Earlier this year marked 200 years since the founding of Helenendorf, the first German colony in Azerbaijan which grew into a centre of German culture in the South Caucasus. Over the next century more than a dozen German villages formed throughout the region and prospered mainly from winemaking, for which the Caucasus Germans are still fondly remembered. Yet the story of this community came to an abrupt and tragic end in the autumn of 1941 as almost all of them (some 46,000 according to the German cultural organisationEuroKaukAsia) were deported from the Caucasus.


The Germans living there had faced increasing pressure after the Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power which ushered in a period of terror, but the immediate trigger for their forced resettlement was the Nazi 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" - 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.


But even then Germans were forbidden to return to their former homes in the Caucasus. The vast majority never did, instead settling in various parts of Russia and Central Asia, until the Soviet Union fell apart and the door opened to the West. Many have since emigrated to Germany, their ancestral homeland, while others still strive to do so and a minority have stayed put in Kazakhstan.

Inspired by the German traces still visible in parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia as well as the 200th anniversary of the founding of Helenendorf, this project documents a journey through the Caucasus, Kazakhstan and southwest Germany to try to track down the Caucasus Germans, hear their stories and find out what, if anything, 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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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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The Lutheran church in Shamkir, which was founded by German settlers as Annenfeld in the early 19th century. August, 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, 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 his 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 yet grown up. 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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