Born in Germany during the war, Helmut ended up in a Soviet internment camp. Later he moved to the region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea, where he settled. Now nearly 70, he recounts the fascinating story of his life so far away from his home country to Maxim Edwards
Helmut Probst stands on his land outside the Abkhaz village of Lykhny with arms flailing in welcome. One of a rare breed, the German-Abkhaz, he has assimilated much of his surroundings- Abkhaz hospitality chief among them: ‘chacha’ [strong Abkhaz grape-brandy] he says, as a statement rather than a question. He lives in the village with his Russian wife, son Oskar and grandchildren. ‘I speak Abkhaz’ he points out ‘but what a difficult language- fluency takes me a few glasses of wine!’
The ever-spreading branches of Helmut’s family tree (the many saplings of which are chasing the chickens in the yard as we speak) are a continuation of that rare breed. Helmut is happy to speak the very highest of Hochdeutsch in this improbable setting. Snow-capped mountains crown the horizon and a stream runs through the fields to his garden. ‘What fish!’ he exclaims, conjuring an invisible trout between his hands.
'Abkhazia’s first Germans arrived towards the end of the 19th century along with Estonians. They were ‘civilised’ nations seen by the Tsarist authorities as ideal for settling this sub-tropical land. Three German settlements existed not far from the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi: Gnadenburg, Neidorf, and Lindau.'
The vertigo-inducing pinnacles of Caucasian hospitality are in evidence on his table, which groans with home-made wine, meats, cheeses, chacha and the ubiquitous bowl of throat-searing adjika [hot sauce made of red peppers, garlic and herbs]. Abkhaz food. Yet Helmut is, as he freely admits, ‘the village German,’ whatever that means. ‘On Victory Day, people congratulate me, then joke that they probably shouldn’t. I don’t take it personally- it’s all done in good humour,’ he adds.
Abkhazia’s first Germans arrived towards the end of the 19th century along with Estonians. They were ‘civilised’ nations seen by the Tsarist authorities as ideal for settling this sub-tropical land. Three German settlements existed not far from the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi: Gnadenburg, Neidorf, and Lindau. In Sukhumi there is a Protestant church, built in 1913, where Abkhaz-German pastor and part-time teacher of German at Sukhumi’s University, Michael Schlegelmilch, holds services twice a week. Abkhazia’s census in 2003 showed that the Estonians still constitute 0.2% of the country’s population, but the Germans, as throughout the Soviet Union, were deported from Abkhazia in 1942, thrown from their Mountain of Mercy, their Gnadenburg, the majority of them never to return.
The beginning of the story
Abkhazia’s Germans were getting used to their new arid homeland in Kazakhstan at the same time as Helmut’s story was beginning in south Germany. He was born in 1943, son of Lili and Ludwig, a decorated German officer who had lost his feet whilst serving in Poland in 1940. His father had died of gangrene in 1942 and the economy was in ruins, so the prospects for Helmut, his mother, grandmother and sister were unpromising.
They left their village, which was by then in the American Occupation Zone, and, at his grandmother’s behest, headed east to visit the uncles who had moved to the Soviet Union during the interwar years. ‘Germans and Russians are brothers,’ their grandmother assured them, but Helmut dismisses any ideological sympathies. ‘There was work here, and there were Germans. Millions of Germans, all along the Volga.
'Helmut started work at the age of seven, at the camp’s lumber plant. His mother would compare Mari El with Bavaria’s forests, to give Helmut an idea of his own homeland, thus forming an attachment to a place he would have few memories of, and would never return to.'
‘My uncle Edmund’ he begins, counting the relatives down on the fingers of one hand, ‘was one of the cleverest. He taught mathematics at Kharkhov University before the war, and by the age of 21 was commanding an Artillery Division in the Red Army. Stalin sent him to the Gulag. He survived, but barely. Probably only because of his specialist skills.
‘Second Uncle Oskar - at this point the fingers form a fist and thump the table - ‘was a writer. He wrote poems. It was either in Kiev or Moscow, but that swine, that pig Stalin had him shot.
‘Uncle Artur,’ the fist here raises an index finger to the heavens, ‘was my first link with Abkhazia. When war broke out, he was a teacher in Rostov. He was wily. He knew the NKVD would eventually get him for the crime of having German blood, so he fled to Abkhazia. Sure, there was Soviet power here but people weren’t - how can you put it? - as fanatical about it as in Russia.’ On the journey through war-torn Soviet-occupied Germany towards Poland, the family was arrested and immediately sent to an internment camp in the forests of Mari El [at the time USSR autonomous region, situated on the Volga].
Life in the camp
Thus began Helmut’s post-war childhood, a subject his own grandchildren follow attentively. He gives them memorable lessons in conversational German, though the children remain mute - their grandfather does the talking. ‘We lived in barracks. Latvians, Germans, a few Ukrainians and some Crimean Tatars – whichever nationality, we were called fascists by the camp guards.
‘The first Russian word I remember was obysk [Rn. inspection], which was the codeword for the camp Kommandant,’ a term Helmut often uses, ‘scattering our few possessions across the room and taking what he wished.’ Helmut started work at the age of seven, at the camp’s lumber plant. His mother would compare Mari El with Bavaria’s forests, to give Helmut an idea of his own homeland, thus forming an attachment to a place he would have few memories of, and would never return to. His descriptions of camp life are vivid and quietly menacing. We are no longer conversing, simply absorbing. ‘Germans are a work-loving people. Always have been and always will. One day, a German can be a wealthy burgher, a gorozhanin, and the next the finest carpenter. Give him… that,’ he points at a mound of firewood, ‘and you’ll have a table, a sculpture… carved beautifully, in an instant’.
Helmut started rudimentary education in the camp’s school after Stalin’s death in 1953, but the atmosphere in the camp had begun to change. The aptly named camp commander, Volkov [Rn. wolf], had disappeared (Helmut elaborates with a string of multilingual expletives) and a wooden stage had been constructed in the camp’s central yard. Apprehension stalked the barracks with military precision: the stage grew bigger every day and the fear of reprisals or collective punishment was overwhelming. One day, an assembly for several of the barracks was called and the lines of the dispossessed standing in the snow heard the announcement ‘Comrade Germans, you are now equal citizens of the Soviet Union. You have the right to live where you please, save for your homeland.’
'Women cried. Many men stood there bolt upright in silence as tears gradually fell down their cheeks and into the snow.’ He shifts uncomfortably, and looks down, scratching his shoe on the concrete. ‘We could have moved anywhere, they said. But how could we? There was no money, no future- we lived in Mari El and grew potatoes for two years. There were Mari people in the forests nearby, but none of the prisoners had met any.
'One day, an assembly for several of the barracks was called and the lines of the dispossessed standing in the snow heard the announcement ‘Comrade Germans, you are now equal citizens of the Soviet Union. You have the right to live where you please, save for your homeland.’
‘We lived only a matter of kilometres away from the camp but it was like a different world, yet on the whole no less hard’ he adds, ruefully. The full extent of Helmut’s story is difficult to establish - this is memory, not chronology and his trains of thought rarely run out of steam. The narrative flows to and fro, sometimes shaking hands with chronology before curiously inspecting it and parting ways yet again. It is a form of interview for which even a mastery of shorthand may not suffice.
‘My grandmother died during the camp years. Were she still with us I would ask my mother again how we did it, but eventually we managed to find a place on a train heading south to Abkhazia.
‘I don’t remember how many days we stayed on the train. It seemed like forever, but when the sun came through the carriage doors and it was time to disembark, I simply fell on to the platform and passed out.
‘I have no idea how my mother came to choose Abkhazia. Did she have any contact with my uncle? Who knows? History sometimes doesn’t make sense, and of course in this respect I’m grateful’.
New life in Abkhazia
At this point, Helmut leaves his grandfather’s chair, whose cushion has a Helmut-shaped indent, evidence of much tale-telling. When he comes back, he opens his fist to produce a medal. On one side it bears a small swastika and the date 1939. On the reverse is the date 1918. When one holds it to one’s ear and shakes it gently, there is a small rattle within. It is an Iron Cross, Second Class. His mother worked in a German military hospital during the war years. She brought from Mari El both the medal and a small photograph album including pictures of herself and her family with wounded German soldiers from the front. Helmut’s theory is that she had concealed them somewhere in the forest surrounding the camp and retrieved them upon the family’s release. Dangerous relics for enemies of the people. Helmut is quick to add that he does not lose sleep over the story of their journey: the fact of the matter is that they arrived. Perhaps in those years, the medals and album provided a link with an uncertain past for people faced with an even more uncertain and tenuous future.
Lykhny is an important Abkhaz village in the Gudauta district. The gatherings of all the Abkhaz people in 1931 and 1989 took place in its square (photo: Maxim Edwards).
Despite the anachronism of the family heirloom, their identity as Germans has risen above a history bloated with militarism. ‘I don’t mind being labelled a German,’ muses Helmut, ‘but I don’t want to be dismissed as one.’ There seems to be little danger of that. He is an ‘Abkhaz patriot’: his oldest son of five, also a Helmut (Gelmut in Russian), was lost to the war of 1993. Not far lies the meadow of Lykhnashta, one of the Seven Holy Shrines of the Abkhaz people and traditionally a place where the village elders would resolve political disputes. Helmut’s son was, he points out, one of the first of the village boys there as war drew near.
As the Iron Curtain fell, he travelled back to Germany for the first time since birth. He found his birth certificate (‘with a Hitlerite stamp’) and, with the help of a Swiss visitor, embarked on the process of obtaining German citizenship. The reasons he gives are many, both emotional and historical. One is particularly practical: brandishing a German passport would give him greater freedom of movement. Yet he is connected to this land, because his mother, uncles, and two sons are buried here.
When he returned to Abkhazia, war broke out. ‘I remember one day there was a meeting - a parade - in a regional town. Perhaps it was Gudauta. The commander, Ardzinba, was there, talking to the local people. All of a sudden a wounded soldier came into view and started to urinate behind a nearby tree whilst Ardzinba was talking. The boy was quite clearly badly wounded, he was urinating blood and bleeding heavily. Ardzinba was furious and screamed at the soldier to go and sit back in the jeep, as he was in disgrace,’ the fists clench again. ‘I lost my temper and shouted at Ardzinba that it was he who should be sitting in a jeep in disgrace and that this was no way to talk to a wounded soldier who had returned from the front. I had a son fighting myself and when Ardzinba started to shout, I felt as though that wounded soldier was my own boy.’
'Despite the anachronism of the family heirloom, their identity as Germans has risen above a history bloated with militarism. ‘I don’t mind being labelled a German,’ muses Helmut, ‘but I don’t want to be dismissed as one.’
I enquire about the Georgians, and his view of what happened during the war. It is the question all Western visitors ask, but I feel compelled to ask it too.
‘Oh, they were here, but I didn’t see them.’
It is not entirely clear whether Helmut is referring to Georgian troops or the local Georgian civilians (the Gudauta Region, including Lykhny, was some 13% Georgian in 1989). Further discussion is dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Personal stories in Abkhazia usually begin in 1992. Yet, as night draws in over the Black Sea, Helmut’s story nears its end: the Soviet Union unravels and the war is a story for another evening, a story his eldest son’s absence tells all too well.
‘The Abkhaz had nothing. Those boys would fight against tanks with pistols and limonkas’ [Rn. little lemon – an F1 hand-grenade]. Helmut thumps the table and the home-made wine rattles dangerously. ‘When the war began in earnest, my son came with the Chechens, with Dudayev’s men, across the mountains. The mountains are like the sea - if you don’t have a good navigator, you’re done for. He steered them on course and got them here. The German.’
We pause and reflect, before slowly heading out into the Caucasian night.
‘In retrospect,’ adds Helmut as we part, ‘we should probably have headed for America.’