She was a refugee, victim of repression, child from improper families. For Valentine’s Day – “Protest song” by Anna German

The artists’ ancestors come from regions where today missiles are halving houses, schools and theatres are razed to the ground. Anna German herself was a child of war so the subject of life and death somehow determined her work.

St. Valentine blessed illegal relationships for which he was sentenced to death – he died exactly on February 14. On that day, almost 17 centuries later Anna German was born. Love and condemnation of interweave in her, so today, in February 2023, one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine – we can call out after the singer: We have to put an end to this!

”Human fate”

Human fate is neither a fairy tale nor a dream.
Human fate is an ordinary, dull day.
Human fate is a bringer of hardships, grief and tears
sang Anna German in one of her greatest hits. The composition was written already past a car accident in Italy, after which she spent long months recovering, but these words also apply to the time before the artist was born.

It was 1935 when Irma Martens and Eugeniusz German (born Eugen Hörmann) cane to Urgench near ancient Khiva. The choice of the place wasn’t accidental for in this very Uzbekistan, near the border with Turkmenistan there had for long lived Mennonites. They found asylum there by the end of 19th century when tsar Alexander II decided to revoke the privileges given them together with land by Catherine II.

Coming back to Irma and Eugeniusz, the young couple intended to escape from the USSR – especially he who had reasons to fear for his life. As a Schwabisch Baptist born in Łódź, whose ancestors settled down in Ukraine, quickly became object of interest for the NKVD. His father was sent to a gulag and he travelled across the Soviet Union in search for a job. He had no luck and after having a brief respite he had to abandon Donbas to hide from men in black coats. He was moving east and near the Uzbek city of Fergana he met the chosen one.

Irma was a Mennonite and just like him she descended from a family of protestant settlers who came to Russia back in the 19th century. The history of her ancestors were painfully marked by history, the Great Terror in particular. She found herself n Central Asia as a refugee. The couple, as in the abovementioned composition weren’t going to wait for a happy day to come and filled with hope that the fate could change, enjoyed their love.

Urgench: birth of an angel

In “The Unlucky Girl” Anna German sang:
I will welcome you across the threshold for sure
I will not knock on wood
The mirror will break on greeting
And what is to happen, finally let it happen.

These strange, yet poetic words – written by Jerzy Ficowski – perfectly reflect the first moments of the singer’s parents’ life together. Young people were treading on thin ice, spies were being sought around, people were disappearing into torture chambers, so in spite of everything and everyone, they decided to find a job and not be noticed by anyone.

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Urgench, with its 40,000 inhabitants, was a city vibrant with life at that time. Factories were built, drainage canals were dug and there was still a shortage of hands to work, especially when these hands could be directed not only by hot but also educated heads. And that was the case with Anna German’s parents. Irma graduated from pedagogical studies in Odessa, was fluent in Russian, as well as German and a dialect of Dutch, i.e. she used the Mennonite language – she easily found a job teaching German at a local school. Eugeniusz, also twenty-five, admittedly did not study at the university, but in his career he already had an episode as an accountant of a large mine in Donbas. And although he could not boast of it, because the plant was in financial trouble due to the fault of the alcoholic director, he already had considerable experience – in Urgench he was employed as an accountant in a large bakery.

The young people settled in a hut, low, with a threshing floor, but even that could have its advantages. They lived like everyone else, poor, hoping that no one was looking at them. Today there is no trace of their house, but there is a maternity ward in the local hospital, where on Valentine’s Day, 1936, the world heard her voice for the first time. Little Ania’s voice, which they will soon call “divine”, and the experts will reverently describe it as lyrico-spinto soprano.

Land of death

They spent two years in this poor city, forcibly transformed into an industrial center, where Uzbek rickshaws with huge wheels invariably rolled through the market, and camels were seen on the streets more often than cars. Therefore, it is hard to suspect that little Anna could remember anything from this atmosphere, and yet in her humorous song “My uncle is a mole breeder” – years later also sung to the words by Ficowski – we will see something of the magic of the past Central Asian world:
So when it's rainy day or night
Tiny moles so golden
They will gild your world
They will bite a hole in the dark sky.

But then, in Urgench, she and her family couldn’t count on a hole in the storm clouds. The photo dates from that time, taken in the atelier opposite the school and probably belonging to the creator of Uzbek photography Khudajbergen Devanov. It shows a few-month-old Anna, parents and grandmother, Irma’s mother. The girl we see is probably still healthy, but soon she will become seriously ill.
At the same time, there were signals that the NKVD was looking for Eugeniusz here as well. The year 1937 began, the family decided to run away again and this time they went to Tashkent, hundreds of kilometers away. But the services already knew who these “Germans” were (this is how the Protestant colonists were collectively referred to in the USSR) and their history could not have turned out differently. In autumn, Anna’s father and uncle returned to Urgench to settle matters, and both were arrested on charges of espionage. Fake crime, fake evidence, but the verdict was very serious. Wilmar was sentenced to gulag, Eugene was announced that he would be shot. The man was transported outside the city and brutally killed there. The NKVD did not intend to reveal anything, and it was only in 1956 that Anna and Irma found out about this execution.

”I want to be loved...”

I want to be loved even in the rain
Why would I need the lights of seven candles
Why would I need a sky of stars at night
All I need is the glow of your eyes
One look, one embrace
– sang Anna German. The words to this song were written by Krzysztof Dzikowski, the son of a Tatar woman who was expelled from the Crimean Peninsula Accident? Refugees, victims of repression, children from the wrong families, they all knew well that love is the most important thing and they did not forget about it even in the cellars of the NKVD or the Polish Secret Service.

Anna German could see the saving power of this feeling already in the first years of her life. “She spent her childhood in the USSR. And to say it was difficult would be an understatement. Those were terrible times,” recalls Ivan Ilichev-Volkanovsky. The author of her biography visited places associated with the artist and in Kyrgyzstan he reached Orłówka – let us add that it was also founded by Protestant colonists. That’s where Irma and little Anna were sent.

Ilichev-Volkanovski found traces of them in the archives. The documents from 1943 include, inter alia: information that a seven-year-old girl, a first-grade student, had to pass e.g. defensive disposition, then called “voyennyye dyelo”. It consisted in that exhausted students were practicing drill, shooting or, in older classes, operating anti-aircraft guns. Maybe it doesn’t sound particularly traumatic today, but you have to realize that at the same time everyone suffered from hunger, worked physically beyond their capabilities, and at the same time had to face ravaging diseases – a victim of those times was Irma’s son, born after Eugeniusz’s death.

And it’s hard to imagine what would have happened to the mother and daughter if it hadn’t been for Herman Gerner. He was a Polish Jew who, after the Germans entered Stanisławów, made it as far as Kyrgyz Orlovka. Like Irma, he worked there as a teacher and lived in the same house – the couple soon got married. Gerner did not care for the woman and her child for long. In 1943, he joined the 1st Polish Infantry Division named after T. Kościuszko and went to the front. It would seem that he was poor support, and yet it was thanks to him that both Irma and Anna were able to leave for Poland after the end of the war.

The brightest star

Although Polish blood never flowed in the veins of Anna’s ancestors, she found a home and love first in Nowa Ruda, and later in Wrocław. In the capital of Lower Silesia, the singer graduated from geology and perhaps had an academic career ahead of her, but Anna felt a completely different vocation. In 1960, still during her studies, she made her debut at the Kalambur student theater in Wrocław. It was there that a wider audience first heard her extraordinary voice. Over time, she ignited love in millions of fans both in Poland and in the East. In fact, the whole world was open to her. As the only Polish singer, she performed at the festival in San Remo, gave concerts from the United States through Western Europe to the Antipodes, everywhere arousing extraordinary emotions.
A car accident in Italy in 1967 and then painstaking rehabilitation caused a nearly three-year break in her career, and yet the audience didn’t forget her. When she returned to the stage in 1970, millions of fans were waiting for her. At that time, she also received the title of “Warsaw’s most popular woman”, and a year later the capital honored her with an award for popularization of culture. Her career gained momentum again and in 1972 she went on tour across the USSR.

But the city that in her biography became an allegory of Eros and Thanatos, Uzbek Urgench, where she was born and where her father was shot less than two years later, remained inaccessible to her. The artist tried to change it back in 1979, during her tour of Central Asia, argues Ilichev-Volkanovski. She gave concerts in Tashkent thirteen times, and twice in Samarkand, where her photo, little known in Poland, against the backdrop of beautiful mosaics comes from. But no performance was organized in the city of her birth. Even four decades after her father’s execution, after his formal rehabilitation by the military prosecutor’s office, the Soviet services did not allow the brightest of Urgench’s stars to shine under the sky of her childhood.

Triumph of love

They did not allow it, but life sometimes resembles a romantic novel, in which true feeling will squeeze through the thinnest crack or break the thickest gate. This is how Anna German broke into her Urgench, although it happened after her death (she died on August 25, 1982, after years of fighting a severe cancer - ed.). In 1987, one of the city’s main streets was named in her honour. Memory and love follow different paths, and three decades have passed, and a considerable object, also named after her, was erected next to her prospectus, where you could buy ... a somewhat unrefined kebab. After a few years, both commemorations disappeared. The street was renamed after the late president Islam Karimov, and the restaurant, under the influence of protests, was first stripped of its bizarre sign and then closed.

Wherever I am, my home is – sang German in “My homeland” and the inhabitants of Urgench proved, however, that the singer still lives in their hearts. The local music school has been named after her, and a statue of her by Artur Razhapow is to be erected on the square in front of the school; the monument is said to be already there, just waiting to be installed.

And here let’s take a step into the near future, into a sphere seemingly unrelated to art. Although we will not read about it on the front pages of newspapers or portals, cooperation between Poland and Uzbekistan is flourishing. There are more young people from this country at our universities every year – in 2022 there were over 1.5 thousand of them and in the ranking of foreign students, Uzbeks were already in 9th place, ahead of Germans and Czechs. And Polish products, including apples from our orchards, are beginning to reign on the tables of Tashkent or Fergana. Therefore, if our businessmen know at least a few German’s songs by heart, then maybe they will be able to open one more door in Uzbekistan.

This has to stop!

However, it is difficult to escape from current contexts. The world beyond our eastern border has plunged into war and we have no doubts who is the aggressor – Russia, and who is defending their lands: Ukraine. We also remember the frame from Mariupol from eleven months ago, where we can see how the defenders are carrying a pregnant woman on a blanket in strawberries, and in the background – a completely ruined maternity hospital. It is not surprising that in view of these events, we may wonder whether to listen to German’s songs, especially since a large part of them was performed in Russian.

Let us recall that the artist’s ancestors, the ancestors of Irma and Eugeniusz come from regions where today missiles are halving houses, schools and theatres are razed to the ground. (In 1819, Anna’s great-grandfather founded the village of Hoffnung, now Olhyne, near Berdyansk on the coast of the Sea of Azov, which has been under Russian occupation since March 2022 – ed.). Anna German herself was a child of war so the subject of life and death somehow determined her work. This thread is pointed out by Ilichev-Volkanovski. “Even in military and patriotic songs, Anna sang about love, and in these songs there is pain, sadness and great love”, recalls the biographer. He adds that “we will not ask Anna any more questions”, including those regarding the current situation in Ukraine, but paradoxically “we can find the answers in her songs”. And he evokes the “Song of Protest”, with lyrics written by Jacek Hilchen, and music composed by Jarosław Kukulski. He encourages everyone to repeat the last lines with the same determination as Anna German did:

You have to wake up, so instead of fire
offer flowers, give a smile.
Give your heart.
Call out loud.
Let everyone hear.
This must end!
Never again!

– Marta Panas-Goworska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Anna German performing at the 4th International Song Festival in Sopot in 1964. Photo: PAP/CAF/Janusz Uklewski
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