A nod to a Shared History: Residents of Volga-German
Descent try to Honor the Traditions of Their Ancestors
|Isadore "Ike" Appelhanz holds
the charter to the chapter of the Volga-German club he helped
found. Appelhanz has done extensive research to discover the
history of his German ancestors, who made their home in western
Russia before immigrating to the United States. Photo by Chris
Eakins, Paul. "A nod to a Shared History: Residents of Volga-German Descent try to Honor the Traditions of Their Ancestors." Topeka Capital-Journal, 3 August 2002.
Look through a Topeka phone book,
and German names abound.
Appelhanz, Bauer, Mauer, Pfannenstiel, Porubsky, Zeigler -- too
many to count.
Many of these families can trace their history back to immigrants
called Volga-Germans, who came not from Germany but from a region
along the Volga River in western Russia in the late 1800s and early
Many of the Volga-Germans passed through Topeka and continued west,
but hundreds also stayed in Topeka and made it their home. Like
many Mexican immigrants of the time, the Germans worked for the
Santa Fe Railway.
And like the Mexicans, who largely lived in Oakland on the east
side of the railroad tracks, the Germans settled in their own neighborhood
in North Topeka. The area was misnamed Little Russia by Topekans
because the Volga-Germans had come from Russia.
In the years and generations since settling in Kansas, the Volga-Germans
assimilated and became important parts of their communities. In
many cases, the culture and language have more or less been forgotten.
But some Topekans continue to honor their Volga-German ancestry.
Isadore "Ike" Appelhanz is the son of one of the later
Volga-Germans to arrive.
Jacob Appelhanz came to Topeka in 1910 at the age of 20. Like many
of the Volga-German immigrants, he had left his Russian village
of Rothammel to avoid being drafted into the Russian army when he
turned 21. Many of the Volga-Germans fled Russia to escape this
fate during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.
Once in the United States, however, the descendants of the Volga-Germans
often served in the military, including Appelhanz and other members
of his family.
"Over here, they didn't have an aversion to (the military),
because they believed in the country, I guess," Ike Appelhanz
His relatives who remained in Russia later suffered because of
their background. The villages that the Volga-Germans had built
throughout western Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great
were destroyed in 1941 by Joseph Stalin.
The people who didn't flee to Germany were sent to work camps in
Siberia, called gulags, until after World War II.
Many didn't survive the harsh conditions.
"We don't even know where a lot of our relatives are,"
Appelhanz said. "They died in the gulags somewhere in nameless
Appelhanz grew up often speaking German, although his children
and grandchildren don't, and he has studied and practiced the language
to remain fluent. Sitting in his home in southwest Topeka with his
new puppy, he plays with it and scolds it, switching back and forth
between English and German.
Most of the Volga-Germans who settled in Topeka were from the villages
of Kamenka and Pfeifer, said Appelhanz, who has extensively studied
the Volga-German history.
In Topeka, the immigrants built St. Joseph's Catholic Church near
downtown and later founded Sacred Heart Parish in Oakland. Although
the churches have become more diverse than their original Volga-German
congregations, aspects of that heritage are still celebrated.
Since the 1960s, Sacred Heart Parish, 312 N.E. Freeman, has had
a German Fest every June with traditional German foods, music and
"Older members of the parish began to sense that we were losing
our heritage," so they started the festival, said Eileen Davis,
who has written a history of the church.
Davis is involved in a local German club that allows Topekans to
practice their German skills.
"That's one small way of trying to retain what's left of the
culture," she said.
Davis, whose family was from West Germany, also helped start a
German choir at Sacred Heart Parish. During midnight Mass each Christmas,
the 10-person choir sings popular carols such as "Silent Night"
and "O Come All Ye Faithful" in German and English.
However, much German heritage has been lost through the years in
Topeka, Appelhanz said. Weddings don't last as long now and don't
include the same kind of music as traditional weddings of the Volga-Germans,
"We loved to have weddings. In the old country, it always
lasted three days," Appelhanz said. "I loved the polka
and the waltz. I could dance the polka all night."
Although few descendants of the Volga-German immigrants who came
to Topeka in the late 1800s and early 1900s speak German, some of
the traditions of the old country remain. Isadore "Ike"
Appelhanz explained traditions that some families still follow:
On Christmas Eve, it was a tradition among Catholic Volga-Germans
to leave bread outside during the night to bless the food.
On New Year's Eve, Volga-German farmers would split an onion into
four parts, put salt on them and leave them out overnight. Each
segment of the onion represented three months of the year. The onion
part that had the most moisture on it in the morning meant the corresponding
three months would get the most rain in the coming year.
"Wunsching," which means "wishing" in German,
is still celebrated by some of the older descendants of Volga-Germans
in Topeka. On New Year's Day, families go to their friends' and
relatives' houses to wish them a happy new year, where they eat
and drink together.
In traditional German weddings, a man dresses as a fake bride,
and a woman dresses as a fake groom in order to draw the attention
of bad spirits to themselves and away from the real bride and groom.
Reprinted with permission of Topeka Capital-Journal.