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You can go Home Again With the 'Aussiedlers' in Stuttgart, Germany

Vossler, Ron. "You can go Home Again With the 'Aussiedlers' in Stuttgart, Germany." North Dakota REC/RTC, March 1997.

German

New map of the Germans from Russia villages near Odessa, Ukraine. (Map courtesy of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, Fargo)

Whatever happened to the Black Sea Germans who didn't emigrate to the American prairies like my grandparents and great-grandparents--to those who remained behind in the "Old Country" of Russia? That's what I had often wondered.

This past summer, at the Bundestreffen (bundes=people of similar interests; treffen=meeting) Reunion in the Messe-Killesberg convention center in Stuttgart, Germany, I finally found out.

Despite the fact that I'd grown up in south-central North Dakota--the greatest concentration of Black Sea Germans in the Western Hemisphere, I'd never seen so many of that ethnic group. They emerged from tour buses lining both sides of the highway for miles. They crowded the sidewalks. They stood in groups near the entrance. By mid-morning there were at least 60,000 people massed into the huge, multi-level convention center.

Inside, from the upper level, I gazed across this sea of humanity. Many wore their Sunday best. There were elderly ladies in shawls, stocky men in crisp-brimmed hats, women in dark pant-suits. And somewhere among them, no doubt, were my own distant relatives, my grandfather's cousins perhaps, or their children and grandchildren...

An elderly Black Sea German woman, seated at a table in the Alte Siedlung (old settlers) section.

A view of part of the convention center where more than 50,000 ethnic Germans from Russia gathered for the Bundestreffen reunion in June of 1996 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photos by Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia bibliographer)

Prairie life however harsh, still better than remaining in Russia

It was strange to realize that if my grandparents had remained in Russia, I might be one of these Aussiedler (outsettlers) born in the far reaches of the old Soviet Empire, returning now to the German homeland our ancestors left 200 years ago.

It was even stranger to imagine that I might not even be here at all--like the million Germans in Russia who were among the more than 20 million people murdered by Stalin and his policies.

My own ancestors were among that great wave of immigrants to North Dakota at the turn of the century. At that time, overcome by the vast prairie where they endured life on isolated homestead tracts, these pioneers often yearned for their familiar villages in Russia. One early settler said the only thing that kept her from walking back to the Old Country was the ocean.

It was a hard life for my ancestors--those early prairie years of suffering and isolation, of droughts, early death, blizzards, grasshopper plagues and prairie fires. But if they'd remained in Russia, as so many of their kin had, they'd have endured far worse--including civil war, conscription, Stalin's purposely created "terror" famines, murderous collectivization policies, indiscriminate shootings, interrogations, forced labor camps and deportations.

In comparison, those early Dakota years, however harsh, at least seemed worthwhile--if only to later generations, particularly my own, which benefited most from such pioneer sacrifices.

Born in 1877 at Strassburg, Kutschurgan District, Black Sea, Sebastian Schlosser (pictured with his wife, Francis, and their family) came to America in 1901, settling in Emmons County, N.D. The photo was taken in 1924. Relatives of many such families stayed behind in Russia; now, families on both sides of the Atlantic are seeking the whereabouts--and the fate--of their kinfolk. The Bundestreffen reunion is helping them do that. (Black-and-white photographs of early Germans from Russians printed with permission from the book "Researching the Germans from Russia," published by the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo, 1987)

Familiar faces, dialects

Those were some of my thoughts that Sunday last summer at the Bundestreffen, negotiating the crowds, passing long hallways lined with Black Sea German artwork--fractured images of hovering bloody Soviet sickles and jackboots treading over lifeless, prostrate figures in dark landscapes, only too vividly displaying the past half-century of history of that ethnic group in Russia.

In the Alte Siedlung (old settlers) section of the convention center, long tables were set up to accommodate former inhabitants of the original German settlements in the Ukraine up until their dissolution in World War II.

It seemed like Sauerkraut Day in my childhood in the 1950s in Wishek, N.D. The broad-faced women, with their distinctive ethnic features, reminded me of my aunts and great-aunts; the quiet, bandy-legged men of my uncles. All of them spoke that melodious, gruff German dialect I knew so well from my upbringing.

For me, it was like going back in time--these people, so familiar, yet so different. For I realized with a start that, unlike my own grandparents, they'd never lived in America; that they'd begun their lives in the German colonies in the Ukraine; that they'd been scattered to the winds by World War II; to farms in the Warthegau district of Poland and later to camps in Germany. After the war they were "repatriated" back to the Soviet Union, where they were forced into exile in the Ural Mountains, or in Siberia, or in Kazakhstan. Now here they were, in Germany again--the land their ancestors, and my ancestors, left 200 years earlier.

Black Sea Germans at the Kutschurgan (Mannheim) table in the Alte Siedlung section. Signs on tables marked are Russian hometowns of ancestors for those seeking information on relatives.

Finding kinfolk

At the nearby North Dakota State University (NDSU) Libraries-sponsored "American Booth," Black Sea German Aussiedler lined up to get help contacting their American kin, with whom they'd lost contact during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

They carried small items tattered by war and exile. They showed old folded photographs bearing the stoic likenesses of relatives posing by sod homes on the American prairie. Like some holy relics, they fingered ragged, turn-of-the-century envelopes with scrawled addresses in Old German script, of relatives in places like Kansas, Idaho, or Kulm, N.D.

At one point a hefty Siberian Aussiedler leaned across the information table and said, "I am searching for my American relatives. My name is Pius Gross."

"Pius Gross?" the American at the information table said, his voice raising in interest. "Why, that's my name, too."

There was a shock recognition. They stared as though into a mirror. Then, the two Pius Grosses, who shared the same great-grandfather, shook hands, reuniting after a century the two branches of their family--those who'd remained behind in the ancestral village in the Ukraine, and the luckier ones who'd emigrated to America, to settle in Logan County, N.D.

A few moments later, at the table marked with the placard "Kutschurgan Enclave, Ukraine," I made a connection, too, of sorts, when I inquired of an erect white-haired fellow if he knew any of my step-father's relatives--Engelharts, from the Catholic village of Mannheim--who'd remained behind in Russia.

"Engelharts? Of course," he snapped, his eyes flashing with an old anger. "They were my neighbors. Peter and Franz. Shot by the Soviets. In autumn 1937."

I'd heard that tragic story too many times at the Bundestreffen Reunion--that same tragic history of Black Sea Germans, suffering the murderous official whims of Stalin's Sovietization program in the 1920s and '30s. And then, during World War II, they were caught between the Russians, in whose country they'd been born, and the invading German armies, whose culture and language they shared.

Many Black Sea German men were cannon fodder in that war. They fought for the Russians. They fought for the Germans, with the tallest and most robust drafted into the SS Divisions depleted by warfare on the Eastern Front.

Some fought on both sides. An elderly man, who'd survived the bitter winter battle for Moscow in World War II (on whose side I couldn't quite determine), pulled two worn oft-folded photos from his billfold as evidence. One photo showed him in a Soviet uniform, his rakishly tilted military cap decorated with the hammer-and-sickle insignia. The other photo, taken after capture and "repatriation as an ethnic German," showed him in Wehrmacht uniform, a Winter-Schlact combat medallion pinned to his chest.

Zita Dauenhauer Gieser, Dickinson (hand raised), a volunteer at the NDSU-sponsored "American Booth" at the Bundestreffen, tells a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union how to locate relatives in North America.

Looking for survivors

At another table displaying a placard with the name of my grandfather's birthplace in the Beresan Enclave in the Ukraine, I approached some gray-haired ladies who eyed me suspiciously. It was that same look from years ago in my hometown, when I'd try to peddle newspapers door to door to the elderly who didn't want subscriptions.

"My grandfather, Henry Woehl, was born in Rohrbach," I said, pointing to the placard. "As a young man he went to America, to North Dakota."

Their brows wrinkled. They seemed to be wondering about me. What did this stranger want? Why did he speak their dialect with an American accent?

"No Woehls here," one lady said.

"America?" one of the other ladies asked in German. "You mean they speak our language in America?"

"Ganz gewiss--most certainly," I said. "It's too nice a language not to talk."

That pleased her no end. Her suspicion melted. She asked me to join her at the table. As I sat with them, I felt that old, unassuming calm I'd felt during visits to my own grandparents in my North Dakota hometown.

The elderly lady--Mathilda, let's call her--told me that each Bundestreffen she meets old friends from her home village. It's a day of celebration for those who survived, a day to mourn those who didn't. They talk about their pensions, about their new lives in Germany, about feeling Friede (at peace). They remember the war; they remember the Flucht, the overland trek in the dead of winter, organized by the retreating German Army, which ended their old village steppe life forever.

They cry. They wait for family members lost in the war.

Mathilda wonders about her two uncles, lost in the battle of Budapest--about other relatives verschlept at gunpoint to Siberia by the Soviets half a century ago. Maybe they survived Gulag prison camps, she tells herself. Maybe they survived exile in Kazakhstan.

"You never know," she says, her eyes scanning the crowd. "They might show up one day. Or their children might..."

Youth represented too

For all we knew, those children of her missing relatives might have been only a few flights of stairs away--down in the lower levels of the convention center, where in great rooms heavy with smells of garlic and sausage and vodka, the Asiatic Germans gathered.

Like most younger generations, they didn't particularly want to talk about their parents' and grandparents' ancestral villages--places they'd never even seen. Some of this younger generation, toting children of their own now, no longer resembled their parents, either. For as the offspring of Black Sea Germans and Asiatics, they combined the best features of both groups, it seems. Many had been born during or after World War II, in distant cities and regions where deportation trains dumped their starving parents or grandparents: places with romantic-sounding names, where they'd led a not-so-romantic existence, cutting timber or mining coal or precious minerals; names that still freeze the blood of most inhabitants of the former Soviet Union--Karaganda, the Urals, Krasnoyarsk or the most murderous place of all, that hell on Earth which few ever survived, Kolyma.

In the past decade, these Aussiedler and their children, motivated by recent German laws that offer citizenship and compensation for those who'd suffered losses in World War II, have arrived at the rate of 200,000 per year. At least 2 million ethnic Germans have returned to Germany.

But it is not a paradise, this modern Germany. Many Germans disdain these new arrivals as Fluchlinge. It's a derogatory term for these refugees who are considered inferior and seen as a drain on the economy and the source of various social problems, too. After 200 years out of the country, no longer able to speak German as a mother tongue, if at all, they often seem more Russian than German.

Despite and because of these issues, the German government has cut welfare programs, including language-training courses. As a result, young and old alike--even Russian-educated professionals such as doctors and engineers--compete for even the most menial of jobs with gastenarbeiter, guest workers from Turkey or Greece.

When they found out I was American, the young men's eyes glowed. It was, I thought, perhaps the same reaction as my own ancestors on the steppes in the 1880s, when they heard about free homestead land in the New World--when each evening they'd point at the setting sun and repeat, "Dort naus liegt Amerika--Out there lies America."

One young man with a sweater wrapped around his neck waved a beer can as he spoke. He wanted to know how hard it was to learn English. He wasn't afraid to work. He'd read about America, seen it in movies. Would I sponsor him? As I wrote down his name and address, I felt suddenly afraid for him.

He reminded me of my own son. Eighteen. Handsome. Personable. But full of mistaken ideas about America, just as his own elders, exiled in Siberia or Asia, passed to their children the dream of a German homeland they'd never seen, a monarchal Germany from long before either world war--a Germany that no longer existed.

These young people shared their food, their vodka, with me. They laughed often, danced to raucous rock music, clutching cigarettes in their fists, like Asiatic peasants I'd seen once in India. At one point, several young Siberian Germans, their gold teeth flashing with satisfaction, wielded magic markers to replace the German script of their parents' villages on the table placards with their own wobbly Cyrillic (a Slavic alphabet still used in modern-day Russia and Slavic countries) letters.

Dance symbolizes unity

Back in the Alte Siedlung section, the atmosphere seemed staid. The music was slower, different. There was an oompa-band of accordions and brass instruments, where only at times did the melody drift off into that distinctive, melancholy lilt of Russian folk songs.

Out on the improvised dance floor, couples danced, swaying to the music. That white-haired fellow from Mannheim, so upset by my earlier question, seemed at ease. He glided along elegantly with his partner, a Californian of Black Sea German descent.

Pius Gross, the American, was out there, too, dancing with Mrs. Kraft, the sister of his Siberian relative, who'd asked him, "Danz noch? Do you still dance?" It was a tentative question which seemed to probe whether, after a century of travail, of separation, they could still celebrate, still dance together.

And that's what I'll always remember from the Bundestreffen reunion last summer: Pius Gross, the American, dancing with his Siberian relative.

It was a joyous dance that seemed to say that, yes, eventually things would work out for these Ausseidler, home again in their ancestral Germany after 200 years.

Former Wishek, N.D., native Ron Vossler is a free-lance writer from East Grand Forks, Minn. Vossler, who teaches writing at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, will serve as a writer and oral interviewer during the North Dakota State University Libraries-sponsored Journey to the Homeland Tour, May 17-31, 1997. The tour will visit St. Petersburg, Russia; Odessa, Ukraine; and Stuttgart, Germany. Prairie Public Television staff will also join the tour for documentary filming.

A German-Russian emigrant couple on their wedding day: Frank Jahner (1884-1966) and Agnes Nagel (1891-1984) were married Nov. 4, 1913, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church west of Strasburg in Emmons County, ND.

Tours planned for '98,'99

Those of you who would like to attend the next Bundestreffen--planned for June 6, 1998, in Stuttgart, Germany--are in luck! A Journey to the Homeland tour is planned to coincide with that date, according to Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia bibliographer at North Dakota State University (NDSU), Fargo. Miller, who serves as tour director, says two tours still have openings--one for 1998 and one for 1999. Both tours will include a visit to the Odessa area, homeland of many of the ancestors of present-day North Dakota Germans from Russia.

If you'd like to participate in one of these tours or would like more information, contact Michael M. Miller, c/o Journey to the Homeland Tours, NDSU Libraries, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, N.D. 58105-5599, or phone (701) 231-8416. Or e-mail: Michael.Miller@ndsu.edu

Journeys with a heart

Last June, two planes packed with tourists (many of them from North Dakota) and their luggage headed for Germany as well as the Odessa region in southern Ukraine (formerly part of the U.S.S.R.).

These were no ordinary tourists. Rather, most were descendants of Germans who lived and farmed in the Ukraine in the late 1700s to mid-1800s, later emigrating to the United States and settling in the Dakotas.

In fact, this was no ordinary trip! It was one with a mission: to deliver much-needed supplies to children attending schools in the former German villages of the Odessa area.

Tour participants each carried an extra suitcase packed with items such as pencils, erasers, pens, crayons, tablets, chalk, tape, pencil sharpeners, scissors, construction paper, water-color sets with brushes, rubber stamps with ink pads, school glue, glitter, paper punches and paper clips.

Organizer of the trip was Michael M Miller of Fargo. Miller, himself a descendant of Germans from Russia and a native of Strasburg, N.D., is bibliographer for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Libraries, Fargo.

On a previous trip to Odessa the year before, Miller had visited a typical school in the former German village of Sofiental (since renamed Novosamarka), near the Glueckstal villages in Moldova. He was struck by the lack of school supplies and equipment. The desks the children used, he said, were several generations old.

Miller communicated with the children and handed out pencils and pens. "Their eyes glowed as they began to write with a new pen or pencil," he says. "I felt sad, especially when I did not have enough pens and pencils for each child."

During his trip, Miller contacted reliable sources in Odessa and the villages to ensure that school supplies collected via, the "Caring Hearts and Sharing Gifts for Ukrainian School Children" project would indeed reach the children and their teachers. Thanks to this project, the supplies--including those the 1996 tour members delivered personally--were distributed when school started in September.

In "Journey to the Homeland News," a newsletter published by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, tour participants Drs. Lewis and Dona-Reeves Marquardt of Buda, Texas (Lew is formerly from Linton, N.D.), wrote of the day last summer they and fellow tour members took part in handing out supplies to the children:

"As tables and benches overflowing with wide-eyed children lined the hot, sultry school room 11 descendants of the Kutschurgan villages entered with boxes and bags of school supplies. The children listened attentively to the translator who explained who we were and why we had come to their village. They smiled and clutched the small gifts as we distributed the paper, pencils, markers and other small treasures, trying them out right away...

"They needed so much more than we brought or ever could bring. New pictures for the walls, blackboards and chalk, enough tables and benches for all of them to sit comfortably..."

While school supplies were delivered as a result of last summer's tours, more supplies are sorely needed, Miller says.

Supplies lacking in Odessa-area schools include atlases, maps, charts, and modern textbooks, according to Sherrie Guenthner of Hazen, who is helping to solicit donations for this project.

More items on the kids' "wish-list" include games and puzzles, ball-and-jack sets, cards and games, flash cards, colorbooks, needles, thread, pins, combs, brushes, matchbox cars and children's jewelry, according to Guenthner. Especially needed are candles. "That's a dire necessity," she says, "because the electricity goes out frequently, and they need the candles for light."

You, too, can participate in the Ukrainian School Supply Project. You and your family, your school, your church or your organization can collect supplies for Ukrainian school children for delivery during future tours. For a list of needs, deadlines and more information, contact Michael M. Miller at: Caring Hearts and Sharing Gifts for Ukrainian School Children, c/o Journey to the Homeland Tours, NDSU Libraries, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, N.D. 58105-5599, or phone (701) 231-8416. (E-mail: Michael.Miller@ndsu.edu)

Or, you can send a monetary donation to the same address, making your check payable to Journey to the Homeland. Some boxes of school supplies (or supplies purchased with donations) will be distributed during or following the next Journey to the Homeland tours, planned for May 1997 and June 1998. Funds are especially needed to ship the collected supplies to needy Ukrainian schools.

Miller asks anyone contributing to this project to include their name and address along with their gift, as the school children of Odessa would like to know the identity of each sender.

Reprinted with permission of North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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