Speaking German in Moscow, 1941

Vova must have been frightened, bearing a German name [Knipper] at this moment of pitiless struggle [as the Wehrmacht closed in on Moscow]. Daily bulletins from Informburo were attached to trees and walls. On one of them he was shaken to see an excerpt from a letter taken off the body of a German soldier called Hans Knipper. And a schoolfriend of his, a Volga German about to be transported to Siberia, came to see them in despair. Vova’s father, Vladimir, advised him to volunteer for the army to save himself from an exile of forced labour which would be as bad as the Gulag, but Vova’s friend replied that the description ‘German’ was stamped on his papers and they would not accept him in the army. Those of German origin were implicitly categorized as potential enemies of the state. The NKVD had not wasted time assembling records on every Soviet citizen of German descent, some 1.5 million people. Local NKVD departments ‘from Leningrad to the Far East’ began a programme of arrests immediately after the Wehrmacht invasion. Yet no member of the Knipper family was touched [presumably because Vova’s cousin Lev Knipper worked for the NKVD].

Other Germans in Moscow were also in a strange position, but for different reasons. In the same building as the Knippers lived the family of Friedrich Wolf, the famous German Communist playwright, who had left Germany soon after Hitler came to power in 1933. They were part of the so-called ‘Moscow emigration’ of foreign Communists seeking sanctuary and would have faced instant execution at Nazi hands if the city fell. Vova used to act a roof-top fire-watcher, ready to deal with incendiary bombs, along with Wolf’s two sons, Markus and Koni. Markus later became the chief of East German intelligence and the original of Karla in John Le Carré’s novels, and his younger brother, Koni, became a film-maker, writer and the president of East Germany’s academy of arts. During air raids, Vladimir Knipper and Friedrich Wolf sat in the cellar, chatting together in German. ‘People sitting around us,’ wrote Vova, ‘turned to look at the two of them with anger and fear. There they were in the centre of Moscow arguing about something in the enemy’s language.’

SOURCE: The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war, by Antony Beevor (Penguin, 2005), pp. 173-174

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