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German-Russian and Proud

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, Speaker
Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention, Opening Ceremonies
Pierre South Dakota, 8 July 1994

Transcribed by Rebecca Pettit
Edited by Janel Wald and Linda Haag


....and I should also thank Bertha for asking me. I feel much honored, as one of the new kids on the block, to be the keynote speaker. I'm new to my understanding of my culture and when Esther was talking about so many of the people in my generation, who have lost the culture and haven't found the way back, you have led the way back for me and I thank you all deeply for that.

When I was a little girl, my grandma Roesch lived with us for part of the time and I remember sitting at her feet in the bedroom we shared. After thirty years in California, I have moved back to South Dakota to the house that I grew up in. I do my writing in that very room and my grandmother is always present. Let me read you just a little bit of the description that I wrote about her in the fourth volume of my Daughters of Dakota series.

  “I remember most of all her hands, thick and broad, gnarled like two tree stumps. ‘She baked fifteen loaves of bread a week,’ my aunt Marie told me, ‘kneaded it all by hand- and her right arm was sort of deformed from this. The bread always rose beautifully; I never knew of a failure.’”

She had thin, long hair and I remember she would tell me stories as she would comb her hair with a comb; the teeth were so narrow in that comb, and she [would] bring the comb through her hair and then she'd braid it, and then put the braids up on top of her head. And during that ceremony, I would hear the stories. Now many of them were in German and I couldn't understand them but I always caught the drift of them. One that she always told was when she was a little girl in Russia her maiden name was Treftz. The teacher would always tease her when she couldn't get something and he would say, "Treftz nicht immer". She would tell this story over and over, and I realize that I'm not telling it right because I don't speak the language.

I never knew why, I never learned how to speak the language until much later. I remember the trips that we would make to Roscoe, usually on the weekends and there would be huge family dinners around the table. One of my uncles was on the homestead and the other uncle lived across the road and cousins of mine still are in that area working the land. What I remember most, I think, from those times was the warm embrace of what transpired in that group. People laughed, not from their throats, but from their bellies. They laughed hard and they laughed long and then someone would tell a story and they would cry. And they cried as easily as they laughed. They were people that on reflection seem very healthy in ways, they seemed to be able to feel and feel deeply.

One story that always brought tears to the brothers and sisters, telling the story about their oldest brother, who had been a young child in Russia. He said, "I'm not going to the new country." And they said, "Well of course you're going." They had the passports and they were ready to leave. He became ill and died; it was probably of encephalitis, right before they were to leave. And my grandmother buried that son and came in a few days to a new country. It's a pain so deep that, how people withstood that can only be understood, I think, through the community that shared that pain. It was not a pain that my grandmother carried by herself. My father and my uncles and aunts tell me that every time someone would come to visit, my grandmother would share that story and they would all weep with her. The pain became shared by the community and the joys were shared in the same way.

As a child I experienced this, but I experienced only the glow of it from the outside. Because I couldn't speak the language, I couldn't understand exactly what was going on and I couldn't be part of that circle. I would ask, "Well, what did you say? What did that mean?" And I remember being told things like, "It loses something in the translation." My father and one of his friends were laughing about the things they used to say to each other on the playground. I'd say, "What does it mean? What are you saying to each other?" They were laughing so hard, tears in their eyes, and they'd try to sober up and explain: "Well, it means I'm gonna hit you so hard that the snot is going to come out of your nose and land on the wall across the room," and I realized in that translation exactly how much I lost. Another one they said was, "I'm going to pound you into the ground but I'm going to sharpen you first." When we were little, you used to tell me those terribly funny things, and then you wouldn't translate them for us.

When I was in high school, it probably began in junior high; I went through the period of greatest conservatism, as we all do in our lives, when we don't want to be in any way different from everybody else. At that point I became ashamed of that embracing circle, and I didn't want anyone to know that my aunts and uncles spoke with that kind of an accent. I worked very hard to take it out of my own voice. Even though I'd never learned the language I had some accent, and I went through a period of being very much alienated from myself in that way. I got married and moved to California. Of course, once I moved to California, to Sacramento, people would say, "Well, that's right by Lodi. You better go visit your relatives, you know. If you knock on any door in Lodi you'll find a relative." I never went to Lodi. I went to California and told no one that I was German-Russian. I told people that I was from South Dakota, and decided to just do this completely new life. Well, I started college and after a period, I suppose, I got a little lonesome. And so I thought that I'd learn German; that would help me out.

I went through an entire semester of it, and we still hadn't learned the most important word in the German language. I went to the teacher, finally toward the end of the semester, and I said "How come you haven't talked at all about basoof? How come you haven't told us that word?" And he said, "What's that?" And I said, "That's the most important word in the German language. My grandma, every other word she said to me was basoof. What does it mean? I've taken this course for a whole semester and I haven't answered the question yet." And he looked me straight in the eye and he said, "There is no such word." I decided that this man was an imposter. He certainly didn't know the German language. He'd been teaching me some fake imitation the whole semester, and I was going to have none of this. I dropped out of that class and never took another one.

I began to write books on women's history. I remember one time when my aunt Annie, some of you know Anne Roesch Larson, she is my Godmother (which she may not always admit) and she also is really my mentor in many ways now, and she said to me "Why do you write about all those other people? Why don't you write about your own people?" It took me probably ten years to understand the wisdom of her counsel, which in German- Russian ways is never given with, a perhaps, it's given as "this is what you ought to be doing because I know" and of course, she was right and she did know. It took me a while to come to that place. I think about the things that brought me to the place of being not just proud but hungry for everything that I can know about my culture. Hungry with the deprivation of someone who never quite got it, who never was quite there, who was always on the margin. Now longs to know what sits at the center and will sit for hours with any of you that will tell me stories as my grandma did.

I remember the first moment of real recognition was when I was with the Great Plains Chautauqua in Dickinson, North Dakota. I walked into a museum and it had an entire display of German-Russian heritage. It was the first time I'd experienced that. I've since experienced it in Eureka and other places where you've done such wonderful work in reclaiming the culture. But I stood in front of this display and I started weeping. I started looking at it and pretty soon I couldn't read the displays anymore because it was the first time that I had ever experienced my culture reflected as historically important.

We were always the outsiders, and here we were with our history, and the importance of it reflected. Then through my parents I discovered your society, our society, and my mother would send me clips from the press of events that were given in Aberdeen. I was still living in California. I made it to a few meetings when I was back here visiting and I saw the pride that began to develop in my father and my aunts and uncles and it was from this organization and the reclaiming of that which had been taken away from us. I began at that time to reclaim and to recognize and understand the strengths that I'd been given through the culture that I've been born into. I thought of one of them when the flags were presented. I thought how few groups today present the flag and what group more than this would not be held accountable, or it would be understood, if it didn't celebrate the American Flag and the flag of South Dakota.

There were stories that were told to us of the things that were done to our people during the First World War by the state of South Dakota and by the United States. My father tells a story about not being able to speak German when he was in school. The teacher drew a circle around the school yard and when you entered into that circle you could only speak English, and he thought that the teacher was doing them a good favor in teaching them. The teacher was simply obeying the law because if she had spoken in German she could have been arrested.

The freedom of religion that was denied our people; in the churches we were not allowed to worship, we were not allowed to worship in the language in which we knew to address God. German was allowed between two people, but if a third person was present, the law was broken when the mother tongue was spoken. The Hutterites found no freedom in the state of South Dakota. Their livestock was taken for war bonds and their land was not allowed to be held common. They were taken into the army and forced into prison when they refused to fight. And they found freedom only in Canada when the United States would not allow it.

One of the strengths I think that our people have (and I saw it this morning and feel deeply moved by it) is the ability to forgive and forgive even the unforgivable. The United States government and the state of South Dakota have never given the German-Russian people an apology for the treatment that was given them. The Hutterites have never received an apology from the state of South Dakota for the tremendous loss that they suffered during that period. And despite that, the forgiveness that's represented in welcoming with the flags, I think, is an extraordinary tribute to the spirit and the strength of our people. The work ethic my children grew up with is a part of the culture that I could give to them as I give now to my grandchildren.

What's a part time job for a German-Russian? Answer: a forty hour week. When they're asked "How do you do these businesses that you do and work as hard as you work?" My kids explain that it's all genetic. I think whatever is in our genes and whatever is in our cultural pool is something that really allows us to survive and to overcome. To celebrate and to laugh and sometimes against odds that are unimaginable. My grandmother found joy and she also found the truth of her sorrow.

As I work to understand who I am as a German-Russian woman, I have a request of you and that is that you teach me who I am and you teach your children and your grandchildren (when they will listen). Ours is a culture that needs to be preserved. I fear the loss of the language, as I know you do. This is the only place on earth that it is still spoken and when the last German- Russian speaker in Strasburg or Hosmer or Eureka, or Lodi stops speaking the language, it goes into the ground. The language will go into the ground, unless we do some very strong things to make sure that the language is kept. I'd really like to work with you on whatever cultural preservation projects there are and we can create, so that the children like me, who sit on the outside of that warm circle, can feel the glow of sitting at the center.

Thank you.

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