Refugee Camp Frankfurt a. O.
Dr. Rothermel, Chicago
From: Das Wolga Journal, Volume 3, No.4, May 1929
Translation courtesy Hugh Lichtenwald
For various reasons, over which the author has no control, this essay had to be interrupted for quite some time. Continuations will once again appear regularly. I come now to speak of one of the most important mechanisms of the camp:
The Volga German Bureau
Immediately following the arrival of the large group of Volga German refugees at the camp, it became necessary to create an organization to coordinate all the complicated aspects of camp life. Medical preparations had been made but there emerged various other questions that the Camp Administration could not solve on its own, which urgently required solutions. Above all, it was necessary to determine exactly how many refugees had arrived, their names, whether protestant or catholic, married or unmarried, etc., etc. The Volga German Society in Berlin asked me to take this problem in hand and accomplish the task. Pastor Friedrich Muth assisted us at the start with his organizational talent and after some “back and forth” I found the men who were to support me in my work. I ask the readers to look at the attached photo.
Seated from left to right we see: Johannes Kling (presently in Northbrook, Illinois), Schoolmaster Heinrich Obholz (presently in South America), Jakob Kreis (presently in Chicago), Schoolmaster Johannes Müller (presently in Lincoln, Nebraska), Adolf Hunger (presently a physician in Germany).
When the refugees arrived an indescribable disorder prevailed. Many were were smuggled in under false names, many were listed as married when they really were not (this trick was used by women, particularly widows, to gain entry into Germany). We had the same problem with brothers and sisters. 95% of the Volga Germans had no papers, neither passports nor any other identification documents. Most especially difficult was the problem of the many orphans: many of them did not know their own names, ages or even where they came from. The refugees were called before the Bureau one by one in order to present their case. In this way we soon had a completed list in hand including name, parents names, village of origin, whether protestant or catholic, number of brothers and sisters and children, the name, number and age of the same, how many family members had been lost along the way due to deaths or misfortune, the number and ages of the same, whether any relatives in America and their names and addresses. This list (it was much more than that and grew to the size of a proper book) was written by Jakob Kreis and is still in my possession today. A living document of the tale of woes of our kinsmen during this unfortunate period.
After this task had been completed I kept Jakob Kreis and Schoolmaster Müller on as regular assistants, I am obliged to them for their faithful and untiring work. The Bureau became, in time, the focal point for everything involving Volga German camp life. Here people gathered in order to hear news, to converse, write letters, to make inquiries, file complaints and to complete necessary papers and documents. The Bureau was maintained by the Volga German Society and through it later became involved with the Volga German Welfare organization. In all other aspects we were very independent. The Camp Director had given us a totally free hand. We were however, always careful not to abuse this confidence and from the beginning avoided causing any friction. This is the time and the correct moment to mention the Camp Director. Major Rautmann demonstratyed his affection for we Volga Germans and was always very obliging. This we want to stress and to never forget. He was foremost an officer of the German government and as such had to follow orders from Berlin to the letter if he did not want to lose his rank and profession. And nevertheless….he not only occasionally closed an eye but in some instances when “push came to shove,” both eyes, because despite everything, beneath his official cloak there beat a warm, understanding, love filled heart, for he had in spite of everything, retained his humanity. When the emergency was greatest, again and again his charity and compassion won over our compatriots and the dangers were again passed. He did his utmost to arrange humane treatment for the refugees at the camp even though there was a total lack of most all the necessary means….I had to be careful to always call on him at a good hour because sometimes he was in a temper and then it was not so good to tangle with him. I would not confront him and usually spoke about any other topic until he had calmed down and then I would come back to my request. And then I must admit that I nearly always got what I came for, providing naturally, that it did not exceed the realm of possibility. Occasionally I would also seek him out in his quarters, but only late in the evening where discussions went much better over a glass of beer or wine. Camp Director Rautmann also did not think it beneath his dignity to personally appear at the modest weddings that occasionally occurred in the camp. He took the opportunity to have a verbal exchange of views and hear complaints about their lives and the distress of the refugees and satisfy them on the spot.
A case which clearly illustrates the relationship between him and our people about conditions in the camp is still vivid in my memory. One fine day I was called by the Camp Administration, I was to immediately come and speak to the Director. I immediately set off on the way and found the entire community in a great uproar. The Director himself was outside his office: “My dear Doctor, this cannot possibly continue. Your people have already begun to steal. I will punish them, I will throw them out of the camp, they disgrace me and the entire camp.” And he continued on in this manner for quite a while. It turned out that the Camp Police had intercepted several Volga Germans as they were dragging home wood which they had gathered in the nearby forest. Not only was there old dry wood but naturally, also some freshly broken off branches. In Germany this is a punishable offense. After I had argued with the Director (however, only after a while) about the total hopelessness of the heating question, the “sinners” were sent home and the police received strict instructions….next time shut both eyes.
Another example. As previouslyt mentioned the camp was originally a Prisoner of War Camp. From this period there remained (not far from our barracks) pipelines made of brick which were no longer in use. Some enterprising Volga Germans came up with the idea to use the broken pieces to make baking ovens. I was asked for permission (hardly anything happened in the camp without me being asked about it beforehand, so that they were “covered” and naturally, I had nothing against it. However I said nothing about it to the Director. On one of his tours the Director noticed that the number of chimneys in the barracks had increased tenfold. He personally investigated the matter. Consequence: Great calamnity. The baking ovens would have to be torn down immediately since he had not the authority to give permission to erect them. In fact one such oven was torn down while he watched. I was silent during the entire procedure since a contradiction would have instantly aggravated the situation. That evening I brought up the affair again for discussion and lo: not only did our people NOT receive permission to build the ovens they desired, but he also gave me some picks and shovels so that we could more easily break out the bricks from the pipeline.
(more to follow)