| Handing Down Their Histories
Grantier, Virginia. "Handing Down Their Histories." Bismarck Tribune, 4 November 2005.
Rehearsing scene from Act I of "Handing
down the Names" are, left to right, Danielle Stadick, Matt
Jacobson-Heck, Amber Wolfe, Kayla Sanford and Ian Knodel.
They were promised a new life in Russia, where they'd be given
land, building materials and farm machinery, so they spent a year
getting there. That's where they found starvation - because the
only promise kept was the land.
They got a plot of land, but the guide who brought them there dropped
them off and left them with nothing. There were no building materials
or machinery left for the Germans who settled in the Volga region
in the 1700s.
They literally had to dig into the ground, trying to shelter themselves
from the elements. And about 75 percent of them starved.
But the persistence of those who made it helped turn that region
into Russia's breadbasket.
Some of their stories will be on stage this month at Bismarck State
College in the play "Handing Down the Names."
About 30 percent of North Dakota's population has ancestral ties
to the risk-takers who left Germany for a new life in Russia, said
the play's director, Dan Rogers, an associate professor of speech
Most of the Germans from Russia who later immigrated to North Dakota
were from the Black Sea region.
"Handing Down the Names," by a Seattle playwright, Steven
Dietz, whose heritage is German-Russian, focuses on the stories
of his ancestors who settled in the Volga area.
"Steven wrote the play to honor his family," Rogers said.
Rogers thought the play would be perfect for this area because
of the state's large German population, a majority of which have
German from Russia ancestors. He said about 80 percent to 90 percent
of the cast's 17 members have Germans from Russia in their family
Dietz, 47, said his father, a Burlington Northern Railroad conductor,
did a lot of family research. Dietz, the son, had always wanted
to make a play out of those stories "as a way of documenting,
theatrically, the lives of these people who I never knew."
Dietz said his family left Russia in the early 1900s and made their
way to northern Colorado where, like many immigrants there, they
took jobs working the beet fields. It was at the University of Northern
Colorado in Greeley that Dietz majored in theater. His career has
evolved from directing plays at regional theaters to being a full-time
playwright. His 28th and 29th plays are premiering in 2006.
He thinks "Handing down the Names" is a strong play because
"it is evidence of such profound courage and faith, the desire
to hold one's family together and keep one's culture alive in the
midst of enormous hardships." In a montage of stories, Dietz
honors his family's enduring courage and uncommon choice to leave
their German homeland and travel to Russia to secure a better future
for their children. They and other immigrants became known collectively
as the Germans from Russia, a peasant people whose farming skills
enriched the barren steppes for 150 years until oppression brought
many to America in the early 1900s.
Dietz created a seven-generation mosaic of the "Dorn"
family from 1766 to 1949. The play imparts the loss and pain of
separation as circumstances split family apart - some family members
settling in America while others were forced to return or stay in
Russia during the turbulent early 20th century.
Audiences will find a history lesson in the exodus launched in
the 1700s when Catherine the Great of Russia, a monarch of German
heritage, issued a manifesto inviting her kinsmen to settle land
annexed in a war.
The play opens in Germany with Ruth, a young woman whose husband
was forced into military service and dies. She is pregnant, and,
according to custom, her husband's younger brother offers marriage
to hand down the name. They join others in the yearlong trip on
the Volga River to a promised land of treeless prairie and hardship.
The 17-member ensemble cast performs multiple roles. Players are
Ian Knodel, Andrea Ficek, Karissa Pudwill, Sean Marshall and Conrad
Bauer, all of Bismarck; Kelsey Fredricks, Charlie Barber and Matt
Jacobson-Heck, Mandan; Amber Wolfe, Hazen; Danielle Stadick, Beulah;
Chantal Wike, Wilton; Jordan Axtman, Harvey; Toby Lund, Selfridge;
Alexander Duppong, Glen Ullin; Kayla Sanford, Watford City; Courtney
Olson, Sidney, Mont.; and Laura Struckman, Savage, Mont.
Craig Moxon, technical theater instructor, provides set and lighting
design. Students in lead production positions are Farren Gunderson,
assistant director, Mandan; and Jessica Hafen, assistant technical
director, Shawnee, Kan.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Society will provide informational
displays at the BSC auditorium. Reserved seat tickets are $5 and
are available at the box office.
The show will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Nov.
12, and at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the college's Sidney J. Lee Auditorium.
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.