Iron Curtain lifts for ethnic Germans. 'Emigr'es leave Soviet Union as East-West relations improve

Lena looks every bit the typical Russian schoolgirl: bright tufted ribbons in her hair, wool socks pulled up over the knees. But when qreeted by a stranger, she answers shyly - in German.

Welcome to the often contradictory world of the ``Russian Germans.'' Lena and her family are part of a growing wave of ethnic Germans being allowed to emigrate to West Germany from the Soviet Union.

Many are descendants of settlers drawn to Imperial Russia in the 18th century. Others come from areas which were part of Germany itself until the end of World War II.

``We've always felt that we were German,'' says Dietrich Schellenberg, a father of seven from Kirghizia, a Soviet republic that skirts the Chinese border. ``Now we have our chance.''

Over the past year, the Soviet Union has quietly loosened its grip on the German minority, estimated at 2 million. In the early 1980s, only about 700 were allowed to leave annually. But last year, the number leaped to 15,000. And this year, Bonn is expecting twice that number.

Many analysts attribute the current surge to the policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. ``We really don't know how far this will go,'' says one German official in Bonn. But, he adds, it clearly seems to coincide with warmer relations between East and West.

It could also be a clever move on the part of the Kremlin to win friends in West Germany. Either way, both sides seem to have settled into a tacit accommodation: the flow of Germans is allowed to grow, while Bonn eases criticism of Soviet policies toward the German minority.

All of the Russian Germans pass through Friedland, an obscure West German village near the East German border where a refugee camp sprung up after World War II. Besides processing Soviets, the camp also checks in Germans whose ancestors settled in what is now Poland.

Most Russian Germans will have been on the road two or three days when they finally arrive in Friedland. They gather in Moscow, where they wait for open seats on flights to Frankfurt or D"usseldorf. From there, buses take them to the camp.

``The first day we let them sleep in,'' says Randolf Brand, Friedland's harried director. But then the red tape begins.

In the jammed corridors of the camp's main buildings, Soviet and Polish families cluster and wait to have their papers checked by West German officials. Each must show proof of German ancestry.

Outside, hordes of children overwhelm the tiny playgrounds. Indeed, it's the children that distinguish the new wave of Soviet arrivals.

``The Russian Germans almost all arrive in large family groups - often three generations,'' says Mr. Brand. It's not unusual for an extended family to come with 10 to 15 children in tow.

The result in Friedland is mild chaos.

The camp population now hovers at about 1,500 - nearly twice its normal capacity. Part of this is due to a jump in the number of Germans leaving Poland. But Russian Germans put the heaviest demands on the camp's modest resources.

In the small dormitory-style rooms, families jam together with cots and mattresses. The neatly appointed nursery - which accommodates only 10 children - has all it can do just to distribute baby food and clothes for the more than 130 children registered to receive them.

The average stay is about a week. After that, the families are dispatched to cities across West Germany. Most choose towns where they have relatives or friends.

In the past, Bonn regularly blasted Moscow for what it considered harsh treatment of the Germans. During World War II, the Soviets accused the Russian Germans of collaborating with Hitler's forces and deported many to Siberia and Central Asia. As a result, more than half the Germans in the Soviet Union today live in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in western Asia.

With the door to the West now opening, the number of Germans applying to leave is expected to grow. Jakob, a burly farmer who asked that his last name be withheld, says his village of 800 Germans has been buzzing for months with talk about the new emigration policy. ``As it gets easier to leave, more will apply,'' he says.

Still, new arrivals seldom gripe about the Soviet Union.

Most say the reason they wanted to leave was to be reunited with family. Others worried that their children were loosing touch with their German identity. ``It's really not that difficult anymore,'' says Mr. Schellenberg. ``We're allowed to speak our language again and have our communities.'' But, he adds, it's not like it used to be.

Churches have played a key role in cementing the remnants of the German communities. In Schellenberg's hometown, for instance, most of the members of the local Baptist church are German.

The emigres may take only what they can carry.

German officials worry that many of them may be unprepared for the fast pace and pressures of Western society. But the Russian Germans here seem unconcerned.

``We're used to a difficult life,'' says Dietrich Epp, a young father of five who plans to work in Germany as a welder.

Camp director Brand agrees that the newcomers seem to have an edge on the system. Many of them, especially the older ones, speak fluent German. In addition, ``Their big families seem to help,'' he says, serving as a safety net during the transition.

Meanwhile, Friedland is gearing up for another busy night. At least 60 new arrivals are expected to land in Frankfurt alone.

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