Exiled Russian-Germans look for home in new land

March 31, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

SARATOV, Russia -- Two million Russian-Germans, prisoners of time and history, are struggling to wrest a future for themselves in this newly emerging country.

They are emblematic of the scores of nationalities nervously trying to define and protect themselves as the old Soviet shackles fall off, only to be replaced in many cases by fear, jealousy and ethnic animosity.

Throughout the fallen empire, people once ordered to march forward as "Soviets" are now stepping apart, proudly calling themselves Tatars, Chechens, Cossacks, Meskhetians, Tuvinians and Buryats.

And Germans.

On a chilly Sunday night, eight Russian-Germans sit in a cramped sleeping compartment on the overnight train from Moscow. They are heading to a homecoming of sorts in Saratov, a city of 900,000 on the Volga River that once was the heart of a thriving German community.

Germans had already lived here for 150 years when Josef V. Stalin declared them traitors in 1941. The German army was advancing, and Stalin called the Russian-Germans a fifth column, waiting to betray Russia and help Germany.

The Germans were so established here in the heart of European Russia -- and yet still so distinct -- that they had their own republic along the Lower Volga, 500 miles southeast of Moscow. The capital was Engels, just across the river from Saratov. Stalin dissolved the Volga German Autonomous Republic and deported the Russian-Germans to labor camps.

The Germans traveling on this 15-hour train ride from Moscow are members of the Union of Soviet Germans. Their leaders in Saratov are pondering whether or not they can re-establish the German republic in post-Soviet Russia.

While other Russians lounge about the train in slippers and jogging suits, the vodka already pouring, these eight face each other, four and four, looking serious if not glum.

They speak Russian and their clothes are Russian, but their names are Hugo Wormsbecher, Kurt Wiedmeier, Vally Merz, Johann Frizen -- names nearly impossible even to spell in Russian.

They also speak German, a 200-year-old German dialect that excites German linguists.

Johann Cornelius Frizen was born in this region 71 years ago, and he remembers the suffering vividly. In 1938, as anti-German feeling swept Russia, he was forced to change his name to Ivan Kornelvich Frizen.

"They started to close German schools and German libraries," Mr. Frizen recalled. "They burned the books. If it was a book in German about Lenin, they burned it. If it was about Christ, they burned it."

Before the deportations, Mr. Frizen joined the Soviet army. "I fought in the Soviet army," he said. "I was wounded twice. There was a whole regiment of Germans, and they fought as well as Russians."

War heroes or not, ethnic Germans in the Soviet army were sent deep into the Siberian forests in November 1942, a year and a half after Germany invaded Russia.

"We were deprived of our medals," Mr. Frizen said. "It was called a work army, but it was worse than being in prison."

From 1945 to 1952, Mr. Frizen was kept in forced labor in Siberia. He was in his 30s when he was released.

After Stalin's death, history was rewritten. The Russian-Germans were rehabilitated. Mr. Frizen got his Soviet medals back. He wears them proudly, pinned to his gray suit.

With Soviet medals and a lineage that goes back nearly 200 years in Russia, his identity remains clear as ever to him. "German," he says. "I feel German, of course."

He speaks German at his home near Tula, south of Moscow. He has taught his Russian wife German. His son and daughter -- and their Ukrainian and Belarus spouses -- speak it. So do the grandchildren.

Vally Merz was born on the Volga. Her grandfather, born here in 1893, was an officer of the Imperial Army. Her mother and father were German teachers, as she is now.

Mrs. Merz was 2 years old when her family was ordered out. "They gave us 24 hours to get out," she said. "They divided the men and the women and sent the men to Yakutia" -- in the farthest reaches of Siberia.

The Germans were invited to Russia in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 until 1796. The empress, a German herself, wanted farmers to plant along the Volga.

They prospered and their region grew rich with grain, becoming a major center for trade and flour milling. The Volga German Autonomous Republic was created in 1918, and the Germans had their own schools, libraries and universities.

Religion -- the Germans were Protestant -- and resentment kept them apart from the Russians. Russians were jealous of how well the Germans did with the land; Germans looked down on Russians.

Today, about half of the Germans live in difficult conditions in northern Kazakhstan; others are scattered around Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Siberia. A few live along the Volga.

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