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Volga Germans Prospered Locally

Connell, Mike. "Volga Germans Prospered Locally." Times Herald, 15 November 2009.


LIVING MEMORY: Dorothy Albert, 100, came to Port Huron from Russia with her parents at age 3 but considers herself a German immigrant. She holds a picture of her family. (By MARK R. RUMMEL, Times Herald)

At age 100, Dorothy Albert still enjoys sharing tales of her childhood in the Germantown section of Port Huron.

"It was a nice neighborhood," she said from a sun-splashed sitting room at Sanborn Gratiot Memorial Home. "It wasn't rough or anything."

Not many people remember Germantown,
once the nickname for the area bordered by 10th Street, Lapeer Avenue, 17th Street and Water Street.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the neighborhood filled with immigrants, many of whom spoke German.

In a twist, virtually none of them came from Germany. They were Volga Germans from Russia.

"I was born in Russia, but I'm no Russian," Albert said, a sweet smile turning steely and stern. "We talked German at home. I can still speak and read German."

Port Huron's phone book is sprinkled with Volga German family names: Albert, Eifert, Emerick, Falk, Felk, Laber, Langolf, Meinhardt, Michel, Miller, Pickelhaupt, Runk, Schmidt, Schneider, Schumann, Wasmuth and Wirtz among them.

Their story is told in a new book by Bill Pickelhaupt, 60, a Port Huron native and author of several historical works.

His latest -- "The Right Place at the Right Time: The Volga Germans of Michigan's Thumb" -- is being printed by Edwards Brothers of Ann Arbor. It sells for $34.95 and should be available in the next week or two.

In an interview, Pickelhaupt shared the often-tragic story of the Volga Germans.

It's a tale that began in the 1750s with the Seven
Years' War, a European conflict that spilled over into North America in the form of the French and Indian War.

Rival armies repeatedly marched across Germany, leaving much of the country in waste.

In 1763, Russia's German-born empress -- Catherine the Great -- invited Europeans to settle in the wide and fertile valley of the Volga. She spiced up her offer with free land, religious tolerance and exemptions from taxes and military service.

In return, Russia benefited from the development of a fertile but sparsely populated area. It also created a buffer between Moscow and the fierce nomads of what is now Kazakhstan.

About 30,000 Europeans accepted Catherine's offer, including about 25,000 from war-ravaged Germany. They prospered. An 1897 census counted 1.8 million Russians whose first language was German.

Over the years, conditions worsened for the German settlers.

Military exemptions were revoked. Pressure built on them to adopt Russian manners and speech. Interlopers coveted the German community's tidy, productive farms.

In 1907, a Volga German named Henry Emerick left his home village of Kind -- pronounced Kint -- and found his way to Michigan.

He encouraged others from his village to follow, and scores of them did.

Most local Volga German families trace their roots to Kind (known today as Baskakovka) and the nearby village of Winkelman (Sussanenthal). They're not far from Saratov, a major city on the Volga.

The new arrivals found work in the sugar beet fields of the Thumb.

"A century ago, the sugar beet industry in Michigan was going great guns," Pickelhaupt said. "The farmers loved Volga Germans. They worked hard, and they had big families, which meant lots of hands to work the fields."

His ancestors were among more than 100 immigrants from Kind who settled in Sanilac County, many of them in tiny McGregor near Deckerville.

Albert was 3 years old in 1913 when her family -- the Falks -- left Russia. She has no memory of the Volga or the three-week transcontinental journey.

She does know why her parents pulled up stakes.

In the face of growing hostility from native Russians, the extended Falk family sought safety in numbers.

"They all lived together, 35 people in one house," she said. "Mother told father, 'We're not staying here.'"

Her mother had a brother, Alexander Herber, already in Michigan. She persuaded her husband to make the move with their five children. The family would grow to 11 children.

"We lived in the beet shacks (of Sanilac County) in summer," Albert recalled. Except for the babies, everyone worked in the fields.

Her father found a job at Holmes Foundry, which made cylinder blocks for the Hudson Motor Car Co., and bought a home from Charlie Langolf on 17th Street. It's where she grew up.

Port Huron boomed between 1910 and 1920, a decade when its population surged by 38%. Manufacturing fueled growth in an era when boosters referred to Port Huron as "A City of Industry."

Albert's husband, David, worked for Mueller Brass, which had bought a struggling truck-maker's factory on Lapeer Avenue shortly before the United States entered the First World War.

Pickelhaupt said the title of his book -- "The Right Place at the Right Time" -- refers to the Volga Germans' arrival in 1912 and 1913.

"It was just before World War I and the industrialization of Port Huron," he said. "They found steady work in the factories."

They also found a well-established German community. At one time, Port Huron had competing German-language weekly newspapers --The Herold and Michigan Deutsche Zeitung.

Thriving communities of Volga Germans also emerged in Bay City, Flint, Saginaw and Thumb villages such as Akron and Sebewaing.

In 1917, the immigrants built St. Paul's Lutheran Church on the corner of Wells and 14th streets, part of a development known as the Volga Plat.

"The earlier pastors preached in German, and the congregation was divided with males seated on one side of the aisle and females on the opposite side," said Gloria Philp, whose parents were children when their families left Russia.

"By 1923, they had outgrown the original structure. It became the Sunday school, and an addition was added for church services."

In 1967, the congregation bought five acres on West Water Street. A new church opened there in 1974.

"They were such a proud, hard-working community," Philp said of Germantown's original residents.

The uncle who encouraged Albert's mother to move to Michigan apparently had second thoughts. After a few years in America, Alexander Herber returned to Russia.

His sister never heard from him again. The family believes he was a victim either of Stalin's purges or one of several famines that followed the Communist seizure of farms.

Pickelhaupt has several photographs of family members who remained in Russia.

"In the late 1920s, everybody looks healthy and happy," he said. "By the 1930s, they have a gaunt, haunted look. It's obvious they're starving."

Their situation grew worse with World War II and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Stalin feared the Volga Germans might cooperate with Hitler's forces. His answer was genocide.

His police rounded up the Germans and sent them to the gulags of Kazakhstan and Siberia. Thousands were executed. Tens of thousands died in labor camps. Man-made famine doomed thousands more.

"The majority of Russians today don't have any idea of the scale of Stalin's repression," said Rauf Gabidullin, a Russian human-rights activist.

He described life in the Arctic gulags as "terrible. The winter was extremely long. The conditions in the barracks were appalling."

Samuel D. Skinner, a Nebraska historian, studied archival records from the former Soviet Union. He estimates about 1 million Russian Germans died needlessly between 1915 and 1950. He tells the story in a book, "The Open Wound: The Genocide of German Ethnic Minorities."

Old wounds still fester.

Mikhail Suprun, 54, a respected Russian historian, was arrested in September while doing research on Stalin's ethnic cleansing of German-speaking Russians.

The professor is accused of "illegally gathering confidential information about an individual's private life" and "violating the rights and legal interests of citizens."

If he's found guilty, Suprun could face four years in prison.

Reprinted with permission of the Times Herald.

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