April 2019 marked the 200th anniversary of the founding of Helenendorf, the first German colony in Azerbaijan which became a centre of German culture in the South Caucasus. Over a dozen German villages appeared throughout the region over the next 100 years. But in the autumn of 1941 the story of this once-flourishing community came to an abrupt and tragic end, as almost all of them (some 46,000 according to the German cultural organisation EuroKaukAsia) were deported to Central Asia. 


The Caucasus Germans had faced increasing pressure in the decades after the Russian Revolution and during Stalin’s rise to power. However, the immediate trigger for their forced resettlement was the June 1941 Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. Germans living across the USSR were to be temporarily resettled to 'fertile' lands in Kazakhstan and Siberia, although in reality they were deported - "like dogs" according to one witness - from the warmth of the Caucasus to the freezing Kazakh steppes, and soon after sent to labour camps until after Stalin's death. 


Inspired by the still visible German traces in parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as the 200th anniversary of the founding of Helenendorf, this project documents my journeys through the Caucasus, Kazakhstan and southwest Germany in an attempt to track down surviving Caucasus Germans, hear their stories and find out what, if anything, the Caucasus still means to them. 

A descendant of Germans from Helenendorf, Goygol, searches for the former house of her grandmother. September, 2018


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Girls dancing at a school celebration in 1940 in Georgsfeld, a German village in Azerbaijan

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Yunis Hajiyev was 13 when the Germans were deported from Shamkir, then called Anino. His mother was German but because his father was Azerbaijani, she and Yunis were allowed to stay. August, 2018


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"Every Sunday, the Germans had a recreational park. There were fish, chess, dominos, all sorts of games in the evening, people came from work and played. That’s how they lived – very cultured. They worked a lot; sweat came off their shirts they worked so hard. In the evening they got washed, they sung songs and walked through the streets to the park. They lived in a very cultured way, very well."


Yunis Hajiyev

The town of Shamkir in Azerbaijan was founded as Annenfeld by German settlers in the early 19th century. August, 2018


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The Lutheran church in Shamkir, founded by German settlers as Annenfeld in the early 19th century. August, 2018

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Azerbaijani men play chess in a teahouse in the town of Goygol, Azerbaijan, founded by German colonists as Helenendorf in April 1819. September, 2018

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A descendant of Germans from Helenendorf, now Goygol, discovers the former home of her father. September, 2018


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The former German village of Waldheim in Georgia, which is now called Ipnari and inhabited by Azerbaijanis. December, 2018


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"We gathered, people took what they could carry with them and got on the train. We travelled on the train twice and twice on a steamboat and then in November – we must have been travelling for about a month – we were met at the pier in the Kurchum region, on sleds; there was snow already. It was warm where we were from in the Caucasus. We didn’t have winter clothes, only autumn ones. Everyone froze." 


Werner Bekker

 

Werner Bekker was deported from the Azerbaijan-based colony of Annenfeld to eastern Kazakhstan at the age of 6. He subsequently spent 25 years working in the mines of Leninogorsk, now Ridder, where he still lives. June, 2018


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Lidiya Ostroverkhova visits the grave of her grandfather, Ewald Bräning, who died aged 26 having contracted tuberculosis while serving in the 'labour army' during WWII. He returned to the village of Sarzhal, near Semey, Kazakhstan, and passed away soon after. June, 2018

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Victor Raitenbach was born in Helenendorf, then called Khanlar, in Azerbaijan. He was deported as a boy to Zhuravlyovka in Kazakhstan, studied in Tselinograd, and subsequently spent most of his career working as a vet at collective farms in the Pavlodar region. March, 2019


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"We were lucky that we ended up in Kazakhstan. Today, we live well with the Kazakhs [...] This is our second home, and we can't leave it." 


Victor Raitenbach

The train station in Semey, which had a large population of Russian Germans during the Soviet period. March 2019


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Many Germans from Azerbaijan ended up in villages such as Zhuravlyovka in northern Kazakhstan. Henrikh Gan was deported as a child from the Volga region and still lived there when I visited in March 2018

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"Oh, the Caucasus. Everyone talks about their homeland, well the Caucasus for me is my homeland and nowhere else. I was born there and lived there until I was 16 and then we were deported, but my homeland is still the Caucasus. And even though I lived in Russia for 40 years, I remember those 16 years that I lived in the Caucasus." 


Angelika Hummel

Angelika Hummel grew up in Helenendorf and still considers the Caucasus as home. She was deported aged 16 to Zhuravlyovka, then to the southern Urals. In 1991 she emigrated to Germany. November, 2018

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The first settlers set out from the city of Ulm in Wurttemburg, southern Germany, in 1817, travelling along the Danube to Odessa and then to the Caucasus. Ulm, November 2018


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