German-Russians: their terrible ordeal in the Holocaust
When my sister and I attended the Germans from Russia Heritage Society 2016 convention, we attended a session called “You Killed Your Son’s Friends: German-Russians in the Holocaust.” The presenter was a friend of the family, Ron Vossler, who also comes from our common German-Russian background. Ron was talking about his recent book Hitler’s Basement.
I’ve read Ron’s book and I will admit it is not easy reading. This is because Ron has chosen to research a difficult topic. He is a genuine truth seeker.
I had an opportunity to interview Ron and would like to share that with you.
GJ: How did you come to the journey of researching in this area?
Ron Vossler (RV): My interest in Ukraine, and my grandparents’ villages, started by hearing the German dialect spoken in my hometown and in my childhood home. I remember my grandfather sighing and saying, in German dialect, “Yah, the Black Sea.” His village wasn’t far from that sea, and he did have fond memories of it. I had a vague interest in genealogy, which led me, one way or another, to discover two different treasure troves of information – first, personal letters from Ukraine to Dakota in German; language newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s; and later archival documents in Ukraine and Germany. These allowed me to reconstruct what happened in Ukraine before and during WWII, which is the historical background of my book Hitler’s Basement: My Search for Truth, Light, and the Lost Executioners of Ukraine’s Kingdom of Death.
GJ: What are some of the people/places/experiences that stick out for you?
RV: Oih, weh. Lots of travel. Ivan, the last living witness to the slaughter and burning at Bogdanovka of 54,000 Jews, who told me he was passing everything he knows about those times to me, so I feel it is kind of a trust given to me. Also how my driver, who didn’t drink, started drinking after we’d visited a bunch of murder pits…
Lots of dirt roads and bumpy paths and sunflower fields in Ukraine. I traveled a lot: Canada, Germany, Ukraine, Moldova. Visited murder pits, found bones, shell casings…all across the region of Ukraine between the Bug and Dniester Rivers. So the hugeness of the holocaust in Ukraine alone staggered me. As did the viciousness of the killers who threw live babies into fires.
GJ: What were some of the challenges encountered while researching this project?
RV: Just trying to get the right tone and form for the book, which went through many revisions over a number of years. And also to cross-reference and check the details for accuracy, so that there were corroborating sources to substantiate facts.
The most difficult issue was dealing with my academic colleagues in America, a number of whom called themselves Marxists, Socialists, Maoists at the same time that I was unearthing Soviet-era names of tens of thousands of Germans from Russia executed by people who called themselves Marxists — a murderous event which helped, in part, fuel the Ukrainian holocaust. I had a hard time looking at the Lenin posters on my colleagues’ walls or the Marxist quotes on their doors, and, especially, a very hard time using Marxist-based textbooks and teaching theories.
The chairman of the history department where I taught once told me, verbatim, what a retired KGB agent once told me in Ukraine: “You must admire Stalin. He got things done. Even if he killed people.”
GJ: What do you want readers to take away from this?
RV: Don’t write a book on the Holocaust.
Ha. Or if you do, be ready to catch a few javelins thrown your way.
I often think of the Jack Nicholson character saying to Tom Cruise’s character: “You can’t handle the truth.” I can’t handle the truth of what happened in and around my grandparents’ villages.
Just the sheer depth of the recent past and how much of it still is accessible is startling. The last thing in the world I thought I would ever do was Holocaust research. The last thing I thought I would ever find was that some Holocaust killers were still alive in 2010, or that I would trace two of them to the peripheries of my own family.
I found it surprising how forgotten voices can be resurrected and heard again. No voice is ever wholly lost. With perseverance, it is possible to reconstruct events from a long time ago.
Also, the persistence of denial of unpleasant facts is something that I was continually surprised by. Some scholars claim the Holocaust is inexplicable; but at least in the region of Ukraine I studied, it seems readily apparent that the Soviet destruction of the German minority in the starvation of 1933 and the Great Terror in 1937-1938, played a significant role in fueling the Holocaust in Ukraine.
GJ: What lessons did you take away from this?
RV: Not to write about incendiary topics, like the Holocaust and the Ukrainian starvation, without being deeply affected. I also learned that the truth is pretty hard to deal with. It can shift your attitudes towards people and politics of the present. I know a number of Germans-from-Russia researchers and scholars, and almost every one of them is or has become, as a result of their research, deeply conservative politically. Accident?
GJ: Do you have plans for future books or avenues of research?
RV: Hard to say. There is plenty of material for another book or two, but right now I can’t say I have much interest in another book about the Holocaust, though just the title of a possible book has come to me: Why the Blood Still Runs like a River through my Dreams. All that I researched is still with me every day, so if I write another book on the Holocaust it will be that one. Maybe later.
The book I might write next is Communist East Dakota: How Twenty Years Teaching at a Prairie University Turned Me into a Conservative. The beginning of that book came to me yesterday, September 11, 2016, when I remembered where I was on the day the Twin Towers collapsed: teaching at the University of North Dakota. I remember when a professor, who would later become chair of the English Department, while the towers were still smoking, and when it was apparent that it was a terrorist attack, went around shouting, in anguished glee, “We deserved that. We had it coming.” The terrorist attack only confirmed that professor’s hatred for America. I think people should know what professors are teaching their children.
GJ: What other books have you written and would like to share?
RV: I have written ten books, or eleven with this one plus a bunch of documentary films, plus lots of essays, articles, poems, in scholarly and non scholarly journals and magazines. I also am a consultant for films, including for Jacob’s Ladder, and I have also been contacted by 60 Minutes to provide research and information for their TV program on the Holocaust.
GJ: To end on a lighter note, what was the most humorous aspect or funny story?
RV: Believe it or not, there is actually humor in the Hitler’s Basement book—especially in my dealing with interpreters and drivers and other Ukrainians who had a lot of humor. One of my interpreters had an entire repertoire of worm jokes.
No one has said that our search for our ancestors will only turn up roses and happy endings. Sometimes we even think it is amusing to find a scoundrel or bank robber in the tree. But how do we handle it if we find the truly heinous? How can we possibly judge the circumstances that may have caused our ancestors to act in unspeakable ways? Perhaps we are just to learn and understand, and to make sure it never happens again.
If you are a truth seeker, you will be blown away by his book.
Please check out some of Ron’s other books.