We’ll Meet Again in Heaven,
Letters from German-Russians in the Ukraine to their Relatives
in Dakota (1925-1935)
Im Himmel sehen wir uns wieder, Briefe von Russlanddeutschen
in der Ukraine an ihre Verwandten in Dakota (1925-1935)
Based on an Essay by Ron Vossler
Nach einer Studie von Ron Vossler
By Alice Morgenstern
Heimatbuch 2001/2002, Landsmannschaft
der Deutschen aus Russland, Stuttgart, Germany, Pages 243 - 249
Translation from German to English by Alex
Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
The book, We'll
Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their
American Relatives: 1925- 1937, by Ronald Julius Vossler,
was published in 2001. The wesite for this book is: library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/nd_sd/vossler2.html
About the Author
Alice Morgenstern was born in 1928 in Nuremberg.
She taught German and English for many years at a Gymnasium
in Munich where she now lives, retired from her post as deputy
principal. She first made contact with Germans from Russia through
the Germans from Russian Heritage Collection (GRHC) at North Dakota
State University and its bibliographer, Michael M. Miller. For
GRHC she provides English-to-German translation on subjects concerning
American Germans from Russia and occasionally writes overview
articles she has gleaned from newspapers such as the Sueddeutsche
Zeitung or Volk auf dem Weg, on topics ranging from
Aussiedler [emigrés] in Germany to German-Russians
in the former Soviet Union.
Particularly in Europe, the 20th century is remembered
as an age of suffering, persecution, banishment, forced labor
and genocide. The survivors continue to tell their stories for
years to come. So it is even more significant when we still hear
voices from those times -- voices that help us to feel deeply
the suffering and hope, desperation and acceptance of a fate deemed
to be willed by God.
It is of such testimony that we report here. What
we shall examine are letters by a small group of German-Russians
in Ukraine written to their relatives in America during the years
The writers of these letters were German farmers
from the so-called Glueckstal Colonies (Glueckstal, Bergdorf,
Neudorf, Kassel and the more remote Hoffnungstal) whose ancestors
had been there from the early 19th century onward. These places
all used to belong to former Ukrainian territories, but today
are for the most part in Moldavia and only a small part of South
Ukraine. Recipients of the letters lived as farmers in the United
States, mainly in the area of North and South Dakota. Beginning
with the 1870s, and in greater numbers from 1884 till 1914, they
had left their old homes in Russia desiring to gain new land and
greater freedom in America. There in the "Wild West"
they had put the prairie soil under their plows.
Contact between the Glueckstalers in Russia and
America did not break off. Close relatives had been separated,
parents and siblings and other relatives had stayed behind, yet
they continued to remember each other with great longing and homesickness.
A glimpse of this is apparent in one of the letters: "As
high as the morning star, so far am I from you!" All they
had left to depend on was to write to each other.
They wrote most of all about what was truly important
in their lives as farming people. They wrote about the weather,
seeding, harvest, weddings, births, deaths and other events in
their families and in their village. The Glueckstalers were not
proficient or practiced writers. They reported with simplicity
and without literary flourish. They wrote the way they lived and
felt in their hearts. Those letters that survived time and circumstances
are not easy to decipher since they were composed in the old-fashioned
German (Suetterlin) style of handwriting, and their spelling often
corresponds to the spoken dialect. Where they lacked the proper
words they sought refuge in Biblical phrases or in old rhymes,
adages and folk wisdom they had acquired. At times they used formal
phrases such as "I must take up my pen…"
We can be grateful to a special circumstance that
many of these letters have become available to us. Two German-language
newspapers in the Dakotas, the Eureka Rundschau (later
the Dakota Rundschau) from South Dakota and the German-language
portion of the Wishek News in North Dakota provided their
readers with what they usually entitled, "News From the Old
Home." For this purpose they frequently printed letters sent
to them, which they transformed into carefully smoothed High German.
The fact that this occurred mainly during the years
1925-1935 is due to contemporary political conditions in the USSR.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war, the dispossesions
and first period of great famine from 1921-1922, the Dakotans
needed to be informed about what was happening in their old villages
now under Soviet control. The letters served as proof for all
"Things are not as they used to be"
By 1925 the situation of the farmers appeared to
have begun to ease, in a way. The first breakdown of Communist-conceived
agricultural policy had led to Lenin's "New Economic Policy";
and after four years the original goals of socialism were already
being modified. Witness the fact that farmers were being given
back a modicum of independence making it possible, for example,
to buy or lease land again, even if to a very small extent. In
reality, conditions still appeared not to be developing very favorably.
Magdalena Bratzel, nee Krein, of Glueckstal writes to her sister
in Dakota if she could only believe that she, too, could get to
America, "I would get on my way today." And H. Eckmann
of Kassel wrote to Fred Schumacher in Eureka that "conditions
in this community..." were "the worst since its original
establishment." Having been forced to sell or trade foodstuffs
during the previous years of want, many Glueckstalers were now
so poor that they were going about "barefoot and, more or
less, in [their] birthday suits." Terrible times, "hard
days" and "sleepless nights" during the revolution
and the famine were still fresh in everyone's memories. Some letters
contained pictures of deceased relatives. "Six of our children
died of typhus in only one week," write Johann and Margarete
Just in 1925 in a letter to Friedrich Rueb of Eureka. "Four
of them we buried immediately. Things are just like in Job's time.
The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh. Praised be the name of the Lord."
Actually, the farmers were once again allowed to
acquire land, but certainly not to the extent they had in earlier
times. Purchase was limited to two desjatins (1 desjatin
= 1.09 hectare) per "soul." Adam Warner of Kassel stated
it this way: "We are barely allowed to possess any land at
all...and we cannot lease land either." This village also
greatly lacked draft animals, forcing the men to put themselves,
two or three at a time, in harness and pull a plow. After a Glueckstal
resident had been able to buy a horse with the help of American
dollars that had been sent to him, the following happened: "Ever
since 1921 things have gotten worse. That year we bought our horse
and thus managed until 1923. Then, but only with great difficulty,
we acquired a second horse. The whole time we had bad harvests.
Every year except 1923 we had to buy bread. The harvest in 1925
was again a poor one so we saved everything we had harvested and
kept it for seed. But then, without bread or feed, we were forced
to sell our two horses for food."
Money and packages arrived by mail in Glueckstal
again and again during the subsequent years. Two things must be
said in this regard:
1. A complete reversal had taken place in the social
standing of the Russian and American Glueckstalers, one which
no one could have predicted at the time of the emigrations. Before
the revolution, farmers in Ukraine were, as a rule, prosperous
and respected, even as they were progressively experiencing the
Russification process and restrictions to earlier privileges.
Although those who had emigrated enjoyed greater freedom and new
land, the rocky prairie soil and the raw climate brought only
minimal harvests during their first years, and those new settlers
were initially forced to attempt to survive by the most primitive
means. Due to their pathetic living conditions, they were for
a long time regarded by Americans as "dirty Russians."
They longed for the mild climate and former wealth of bread and
wine in Ukraine. However, thanks to their untiring work, in time
they were successful, establishing the largest wheat growing areas
in the United States. Even though they always feared bad harvests
and economic crisis, they generally lived under secure conditions.
In contrast, the Ukrainian Glueckstalers had become impoverished.
"Even though I once was one of the richest farmers in the
area, today I am a poor man," writes Jakob Kollwes of Kassel
in 1926. "Everything I had has been taken from me and distributed
to 'the people'... The regime has confiscated my mill and two
threshing machines. I was sentenced to nine months in prison,
where I sat along with other rich people. Two thousand, eight
hundred and seventy-four people just like myself were sitting
in prison with me."
If in past years the Glueckstalers might have deemed
immigration to have been an ill-considered step, consider Johann
and Christine Hofer of Neudorf writing in 1926 to Jacob Kirschmann
in Havelock, North Dakota: "My dear friend Jacob, when you
left here, we could only wonder why you were so dumb. But now
we realize that it was your good fortune that you left. We understand
that now, but it is too late for us." Or consider how Marie
Reiss, from a village near Hoffnungstal, starts to think about
why she stayed behind: "Ever since times have become difficult
here I often think about the reasons why we did not go to America.
Georg always said to me: 'Come, let's go to America!' But my answer
always was, 'As long as my parents are alive, I simply cannot
leave.' Oh, how difficult everything has become."
The Russian Glueckstalers had been transformed into
2. The deep emotional bond between the two groups
did remain intact. On the prairie and on the steppes people often
talked of relatives "over there." "You tell us
that whenever you get together, you always talk about us,"
wrote the Schlichters of Hoffnungstal in 1927 to Johann Veil in
Streeter, North Dakota. "With us it's the same." Another
Glueckstal resident states: "During my whole life I will
never stop to think that both my parents and all of my siblings
are now in America... And my wife and I are the only ones who
remained in Russia." Christian and Elisabeth Hafner of Bergdorf
attempted to get over the separation in a different way. They
write: "...in order to send to you our warmest invitation
to the wedding of our youngest son... Please share it and take
part in it with all your children and with my dear sister and
her husband and all their children... However, since that is not
possible, we wish that you may travel here at least represented
by means of your pictures... If only I could see you just once
more in my lifetime! That is often my soul's desire."
This particular letter indicates the special importance
the concept of relationship had among German-Russians. By that
they really meant a circle of "friendship," a word they
used to denote an entire network, one that included blood relatives,
relatives by marriage and their families. Most importantly, "friendship"
to them meant banding together and helping one another in every
need, whether on the rocky fields in Dakota or in mutual acts
of assistance among people in Ukraine. A particular letter explains
how this system works: "If each of you gives only a little,
it will not hurt you, but it would help us greatly." Also,
"Our friendship has multiplied us all by two." During
the great famine, Magdalena Martel pleaded for help from her brother
in this way: "My dear Jacob, we still have our grand Martel
friendship, and you know where they all live... I don't think
that the grand Martel friendship wants me to starve."
For many Glueckstalers asking for help was not an
easy matter. Thus Katharina Boschee wrote to her relatives in
Wishek: "You know very well that begging is not my nature."
However, increasing poverty and need forced them to it.
"Keep your mouths shut!" (1928-1931)
In October 1928 Stalin announced his first five-year
plan, which had as its goals the rapid industrialization of the
Soviet Union and, once and for all, the collectivization of agriculture.
It meant that those farmers who had remained independent would
now be forced to join the collective, and its completion was a
matter that seemed to justify any means. If they did not "voluntarily"
cede their properties to the collective, they would be branded
"kulaks" (according to Soviet thinking kulaks
were large farm owners who were suppressing the people) and there
were threats of the worst of reprisals. The villages were visited
by Communists loyal to the party line and usually without any
experience in agriculture, but who were to carry out the new measures,
rapidly and with tough ruthlessness. This, together with a tax
burden that was simply way beyond realistic proportions, brought
to an end any normal village life that had survived.
Some families were still hoping to be able to emigrate.
"Many here want to emigrate," writes Anna Kludt of Hoffnungstal,
"but they are totally unable to obtain the requisite passports."
Anyone who did not "voluntarily" join the collective
was treated as an enemy of the state, driven out of home and property
and banished. Occasionally, people would still surround the wagons
on which the "kulaks" were being transported
off, and they would intone familiar church hymns such as "Jesus,
Go Before Us," or for example, "God is Love." The
Glueckstalers were generally rather pious folks -- Protestants
with a pietistic touch. In 1928 they reported to their brothers
in faith in Dakota about the prayer meetings of their "brotherhood,"
and in 1926, for the first time since the revolution, the Glueckstalers
had actually celebrated Christmas in their church, even with a
decorated Christmas tree.
These times were now forever gone. Yet their faith
often remained as their only solace even during the years of deepest
Daniel Kraemer reports about the oppressive taxation
burden: "They demanded 300 pud (1 pud =
16.38 kg) of grain from me and gave me only two days to come up
with that much. But we don't have any grain. So we had to sell
everything we had in our property and our home, and finally the
house as well. We have nothing left but that which we can wear."
There were also some letters that were not signed. For example:
"It's horrendous, what is happening here! Any who don’t
wish to join the collective are branded enemies of the state and
treated with the most extreme cruelty. Their homes are attacked
at night, then a rope is slung around the farmer's head, and he
is dragged behind a cart until he accedes to everything demanded
of him. Some are driven naked out of their homes."
Christian Eisenbeiss and Walther Schaeffer, two
elderly men of Glueckstal, were unable to come up with their hard
taxes. First they were driven out of their homes, then "stripped
naked in the cemetery and forced to crawl on all fours while carrying
two men on their backs, all the way to the steps of the church."
There they were forced to kneel and pray... In these ways people
are being made fools of." After Eiseinbeiss was murdered
and strung up in the village so as to make it appear that he had
committed suicide, "the uproar and lamenting in the village
were so terrible that it is impossible to describe it all."
"They took away my very last suit," we
read in another letter. "Here we are, naked and in despair,
just as it says in the old song, 'We are poor and suffering, miserable
and naked, but our Savior will make us rich and great.'"
Thus there was still an attempt to submit with piety to a fate
inflicted upon them. "We will go the way that our Lord indicates
to us... If we remain on His path it will lead us to heaven. We
find ourselves at the twilight and know that He will soon call
On the other hand, suspicion and mistrust also arose
among the people. Village residents denounced each other to save
their own hides. "Your own brother and your nephew have reported
me to the village council," writes an unknown Glueckstal
resident to his relatives in America. "They claim that I
have received a lot of money from America and that I even sent
some of it to my father who was banished as a kulak...
The case has been handed over to the police... As a friend, I
just wanted to help your father... They also claim that I am hiding
a cow that belongs to a kulak. Brothers can sometimes
be worse here than the Communists... The Communists are trying
to catch up with America, but that will be very difficult. You
drive around in cars, and we trudge behind, barefoot in the snow."
At this time letters from the banished also arrived
in the Dakotas. They were published under the heading, "Letters
from Exiled People in the Urals." People from the Odessa
area were also dragged off to Archangelsk on the White Sea. A
number of 40,000 was mentioned. The deportees reported about their
forced labor and deprivations. "As our sole reward, our overseers
gave us hard blows with a stick on the head."
One particular letter clearly expresses the mood
and situation: "Dear sister, after very hard and difficult
labor in the forest and with horrible hunger, I am taking pen
in hand to write a few lines to you. We are asking all our dear
friends for help so that we do not die from hunger and that this
extremely heavy plague may not get us completely down... Thank
you for everything you have already done for us poor, innocent,
deserted and half-starved people. Send this letter to your newspaper
so that the entire world can see what's being done to us. For
14 months now we've gone to work hungry, lay down to sleep hungry
and got up hungry... Oh, merciful Heavenly Father, when will our
misery finally end, or must we die a bitter death in the Urals?
Many have starved already... We have come to believe that we are
living in the time of Revelation, chapter 18... help us to pray
that we may be able to love those who hate and persecute us."
"The great famine" (1932-1933)
The great famine of those years was actually not
a result of failed harvests or natural catastrophe. Rather, it
should be blamed on Soviet economic policy. Large amounts of grain
had been sold abroad in order to obtain hard currency for the
country's industrialization effort; taxes were therefore hiked
even more drastically. At the same time grain production had decreased,
not in the least due to the incompetence of the party's bureaucracy
that was accountable for this sector. The annihilation of the
independent farmer had horrendous consequences. These factors
led to one of the worst famines in South Russia. According to
some estimates, a total of six million people would be counted
as its victims. Was it perhaps genocide? Even if they did not
intend it, they condoned it.
Desperate letters to the Dakotas convey an image
of the situation.
In this vein Karl and Elisabeth Lang wrote to their
relatives in the spring of 1933: "I would like to let you
know that Father has been dead for two years now. But God be thanked
and praised, because at least he didn't have to suffer this terrible
hunger the way we are. We have three small children and nothing
to eat... It's so sad at the beginning of the day when the little
ones begin to cry again and scream for something to eat. Oh, loving
God, have compassion for us and help us to endure their terrible
cries and these miserable times. Our smallest one cries and says,
'Oh, dear Mother, won't you go and look whether you can find something
to eat, because I am so terribly hungry.' Where am I supposed
to look and to whom shall I go when no one has anything? And in
this way we fill up with tears. There is nothing else. You can
imagine how my heart bleeds when my own children come to me and
I can give them nothing to stop their hunger. This is why we are
turning to you, dear friends, and even to your children... We'll
remain friends till death."
Among other topics, Eva Mattwich of Bergdorf on
June 11, 1933, reported to Ludwig Scheuffele in Wishek: "Now
almost all the people are getting heavy from all the hunger, and
they fall over and die. There are many that resort to eating rotted
horsemeat, nettles, tchavi and various herbs. You can
imagine how it is to live like that. People are all black and
blue from hunger." Karoline Heupel of Kassel informed her
cousin Adolph Boschee in Zeeland, North Dakota, that her husband
Jacob and two of their children had starved to death, and their
other children would "run away at the terrible sight of me."
To make things worse, people were still being dragged
out to work. Conditions were especially unbearable in Kassel.
Anyone at least 13 years of age, up to the very oldest, was sent
out to the steppe. "In deepest snow and grimmest cold"
they felled trees and brought in the wood. No Sundays. No Christmas.
No New Years. No Easter. During that winter six people a day were
dying in Kassel.
Once again it was their faith that the Glueckstalers
clung to. "When the need is greatest, God is closest,"
they wrote. Or "The harder the yoke, the closer is heaven."
In this vein they gave expression to their hope: "We'll meet
again in heaven."
"I dream of you all so often"
Not until 1934 did conditions improve somewhat,
in Kassel as well, if only a bit later. The year 1935 brought
a good harvest to the Glueckstal area, of which the people of
course received very little. And again deportation orders arrived;
this time they hit those who had received assistance from abroad.
Christine Flemmer of Glueckstal warned her brother Christ Stock
in Wishek about sending money and admitted: "We live in great
fear... No time is safe." After 1935 contacts ceased between
the Glueckstalers in Ukraine and in the Dakotas, at least according
to what can be found in newspapers. As a final example we'll select
a letter that clearly shows a great deal of what the Russian Glueckstalers
were feeling. Katharina Boschee wrote in May of 1935: "I
have not received any letters from you ever since 1933... Surely
it is easier for you to write than for me here. I would dearly
like to write, but I don't even have the money for sending a letter...
Oh, dear ones, if I could only join you at your noonday meal.
Surely you have potatoes and bread. I dream of you all so often.
I believe you don't want to hear from me anymore since you don't
write, or perhaps you are no longer alive." When we get together
around here, people always ask, 'So you haven't received any letters
from America either? I don't know why our friends do not write
anymore, but perhaps they do not wish to hear anything from us
anymore.' What can I say? I am completely alone here, abandoned
by everyone... Whether I will be able to survive it all, I don't
know. I have had a very hard time with work. We did sow a few
potatoes, beans and other things in our garden, but it'll be a
long time until we'll be able to eat it... You can imagine the
tears I have been shedding, day and night. I often think I won't
be around anymore the next day, and I don't want to live any longer.
Here there is nothing but grief and deprivation, crying and lamenting."
In the final analysis there was not much the American
Glueckstalers were able to help their unfortunate relatives with,
and there were certainly those for whom the petitioners and their
"begging letters" became an annoyance and, particularly
during the years prior to the great famine, there were those who
believed people should be able to help themselves.
Yet we are also impressed by one odd fact: in later
times the Glueckstalers in the Dakotas simply clammed up. As a
rule they were not telling their children or grandchildren about
their past, and it did not occur to the offspring to ask.
What kinds of reasons might be given for this behavior?
For one thing, it is quite conceivable that two world wars which
found Germany and America aligned against each other might not
have been suitable times for the Germans from Russia living in
the United States to confess loyalty to their "Germanness"
or to any sort of German destiny. They were completely taken up
with being good American citizens and stood loyal to their new
fatherland. One's own past was thus forced into the background,
even if amongst themselves at home they were still talking their
familiar and comfortable "Schwabian" dialect.
For another matter it often happens that people
tend to suppress bad experiences, especially when the kind of
feeling creeps in that one might have failed in something. In
reality the Dakotans simply had to leave their relatives in the
Old Country to their own fates, and this thought was a bitter
one and one difficult to bear. After all they also had their own
worries and problems, which were in the foreground and began to
eclipse matters of old.
Be that as it may, it was not until many Americans,
and among them the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas, began to
look for their family roots that those letters from the Glueckstal
area, along with their family histories, came to light. The horrible
events of the past suddenly appeared very close and affected everyone
with great shock.
Yet, an awareness of these written testimonials
also provides a measure of remembrance that is needed by all Germans
from Russia, not the least by all Germans who today come in contact
with established and recent Aussieldler.
It must be said once again: a small group of people
in the Soviet Union, a minority among a minority, were able to
bring witness in those letters for the many victims of a catastrophe
that played itself out during the 1920s and 1930s. They achieved
this with simplicity and without histrionics, but with great immediacy.
And thereby they have achieved something of enduring value.
In the United States, Ron Vossler, faculty member
at the University of North Dakota, published the essay "We'll
Meet Again in Heaven" in February 2001. My work is based
on this essay.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex
Herzog for translation of this article.