famine is. Your task is to stop the kulak sabotage of the harvest. You must bring it in to the last grain and immediately send it off to the delivery point. The peasants are not working. They are counting on previously harvested grain they have hidden in pits. We must force them to open their pits".
Robert Conquest, a Fellow at Stanford University and Russian scholar in his book "Harvest of Sorrow - Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine" quotes comments made contemporaneous with the events of the terror famine.
"The early autumn of 1932 in Kokhanivka was not the same as other autumns. There were no pumpkins hanging their weary heads down the wattle fences to the street. There were no fallen pears and apples scattered on the paths. There were no wheat and ripe ears left on the stubbles for the hens. The reeking smoke of home-distilled vodka did not belch from chimneys of the huts. Nor were other signs visible that normally betokened the quiet flow of peasant life and the calm expectation of winter that comes with prosperity." See page 224
"The clinical picture of famine is well-known. It ruins the energy-producing resources of the human system, as the necessary fats and sugars are withheld. The body withers. the skin assumes a dust-grey tinge and folds into many creases. The person ages visibly. Even small children and infants have an old look. Their eyes become large, bulging and immobile. The process of dystrophy sometimes affects all the tissues and the sufferer resembles a skeleton covered with tightly-drawn skin. But a swelling of the tissues is more common, especially those of the hands and feet and face. Skin erupts over the swelling and festering sores persist. Motive power is lost, the slightest motion producing complete fatigue. The essential functions of life — breathing and circulation — consume the body's own tissues and albumen, the body consumes itself. Respiration and heartbeat become accelerated. The pupils dilate, Starvation diarrhea sets in. This condition is already dangerous because the slightest physical exertion induces heart failure. It often takes place while the sufferer is walking, climbing stairs, or attempting to run. General weakness spreads. The patient now cannot get up, /nor move in bed. In a condition of semi-conscious sleep he might last about a week, whereupon the heart stops beating." See page 253
"Hunger: a terrible soul-chilling word of darkness.
Those who have never experienced it can-not imagine what suffering
hunger causes. There is nothing worse for the man —
the head of the family — than the sense of his own helplessness
in the face of his wife's prayers, when she cannot find food
for her hungry children. There is nothing more terrible for
|A former (communist) activist comments:|
On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight
back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty.
Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying
hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for cause. They
had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by
a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference
and banquet tables. There was not even the consolation of
inevitability to relieve the horror.
"In the village Bilka, Denys Ischenko killed his sister, brother-in-law, and their sixteen year old daughter in order to obtain thirty pounds of flour which they had. The same man murdered a friend of his, Petro Korobeynyk, when he was carrying four loaves of bread, which he had somehow obtained in the city., For a few pounds of flour, and a few loaves of bread, hungry people took the lives of others."
"Some went insane ... There were people who cut up and
cooked corpses, who killed their own children and ate them.
I saw one. She had been brought to the district centre under
convoy. Her face was human, but her eyes were those of a wolf.
These are cannibals, they said, and must be shot. But they
themselves, who drove the mother to the madness of eating
her own children, are evidently not guilty at all! ... Just
go ask, and they will tell you that they did it for the sake
of virtue, for everybody's good. That's why they drove mothers
to cannibalism." See page 257
"In the morning horses pulled flattop carts through the city, and the corpses of those who had died in the night were collected. I saw one such flattop cart with children lying on it. They were just as I have described them, thin elongated faces, like those of dead birds, with sharp beaks. These tiny birds had flown into Kiev and what good had it done them? Some of them were still muttering and their heads turning. I asked the driver about them, and he just waived his hands and said: `By the time they get where they are being taken they will be silent too."' See page 249
And what was reported in prestigious papers here in America. Walter Duranty, a correspondent for the New York Times reported "there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be." On 23 August 1933, at the height of the famine he wrote "any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." In fairness to the New York Times other correspondents reported and the newspaper printed otherwise. The Soviet regime too denied food shortages and starvation existed and complained grievously that the west was attempting to discredit communism in Russia.
Is it any wonder that when Hitler ordered the invasion of Russia,
German and Ukrainian people welcomed the invader? Of course war
with Germany severely affected the Germans in Russia, again with
different experiences in the Volga and in the Black Sea regions.
The Black Sea region of course was the area occupied by German forces
and forced exile to Siberia of the remaining ethnic German population
was compromised. However our Black Sea brothers were the first to
experience this latest insult. In August 1941 the Crimean Germans
were forcibly removed. Given only a few hours warning of their departure,
the people were ordered into trucks, taken to the nearest rail-head,
loaded onto freight cars and transported to the Caucuses where they
helped with the harvest. They were again moved to the Karaganda
and Kokchetev regions in eastern Kazakhstan. According to Adam
Geisinger, when the Germans arrived in the Crimea, there were only 4900 Germans on the entire peninsula.
The Volga Germans were deported from Engels in September of 1941. This more massive deportation was perhaps more orderly, and more thorough. The Volga German Republic was abolished, villages were surrounded and the deportation order announced. No Germans were exempted including commissars and party members of the now defunct republic. The Germans were packed into cattle cars with their baggage for a two week or more journey in great discomfort, with no sanitary facilities, no sleeping arrangements and long periods of deprivation for water.. They were dumped on the Kulunda Steppe or elsewhere in Asiatic Russia where conditions can be best described as primitive. Families were separated, men 18 to 65 were sent off to slave labor camps where they were forced to build roads and railway lines or work in the mines or war industries. Women too were taken from their families to work in forced labor. Many families were never reunited.
Of the 400,000 or so who found themselves on the German side, they initially experienced a freedom unlike any experience since the revolution. Later as the Germans with drew these refugees voted with their feet to move west into Poland and on into Germany where 250,000 found themselves at war's end. Of the 250,000, who survived, 150,000 were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union. There, forced labor camps, deprivation and for many an early death awaited them.
That concludes my presentation. I would like to acknowledge the resources I used for this report.
The Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from
From Catherine to Khrushev, The Story of Russia's Germans by Adam Geisinger.
The Harvest of Sorrow, Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine by Robert Conquest
A Documentary History of Communism in Russia, From Lenin to Gorbachev edited by Robert V. Daniels
Atlas of Russian History, from 800 BC to the Present Day by Martin Gilbert
Thank you for your patience and God Bless my Great Grandparents, Jacob and Katherine Staerkel, for emigrating to this blessed land.