April 2019 marks 200 years since the first German colony was founded in Azerbaijan. Helenendorf, as it was called, became a centre of German culture in the South Caucasus over the next one hundred years and was one of over a dozen colonies throughout the region that prospered mainly from winemaking, for which the Caucasus Germans gained fame. Yet the story of this community remains relatively unknown because in the autumn of 1941 almost all of them (some 46,000 according to the German organisation EuroKaukAsia) disappeared. 


The Germans living in the Caucasus had faced increasing pressure as Stalin rose to power after the Revolution, but the immediate trigger for their disappearance was Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Germans living across the USSR were to be temporarily resettled to fertile lands in Kazakhstan and Siberia, although the reality was much different: they  were deported  "like dogs", as one witness told me, from the warmth of the Caucasus to the freezing Kazakh steppes, and soon after sent to work in labour camps until after Stalin's death.


But even then the Germans couldn't return to the Caucasus. The vast majority never did. Instead they settled in various parts of Russia and Central Asia, until the Soviet Union fell apart and the door opened to the West. Many 'Russian Germans' have since emigrated to their ancestral homeland while others are still striving to do so and a minority have decided to stay put in Kazakhstan.


With the fast-approaching 200th anniversary of the founding of Helenendorf, I set off on a journey through the Caucasus, Kazakhstan and Baden-Wurttemburg in an attempt to track down the Caucasus Germans, hear their stories and find out what the Caucasus still means to them. 




The first settlers set out in 1817 from the city of Ulm in Wurttemburg, southern Germany, and travelled along the Danube to Odessa. The first colonies were founded near Tbilisi later that year. Photo of the Danube in Ulm. November, 2018

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

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

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Yunis Hajiyev was 13 when the Germans were deported from Shamkir, which at the time was called Anino. Although his mother was German, his father was Azerbaijani which ultimately saved him as German women in mixed marriages were allowed to stay. August, 2018

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 "They were very cultured. On Saturday a German sat on a horse and rode 50 metres ringing a bell – there were no phones then – and all the houses heard and understood that there’s some news. After 50 metres he would stop and start shouting – “tomorrow evening in the collective farm park there will be a general meeting at 6 or 7 o’clock" – and then he went another 50 or 60 metres ringing the bell again and stopped and again said these words. And 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

Many of the original German settlers to the Caucasus had come from towns such as Reutlingen (pictured here) in Wurttemburg, southwest Germany. November 2018

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A descendant of Germans from the colony of Helenendorf discovers her father's old home in what is today's Goygol. September, 2018

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A descendant of Germans from the colony of Helenendorf, which is now the Azerbaijani town of Goygol, searches for her grandmother's old house. September, 2018

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Werner Bekker was deported from the Azerbaijan-based colony of Annenfeld, then called Anino and now Shamkir, to eastern Kazakhstan at the age of 6. He only began school at 15, and subsequently spent 25 years working in the mines of Leninogorsk, now Ridder. June, 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 – in November 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

 

Many Russian Germans were sent to parts of eastern Kazakhstan via the Irtysh River, which flows from Russia to China and is pictured here frozen over in Semey. March, 2018 

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Lidiya Ostroverkhova visits the grave of her grandfather, Ewald Bräning, who died the age of just 26 having contracted tuberculosis in the labour army. He returned to his family in the village of Sarzhal, near Semey, Kazakhstan, and passed away soon after. June, 2018

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Lidiya Ostroverkhova (née Bräning)  grew up in Semipalatinsk, now Semey, and is in the process of moving to Germany. For one reason or another, the migration process has taken her nearly 20 years. June, 2018

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Lidiya's grandfather had been deported from the village of Waldheim (pictured here) in Georgia in 1941. The village is now called Ipnari and is inhabited by Azerbaijanis. December, 2018

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Henrikh Gan is one of the last German residents of Zhuravlyovka, deported here as a child from the Volga region. March, 2018

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Yevgeniy Raitenbach's family were deported from Asureti in Georgia and Helenendorf in Azerbaijan in 1941. He still lives in northern Kazakhstan while most of his family, including his children, have migrated to Baden Wurttemburg in Germany, the region their ancestors originally came from. July, 2018

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“For my mother, although she was born in the Caucasus, she lived in Kazakhstan, she lived in Germany, but for her the Caucasus was always home. Maybe because she spent her childhood there, I don’t know, but for her home was the Caucasus. She even said that 'if we had been allowed to return to our homes there, I wouldn’t have gone to Germany.'” 


Yevgeniy Raitenbach

The village of Peterfeld near Petropavlovsk in northern Kazakhstan was inhabited by Germans for most of the 20th century, but since the fall of the USSR almost all have emigrated to Germany. July, 2018

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

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


Victor Raitenbach

The station in the city of Semey, formerly Semipalatinsk, in eastern Kazakhstanan, which became home to many Germans including Luisa Oksas and the family of Lidiya Ostroverkhova. March, 2019

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Luisa Oksas was deported from the Azerbaijan-based colony of Georgsfeld, a sister colony of Helenendorf, at the age of 13. A few years later she was sent to the republic of Komi in the far north of Russia to a labour camp where she spent the next 13 years. November, 2018

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 "I was sent to Komi when I was 17, I was still a child. I hadn't grown up yet and we were building roads and all the land was frozen. And there was nothing to eat. The food was bad, very bad."


Luisa Oksas

Descendants of Germans from the colony of Georgsfeld in Azerbaijan have compiled a map showing the names of the families that lived in each house in each street. Here, Luisa Oksas points out some of those she remembers. November, 2018


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

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Angelika Hummel spent the first 16 years of her life in Helenendorf, then called Khanlar, and still considers the Caucasus home. She was deported to Zhuravlyovka before being sent to the southern Urals to join the labour army. In 1991 she emigrated to Germany. November, 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 16 years old 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

The countryside surrounding the Azerbaijani town of Goygol, which was founded by German colonists as Helenendorf in April 1819. November, 2017

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