to the Homeland
Vossler, Ron. "Journey to the Homeland." North Dakota Horizons, Winter 1997.
"It may be argued that the past is a country from which we
all have emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity."-Salman
Why explore a place our grandparents left long ago? In what
ways, if any, does an ethnic past shape one's present life? Those
are good questions for any American. Good questions, too, for
the 50 tour group members, most of Black Sea German descent, who
embarked mid-June from Minneapolis on the North Dakota State University
Libraries-sponsored "Journey to the Homeland Tour: Germany and
Retracing history over the Atlantic
For tour members the answers to those questions lay in the history
of the Black Sea Germans, a farming people who settled in large
numbers in the Dakotas between 1886-1914.
It's a complex history, sprawling across two centuries and several
continents. It included enough wars, famines and drama for any
number of novels and movies. It forged a variety of 19th century
Germanic peoples into one distinctive ethnic group, with its own
language, culture and world view.
Yet the sweep of history is impersonal. Most tour members, if
anything like this writer, struggled to locate themselves or their
ancestors in such broad currents. But as our flight arced high
over the Atlantic-over that same ocean our ancestors crossed by
steamship a century earlier-it grew hard not to imagine those
people as real people, as young and old, as our parents, grandparents
and great-grandparents-full of hope.
||Tour director Michael Miller snapped this picture of
several women milking cows by hand near Landau, Beresan Enclave,
To be honest, though, few of us knew the real story of such
a journey, at least not to the surprising extent of this writer's
seatmate, a retired educator who told colorful anecdotes about
his grandparents' "passage" from Russia to America. And the way
he told them, with humor, compassion and dignity, spoke volumes
about the best qualities that Black Sea Germans bequeathed to
During that first leg of our journey, until we glimpsed the
icy crags of Greenland beyond the plane wing, he told stories
that touched on tragic immigrant themes: of burials at sea for
those who succumbed to the rigors of the steamship journey; of
midwives birthing babies in the smelly steerages; of a grandfather,
after a cross-country train ride from New York to South Dakota,
falling dead at his first glimpse of the vast prairie emptiness
Sociologists maintain that the psychological effects of such
"passages" still reverberate in the succeeding generations. And
how could they not? For the second time in less than a century,
the Black Sea Germans, a gregarious village people who'd settled
the barren Russian steppe in the early 1800's, found themselves
catapulted into an almost stone-age past: this time on a prairie
frontier where that golden dream of America must have seemed only
a stark illusion.
Other cultural groups, like the South African Boers in their
"vortrekker sagas," proudly recount their history. The Black Sea
Germans preferred to forget. They rarely spoke of the personal
price, of that sudden plunge into a New World. Only scanty oral
accounts, if any, were passed to the succeeding generations about
that most heroic of achievements- settling the last American frontier.
Later, two world wars against a German enemy only added ambivalence
about their German heritage.
No wonder that many Black Sea German descendants, who comprise
30-40 percent of North Dakota's population, seldom speak in personal
terms about that rich heritage. No wonder, either, that 50 tour
members on this personal odyssey anxiously awaited the landing
in Germany so they could explore firsthand the place where all
that history began.
Swimming in the gene pool
That busy first week, headquartered in a Stuttgart, Germany,
hotel, tour group members visited institutions that have documented
the Black Sea German experience, including the Bessarabian Heimats-Museum
and the Landsmannschaft.
More importantly, there was a bus trip, exploring parts of the
"ur heimat" in southern Germany and the Alsace region, now part
of France. It's the original homeland, once overcrowded and war-torn,
from where German peasants and craftsmen, at the invitation of
the Czars, emigrated to Russia between 1763-1862.
In the Alsatian village of Cleebourg, there was a strange convergence
of time and language. Tour members easily spoke with the locals
in a common mother tongue, the same Rhenish Ranconian Alsatian dialect once
spoken in the Russian "colonies," the same dialect, with its melodic
nuances, that many tour members knew growing up on the American
It was in Stuttgart that tour members quickly learned that the
Black Sea German ancestral pool is not large. Over conversations
at breakfast, or in the hotel lobby or on the bus, they explored
that labyrinthine, intermarried state of affairs of Black Sea
German family life; they recited their "who married whoms." And
in the process, they sometimes discovered that they were kin.
This writer, no exception, found his own family net flung wide.
At least a dozen of his 50 fellow travellers, in one way or another,
were related to him.
The grand finale of the Stuttgart visit was the "Bundestreffen.
" There, in a huge convention center, crowded more than 50,000
Black Sea German "Aussiedler. " They were the offspring of those
who, instead of emigrating to America, had remained in the ancestral
villages in Russia. Some were "verwanten," relatives, who tour
members met for the first time. All of them had been swept back
to Germany by the tides of World War II; or, after the collapse
of communism they'd returned-some as recently as the past year-from
post-war exile in the farthest fringes of the old Soviet Empire.
The NDSU Libraries information booth at the "Bundestreffen,"
manned by tour members, helped these Black Sea Germans contact
their American relations. But in a sense, they are a lost people,
these "Aussiedlers," the broken branches of the family tree, often
disdained by both Germans and Russians. Yet, the younger generations
seem a combination of both cultures, amply illustrated by several
Siberian Germans who, with their gold teeth flashing, scribbled
out the German names of their ancestral villages on the table
placards with their own wobbly Cyrillic letters.
||Tour member Brother Placid Gross, Richardton, visits
with Antonia Welk Ivanova of Selz, Ukraine. Antonia is a relative
of the late Lawrence Welk. Michael Miller photo.
||At a gathering in Stuttgart, Germany, Ron Vossler helps
a recent German immigrant from Siberia to locate relatives
in North America. Vossler, Grand Forks, wrote the feature
story for Horizons. Michael Miller photo.
After the "Bundestreffen," our tour flight departed for the
Republic of Ukraine, roughly retracing from the air that overland
trek of our ancestors to Russia two centuries earlier: over the
former Czechoslovakia, skirting the Carpathian Mountains, then
angling south along the winding Dniester River.
South of Kishinev, we got our first glimpse of the steppes,
scrolling off into the hazy distance. There, around villages with
single streets along the flood plain, were golden squares, fields
of winter wheat and rye, ripening in the rich chernozem soil of
"Sud Russland," now the countries of Moldova and Ukraine. It was
there our forefathers were drawn by Czarist manifestos promising
freedom and land; there, far from European civilization, that
they founded German villages, islands in that vast Russian sea,
in the first decades of the 1800s.
Odessa's faded beauty
Our airplane bumped down on what seemed a neglected two-lane
rural highway. It was hard to believe, judging from the customs
officials who seemed both harried and lackadaisical, that we'd
once feared the Soviet Union. In a slow-moving line, we hefted
our luggage and school supplies through the antechambers of an
airport building. That dim light and bad repair, so reminiscent
of prairie barns, prompted some tour members to tell farm life
stories, about mid-century horseback rides to rural schools and
German catechism classes on the Great Plains.
After the gloomy airport, Odessa seemed drenched with sunshine.
It's a city of one million, whose noble architecture is ringed
by bland, Stalinist-era, high-rise apartment buildings. In the
city center, there were century-old buildings with ornate, crumbling
facades. Wrought iron balcony railings, entwined with grape vines,
hung heavy with laundry and blankets. Battered yellow trams and
diesel-spewing buses plied crowded streets.
At our tour headquarters, the Chornoye More, the Black Sea Hotel,
we awakened mornings, curtains billowing into the rooms, breezes
heavy with the scent of the steppe and the sea. In the evenings,
from the hotel windows or balconies, there was, along the eastern
horizon, the shimmering waters of the Black Sea.
Exploring the enclaves
Accompanying the tour were Prairie Public Television staff personnel,
whose cameras recorded the highlights for an upcoming documentary
series on the Black Sea German experience. There were also drivers,
guides and interpreters, who over the next week accompanied the
tour members to the five enclaves established by Black Sea Germans
within the old Russian Empire.
For tour members who grew up on the Great Plains, those enclave
trips were both familiar and disconcerting. Once, bumping along
a winding path between the villages of Rohrbach and Johannestal,
it seemed like we travelled a North Dakota section line, headed
to haul bales for the day.
Another time, lost on an unmarked road, tour members did as any
prairie dweller would, navigating by the position of the sun.
In the Glueckstal Enclave around Kassel, there were broad valleys
and sweeping, sculpted hills, just like in parts of western North
Dakota. "Where is Hazen?" someone quipped. In Bessarabia, valleys
seemed steeper and villages had tumbled yardwalls and wattled
fences-which made the place seem older, more isolated.
In the Liebental and Kutschurgan Enclaves not far from Odessa,
villages nestled among numerous vineyards and cherry trees. These
villages also boasted intact rows of German houses, standing much
as a century ago, with the family names-such as "Gotz" inscribed
in stucco under the roof peaks.
||U.S. and German cousins meet at the home of Melita and
Andreas Karcher in Goppingen, Germany. (L. to R.) Leo and
Frieda Brosowski, Mildred Thurn, Lean and Harold Grasmick,
Herb Thurn, Melita and Andreas Karcher and their daughter,
Melitta. Leah Grasmick, Lodi, Calif., and Herb Thurn, Bismarck,
are brother and sister. Their mother was born in Germany.
Frieda and Melita are their second cousins. Photo courtesy
Herb and Mildred Thurn.
||A Ukrainian woman cuts bread "the old way" in the Glueckstal
enclave at Kassel. Photo courtesy Elaine Becker Morrison.
A song bridges the cultures
The most emotional moment for this writer occurred in Alt Postal,
Bessarabia. There, tour members visited Vera Wolchow, an elderly
woman whose father was Black Sea German. She'd suffered through
much of the sad recent history of Bessarabia.
It was a hot day. We'd just finished exploring the cemetery,
where many of this writer's ancestors lay buried. Tour members,
preparing to leave, gathered around the van, which was parked
in the dappled shade. Just then, a single, quavering voice drifted
into the silence. It was old Vera, singing acappella.
Soon, two other tour members joined her. Together they sang
"Gott Isch Die Liebe," the death-bed song of the protestant Black
Sea Germans. Its words have often been the last ones on the lips
of so many as they left this world, in this century or last, in
the Ukraine or the wastes of Siberia, in Asian Kazakhstan or the
As those plaintive voices rose in unison-it's from the Ukrainians
on the steppes that the Black Sea Germans learned such mournful
singing-this writer felt deeply moved. For an instant, the high
cloudless Ukrainian sky seemed the prairie heavens. The acacia
trees were cottonwoods, soughing in the wind. And the voices were
voices from his childhood on those summer Sunday mornings during
revival services in the Lehr Tabernacle, that holy edifice in
the heart of the Black Sea German evangelical country in North
Dakota, where people knelt in the straw to pray.
For many tour members, it was emotional to come over the rise
of a hill and see one's parents' or grandparents' village; to
walk the dirt streets they once walked; to feel their presence
in their houses or churches; to meet people who knew of them,
or once had known them, like the elderly Ukrainian woman on her
way home from a funeral, who'd once been a servant for this writer's
relatives in Tarutino, Bessarabia, in the 1930s.
Churches and cemeteries
Sometimes tour members found their ancestors' graves. Generally,
though, the tombstones, fashioned from soft rock and weather-scoured,
were illegible. Many cemeteries had disappeared altogether. Near
one village, in a place the Ukrainians call the Valley of the
Big Mosquitos, there were only a few bits of human skull and pieces
of cement scattered in a field, which had probably been bulldozed
to clear space for a nearby Russian Orthodox cemetery.
In the Tschaba Valley near the village of Friedenstal-stacked
on top of each other to fill a low spot in the road-there were
layers of German tombstones. In the West, of course, that constitutes
a sacrilegious act, despoiling a graveyard. But in the Ukraine,
where cemeteries and burial mounds of vanished peoples have long
been viewed as natural resources, it is, according to one source,
Tour members found that the old German churches dominate the
village landscapes. Their looming gothic architecture, even without
steeples, is imposing. Some churches have been converted into
Russian Orthodox churches. During the Soviet era, they were used
as clubs, cinemas, cultural centers or for grain storage.
||Pictured are three members of the Ketterling family.
LaRose Ketterling (left) of Mercer, N.D., and Harley Miller,
Chehalis, Wash., visit with Melita Hochhalter, who was born
in Kassel, Odessa district. Melita and her family were evacuated
from Kassel in 1943 and lived in a refugee camp in Poland
until 1945. Then the family was sent to a labor camp in Siberia.
Melita and her family settled in Herleshausen, Germany, in
1972. Photo courtesy of Rose Ketterling.
Depending on the source, most steeples were removed as late
as the Kruschev era; or during World War II to keep troops from
using them as observation posts; or before that, in the 1930s,
as Stalin tightened his grip on the land.
In the Glueckstal village of Kassel, tour members discovered
that the Ukrainian villagers feel an affinity for the old Lutheran
church, even though it was not their people who built it. Rather
than construct a new school, the villagers say, their first priority
is to rebuild their spiritual life after 70 years of communism.
As they spoke about someday restoring that church, they related
the following story; probably meant to be understood metaphorically,
A century and a half ago, when the German colonists first built
the church, each family in Kassel, besides their labor, contributed
immense quantities of milk, eggs and honey. It was from these
agricultural products that an enduring cement was mixed to build
the church walls. Newer structures have crumbled; yet those walls
endure, several feet thick, as solid and immovable as the day
they were built. "Go there and see for yourself," the villagers
said, gesturing towards the church.
In the ancestral villages
Once, there were more than 3,000 German villages in Russia.
It was from those villages, after the advent of Russification
in the 1880s, that most immigrants departed to homestead in Dakota.
It was in those villages that the relatives of the Dakota Germans
remained in Russia, enduring civil war, Stalin's terror famines,
Finally, in the early 1940s, the old way of life in those ancestral
villages was swept into oblivion. The Black Sea Germans were deported
at gunpoint into Siberia or Kazakhstan by the Soviet army; or,
the luckier ones, under the auspices of the retreating German
army, trekked west, back to Poland or Germany itself. Now, other
nationalities live in those villages, most recently, evacuees
from the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl.
Yet, some original German houses still stand. Their roofs are
covered with the old orange, glazed roof tiles, "dachsiegels."
They have thick walls, with deep, inset windows. Sometimes they
are bordered by sandstone walls, mortared over with blue plaster,
against which elderly villagers on worn benches occasionally lean,
just as one's own ancestors once must have.
||Mel Maier (left) of Bismarck shares historic photos
with a relative who recently immigrated to Germany from
the former Soviet Union.
There were any number of sights and structures familiar to those
acquainted with the Great Plains. In the Beresan village of Johannestal,
pungent smells rose from square piles of "mischt," drying near
some homes. That's dung mixed with straw and cut into blocks,
a primitive fuel once used to heat sod houses in the Dakotas.
In some Ukrainian yards stood summer kitchens. In Bessarabia,
there were "vorhauslas," shady, vine-covered bowers, attached
to the front of some houses. In the Beresan enclave, one saw many
outdoor root cellars with sloped roofs, "storm cellars" we called
them around Wishek, N.D.
Some tour members stayed overnight in Ukrainian homes. They
shared meals, with the children sometimes not joining the adults
at the table-a cultural tradition familiar to older Black Sea
German descendants. The cuisine, sometimes like their own prairie
grandparents', might include bokklajohna (tomatoes) or kartoffellin
(potatoes), or blintzes filled with cottage cheese, similar in
shape, at least, to that Black Sea German delicacy "blachenda."
At one meal, a Ukrainian woman, clasping a round loaf of bread
against her bosom, turned the knife blade towards herself, cutting
thick slices with a rotating motion that reminded tour members
of their own mother or grandmother's method of cutting bread.
With the dust of the ancestral villages on their shoes; with
the lingering smells in their nostrils of camilla plants or "vermut"
weeds from overgrown bashtan/an-gardens; with images in their
minds' eye of cattle herds, and geese flocks, and grain fields
where John Deere combines stood echeloned in quiet rows-tour members
returned each evening to Odessa.
Many tour members attended world-class operas or ballets. It
was dreamlike to sit in the plush seats of the gilt-edged Odessa
Opera House as the fluid voices of the singers filled the ornate
building; and future shock, too, going on the same day from the
archaic villages, where the elderly carried firewood, to put electronic-mail
messages about the tour onto the World Wide Web at the Odessa
State Polytechnical Institute.
During the days in Odessa, there were also tours, including
visits to the famed Potemkin steps along the Black Sea shore;
to monuments honoring great artists, like Pushkin; to the somber
"Great Patriotic War" monument, where fresh, blood-red flower
petals lay scattered on polished marble slabs.
Evenings at the hotel there were programs, where students in
colorful folk costumes staged Ukrainian music. There was also
a press conference, along with a seminar, where tour members explained
their interests in their ancestral villages to an audience of
university students and reporters.
||A Catholic church dominates the landscape in Karlsruhe,
Beresan Enclave, Ukraine. During the Soviet era, churches
were used as clubs, cinemas, cultural centers or for grain
storage. Photo by Michael Miller.
Throughout their Ukrainian stay, tour members distributed an
extensive amount of school supplies, gathered from throughout
America, to various villages in the enclaves. Other tour members
delivered much needed medical supplies to hospitals in Odessa
and Tarutino. The dedicated genealogists on the tour visited the
Odessa archives, where the various passports and official documents
of the Black Sea German villages are now stored.
As our time in Odessa dwindled, our tour took a day trip to
Peterstal, a "container village," where Germans once exiled to
Siberia and Kazakhstan during World War II now are resettling.
It is a joint venture, funded by the German government, with labor
and supplies from the Republic of the Ukraine, in an effort to
limit the immigration of "Aussiedlers" back to Germany. There,
in a newly-established entrepreneurial zone, a bakery produces
several thousand loaves of bread each week. During a small ceremony
after a meal, tour director Michael Miller announced to the gathering:
"We Black Sea Germans in America have never forgotten our Siberian
brothers and sisters."
Back to the future
That next day, our flight departed for Germany. As our plane
followed the Dniester River again, we cast lingering glances over
our shoulders, as our ancestors must have, leaving "Mother Russia."
So what did tour members learn on their journey? Did they answer
those questions? Each might tell you something different. Perhaps
they felt immense gratitude for their grandparents' fateful decision
to immigrate to America-a choice which made them born in Dakota,
not Siberia. Or, as one tour member put it, "Picking rocks on
the prairie doesn't sound so bad now, compared to what the other
Black Sea Germans who stayed behind suffered."
Perhaps tour members learned what they already knew but needed
to affirm: that history, that Russia, left its mark on their grandparents
and parents, and, in turn, on them; that though the past is buried,
it is not always dead; that frontiers do not pass away, but endure
in people. Or, as this writer discovered, that sometimes the most
obvious, overlooked things provide solidity and substance to one's
own life-like all the honey, milk and eggs in those church walls.
1997-98 tour information
For information about the 1997 and 1998 Journey to the Homeland
tours contact Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries,
PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599; or call 701-231-8416; or e-mail
Michael M. Miller at Michael.Miller@ndsu.edu.
Helping the children
Those participating in the 1996 Journey to the Homeland tours
were asked to bring with them a second piece of luggage filled
with school supplies to be distributed to schools in Odessa and
On earlier trips to the Ukraine, Tour Director Michael M. Miller
visited school classrooms and noticed a desperate need for not
just textbooks, maps or even library books, but basic school supplies
such as pencils and paper. Children played with pieces of broken
The first shipment of school supplies arrived in the Ukraine
in June. Those supplies were made available to teachers and students
when the new school year began in September. However, more supplies
Suggested supplies include: atlases, maps, charts, tablets,
pencils, erasers, pens, markers, crayons, chalk, tape, pencil
sharpeners, scissors, construction paper, water color sets with
brushes and rubber stamps with ink pads. Puzzles and games such
as tinker toys, ball and jack sets, pick-up sticks and cards are
Persons wishing to donate school supplies or make monetary donations
to the Ukrainian School Supply Project called "Caring Hearts and
Sharing Gifts for Ukrainian School Children" can do so by contacting
Journey to the Homeland Tours, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo,
ND 581055599; or call 701-231-8416; or e-mail Michael M. Miller
Reprinted with permission of North
North Dakota Horizons
magazine is published quarterly by
the Greater North Dakota Association in conjunction with the North
Dakota Tourism Department. Subcriptions are $15 for one year or
$28 for two years. To subscribe, or for more information, write
PO Box 2639, Bismarck ND 58502; or call 701-222-0929; or link to
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