GRHS Works on a Global Scale to Discover Deep Cultural
Aman, Terry J. "GRHS Works on a Global Scale to Discover Deep Cultural Roots." Minot Daily News, 25 July 2000, sec. B & 5B.
Germans from Russia Heritage Society board member Edna Boardman
of Minot reported some of the work involved with building and researching
the history of their group. The collection of information, she said,
is becoming nearly as spread out as the people themselves.
Dale Lee Wahl from Bremerton, Wash., has organized a Village Research
Project in a way that involves an extraordinary number of people.
Thickly single-spaced village names on two sheets of paper are paired
with names of "village coordinators" - GRHS members willing to accept
information and dig a little into the history and progress of Germans
"What they do is they accept responsibility for collecting information
about these Russian villages where Germans lived," Boardman said.
"There were about 300 original villages that ballooned to around
3,000." Boardman's mother's village was called Alexanderhilf, and
until this year, she had been village coordinator for Alexanderhilf.
It wasn't an overwhelming task, she said, and that is part of
the beauty of the organization: The work of collecting, sifting
and following up information is spread among so many volunteers
that it doesn't become wearying.
And there's enough work to do. Germans froom Russia are scattered
across the globe. Some of the moves were internal, with Germans
going to Siberia and Kazakhstan and so forth. Some of the moves
were even more adventurous, with Germans from Russia ending up in
China and up and down South America.
One of the GRHS members works in oil and follows the Feist name
around the world. He's found phone books full of Feists through
Argentina and Bolivia - descendants of Germans from Russia with
names like "Pablo Feist" and so forth. And, Boardman said, a German
from Russia descendant, Eduard Rossel, is serving as a head of state
There's even a German from Russia group in Germany. "There's such
a complex movement of people," she said. "Basically a German population
moves into Russia and sets up farming. Then someone will move into
south Siberia because there's land. And someone will move over way,
way, way in the east because there's land. And they're constantly
pioneering - when these little villages get a little too big they
This is one reason the work is expanding - Germans from Russia
turn up worldwide, and more village coordinators are needed. A village
names and histories are sometimes approximated. For example, she
said, thousands of people will claim to be from Odessa, Russia,
but almost none of them actually came from Odessa. Many were from
villages miles and miles away from Odessa. But when they moved to
the United States, she said, it was easier to say they were from
a city more people had heard of. For this reason, she said, it's
harder to figure out where people actually originated from.
Adding to the difficulty was that the names of the villages were
changed during the Communist era. Communists also broke the steeples
off of village churches - some of them very ornate - further fraying
the architectural history. Some villages, despite extraordinary
poverty, have restored the steeples.
Boardman said it was a social peculiarity of the Germans from
Russia settlements that the church was the center of the society.
When Russia was courting farmers to develop the land in the 18th
century under Catherine the Great, she did not care if the settlers
were Protestants or Catholic, she just didn't want any of the religious
wars that had plagued Germany for centuries. Villages were established
according to religion - Protestant, Catholic, Hutterite, even Jewish,
though records of Jewish villages have only recently begun surfacing.
And life was so harsh that people's focus was on survival - clearing
and tending the land and growing a crop and little more. But where
with most American homesteaders, the first social structures tended
to be schools that might house the church until one could be built,
German settlers in Russia would build the church and later work
on schools. "Every village had its church parked right in the middle,"
She described Alexanderhilf from recent photos as a rundown little
town, but in its heyday, she said, it had a strong Lutheran church
and a strong musical tradition. "For the coronation of one of the
czars, they brought the musical singing group there to sing at the
The work so far has given the researchers a rich cultural and social
history that highlights how small a world it is. "Since the core
of people was very small in south Russia, a lot of people are related,"
she said. "(Those interested) can trace and, if they plug away at
it and look at their various sources, they can find it."
"It was fundamentally a very small core of people - maybe a couple
hundred thousand at most - who moved from Germany into Russia,"
she added. "And as we get to know each other better, we find that
we have deep cultural links."
For example, she said, "Studies have been done on dialects, and
(ours is) a German dialect. And it's a very practical turn of mind.
No royalty, none of that futzing around with royalty and titles
- it just didn't happen. We're producers of food and what people
need. And when our kids go to college they almost always go into
practical things - they don't even have to be told."
In America, Germans from Russia groups focus around two cultural
organizations - the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, based
in Bismarck, and the American Historical Society of Germans from
Russia, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. That group is largely made
up of descendants of the earliest German settlers to Russia, who
settled near the Volga River. Subsequent waves settled nearer to
the Black Sea - the Black Sea Group - and this group's descendants
make up the Bismarck group.
Boardman said the two groups have decided to divide the genealogy
and family history geographically rather than by religion, because
the faith traditions of the various villages were not as cut-and-dried
as where they were located on the map. There were end-of-the world
groups worshipping among mainstream protestants and Catholics, and
village centers tended to just have the one church. And dividing
the work like this makes it easier to avoid duplicating work in
researching and following up one family or another.
Reprinted with permission of Minot Daily News.