To Russia, From N.D. With Love...
Lind, Bob. "To Russia, From N.D. With Love..." Forum, 14 February 1993.
A man living deep in what used to be the Soviet Union eagerly read
the letter from the United States, and he cried.
Mathaus Gunthner (lower right) and
For the first time, contact had been made between two relatives
who for years hadn’t known each other existed.
These two are distant relatives both geographically and genealogically.
Mathaus Gunthner is a former teacher who is struggling to survive
in his country’s ruined economy in a city east of Moscow.
Sherrie Guenthner does child care in her home in Hazen, N.D., and
Mathaus’ grandfather was a brother of Sherrie’s great-grandfather.
Started with Miller
An article in a newspaper led to their being in touch. It told
of Mike Miller, the bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage
Collection at the North Dakota State University library in Fargo,
receiving letters from people in Russia seeking family members in
the United States.
"I saw the Gunthner name and I figured he had to be a relative,"
So she wrote to Mathaus. "He was in total heaven when he
got my letter," she says. "He said we definitely were
related. He said he cried and cried to hear from his relative."
More letters followed. His, in German, were translated for Sherrie
by her mother. Hers, in English, were translated into German before
they were mailed by two women of German descent in Hazen.
Hard times near Moscow
Mathaus’ letters told of a grim life.
Mathaus, now 77, and his wife, 69, live in a city of 500,000 people.
Food is in short supply. Occasionally they can buy meat. Fruit and
vegetables, when they’re available, are expensive. About the
only food that’s plentiful is sauerkraut and Mathaus says
they’re getting tired of it.
He has stood in a line from 4 a.m. until 4 p.m. to get food supplies
sent from the United States. The lines are "like a snake,"
he says, winding long distances.
They can buy used clothing, but new clothing is not available.
If anybody has any possessions at all, they’re likely to
Mathaus says the city is contaminated by radioactivity, but he
hasn’t explained why.
He has a telephone, but it’s expensive and the rate continually
climbs, so he may have to discontinue it.
Mathaus and his wife, who are Lutherans, meet with other Lutherans
in homes. They have no church building. Lay people lead the groups.
As a former teacher, he receives a pension, but it’s not
much. People who are working are doing better financially. He’d
like to come to the United States, but he can’t afford it.
He can get no help from his son, who is a doctor, or his daughter,
who is an engineer, because they receive little pay.
Some Germans are going back to Germany. But Germany doesn’t
want them. They’re considered "Russian pigs,"
a backlash from World War II. But these Germans don’t consider
themselves Russian, either. Mathaus writes that "We are like
the children of Isreal, with no home."
"We exist," Mathaus wrote, "but we don’t
really live. (You should) thank God for your daily bread and be
Mail often opened
Sherrie had been warned that sending packages to the Commonwealth
of Independent States, as the former Soviet Union is now known,
is risky. A woman said her package was delivered all right, but
the contents had been stolen and had been replaced with rocks.
Sherrie took a chance, however. She sent a package to Mathaus last
November. It included Spam, oatmeal, brownies, snack crackers, dried
apricots and dried beans. To date, Mathaus apparently has not received
In fact, he wrote and asked why he hadn’t heard from Sherrie
for some time. But Sherrie had written; her letters apparently aren’t
getting through right now, either.
Sherrie’s great-grandfather came to the United States 100
years ago this year. But there’s no record of communication
between his family here and those left behind from the early 1900s
displays two of the cards
she received from a
relative in the former
Sherrie is deeply moved by Mathaus’ latters. Here are excerpts:
"We are happy that we have so many relatives in North Dakota.
Many evenings we sit together and look at your pictures. We love
"We would love to see you. We would have so much to talk
about. Too bad that we did not find you in such a long time. It
took us over 50 years."
"You are very lucky your great-grandfather came to America
or else you would be slaves like we are."
Miller will assist your search, too
Michael Miller hopes to unite other families with their relatives
in the former Soviet Union.
Miller is one of those responsible for the German-Russian collection
at the North Dakota State University Library. An article about the
collection in a German language newspaper prompted several Germans
living in Russia to write him seeking relatives in the United States.
Miller says those wishing help in finding relatives in Russia
should write to him with as much specific information about them
as possible including the village where the relatives lived.
He’s also interested in contacting people who were corresponding
with relatives in Russia during the 1930s and 1940s as letters from
them will aid in documenting what happened to the German-Russians
who stayed in the Soviet Union.
Miller is seeking funds to allow him to visit Russia to produce
a television documentary about families with relatives in North
Dakota. His own grandparents lived in the Black Sea German colonies
in the Ukraine.
Reprinted with permission of the Forum.