Helenendorf – City of Germans and Armenians

Helenendorf – City of Germans and ArmeniansThe city of Helenendorf (now Goygol, Azerbaijan) has been the destination of those who were tired from the heat of their cities in the summer days. Everything in this city reminded of Germans-colonists – most of all, the neat homes and the organized layout of the city built by them.

In Soviet years and shortly thereafter, Helenendorf was known as Khanlar. Back in the days of USSR, the city was inhabited by 13 – 15 thousand people, most of whom were Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Germans who remained after the 1941 expulsion of Germans. In the 1960s, the remaining German families moved to Kirovabad (now Ganja, Azerbaijan). After the massacres of Armenians, they left as well, ending the German storyline of the city in 1988. There could be a couple of German families still living in Khanlar, but that’s unlikely. In 1939, 23.133 Germans lived in the city, while in 1980, that number was mere 748 people.

The history of German settlements in the Caucasus began in the distant 18th century when Empress of Russia Catherine the Great gave the Germans the right to inhabit the outskirts of the Russian Empire. One of the first to settle here were the Swabians who had been engaged in winemaking in Germany. They were looking for an area where they could continue making wine.

Helenendorf was founded by German settlers at the place of a former Tatar village of Khanluklar on Easter day in 1818. The settlement was named in the honor of Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg Elena Pavlovna. Initially, there have been 127 families (501 people) in the colony that were provided with 2.600 ha of land. In 1914, the population of the settlement was 2.166 people. By 1926, there have already been living 3.700 people who possessed 10.792 ha of land.

All of the settlers have been Lutherans. At the time, 9 Lutheran churches operated in the Transcaucasia, which have been united into one religious organization called Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The settlers have been very religious and readily paid the church taxes. Most of the people moved to Helenendorf due to religious reasons in the first place.

Initially, pastors have been arriving from Basel and later from the University of Dorpat. Each of the churches possessed musical instruments, including organs mostly delivered from Germany. Germans of Helenendorf were so religious that none worked on Sundays and instead attended the churches, typically leaving one person at home.

The church of Helenendort built in 1885 has been the most renowned Lutheran church in the Transcaucasia. Its construction was managed by a local Armenian, a skilled mason who designed the church to be built from red sandstone. The church would be recognized as the most beautiful Lutheran church in the territory of Azerbaijan, as well as was the tallest building in Elisabethpol Governorate.

In Helenendorf, the first Germans to engage in winemaking were the Hummel and Vohrer families. The members of these families would become the founders and managers of a unity of winemakers “Concordia”, as well as would greatly contribute to the life of the German colonies of the Transcaucasia.

Germans have taught Armenians swine breeding. In particular, they taught the Armenians to cook ham in the way traditional in Germany. Armenians also learned to serve their children wine diluted with water (Wasserwein) at dinner.

The German settlers have been initially inhabiting the outskirts of the Russian Empire, solving two tasks. On one hand, they reinforced the borders of the Empire by creating a buffer zone dividing Russia from the “uncivilized tribes”. On the other hand, the Germans began to cultivate previously untouched lands, strengthening those areas’ connection to the Empire.

The already-mentioned Hummel family played a key role in the history of German colonies in the Transcaucasia. The members of this family have been successful entrepreneurs and producers who strongly influenced the cultural life of the colonies. Thanks to their written accounts, one could quite easily examine the life of those colonies. In particular, Theodor Hummel drew the earliest preserved map of the German settlements in the Transcaucasia and published it in Berlin in 1936.

From a commercial point of view, the production of wine and later cognac and alcohol has been the most profitable business in the area. The cognac factory of Khanlar owes its fame mainly to Concordia. The Germans’ activity in the region greatly contributed to the winemaking in the Transcaucasia. It was the Germans who first pollinated domesticated grapes with wild ones, which resulted in a new variety of grapes called “Rundwein”. Rundwein was the primary grapes variety cultivated by the Germans.

The second most profitable business in Helenendorf was the production of German carts. In 1870, 40 out of 64 craftsmen were engaged in building carts. With time, Armenian craftsmen learned to make cheaper carts of similar quality.

It should be noted that the Germans were friends with the Armenians, which isn’t surprising as they, as well as local Russians have been their only Christian neighbors. The rest have mostly been the Caucasian Tatars who often carried out pogroms that impacted the Germans as well.

In 1941, the Germans were exiled from the Transcaucasia by the order of Stalin. During the war, the oil-filled Baku was a higher priority for Hitler than the millennia-old winemaking. When the Germans were giving away their earned property to the Armenians – be it a commode or a piano – they sorrowfully said: “You will remain after us, but who will remain after you?” As if they sensed everything…

Karine Ter-Sahakyan


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