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In Many Ways, German Women Were the Glue

Tobin, Paulette. "In Many Ways, German Women Were the Glue." Grand Forks Herald, 22 August 1999.


"Our aunt has kept us all networked. We can get together when we haven't seen each other for years and pick up the conversation where we left it because our aunt has been sharing information."

Sally Roesch Wagner,
talking about her Aunt Annie

When Sally Roesch Wagner was growing up it used to drive her crazy when her Aunt Annie would tell her the latest news about some far-flung family member who Sally barely knew.

Today, with the perspective of years and a greater understanding of her ethnic roots and the role of women, Wagner can appreciate what her aunt was trying to share.

"I thought she was troubling me with all this useless information, but she was giving me the most important information about who I am," she said.

Wagner, who has written about her German-Russian grandmother as part of her six-volume "Daughters of Dakota" book series, may have taken the long way around to understand her own ethnic background.

The author of "Indian Roots of American Democracy" and "Iroquois Women: An Anthology," Wagner said studying the important roles of Native American women helped her understand the responsibility German women had in keeping their culture alive.

In Native society it was women who made sure everyone knew to whom they were related because that knowledge told them who they were. Wagner said she saw the same thing in her own family, and after a visit with the Onondaga Indians of New York she made the following confession to her aunt: "Annie, I thought you were a pain in the butt, but now I realize you were a clan mother."

Wagner, a research affiliate of the Women's Resources and Research Center at the University of California-Davis, grew up in Aberdeen, S.D.

In addition to writing, she tours the country as a lecturer and historical performer. Her German grandparents, Frederick and Rosina Treftz Roesch, came to the Roscoe, S.D., area in 1898 from Glueckstal, Russia. Of Frederick and Rosina's 14 children, just one daughter, Anne Larson of Aberdeen -- Aunt Annie survives.

The Germans from Russia put a lot of stock in family connections, said Wagner, who remembered that her father would always ask about her boyfriends: "But who are his people?"

Her father, Aberdeen banker Fred Roesch, had vouched for more than one family during the Depression to keep them from losing their farms. Often he based his judgements on his knowledge of his customers' families.

He would go to the bank and say, "I know these people. I know who they are and I know they will pay as soon as they can", "and he was right," Wagner said.

Wagner spoke earlier this summer to the national convention of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Aberdeen about the character of German women. As in other cultures, she said, the importance of what those women did sometimes was lost.

"Women's work is invisible work. It is not recognized always because it is just what women do," she said.

We may remember or have heard stories of our German grandmothers sitting in their rocking chairs and crocheting, Wagner said. But examine this idyllic scene a little more closely and you would see that Grandma also had dinner in the oven, dough rising for bread baking and wash on the line, and was instructing her children, saying her prayers and doing the mending, all at the same time.

German women kept their language alive during the World Wars when the government made it illegal to speak German. They were resistors, Wagner said, of new ways that compromised their traditions and beliefs. They were thrifty, never throwing anything away, and ingenious in ways of making the best with the little they had.

Even when times were bad and resources were limited, women brought beauty and art into their homes. They were the ones who planted the flowers along with their vegetable gardens and pieced the quilt blocks they cut from their family's discarded clothing. Sometimes when you looked at those quilts you could recognize your old dresses and suits and remember the things that had happened when you had worn them, she said.

"You could sleep under your history. What an extra expression of beauty in everyday life," Wagner said.

German women kept their religious faith in ways great and small. They kept their heads covered in church in the traditional way long after their daughters and granddaughters had abandoned the practice. They kept alive the stories of life in Russia and of important family events. They took care of their family's health. And, like Wagner's Aunt Annie, they kept their family members connected.

"Our aunt has kept us all networked," she said. "We can get together when we haven't seen each other for years and pick up the conversation where we left it because our aunt has been sharing information."

Wagner said it may also be time to rethink the view of the traditional German family, with its stern, autocratic father and his submissive wife. Wagner recalls in her own family that it was her grandmother who put the kibosh on her husband's plan to move from South Dakota to Texas by flat-out refusing to go.

Another woman at Wagner's lecture in Aberdeen told of an aunt who described her role in the family this way: "My husband is the head of the house but I am the neck that turns the head."

Reprinted with permission from the Grand Forks Herald.

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