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Rotfront is a bit of Germany nestled in Kyrgyzstan's mountains.

Tidy Germans Cling to Central Asia

Kinzer, Stephen. "Tidy Germans Cling to Central Asia." New York Times International, 11 October 1999, sec. A4.


Rotfort, Kyrgyzstan - With the stroke of a pen, Irene Pauls can change her life forever.
Parishioners of the German House of Prayer Church in Rotfront, Kyrgyzstan, leaving the church recently.
Because she is descended from German immigrants, Ms. Pauls is eligible to move to Germany whenever she pleases. The German Government will give her a plane ticket, help in finding a home and a job, and the prospect of a higher living standard than most citizens of this remote and mountainous former Soviet republic could ever imagine.

"Naturally I'm tempted," Ms. Pauls said in fluent German as she paused along Rotfront's tidy main street. "My whole family and my husband's whole family have gone. They're always writing to tell us we should go, too."

"What holds me back is that in Germany, we'll be penned up in an apartment, maybe in a big city," she said. "Here we live in a beautiful place with clean air. The children have the whole outdoors as a playground, plus animals to play with. There are plenty of problems here, but still, it's my home."

Ms. Pauls and the 300 other ethnic Germans who live in this well-kept town are part of one of the world's most rapidly disappearing ethnic minorities: Germans in the former Soviet Union.

These Germans, whose ancestors moved eastward for a variety of reasons during the last 250 years, have made substantial contributions to their adopted communities and nations. Many have distinguished themselves by hard work, thrift and orderliness.

When the Soviet Union went to war with Germany nearly 60 years ago, ethnic Germans here found themselves under deep and sometimes violent suspicion. For decades afterward they suffered insults and discrimination.

Now they have the last laugh. While their former tormentors are mired in poverty, the Germans can pack up and leave for one of the world's most prosperous countries.

Most already have. There were 100,000 ethnic Germans in this land when Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, but only 11,000 remain.

The doors to Germany were always open to these people, but during the Soviet period, they were not allowed to leave. Now that they are free to go, they are doing so in droves - not just from Kyrgyztan but from across the former Soviet Union.

About three-quarters of the nearly four million ethnic Germans who were living in the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991 have moved to Germany. Most have integrated well, relying on language skills and social patterns passed down through generations.

Here in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Germans live scattered across the country. Rotfront is their largest community, but even here they constitute only about one-third of the population.

Residents still call the town Bergtal - Mountain Valley - its original name. The Soviet authorities ordered it changed to Rotfront, which means "Red Front," after World War II.

"Even though we work hard, we were always considered enemies." said Paul Neuman, who left with his wife in 1993, when he was 64, and who had returned here for a visit.

"Our teachers beat us and told us we were fascists," Mr. Neuman recalled during his visit. "We couldn't get into high schools or universities. My brother married a Russian girl and took her name so people wouldn't know he was German. But in the last few years, things have gotten a lot better."

The Kyrgyz Government is doing all it can to persuade remaining Germans not to leave. President Askar Akayev visits Rotfront regularly and always appeals to residents to stay and to contribute to Kyrgyzstan.

A sign of the esteem in which Germans are now held here may be found in real estate classified advertisements. The phrase "built by Germans" or "formerly occupied by Germans" is presumed to denote a solid, well-kept house that can command a higher price than a comparable one built by Kyrgyz or Russians.

The German Government, which prefers to help ethnic Germans improve their lives where they are rather than to bring them to already crowded Germany, gives them various forms of aid. When residents of Rotfront wanted to buy a flour mill recently, for example, the German foreign aid agency provided a loan guarantee and located a used mill that a German company wanted to sell.

With flour from the mill, people here make bread for a flourishing bakery. They also make butter, cheese and other dairy products.

"From childhood, we've been taught to work and to earn," said Abraham Falk, 45, who is the elected leader of the ethnic Germans in Rotfront. "That made a lot of people jealous of us, especially in Soviet times, when it was considered wrong to have goals of your own. But now, people are starting to learn from us. You can see the changes starting in other villages near here."

Mr. Falk's seven brothers and sisters are all in Germany, and they write regularly urging him to come. Their appeals have become especially urgent in recent weeks, as a military conflict has broken out in Kyrgyzstan between the army and fundamentalist guerrillas.

People in Rotfront do not fear that the conflict will spread to this part of the country, but they worry that the army may draft their sons, violating the pacifist religious beliefs that many of them hold.

"Serving Christ is the main reason I stay here," said Mr. Falk, who like many ethnic Germans in Kyrgyzstan is practicing Mennonite in the largely Muslim land. "I think I'm doing something positive by maintaining a Christian witness in this part of the world."

This month a pastor from Germany is visiting Rotfront, and part of his mission is to persuade ethnic Germans to stay where they are rather than move to Germany.

"Many who go are not happy," the pastor, Wolfgang Buehne, said after delivering a Sunday sermon.

"They've learned that material wealth is an illusion, and that earning more money doesn't fulfill their inner needs. They go to Germany to gain something, but they also lose something that may be much more valuable."

Reprinted with permission of the New York Times International.

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