Pilgrims in the Valley of Tears
Vossler, Ron. "Pilgrims in the Valley of Tears." North Dakota REC/RTC, February 2000, 20-21.
How did evidence of one of the 20th century's worst crimes against
humanity surface in my sleepy hometown of Wishek, North Dakota? Let
me tell you the story:
|The Boschee family of rural Wishek, circa
1906. Valentine, the patriarch (center, middle row), and his
wife, Phillibina (to his right), are great-grandparents of author
Ron Vossler. Valentine's brothers stayed behind in Kassel, Russia;
his brother's children and their spouses wrote several of the
famine letters asking for help from North Dakota relatives.
Valentine's sons, John V. (back row, second from left) and Adolph
(back row, second from right), both North Dakota farmers born
in Russia, spearheaded efforts to send money to their relatives
during the "terror famine." Author Vossler's grandmother, Justina
Boschee Woehl, is seated to the left of her father; her husband,
Henry Woehl, is standing directly behind Valentine. (Photo courtesy
of Ron Vossler)
It started the summer before last. I was in town to help celebrate
Wishek's centennial anniversary. One day over coffee in the L and
L Cafe on Main Street, Leon, my mother's distant relative, handed
me a faded, well-worn Xerox that he kept in his billfold.
"Can you read this?" Leon asked."I think so," I said.
Squinting at the barely legible script of what I realized was
a letter, I could feel Leon's eyes on me. He didn't say anything.
German-Russians and their descendants who settled around the Wishek
area are stoic and reserved, more unique than they themselves realize.
I knew from Leon's silence that the letter contained bad news.
How bad, I didn't know. And from whom, I hardly knew, either--just
that the writer, a 62-year-old woman named Katherina Boschee, carried
my grandmother's family name.
In the letter, Katherina wrote that just the past February she'd
lost her husband from starvation; that in her village of Kassel,
South Russia, there was a "terrible grieving and moaning" as people
slowly died from lack of food.
The letter ended with a poignant appeal: "Oh, please, send whatever
money you can...or else I must go to the ground, from that most
terrible of deaths, starvation...Begging is not my way...but you,
and God, are our only hope."
The letter was written in expressive German-Russian dialect, and
the voice of the writer came alive on the page. The events seemed
real, immediate. For an instant, lost in my own thoughts, I started
to say, "We should help." Some of our relatives, I knew, still lived
in the former Soviet Union. Then I caught myself: The date at the
top of the letter was March 1933.
"Yah, they sure had a rough time over there," Leon sighed, fingering
his coffee cup.
By "they" he meant those German-Russians, including our own relatives,
who had not immigrated to America. By "rough time" he meant all
they had endured in Soviet Russia.
With that faded Xerox between us, we sipped our coffee in silence:
Leon, who'd stumbled on the letter by accident and realized its
value; and I, full of questions about Katherina Boschee, the letter
writer, and that time which she called "The year of hunger."
As we parted that day in Wishek, I tried to hand the letter back
to Leon. "Keep it," he said. "You'll make good use of it, I'm sure."
That letter eventually led me into a six-month period during which
I found hundreds more letters similar to that one.
Written in Russia in 1933, sent to relatives in North Dakota and
printed in old German newspapers like The Wishek Nachrichten, the
letters were signed by people whose last names belonged in the phone
books of many small towns in North and South Dakota, like Wishek,
Beulah, Lehr, Rugby, Long Lake, Eureka. There were Ketterlings,
Martels, Kramers, Heupels, Goehrings, Knolls, Reichs and Schritters.
There were Langs, Herrs, Eckmans, Wanners and Kloozes.
Later I'd appreciate those letters as a personal and scholarly
treasure trove--first-hand accounts of an event of historical significance.
Reading and translating the old German script into English took
time, even though many of the dialect words were familiar to me--from
my grandparents' speech, from their prayers: words like "Sorge"
(sorrow), "Helland" (savior), "Freundshaft" (family) and "Jammer"
Often the letters were poignant, laden with pain. Translating
them, I'd feel my cheeks wet with tears. Often I laid the letters
aside. "Someone else should do this," I thought. Eventually I'd
translated enough of the letters to fill a small book. After that,
I felt drawn to research the event that precipitated those letters.
'The Terror Famine'
A few soviet apologists believe the "terror famine"--which swept
Ukraine, the lower Volga and northern Caucasus areas in 1932-33--was
a natural disaster, the result of Soviet mismanagement, or a combination
of circumstances, including drought. But almost all of the famine
letters I translated, the survivors I spoke with and the sources
I consulted, told a different story.
Crops that year were average, even above average. So how could
people starve? More than one source--particularly Robert Conquest
in his book "Harvest of Sorrow"--states directly that the resulting
famine was "created" by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and
to force all of Ukraine's independent farmers, including German
colonists, to join collectivized Soviet agriculture.
After initial resistance to Stalin's collectivization plan, the
dictator dispatched more than 10,000 communist militants (called
"twenty-five thousanders," forerunners of Mao's Red guards) from
Moscow to Ukraine, to force Ukrainian farmers into compliance. Police
units and Red Army troops sealed off roads and railways during the
famine year. Nothing entered, or left, Ukraine. Hitler strung barbed
wire around concentration camps; Stalin created an Auschwitz out
of the entire Ukraine.
The famine letters, and survivor interviews, confirm the following:
Villages were searched, house to house. Metal rods were poked into
walls to locate hidden caches. All grain was confiscated. People
caught stealing, even mouthful of grain they'd grown themselves,
received lengthy prison terms.
The famine letters published in the Wishek newspaper document
the terror: "The children whine continually for food...people here
die like flies...There is no pity...Yesterday the commandant of
the district told us, `Wherever you insects have settled in Russia,
there will be hangings and shootings and starvation if you don't
fill the requirements of our harvest plan.'"
In 1933, the year of the "terror famine," the Soviets exported
750,000 metric tons of wheat, much of it confiscated from Ukraine.
Dumped on the world market, this grain depressed prices for American
farmers, including--ironically enough--German-Russians on the prairie,
who were often direct relatives of the people who'd grown and harvested
Villagers turned a ghastly color. One woman wrote that she looked
so horrific that her children ran from her. Their limbs swelled.
They were to weak to work.
Dying, many cursed Kaganovitch, known as "the Soviet Eichmann,"
who used hunger instead of bullets to destroy Ukrainian resistance
to collectivized farming. The world hunted down Nazi perpetrators
of war crimes; Kaganovitch died peacefully in Moscow only a few
years ago, still wearing his Order of the Soviet Union medal.
The starving people ate pets, bark, roots; they died of typhus,
hunger, cold. In the long, fragmented historical memory of German-Russians
in North Dakota, there remain whispered stories about relatives
left behind in Russia who stayed alive by eating whatever they could,
even their own dead children.
The letters carry a terrible eloquence: "We are a lost people,
forgotten by all but God. Our world here is a vortex of evil...A
great yoke of suffering has been placed on us...I am a worn-out
pilgrim, here in this valley of tears."
Many letters contained final messages to the writers' American
relatives: "Oh, forgive me, sister, if I have ever wronged you...I
want to go to our Lord with a clean heart...We will meet again,
but not in this life. My hope is in heaven. Live well."
Not all was bleak. Though financially strapped themselves, German-Russians
in the Wishek area and elsewhere often responded to those desperate
requests for help.
During the height of the Depression, my grandmother's brothers,
John V. and Adolf Boschee, spearheaded one effort. Born in Kassel
and brought as children to America with their parents in 1884, these
two Boschee brothers gathered money, particularly from members of
their extended family, their "Freundschaft," who'd settled on farms
in south-central North Dakota. A quarter here, a dollar there, the
money collected was sent to their impoverished kin in Kassel, who
journeyed to the nearby city of Tiraspol in Ukraine, to a free-enterprise
store called "Torgsin." There, in exchange for gold or American
dollars, they bought enough food to keep themselves alive.
Money from America saved many lives. Some letters reflect that
fact: "If your letter would have arrived a week later, we would
have all died...I thank you a thousand times, dear brother...I fell
on my knees and whined, crying to God in thanks for your letter...thanks
for the great gift from your heart, which saved us from certain
Around 250,000 Germans living in Russia died as a direct result
of the 1932-33 "terror famine" in Ukraine, North Caucasus and the
lower Volga. Estimates of the famine's entire death toll from this
famine, hardly even mentioned in history books, range from five
million to twelve million.
Was Katherina, the writer of the letter that Leon gave me that
day, among the victims? Probably, although with help from her American
relatives, she may have survived.
It is unlikely, however, that she survived what followed: the
trek of German villagers in 1944, in the wake of the retreating
German Army, back to Germany; and after the war, their forcible
repatriation and return to the Soviet Union, where they were deported
to Siberia and other points east.
This coming summer, I hope to visit the "Bundestreffen" in Stuttgart,
Germany--the huge gathering of Germans from Russia who, after the
fall of communism, have returned from the far reaches of the former
Soviet Empire to their original homeland. There perhaps I will meet
Katherina's children, or some of my grandmother's other relatives,
who were lucky enough to survive the time when they were pilgrims
in the valley of tears.
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine.