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Why are you still alive?: A German in the Gulag

Book review by Richard Kisling

Hildebrandt, Georg. Why are You Still Alive?: A German in the Gulag. North Dakota State Univesrity Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.


Originally published in Frankfurt in 1993, Georg Hildebrandt's Wieso lebst du noch? ein Deutscher im Gulag is the book about the German Russians most widely read by the German public. Since August of this year, it has been available in this new English translation.

Mr. Hildebrandt turned 90 in July, 2001, and from the birthday tribute to him printed in the July issue of Volk auf dem Weg ("Georg Hildebrandt Survived Hell"), we can gain some sense of his life experience. He was born in 1911 in Kondratyevka, Don Region, into a well-off Mennonite family. After completing junior high school, he worked on his parents' farm, until 1929 when they were dispossessed during collectivization and banished. Between 1937 and 1945, twenty-five of his family members fell victim to Stalin's terrors, among them his father Isaac and his brother Heinrich. He found himself either in prison or in exile between 1930 and 1953: in Ukraine, in the Urals, in Siberia, and even in the Far East/Pacific region. In addition, he survived a series of 17 forced labor camps, including Kolyma and Magadan. In 1953 he was admitted to a tuberculosis hospital, having contracted the highly communicable disease in one of the prisons, and in 1955 he underwent lung surgery. In 1961 he moved to Alma-Ata, where he worked until he retired in 1971. He emigrated with his family to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1974.

The NDSU Library web page says: "He documents what happened with an amazing memory and precision. His biography is a shocking document of the Germans in the former USSR. Dr. Erich Franz Sommer writes in the preface: 'Testimonies were only rarely given by German camp inmates; more rarely yet, by those German colonists who themselves experienced forced collectivization and who have survived decades of resettlement in Siberia and Central Asia. That is why this biography and the report of suffering by the Ukrainian-German, George Hildebrandt, are of documentary value. He speaks not only for himself, he speaks also vicariously for those whose cries and prayers in prisons and in detention camps fell silent without finding an ear.'"

The title, "Why are you still alive?" was the cynical question once posed to Hildebrandt by a KGB officer. And, indeed, it is a miracle he survived to write this compelling account of his experience. The review of this book on the NDSU Libraries web page ends with this quote from the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper: "Imaginative, sympathetic readers should have strong nerves for this book. Hildebrandt's book is for everyone."

Reprinted with permission of California District Council Report.

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