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American Volga Relief Society letters and documents

Russia experienced mass starvation from 1920 to 1924 caused largely by a government policy of forced grain requisition. When the ethnic Germans living along both banks of the Volga River resisted, they were completely stripped of all grain and mass executions were carried out. International relief organizations were finally allowed into the area when the Russian government began to fear that food shortages among the military and city workers might lead to rebellion. More than thirty percent of the Volga German population was deliberately starved before relief was permitted.

In 1921 George Repp of Portland, Oregon, organized the Volga Relief Society (VRS), which solicited funds from Volga German communities in America for the relief of relatives in Russia. A separate organization with similar goals, the Central States Volga Relief Society (CSVRS), arose at the same time in Lincoln, Nebraska. On November 4, 1922, the two organizations merged to form the American Volga Relief Society (AVRS).

Letter 103365
Letter from Saratov, Russia, October 20, 1922

The AVRS operated through the American Relief Administration (ARA) headed by Herbert Hoover. This letter was sent to Jacob Volz of York, Nebraska, who oversaw Volga relief operations on behalf of the AVRS. It describes ARA policies for the distribution of packages in the Volga German communities.

coupon 103367
Subscription coupon for The Central States Volga Relief Society, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1921

Hundreds of ethnic Germans in Lincoln, Nebraska, "subscribed" or pledged money dedicated to the purchase of supplies for the stricken Volga region. This coupon documents Adam Brehm's pledge of $10 for the colony of Norka. The pledge was paid in full on October 10, 1921.

relief recipients 103366
List, Moor colony, May 16, 1923

AVRS representative Jacob Volz carefully oversaw the distribution of relief packages, as his signature in the upper left corner of this document from the colony of Moor indicates. The name of the intended recipient is listed in the column on the left, the center column shows the village house number, and the column on the right contains the signatures of the heads of the households receiving the packages.

The AVRS collection contains many letters similar to this one written by schoolmaster Waldemar Gerlach. They provide important--and horrifying--statistics about the suffering in communities throughout the Volga region. Village leaders were asked to answer four questions in order to document conditions prior to the start of World War I in 1914 and the current, or 1923, conditions:

  1. how many inhabitants were in the village before the war and currently;
  2. how many widows and orphans;
  3. the number of various kinds of livestock; and
  4. what the village needed most in terms of assistance.

(Translation of excerpts from the letter from Konstantinovka)

1 November 1923
To the American Relief Administration:

I inform you hereby that we have received your letter of 24 September of this year, and we hasten to answer it immediately and also to provide the necessary responses to your questions. Everything that you requested has been correctly and promptly arranged, except that there is not a single individual [to direct the relief effort], as you indicated, but a committee. At the head and serving as chairman of the committee is the local sexton and schoolmaster W[aldemar] Gerlach plus two elected members of the community, Alexander Maurer and Peter Brecht.

...Our situation is still very difficult and dismal; for this reason we decided at the open meeting of the community to ask the American Relief Administration to send only three items, namely clothing, livestock, and agricultural equipment, because at present we have no great need for foodstuffs, but, as noted, the chief need is for the items mentioned above...

...We are in such a bad way with respect to clothing that adults and children are at their wit's end, not overlooking what America [has sent]. The harshness of the winter can already be felt horribly; and for that reason members of the community cannot attend church services, nor can children attend school.

It is the same with livestock. One meets few inhabitants in our village who have one or more horses. In general, one works the field with the cow; it goes without saying that each farmer has no more than one cow, so for the most part several farmers join together and work the land with the cows.

Even more wretched is our situation with respect to farm equipment. In the course of the last 10 years--that is, from 1914 to 1923--not a plow or a harrow or any new farm equipment has been purchased. It goes without saying that the old equipment is worn out and is no longer useful...

The next information [i.e., the information requested] the A.R.A. can take from the list which is included on the reverse side.

We are very happy that our brothers in America do not want to abandon us in this difficult situation, but, even more, want to help us out of these horrible conditions.

After all that we have heard, fresh hope rose in everyone again, and we wait longingly until we receive the needed items.

In anticipation we offer countless thanks to our brothers in America, and we have the greatest hope that we will not be disappointed.

With thankful greetings,

Chairman of the committee:
Sexton-Schoolmaster W[aldemar] Gerlach

Committee members:
A[lexander] Maurer
P[eter] Brecht

The letter from Konstantinovka colony to the ARA, November 1, 1923 contains the following list:
List of colony conditions 103364
(translation of list)

Of the conditions of our colony before the war and currently

                               Situation before the war     Situation at present
(1)     Number of inhabitants                   1750                                    830
(2)     Widows and orphans                         5                                     25
(3)     Number of horses                               709                                       85
(4)     Number of oxen                         120                                      None
(5)     Number of cows                         374                                      105
(6)     Number of sheep                       1570                                       80
(7)     Number of pigs                         280                                        5

The accuracy of this list is confirmed by Chairman Members:
W. Gerlach
A. Maurer
P. Brecht
1 November 1923

Government area:  Samara
Train station:  Krasny Kut



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