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Bessarabia: Homeland for the Homeless

"Bessarabien: Heimat für Heimatlose"

Haase, Wolfgang. "Bessarabia: Homeland for the Homeless." Globus Spezial, n.d., 120-125.

Translation from German to English by Claudia Müller


To begin with, to the readers of my childhood memories a few lines for a better understanding. My father was a true Bessarabian citizen. He lived here, sometimes under Russian, sometimes under Romanian rule, until his studies in Germany where he met my mother. After that he was separated from his homeland for several years. Only his continual homesickness for Bessarabia drew him back there sporadically for a certain length of time. I am not born in Bessarabia but grew up there intermittently between my second and tenth birthday. (That's why in the eyes of many countrymen I am not a true Bessarabian.) At the beginning of my schooling I attended the Four-Nations-School where I was the only German. I always remained a homeless auslander because of all these circumstances under which I suffered very much. When I was in Germany, I was called "Russian", when I was in Romania, I was a "German". Such unpleasant situations have accompanied me for many years of my life. Today, after decades, I have found an answer to the question, 'Who are you, where do you come from': a Bessarabian. Bessarabia, the land between Russia, Romania and the Black Sea, is home to many who loved it, also to me. The here following events should prove this.

My contribution is to be a reminder to all countrymen to absolutely pass on to our descendants the experiences as long as this is still possible because forgetfulness of our time is the tool with which experiences and memories can be extinguished forever.

The heat of a late summer hung dry and muggy over the fields and the village in the center of which was the estate of my grandparents. I must have been seven years old; it was a Saturday afternoon and I was sitting with my grandma in front of the house in the shade of a mulberry tree loaded with fruit. The whole yard and the activities could be well viewed from here. The entryway to the yard was between a white brick wall and the garden, a colorful paradise of flowers and bushes. Granary, barn and shed were connected to the long residential building; they made up one side of the yard. The opposite side was bordered by the back of neighboring houses and a row of poplars. A wide barn and a group of oak trees next to it completed the upper yard. Numerous crows' nests served as aim of unsuccessful attacks by us children.

Between the barn and the oak trees you reached the threshing area located outside the yard and the fence which were surrounded by high barns for straw. The vegetable and kitchen garden completed the estate. In the upper corner of the yard was the "Kellerbuckel" which led to the cellar dug deep into the ground; next to it large stacks of firewood and stacks of kindling wood where colonies of sparrows were hopping and poking around - more frequently yet, endangered by approaching cats, were flying off in a hurry with deafening chirping. In the middle of the yard was a well with long troughs for watering cattle.

My grandparents mutually respected the responsibilities in the family and on the farm. Grandma was the heart and soul of everything; grandpa however, was the helmsman. While grandma and the farm girls took care of a smooth daily operation in the home and in the family, grandpa with the farm hands and laborers managed the yard and the field. Both were honest and diligent, faithful people respected everywhere by family and villagers. My father was driving into the yard on a "Bedarka", a one-horse carriage with two wheels. Before he could ask if I wanted to come along to the vineyard, I had already climbed onto the seat. My small dog "Welush" immediately headed under the axle between the two wagon wheels where he was running along with us protected from the rays of the sun and attacking, strange dogs. When we left the yard and turned onto the wide village street, a "Djochet peddler" was driving through the village with his covered wagon pushing his goods in a loud voice. As the colonies were often far from the next town and a public connection, their residents came only rarely to the trading centers. Therefore, peddlers of this kind, who were selling furs, eggs, feathers, meat, corn and other items, were frequently found in the villages. A covered wagon with odds and ends was the store and sleeping area at the same time to the adventurous appearing peddlers. Wagon and horse easily showed, if the peddler was a Russian, Romanian or a Jew.

By the cheers and greetings I recognized their sympathy for my father. Occasionally, pugnacious dogs coming from their yards followed our wagon barking. In the protection of the wagon, my dog acted fresh and loudmouthed towards these attackers.

The picture of the village of this so-called street village with an upper and lower village was characterized by one-story high, white and red farm houses facing the streets with their gables and which were located at both sides of the street. Depending on the age of the houses their flat roofs were covered with roofing tiles, tin or reed. Not infrequently a stork's nest crowned the roof. Strong wooden fences or brick walls decorated with artistic ornaments sheltered the yards from the street. A walk way lined with smelling acacias was on both sides of the street along the yard entry ways. In winter the streets were frozen hard, in summer they were covered with ankle deep dust that, after every shower, turned them into a hardly passable, muddy wasteland.

It was no fun to follow the peddler driving ahead in a cloud of thrown up dust; that's why we drove slower. My father pointed to the bustling activity of housewives and farm girls in front of summer kitchens and ovens. The rising smoke and spreading smell of baked goods were a sign of a Saturday when the meals for Sunday were prepared. Due to the climatic conditions, a summer kitchen with an attached oven away from the house was used in the summer months. The overall picture of the village gave an orderly and clean impression, a characteristic of a German colony. Except for a few merchants and skilled craftsmen like smith, brick layers and carpenters the majority of the village were farmers.

A breed of people largely marked by its environment, with rough edges, hard in taking, even harder in giving, with a big heart and soul, humor and dependability, diligence, endurance and a willingness to sacrifice were prerequisites for the harvest of their soil and existence of their families. They complemented and promoted each other with their varied dispositions and abilities. They developed a sense of community which was necessary for their continued existence and the protection from outside influences and corruption of their cultural and intellectual life. With a given loyalty towards their host countries they gained a high degree of respect and at the same time a guarantee for the preservation of their independence and their colonies. Their character corresponds to the saying: "What you have inherited from your fathers, take it to own it."

A low, primitive hut uninhabited and weathered was in a hiding place in a garden by a street. Two small windows and a crude wooden door were directly below a straw covered roof. It was the last hut in the village still standing since the time of founding. Even before we arrived at the cross in the center of the village large acacia trees were seen enclosing the back side of the cemetery. I remembered the accident in which a little girl I knew was tragically killed; my parents had taken me along to the funeral.

The well kept grave sites with at times monumental head stones were between winding trails just like a chess board. Small slabs and simple crosses, where traces of weathering for decades were visible, stood among ornate, carved crosses of stone. Dates on graves such as: "born March 1829, died August 1908", or "born 1933, died 1937". "A cemetery is an outward and inward reflection of a colony", noted my father. Our ancestors, our flesh and blood rest here after a long journey filled with privation. Their destiny began almost 200 years ago: religious persecution, bad economic conditions, statute labor as farmers in the former German small states were the cause to follow their desire for freedom and to leave their home and their fatherland. By nature they were never inclined to revolutionary thinking; they wanted to prove their independence in other countries and continents. They trekked eastwards to uncertainty with covered wagons trusting in God and their abilities. Beyond the Transylvania of today, the Banat and Bessarabia, from the Black Sea across the Volga to the Caucasus and the expanse of the Russian steppe did they follow the offers to settle made by Eastern dynasties. They developed there their wonderful pioneering spirit. Their start-up capital: ax, saw, shovel and hard work. They cleared vast virgin forests, fought against the elements of nature, against invaders, hunger and typhus; they turned barren steppes into fertile farmland under great privation often risking their lives and they created a homeland also for us. Their drive for independence paid off through slow but continually increasing prosperity for themselves and for their host countries. They gained a high degree of respect and high regard for Germans abroad through their achievements and correctness. Their courage and intrepid nature were taken note of by the Russian Czar who made some of them even to generals of his army. In foreign countries they were the custodians and upholder of German culture and history and therefore the best ambassadors of their fatherland. We can be proud of those ancestors, owe them much.

Our ancestors have let standing five huge oak trees as a reminder of the virgin forest once growing here. Today, these oak trees form the center of town; two wide streets intersect below them. After our arrival we turned onto the northern cross road. As we had a long way ahead of us, my father got the horse moving with a pull on the reigns and clicking his tongue. Past the bell tower and the school, we soon reached the upper end of the village and shortly afterwards the first fields and pastures.

We had left the village behind long ago. I was sitting beside my father, a little tired and listened to his soft and cheerful whistling. The scorching heat made it especially difficult for our horse; it was dragging its feet and its head was hanging down in the hot dust of the street. Stamping its hoofs and the grinding of the wheels raised the dust to a heavy cloud which followed our wagon like a swarm of flies. A pull on the reigns and a short "Prrr" brought the horse to a stop. Manja warded off the flies by continually wagging its tail. Our dog Welush used the brief rest stop to lie in the shade of the corn field with his tongue sticking out. My father got slowly up from his seat, took his straw hat from his head and wiped the sweat off his forehead and his hair.

"He is a true Bessarabian", I thought proudly; "a tall, handsome man, courageous and diligent, honest and pious, a strict but just father and to my mother the best husband on earth", as she always said. His knowledge of languages made a friendly and almost amicable contact with foreigners possible. Due to his knowledge and experiences in life his advice was always welcomed in the community. He had remained a member of the village community in spite of his absence for a longer period of time and was more than happy when he could once again be at home in his homeland. He stood like that, holding his straw hat as a shield against the bright rays of the sun and quietly humming melancholically his favorite song: "Wenn ich den Wanderer frage..." (When I ask the wanderer)". Content he let his eyes gaze over the vast fields; a never ending plain with ripe corn fields was before us. At the horizon a horse-drawn vehicle that you could only recognize as a small cloud of dust was moving slowly. To the side in a depression corn and sunflower fields extended as far as a rolling hill in the distance; a draw well was visible at its foot. The blazing heat of the sun was yellow-golden across the seemingly endless steppe. A few small clouds were in the deep blue sky as if lost. The air was filled with an intoxicating smell of dry, ripe corn, flowers and grasses. Meadow larks rose to the sky quick like lightning remaining above the fields for seconds and their cheerful warbling faded away in the endless summer sky. A strange silence subdued the expanse of the landscape and let us experience its beauty undisturbed. Never before did I perceive the steppe so impressive although I had spent part of my childhood here. "Pictures that are not only seen, penetrate deep into the soul and mark man permanently", noted my father.

We had to have been standing for a long time because when we went on, the sun had already turned westward. After a short time we reached our destination, the vineyard of my grandfather. As a rule, older farmhands were used as guards of the vineyard because it was an easy task. So it was with our guard, a loyal servant by the name of Stephan who had worked for us for a long time; a Tsherkese always with unkempt grey hair and a long beard. A suspiciously big "red nose" like a ripe radish protruding from his wrinkled, pink face. The "Mosh", (old man) always clicked his tongue with pleasure after a big gulp of wine, stroked his beard phlegmatically with both hands as a sign of well being and closed his eyes tightly grinning at the same time. We children were afraid of these guards and herdsmen. To us they were inscrutable and almost wild people because of their scruffy looking appearance and their strange language. They were only rarely seen in the village because most of the time they were living in the seclusion of the vineyard and pastures.

However, I was no longer afraid of "Mosh Stephan" as he was generally called because I knew him for a long time. Every time he saw me, he asked me impishly laughing to say the word "Brinse" (cheese). As a German I was not in the position to pronounce perfectly the sharp "R" and the "Br" of the eastern language. And so he always roared with laughter about my tongue twisting "Pchinse". Like most of the guards and herdsmen, he could neither write nor read but instead tell tall tales. On occasion he told me stories about his distant homeland, the Caucasus, whereby fear frequently raised the hairs on my neck. He was, what is often encountered with Russians, a sensitive and well meaning child of nature yet dependable and always cheerful. Since his youth he lived among the German colonists as a diligent farm hand, modest and simple; thus, an "Ocka wine" was the highest recognition and praise at the same time for him.

We found him sitting in front of his earthen hut singing. When he saw my father and myself, he pulled himself together with the help of his "putka" (long club) which he always carried with him and greeted us in a friendly manner. He really didn't inspire confidence with his "papushen", the long pants of sheep skin, a very worn, long coat and unkempt hair. Even his emaciated and tired "Tarkat" (dog) could not improve the impression. After indicating a bow and a word of greeting in Russian he helped us slowly off the wagon. Curious he briefly looked to the bag under the seat which he knew was meant for him. Then he reported to my father about the activities wildly waving his hand in the air while both disappeared in the vineyard to check the vines.

I used the opportunity to check out a little closer Mosh's earthen hut. These "Buden" as we children called them, always appeared to us a bit creepy and yet, the romanticism of it lured me. The size of the small room dug one meter deep into the ground, a roof of reed across the den and the "Bude" was finished. A bench of dirt left where it was served as bed. The fire place was heaped with field stones; the flue was to the side and above a large pot blackened by soot served as the daily cooking pot. Our Mosh spent the whole summer and fall in this isolation; he only returned for the winter after the grape harvest to his small hut at the entrance to the village.

While I was still playing with the dogs, my father and Stephan returned from their rounds. Stephan's reference to his dry mouth from all the talking was made unmistakably clear to my father because he took immediately the large bag with sausage, garlic, cheese, bread, etc. off the wagon and gave it to the old man who looked a bit disappointed; only when the wine appeared from beneath the seat did the servant's face light up and with a servile expression of thanks he promised to continue to be a loyal guard. Satisfied with himself he lugged the "pickings" into his "Bude". As I expected, before we left he requested of me to say the word "Brinse" one more time. I did him that favor because I liked his broad and good laugh. He waved after us for a long time.

The sun set on the horizon in a bloody red und a gentle breeze swept across the peaceful fields. I looked back one more time but Mosh was no longer seen; rising smoke came presumably from the fire place where my old friend cooked his evening mamaliga (corn mush). Without a word to anyone I envied his adventure. I saw him sitting with his dog in front of his hut under the star lit night sky singing the familiar songs of his homeland, of Don and Volga by the poorly lit camp fire. A fearful barking of our dog awakened me from my childhood dreams.

I cuddled against my father because the stillness around us, the slowly upcoming dusk at the eastern horizon, the quiet rustling in the corn fields which we slowly passed scared me. Worried, I looked under the wagon for my dog; he trotted along faithfully. So we drove quietly towards the village. Occasionally the muffled creaking of our wagon and the quiet groaning of the harness were mixing in the stillness. Again and again a cool evening breeze swept across the fields and brought stalks and tops into slight movement.

Feeling uneasy I was thinking of the infamous gypsy village that was only a few verst beyond the hills of the Tartars and of all the short stories in which robbers and bandits had ambushed wagons driving unescorted through the darkness. To my question: "Papa, how far is it to home"?, my father lifted his finger and said: "Listen!" Peals of bells barely audible drifted across the steppe to us. I heaved a sigh of relief because we were soon at home in the protection of our village and the house.

Although I heard but did not understand what my father was trying to explain in a calm voice: "The bells are the pulse of the village and its people, they are an indication for the presence of life and life from the cradle to the casket." Nobody could overhear these bells and their sounds from the iron tower with the simple tin roof. The ringing of the bells at noon sounded tired while over the roofs of the village all the way to the fields in the distance, the sound of the bells in the evening announced to the farmers working in the fields the end of the day.

People were rudely awakened by ringing alarm bells before they hurried to the scene of a fire upon hearing, "fire, fire"! However, who doesn't like to think of the bronze companions and their joyous sound when they were ringing in the Easter morning across the country and awakened people and nature from their winter sleep. Who can forget the grand "bimbam, bimbam" which muffled by snow flurries accompanied the people bundled up in heavy fur, wearing high boots and carrying a lantern through the deep crunching snow. When saying good-ye forever the almost lamenting ringing of the bells joined the grief of the mourners when they were laying to final rest their loved ones.

To my pleasure the first light gables were seen emerging from under the arches of the oak and acacia trees which stood alongside the garden ditches. The bells were still ringing and the last muddled sounds of the village were softly heard over the roofs. Dogs were barking in the distance. We had reached the first gardens and turned onto a cross road. The tranquility after a busy work week descended slowly on the village. Cracks of whips and the shouts of herdsmen who drove their herds to the upper village were heard from the direction of the lower village. A hazy gray veil was hanging over the street of the village caused by the dust kicked up by sweeping yards and walkways. Off and on the smell of fresh Sunday pies coming from the ovens greeted us. Occasionally villagers were standing gossiping in front of their yard entrances resting from a days's work; their friendly calls carried over to us - my father returned the jokes.

It got dark when we turned into our yard. My mother and my grandparents were sitting with friends of the family at a bountiful table in front of the house under the old mulberry trees. They had been waiting for us for a long time. The smells of fried peppers, grilled eggplants, tomatoes and spices beckoned us to supper. A farm hand took the horse and cart, unhitched and unharnessed the horse and brought it to the others which were standing at a long trough under a group of oak trees at the upper end of the yard. Way up in the branches some guinea fowl had settled down for the night as usual. Upset about the intruders several ravens flew croaking out of the tops of the trees and into the darkness of the night sky.

In the chicken cube some hens were scuffling for a secure sleeping place on the perches by audibly flapping their wings; they finally settled down with a low clucking. A flock of geese known as dependable guards of yards camped at the trough of the well in the middle of the yard. Some sat head turned backwards and under their wings, others stood on one leg eyeing suspiciously every unusual movement in the yard announcing it quietly.

When I fell asleep I still heard in the distance Russian melodies through the open window. They were melancholy songs from home of the Russian farm girls and farm hands who every Saturday evening camped outside in a yard and sang their songs with a jug of wine accompanied by "harmoshka" (concertina) and balalaika. When the first stars started to twinkle in the blue night sky, the moon rose slowly behind the slender, high poplars. In the low light of the stars their long shadows lay eerily over the yard. The slowly upcoming cool of the night gradually stopped the laughter and the talking of the cheerful crowd in front of the house. The last light of a kerosene lamp went out and great tranquility spread across the small, sleepy and peaceful village in the middle of the vast steppes and forests between Pruth and Dniester.

Memories after almost 50 years are not only the cause of the melancholy question, "Where did they all go?" but are also proof that this border country between Romania and Russia is our homeland which has given birth to us, characterized and marked us and continues to live in our hearts.

The ringing of the bells has long since stopped, the soil of the homeland devastated and over grown, the village empty and orphaned. Uprooted, displaced, deported and homeless - this was the lot of all of us; of those who still remember, of those who fought, suffered and died always doing their duty for the fatherland, Germany, that they hardly knew but loved nevertheless. They found their last resting place far from their homeland: from the icy North Cape to the hot deserts of Northern Africa, from the Atlantic to the swamps of Russia and the snowy steppes of Siberia.

It is the continued tasks of those still living to pass on these experiences and values in order to fulfill the legacy of our ancestors who we had to leave behind at home and of those whose graves are scattered on foreign soil and to keep alive the homeland in the hearts of our descendants and to facilitate the answer to the frequently asked question, "Who are you, where do you come from": From Bessarabia.

Reprinted with permission of Verein für das Deutschtum im Ausland e.V.

Our appreciation is extended to Claudia Müller for translation of this article.

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