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The Germans From Russia

Boardman, Edna. "Six Part Series of Articles About the Germans From Russia." Minot Daily News,July-August 1995.

Six part series of newspaper articles about the Germans from Russia


  • PART ONE GERMANS FROM RUSSIA
    Germans from Russia Heritage Society celebrates 25th year
  • PART TWO CELEBRATING A HOMELAND
    Taming the steppes was first stage in creating a place to call home
  • PART THREE SETTLING IN NORTH DAKOTA
    Making a home on the prairie wasn't anything new to the German-Russians who came from settling steppes
  • PART FOUR BACK TO THE BEGINNING
    Those who remained in Russia faced very difficult hill to climb
  • PART FIVE A COMMON BOND
    The church was a force that held families together
  • PART SIX
    Searching your family's past can be an adventure
Articles reprinted with permission of Minot Daily News and Edna Boardman

Sunday, July 9, 1995
PART ONE
GERMANS FROM RUSSIA
Germans from Russia Heritage Society celebrates 25th year

EDITOR'S NOTE: This year is the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, an international group with 25 chapters and headquarters in Bismarck. The Germans from Russia make up a sizeable portion of the population of the central plains of North America, including North Dakota, Ward County, and even Minot. These people, descendants of German villagers and farmers who pioneered the Russian steppes in the 18th and 19th centuries, also live in Argentina and in many countries of the former Soviet Union. Many seek new homes in a crowded modern Germany. They are today assimilating into their adopted cultures but also rediscovering a rich heritage.

The Minot Daily News will offer a six-part series on the Germans from Russia, which begins today and will run each Sunday. It's written by Edna Boardman of Minot. Boardman is the Library Media Specialist at Magic City Campus. She's a winner of the Joseph S. Height Literary Award, which is given each year by the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) for excellence in writing about the Germans from Russia.

INTRODUCTION

At the North Dakota State Fair several years ago, the homemakers' organizations showcased the ethnic groups that settled in the state. We of the Minot chapter of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society put on a skit with traditional costumes, words, and music. The Thor Dancers followed us, and each of us took about the same amount of time. When a report appeared in the local paper, the Thor Dancers were mentioned but we were not. My first impulse was to be angry, but after awhile I recognized that the reporter did not overlook us out of some discriminatory impulse. We were probably so alien to her understanding of who lived in this area that she didn't know how to characterize us. She spaced us out, as the teens say.

Our story is little known in its essential facts, even among the people who share this ancestry. The Germans from Russia, also called German-Russians, are the second largest ethnic group in North Dakota, following Norwegians. One would not know this by looking at the 1990 census figures for the state, because we are not listed as a separate category. That means the numbers have had to be gathered in other ways. Sociologist William Sherman of North Dakota State University in Fargo says his best estimate is that North Dakota today is 38 percent Norwegian and 32 percent German-Russian.

For numbers specific to Ward County, we can look at Sherman's 1965 household-by-household study of the ethnic identity of the state's rural people, Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota. The households (not persons) of Ward County were 29.9 percent Norwegian and 19.5 percent German-Russian.

The German-Russians arrived in North America over a 40-year period pivoted at the turn of the century, the last large immigrant group to come. We came speaking an expressive but outdated German dialect and without a firm national identity because our history was one of multiple migrations in century.

I have written reminiscences, interviews, and poetry for 10 years for the Germans from Russia Heritage Society's periodical Heritage Review. Two years ago, I began to read books and articles about my background. The books opened a world of struggle and pain, of work and worship. I found my deeper roots. I then had the idea to tell our story through a series of articles for the Minot Daily News. Germans from Russia are people you meet on the streets of Minot and surrounding towns - your friends and neighbors. Maybe "we" are even you.

This summer, July 12-16, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its founding. The annual convention will be held at the Radisson Hotel in Bismarck, and anyone may attend. We will have a lot of fun and strengthen our knowledge of our heritage. For more information on the convention, call 701-223-6167.

THE GERMAN MIGRATION

A sumptuously-dressed woman gazed out the window of her coach, a speedy vehicle called a troika. The flat, prairie-like-land, called the steppes, looked to her eyes as if it went on forever. She had travelled down the Danube River and was not far from one of the world's choice vacation spots, the Crimean peninsula which jutted into the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

She was Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia, a German princess who had risen to the top through imagination and guts. She had already masterminded the defeat of the Turks, who had controlled this land, and now she was a woman with another idea. Why she wondered, don't we turn all of this into farms where wheat could be produced to feed the growing Russian cities? Maybe she could even sell the surplus wheat on the world market for hard currency. But who would farm it? It would be difficult to settle such a place. There was no city in the area and no established government. But she had grown up in rural Germany, and Catherine envisioned farms like those she remembered here on these vast spaces.

Could she get Mennonites from Germany and Prussia to colonize the steppes? They had endured two centuries of systematic religious persecution, but perhaps one could overlook such extraordinary practices as pacifism, baptism of adults by immersion, and a clergy drawn directly from the laity. Her advisers had told her their farms were among the world's best. They had developed innovative agricultural practices such as summer fallow, and their villages were comfortable and clean.

Though the steppes appeared vacant, they were not entirely unpopulated. There were a few native Russian farmers, but without outside support they had learned to do little more than feed themselves. The area had for a long time been the refuge of dangerous gangs of criminals and misfits and political outcasts who had fled or were exiled from the cities. Nomadic tribes in the area liked to attack settled villages, steal what they could, and kill the people, sometimes in imaginative ways. Catherine probably did not know about the snakes that clustered along the Volga River in piles three feet deep or about the huge, aggressive steppe wolves.

When Catherine returned to St. Petersburg, she offered land to the farmers of Europe if they would settle in Russia. There was little response, so a year later, on July 12, 1763, she signed a Manifesto that sweetened the offer and she improved her strategies. She sent out charming representatives who described the land in glowing terms and promised modern civil liberties. The settlers would be able to retain their language, their religion, and culture. They would govern their own villages. None of the immigrants'sons would ever be drafted for military service.

The distressed farmers and craftsmen of Baden, Alsace, Württemberg, Hessen, and the Rhine Palatinate of Germany were most interested. This was the time of the Seven Years' War and, while they may not have entirely trusted the word of Catherine II's agents, emigration to the far-away lands of South Russia seemed better than what they had. They were short of land, overrun by the armies of Germany and France, and persecuted by one government, then another. Among those who came in 1781 was a village from the Swedish island of Dago.

How the first emigrants traveled to their new homeland and how long it took depended on their starting point, because they had to travel more than 2,000 miles. Most were on the way for as long as five months. Some floated down the Danube on crowded, flimsy boats called Ulmer Schachtel. Others went in the Russian version of the covered wagons of the American west. Sometimes a troika pulled by sleek horses zipped past them.

According to Karl Stumpp, an historian of the German-Russians, about 100,000 dribbled into Russia over a century. Most of North Dakota's German-Russians, who identify as Black Sea Germans, responded to a similar call issued by Czar Alexander I in 1804.

MORE IMMIGRATION

A little more than a century later, Mennonite framers were again the immigrants of choice in Manitoba, Canada, where vast stretches awaited the plow.

A story is told that the Mennonites, fresh from Russia, purchased virtually every farm tool and implement in the city of Winnipeg when they passed through on their way to their farms on the open prairies.

Noel Frodsham, in a 1973 master's thesis, says that the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad offered them land in Kansas at a very low price and "...was able to secure passage of a bill to exempt the colonists from state militia service".

He tells an astonishing story, given the logistics involved:

"The company went so far as to charter a Red Star steamship, which was sent to the Black Sea for a shipload of Mennonite household goods and implements. These goods were delivered free of charge to the colonists in Kansas."

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Sunday, July 16, 1995
PART TWO
CREATING A HOMELAND
Taming the steppes was first stage in creating a place to call home

When the German immigrants arrived in South Russia, in the area known as the Ukraine, they, like the Czarina Catherine, looked with amazement at the expanse of level land. The homes the Russian authorities had said would be ready for them were nowhere to be seen.

Now what?

Many who had responded to the call of Catherine, and later her successor Czars, were craftsmen with little back ground in farming and had not realized they would be expected to farm, no matter what their skills, and do it under primitive conditions. Nor had they expected to bunk with local Russian farmers, especially that first winter. But that is probably when the German women learned to cook delicious borsht and pierogis, staple dishes on the steppes.

Stories of the early settlement period are filled with accounts of extreme suffering and numerous deaths; sometimes whole families died. They tell of extremely heavy physical labor with inadequate tools. Few teachers and no clergy or medical personnel had come with them on the hazardous trip, so only comforts of their own making - folk cures, singing, games, visiting, prayer -- were available to them.

But land and freedom beckoned, and people continued to come even after work of actual conditions got back to Germany.

The Russian government did not just drop off the newcomers and forget about them. It committed resources in the form of a well-funded Colonists' Welfare Committee, which functioned in some ways like the United States Department of Agriculture. Its job was to apportion land, help them get started by providing loans and equipment, and keep them from getting so stressed they would settle into the marginal practices of the inhabitants.

The Russian officials in charge of the migration, though often stretched beyond their resources by the sheer number of immigrants, had an advanced vision of what a developed steppe would be like. They foresaw bins full of wheat, neat homes, grazing cattle and sheep, fruit trees, bees, irrigated vineyards, tobacco, even silk production.

They liked these hard-working newcomers, though in the early years they often had to prod them to fulfill such a vision.

The steppes had never been farmed intensively. Despite the fantasies of the Czarina and her officials, nobody knew what it would take to farm the land, or even if it could be farmed. The soil itself was deep, black chernosjem, some of the world's richest, but it had been grazed and trampled over the centuries, and the settlers found it rock-hard. The roots of the grasses grew like wires in the soil. The steppe wolves and writhing piles of snakes along the rivers were another matter. The courageous craftsmen-turned-farmers armed themselves with farm implements and made the creatures' numbers manageable.

Gradually they adapted to the realities of their lives and the characteristics of the area, learned to deal with the drought and cold, grasshoppers and animal diseases, and brought cultivated fields and vineyards into being.

They set about to recreate the German villages they had known, modifying local Russian practices as they found them useful. The early homes were modeled on the earthen semeljanka in which the Russian natives had survived for centuries, but they replaced these with wood or sandstone, limestone or brick as quickly as possible.

They laid out villages with single wide streets in the Black Sea areas, in a checkerboard pattern near the Volga, and planted acacia trees, the species that grew best. Each home had its fence of wood or stone and a little garden of flowers by the door.

No Wild West such as the one in America developed on the Ukrainian steppes, though many of the same ingredients were there. This was partly because married couples only were permitted to immigrate. Sometimes families were cobbled together, as when a young man married a window with children so neither would be left behind. Of course, nobody found gold and created all the social dislocations that go with such a discovery. A great experiment in agriculture was under way, dependent on the efforts of these "German islands in a Russian sea."

THE CHRONOLOGY

July 22, 1763 -- Manifesto of Catherine the Great invites farmers and craftsmen to settle along the Volga River in south Russia. She offers free land, political and cultural autonomy, and freedom from military service.

February 20, 1804 -- Alexander I seeks highly skilled families to farm the vast steppes above the Black Sea. A more significant date for North Dakotans, because most of them descend from these group.

1763-1862 -- Roughly 100,000 persons form Alsace, Württemberg, the Rhine Palatinate and other German states migrate to the Russian steppes, a prairie-like area above the Black Sea.

1862-1917 -- The initial 300 villages become 3300 (Some authorities say as many as 4,500). They spread south to the Caucuses, north to southern Siberia, and east to Rumania. They flourish, providing food to the Russian cities.

1873 to beginning of World War I -- A major out-migration from the Russian Villages is precipitated by a shortage of land and cancellation of civil liberties. Some 300,000 settle on the prairies of North America and the pampas of South America.

1917-1940 -- The communist system takes hold in the Soviet Union. Government policies precipitate two famines. Germans are moved from their villages to collective farms. Churches are destroyed and clergy, the wealthy, and leaders are imprisoned and deported.

1941 -- A deportation order for most of the Germans living in south Russia is implemented. Some 279,000 are removed and scattered among villages of Siberia and East Asia.

1955 and 1964 -- The prisoner status of the Germans is revoked in 1955; the deportation order lifted in 1964. Officials acknowledge that the original reason for the deportation had never existed.

Today -- Those who migrated to the Americas are assimilated, for the most part, into their new cultures. Those who remained in Russia lead productive lives or seek to relocate to Germany, where jobs and housing are scarce.

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Sunday, July 23, 1995
PART THREE
SETTLING IN NORTH DAKOTA
Making a home on the prairie wasn't anything new to the German-Russians who came from settling steppes

To learn what a typical German-Russian farm looked like some 80 years ago, you need only travel to Strasburg, N.D.

A half mile off the highway, you will find the reconstructed childhood home of Lawrence Welk, who is the nations best known German-Russian.

There is the farmhouse, which looks like standard wood, filled with furnishings typical of when he was young. A cutout of the wall reveals the mud brick of its original construction.

A stroll on the grounds will take you to the summer kitchen where the cooking was done to keep the "big house" cool. You will find a blacksmith shop, a barn with its haymow and lean, and a shed now used to show a video about the German-Russians and the Welks.

It is an unlikely beginning for someone who achieved national celebrity status.

PRIMARY SETTLEMENT

The primary area of settlement of the German-Russians in North Dakota was in an area shaped like a triangle, with its apex near Rugby in Pierce County and the two bottom corners near Hettinger and Eureka, S.D. Many live outside this area.

According to William Sherman's book Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota they came with the last wave of European immigrants.

City names like Strasburg, Napoleon, Balta, Karlsruhe, and Selz show their influence, but these names could as well have been given by any one of a dozen distinct German groups who came to North Dakota.

Sherman observes that generally there is little relationship between place names and who lives where in North Dakota because railroad personnel assigned most of the names.

PIONEERING

When the German-Russians came to the prairies, they became pioneers for the second time in a century. They arrived carrying precious sacks of seed wheat from Russia and planted it in the virgin ground.

But the events of the 20th century were not calculated to help them build pride in who they were.

Hostilities with Germany made it decidedly uncool to be German, though they had for generations lost contact with the old "fatherland."

This made them more than a century out of style, which pegged them as the dowdy cousins of immigrants who had come directly from Germany.

During the cold war, which stretched for 40 years, it was not a good idea to be Russian either, so they suppressed the old identity.

During World War I, German-speakers were objects of suspicion. A Baptist minister tells of a conference, usually held in German, at which "authorities" told the ministers that all proceedings had to be in English.

Only one senior minister among them was a fluent speaker of English, so he said almost every word. He preached all the sermons, conducted the meetings, and wrote the minutes.

THE NUMBERS

The exact number of Germans in the state is not available today because census takers do not distinguish heritage. The Census Data Bureau at North Dakota State University says the 1990 census is not specific enough to list German-Russians.

According to Timothy J. Kloberdanz who wrote the article about the German-Russians in the book Plain Folks, people at one time or another said they were either German, Rumanian, Dutch or Russian.

Other sources say they identified themselves as Austrian or Swiss. Within a community, the German-Russian or Ukrainian-speaking peoples who were their neighbors in America as they had been in Russia.

Children called them Rooshians, a label that still raises the hackles of North Dakotans who attended the old rural schools.

Sociologist William Sherman of North Dakota State University in Fargo says his best estimate is that North Dakota today is 38 percent Norwegian and 32 percent German-Russian.

GOOD IN THE FIELD

The German-Russians were effective farmers, in part because they were the only immigrant group that had previous experience in farming an area like the prairies.

Winters on the steppes were not as harsh as those on the prairies, but the contours of both were much alike. Both were subject to climate extremes, especially drought.

The people brought good survival skills with them from Russia. They mixed manure with straw, dried it, cut it into chunks, and burned it as fuel in the long winters.

They could build from available materials and they knew how to grow gardens and make sausage and preserve it with smoke.

They supported each other as relatives and neighbors and faith communities.

Whether one is talking about those who dwell in America or Russia, even today, the German-Russians are described first of all as diligent and hard working.

The medallion of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society bears the motto "Work makes life sweet." They have always looked about themselves for ways to improve their lives.

Though only the Mennonites and Hutterites were pacifists for theological reasons, the group as a whole had been as little inclined to take up arms as any people who ever lived. Virtually every German in the villages of Russia knew how to read, but they preferred the practical. Intellectual pursuits were not especially valued.

As survival issues have become less urgent, this is changing, and you will find even classicists in the third generation. They apply the old hard-work ethic to new endeavors.

NO GENERALIZATIONS

Though their primary reason for leaving Russia had been to find land, they were not entirely economic refugees. Some came with plenty of money to purchase the land they wanted.

It is hard to make generalizations about wealth.

Kloberdanz says that in the 1980 census the poorest and wealthiest North Dakota cities numbering 501 to 5,000 were both populated mainly by German-Russians.

They had no way of knowing how life would be different in America, but they embraced their new country and set their hand to cultivate the land and produce food--the thing they did best.

The other side of the medallion mentioned above has the words "In America by the grace of God."

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July 30, 1995
PART FOUR
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Those who remained in Russia faced very difficult hill to climb

North Dakotans who toured Russia several years ago conversed easily with Soviet relatives. They shared the same name and knew a German dialect, which they learned from their parents in their respective countries. The relatives had taken a long train trip from Siberia into European Russia to make the contact.

Persons who search for their roots in the old villages of the Ukraine find rundown churches minus their steeples. Movies are shown in the buildings; the cemeteries are desecrated. Homes built by their ancestors' hands in the early 1800s are inhabited by persons of other ethnic groups. The villages have Russian names.

In 1994, when Siberia's one Roman Catholic Bishop visited the United States, he spoke in Rugby and Karlsruhe. North Dakotans and Soviets - brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins - locate each other through a German language newspaper called NEUES LEBEN (new life).

German names popped up across the Soviet Union in the old communist lists of Heroes of Agriculture.

Beginning in 1763, some 100,000 people from rural Germany migrated to southern Russia and taught themselves to farm the steppes. Along the Vola River, in the Crimean Peninsula and above the Black Sea, they built prosperous villages with schools, hospitals, "old folks homes", orphanages, and substantial churches. But descendants of these people who visit the area today find their relatives no longer live there.

What happened?

Those who emigrated to North America, in the late 18th to early 20th century, thrived and became part of the attractive cultures of the United States and Canada. Life deteriorated precipitously for those who remained in Russia. The communists found the villages far too prosperous and too religious. They confiscated without payment the grain the farmers stored each year against the droughts. This triggered two famines that killed tens of thousands, one in the early 1920s, another about 10 years later.

Communists dissolved the Catholic diocese, defaced the churches of whatever faith, and bullied the people into abandoning religion as the center of community life. They forced everyone to move from their villages to collective farms called kolkhozes. German descent alone made the villagers suspect, though from the very first they had exhibited strong loyalty to the Czars.

Ethnic cleansing came in 1941. Robert Conquest, an English scholar with an interest in what happened to the rural people of Russia under communism, relates the story of the deportation of whole German villages to Siberia and eastern Asia. In his book The Soviet Deportation of the Nationalities, Conquest tells how NKVD (secret police) agents would enter a community several weeks before the deportation to get the feeling of the area. Then they would surround a village, read a decree, and give the people a brief time to gather food and clothing and appear at a place where lend-lease Studebaker trucks would take them to trains. Dr. Karl Stumpp, a historian of the Germans from Russia, believes about 379,000 were deported.

Though the trains did not stop at death camps in the style of Adolf Hitler, thousands died in the deportation process. One was surely a blind man who had not been out of his home for 10 years. Families were separated. Men worked in mines or dug canals; women built houses if they were to have a place to live.

Accounts tell of children stacked like cordwood during the winter in the Siberian villages. The Russian people who already lived in north and east Asia helped them in any way they could, but they had few resources themselves. There is a photograph of women hitched to plows; another of women taking a breather from cutting trees in a Siberian forest. For my family, the deportations are no abstraction. My grandmother's sister died in Siberia.

The communists, of course, ruined the lives of other peoples too. The Ukrainians in the area, who were highly nationalistic, were treated almost worse, their leaders and intellectuals murdered, their language outlawed.

If they were not subjected to mass deportation, it was only because there were so many of them. The Chechnians, attacked by the Russian military today, were among those deported, but they were allowed to return to their homes.

In 1955, under Khruschev, the Soviet government admitted officially that it had been wrong to deport the Germans and others.

The Germans were no longer considered prisoners, said a document, but were forbidden to return to their former villagers.

However, the pull of home was so strong that some went back anyway and found what housing and work they could among the new inhabitants. Many today live and work on the farms and factories of the various Soviet states, and are concentrated in cities named Karaganda, Alma-Ata, and Duschambe.

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August 6, 1995
PART FIVE
A COMMON BOND
The church was a force that held families together

The first time I walked into a meeting of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in 1972, I could not identify with the people I met. I was drawn by my interest in my family heritage, but all these people were Lutherans and Catholics, and I had grown up in a Mennonite Brethren home.

As was true for everyone who was there, our parents and the church were always afraid we would be lured from the faith; maybe even marry outside it. Only after some history lessons could I feel linked to this group.

When Russian officials organized the settlement of the steppes, beginning in 1763, they wanted to avoid a repeat of Europe's two centuries of religious disruption. They insisted that each village be of a single faith. They required only that no one proselytize among the Russian people.

The Czars grasped the power of religion in the hearts of their new citizens because, whatever the preferred label, the institution around which they rallied was then, and continues to be, the church.

The colonists (everyone used that word) all made church construction a priority, and they built them tall, with steeples and bell towers and sometimes furnishings and musical instruments imported at great cost from Germany. Travel between villages was difficult, and issues of religious tolerance rarely came up. This separateness came to the new world with the people, so religion both unites and divides them.

How the church survived among them in Russia should be the subject of someone's studies. They retained their faith in the face of poor leadership, spotty leadership, or no leadership at all. They did it during the removal of leadership by decree, as when the Russian government expelled the Jesuits in 1820, and later under the communists, when religious leadership of all kinds was destroyed.

In the absence of ministers and priests, they learned to do it- themselves, never considering the abandonment of their religion. The result is that their churches flourish in the Americas and meet again in the German communities of Kazhakstan and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

The Germans in Russia were basically of three faiths: Lutheran, Catholic, and Mennonite. The terms Reformed and Evangelical are sometimes used to describe the protestants.

Hutterites, with the Mennonites, traced their origins to an anabaptist Swiss group that predated the protestant reformation. Both were marvelously productive citizens once they could quit having to die for their faith. Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist denominations were active among the protestants.

My grandmother's village Hoffnungstal in described in the literature as Separatist; in America she attended a Baptist church. Arnold Marzolf, emeritus professor of language, has translated fascinating stories of revival meetings, precursors of the Billy Graham crusades.

A group described a chiliasts, who believed the second coming of Christ was imminent, distanced themselves from other protestants by moving beyond the Caucuses Mountains. Emma Schwabenland Haynes in her master's thesis, tells of the German-Russians' early involvement with the Congregational Church in America. It attracted them because of the freedom it allowed each local congregation.

A movement called Stundist took hold in the protestant communities, apart from denomination. Stund, in German, means hour, and those who were part of it spent time in Bible reading, meditation, and prayer each day, ideally for an hour.

According to an article by Alvin Kupusta in the Fall 1986 issue of North Dakota History, the Stundist movement also appealed to the Germans' Ukrainian neighbors and opened them to persecution.

The Catholic Church established a huge diocese named Tiraspol and a seminary at Saratov to train sons of the colonists for the priesthood. Those who did not become priests nevertheless become the local intelligentsia, enriching the villages with music and education and organizations.

Religion among all groups was tied to its expression in German. Many were not sure one could keep the faith if key Christian concepts and the Bible were translated into English. The process of language change was not complete until the 1950s in North Dakota.

Wherever they settle, German-Russians enrich the lives of the Christian churches in their community.

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August 13, 1995
PART SIX

EDITOR'S NOTE: This year is the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, an international group with 25 chapters and headquarters in Bismarck. The Germans from Russia make up a sizeable portion of the population of the central plains of North America, including North Dakota, Ward County, and even Minot. These people, descendants of German villagers and farmers who pioneered the Russian steppes in the 18th and 19th centuries, also live in Argentina and in many countries of the former Soviet Union. Many seek new homes in a crowded modern Germany. They are today assimilating into their adopted cultures but also rediscovering a rich heritage.

The Minot Daily News offered a six-part series on the Germans from Russia. It began July 9, 1995, and today is the final installment. The series was written by Edna Boardman, Library Media Specialist at Magic City Campus and a winner of the Joseph S. Height Award, which is given each year by the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) for excellence in writing about the Germans from Russia. The entire series is copyrighted by Edna Boardman.

Searching your family's past can be an adventure

A death notice in the Minot Daily News on June 11, 1995 gave the birthplace of Frank J. Schneider of rural Webster as Odessa, Russia. He was born in 1909.

Odessa is a port city on the Black Sea founded in 1803, a time of heavy German immigration. It was a market town for the German farmers, a good place to sell produce and purchase necessities, but very few lived there.

The only figure I have appears in The German-Russians by historian Karl Stumpp. He says some 12,000, but most people who claim origins in Odessa were actually born in one of the hundreds of rural villages to the north, possibly a village in the Odessa District.

Few recognize Grossliebental, Elsass, Landau, Alexanderhilf or Hoffnungstal. So they say Odessa for quicker understanding. This common bit of confusion must be taken into account when a family of this ancestry begins to explore its roots.

Many assume that information about these people would be impossible to find, especially with all the moving, but there exists a lot of solid information. A family who settled in one of the major "mother" villages can find a map in one of the books by Joseph Height: Paradise on the Steppe (Catholic) or Homesteaders on the Steppe (Protestant). The names on some of the plats read as if they were pulled from the Minot telephone book.

About 30 village research committees delve into twice that number of individual villages, and a number of studies have been completed. They work under the auspices of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) in Bismarck and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Sources for the family history researcher include census records, church membership lists both in Russia and North America, ship passenger logs, state archives, bureaus of vital statistics, naturalization records, land office tract books and cemetery lists.

The LDS Church has many records. A professional genealogist, Gwen Pritzkau of Riverton, Utah, is the most knowledgeable authority on the Germans from Russia. Many people come to the GRHS annual conventions to research their family and consult with Mrs. Pritzkau.

The GRHS encourages people, including youth, to ask questions and write about their special heritage. Personal stories in the past have included tales of deaths and births on the long trip to Russia or to America, the harrowing sufferings of the communist-inspired famines, and the deportation of thousands to Siberia.

Now that the former Soviet Union is more open to travel, many write about what they saw on a trip to the old village areas. These accounts are published in Heritage Review, the GRHS journal and in the publications of AHSGR.

Family histories in print and formal records exist in computerized form at the GRHS headquarters. Because of the interest of George Bowman, a member of the GRHS board of directors, the Bismarck office also has a file of approximately 120,000 obituaries of persons with German-sounding names. He estimates 80 percent of these are the descendants of German-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe.

RESEARCH YOUR FAMILY

--Visit with relatives. They may know the names of great grandparents, of related families, and, very important, the name of your ancestral village in Russia. There may be a village research project coordinator who would be very happy to hear from you.

--Call to write Rachel Schmidt, Office manager at Germans form Russia Heritage Society, 1008 E, Central Ave., Bismarck, ND 58051 Tel: 701-223-6167. She will make suggestions and send or suggest materials tailored to where you are in your search process. She will send you a family data sheet, which you may return for the use of future researchers, and she can tell you if your village is being studied.

--You may contact Gwen Pritzkau, a genealogist who specializes in the Germans from Russia, but she has limited time to deal with individual inquires. Her address is 3092 West 12600 South, Riverton, Utah 84065 Tel: 801-254-4235. [Gwen Pritzkau is now deceased]

--Check out the Ger-Rus Listserv on the Internet. Some village coordinators post their findings.

--An excellent book, available for $16.00 plus postage from GRHS headquarters (address above) is Handbook for Researching Family Roots, with Emphasis on German-Russian Heritage edited by Diane J. Wandler and the members of Prairie Heritage Chapter (1992).

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Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News and Edna Boardman  

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
Libraries
NDSU Dept #2080
PO Box 6050
Fargo, ND 58108-6050
Tel: 701-231-8416
Fax: 701-231-6128
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Director: Michael M. Miller
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