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Lena and the Wolfs One family’s story of separation and survival in the Soviet Union

Source: Meduza
Illustration by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book

Story by Sam Breazeale for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

In 2018, Lena Wolf was invited to a friend’s wedding in St. Petersburg. As a German citizen living in the U.K., Lena had to apply for a visa for what would be her first-ever trip to Russia. She answered the questions on the application form to the best of her ability: Had she ever lived in Russia? No. Had she ever emigrated from Russia? Again, No.

The application was rejected. And when Lena went to the Russian Visa Center in London to find out why, the clerk on duty was not surprised. “The lady said, ‘Oh, you’ve given us this wrong information,’” Lena recounts. “So I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ And she’s like, ‘Well, you were born in Latvia. But you answered No to whether you’ve ever lived in Russia.’”

Lena explained that her family had moved from Kazakhstan — not Russia — to Germany in 1989 because life in the Soviet Union was difficult for members of the ethnic German minority. But the clerk insisted that this wasn’t possible.

“Why are you telling me stories? There were no Germans in the Soviet Union,” Lena recalls the woman saying. The clerk then took out a document that she claimed was a complete list of the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities. “Look, look, look,” she said, according to Lena. “No Germans.”

In reality, according to the last Soviet census, there were more than two million ethnic Germans living in the USSR in 1989. Nearly one million lived in Kazakhstan, more than in any other Soviet republic.

Illustration by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book
Chapter I


By the time Lena’s family emigrated from the Soviet Union, more than two centuries had passed since her ancestors had arrived in southern Ukraine. After the Russian Empire annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783, Catherine II (better known as “the Great”) opened the newly conquered areas of southern Ukraine and Crimea to European settlement, sending an envoy to the German states to encourage farmers and their families to colonize the territories. Lena’s predecessors moved almost immediately, settling in what is now Mariupol.

The Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century only accelerated the influx of Germans to the region, and even after the Russian government ended the settlement policy in 1819, the population continued to expand. By 1914, there were approximately 660,000 Germans living in the Black Sea area.

Illustration by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book

* * *

Exactly three months after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, on September 22, 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of ethnic Germans from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia, Stalino (now Donetsk), and Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk) regions. The deportees included Lena’s mother, who was less than a year old at the time, and her father, who was three years old, as well as her grandmothers. Lena’s grandfathers, too, were also swept up in Stalin’s repressions; one had been arrested years earlier, at the height of the 1937 terror, while the other was arrested in 1940. The two men never saw their families again.

Lena’s father and grandmother, Adam and Josephine Ollenberg, were sent to a special settlement in Kazakhstan’s northwestern steppe, where temperatures drop below -40 degrees Celsius. There, they lived in barracks “similar to prisons” and slept on wooden planks. Lena’s mother and her other grandmother, Angelina and Emilia Resch, were deported from Ukraine to a similar camp in the same region.

Distrustful of ethnic Germans but still seeking to use them to the state’s benefit, Stalin issued a decree that set in motion a new program that would eventually mobilize more than 300,000 Soviet Germans to perform forced labor during the war. Fourteen months later, he signed the first mobilization order conscripting women into the labor army (Trudarmia, in Russian). 

The decree and subsequent resolutions called for transferring children older than three to relatives or state institutions but did not allocate any funding for their care. At the same time, “the inductions into the labor army were so massive that very few physically capable adult Germans remained in the areas of special settlement,” writes historian J. Otto Pohl in his book The Years of Great Silence.

Illustrations by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book

Adam was four years old when his mother was forced into the labor army. From 1942–1946, he lived in the remote special settlement barracks, without her for weeks on end, surrounded by other children as well as adults who were disabled or too old to work. Josephine would be picked up from the special settlement and driven to her worksite at the Kimpersai ore mine for three weeks at a time, never knowing whether her son would have frozen or starved to death by the time she returned.

Adam says all he remembers from this time is the constant feeling of hunger. “We tried to eat anything we could find — even shoe soles and laces. The guards didn’t give us any food. Nobody cared if we lived or died,” he recalls. “They also didn’t feed old or sick people. They just let them die there.”

Angelina and Emilia, meanwhile, had been taken by train to the middle of the Kazakh steppe and abandoned in the cold. After spending the night in a shelter made of snow and ice, Emilia and another woman who had survived the night followed the railroad until they reached a Kazakh settlement. Despite having no common language, the villagers offered the deportees food and shelter.

After making their way to the city of Orsk, Emilia and Angelina were assigned to a special settlement in Aktyubinsk (now Aktobe), where Angelina would one day meet Lena’s father. Because Angelina was younger than three, her mother avoided conscription into the labor army. Like all Soviet Germans in internal exile, however, Emilia was deprived of her documents and required to report regularly to a local official to ensure she didn’t leave her settlement. While Angelina, unlike Adam, was allowed to go to school, she described her childhood to Lena as a “time of great hunger.”

Chapter II


In 1946, desperate to return home, Josephine and Adam traveled from Kazakhstan back to Ukraine, taking care to avoid detection by the authorities as they traversed over 1,000 miles on foot and by train. Like more than a million other Soviet Germans, they’d had their documents confiscated during deportation in 1941 and been stripped of the right to move throughout the USSR.

“It was such a long and difficult journey,” Adam says. “I was bloated from hunger and didn’t have any shoes — only fabric wrapped around my feet.”

When they arrived at their former home in Zaporizhzhia, they found another family living there. Adam remembers his mother crying outside of the house. “When they opened the door, there were still small drawings by my father on the wall,” Lena says, recalling her grandmother’s stories. But when Josephine pleaded with the new inhabitants for some warm clothing, a blanket, or even the drawings, they refused and shut the door.

After many nights without a proper place to live, including some spent in a barn, Josephine and Adam learned of another nearby village rumored to be more welcoming to returning deportees. There, they were able to establish a semblance of a normal life, for a while: Josephine began working in the fields, and Adam began going to school.

One day, while he was walking home, a girl he knew began shouting insults at him from the roof of her house. “She was always calling me a fascist, a son of a devil, but I ignored her,” he says. 

But then the girl picked up a slate from the roof and threw it, hitting Adam in the head and knocking him out. “After I lost consciousness, they called my mother,” he says. “I was lying there in a pool of blood, [and] she was crying, calling for help. But people were just standing [around], watching.”

Josephine carried Adam several miles to a veterinarian, who washed and stitched his wound. After that, Josephine began to pray. “She said that’s what saved me: her praying,” Adam recalls. “She couldn’t take me to the hospital — she didn’t have a way to transport me. Also, she was a German — who would want to help her?”

Several weeks later, after Adam had largely recovered, somebody reported him and his mother to the authorities. Police officers came and took Josephine away. She was sent to a Gulag camp in Vorkuta, above the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, Adam was sent to the nearby village of Mykolai-Pole, to live in an orphanage for children of “enemies of the people.”

Illustrations by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book
Chapter III


Adam describes the orphanage where he spent the remainder of his childhood as an institution dedicated to making him into a “proper Soviet Ukrainian.” The authorities changed his last name from Ollenberg to Wolf. If any of the children spoke German, he says, they would either be beaten or forced to dig a hole outside. “They could leave you there for hours in the cold,” he remembers. 

Despite the cruel and dehumanizing treatment he received there, Adam’s memories of the orphanage are interlaced with stories of kind people, such as a teacher who invited him to her home for dinner. “That was the best day of my life,” he says. “Her son and I played in this nice garden she had. I still remember that: so many flowers of different colors. That’s when I knew I would have a garden full of flowers when I was old.”

The other children in the orphanage came from a variety of backgrounds. “We were all the same because we were all children of ‘unreliable elements,’” he says, using the Soviet authorities’ official designation for ethnic groups they deemed suspect. “Our parents were either dead — shot — because they were ‘unreliable,’ or they were ‘rightly’ in the Gulag. Even we sometimes believed that maybe our parents had done something wrong.”

Adam Wolf as a child
Lena Wolf’s personal archive

While Adam was dreaming of “growing up and not being an enemy anymore,” his mother was searching for him from her Gulag camp. If the task of determining which of the Soviet Union’s thousands of orphanages now housed her son weren’t daunting enough, the authorities had also changed both his last name and his birth date. Many of Josephine’s fellow inmates found themselves in this predicament: the authorities had taken their children and changed their identities. To ease the search, the women worked together, writing joint letters describing their children’s appearances — something they knew less about with each passing year — and mailing them to various orphanages.

Like Adam’s orphanage, the Vorkuta camp contained all kinds of people. Years later, when Lena would visit her grandmother in Germany, Josephine would greet her in the ten different languages she had picked up from her friends in the Gulag.

It was one of Josephine’s fellow inmates who would eventually help her find Adam. The woman first managed to locate her own son, who told her that there was a boy in his orphanage named Adam, though his birthday and last name were different. That was how Adam and Josephine each learned where the other had been for nearly the last decade.

Shortly before Josephine was released from the Gulag under Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 amnesty that freed millions of political prisoners, Adam traveled to Vorkuta to see her. Years later, Lena asked him if he recognized his mother. Adam said he didn’t — he had been too young when she was arrested. “I said, ‘But surely you would recognize your mother,’” Lena continues. “And he said, ‘I just liked that someone wanted me.’”

Adam Wolf as a young man
Lena Wolf’s personal archive

Lena also remembers her grandmother describing her reunion with Adam as bittersweet. “She said, ‘At first, I thought my prayers were heard,’” Lena recalls. But when she started speaking to her long-lost son in “her German mixed with Ukrainian mixed with Russian, Polish, and so on,” Josephine realized Adam couldn’t understand her: “He didn’t remember German, he didn’t remember any customs, he didn’t remember what a Zuckerkuchen [German sugar cake] was. It was like he didn’t remember what it means to be part of her — her child, her traditions, her culture.”

After Adam finished his military service and Josephine was released from the Gulag, he moved to Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, to be with her. “I had to give up a good life in Zaporizhzhia to be with her. But a mother is a mother,” Adam says. “She used to give me her food so I wouldn’t die of hunger. Now, I wanted to make sure she at least had a piece of bread. They didn’t give jobs to people from the Gulag.”

Later, when the entire family moved to Germany, Lena’s mother Angelina had to serve as an interpreter between Adam, who never relearned German, and Josephine, who never became fluent in Russian or Ukrainian.

Chapter IV

Searching for home

Lena Wolf was born in Jelgava, Latvia, in 1973, though she has no memories of her time there. Her family had moved there several years earlier, believing it would be easier to get to Germany from Latvia than from Kazakhstan. But by the time Lena was a toddler, her parents had realized that emigration was impossible and decided to return to Aktyubinsk, where they at least had a community of other Soviet Germans to help them weather the daily discrimination they faced.

Throughout her childhood, Lena constantly heard that she and her family were “fascists” — a term people in the post-war Soviet Union used as a synonym for “Germans” (nemtsy, in Russian). “Instead of saying ‘nemets,’ some people on the street would say, ‘Oh, that’s a fascist child.’ It was used interchangeably,” Lena recalls. 

Illustrations by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book

Because the ethnic Germans who settled in the Russian Empire were largely excluded from Soviet history, most ordinary people drew no distinction between them and the soldiers from Nazi Germany who had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. “On several occasions, when I told people I was a German from Kazakhstan, they would ask, ‘Did your grandfather come with the Nazis and love our country so much that he decided to stay?’” Lena says. “Nobody knew we had lived in the [former] Russian Empire for 200 years. The schoolbooks had no mention of us. We didn’t exist as a group in the Soviet Union in the newspapers, radio, or TV.”

As a child, Lena found this especially confusing given the multiethnic nature of the Kazakh SSR, which was largely a product of forced population transfers and internal migration. “All my friends were Kazakh, Polish, Korean, and so on,” she explains. “And because Kazakhstan was this melting pot of all those different nationalities, I didn’t know for the longest time where we came from. I thought the nemtsy, the Germans, originally came from Kazakhstan.”

The Soviet authorities’ suppression of German language, culture, and identity was ostensibly intended to promote assimilation. And like her father, Lena spent her childhood wanting to become a “proper Soviet citizen” as quickly as possible. At the same time, Soviet law ensured that all citizens had their ethnicity listed in their identification documents. “This meant that people already classified as German by the Soviet government could never escape second-class citizenship,” writes historian J. Otto Pohl.

“I grew up with this subconscious fear of anything to do with being German,” Lena explains. “It was like, Oh my God, what if the neighbors hear us speaking German? What if we bake this Zuckerkuchen and some neighbor decides to report us to the police?

Illustrations by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book

Shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Wolf family finally had the opportunity to move to Germany under Berlin’s repatriation policy. Lena was 17 and didn’t want to leave her friends, but she did think she might finally, at the very least, for the first time in her life, feel like she belonged. “But of course, when we arrived from Germany, we became immigrants,” she says. “We were very different from other Germans.”

The move from Kazakhstan to Germany further complicated Lena’s understanding of her own identity. And her parents’ desire to let go of the past and assimilate into German society only added to her confusion. “They always, kind of, believed, ‘Oh, let’s not talk about it, it’s too tough. Just be German because you’re finally in Germany,’” she says. “ And it’s a shame because we’re basically doing the same thing we did in Kazakhstan.”

The way Lena sees it, integrating into German society without acknowledging the centuries your family spent in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union would be akin to “cutting off” one’s legs: “You can learn the language really well, you can integrate, but there’s always something missing about who you are. And that’s the 200 years of history.”

Illustration by Christoph Heuer for Lena Wolf’s book
Chapter V

Survival stories 

In 2016, after years of having to explain where she came from — or, worse, being told people like her didn’t exist — Lena decided she would document her family’s story in a way that would make it accessible to younger generations: a series of graphic novels. 

The Naked Pravda talks to Lena Wolf:

Growing up German in Soviet Kazakhstan, with Lena Wolf

“What I want to create is a book that I can give to people that doesn’t just put them into a depression; a book that informs them about our history and also gives [them] something positive,” Lena says. “So it’s not just [about] our horrific history, which is horrific. It’s also about how we deal with it. [These are] stories of survival and incredible bravery.”

Lena’s first book — titled May The Universe Be Your Home!is almost complete. Illustrated by German artist Christoph Heuer and Spanish colorist Ester Salguero, the book weaves together the story of Lena’s maternal grandmother Emilia surviving war, deportation, exile, and persecution, with Lena’s own experience grappling with her family’s difficult history and her identity as a German from Kazakhstan living in Europe. The second book will focus on Grandma Josephine and her experiences in the labor army and the Gulag, which she carried with her for the rest of her life.

“[Even after we moved to] Germany, I would say, ‘Babushka, you went shopping yesterday, did you buy bananas?’ And she would say, ‘Oh, back in the Gulag, we didn’t have anything at all,’” Lena says of Josephine. “We would sit sometimes for hours, looking outside at the forest, and then she would, kind of, come out of her slumber and say, ‘In Vorkuta, we had so many trees. But we had to work so hard.’”

* * *

Adam Wolf
Lena Wolf’s personal archive

Adam Wolf kept the last name the Soviet authorities gave him. Now 85, he lives in Offenbach am Main, a satellite city east of Frankfurt. The large number of Ukrainian refugees who have moved to Germany as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion has meant that, for the first time in decades, Adam can speak a language he’s comfortable with. “He lights up” when speaking Ukrainian with his newly arrived neighbors in the city, Lena says.

But Adam also has close friends with whom he doesn’t share a language. “My dad now has a ‘gang’ in Offenbach [that] consists of a Ukrainian lady in her late eighties, a Syrian neighbor who’s also in his eighties, and a woman from Kosovo,” Lena explains. “They sit on their bench, and if you look at them from afar, you would think they speak the same common language. None of them do, but they use their hands, they smile, and somehow they make each other understand.”

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Story by Sam Breazeale for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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