Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival
Review by Dr. Irma E. Eichhorn, retired professor of history,
San Jose State University, San Jose, California
Bender, Ida. Dark Abyss of Exile: A Story of Survival. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000.
The opening event in Ida Bender's autobiographical account is
the radio announcement of June 22, 1941, about Hitler's invasion
of Russia. Bender was nineteen and had returned for the summer to
her parents' home in Engels, after completing her first year at
the Institute of Foreign Languages in Leningrad. Soon the war and
the consequent decree of the Supreme Soviet on August 28, 1941,
announcing the mass deportation of the Volga Germans, changed the
lives of Bender's family for ever. The Dark Abyss of Exile
is the author's well-told story of surviving her Siberian exile
but with a changed attitude toward the Soviet state.
The journey of horrors began on September 2, when Bender's family
and other Volga Germans left Engels in crowded freight cars and
ended several weeks later in a Russian village in the Krasnoyarsk
region. In January 1942, however, her father, older brother, and
almost all German men were conscripted into a labor army (Trudarmiia)
and doomed to hard work in forced labor camps. Then the same cruel
fate befell German women. Bender and her mother went to a fishing
camp at Verkhne Imbatsk on the Yenisei River. They were fortunate
that they could bring along the younger children, two boys and a
Bender's richly detailed narrative impressively creates the daily
struggle for survival in the camp against brutal physical, mental,
and psychological obstacles. The women fished with nets until late
fall, standing barefooted in the icy water because they had no boots.
During the Arctic winter months they fished through the ice or felled
trees in deep snow, often without a noon break, and then cold, exhausted,
and hungry trudged several kilometers back to camp and their wretched
lodgings. These were a crowded room with a resentful Russian family
or a room in haphazardly constructed barracks, with one small window,
bug-infested walls, tree-stump furniture, and a makeshift stove,
all visually real for the reader, even without the author's drawings.
Fish were plentiful but were shipped to the military and were
forbidden food for the women. Stealing even one fish was severely
punished. The daily ration was 600 grams of dark, heavy bread with
meager monthly rations of oats, sugar, and margarine. A full ration
depended upon the women fulfilling their assigned work quotas. Hunger
and scrounging food, whether berries, birds, and even muskrats,
were daily preoccupations in an environment where the women were
at the mercy of the supervisor and the local inhabitants who called
them "fascists" and "traitors."
Conditions varied in the fishing camps along the Yenisei River.
A German, Alexander Mueller, efficiently and humanely supervised
the camp at Iskup. He enabled Bender and her family to transfer
there in August 1944. They still worked hard but without starving.
"Iskup was like an oasis" (p.128).
After the war and then the removal of some restrictions on the
Germans (but not the vigilance of the police), Bender and her husband
eventually moved to Kazakhstan and later Kamyshin on the Volga.
From Kamyshin, her father's birthplace, Bender came to Germany and
now lives in Hamburg. An American cousin encouraged her to write
about her experiences. She did so because she wanted her children
and grandchildren to understand the Germans' fate in the Soviet
Union. The present work is the English translation of the German
In telling her story with a fresh immediacy, Bender reconstructs
conversations, especially with her parents. Frequently she also
quotes her father's diary, even inserting a long excerpt (pp.97-109)
about his labor camp ordeals in the Kirov region. The theme, though,
that infuses meaning to her life experiences is survival. This is
the author's justification for daily choices and actions in the
camps and for her earlier participation in Communist youth organizations.
The Communist ideals of equality without poverty appealed to her,
but joining Communist youth groups also helped her chances for a
college education. During her year in Leningrad she noted the blatant
favoritism bestowed upon Party officials, and she "began to lose
respect for the Soviet system" (p.55). Yet she writes, even after
arriving at the fishing camp, "I still believed in our government"
(p.50). The erosion of her faith in the Soviet state (as distinct
from the country) is a repetitive motif throughout her chronological
treatment of each year in the camps. "Finally in Siberia, I came
to understand that the promise of the Soviet state was nothing but
empty words" (p.56).
Understandably she also defends her father, the well-known Volga
German author, Dominik Hollmann (1899-1990), a former Dean and faculty
member at the Pedagogical Institute in Engels. He joined the Communist
Party under pressure, but according to his recent critics, he wrote
excessively propagandistic works. Bender insists that her father
"praised the Soviet system, for no creative person could hope to
get a word published unless he included such praise" (p.175). He
used his Party membership, moreover, to plead for the restoration
of rights to the Germans in the postwar period.
Until 1987-1988, Germans in the Soviet Union could not mention
in print their labor camp experiences. Recent autobiographical writings
appearing in Russia as well as Germany present an important literature
for study from literary, social, cultural, and historical perspectives.
Among these works, Ida Bender deserves praise for a thorough, poignant,
and thoughtful portrayal of German women's lives in the Soviet Union
during the war and postwar years.