After a 17-hour journey, I arrive in Saratov early in the morning by night train, a state-of-the-art express with self-opening doors, showers and a place in the couchette for the equivalent of 30 euros. Saratov is 850 kilometers southeast of Moscow and was once one of the centers for Volga Germans who settled in the southern Russian steppe under Catherine the Great. From 1922 to 1941, an autonomous Soviet republic was grouped around Saratov and Marx-Stadt.
I take a taxi through a steppe with yellowish-bluish grass, see shepherds with sheep, cows and young horses. To the left and right of the road, large fields of sunflowers pass by. The taxi driver tells me that they are intended for oil production, but are not harvested until October – before the first frost. Then we reach Marx with a large white relief of the head of the German philosopher at the entrance to the village. In 1920, after the October Revolution, the place, which until then was called Ekaterinograd, was renamed Marx City. When Pyotr Schagi, head of the local party committee, went to Moscow to put Lenin in the picture, he is said to have said: “Prove yourselves worthy of the name.” After Hitler’s Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the German word “city” became erased, and from then on the Commune was only called Marx. I ask the taxi driver what he thinks of this place name. “I don’t mind,” replies the 45 to 50 year old chauffeur. “And the failed socialism?” I ask. “Maybe Marx was just misunderstood,” is the diplomatic answer.
Today’s Marx has no magnificent buildings like Moscow or St. Petersburg, but old merchant houses made of red clinker attest to some prosperity. The people don’t seem rich, there are small factories for building materials, diesel engines and sunflower oil. “Many here go to Moscow to earn money or to the north, where oil and gas are extracted,” says the taxi driver.
The early Germans in this area once built churches, preferably Protestant ones, which are now often used as schools or offices. A house of worship that was built in the 19th century was a culture club of the “Kommunist” company during the Soviet era, which manufactured diesel engines for submarines. In 1995, the first service since 1941 took place in this church in the middle of Marx – it can hold a good 1,000 people. In 2016, the church tower, which was demolished in 1950, was rebuilt, with financial support from German communities and a Russian-German businessman.
The congregation now has 50 members, explains Pastor Jakob Rüb, whom I speak to after his service. He has been a pastor in Marx since 2019, his parents came from the former Volga Republic and were deported to Siberia in September 1941. “My father was eleven at the time, my mother was six, we didn’t move back to Marx until 1976, until the entire family emigrated to Germany in 1989.” Currently three of his children are living there. Was it difficult for him to say goodbye to Germany again? “I am the servant of God and ready to work in his vineyard. It wasn’t easy for my wife to leave the children behind. “
Carted away in freight wagons
Around 600,000 people lived in the Autonomous Volga Republic in 1941, 60 percent of them Germans, 25 percent Russians, mostly farmers, but there was also a factory for agricultural machinery, which in the 1920s produced the small tractor “Karlik” (dwarf) in series. A copy stands today as a memorial in front of the “Volgodiselapparat” factory. When the Republic of the Volga Germans was dissolved on August 28, 1941, it was due to the fear that Hitler might find sympathizers among them. NKVD units directed a resettlement that gave those affected one to three days to pack belongings together before they were put in freight wagons with 40 people each. The journey to remote areas of Kazakhstan and Siberia took many days. The urge had to be relieved somehow and somewhere between the pieces of luggage. A good 700 people, mostly children, are said to have died in this forced exodus. “Nobody paid any attention to us,” recalls Yelisaveta Yemelyanovna. “They just weren’t interested in how we eat, whether we eat or how we heat the wagons. On the way we organized wood and exchanged clothes for food. When there was nothing left to trade, we went hungry. “
Because millions of men fought at the front, there was an extreme shortage of labor. Hundreds of thousands of the resettled Volga Germans were barracked in labor camps in order to be used in tank and ammunition factories, in the construction of hydropower plants, in steel and aluminum smelters or in cutting wood. They called themselves “Trudowaja Armija” (Labor Army) to show that they belonged, despite being exiled. They wanted to be part of the resistance against the German invasion and dreamed of seeing their homeland again as a full citizen after the victory. Jelisaveta Jemeljanowa came to the Altai region and was employed there as a forest worker. “Despite the hard work, there was only soup,” she recalls. “In summer it was nettles in hot water, very rarely it was peas. We found out that the war was won because double the portion was given out. ”However, a majority in the Soviet Union was hardly better off during those years.
The camps were closed in 1946, but the forcibly resettled Germans were initially not allowed to leave their places of exile. Liberalization did not begin until 1955, when Volga Germans received a Soviet passport again. But it was not until November 3, 1972, that the Supreme Soviet decided that the deportees were allowed to return to their hometowns, also a consequence of the policy of détente between Bonn and Moscow. There are currently 400,000 Germans living in Russia, while there are over 2.5 million Russian Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany.
A one-storey building made of clinker bricks, which belonged to the trading company “Karl and Sons” until the October Revolution, houses the Marx Museum of Local History, which recalls the everyday life of the Volga Germans before the resettlement. You can see beds and chests of drawers in the classical style, black dresses and a decorative cloth embroidered in red that says: “Work is the ornament of life”. In a showcase is the Supreme Soviet’s decree on deportation of August 28, 1941. Quote: “According to reliable reports” there are “thousands and tens of thousands of divers and spies in the German population on the Volga who are supposed to trigger explosions on orders from Germany “. The Soviet organs had not been informed of the diversified items. “As a result, the population covers the enemies of Soviet power.” The immediate reason for the deportation was possibly the report to Stalin from the southern front on August 4, 1941, that on the Dniester, where there are villages with a compact German population, the Wehrmacht was “with bread and salt ”. Stalin wrote on the sheet in red pen: “They have to be chased away!”
According to the research of the historian Nikolai Bugaj, 33,000 Germans reported to the military authorities in the first days after the German attack, mostly from the Volga region. From September 1941 they were released from the Red Army and had to serve in construction brigades. But there were many young Germans who absolutely wanted to fight and who registered for the army under Russian, Azerbaijani and Ukrainian names. One was Woldemar Wenzel, who reported to the front at 17 as “Wladimir Wenzow”. After a short training, he became the commander of a machine gun unit. Wenceslas died on September 25, 1943 after his unit had crossed the Dnieper in Ukraine. For his courage, he was posthumously named Hero of the Soviet Union, one of twelve Germans who received this title during World War II.