Wolgadeutsche Monatshefte Number 3, 1 September 1922
(Translation courtesy Hugh Lichtenwald)
The Fate of the Refugees in Western Russia
The situation of the refugees in Minsk and Poloczk worsens from week to week. In Minsk there are some 2000, in Poloczyk about 3000 refugees. The majority can expect a terrible fate if immediate and substantial aid is not rendered. A reliable source in the Volga German Society reported to us about the situation in Minsk and also described the situation of the new arrivals a few days ago in the “Homecoming Camp” in Frankfurt a.O. as extremely grievous. Of the 2000 refugees in Minsk, 500 have received permission to emigrate to Germany and America. A portion of these arrived a few days ago in Frankfurt and list of them is at the end of our report. The majority of them are on their way. 97 orphans will shortly be transferred to the Bodelschwinghschen Institute in Bethel (the institute still exists today—Hugh L.). Little provision has been made for their care, we cannot estimate the length of time they will require hospitalization and thus money must be raised for these people. 1500 have no chance of leaving Minsk. The remain trapped there unable to either come out or go back. Even if they wanted to return home they are unable to because the government will not return them free of charge but requires a fee of about 10 million Rubel per head. To transport them back alone would cost many millions of Marks which the Society does not have. However it is also obviously inadvisable because there is less for them to live on there than in Minsk. They would have no work, no place to stay and only very poor food because most, in a final desperate act of despair, have sold or pledged their share; they did not plant and so with the extremely poor harvest, cannot claim a share of food.
The return home would have as its consequence the aggravation of an already difficult situation and eventually result in disaster. Until 1 September the people in Minsk lived a half-way human existence since the “White Russian” (Ukrainian–Hugh L.) government has provided some stone barracks which are reasonably clean and decent, in which, though very crowded, they can live. The cost was shared by the German Red Cross, the A.R.A. and us. As of 1 September however, the A.R.A. no longer works in Minsk and it is also very questionable whether the “White Russian” government will continue to allow the people use of the barracks. In any case, an order has already been issued that these areas are to be vacated and the 1500 have to be moved into completely inadequate wooden barracks that only have curtains for doors and windows. The the people are unprotected and will become exposed to inclement elements of winter. To their discredit, the German Red Cross wants to leave these unfortunates in the lurch, however we have pledged to come up with the money necessary in order to pay for their board and to make the barracks ready for winter.
The repair of the barracks will cost about 1500 dollars and boarding 10,000 dollars. Whether anything other than a small portion of these sums required can be raised here in Germany is questionable because Germany is carrying too heavy a burden under the reparations treaty and, obviously, the fate of the Mark is approaching that of the Rubel. In Poloczk it is even worse because we have not yet been able to set up an Aid Station, unfortunately because we lack the money. The housing and feeding of the people here is, frankly, dreadful. Also the medical assistance of the Germany Red Cross is absent since the German Red Cross has no more money to begin new programs. So far we have only succeeded in arranging for the transfer of 400 orphan children from Poloczyk to Germany. However, who will feed and clothe them here?
The following is extracted from the official report of the Director of the Evacuation Commission.
“The exodus of the Volga Germans began in October of last year. These people came partly at their own expense and partly at government expense under the provision that they would be put to work and sent on. Many took up residence in barracks on the edge of the city. Most however, preferred to seek out quarters for themselves in the city. All came forward to register themselves when requested since it meant they wanted to work their way to Germany. All of the refugees received bread. Those who arrived first got 7, later on 5 and 4 days worth and finally with the last travelers, cut back to 3 days worth. Now, in accordance with the same orders, children under the age of 12 are only given 1/2 Pfund of bread and some Pea, Bean or Potato Soup daily. The barracks are roomy and are often disinfected, as well as are the people, there is sufficient medical help for the sick as medicines are sufficiently at hand. Recently a transport of approximately 500 persons was sent to their old homeland and the remainder, consisting of about 150 people, should follow in the next few days. The situation of the Germans in Poloczk is one that is quite good, as one understands good, since the people provide for themselves through casual labor.”
Our source then reports as follows:
This gentleman could not or would not give any data about the numbers of illnesses and deaths that had already occurred. It is his opinion that the refugees are adequately provided for and that no assistance of any kind from foreign relief organizations is necessary. This is the official report delivered to me in a bombastic address by the Director of the Evacuation Commission at the meeting in Poloczyk on the 17th of this month. Although I already knew that this glowing picture of the Volga German situation in Poloczk was only a bad copy of a “Potemkin Village,” (Potemkin was one of Catherine the Great’s ministers who was famous for erecting false fronts of villages along the banks of rivers so that the Empress Catherine would be satisfied with the settlement project while on a water tour of settlements).
I considered it would be superfluous to deal with this organization in a closed door session since it was to be liquidated and likely no longer exists, but to seek out the answers to the thousands of questions that lingered on my lips. I turned to other organizations which had no direct relationship with the Volga Germans but nevertheless hat to more or less work with them. The first was the “Narobas” (Dept. of National Education), where I hoped to receive clarification on the accommodation of the German orphans. Unfortunately I was also unable to learn anything positive there and I turned to the “Otdel sozialowo Obopetschenja” (Dept. of Public Welfare Services), where I found to my great satisfaction that this organization had up to today accommodated 147 Families, in total 1265 persons, within the city and whose return to the city was expected after the completion of harvest work. In order to avoid the responsibility of caring for the orphans from their own funds, those poor children under the age of 15, the greater portion of them about 8 years of age or slightly older, were sent by this organization to the farms in the countryside where, experience teaches, they would be heavily exploited.
The “Otdel-Sdrawoochranenja” (Russian Red Cross) demonstrated its interest in the Volga Germans by the fact that whenever a Sanitation Inspector would occasionally visit the camp barracks and complain of shortages, they would content themselves with forwarding the complaints to the appropriate authorities for action. I could not find the “Pomgelod” (Committee for Aid to the Hungry) and was also not naive enough to believe that it would have done anything for the German refugees. Rather, I contacted a representative of the “Ewebschaftkom” (the Jewish Welfare Organization) which was the only organization to provide any real assistance to the Germans in this city. A visit to the Children’s Hospital of this Society was a totally satisfying experience. Presently there are 5 German children there. The Hospital is only a Hospital in the Russian sense of the word. The treatment of the patients is a charity performed by the organization since the day it was opened on 27 February, accommodated 126 patients of which 58, or 46 percent of them were Germans who were suffering various illnesses brought on by hunger. Of these 58 German children 13, or 22 percent died. In the beginning the Hospital had 25 beds, however this number had to be reduced to 15 since it lacks energetic support and also medicines and food for the patients and they expressed their fear that the organization would have to completely shut down if needed assistance is not brought soon. Since this Hospital accommodates mostly German children and Jewish parents have a well-known aversion to placing their children in such a Hospital, they urgently requested of me to work out a way to send them medicines and bandages, etc. The General Hospital accepts only those patients who are able to pay a daily fee of 2-3 million Rubel. The “Lazarett” (infirmary or military hospital) associated with the barracks is there only to treat epidemics. In 2 orphanages that I visited and which are likewise funded by the Jewish Relief Organization with the help of a small government grant, I found 8 German orphans, who praised their food and their treatment. Up to the 12th of this month, 50 German children were accommodated in one of these orphanages but were removed by relatives and taken on the last transport to their old homeland. These are the official reports made to me by the Russian authorities during my visit to Poloczyk.
My private findings are as follows:
I visited the camp barracks and the orphans quarters of the Volga Germans living in the city incognito on the day of my arrival and determined by my personal count that there are over 600 Germans living in Poloczyk. Of these 40 percent are children and of these about 245 of them are orphans. Their situation is deplorable. They have not yet received any kind of support excepting the 3 or 4 Pfund of Bread they received at the time of registration. Thanks to the fact that a Kitchen was opened for Lithuanian and Polish refugees in the Poloczyk camp about 8 days ago, approximately 10 percent of the German children are also being fed. The accommodations are miserable and very dirty, garbage filled and all around on the inside, covered and recovered with spider webs. They were never disinfected and the possibility of bathing in this disaster area is, for the inhabitants, inadvisable. The Russian authorities installed a kind of Camp Commandant whose only task apparently is to guard the camp and ensure that the barracks are not torn down and used for firewood. Near each of the barracks, of which there are 14, you will find a Latrine, all of these Latrines are over full and their ill smelling contents flow into wide pools around the camp so that everywhere only one smell prevails. Although the camp itself is outside the city, it is in the midst of great beauty by way of the powerful growth of greenery where it meets the sumptuous dung. It needs to be especially pointed out that these standing pools are the breeding ground of myriads of Fleas, Mosquitoes and Gnats and suchlike, which greatly plague the poor camp residents and now in the summer it is the most ideal time for the outbreak of disease. The Kitchen is a wooden hut whose insides of furnace, kettles and cooking gear are covered in filth. The Northwest corner of the Poloczyk camp is particularly interesting in that it is a typical example of how the simplest sanitation and hygiene measures have been ignored. 15 paces from the Kitchen is an overflowing and now closed Latrine in the middle of a sea of disgusting, spreading, smelly filth and even more disgusting insects housed in this toilet water. 5 paces from it stands another newly dug Latrine. 8 paces from it is the discharge pipe of the water line which brings the camp its drinking water and also where dirty laundry is washed; to the left of it and in close proximity is the Morgue in which the dead lay, often for days, before they are buried. Close behind is the Epidemic Barracks, the nightmare of all of the camp residents and directly past it some 25 paces is the cemetery in which the dead are not buried deep enough and where the ground water already has risen to nearly a meter in depth. All these, Kitchen and Latrines, Well and Cemetery, Hospital and Morgue lie peacefully side by side in an area of not quite on quarter of the total area of 1000 square meters. The accommodations of the Volga Germans in single quarters likewise defies description. In the ruins of charred, shot up houses left after the war, they furnished themselves half-way acceptable shelters or a basement, so that they are protected against the wind and rain. From a visit to these accommodations on the part of that incredible Health Inspector, I unfortunately, was able to learn nothing. A great drawback of these accommodations, since they are mostly cellar dwellings, is that they are swimming in water during rainy weather. As for Latrines, there are none to speak of, so everyone performs their necessary functions wherever their feet are able to find a clear patch of ground. The German refugees are nearly all, without exception, without means and live by begging and by the occasional sale of their only remaining meagre belongings. Their food is exclusively Potatoes. Bread for them is a rare delicacy. For this reason their state of health is also unspeakable.
At every hand one meets people whose features show the typical signs of starvation. Only 2 days before my arrival 2 people were buried who had literally starved to death because they did not have anyone to take care of them since their own misery had made them into strangers. Only the women are able to earn anything. They seek work washing laundry in the poor Jewish settlement for which they are able to earn a small amount. Of course the possibility of earning something existed recently through the start of construction of a bridge across the Dwina (River), however most are too weak for such heavy work. Those who still had some prospects back in their old villages have gone and those that remain are those to whom the future here
in Russia can offer nothing more, they have lost all their holdings and property, their next of kin and finally, their health and now they await an inevitable, assured end. They carry on with their dull and gloomy days in which the preparations for their meagre meal are their only encouraging moments.The men sit mutely around the smoldering fire and the emaciated skeletons or shapelessly swollen children follow the movements of the mother’s skilled hands with greedy eyes as she carefully peels the Potatoes, striving to create as few peelings as possible. Mutely and yet impatiently, one notices their eyes flickering greedily here and there in expectation of this so precious fruit. Finally the pot is taken from the fire and one witnesses loud smacking and devouring of the still over-hot food by those ravenous unfortunates. But only too soon the pot is emptied and with an expression of regret the spoon is licked clean, a last look into the empty pot to see if there was an atom of Potato or a burnt-on crust remaining and everything again lapses into dull silent brooding, no play, no joke, no singing of bright girlish voices and deep manly tones as they were once accustomed to when they lived in their rich old homeland. Only if here and there one is building his castle in the sky and begins to think out loud and speaks the word “Deutschland” or “Amerika” do the heads of those remaining jerk up as if electrified, immediately thereafter they again hang sadly, then one speaks:
“Ach, they have forgotten us. We have sent out so many letters and telegrams and yet no help has come. We will have to go to our graves in misery.”
Are we to leave these brothers to their fate? Who can carry this on his conscience? Who is capable of bearing such a responsibility?
From a letter from Kursk we take the following about the situation of the refugees there:
I turn to your esteemed Society with an urgent request to render assistance for the Volga refugees, Volga Colonists from the Government Samara, a portion of whom are here in the city of Kursk and a portion who have found Government accommodations. As I hear it, you distribute articles of clothing for the needy. I ask you to immediately communicate to me whether I may dare to hope for such a clothing shipment. Clothing and laundry items for children of all ages are particularly desirable. Then for a group of young children about to be adults and receive the blessing of Confirmation by me and who have no clothing. There is great misery among the protestant and also the catholic German colonists living here. There are about 100 families in all. I ask you to help and tell me the safest way I can receive a shipment. I have been the Evangelical Lutheran Pastor her in Kursk since 1906. In my Pastorate are 2 families of Volga colonists, 13 souls, including 7 children. Help for Christ’s sake!
Asking for an answer,
Pastor Alfred Baschwitz, Moskovskaia 19, Kursk, Russia.