On November 27, the Minnesota-based researcher and writer Ron Vossler gave a lecture sponsored by CIUS’s Holodomor Research and Educational Consortium (HREC) at the University of Alberta titled “Death Scream: Ethnic Germans in Soviet Ukraine Write Their Dakota Relatives, 1932–33.” Vossler, who has studied and written on the German communities in the Dakotas, based the presentation on his study of the correspondence between ethnic German farmers who lived in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s and their relatives living in the U.S., mainly in North Dakota. A large number of ethnic Germans moved to settle in the prairies of the Dakotas from territories now part of Ukraine or Moldova in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the course of his study of the German community, Vossler discovered that many German- language newspapers in North America published excerpts of letters from their relatives living in Soviet Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1937. These letters, Vossler maintains, often carry distinct religious overtones, conveying a sense of foreboding and apocalyptic imagery, and give a sense of the mass violence and repression directed against the German minority living in the Soviet Union during these years. Caught up in the maelstrom of collectivization, forced grain requisitions and overall violence directed at them by Soviet and Communist Party authorities and officials, the letters convey, if not a picture of a growing catastrophe of Biblical proportions, then certainly paint a stark picture of the end of a traditional rural way of life. The letters also reveal attitudes of the German minority toward Soviet authorities and officials, including at times prejudices against ethnic Jews. Vossler’s work with the correspondence resulted in the publication of a selection of letters translated into English in the book We’ll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives, 1925–1937 (2001). One of the chapters is titled “Crucifixion by Hunger (1932– 1933).”
In his lecture, Vossler spoke about the German communities of Ukraine and their ties with relatives in the Dakotas. He read excerpts from some of the letters written during the years of collectivization and mass starvation in 1932–1933, the Holodomor. Vossler mentioned that the aid sent by Dakota relatives to their kin during the famine years, however, modest, saved many people’s lives. Aid was often conveyed through the Torgsin system of special hard currency stores established in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to attract hard currency purchases by foreigners. The Torgsin stores also accepted jewelry from farmers in Ukraine which they exchanged to obtain basic foodstuffs that helped some survive the famine years. Vossler mentioned that the German newspapers in North America often carried ads by Torgsin.
Ron Vossler’s lecture demonstrated the need for further study of ethnic minorities in Ukraine during the Stalinist period, especially during the period of collectivization and the Holodomor. The integration of their experiences into the overall narrative of the Holodomor would give a more complete picture of what happened to the peoples and ethnic groups living in Ukraine at that time.
Ron Vossler is Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota, a Fulbright Scholar, and scriptwriter of five national and international award-winning documentary films, including “We’ll Meet Again in Heaven,” focused on the 1933 terror-famine in Ukraine. He has also authored ten scholarly and popular books, most recently, a short story collection Dinosaur Cafe, and Hitler’s Basement, a personal exploration of links between Soviet terror and the Holocaust in Ukraine, and the role of ethnic German police units, under SS command, in the murder of the Jews of Odessa and Bessarabia. He lives in East Grand Forks, Minnesota.