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

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April 2019 marked the 200th anniversary since the founding of Helenendorf, the first German colony in Azerbaijan which became a beacon of German culture in the South Caucasus. Over a dozen German villages appeared throughout the region over the next 100 years, yet 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. 


The Caucasus Germans had faced increasing pressure in the decades after the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power, 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 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 journey through the Caucasus, Kazakhstan and southwest Germany in an attempt 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 from the city of Ulm in Wurttemburg, southern Germany, in 1817, travelling along the Danube to Odessa and then the Caucasus. Ulm, November 2018

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The town of 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, then called Anino. His mother was German but married to an Azerbaijani man, meaning that she and Yunis 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 Helenendorf, now Goygol, discovers her father's former home. September, 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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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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"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

 

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

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Parts of Yevgeniy Raitenbach's family were deported from Asureti in Georgia and Helenendorf in Azerbaijan in 1941. Most of his family have since migrated to Baden Wurttemburg in Germany, however he still lives in northern Kazakhstan. July, 2018

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Peterfeld near Petropavlovsk in northern Kazakhstan is a village inhabited by Germans for most of the 20th century, yet 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

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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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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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 a Labour camp in the republic of Komi, northern Russia, 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 have compiled a map showing where each family lived. November, 2018

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

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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

Angelika Hummel spent her first 16 years in Helenendorf and still considers the Caucasus home. She was deported to Zhuravlyovka then to the southern Urals to join the labour army. In 1991 she emigrated to Germany. November, 2018

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