Staunton, August 28 – Seventy-eight years ago today, shortly after Hitler invaded the USSR, the Soviet government liquidated the German Autonomous Republic and deported all ethnic Germans from its territory as well as many but far from all ethnic Germans then living in other parts of the Soviet Union.
Over the course of two months, Moscow deported roughly 440,000 ethnic Germans to Siberia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia, but in the chaos following the German invasion, officials did not handle the operation especially well either in terms of identifying and rounding up those to be deported and in dispatching them to the east.
For example, in Ukraine, there were roughly 800,000 ethnic Germans in 1941; but in one oblast, the authorities deported only slightly over half of the Germans there. Those who remained were eventually taken to Germany where after 1945, they became part of the army of displaced persons (“DPs”).
But the chaos and confusion of this operation was even more noticeable in the way in which ethnic Germans from west of the Urals were treated in terms of their ultimate destination. Florentina Hiber, one of their number, recounted in 1997 her experiences to Tomsk historian Yakov Yakovlev. He has now published her testimony (sibreal.org/a/30037396.html).
It is both a deeply moving human document and a useful reminder that the Soviet authorities were not behaving in 1941 like the efficient, well-organized and tightly controlled bureaucracy they are often assumed to have been and that the consequences of the deportation lasted far beyond the end of the war or the death of Stalin.
Florentina who was forced to Russify her name as Valentina and whose last name changed to Zauer as a result of marriage, was among the Germans living in Ukraine in 1941. Born in 1925, Florentina saw her father and two brothers swept up in the Great Terror in 1937. Then in 1941, she, her three sisters and her mother were deported.
They were put on freight cars for a month and travelled from place to place. First, they were sent to Kazakhstan but officials there didn’t want them. Then, they were sent to Novosibirsk where people came out and stared at them because they had heard that “the Germans are coming” and that Germans had only one eye.
But many Russians were supportive because they knew that Germans were good workers and expected them to help the economic situation in Siberia, Florentina continued. She worked in a sovkhoz where officials sought to encourage them to produce by saying that each kilo of food they raised would represent another bullet that could be used against the Germans.
Eventually, Florentina was able to move to a job in a factory and got married lest she be returned to the farm. Over this period, she and her relatives more or less fully stopped speaking German and shifted to Russian, lest they continue to attract attention as “fascists,” the term of abuse Russians typically used about them.
The deportee lived on until 2009, and for most of that period, her deportation cast a shadow over her life and that of other ethnic Germans. Many of them, having been deported, were given a new status n 1948, that of “special settlers,” a group with severely limited rights and effectively sentenced to eternal exile from their native places.
As Yakovlev points out, the 1.2 million Germans in this category weren’t given passports, their young men weren’t drafted, they couldn’t be hired for most government positions, and they were restricted in their access to higher education, medical care, and cultural institutions.
That arrangement continued until August 1954, the Tomsk historian recounts, when most of these restrictions were lifted – except for their designation as German collaborators – that was lifted only in 1964 – and their right to return to their native places – which became possible only in 1972.