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.
||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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
||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.