Just where is Bessarabia, and what does it have to do with Germany? An exhibition curated by a Berlin historian looks at German communities once based in Moldova that got swept away in the chaos of World War II.
Settlers were driven back to Germany under supervision by a Nazi commission
They were beckoned by Russian tsars in 1813 and driven out in 1940. They were farmers, craftsmen, teachers, preachers and adherents of a number of religious traditions: people who fled the arbitrary power of German princes and who sought refuge in southern Russia and a fruitful region historically known as Bessarabia.
The Bessarabia-Germans brought along their piety, pragmatism, humility and industriousness. The villages they established bore names that recalled their homeland: Friedensfeld, Gnadental, Neu-Posttal or Wittenberg. The region flourished until the settlers were enveloped by the chaos of World War II - by Hitler's reign from the west and by Stalin's from the east.
History charged on without them, but now an exhibition is memorializing them. It has opened in the territory where the Bessarabia-Germans once lived and which now belongs to Moldova and the Ukraine.
On the way to work: German settlers in the Bessarabia region
Remembering the past
The National Museum in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau typically houses prehistoric treasures. But the exhibition titled "A Pious and Capable People" is now highlighting a different chapter of forgotten history.
Bessarabia-German Anna Dragan attended the opening of the exhibition and was touched by what she saw. "For 20 years, we've been waiting for this exhibition. For my family and me, it's very important. The lives of our relatives are on display," she said.
Dragan's grandfather was deported by Stalin to Siberia, where he died. Other members of the group were deported to Blagoveshchensk in Siberia, near the Chinese border.
"This exhibition shows what the life of the Bessarabia-Germans was like. Many people have long since forgotten that communities like these existed at all," Dragan said.
She and her husband, the pastor at Chisinau's Lutheran church, still speak German. Dragan hopes to find support for the German courses that she organizes.
"We have plans, but we also have patience," she noted.
Emigration and integration
The documents, texts and photos in "A Pious and Capable People" tell the story of a group's emigration - a story of both integration and cultural independence. Historian Ute Schmidt researched their dynamic history, wrote books about it and is now curating the show.
"Their story is a blank spot on the map. It's not taught in schools and scarcely present elsewhere. The purpose of this exhibition is to bring Bessarabia-Germans back into the collective memory," Schmidt said.
The project found many supporters, including the German Embassy in Chisinau.
Following World War II, the core of the Bessarabia region became Moldova
Relations between Bessarabia-Germans and their neighbors were friendly, although the German communities clung tightly to their religious traditions and generally married only within confessional borders.
Nonetheless, Bessarabia-Germans had much contact with their neighbors and took on some of the traditions of those nearby, including Russians, Moldavians, Ukrainians, Rumanians, Bulgarians and Jews. The settlers borrowed everything from recipes to foreign words, some of which are still in use today.
But other traces of the Bessarabia-Germans are scarce, said Ute Schmidt, and the villages that were once their settlements have changed drastically.
"For example, a village called Sarata [in southwestern Ukraine], became a military zone, where SS-20 missiles were stationed during the Soviet years. Ordinary citizens weren't allowed entry, and everything was taken over by the military. The church served as a clubhouse for the officers," she explained.
Today, the remaining descendants of the Bessarabia-German settlers are spread out all over the map. In Germany, they have banded together to form an association. Others now live in the USA and still speak a southern German dialect, said the historian.
Many continue to feel ties to the country of Moldova and its history, explained Schmidt, and the association in Germany has supported many aid projects in impoverished areas of the former Soviet Union.
"There have been no demands to return or for reparations. So the people here are happy when Germans visit."
Author: Cornelia Rabitz (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen