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How It Was: A personal account of events during the deportation of the Volga Germans

Schmidt, Isolde, Alfred. "How It Was: A personal account of events during the deportation of the Volga Germans." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2012, 32.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO. Editing by Dr. Nancy A. Herzog.


For Germans from Russia, the 28th of August remains one of the most tragic days in their fateful and turbulent history. It is the date [in 1941] when the edict was published which decreed the resettlement [deportation] of the entire German population of the Soviet Union to places beyond the Ural Mountains. [Translator’s note: Actually, a large number of Germans (ca. 350,000) remained in the Soviet Union (Ukraine) temporarily, albeit under German occupation. They were initially not subject to Soviet deportation. However, in 1944 the German army removed them from Ukraine to Poland and eastern Germany, and in 1945 they were then also deported by the Soviets.]

When people speak of the sorrowful fate of the German Russian ethnic group during and after World War II, not too rarely they forget that the fateful events of deportation and Trud-Army hell were actually preceded by years of massive repression that also demanded tens of thousands of victims. In the 1930s, Stalinist terror had spread to the entire country, but it was the German Russians who would, in comparison to the overall population, count the greatest number of victims among all nationalities. Even in the early 1930s, Soviet security organs had begun to consider Russia’s Germans – be it simple famers, employees, or party functionaries – as enemies of the people and agents for German fascism.

One can neither circumscribe nor forget the history of the German Russians, in all its depth and its fullness of victims. In this vain, August 28 always brings to mind especially sad memories and feelings, particularly among those who experienced in their own person the entirety of adversities of German Russian history of the 20th Century; or perhaps also among those who experienced those disastrous years as children. For many of them certain images have been burned indelibly into their memories. The passage of time is inexorable and relentless, and thus the number of contemporary witnesses of those times is ever diminishing.

A human life is brief, yet a person’s memory is capable of storing certain decisive events for an entire lifetime. In that same way, even after seventy years, my childhood memories have doggedly retained images that I can neither erase nor banish from my family’s history. With overwhelming memories and feelings, the events of that time shortly prior to the war and during the time of deportation – clearly and very distinctly – continue to appear before my eyes as if in a film.

The date is June 22, 1941. I, still a preschooler, and my parents are at the market in Saratov. It is noon-time on a very hot day, and I am thirsty. The immense square is filled with people, horses and wagons, poultry and small animals of every kind, and a row of booths invite people to buy their multiplicity of goods. The colorful carousel is turning merrily, and from somewhere above one can hear march music. For children, a visit to the market is always a special feast. There are toys, new things, sweets, ice cream – one nearly doesn’t know where to turn one’s head.

Suddenly and very abruptly, the music stops. It is replaced with a man’s voice emanating from the loudspeakers: “Attention! Attention! This is the Soviet Information Service speaking. Today, on June 22, around 4 o’clock in the morning, Fascist Germany, with treachery, and without declaring war, launched an attack on our country …”

People at the market are standing as if cast in stone, listening intently to the voice from the loudspeaker, which is announcing war. The new shoes my parents bought for me are too tight and are causing hellish pain. Impatiently, I pull on father’s and mother’s sleeves, calling out “Let’s go home!” But no one pays attention to me. Mother is crying, and father, also like a stone statue, is staring at the ground.

The square empties quickly. People hurry to find a way to get across the Volga from this side. At that time there was not yet a bridge across the Volga, and the link between Saratov and Engels happened mainly via ferry.

Two months later our house is again filled with excitement. Our parents are packing in a great hurry, grandmother and grandfather are plucking chickens – provisions being prepared for a far journey, of which nobody knows the destination. Very soon we’re all sitting in a large rail freight car that has many cracks and is sealed off via a clanking, creaky sliding door. The car is crammed with people, suitcases and various bundles. Space is very tight, with barely enough air to breathe, and children are crying. The only “walls” separating families are bed sheets and window curtains. There are no toilets – instead, there are buckets for emergency use, and people take advantage of possibilities during rare stops at rail stations.

There it is necessary to procure hot water, and one runs as fast as possible, teapot in hand, to get water for cooking. Peddlers station themselves along the cars in hopes of selling their food wares. People also use stops to get some fresh air and to stretch their legs, none of which is possible when the train is moving.

I remember the figure of a young man who recites his own poems in German, “Homeland, homeland …” With energetic gestures, and in march tempo he recites line and verse. (Later my mother would tell me that it was Victor Klein, a fellow student of hers who was traveling in the next car. [Klein was a well-known Volga German literary figure. – Tr.])

The days and nights are getting steadily colder as Siberia comes ever closer. Shortly after our arrival, father is inducted into the “Trud Army,” mother bears a child and is therefore not inducted – my little sister being her “savior.”

… For fifty years we waited for the return to the Volga -- all in vain. And now we are in Wiesbaden on the banks of the River Rhine, where on August 28, 2011 a memorial was erected that reminds us of our forefathers who once upon a time had the courage to move to a strange land and find a new home there.

Again and again, though, I ask myself the same question: Why? For what specific guilt did the German Russians have to empty that bitter chalice to the last drop? Could it perhaps be anger over the fact that around 240 years ago our forefathers left their homeland and left it in a lurch during very difficult times? 

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy A. Herzog for editing the article.

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