Local Travelers Shared two-Week Trip to Odessa,
Ukraine Last October
Seeklander, Verda. "Local Travelers Shared two-Week Trip to Odessa, Ukraine Last October." Emmons County Record, 31 March 1998, 9 & 10.
Louise Ohlhauser, Hazelton, and Madeline Heer, Bismarck, were recent
speakers at the Hazelton Historical Society and Emmons County Historical
Society meetings. They spent two weeks in October in the Odessa,
Russia area, now known as Ukraine, where they stayed with friends
Ukraine, now an independent country, was once part of the former
United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) which crosses nine time
zones. The Ukraine is a little smaller than the state of Texas.
Odessa is near the Black Sea on the southwest edge of the Soviet
Madeline, a retired teacher, is the daughter-in-law of Fred Heer
of Bismarck and the late Rose Heer, and is Louise’s niece.
Traveling with them to the Ukraine were Pius and Mary Halter of
Bismarck, displaced Germans from Russia who immigrated to the U.S.
from Germany in 1952. "I wanted to have somebody there who
could speak the language if we got into any trouble," Madeline
Sponsored by a Strasburg family, the Halters lived in Strasburg
for a short time before moving to Bismarck after their arrival in
North Dakota. Madeline became acquainted with the Halters in the
early 1990s when Mary was engaged as an interpreter for other Russian
immigrants whom Madeline was helping to get settled in their new
The trip to Ukraine was Pius’ first since they left in 1942
although Mary has returned several times to visit family, the last
time in 1981. Pius may have had hidden fears about returning to
his former home. During the famine in the 1930’s, he was caught
eating a handful of dry wheat while at work. He was sentenced to
ten years of hard labor working on the Volga Canal in Siberia.
"In a country where everything is controlled, it’s
really different," Madeline said. Nadia and Vitaly, Mary’s
niece and nephew in Odessa, issued the required invitation before
the travelers could obtain a visa. Within 3 days of arrival they
had to register with the police at Ukrainian Passport Control. There
they filled out more forms and had to relinquish their passports
for several days. Madeline said that was "scary." They
suspected they were being observed during their entire stay in Ukraine.
"But then," Madeline confided, "I was probably
a bit paranoid."
Family records are, for the most part, unavailable in Ukraine.
Many were lost or destroyed during the years of turmoil and unrest
in the USSR. And, because of strong anti-German feelings after WWI
and WWII, the names of many of the towns have been changed, as often
as three times, from German to Russian, and after the downfall of
the Soviet Union, to Ukrainian names. Madeline’s research
prior to leaving for Ukraine helped pinpoint areas they wished to
They engaged two of the Halter’s relatives as interpreter
and driver to take them to towns, dorfs and collective farms where
the Heer and Reidlinger families (Madeline’s in-laws), and
Louise’s maternal and paternal families, the Schulers and
Goehrings, once lived.
Names of the places Madeline and Louise sought are familiar to
Emmons County Germans from Russia. Grosliebenthal and Alexanderhilf,
southwest of Odessa, were villages where Louise’s father,
Henry Goehring, grew up. Ivonyka, a prosperous collective farm near
Wilhemstal, east of Odessa, was the home of her mother’s family,
The large and once beautiful Lutheran Church in Worms where Louise’s
parents were married had fallen into disrepair and was even used
as a granary for a time. The Greek Orthodox Church, which feels
threatened by other religions and is trying to solidify its power,
is restoring many old churches including this one for its own use
as money becomes available. A priest working on the reconstruction
informed the women that they were privileged to be in the sanctuary
of the church. In Orthodox tradition, women are not allowed in that
area at any time.
They visited a one-street dorf called Gnadenfeld, the birthplace
of Christ Heer (father of Jim, Jake, Bill, Henry, Christ, Jr., Fred,
Carrie, Freda, and Albert).
New Freudenthal (pop. 8,000), about 65 miles east of Odessa, is
where the Reidlinger family (the Heer family’s mother) originated.
Hoping to find someone who might recognize some of their family
names, Louise and Madeline asked to meet the oldest German-speaking
inhabitant of the village. Her name was Freda, born in 1922. But
Freda didn’t have the time to visit with them. She was bringing
her cow home to be milked and was to attend a family wedding after
that. She would speak with them later.
The marriage was a civil ceremony performed at city hall, a place
Madeline referred to as a wedding palace. Church weddings are almost
unheard of in former communist countries.
They were invited to attend the wedding reception where they observed
the old German wedding traditions and were drawn into the festivities
because everyone wanted to dance with the Americans.
A bucket of water is thrown in the path of the bride and groom
as the wedding party walks to the reception from the wedding palace.
The groom carries the bride over the water-strewn path.
A long carpet is laid out in front of the reception table. Tradition
says the newlywed that steps on the carpet first will be the strongest
one of the family.
To their surprise, the elderly lady they had waited to meet introduced
herself as Freda Ohlhauser. Freda said she knew the Kiemele and
Weber family names but, because their time was limited that evening,
there was no opportunity for Madeline and Louise to follow up on
any family connections between those families and Linton area residents
with the same surname.
They were surprised to find that most people of German heritage
living in that area could no longer speak German. Germans living
in Russia in the 1930s and early 1940s were not allowed to speak
their native language so it is lost to younger generations. "My
German was better than theirs," Louise said.
The Ukraine has many vineyards and people manned fruit stands along
the roadside. The countryside is flat and rolling. Two-lane roads,
which often become temporary 3-laners as drivers pass despite oncoming
traffic, can cause panic for those unaccustomed to the daring driving
habits of Europeans. But the beauty of the land, said Madeline,
is that it is so much like North Dakota.
Neither telephones or cars are commonly affordable and few women
drivers were observed. Most cars are small, older Russian or Japanese
models. Only one newer pickup with a club cab was seen. Motorcycles
were also used and buses were a common means of transportation.
Peddlers hauled their wares in horse-drawn wagons.
Few, if any, pollution controls are in effect for vehicles or factories.
"We got behind one big truck and just about died from the
exhaust," said Madeline.
Rest areas were nonexistent. There was no graffiti. Western influence
was visible and billboards promoted Adidas, Coke, Marlboro, Mickey
Mouse and other American made products. They saw several American
factories including an ammonia producing plant which was built by
Dr. Arnaud Hammer of Arm and Hammer baking soda fame.
Times are difficult. Ukraine, one of the larger states in the new
Commonwealth of Soviet States, is struggling with self-government.
Madeline learned through a State Department consultant that there
is a great deal of uncertainty within the government, nothing is
in place to support the economy, and there is much Mafia influence.
Office and government buildings have a lackluster appearance, each
one looking much the same as another. A shortage of building materials
has left many homes unfinished as owners or builders wait for supplies
to become available.
There are no lawns. Yards and public areas including parks are
cluttered and overgrown but Louise said the goats and geese make
good lawn mowers. Each town square had its monument honoring some
wartime or political figure. Statues of Lenin still stand in small
villages that lack funds to remove them.
The former USSR is a cash society. Because of its stability, the
American dollar is desirable and can easily be exchanged for Ukrainian
currency. Personal checks and credit cards are not used. Travelers
checks can only be cashed at special banks or hotels that cater
to foreign tourists.
The standard of living is improving but still much lower than in
the United States. Louise’s cousin, Amalia Sheifel, supplements
her pension of 33 griven a month by selling milk from a cow she
owns while a woman doctor in Amalia’s family earns 180 griven
a month (1.87 griven=$1 U.S.).
Mary’s niece, Nadia, who works for an agricultural commodities
broker, earns nearly three times that of husband Vitaly who is a
gynecologist in a maternity hospital. Vitaly and his partners have
entered a capitalistic venture by contracting lab work with hospitals
in Germany. In contrast Mary’s sister receives a pension of
49 griven for her service in the Russian army.
The average income is $25 to $30 a month. Housing is difficult
to find and is often passed down from generation to generation.
An English teacher assigned to teach in the town of Myoki ten years
earlier told Madeline she had hoped to accept a better paying position
in a larger city but there was no available housing there.
In larger cities most people live in apartments ranging from two
to five rooms. Often, they must pass through more than one heavy
locked steel door before gaining entrance to the building. Dingy,
unpainted, dimly lit hallways and bare cement stairs lead the way
to the apartments. Once inside, patterned old-world style carpets,
wall tapestries, floral wallpaper and curtains set a warmer, busier
The North Dakota travelers said public restrooms (with no privacy)
and private restrooms were "a real experience." In-home
bathrooms consist of two closet-lie rooms, one with a small sink
and tub, the other with a stool. Grey tissue resembling stretched
out crepe paper and newspaper tacked to the wall were reminders
of an earlier era in America.
Washing machines were the size of compactors and left clothes extremely
Most kitchens were tiny with apartment size stoves and small refrigerators.
One family shared a communal kitchen on the second floor with other
Meals lasted an hour or more. A variety of seasonal food with lots
of cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes was served in several courses
on plates the size of our large dessert plates. Liquor (usually
cognac or vodka), always accompanied by a long toast, was served
at each meal with fruit juice as a chaser.
Madeline and Louise said it was difficult to evaluate family economic
situations and they were not sure if they were served the normal
fare or if they were treated as special guests. They surmised that
the families they stayed with were putting their "best foot
forward" in the same manner as Americans do when they have
visitors so they reimbursed their hosts in an amount equal to what
they would have spent in a hotel.
Food shopping seemed to be a daily, early morning task for most
of the women. Food was costly but there did not seem to be a shortage.
Grocery stores were small. Supplies, stacked against the walls,
varied. While one store had fresh and prepared meats and a produce
department, another had frozen foods and juices. The stores in Myoki,
where Amalia lived, had no fresh vegetables.
Vendors from outlying areas brought their raw meats, fish, fruits,
vegetables and unwrapped loaves of bread to open air market in Odessa
where they were displayed on tables in row upon row of small booths.
Shoppers brought their own bags to carry whatever they purchased.
Flowers are a common gift and flower stands were prevalent on street
corners. Louise received three roses from Amalia’s family
when she arrived in Odessa.
In some stores a potential purchase had to be paid for and the
receipt presented to a clerk before it could be taken from the shelf.
Jewelry stores, even smaller ones, had guards.
In the collective villages or farms, small (usually painted blue)
homes made of cement block with tile, thatched or corrugated metal
roofs were aligned behind wooden fences. A small courtyard separated
the house from chicken coops, barns, and other attached outbuildings.
Gardens produced a variety of red bell peppers, cabbages, potatoes,
onions and other vegetables.
Families had chickens, geese, goats, rabbits, and sometimes a cow.
The cow, which was the women’s responsibility, was taken outside
the village each morning to graze and returned home each evening
to be milked.
Madeline explained that in years past, as the villages became too
large the next generation moved and started another village. "Quite
often they had Lutheran villages and Catholic villages. Sometimes
one or the other was pushed out," she said.
Cemeteries were unkept and often vandalized. Many were deserted
during the wars. Iron crosses were simple compared to the ornate
crosses found in some Emmons County cemeteries. Only four large
pieces of granite, the names missing, remained in one of the large
German cemeteries they visited at Freudenthal. The remaining grave
stones and markers had been either stolen or destroyed. Tables were
located in some of the cemeteries so families could picnic and spend
time near the graves of their departed family members.
Louise also spent a week in Frankfurt, Germany, visiting another
cousin, Magdalena Broekkel, before she returned to North Dakota.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck has information
on tours to the former USSR.
Reprinted with the permission of the Emmons County
Women shopped for
food each day. Open air markets sold fresh and canned fruits
and vegetables. Meat, poultry and fish were on ice but flies
were still rampant
Louise stands at
the doorway of the old Lutheran Church in Worms where her
parents were married. The building is being restored by the
Greek Orthodox Church.
An example of a
toilet room in a Ukrainian apartment.
of Hazelton stands with Freda Ohlhauser (right), 72, the oldest
German-speaking resident in New Freudental. Freda said she
knew the Kiemele and Weber families there.
wallpaper, curtains, and carpets were combined in room decors.
Madeline and Louise (left) tried to convince Amalia (right)
that her hair was too beautiful to be covered with a babushka.
She finally removed the hair covering but it was obvious,
she felt quite uncomfortable.
These people are
selling bullheads along a highway in Ukraine.
was greeted by a cousin, Amalia Sheifel (left) and family,
with 3 red roses when she arrived at the airport in Odessa,
Ukraine. Babushkas like the one Amalia wears are still worn
by most older ladies in Russia.
Pius Halter (seated), and his wife Mary (behind), in the home
of Mary’s relatives in Odessa.
Russian farm machinery,
including this tractor, sharply contrasts with farm equipment
used in the United States.
Madeline Heer stands
inside the gate of a home they visited. Outbuildings and a
garden are usually closely connected to the house. Notice
the corrugated roof. As with most buildings, this home was
painted blue, a color most Ukrainians seem to prefer.
and the Halters attended a ballet in the Odessa Opera House,
considered one of the top three opera houses in Europe. The
ornately decorated building has gold filigree designs and
the stage curtain weighs more than two tons.
Louise stayed one
week with cousin, Magdalena Broekkel (second from left) and
her family in Frankfurt, Germany. Magdalena was a visitor
in North Dakota three years ago.
Horses and wagons
seemed to be in common usage. These boys were seen along the
road to Worms. They asked if their picture would appear in
a U.S. newspaper.
There were many
vineyards with fruit-bearing trees and people manned fruit
stands along the roadside.