|Select magazine number|
Tragedy and perseverance of Ukrainian Germans
People of the German ethnic in Ukraine number over 33,000. The history of the German minority in Ukraine and Russia is filled with tragic events, trials and tribulations. Their life in Ukraine has become more or less established in recent years and free from persecution they experienced in the Soviet times.
Itwas back in the eighteenth century that Germans began coming to the Russian Empire in considerable numbers. The Russian Empress Catherine II who was of German descent, invited Germans to come over and settle as colonists in the Volga area in Russia and in Ukraine, in the lands north of the Black Sea. There were at that time many landless peasants in Germany who saw their chance of getting their own land to work on if they moved to Russia and Ukraine which was then part of the Russian Empire. They brought with themselves advanced — for that time — agricultural technologies and German industriousness.
The newcomers and their descendants became loyal, upright, virtuous, respectable — and respected — citizens of the Russian Empire. Their life went through a dramatic change in the twentieth century when Germany fought two wars, first against Russia and her allies, and then against the Soviet Union and other countries. Soon after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the soviet citizens of German descent were indiscriminately accused of being “abettors of Nazism,” “spies and saboteurs” and deported to the remoter areas of Kazakhstan and Siberia. The scale of deportations was truly staggering — from Ukraine alone 450,000 people found themselves packed like cattle into freight trains and taken to the uninhabited places where they were left to survive with no help of any kind provided — or die. All the people of German descent would have been deported from the Western regions of the Soviet Union if not for the rapid advancement of German troops into the Soviet territory.
It is impossible to assess now how many of the deported died en route or at the destinations where they were taken. Hunger, cold, physical abuse and unremitting toil took a very heavy toll of life. In addition to physical suffering, the soviet Germans experienced an unbearable psychological pressure — in spite of the fact that the absolute majority of them were quite loyal to the soviet regime, they were looked upon as secret supporters of Nazism, whereas in fact they were as anti-Nazi and anti-fascist as anybody else.
Those who survived made their own worthy contribution in the rear to the ultimate victory of the Soviet Union and its allies over Germany. They built factories, made military equipment and weapons, worked at oil rigs, grew grain for the country that had treated them so badly. But after the defeat of Nazi Germany, they were not reinstituted in their rights. Further steps were taken to prevent the people of German descent to return to the places where they had once lived. On November 26 1948 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet [highest legislative body] of the USSR issued a decree which officially denied these people the right to return to their former homes — they were doomed to live in “the special zones” forever, and any attempt to leave these “zones” was punishable by 20 years of hard labour.
Only ten years after the end of WWII, and after the death of Stalin, a new decree, On Lifting the Restrictions in the Legal Position of Germans and Members of Their Families Who Live in Special Zones, was adopted. It took another 17 years for another decree to be passed which lifted the remaining restrictions. Even so, until the end of the 1980s, when changes in the soviet political atmosphere began to erode the soviet regime, studies of the history of Russian and Ukrainian Germans were actively discouraged; no publications dealing with their history in their adopted land were allowed, no reviews could be printed officially. Everything was done to make the soviet people forget there was once a hard-working and conscientious minority of Germans living in various western parts of the Soviet Union. The archives were inaccessible, many facts were either hushed or distorted, and at present it is difficult to reconstruct a comprehensive history of Russian and Ukrainian Germans. But even if it is not a full picture, the truth must be known.
Those ethnic Germans who returned to Ukraine to their native places had to start life from scratch. The very fact that they have managed to preserve their ethnic identity, traditions and the wish to return to their native places after all those years of persecution, humiliation and denial of rights is worthy of great respect.
In the late 1980s-early 1990s ethnic Germans of Ukraine formed an organization which they called Vidrodzhennya (Renaissance, or New Beginning). From a cell of activists it grew into an influential, large public organization that looked after the interests of people of German descent living in Ukraine. The Association of Germans of Ukraine (AGU) was formed in 2000. The AGU promotes the study of German, revival and preservation of traditions and customs, freedom of religion, and defense of the rights of the minorities. The AGU organizes cultural events, one of which is a festival of children creativity, Sonnenstrahl, or Sun Ray. Children and teenagers of German descent from all over Ukraine come to the festival to show their skills in folk dancing, singing and in classical music. The AGU annually organizes summer camps for children, the study of German and revival of traditions being the primary goals. The summer camp of 2005 was set up on the Black Sea coast. It was called Kazkove mistechko, or the Town of Fairy Tales, and indeed the central theme was the fairy tale — not only fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm in German were read aloud and reenacted in little plays, but the whole atmosphere of the camp was that of a fairy tale.
In May 2005, the AGU organized a literary soiree devoted to the German poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, 1759–1805, a leading romanticist, who is best known for his historical plays, such as Don Carlos and Wallenstein , and for his long, didactic poems. Music was played, poems were recited by guests who came to Kyiv from Odesa, Donetsk, Chernihiv and other places of Ukraine.
The extensive cultural and promotional activities of the AGU are guided and coordinated by the AGU president, Valentina F. Sulina, nee Weisert.
Ms Sulina was born in the town of Vorkuta in the far north of Russia. Her mother worked in a mine, a worker of what was called then “the labour army.” Her childhood was hardly a happy one — Elsa Weisert, as she was called then, was the only one of German descent in a class made up of local ethnics. In her family they spoke only German and the language barrier added to their social ostracism. In 1957 her parents were forced to sign a pledge that they would stop using German. Elsa’s name was changed to Valentina but it did not take away her awareness of her ethnic identity.
When, many years later, she moved to the Crimea, she became an activist of the German ethnic revival movement and her qualities of a leader and a person of great integrity and compassion made her an obvious choice for the presidency of the AGU.
By Oksana KAZANTSEVA
Photos by the author
Valentyna Sulina, president
At a Young Smart Contest show with
At a Learn German and Culture camp
At a literary soiree devoted to the German