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The Orchestra

From a Story by Reinhold Schulz of Gießen/Germany (Edited by Nina Paulsen for German-language publication)

Paulsen, Nina. “The Orchestra." Volk auf dem Weg, August-September 2010, 14-15.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


The Wind/Brass Orchestra, established by Ivan Schmidt (right) in the Sheshart village

At a terribly early time this morning, the wind orchestra was playing a joyful melody on this particular May Day. The Trud-Army-ists woke up and reluctantly climbed from their camp cots. Curiosity finally did win out. Outside, in front of the canteen, the wind orchestra stood and performed musical leaps of joy. Ivan Schmidt enthusiastically directed the Trud-Army wind orchestra, but inwardly he saw seeing himself standing at the Volga, in his home village.

The explanation for all this that was given to the gathered Trud-Army-ists was simple: Germany had just been defeated, and the war was over, and for this occasion they would receive a double ration of bread and would not have to go to work that day. VICTORY! Many were unable to hold back tears. And ever so quickly the thought arose that one might soon be able to go home, back to the Volga. However, the eldest among them, taught better by life’s experiences over and over again, put the brakes on those expectations of the younger ones: “Wait! For us the war is not over. The bad ending is yet to come.”

* * *

“VICTORY!” Ivan Schmidt, too, had tears in his eyes. He remembered how it all started – the war breaking out and then that insidious decree. Overnight, all Volga Germans had become homeless and, without guilt, declared guilty. They were stripped of all rights and banished, foreigners in their own country, they had lost their good name and all they had possessed, and they were to leave behind the graves of their dead, without any hope of ever getting anything back.

On the shore of the Volga, next to the pier, hundreds were awaiting the transport ship under blank skies, and next to them their bare necessities in boxes and bundles. Children were running around without a care. There was cooking on open fires. The adults were hopelessly restless, for they did not know how long and where they were to travel – perhaps forever? On the transport ship, packed tightly together like sardines, they were counted like cattle, as if anyone could still contemplate an escape – and where to? After a few days half of the passengers had become ill, and there were the first dead, those who perhaps did not want to leave their Volga home, buried in a shallow grave on the river’s edge.  

Next the deportees were loaded onto a train, and in cattle cars they continued onward. The train rolled for weeks, in an easterly direction. At each stop, deceased village neighbors were taken outside and buried as quickly as possible.

In his revery, Ivan Schmidt remembered how a child got lost at some stop, the father searching desperately for his son, but without finding him; and then missing getting back on the train, trying to make it by spending his remaining energy and grabbing a handle, but unable to pull himself up. Before all the onlookers he would fall down and land under the wheels, and the train continued to roll and roll and roll.

Despite everything else on that trip, Ivan Schmidt had experienced again and again examples of compassion and human kindness. Russian women would approach the train at the stations and secretly give the children food.

After one month the train reached the Altai region in Western Siberia. People had barely become somewhat inured to their miserable situation when suddenly they had to continue again, but in a totally different direction, with the final stop, Sevlag of the NKVD, in the Far North.

These Germans were already looking like death warmed over when things really got going. On the way all pots and bowls of any kind were confiscated. So they simply put their kascha [a kind of porridge] into hats – hunger somehow was able to trump pride and dignity.

Finally, these Trud-Army-ists – as if they were pigs – were given a wooden pail, one for each ten persons. But there was hardly anything to eat – perhaps a piece of bread here and some evil smelling balanda, a kind of soup, there. The authorities had simply siphoned away the real foodstuffs and put them on the back market. Ivan Schmidt had observed how sacks of flour and sugar, butter and bread had been taken off the train car holding the provisions, but the Germans, the “mute ones,” could not complain, and if so, to whom?

In the new camp, too, in the village Sheshart in the Komi ASSR, one always felt the barrel of a gun in one’s back. Again, there were barbed wire, armed guards, work in the forest – to sheer exhaustion –famine-like rations, and barracks with armies of lice, bedbugs, stinging bugs and rats. And each day there were some who died of hunger, the cold, and the excruciatingly hard work. Of course here, too, there was not even talk of work clothes, many wading to work through the snow in nearly bare feet. Someone, somehow, got the idea of making chuni (footwear) from completely untreated horsehide. These hides had been torn off horses that had died from being completely overworked. But anyone not paying attention at all times could easily lose his chuni in the deep of night, when they might be entirely eaten up by the rats looking as entire packs for anything edible.

Ivan Schmidt had also been among the “candidates for death,” called the dochodzhagi in camp jargon. Freed from work in part, he was sitting and quietly playing Christmas melodies on a harmonica, the only musical instrument in the entire area. The director of the wood-felling camp in Sheshart, Ivan Vassilyevich Meryoshin, was reputed to be a decent and just man. As he was passing by he heard the music and was astounded at how beautiful it sounded. Early in the morning he decided to stop to see the musician.

“So you like music?” he asked.

“Well, yes,” Ivan Schmidt replied cautiously. One never knows …

“I do, too. Music is something special, but unfortunately I can’t play any instrument. Where did you learn that?”

“Back home. Music was much loved in our Volga Republic. In every church, and later in every school, too, there would be an orchestra. And in nearly every family at least someone, sometimes two, three, and sometimes the women and children, would play an instrument. There were many family ensembles, and concerts were held at harvest festivals and at Christmas. But now …” looking at his callused, sliced-up hands, he added, and now these hands have to work with axes, saws and spades

“Are there other musicians among you? Could you start a wind orchestra?” asked the boss.

“Nothing easier than that, maybe even more than one. But where will we get the instruments?” Ivan had become instantly enthusiastic.

“I have an idea about that. Leningrad has just been liberated. I have a friend there from whom I recently received a letter. He would like to get together with me. You and I will both go there and bring back some instruments,” said Meryoshin.

“I cannot leave the camp without permission,” replied Ivan Schmidt.

 “With me you can. I have already arranged it with the commandant.”

Accompanied by their Leningrad friend, the two trudged to every second-hand or consignment stores, and everywhere the German virtuoso provided solo concerts while testing an instrument for tone and durability. Soon they were able to load up boxes containing clarinets, trombones, drumming equipment, and they transported them by train back to the Far North.

At the same time, music enthusiasts were conducting practices with all possible makeshift means. Lacking paper, the musicians used birch bark and in that way produced a “birch score.” Be they waltzes, polonaises, marches, folk or revolutionary songs – everyone contributed to the collection.

Formal practices began on the same day the musical instruments arrived. Everyone wanted to be a musician. A search was begun in the local school for a youth orchestra. The boss ordered materials for stage-appropriate clothing to be made available for the orchestra members, and red material to be used for banners. Women who could sew volunteered to make fashionable pants and red shirts.

Meanwhile, for the first time since their original mobilization, the Trud Army members were given some clothing, mostly used military uniforms that had been rejected from military supplies. These included jackets and winter boots (valenki).Then they even heard the order that armed surveillance of the worker brigades be lifted. The newly freed barracks building formerly used by the guards was quickly transformed into a club. Separating walls and the main guard office were dismantled, and a stage was built. Slowly but surely a small measure of normality entered the life of the Trud-Army members.

Music is something that affects the soul, and with music the souls of the Trud-Army folks were enlivened. On a Saturday the first evening dance was staged. To the German deportees this truly seemed like a miracle. This dance event, with the wind orchestra supplying the music, was attended not only by the mobilized Germans, but also by locals coming from a considerable distance. The orchestra played without stopping and presented melodies from the Volga that may not have been so well known to many of the latter group. The joyous activity, the music, and the lively dancing made the window panes vibrate in the barracks.

The wind orchestra soon gained a well known reputation in the entire area, and after those events, life in banishment and under lack of freedom had become just a bit more worthwhile and more joyous. Moreover, the orchestra perhaps saved many a life. For that, most importantly, it was all worth every bit of effort..               

* * *

Johann Schmidt, the Volga German, who was born in 1918, would be able to look back on a long and stressful life, but also on some happiness. However, neither after the war nor many years later would he be able to return to his Volga homeland. In 1997 he emigrated from Uralsk to Germany.

Johann Schmidt died at age 89, exactly on his birthday (December 9), in 2007. He is buried in Großenhain near Dresden. The talented musician lives on in his seven children, fourteen grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren, all making their homes in Germany.    

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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