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Black Sea Germans in North Dakota, USA: Strangers in the West Schwarzmeerdeutsche in North Dakota, USA: Unbekannte im Westen

Hilkes, Peter. "Black Sea Germans in North Dakota, USA: Strangers in the West Schwarzmeerdeutsche in North Dakota, USA: Unbekannte im Westen." Volk auf dem Weg, March 1993, 4.

Translation from German to English by Ingeborg W. Smith


Travelers, who know the southern Ukraine and come to North Dakota for the first time are involuntarily reminded of the terrain and the far horizons of the Ukraine. North Dakota with about 650,000 inhabitants, and an area of 110,878.4 square kilometers, almost as large as the former East Germany, is today the home of many Black Sea Germans and their descendants who make up about 35% of the population of the state.

Around the turn of the century Germans from the Black Sea area, that today overwhelmingly belongs to Ukraine, emigrated to America. Political and religious as well as economic reasons were responsible for this. Most of the Germans came from the colonies of Kutschurgan and Glückstal as well as from the area around Odessa. Eureka, in the state of South Dakota, is the center for which many Germans as well as numerous other nationalities such as Ukrainians, Poles or Czechs who arrived in North Dakota. There the new inhabitants began to accustom themselves to the hard life and work on the prairie. Particularly in the central and western part of North Dakota, the Black Sea Germans make up a large part of the population. Many of them also live in Bismarck, the capitol of North Dakota. The "Germans from Russia Heritage Society" (GRHS)
with offices and a library is located here. In addition to materials about the history of the Black Sea Germans in North America one also finds, apart from books and magazines from the Federal Republic, (for example, Volk auf dem Weg) also the Zeitung für Dich from far-of Slawgorod in West Siberia.

In spite of connections with Germany and the increasing contacts with Russia or Ukraine, the Black Sea Germans in North Dakota know very little about the living conditions of the Germans in Kasachstan, Russia or Ukraine. Like many others in the U.S.A. they too still identify the now independent states with "Russia" and use this term interchangeably with the former Soviet Union. It is extremely difficult make people understand that "Russia" no longer exists.

In order to inform people about the actual situation of the Germans in Kasachstan, Russia and Ukraine, and the politics of the supportive measures for the Germans there as well as the integration of the resettlers into the Federal Republic, a lecture tour was carried out in close cooperation with Michael Miller of the North Dakota State University Libraries (Fargo), where the "Germans from Russia Heritage Collection" is located and with GRHS. This included a series of lectures at universities and at the local chapters of GRHS as well as a detour to the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Thanks to the gracious and perfect organization of the trip by Michael Miller, who is well-known and an outstanding figure in North Dakota, not only among the Germans there, and by the local partners, the lectures were a great success. Detailed discussions took place after each lecture and only the press of time brought them to an end.

In spite of the great distances that lie between the Germans in the former Soviet Union, the Russian-Germans who have resettled in the Federal Republic and the Black Sea Germans in North Dakota, at first glance surprisingly many common characteristics could be found among them.

--Upon their arrival members of the first generation of immigrants and in part also their children, were known as "Germans" or "Russians". During World War I in particular, many of the Black Sea Germans felt discriminated against because of this. Since then many of them speak English in public and also among themselves. Often they consider their dialect not to be “correct German " and are of the opinion, that even visitors from Germany would not understand them.

--Many of them know little of the history of the Black Sea Germans and about the Russian- Germans in general. Usually only those who were born there or who came to the United States as children, can report on life in the Black Sea region. Many publications about the history of the Russian-Germans have appeared in the German language, but they are of little use to these people, as the majority of them cannot read German.

--Many representatives of the younger generation no longer speak German, not even dialect. The use of the German language, that is, the dialect used by the immigrants, was limited by means of the above-mentioned discrimination and was no longer consciously passed on to the children. One is therefore, not surprised that they spoke better English and over the course of the years often also forgot their dialect knowledge.

--Faith and the religious community, as well as the traditions connected with them still play a large role for the individual. This becomes clear in the close ties to the Church and its representatives.

--In spite of the difficult initial phase, up to the present the black Sea Germans in North
Dakota are generally economically successful. With great self-confidence they, who are most active in agriculture, show off their large farms and their bountiful harvests.

--There are only a few Black Sea Germans who play an important role in the political life of North Dakota. This appears to reflect the tradition that one prefers to distance oneself from active involvement in politics.

--As always, difficulties arise in passing on one's identity as a Black Sea German to the younger generation. Here, surely, more commitment and motivation are necessary. Despite this, interest in their own history has increased among the younger people. Scientists, students and school children are interested in this. North Dakota, an immigrant state with many people of (eastern) European background, offers an interesting sphere for research. NDSU has a special position for the Black Sea Germans, that they can make use of also in regard to the future of the younger generation.

Here, over the years, a center for research into the history of the Black Sea Germans has emerged. Extensive library resources and archival material, as well as the "Germans from Russia Heritage Collection" and the "Lawrence Welk Archives" among others, can be mentioned here. Through the activities at NDSU and lively public relations work, in particular by Michael Miller, inquiries of Black Sea Germans to NDSU requesting information about their family history are by now a daily occurrence. The same is true of Germans who still live in the states of the former Soviet Union and, for example, are searching for relatives who may still be living in the U.S.A., or wish to receive information about their family history. Thus, Germans who live thousands of miles apart from each other, are drawn closer together.

A close cooperation has developed between NDSU and the "Osteuropa-Institut München” that includes, for example, plans for common publications, information and research residences and exhibitions, also in the former Soviet Union, as well as lectures and seminars. At the national convention of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Rußland on June 18, 1994, a section of the agenda will treat the themes of the Black Sea Germans in the U.S.A. Further steps are to follow, that also and primarily will benefit the Russian or to be precise, the Black Sea Germans.

Our appreciation is extended to Ineborg W. Smith for translation of this article.

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