Vossler discusses Germans from Russia
By Verda Seeklander
Emmons County Record, Linton, North Dakota, March 30, 1999,
Complex. Insulting. Hard-edged. Often vulgar-that's
Prairie "Spass": the folk humor of North Dakota's Germans from Russia.
Ron Vossler, a senior lecturer in the English Department
at the University of North Dakota, said the stereotype exists that
Germans from Russia, GFR, known for their work ethic, are generally
humorless, But he was prompted to look for another side to these
people that he called his own after translating the letters of relatives
in Russia who wrote to relatives in North Dakota, begging for help
during Stalin's "terror famine" of 1933.
Last week the Wishek native told a large audience
in his hometown about some of the discoveries he has made since
his research began nearly 30 years ago when he began jotting down
jokes and sayings that he recalled hearing as a child from his mother,
grandmother and others. Some of what he discovered was familiar;
some was thought-provoking.
Recently Vossler applied for and received the Larry
Remele Memorial Fellowship, making it possible to more thoroughly
research Germans from Russia humor. His presentations are made possible
through the North Dakota Humanities Council.
Very little of the earthy German-Russian humor has
been recorded. As the language disappears from households, understanding
of the "Spass," which is shot through with words of more than one
meaning, also disappears.
When Vossler told his colleagues at UND that he was
studying German-Russian humor, their response was usually in the
form of a jest. "That shouldn't take long" was their usual reply.
And although he was "a little offended" he wondered if perhaps they
were right. He didn't remember laughing a lot while he was growing
German-Russian humor, often interspersed with English,
is not often appreciated by someone who does not understand the
dialect since much is lost in the translation.
Vossler compared German-Russian humor to Jewish humor.
The humor that has survived is meaningful; often harsh humor that
reflects the historical journey of both groups and indicates that
their lives have not been easy.
In 1897 there were 300 babies in McIntosh County
alone who died from diphtheria. As a result many times people didn't
draw close to their children because of their fear of losing them.
This humor is related to the overall history of this ethnic group,
and sometimes reflects that historical journey. "Sometimes people
misinterpret the harshness of the humor, I know I did." Vossler
said sometimes the humor itself, the name-calling, was the one way
people could try to draw close to each other.
They liked to have fun with jokes that had hidden
or two-fold meanings. Scholars call some of these jokes "ritual
insults"; either humorous, sarcastic or sexual in nature, these
"insults" were a way for people to let out their anger in a socially
German Russian humor loses its power in translation.
For example, Vossler has used the expression "You always give the
meanest dog two pieces of meat," if someone becomes a bit aggressive
at a meeting.
"I'll think that's kind of funny," he said, "but
people just kind of stare at me."
Or Vossler will comment to someone who thinks they
know everything--"Well, yah, you're educated up to your horns."
The audience snickered knowingly as he said, "I always
think that's kind of funny but people not of German-Russian background
don't get it."
The word "Umgangsprache," a form of the German-Russian
dialect, sounds like an exotic food akin to koladertz (pickled pigs
feet) or schwatamaga (head cheese). Linguists use this term to describe
language in which neutral terms can be replaced with emotionally
As an example, Vossler said that if he tracked mud
onto his grandmother's clean linoleum floor, instead of asking him
to go outside to wipe his boots, she would correct him with what
he called "cranky humor"--"Yat, du glana Hossachissa, ich sot dich
aus dem Haus ins Schneebank schmissa"--"You little pants pooper,
I should throw you out of the house and into the snow bank."
The hard-edged brevity is typical of German Russian
humor. In this case "Schmissa" (throw) is an emotional exaggeration
that illustrated the fun in German-Russian humor. Instead of saying
"little boy," Grandma used the term Hossachissa as a term of endearment.
He attributes the often hard-edged, often vulgar
humor, which he called "dung" humor, to the fact that Germans from
Russia lived mostly in rural areas where they raised, bred and cared
for various types of animals.
Name calling such as "gross gosch" (big mouth) and
"stink katz" (skunk), depending on tone and circumstances, were
used as terms of endearment, for teasing, or applied to someone
caught in some mischief. A tough-minded housewife might be called
a `haus dracha' (house dragon). An agronomist might be called a
"mischt gavel student" - a student of manure forks.
Vossler said praise and compliments were seldom used
because German-Russians believed if you said positive things it
would invite disaster or bad luck as well as lead to the sin of
pride. And so the often harsh humor was one way to connect with
German humor even found its way onto the basketball
floor. Vossler recalls the 1966 McIntosh County basketball tournaments
and a close, heated game between rivals Wishek and Ashley. Vossler
was in the process of attempting a free throw when the Ashley cheerleading
section bellowed out "Blutwurst, leverwurst, schwatamaga, speck,
(Bloodsausage, liver sausage, headcheese, fat), Wishek Hochschule,
wek, wek, wek. (Wishek High School, go away, go away, go away)."
Fans of both teams were amused by the cheer which
Vossler said was not only an attempt to disturb his concentration
but probably also betrayed the younger generation's feelings about
those particular ethnic foods.
German-Russian jokes aims at other ethnic groups
and at German-Russians of different religions, and Vossler gave
examples. He said some scholars think it's a bad thing to laugh
at those types of stories while other scholars say, "It's fun; it
serves a purpose, to bring stereotypes and prejudices into the open,
and it's not a display of hostility."
Vossler said: "It's better for people to laugh together,
so they do let go of these prejudices."
Reprinted with permission of Emmons County
Record, Linton, North Dakota.