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
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
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
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.