|The Helzers From Norka, Russia
Campbell, Ellen. "The Helzers From Norka, Russia." Grand Island Independent, 18 February 2005.
PAUL -- Among the multitudes of Germans emigrating to the United
States from Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were
John and Emma (Traudt) Helzer, who settled in Central Nebraska.
Today, Mamie Helzer Leth, 82, and her sister Frieda Helzer Oakeson,
84, are the last surviving children of Henry and Elizabeth Helzer.
Henry was the oldest child of John and Emma, both born in Norka, Russia.
|The children of John and
Emma Helzer were (front row, from left) Marie, Kate, Lena and
Henry, and (back row) Louie, John, Anna and Phillip. Henry was
the father of Mamie Leth and Frieda Oakeson. Courtesy Hezer
"They were all farmers," Mamie said of grandparents Henry
and Emma, "and life was rough for them. Grandma Helzer was
from a rich family and her parents didn't want her to marry our
grandfather because he had little money. Families had to live together,
two or three generations in one house."
Much of the family's history can be found in a Helzer-Trout family
book compiled by Phyllis Lorene Helzer Pressler of North Platte,
a cousin of Mamie and Frieda. Their early family story is similar
to that of other
Germans from Russia, which began with Russian Empress Catherine
the Great in the 1700s.
The village of Norka was established on Aug. 15, 1767, with 957
inhabitants, people who had left the German regions of Hesse-Darmstadt
and Hesse-Kassel the year before. It took the settlers a full year
to travel from Germany to the Russian frontier, first sailing from
the port of Lubeck to Kronstadt in Russia. After going overland
for 200 miles, they continued the difficult journey on rafts down
the Volga River, 1,100 miles to Saratov.
The last leg was by wagon over roadless expanses to village sites
on the Russian frontier.
When assigned to a village, it was extremely difficult to change
because the colonies were established on a commune basis, and land
was assigned according to the number of males in each family. Once
a village was established, newcomers were not welcome. So it is
reasonable to assume the Helzers were among the first settlers of
It is probable there were many family lines of Helzer (originally
spelled "Holzer") in Norka. When people in Germany first
adopted surnames, they often chose the name of a thing or place in
their vicinity, adding an "umlaut" to the vowel and an "er"
at the end. The German word "Holz" means woods, and likely
the families with the Holzer name were either woodcutters or lived
in the woods.
and Elizabeth (Bader) Helzer
A number of Helzer families eventually came to the Midwest. Most
of those who settled in Central Nebraska are related to one another
and can be traced back to another John Helzer, who was born in Norka
on March 12, 1842.
However, the direct ancestors of the family branch of Frieda Oakeson
and Mamie Leth were another John and his wife, Mary Emma Traudt
(Americanized to "Trout"), both raised in Norka. The village
was about the size of Central City, and was abolished by the Russians
in 1946, long after the Helzers immigrated to the U.S. in the spring
At that time they had two sons, Henry (father of Frieda Oakeson
and Mamie Leth) and Phillip. John's brother Louie, who had come
to America earlier, sent them tickets ($130) and acted as their
sponsor, a necessary part of immigration. Taking a freight boat
from Saratov, Russia, the family landed in New York three weeks
later, then took a seven-day train trip to Grand Island.
John's first job was as a section hand for the Burlington Railroad.
He was hired because he had a team of well-trained horses that would
work without lines. John gave them verbal orders of "gee"
and "haw." This job was in Edgemont, S.D., where their
son Louie was born.
Deciding to return to Nebraska, the family made the trip in a covered
wagon, which took about 30 days. They first located on a farm in
Hamilton County, then went to a farm on Hall County land that later
became part of the ordnance plant. They were renters on several
other farms before buying a farm near Cairo in 1906.
John had taught himself to read and write English, and became a
naturalized U.S. citizen in Grand Island on Sept. 11, 1906.
Henry, father of Frieda Oakeson and Mamie Leth, was born in Norka
and came to the United States with his parents at age 4. He married
Elizabeth Bader on March 8, 1910, and the couple had six children:
Emma, Albert, Walter, Martin, Frieda and Meta (called Mamie). Henry
and Elizabeth raised their family on a farm in Gage Valley, located
between St. Paul and Palmer.
In recalling family stories, Mamie's strongest impression was of
the hard life the Germans had in Russia.
Grandmother Emma worked as a hired girl before marrying. She remembered
the homes in Norka as being wooden, with papered walls and dirt
floors covered with white sand. Her five brothers all came to America
together, arriving on June 28, 1889. They embarked from Bremen,
Frieda recalled that the Henry Helzer family spoke German in the
home until the oldest sister, Emma, started school. Their church
services were also in German for many years.
"Emma didn't learn English until she went to school,"
Frieda said. "The other kids picked it up from her and also
from our parents who, at that point, began speaking English in our
home for the sake of their children. They had been told that in
the United States, they had to speak English."
Frieda and Mamie didn't see their grandparents much. In those early
days, it took awhile to get from rural Howard County to Grand Island,
so the entire family didn't make the trip very often.
The above story uses much information from the Helzer-Trout family
history book, which was compiled by Phyllis Lorene Helzer Pressler
of North Platte.
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent.