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GRHS Works on a Global Scale to Discover Deep Cultural Roots

Aman, Terry J. "GRHS Works on a Global Scale to Discover Deep Cultural Roots." Minot Daily News, 25 July 2000, sec. B & 5B.


Germans from Russia Heritage Society board member Edna Boardman of Minot reported some of the work involved with building and researching the history of their group. The collection of information, she said, is becoming nearly as spread out as the people themselves.

Dale Lee Wahl from Bremerton, Wash., has organized a Village Research Project in a way that involves an extraordinary number of people. Thickly single-spaced village names on two sheets of paper are paired with names of "village coordinators" - GRHS members willing to accept information and dig a little into the history and progress of Germans from Russia.

"What they do is they accept responsibility for collecting information about these Russian villages where Germans lived," Boardman said. "There were about 300 original villages that ballooned to around 3,000." Boardman's mother's village was called Alexanderhilf, and until this year, she had been village coordinator for Alexanderhilf.

It wasn't an overwhelming task, she said, and that is part of the beauty of the organization: The work of collecting, sifting and following up information is spread among so many volunteers that it doesn't become wearying.

Global search
And there's enough work to do. Germans froom Russia are scattered across the globe. Some of the moves were internal, with Germans going to Siberia and Kazakhstan and so forth. Some of the moves were even more adventurous, with Germans from Russia ending up in China and up and down South America.

One of the GRHS members works in oil and follows the Feist name around the world. He's found phone books full of Feists through Argentina and Bolivia - descendants of Germans from Russia with names like "Pablo Feist" and so forth. And, Boardman said, a German from Russia descendant, Eduard Rossel, is serving as a head of state in Kazakhstan.

There's even a German from Russia group in Germany. "There's such a complex movement of people," she said. "Basically a German population moves into Russia and sets up farming. Then someone will move into south Siberia because there's land. And someone will move over way, way, way in the east because there's land. And they're constantly pioneering - when these little villages get a little too big they spread out."

This is one reason the work is expanding - Germans from Russia turn up worldwide, and more village coordinators are needed. A village names and histories are sometimes approximated. For example, she said, thousands of people will claim to be from Odessa, Russia, but almost none of them actually came from Odessa. Many were from villages miles and miles away from Odessa. But when they moved to the United States, she said, it was easier to say they were from a city more people had heard of. For this reason, she said, it's harder to figure out where people actually originated from.

Adding to the difficulty was that the names of the villages were changed during the Communist era. Communists also broke the steeples off of village churches - some of them very ornate - further fraying the architectural history. Some villages, despite extraordinary poverty, have restored the steeples.

Boardman said it was a social peculiarity of the Germans from Russia settlements that the church was the center of the society. When Russia was courting farmers to develop the land in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, she did not care if the settlers were Protestants or Catholic, she just didn't want any of the religious wars that had plagued Germany for centuries. Villages were established according to religion - Protestant, Catholic, Hutterite, even Jewish, though records of Jewish villages have only recently begun surfacing.

And life was so harsh that people's focus was on survival - clearing and tending the land and growing a crop and little more. But where with most American homesteaders, the first social structures tended to be schools that might house the church until one could be built, German settlers in Russia would build the church and later work on schools. "Every village had its church parked right in the middle," she said.

She described Alexanderhilf from recent photos as a rundown little town, but in its heyday, she said, it had a strong Lutheran church and a strong musical tradition. "For the coronation of one of the czars, they brought the musical singing group there to sing at the coronation."

Deep roots
The work so far has given the researchers a rich cultural and social history that highlights how small a world it is. "Since the core of people was very small in south Russia, a lot of people are related," she said. "(Those interested) can trace and, if they plug away at it and look at their various sources, they can find it."

"It was fundamentally a very small core of people - maybe a couple hundred thousand at most - who moved from Germany into Russia," she added. "And as we get to know each other better, we find that we have deep cultural links."

For example, she said, "Studies have been done on dialects, and (ours is) a German dialect. And it's a very practical turn of mind. No royalty, none of that futzing around with royalty and titles - it just didn't happen. We're producers of food and what people need. And when our kids go to college they almost always go into practical things - they don't even have to be told."

In America, Germans from Russia groups focus around two cultural organizations - the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, based in Bismarck, and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. That group is largely made up of descendants of the earliest German settlers to Russia, who settled near the Volga River. Subsequent waves settled nearer to the Black Sea - the Black Sea Group - and this group's descendants make up the Bismarck group.

Boardman said the two groups have decided to divide the genealogy and family history geographically rather than by religion, because the faith traditions of the various villages were not as cut-and-dried as where they were located on the map. There were end-of-the world groups worshipping among mainstream protestants and Catholics, and village centers tended to just have the one church. And dividing the work like this makes it easier to avoid duplicating work in researching and following up one family or another.

Reprinted with permission of Minot Daily News.

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