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.
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."