The Sad Story of Central Asia's German Community May Be Ending

In August 1941, the Soviet Union rounded up hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans and moved them to what is now far-away Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian satellites. What remains of their community today is dwindling and often bitter.

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Karina, Angelika, and Veronika, all 11, pose in front of their German school in the village of Rot-Front (Red Front), in Kyrgyzstan's Chui Valley / David Trilling

Amid commemorations marking 70 years since the 1941 deportation of the Russian Germans to Central Asia, there is a palpable sense that the community is disappearing.

In Bishkek, roughly 30 people gather each Sunday to pray at the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Empty seats are abundant in a room that once was routinely filled to overflowing. Although the pastor is from Germany, services for the past 10 years have been held in Russian. Congregants say perhaps one-third of the worshippers have any German heritage, and only a handful can speak the language.

According to the German Language Center in Bishkek, a partner of the German government-funded Goethe Institute in Almaty, approximately 250 ethnic Germans from across Kyrgyzstan are currently taking language lessons. "The main goal of these groups is no longer to prepare to immigrate to Germany, but not to lose their language and their culture," said Ainagul Atakaeva, the center's director.

Geinrich Schindler is among the remaining Germans who tries to maintain a strong cultural connection, even though his grasp of the language is now tenuous. Born in Kyrgyzstan to Russian German parents, he grew up speaking German at home, and still talked about "meine mutter" as he recounted his life story. Yet when he and his wife, also a Russian German, tried to immigrate to Germany in 1998 under a government program to bring ethnic Germans "home," they failed the government's oral language exam and were thus ruled ineligible. A small, modest man with the swollen hands of a manual laborer, Schindler summed up his situation with words frequently heard from the Germans left behind: "Those who remain are those who were rejected."

Most Central Asian Germans are descended from settlers who moved to the Russian Empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when European settlement was encouraged. Commonly known as "Russian Germans," many maintained the language and religious traditions of their homeland.

In 1941, those German cultural traditions suddenly became a cause for suspicion by Soviet authorities. That August, two months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of these Germans were rounded up and sent into internal exile in Central Asia. Once arrived, the able-bodied were impressed into "labor armies" that left thousands dead.

When the Soviet Union fell apart and a unified Germany welcomed the diaspora, and Germans in Kyrgyzstan voted with their feet. According to census statistics, in 1989, over 100,000 Germans lived in the country; by 2009 only 9,500 remained.

The Kyrgyz-German House in Bishkek offers language classes, hosts cultural events, and provides social services to Germans and non-Germans alike with German government support. Deputy Director Margarita Klavdina said last year's bloody uprising and subsequent ethnic violence prompted another surge of emigration. She said approximately 2,000 more Germans have left for Russia or Germany over the past year.

In order to immigrate to Germany, members of the diaspora now must qualify in two ways. Their passports - which in Kyrgyzstan, in a holdover from Soviet practice, indicate ethnicity - must have always listed them as Germans. And they must demonstrate basic language ability and cultural familiarity in a test given biannually at the German Embassy. Since 2005, children and spouses of immigrants have also had to pass a language exam.

These days, few take the test. Elena Solovechek, an employee of the language testing bureau at the German Embassy in Bishkek, said only 16 people had signed up for the next biannual test - so few that the office may close after this year.

Among those Germans still in Kyrgyzstan, bitterness is widespread. Over tea and coffee cake after services at the Lutheran church one recent Sunday, Irina Krieger told her story. Her father was a Russian German on both sides who lost his parents amid war-era upheaval. He grew up in an orphanage not speaking the language, and, as a result, Irina herself never learned German and could not pass the test. Although she is grateful to Berlin for funding the church and the Kyrgyz-German House, the rejection of her immigration application still stings. "It's so offensive not to be allowed to go, when so many others were accepted," she said.

Valentina Musina, another churchgoer, speaks fluent German but was rejected for the other reason. A vigorous middle-aged woman with pure white hair and distinctly Asian eyes, she is the daughter of an Odessa German mother and a Kazakh father. Growing up, children called her a "fascist" because of her mother's heritage. Her parents, perhaps aware of the stigma, listed her nationality at birth as Kazakh. Today, that makes her ineligible for German government repatriation programs. Among those who remain, she said, "Every year the connection with the culture is being lost."

On August 28, the Kyrgyz-German House held a commemoration of 70 years since the deportation, called the Day of Grieving and Memory. Survivors, many in wheelchairs or walking with canes, gathered around an iron monument in the courtyard. Whether there will be a community to commemorate the 80th anniversary is an open question.

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