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Aging German Russians: “We Had Many Homelands”

Wiedermann, Mathias. "Aging German Russians: 'We Had Many Homelands.'" Main Post, 12 April 2012.

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


As part of our series on integration, we pose the following question: What do people with an immigration background do as they age? While many guest workers returned to their countries of birth after retirement, Germans from Russia remain here, even if they do not always call Germany their homeland.

You cannot ask older Germans from Russia about their homeland and expect a simple answer. Alexander Kessler, for example, replies: “We have had many homelands.” At age 78, Kessler is the youngest of five ladies and gentlemen who during a get-together at the Deutschhof assembled for an interview. The oldest, Leopold Kinzel, will be ninety in a few months. The suggested topic for the conversation: “What do Germans from Russia do as they age?” originated with Luba Hurlebaus, deputy chairperson of the Integration Committee and herself a German from Russia.

The five happen to play music together, but we’ll deal with that a bit later. Initially the conversation is about answering the original question. While many members of the first generation of guest workers tend to return to their homelands after retirement, Germans from Russia remain here. In places they once called their [real] homeland they were branded as strangers. After a life filled with a variety of experiences between Ukraine and Siberia, and between flight and expulsion, they arrived in Germany, the country from which their ancestors had come. There is no specific place to which they could or would return: “We have lived through so much. But being here – there is nothing better,” says Kessler, and the others nod in agreement.

“You wish to find out whether we have been integrated,” says 83-year-old Lydia Steinlich-Renz somewhat slyly. After all, the phrase “People with an immigration background” conscientiously leaves room for the question as to whether these people who indeed are living here might perhaps still prefer to be somewhere else. “Well, I don’t yearn to go back,” says Lydia Steinlich-Renz. For her, after nearly forty years, Schweinfurt is home.

“It is said that your home is where your crib once stood,” replies Alexander Kessler. “Here we are doing well, but home…?”

The lives of these five people ran extremely different courses, yet they all existed under one strong common historical situation. These five are all descendants of those German settlers who – through the urging of Tsarina Catherine II, who herself was born in Stettin, a German city – had originally settled in the Tsarist Empire during the 18th and 19th Centuries, primarily along the Volga River and along the Black Sea. The villages and cities they established had German names such as Neuenburg, Rosenbach, or Neuhorst. The families spoke German, often tinged with the Swabian dialect of their forefathers. They sang German songs and maintained their German customs. All five of our group also personally experienced the turmoil of the 20th Century, most of all the despotism of the Soviet state, including exclusion, deportation, imprisonment, hunger and forced labor. “They did survive Hitler and Stalin,” noted Luba Hurlebaus.

“Every German to Germany”

While Alfred Renz, 82, was able to slog his way on foot from Poland to Schleswig-Holstein in 1945 and has been living in the German Federal Republic ever since, Lilli Ignatz, born in Murmansk eighty-two years ago, has been here only nine years. Until the war she had been living on the Crimean Peninsula. When her mother was arrested, Lilli was taken to a “special home for children” in Kazakhstan, where the German Russians were systematically left to die of hunger. “We were all very skinny in those days,” says Lilli Ignatz. Later she married a Russian officer. Today her two children live in St. Petersburg and Murmansk. “But they don’t come to visit very often,” she added.

Alfred Renz and his wife Lydia Steinlich-Renz were both originally from Volhynia, an area in Ukraine where many Germans once lived. In 1943/1944 both were “resettled” from Volhynia to the Warthegau, a region in German-occupied [western] Poland. It was a time when in the Soviet Union the short-lived slogan “All Germans to Germany!” was in vogue.

However, while Alfred was inducted into the Hitler Youth organization and later landed in the West, the then sixteen-year-old Lydia and two younger siblings were dragged off toward points east. Their mother had died shortly after the birth of the youngest sister, so Lydia had to leave the infant behind in an infants’ home. “Later on we discovered her in the German Democratic Republic [Communist East Germany], but that’s another story,” said Lydia. She [Lydia] had managed to make the 4,000-kilometer trek [ca. 2,400 miles!] back, but in close proximity to the German border she was caught by the Russians and – like hundreds of thousands of other German Russians – deported to Siberia.

Lydia and Alfred Renz got to know each other much later. It was via a personal ad Alfred had placed in Volk auf dem Weg, the official organ of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland [Association of Germans from Russia]. By that time she was living in Schweinfurt, and he was in the North-Rhine-Westphalia region. They married in 1980.

Leopold Kinzel was born in 1922 in the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Volga Germans. Through the tenth grade he was able to attend a German school, and in 1940, at age 17, he was put into an officers’ training school of the Soviet Army, but a year later he was released because he was German. By the time he got back to the Volga, his family had been deported to Siberia. “Dogs and cattle were milling around in the abandoned villages. The state certainly inflicted a lot of harm on itself at that time,” recounted Kinzel.

He can recall every significant date in his life. As a stow-away he rode on coal train car to Siberia, where he arrived on September 3, 1941. For a whole month he searched the gigantic rough region for his parents, and he actually discovered them on October 12 in the Altai region. Three months later he, his father and his brother were forced to enter the “Workers’ Army” [Trud-Armya in Russian – Tr.], which meant a life alongside common criminals in barbed-wire-encircled camps, of forced labor, and of hunger. Even the two-week transport there was sheer torture – in closed-off cattle cars people were taken to the Urals north of the Polar Circle. “For the Russians we were all criminals,” recounts Kinzel. “At that time many, many people died of starvation. Of the 18,000 Germans in the camps of our region, only 3,500 survived.”

Failing to Recognize a Brother

Like Kinzel, Alexander Kessler, born near Odessa in1934, also ended up in the forced-labor camps in Siberia. For twelve long years he toiled in the forests the Soviets forced the laborers to clear. His father had been taken away when he was only two years old. Kessler’s biographical wanderings may well have touched the most stations along the way: Ukraine, Hitler’s Germany, Poland, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Moldavia [now Moldova – Tr.], and Germany. Thirty-four years ago he managed to enter the transition/reception camp of Friedland, Germany, where he was asked where in Germany he might like to live. Kessler, one of seven siblings, knew that one of his brothers was living in Nuremberg. So they sent him to Schweinfurt. Only later did he travel to Nuremberg to see his brother again. He did not recognize him.

Alexander Kessler takes two black-and-white photos from his briefcase. One depicts his village in Siberia, a settlement of barracks between newly cleared hillsides. The other picture shows three of his brothers sitting on a bench in front of a hut and making music together with a guitar, a mandolin, and a balalaika. They are three serious-looking young men wearing typical peaked caps and the typical shirts buttoned all way to the top.

Making music has been part of Kessler all his life, as is the case for those in that small group in the photo. “I have been making music for eighty years,” says Leopold Kinzel, who leads a seven-man ensemble that usually performs at afternoon meetings of seniors of the Landsmannschaft. “We are a real band,” says Lydia Steinlich-Renz, grinning. Indeed, the five have all brought their instruments for the photo shoot, and they demonstrate their prowess by playing fast polkas, Russian-sounding songs, and especially old German folksongs such as “Down in the Valley.” “Our forefathers retained all this in Russia. Much has been forgotten in Germany,” says Leopold Kinzel.

Just as with every significant date in his life, Kinzel keeps every key and every chord in his head. He uses the Italian designations for them, as is the custom in Russia. “Sol minor,” for example, namely, G-minor. Kinzel intones half a bar and the rest join in on the other half. They pluck mandolins, balalaikas and guitars, play a harmonica, and sing in harmony. “Du liegst mir im Herzen” [You are in my Heart] or “Heimat, wie bist du schön” [My Home, how Beautiful you are].

These songs have accompanied their entire lives. The small music-making group prefers to play just for themselves, perhaps because these songs no longer mean anything to most Germans in Germany, or perhaps because their lives are so different from the native-born Germans. That aspect was similar in Russia. “We are a clique again,” says Lydia Steinlich-Renz. Her 57-year-old daughter, she adds, works here in the hospital and “she is well-liked, but has no native acquaintances. No one invites her to anything. When people hear that we came from Russia, they tend to shrink back.”

The Long History of the Germans in Russia

Germans lived in Russian cities as early as the middle ages. And when Tsar Peter the First had the new capital built during the early 18th Century, primarily craftsmen came to Russia.

The largest impetus for Germans settling in Russia came from Tsarina Catherine II (1729 –1796), who was born in the German city of Stettin and whose goal was to colonize uninhabited regions of the Russian Empire.

To the settlers she granted a number of privileges, such as freedom of religion, exemption from military service, self-governing at the local level with German as the official language, initial financial assistance, and thirty years of exemption from paying taxes.

The Tsarina did her recruiting via newspapers and in churches in various princedoms. Catherine’s [second] manifesto, dated July 22, 1763, stated: “We permit all foreigners to come to our Empire and to settle in all Gouvernements, wherever they please.” And those wishing to leave the Empire again would be obliged “to pay to our treasury a part of all possessions they have acquired in our Empire.”

In subsequent years as many as 30,000 German people emigrated to the Tsarist Empire, primarily from the Rhineland, from North Bavaria and Baden, from Hessen and from the Palatinate.

As it turned out, they were defnitely not permitted to settle “wherever they pleased.” For the most part they were sent to the Volga region to cultivate the wilderness there.

Beginnings were very hard. The climate, epidemics, and attacks by nomadic riders decimated the population initially. But by the end of the 19th Century the number of settlers had increased to 400,000.
The second main settlement region was the area adjacent to the Black Sea in Ukraine, just previously conquered by Russia. By the end of the 19th Century, around 270,000 German people lived there. In the course of Alexander the Second’s abolishment of serfdom, the settlers’ privileges [originally promised “in perpetuity” – Tr.] were revoked. Although a new wave of measures intended to “Russify” the Empire engendered a large wave of emigration, by 1914 there were 2.4 million Germans in the Tsarist Empire. 

During the World Wars, the Revolution, and particularly Stalin’s reign, innumerable acts of chicanery were visited upon the Germans in Russia. Starting in 1941, they were systematically deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia and placed in forced-labor camps. Until 1956 they endured – entirely without any civil rights – a special administrative regime. They were “rehabilitated” in 1964, and in subsequent years many families emigrated. The largest wave of Germans from Russia reached their original homeland, Germany, after the fall of the Soviet Union, between 1989 and 1994. According to a census of 2010, barely 90,000 Germans were living in the Altai and Novosibirsk regions. (Source: Wikipedia)

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