A Visit in the Refugee camp Frankfurt/Oder
(This article, translated from the original, was published in the German-language publication “Heimkehr”, No. 2, 1923.)
It is well known that a year ago, when the unmercifulness of hunger was felt more every day by the Volga settlers, a mad despair came over the unfortunate inhabitants of the German colonies, more and more Volga settlers left their homes and fled in every direction, trying to escape their ill fate. Some went westwards since they were hoping that their journey to reach Germany would not take them too long. It is still imprinted in everybody’s memory the cruel expectations of most refugees were crushed: they were held back in the forests of Minsk for over half a year. The first refugees to arrive in Germany via White-Russia got here in 1922. So far, the largest transport of about 1000 people (222 men, 295 women and 436 children under the age of 16) reached the homecoming camp Frankfurt on the Oder on December 9, 1922, to find a temporary residence in the barracks which used to house prisoners of war.
The impression the refugees give the visitor is at first unexpectedly good. The children are merrily playing ball on the grounds between the barracks, and the elders are not at all displaying a depressed state of mind, but are readily willing to answer any questions. When one considers the terrible conditions the refugees escaped, then it really doesn’t come as a surprise that they are feeling pretty good in this desolate town of barracks. As our pictures are showing, there is a big diversity in their clothing. Besides the men’s long sheepcoats and the women’s kerchiefs, you see very fashionably dressed folks. When we visited, we were greeted by Dr. Rothermel from the Society of the Volga Germans, a young, Volga-German doctor who devoted his energy to his unfortunate fellow countrymen. Then, Mr. Alexander Bier from Warenburg showed us around the barracks and related, from his own experiences and the lists he compiled what the refugees had gone through.
Beginning of last year, about 7000 Volga-Germans started out to Minsk, some with horse and wagon, some on foot or by train. In Saratov most of them had to go by train since the horses couldn’t go on anymore. The way to White-Russia took several months, therefore it was March/April until the refugees arrived there. A lot of people were dying on the train already, and it got worse when everybody had to leave the train in Minsk. Women, men, children, the healthy and the sick were cramped in lonely houses and sheds without windows, tables, chairs and beds, and it wasn’t long until the sick outnumbered the healthy. The typhoid fever was especially bad. One has to assume that more than half of the refugees died in Minsk.
We will only relate a few shocking individual stories. A man starts out with his wife and three children. On the way, first the wife dies, then two children, and shortly before the train leaves the third child dies too. From a family of twelve only one child could be saved. 56 people left a village, but only 11 arrived in Frankfurt. Other refugees were luckier. An ex prisoner of war by the name of Stressler from Warenburg, who for 3 ½ years worked on a farm in Münsterlande as a prisoner of war, managed, together with his wife and 2 children, to reach Frankfurt, where he now lives in the same barrack he was in as a prisoner in 1916. Another prisoner of war, Conrad Schauermann from Brunnental got back to Germany again as well.
The refugees’ actual destination is America, where most of them have relatives who are longing to welcome their kin. Only the American money made it possible to feed the refugees in Poland and get them across the border into Germany. Already in Russia they had to sacrifice the money they had with them, just to get the exit permit, and they were robbed in other ways as well. They made a bare livelihood doing hardest work for small White-Russian farmers. Some were also working for the ARA (American Relief Administration), either in the kitchen or the transport system. It is estimated that altogether around 1700 – 1800 Volga-Germans came to Germany from Minsk, and that nearly as many stayed there. Besides ARA, the German Red Cross earned the love and thanks from the refugees, especially Dr. Carstens from the Red Cross, who brought the transport to Frankfurt, is looked upon and honored like a father to everybody.
Since there will be no entry permits for America issued before July 1st, the Volga-German refugees will stay in Frankfurt until further notice. Their living expenses here are paid for by their American friends. The future of the children, especially the numerous orphans, is mostly taken care of, some will go to Bethel by Bielefeld, some will go to Angerburg. The Catholic orphans are looked after by the Caritas. All the refugees are still shaking, remembering what all they went through in the last years. Everything we were told here in Germany, from individual letters, news items, like the rampage of the Reds, the systematic robbery of the fruit, the horrible rebellions, the continuous dying in the Volga area, all this is the terrible truth, as we are now told by eyewitnesses. “It is difficult to be a Christian in such times” an earnest young man said apologetically, when he told us about the well-known Warenburger rebellion and about the atrocities, which were a revenge for even worse horror-deeds committed by the angered Volga farmers. Commissioners were clubbed to death, thrown into the icy water of the Volga or into a dung-hill. The number of people killed in the desperate rebellion in the Volga area, the center being the colony of Mariental, in the spring of 1921, is estimated to be 35,000. A single number illustrates the decrease of work animals: It is estimated that before the war there were 12,000 oxen, horses and camels in Warenburg; beginning 1922 all that could be found were 60 horses. The refugees don’t know how many of them are left now.
It is more than understandable that the refugees yearn for a place where they can stay forever, that their biggest desire is peace and quiet and that they want to free themselves from the shadows of the past. They don’t believe in the reconstruction of the colonies, because they suffered through such bad times, although they do concede that in general, at least since their escape, it is not gotten worse in Russia. What they are wishing for, old and young alike is to go to the United States of America and meet their friends and relatives. Several of the refugees have been there before. A family by the name of Kaiser from Hoffental left America 10 years ago and they are now going back as beggars. A few might possibly stay in Germany, like those ex prisoners of war. Everybody, though, shows a natural and sincere concern for Germany, its difficult situation is surprisingly readily understood, surprisingly especially when one considers the horrible loneliness and distance from all culture that the refugees had to endure the last few years. From own experiences and from the bottom of their hearts they perceive their fate to be one and the same with what happened to Germany. Their loyalty and understanding towards their mother country shall never be forgotten, and we hope for the day, when Germany can repay their loyalty through deeds.