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From Karlsruhe...by way of Karlsruhe...to Karlsruhe...Notes of a German-Russian Village in the North American Prairie

Längin, Bernd G. "From Karlsruhe… by way of Karlsruhe… to Karlsruhe… Notes of a German-Russian Village in the North American Prairie." Globus Spezial, n.d., 192.


"A German-Russian, one of 'unsre Lait' (one of our folks), had a furuncle on his bottom," Sheriff Wald grinned. "What does he do? He goes to the department store in Minot. Of course, he can't speak English, doesn't know how to say 'Kissen' (pillow in English.) But he needs a 'Kissen' very badly to sit on. He goes to the female sales clerk and asks her for a 'Kissje.' She feels honored and points to her lips. 'Nein' (No), the guy says and points to his bottom... You should have seen how fast he got kicked out of the department store."

You can most likely meet Sheriff Wald in Karlsruhe, North Dakota. At Highway no.14, the numbered unknown road between Towner and Balfour, two metal signs point from a few [towns] to nowhere but nevertheless in its direction [of Karlsruhe.] A dirt road that meets the paved road here seemingly by chance cuts through the prairie for nine miles. It is the only guide for the eye. Nine miles to Karlsruhe, North Dakota; nine miles that glimmer grey-green in early winter like mildewed milk.

Ranch follows ranch, farm follows farm. Snow and biting frost have long since turned corn and wheat fields, Grama and buffalo grasses into a sheet of ice. And in-between only this narrow, sandy road slippery like a half-sucked piece of candy. However, most of the motorists ignore Karlsruhe completely, bypass it like a merry-go-round. Since the days when the pioneer spirit was still an emanation of time, this place has fallen more and more into oblivion. There are only Levis but no Lederhosen for the Dakota-American around here; the next 'Oktoberfest' will be celebrated 40 miles farther, in Minot. Thus Karlsruhe belongs to the people of Karlsruhe and to the farmers within a radius of seven miles; they send their children to school there.

This is exactly the way the early settlers of this region intended it. This strange country which seems even stranger and impersonal here had been the end of the rainbow after 200 years of migration reminding them of the monotony of the Russian 'Steppe' and of the attitude that most certainly they can remain German in isolation. In 1874, twelve years after the battle of Neu-Ulm, Protestant and Catholic scouts of the German-Russians had ventured out into the prairies of North America which the early pioneers and trappers, facing the grave-digger called snow, simply thought of as unsuitable for settlement. What did they give up for that in Russia? How valuable was the strong belief of a group of people that hard work could overcome any obstacle in the end... as high as the prairie after a blizzard, as deadly as the fury of a Native American, as numerous as the swarms of grasshoppers, and as destructive as the dry poisonous breath of an hot summer.

It's only a few minutes from the first sign, from the intersection at Highway no. 14 to the second sign indicating the existence of Karlsruhe in McHenry County, North Dakota. It's here where the road splits, where the prairie grows wild. The sign can only be found by those who are searching for it in the dusty street. It sticks to the ground, seems to somehow be closely tied to the earth. Time has covered the first letters of the sign with rust. Only '...ruhe' can be clearly read. The sign doesn't point in any direction, doesn't give a distance as if it had become meaningless.

Distances had never played a big role for the German-Russians, who had been pioneers once before on the other side of the globe, who had already experienced a culture shock and a long migration reminding them of parts of an odyssey. They once had been lured to the East by the exemption from military service for all times, 30 desjatines of land, freedom of religion and in the area of education, exemption from taxes for a certain period of time - all of which had been promised through the grace of God by "Catherine II, Czarina and autocrat of all Russians of Moscow, and been granted at the Peterhof in 1763." They had remained Germans in Russia, had settled according to denominational affiliation: Mennonites together, Catholics and Lutherans by themselves, at times still separate in villages for Swabians, for people from Baden, from the Palatinate or from the Alsace. They had kept their language and customs that were already obsolete in their former homeland because of time and technical innovations until russification made them strangers. Almost 300,000 German-Russians chose again the way of emigration from 1873 on. Most of them took a chance in North America, a country they didn't know, a country with an unknown language for them.

The attempt to organize a village life in Canada and in the USA like it was in Russia succeeded only in the era of the frontier period. The effort to live in peace with neighbors was frequently thought of as having failed because in the following years "Russia" was to be the symbol of Communism, "Germany" the symbol of an empire and of National Socialism; American patriots including the Ku-Klux-Klan questioned the action of restoration of this group. Yet, the German-Russians probably contributed more to the development of America than any other group of immigrants. They turned the prairie into the world's granary by introducing the winter-wheat, "Turkey Red."

From the fork it's only about two miles to downtown Karlsruhe, two miles through flat farmland and stunted bushes to the main highway which, strictly drawn, divides Karlsruhe into two halves. The visit to the town, however, starts and ends with sorrow. At the entrance of the town is the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul clearly fenced-in and serves as the last resting place for the Böhmes, Leiers, Kleins, Schieles, Schwans, Lauingers, Eberles, Schwabs, Schneiders, Gutenbergs, Böchlers, Kellers, Zieglers, Walters or Bosserts. The prairie replaces life half a mile back where the residents of Karlsruhe get frostbites on their ears in winter at temperatures around 40°Celsius [below the freezing point] or where in summer mosquitoes torment them; half a mile where winds blow in the spring, half a mile where frost and hard freeze show new arrivals in the fall when darkness sets in at the time for a cup of coffee how out of place they are.

It's here where Karlsruhe demonstrates something like its own characteristic, a logical American compromise upon which the Old World that was once godparent to this town may only smile. The settlement is provincial prairie which had never much in common with its German place of origin and therefore doesn't allow an objective discussion. It, like so many other small communities in the vastness of America, makes it impossible to be described.

The so-called presence of the settlement is easy to describe in a few words: Among the Dakota villages Karlsruhe which doesn't even have a total of 200 residents anymore hardly makes the news. It could even be said that Karlsruhe isn't anything more than a former pioneers' village like any other although the mouthpiece of the community, mayor Nikodemus (Nick) Bossert, maintains that in a legal sense the village is already a town. A town, however, that is to be assumed to become a "ghost town" in the foreseeable future. The children and grandchildren of the generation of immigrants, who once had founded Karlsruhe, adopted the standards of America overnight, left behind their heritage and their early youth no later than the third generation in order to put on the thin layer of adaptation which is the basic requirement for acceptance and success, and for the American life style.

Karlsruhe in North Dakota has become a village of old folks except for the hustle and bustle at the school for the surrounding farms, nothing more than a vocabulary in a book of German emigration without point and counterpoint. It's a village casually constructed, put there in a pioneer-like hurry with small lawns as a bonus. There are some rectangular placed functional buildings on a maximum of space (not a single European-style house of a village), nine short streets amongst them Odessa-, Moscow-, Karl- and Lena street. There are a few trees, one church, one gas station, a bar, a post office and eventually a railroad station having the charm of a rusty grater that trains bypass. The place is a mixture of memories of Germany and of Russia, of pieces of the Low-German and the High-German language, of dusty roads, of longing and of hope, of motor oil and the extract of a village as such, of some big women and strong men, of a never-ending vastness and an unlimited hospitality. It is the bitter smell of an aging generation whose sons still want to become something better than their fathers.

Nevertheless Karlsruhe in North Dakota still remains the "badische" and "schwäbische" idiom. A "Stuttgart-Ulm-Freiburg-Mannheim" which makes one feel like being home. In the last years too much has slipped through the wide webs in the sieve of history in order to be made a stereotype today. Those who want to conquer the North American prairie in a 15-hour day, of whom mere survival demanded gigantic efforts can easily make a living following the old tradition once they have settled down, no matter where it is. The old generation of the community of Karlsruhe in North Dakota has preserved the language of their fathers and forefathers in an amazingly authentic way. There are only ten of all the 170 residents mayor Bossert cannot talk to in his German, an Alemannic-Franconian-Swabian dialect with American loan words.

Bossert: "Auf unsre Versammlunge schwätze mr Deitsch."(We speak German in our meetings.) - Sheriff Kasimir Wald, originally from Baden by family tradition: "Mir sin Deitsche aus Karlsruh'." (We are Germans from Karlsruhe.) People in the village have come to terms with the past. They are materially satisfied, are Americans. But they are - made talking by talking - certainly also still a little bit German using the German language to promote their own ancestry even if the choice of words does not always correspond to German categories.

Language is a reality standing in itself for the people of Karlsruhe in North Dakota. It is a reality that cannot be examined based on matters which it describes but rather on results. In any case, it makes the old folks who partially have been being born in czarist Russia Americans on the outside and Germans by heart.

Mrs. Emanuel Böchler personifies the American mail in Karlsruhe. Mrs. Böchler pursues also genealogy without being very successful. "Die deitsche Sproach und die deitsche Kuech'" (German language and German food), from her point of view, are poor relics that still remind of the origin of the pioneers in the village. This postal clerk believes to have found her own ancestors: Germans from the Lorraine. Her husband's family had left the area of Baden for the sake of freedom and had once moved to one of the colonies of Lustdorf, Gross- or Klein-Liebenthal which surrounded Ukrainian Odessa by the Black Sea. Between 1870 and 1880, her ancestors came here to this place called Karlsruhe since 1902 by way of Strasburg in North Dakota. It has been her grandpa Philip Böchler who together with Michael Böhm had bought the name of Karlsruhe for the village at an auction. 50 dollars which, for a farmer, was a huge amount of money at that time, were paid for the name at the old church square. The second suggestion had been "Sedan" but its sponsors had not been able to financially take on the people of Karlsruhe. There are no records of who got the money. The Böhm family as well as the Klein family originally came from the area of Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden and had settled on the Crimea by the end of the 18th century.

Otherwise it's regrettable that this village didn't find a place for its own history, that biographical records are completely missing. But in Karlsruhe, which a few dollars could not name it Sedan, its people have broken off from the pioneer era and early on from Native Americans who once had freely dominated the prairie of the Dakotas.

It has been proven that the last battle between members of the Sioux and immigrants had taken place in 1868; eight whites had been killed on the way from Fort Totten to Fort Stevenson. When Karlsruhe became Karlsruhe, a good Native American was only a dead Native American... and most Native Americans had already become "good" Native Americans. Traces of that time run past the village nearby. It's only a few hours of travel from Karlsruhe where the famous war chieftain of the Hunkpapa-Sioux, Sitting Bull, lies buried.

Nick Bossert, owner of a lumber yard and mayor of Karlsruhe for about 30 years resides in a one-room house of wood which, washed out by rain, leans against his wood pile.

Nick and his brother Mike, who runs an hardware store but is also the treasurer of the community, are known for their knowledge about the past. The fact that Mike is a member of a German-Russian society that, for a few years tries to rediscover its own history in North Dakota, contributes to his reputation but it's also here where the answer to the question "German, German attributes or German culture and German way of life in Karlsruhe?" is trivialized on one page of a paperback.

In the sense of history one is simply living in a vacuum without time. Karlsruhe is apparently divinely ordained. Or better yet, the railroad, the Great Northern, had wanted it when, on its way westward, it had established depots for the collection of water. That's why the village was developed.

Generally speaking, there are no contacts between Karlsruhe in North Dakota and Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Some years ago there was a police officer from Karlsruhe, overseas, who had written to the local Sheriff. It has been just recently when a newspaper in Karlsruhe tried make a written inquiry; it's been just recently when now and then curious private individuals from Germany were interested in this Dakota village. However, no one in the village has time to answer the mail; nobody feels responsible for it. After all, the resemblance of the names is purely coincidental for today's generation anyway.

The image of Germany by the residents of Karlsruhe is basically realistic even though it's vague and very poor in information. The press and the radio largely ignore the Federal Republic of Germany. The German illustrated broadsheets of American TV, however, can also be received on the prairie, by stations that show a "Himmler" rather than a "Genscher" or the production of a V-bomb rather than that of a Volkswagen. That's how, out of necessity, Germany of the time between 1925 and 1945 is known better than the Federal Republic of Germany of today. At any rate, today's Germans are known as a reliable partner of the USA.

The Bosserts regret in their old dialect from Baden that the process of disintegration in Karlsruhe can probably not be stopped. They complain that Scandinavian immigrants in North Dakota claim to form the strongest ethnic group in the state, a rating designated to the Germans for, after all, every fourth citizen of Dakota is of German heritage. They also mention that occasionally they are still the anvil because of their German heritage and the environment is the hammer. Ethnic Scandinavians especially call, when it comes close at sports events in rural areas like at baseball games, the residents of Karlsruhe names like "stupid Swabian", "stupid people from Baden" or "stupid Russians". Yet, in the meantime they had become Americans and have no longer any complicated relations to their neighbors. The German speaking people of Karlsruhe who had firmly voted for Reagan in the last presidential elections had already early on been a realistic model for politically tolerable conduct. It's not accidental that sons of the community have served in both world wars overseas, have knelt for America and kissed its flag when the law required it. For those veterans who wore the U.S. uniform a special row of graves has been set up at the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul with small Stars and Stripes, meanwhile frayed, on the mounds frozen to stone. It is to have been during WW2 that a resident of Karlsruhe from North Dakota wearing an uniform had come to Karlsruhe, Baden, for the first time under the ethnic German commander-in-chief of the USA, Eisenhower.

Orville A. Myhr is principal of the Karlsruhe Public School. There are 137 children attending this modern school from an early age on. The funds of the school, however, aren't enough to organize German classes. Myhr's ancestors came from Norway. He himself knows Frankfort and Munich; Karlsruhe in Baden he does not know. The students asked about the origin of the village only react with an "oops" upon hearing the name of Karlsruhe in Germany. They would find a nationalistic claim, emotional or ideological barriers damaging because of their heritage. Granted, they are the rearguard of German immigrants who cannot be compared with the best.

The organized assimilation of immigrant families is most clearly noticed in the school of the village. The pioneers came to the country speaking the German language. They have been encouraged to keep their mother tongue in the process of puberty of alienation. Then a generation followed who was able to speak both languages: the language of the parents (German) and the language of America, English. The third generation, however, had completely accepted the primacy of the English language and held onto this monolingual situation.

It was not so much an organized correction that made Americans out of the young people of Karlsruhe in their "deitschen Dorf" (German village) Sheriff Wald. The impetus for finding their own place came rather instinctively, automatically, as a real need to find their own place in the rhythm of the New World. No transplantation occurred between Europe and America as Carl Schurz once said. A new people came into being here and is still developing. That's why Karlsruhe is Karlsruhe in North Dakota as well. Memories of the origin of pioneers whose names slowly fade but whose work remains are appropriate but not sentimentalities.

Therefore, it has become largely insignificant to the residents of Karlsruhe who or what was or is German in the America of yesterday and today and what can be identified with the migration of their ethnic group: it may be the jeans invented by the Bavarian Levis Strauss in the gold rush era, perhaps the teaching methods of Berlitz who originally came from Württemberg, or the symbol of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast from Landau, the Chrysler automobile developed by German immigrants or the German-American companies Boeing, Firestone, Goodyear, Maytag or Singer, the eight U.S. presidents from Hoover (Huber) to Johnson who had German ancestors as well as movie stars like Clark Gable following Grace Kelly all the way to "Tarzan" Johnny Weissmüller. It had been Antoine Feuchtwanger from Bavaria who prepared the first hot dog in 1880. The hamburger steak called hamburger had been marketed in America by German immigrants. Neil Armstrong whose ancestors came from Westfalia is remembered as the first man who had ever landed on the moon. The execution of German anarchists after the famous massacre on the hay market in Chicago had been the symbol for the labor movement in the whole world which created them a monument with Labor Day, on May 1...

In 1975, the students of Karlsruhe have compiled an outline of the village history that was known to them. It was published in the official newspaper of McHenry County, The Mouse River Farmer Press. The French scientist Verendrye, the Indians of the Sioux tribe and the time when herds of buffalo grazed on the grama grass ranges of what was later to become the Dakotas are written about. According to the students' research, the German-Russians Gottfried Ackermann, Anton and Joseph Massene and Siegfried Hausler had been the first settlers in this region during the transatlantic migration of the 19th century. Then it had been the Böhmes, the Böchlers, the Schieles and the Kleins whom the New World offered homesteads. Then the sod houses, the act of voting on the name of the village and the railroad followed. Afterwards Karlsruhe developed within the collective of the prairie as did the neighboring villages of Voltaire, Norwich or Drake.

From there on the detail, the chronicle is missing. Local German language newspapers like the Dakota Rundschau, Der deutsche Farmer, or Der Landmann, three of 200 titles occasionally printed by German language publications in the USA, have long since ceased publication. Chroniclers such as the Dakota-German journalist Warner have disappeared forever.

Walter Scheel, former president of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, once said, "international involvement forms a very complicated mechanism. And they, the Germans in foreign countries, are the source that makes the engine work as far as our country is concerned." ... The effort to search for this source in Dakota, the typical target for immigrating German-Russians who call themselves Swabians, people from Baden and from the Palatinate because of their country of origin, must end in the finiteness like any other effort. German culture and tradition once had been here something like the yeast in the process of fermentation of the state. A people who had migrated had brought with them their own ideas, skills and knowledge. Here the closest truth, however, is today called America. Everything else has been absorbed by the dark era of history.

The prologue between the Dakota village of Karlsruhe and Karlsruhe in Germany ends just like the epilogue in sorrow at the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul where traces of German pioneers have been kept alive. Members of an early generation of immigrants who are buried here must have lived in the confines of their own time. Although they used scientific methods of thinking and had the instruments needed to produce modest prosperity, their unmistakable life style, their irrational uneasiness which revealed itself in that they believed not being able to behave themselves properly, not really being admitted to this country was still encountered.

The new generation of the people of Karlsruhe is different, not uncomfortable or reserved. National differences disappeared according to the degree that they Americanized themselves. 'German-Americans' had become just a term that doesn't correspond to reality anymore. They can no longer be excited by German names, by Germany, Russia or by their history but without tabooing any of it.

The German pioneer rests in his grave in the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul. Above his mortal remains the New World is surging, exhaust pipes are roaring, jet planes are painting trails of condensation in the sky.

And only those who really look back may still see an old pioneer standing there frozen in winter, his face worn by the weather with high cheek bones turned away from the icy wind, and mistrust in his eyes. That's how you can see him, how he looks at the New World with a sense of curiosity but also knowing full well to be out of place. And he is probably grumbling to himself but the young people don't hear him anymore. They have turned their backs on him and cry with spread out arms, "We are Americans, Americans from Karlsruhe!"

This contribution by Bernd G. Längin called "Von Karlsruhe ...über Karlsruhe...nach Karlsruhe" (From Karlsruhe...by way of Karlsruhe... to Karlsruhe) has been taken from the book "Germantown - auf deutschen Spuren in Nordamerika" (Germantown - on German traces in North America) [VDA- Schriftenreihe zu Fragen der Deutschen im Ausland: "Wege und Wandlungen", Band 3.

Translation from German to English by Claudia Müller, Halle, Germany.

Reprinted with permission of VDA Globus, Bonn, Germany.

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