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Tarnished Dreams: Russian-Germans in Germany

Brauer, Birgit. "Tarnished Dreams: Russian-Germans in Germany." German Life, August/September 1995, 21-24.


WHEN JAKOB KIRSCH, a 38-year-old psychiatrist, and his wife left Novokuznetsk, Siberia, for Germany in September 1993, their hopes were high. After all, these ethnic Germans were heading for their Heimat, the land of plenty and opportunity. The German government beckoned with generous benefit packages, an attempt to compensate for the suffering of German nationals following World War II. Reared on traditional family stories about the fatherland, the Kirsches pictured a rosy "homecoming," shrugging off the warnings of their immigrant relatives that life in Germany would not be as easy as it appeared on TV.

One year later, Kirsch admits he underestimated the difficulties of the move. While he originally thought that he would be able to communicate easily, he soon realized that his German was antiquated and inadequate. He was unprepared for the sheaf of forms to be filled out, their contents blurred in the opaque language of officialdom. Considering his professional education to be top-notch, he never anticipated having to undergo further training to be licensed to practice in his new country. Nor did he expect to live in a provisional home for months on end, forced to share the space with other families. On top of everything else, the problems of nationality continue to haunt him since he has now found that people think he is Russian because of his heavy accent.

Nearly a decade after Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost cleared the way for ethnic Germans to emigrate, immigrants like the Kirsches continue to arrive in droves. A mere 753 applications were processed in 1986, but by 1994 this number had exploded to 213,214. Of these newcomers, 68,397 came from Russia, 121,517 from Kazakhstan, and 10,847 from Kyrgyzstan. Another 44,665 left the various republics of the former Soviet Union for Germany between January and March of this year.

The Aussiedler--the term given to those Germans who settled abroad generations ago and are now returning--are resettling in the country their ancestors had left more than 200 years ago in search of a better life. Thousands of Germans had followed the call of Czarina Catherine the Great in 1762 and 1763 to settle in Russia and cultivate the vast, underpopulated land. All immigrants were promised freedom of religion, tax exemption, and interest-free loans for the building of houses as well as the purchase of cattle and farming tools. Most important for the many religious settlers was Catherine's guarantee that neither they nor their descendants would ever be drafted into the military for as long as they lived on Russian soil.

Within a few years, around 40,000 Germans, who had come primarily from Hesse but also from the Rhineland, Westphalia, Württemberg, and other regions, had settled in the lower Volga region.

Under the rule of different czars, some of these promises, most notably the draft exemption, were later broken. Nevertheless, their communities continued to thrive until the 1941 German invasion abruptly ended their peaceful lives. Within a 24-hour period, Stalin forcibly moved the entire German population of the Volga region to Siberia and Kazakhstan. In the haste, many families were separated. More than 20 million Russian lives were lost to Hitler's forces during World War II, intensifying the problems for the country's German contingent. Unwelcome and discriminated against until the end of the 1980s, the ethnic Germans clung to their traditions and culture, bolstered by the dream of one day returning to their real home.

That these very dreams have made assimilation more difficult is no surprise to Ruth Kujawski, who teaches German to Aussiedler in Schönerlinde, a suburb of Berlin. "They insist they are Germans, but in their behavior they are typically Russian," she comments, adding that "as soon as the lesson is over, they start speaking Russian."

According to Kujawski, some of their dearly held traditions dating back 200 years are far removed from contemporary German culture. In addition, they celebrate Russian holidays, eat Russia food, and dress in Russian apparel, she says, so that the sight of young girls wearing big bows and older women wearing head scarves usually gives away their status as newly arrived Aussiedler.

The emigration procedure Russian-Germans must complete is long and cumbersome. The process begins at the German embassy of their country of residence where emigrant-hopefuls must prove their German ethnicity. The application is then forwarded to the Federal Administrative Office in Germany for processing, which can take as long as two years. If their request is granted, they receive a notification of acceptance and can then leave for Germany where they obtain all the necessary identification papers.

The first stop there is a reception camp. Emigrants are assigned by the Federal Administrative Office to one of the 16 federal states according to a quota system. North Rhine-Westphalia receives the highest number of Aussiedler (21.8 percent), followed by Bavaria (14.4 percent) and Baden-Württemberg (12.3 percent). The fewest immigrants are sent to Bremen (0.9 percent) and the Saarland (1.4 percent). Occasionally, the office honors special requests for residence in a particular state if the quota has not been filled. Once they reach their designated Land, they are set up in a provisional home, or Übergangslager, where kitchen and bathroom facilities are shared with other families.

According to Karin Hehl, who teaches special classes for Aussiedler children in Hürth, a suburb of Cologne, their parents favor provisional homes in the western states over those of the east. "There is certainly no hostility towards them," she says, "[yet] in former East Germany people are fairly xenophobic." Kujawski explains that the basis for these wary attitudes are economic, not ethnic. "Entire industries have disappeared in our region, and the unemployment rate is 18 percent. People think the Aussiedler come in to take over their jobs and their apartments." With unemployment rates of 15.2 percent in the east, 8.2 percent in the west, it's not hard to understand why newcomers often get the blame. In an attempt to defuse these tensions, the Ministry of the Interior widely distributed a brochure whose ten questions addressed problems such as the fear that new arrivals will take jobs away, that they receive preferential treatment, and that they threaten the pensions of German citizens.

As soon as they can afford to do so, the Aussiedler are free to get their own apartment or house in any part of the country they choose. But a lack of housing and prohibitive rents keep most of them in the provisional homes for at least a year.

Aside from the financial obstacles, another larger difficulty handicaps most Aussiedler: their poor command, or complete ignorance, of German. Some of the older ethnic Germans still speak with fluency, but the younger generation often knows very little. Following the 1941 invasion, German was banned in public. Although the initial restriction was eased, there were no opportunities for children to learn to read and write the language except at home.

"We were afraid to speak German in the streets or at school," says Nelli Krohmer, the librarian at the Stuttgart-based headquarters of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland (Organization of German Expellees from Russia). "Our parents, however, made us speak German at home, even though it was prohibited."

Krohmer also remembers how she disliked being called a fascist by students at school. Frequently, the name calling led to brawls between the German and the Russian students, she says, but in the end, the teachers always punished the Germans.

Naturally, the language barrier makes life in the "home" country tougher. "The loss of language is a disaster," declares Johann Warkentin, chairman of the Berlin branch of the Organization of German Expellees from Russia. "Obviously, the people have to face tremendous difficulties and they don't even realize that. They come here and are shocked." A six-month language program financed by the unemployment office is available and can be taken any time during the first five years after arrival. A few years ago, before the wave of immigration set in and the German government was burdened with the enormous costs of reunification, the language courses lasted 12 months.

Just how deeply the Aussiedler are rooted in the Russian language became clear at a presentation by the Berlin unemployment office at the Deutschlandhaus last year. The information on the services and benefits available to the Aussiedler was translated into Russian, right down to the question-and-answer session. The idea was to allow all the attendees to participate, but the concession irked Warkentin.

At the conclusion of the presentation, he addressed the room, focusing on the language problem. "Let us please pull ourselves together and do something," he pleaded with the audience. "Taking this six-month course is a drop in the bucket. Let us try to become real Germans and not retain outsiders because of the lack of language."

While many recent immigrants worry most about the need to learn a new language, others feel more challenged by having to adapt to a new way of life. Most of the Aussiedler come from rural backgrounds and find moving to an urban area, where employment possibilities are greater, intimidating and disorienting. To their dismay, they find that agricultural skills are of no use in an industrialized country. Retraining is often the only answer.

To make the transition as smooth as possible, the German government offers to pay for health insurance and professional retraining programs. It also provides unemployed or needy Aussiedler with direct cash assistance for a period of up to six months. Some DM 4 billion ($2.9 billion) was allocated to the integration program in 1994.

Not surprisingly, the youngest members of the Aussiedler families find the adjustment easiest, adapting to their new surroundings with relative ease. Not so their teenage brothers and sisters. "For 14-,15-, and 16-year-olds, it is hard to be pulled out of their environment," says Hehl, who has taught Aussiedler children for the past 18 years. "Some of them have close friends or already have their first boyfriend or girlfriend." Nor are academic difficulties uncommon. Hehl notes that North Rhine-Westphalia now offers special classes that parallel regular classroom instruction. Hehl teaches at the Hürth-Hermühlheim Gemeinschaftshauptschule, a junior high school near Cologne, covering a variety of subjects for a group of 16 students ranging in age from 10 to 18. She says it usually takes about eight months for students to move from her classes into the regular classroom.

Despite the well-known difficulties of emigration, the number of aspirants has dropped only slightly in the past few years. Gloomy reports in the German and Russian press have not dissuaded many of the Russian-Germans, who are spurred on by resurgent nationalism in Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Jürgen Likkai, a 25-year-old computer technician from Almaty, Kazakhstan, currently lives in a provisional home in Berlin. "In Kazakhstan the rule is Kazakhstan for the Kazakh. And Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz." he says. "We are not Kazakhs and we are not Russian. But the other problems are the same."

To many Russian-Germans the future looks rather bleak. Seeking a better life for their children, they prefer to move their entire families, including grandparents, back to Germany instead of staying in the Newly Independent States.

Some two million ethnic Germans remain in the former Soviet Union. In addition to its support for those who come to Germany, the German government regularly provides funding for German classes, German-language media, and small businesses to provide an incentive for Russian-Germans to stay put. How many will choose this option is unclear. Gerhard Dewitz, state chairman of the Berlin-based Landesverband der Vertriebenen (State Organization of the Displaced), states that "those who believe that all the remaining Russian-Germans will stay where they are, are completely off the mark."

Paradoxically, language is a pressure for those who stay in the east. As increasing numbers of ethnic Russians leave Central Asia, Russian-Germans cannot avoid the necessity of learning the regional language. Anton Wangler, managing director of the Organization of German Expellees from Russia, notes, "The insecurity about which languages they will have to speak, be it Kyrgyz or Kazakh, makes the families decide to go directly to Germany instead."

Although the first years can be rough for the Aussiedler, Wangler believes they ultimately manage to adapt to their new lives. "Most of us are modest people," he says. "We are not pushy. We don't make big demands. We accept every job offer. I think the general German population recognizes this. But to become fully integrated and form friendships with native Germans we also have to speak with the people, tell them about us and our history and who we are."

Telling people about herself has been very easy for Krohmer, who likes to share her experience of living in Central Asia. While she has no regrets about having left Kazakhstan for Germany, she was disappointed to find that Germany had become very international, leaving behind many of the old traditions she had been told about.

"When we left Russia, we were so looking forward to immersing ourselves in the German culture and singing and listening to German songs," Krohmer says. "Now that we are here, we find that everyone listens to English and French songs."

Reprinted with permission of German Life.

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