From Karlsruhe, About Karlsruhe, After Karlsruhe
Von Karlsruhe, Über Karlsruhe, Nach Karlsruhe
Längin, Bernd G. "From Karlsruhe, About Karlsruhe, After Karlsruhe." Globus Spezial,
Translation from German to English by Alma M. Herman, Fargo,
An anecdote from a Russian German village on the North American
“A Russian German, one of our homesteaders, had a boil on
his behind,” said Sheriff Wald with an amused smile. “So
what does he do? He goes to a department store in Minot. Naturally,
he knows no English; and so he doesn’t know what to call a
pillow in English. Yet, he desperately needs a pillow to sit on.
He goes to a saleslady and asks for a ‘kissje’. She
feels flattered and obligingly points to her lips. “No, no,”
says the fellow, and points to his behind...you should have seen
how quickly he flew out of that department store.”
Sheriff Wald is very surely met in Karlsruhe, North Dakota.
At Highway No. 14, the numbered unknown between Towner and Balfour,
two metal signs, saying next to nothing, at least point in the right
direction. A field track, that only by chance meets the pavement,
cuts nine miles through the prairie land. It is the only measuring
guide for the eye. Nine miles to Karlsruhe in North Dakota; nine
miles that in early winter lie gray-green, like moldy milk.
Ranch next to ranch; farm upon farm, snow and clinking frost have
long since covered corn and wheat fields, and buffalo grass with
an ice blanket. And in between only the narrow dirt road, smooth
as a half-licked bon-bon. However most motorists let Karlsruhe lie
to the left, drive around it like a merry-go-round. Since those
days when the pioneer spirit was still a sign of the times, the
place has fallen more and more into oblivion.
Here, for the Dakota-American are only Levis and no Lederhasen
(leather pants); the next Oktoberfest will be celebrated in Minot,
forty miles farther away. Karlsruhe belongs to the Karlsruhers and
the farming circle with a radius of seven miles; to those who send
their children to school there. Exactly so did the early settlers
in this area want it.
The distant parts, here still more distant and impersonal, was
the end of their rainbow after 200 years of wandering. It reminded
them of the monotony of the Russian steppe, and that in isolation
one is the surest that he can remain German.
In 1874, twelve years after the battle over Neu-Ulm, Protestants
and Catholic scouts of the Russian Germans advanced to the North
American prairies. This was an area that earlier pioneers and trappers
considered uninhabitable-in view of the deadly snow and flat plains.
What did one in Russia give up for this? How much was the worth
of the faith of a group of people that knew hard work in the final
analysis could overcome all obstacles...as high as the prairie after
a blizzard; as deadly as the rage of the Native Americans, as numerous
as the swarms of grasshoppers, and as destructive as the dry poisonous
breath of the hot summers.
From the first road sign on the Highway No. 14, it is just a few
minutes to the second indication of the existence of Karlsruhe in
McHenry County in North Dakota. Here is a fork in the road; here
the prairie flourishes. The sign post is found only by him who looks
for it in the street dust. It sticks to the ground seemingly over-grown
by it. The first letters on the signboard have been erased by time,
rust, with only ruhe (rest) is clear to read. The road sign shows
no more direction, tells no distance, as if it had become meaningless.
For the Russian Germans who on the other side of the globe were
pioneers once before; who had culture shock behind them; and a long
wondering road with elements of the Odyssey (Epic poem by Homer
recounting the wonderings of Odysseus), distances have never played
a large role.
Freedom from military service for all time, 30 deszatine of land,
freedom in religious and educational fields, freedom from taxation
for a defiant period; all promised by Katherine II by the grace
of God. “Empress and ruler in command of all Russians at Moscow,
given at Peterhof in the year 1763,” had enticed them to go
east. In Russia, one remained German, settled according to religious
point of view-Mennonites together, Catholics and Lutherans for themselves,
occasionally separate in villages as Schwaben, Badener, Pfälzer
or Elsässer; maintained speech and customs which in the old
Heimat (homeland) were overtaken by the time and technology until
Russification made strangers of them.
In about 1873 around 300,000 German Russians again chose the road
of emigration. Most of them tried it in North America, a land they
did not know, whose language was strange to them.
The attempt to organize village life, like in Russia, in Canada
and the USA succeeded only in the frontier days. The attempt to
live peacefully together with one’s neighbors largely failed,
far in the following years “Russia” stood for Communism,
“Germany” for the Imperial Crown and National Socialism.
American patriots questioned the build up of the Ku-Klux-Klan. But
the Russian Germans obviously gave America more than any immigrant
group; with the introduction of winter wheat (Turkey Red) they made
the prairie into the grain granary of the world.
From the fork in the road it is only about two miles to the center
of Karlsruhe; two miles through flat farmland and stunted bushes
to the main street that divides the strictly laid out Karlsruhe
into two halves. The visit to the settlement begin yet ends with
sorrow: neatly fenced in, beyond the entrance, lies the cemetery
of St. Peter and Paul, last resting places for the Böhmes,
Leiers, Kleins, Schieles, Schwans, Lauingers, Eberles, Schwabs,
Schneiders, Gutenbergs, Böchlers, Kellers, Zieglers, Walters
or Basserts. At the back, about half a mile into prairie, life goes
The Karlsruhers in winter at 40 below Celsius freeze their ears
off. In summer, the flies plague—half a mile—in the
spring the wind penetrates. In harvest time when twilight descends
on afternoon coffee time, the increasing frost indicates to the
visitor how wrong it is for him to be in that place. Here Karlsruhe
documents something like its peculiarity, a logical American compromise
over which the world that once stood for Godfather of the place,
might smile. The area is prairie provincial; never had much in common
with its origin in German lands and so it doesn’t admit any
objective, separate explanation. She (Karlsruhe), like so many of
the small villages in large America, forces description impotence.
The so-called future of the settlement is also quickly treated.
Among the Dakota villagers, Karlsruhe, that never had more than
200 residents, can hardly speak about itself. One might even say
that Karlsruhe is nothing more than a former pioneer village like
all the others although the “megaphone” of the place,
Mayor Nikodemus (Nick) Bossert claims it is meanwhile a town. A
town to be sure from which one must assume that it in the not too
distant future will be a ghost town. The children and grandchildren
of the immigrant generation that built Karlsruhe have overnight
accepted the worth measuring staff of the North America, shaken
off its origin and early youth with the third generation, at the
latest, in order to put on the thin varnish of adaptation, the basic
terms of acknowledgement and result of the American life standard.
Karlsruhe has become a village of the old, apart from rain and
school affairs for the surrounding farmers—not too much more
than a word in the book of the German emigration, without point
and counterpoint. It is an airy built-up place established in hurried
pioneer fashion with little grass plots as extras. There are a pair
of squarely arranged buildings on a maximum of space (not like singles
of European style), nine short streets, among them the Odessa, the
Moskau, the Karl and the Lenastranze. There are a couple of trees,
a church, a gas station, a bar, a post office, and finally a train
station with the charm of a rusty grater where trains go by. The
place is a mixture of reminders of Germany and Russia; of low and
high German speech splinters; dusty streets, longing and hope, motor
oil and the evidence of village trouble-makers, a few fat women
and muscular men, of boundless distances and unlimited hospitality.
It is the autumn scent of an old generation, where sons want something
better than their fathers had.
Karlsruhe in North Dakota is yet always still the Badenish and
Schwabianish idiom. A “Stuttgartulm-freiburgmannheim”
where one feels at home. Too much has here in the passing years
fallen through the wide meshes in the sieve of history to be patterned
after. Whoever wanted to conquer the prairie of the American north
in 15-hour days, of whom bare survival demanded gigantic effort,
had to have a one-time ready culture fall-out of the gap in his
But the language of their fathers and forefathers has been presented
by the old Karlsruhers in amazingly genuine ways. With only ten
of the 170 residents, can Mayor Bossert, in his German with a universal
French-Schwabian accent, not converse anymore.
Bossert: “Auf unser Versammlungen schwaetze Mr. Deitsch.”
(In out meetings, we speak German.) Sheriff Kasimer Wald, of Baden
family tradition: “Mir sin Deitsche aus Karlsruhe” (We
are Germans from Karlsruhe). The past we have overcome in this place.
One is materially satisfied; is American. Besides, even more Germanisch;
uses the German language as advertising for his origin even if the
choice of words is not always expressed in Germanistic categories.
Their speech is for the Karlsruhers in North Dakota also a reality
in itself, a reality that cannot be proven in those things that
it describes, but by what it brings about. In any case, the old
ones, some of whom were born in Czarist Russia, Karlsruhe has made
Americans out of them in person and German in their hearts.
Mrs. Emanuel Böchler represents the American mail in Karlsruhe.
Besides that Frau Böcheler carries on something like family
research without being very successful at it. “Die deitsche
Sproach und die deitsche Kuech” (The German language and the
German Church ?) in her opinion still remind her of the origin of
the pioneers. The mail women believe her own ancestors located in
Lothringgen as Germans. The family of her husband had, for freedom’s
sake, left the Baden area and was said to have moved to one of the
southern Lustdorf Grosz order Klein Leibenthal, surrounding the
Ukrainian Odessa at the Black Sea. By way of Strasburg, North Dakota,
between 1870 and 1880 they arrived at the place that since 1902
has been called Karlsruhe. Grandfather Philip Böchler together
with Michael Bohm, bought the site for an auction. Fifty dollars
was paid for it at the old church place. In those days that was
a large amount of money for the farmers to pay.
The second offer was from Sedan, but his advocates could not come
to an agreement with the Karlsruhers. Who received the money was
not disclosed. The Böhm family, like the family Klein, stemmed
originally from the area of Karlsruhe, Baden-Baden, and then toward
the end of the 18th century they settled in the Crimea, Krim.
It is regrettable that the place has found no room for its own
history and that biographical announcements were missing. Yet in
the pioneer era in Karlsruhe it was thought that a few dollars did
not make it into Sedan, but one entertains the idea of how the Indians
once freely ruled the Dakotas. Reportedly, it was proven that in
the area of Karlsruhe in the year 1868 in the last battle between
members of the Sioux tribe eight white men lost their lives on the
way from Fort Totten to Fort Stevenson. When Karlsruhe became Karlsruhe,
a good Indian was a dead Indian...and most of these native inhabitants
had become “good” Indians. Footprints of that time lead
closely past the place. Only an afternoon’s outing away from
Karlsruhe lies the famous war Cheiftan, the Hunk-papa-Sioux, Sitting
Nick Bossert, owner of a lumberyard and for 30 years mayor of Karlsruhe,
lives in a one-room frame house, washed out by the rain, that leans
on its wooden base. Nick and brother Mike, who runs an iron and
steel warehouse besides being treasurer of the town, is often quoted
in his “old wisdom”. After a few years in North Dakota
he tried to re-discover the particular history, but here also there
was a trivial answer to the question “Deutsch, Deutsches order
Deutschtum im Karlsruhe?” (German, Germans or Germanism in
Karlsruhe?) printed on the side of a pocket book. Historically one
just lives in a vacuum without time factors. Karlsruhe was obviously
God-chosen. Or better: the railway chose that “Great Northern”
should arrange to take on water here on the way to the western depots.
As a result, the area developed.
Contacts between Karlsruhe, North Dakota, and Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg
generally did not exist. For years a policeman of Karlsruhe-Ubersee
wrote to the local sheriff. Just recently a Karlsruhe newspaper
placed research notices. Here and there a few curious private persons
from Germany were interested in the Dakota village. But no one in
the place had time to answer the mail. No one felt competent. Finally
the similarity of names was considered co-incidental by the present
The German picture (image) of the Karlsruhers is basically realistic
even if vague and extremely lacking in information. The press and
broadcasters ignore the Federal Republic of Germany to a large degree.
But the German picture curves of American television are also received
on the prairie from stations that would rather show a Himmler than
a Genschev; rather show the manufacturer of a V-bomb than a Volkswagen.
So, sad to say, one knows the Germany between 1925 and 1945 better
than the Federal Republic of today. Yet always the present day Germans
are known as the reliable partners of the USA.
The Boserts regret, with a Badenish accent, that the research process
will not hold up in Karlsruhe. The Scandinavian immigrants in North
Dakota maintain that they will build the strongest ethnic group
in the state. This distinction is due to the Germans because every
second a Dakotan citizen is of German descent and it is mentioned
that in the village, because of his origin, the German is still
always the anvil; the environment, the hammer. Now, more than ever,
the ethnic northlanders in sports events like baseball and the national
scene environment, the Karlsruhers, when things get rough, will
continue to be insulted as “dumb schwabe,” “dumb
Badeners,” or “dumb Russians.” Yet we, in the
interim, did become Americans and have no complicated relationships
with our neighbors.
The German-speaking Karlsruhers who, in the last presidential election
voted convincingly for Regan, had earlier delivered a plastic model
for political behavior. Not by chance did the sons of this place
serve overseas in both World Wars; kneel before America and kiss
its flag as the law ordered. For its veterans who wore the U.S.
uniform, a separate grave row was arranged in the cemetery of St.
Peter and Paul with in-between miniature, fringed banners on the
stone-frozen earth mounds. During the second World Wars it happened
that a Karlsruher from Dakota for the first time came to Karlsruhe,
Baden, in uniform, serving under the of German-origin army General
Orvill A. Myhr is Superintendent of the Karlsruhe Public School,
from an early age, one-hundred thirty-seven children from the surrounding
area attended, from an early age on, classes in the modern school
building whose financial means are not sufficient to organize instruction
in German. Myhr’s ancestors came from Norway. He knows Frankfurt
and Munich, but Karlsruhe in Baden is unknown to him. Also for the
pupils, reference to the origin of the village, Karlsruhe in Germany
means not much more than a “hoopla experience.” They
will perceive as detrimental a nationalistic claim of emotional
or ideological barrier based on origin. They are the rear guard
of the German immigrants, but only the rear guard, that one cannot
compare with the front point.
In the village school, the organized assimilation of the immigrant
families was clearly felt. The pioneers came into the country speaking
the German language and in their status of newcomers, supported
the keeping of their mother tongue. Then a generation was switched
in between who mastered the speech of their parents and also of
America. The third generation has accepted primarily English and
holds fast to that one language.
It was not so much a pre-mediated transition that turned young
Karlsruhers of their “Dieschen Day” (German village-Sheriff
Wald) into Americans. The onset of the pendulum’s swing came
much more involuntarily and automatically an inevitable swing into
the rhythm of the new world. Between Europe and America no transplanting
took place. Here a new people originated and are still originating.
Karlsruhe is also Karlsruhe in North Dakota, a reminder of the origin
of the pioneers whose names slowly dissolved, but whose works remained—well
timed, sentimental, but superfluous.
For the Karlsruhers it also became increasingly more meaningless
as to who or what in America was German, yesterday and remained
so today; what let itself be identified with the wanderings of its
people: those identified with the gold rush Bavarian Levi Strauss
who invented jeans perhaps, or the teaching methods of the Württembergers
Berlitz, the Santa Claus symbol of Landaner’s Thomas Nast,
the Chrysler automobile from the House of German immigrants, the
German-American firms of Boeing, Firestone, Goodyear, Maytag, or
The eight U.S. presidents from Hoover (Huber) to Johnson, who had
German ancestors, even the movie starts from Clark Gable to Grace
Kelly, to “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmüller; an Antoine
Feuchwanger of Bayern who provided the first Hot Dog, the Hamburger
steak-the “Hamburger” was first brought to the American
market by a German immigrant. Neil Armstrong, whose ancestors came
from Westfalen was a part of the first moon landing of people, the
execution of German anarchists after the famous massacre at the
heumarket (hay market) in Chicago was a sign of the labor movement
in the whole world that set aside a Day of Labor on May first with
The Karlsruhe students in the year 1975 put the known history of
this place together in rough form in the official newspaper of McHenry
County (“Presse für die Mouseflusz Farmer”) The
Mouse River Farm Press. It is about the French researcher Verendrye,
the Sioux Indians and that time when the herds of buffalo grazed
their way through the gama grass of the later Dakotas.
According to the student reckoning, the Russian Germans Gottfried
Ackermann, Anton and Joseph Massene, and Siegfried Hausler were
the first settlers in this region. Then came the Böhms, the
Böchlers, Schieles and Kleins, to whom the new world offered
homesteads. After that the sod houses, the decisions concerning
place names, and the railroad. Then Karlsruhe as a unit overcame
the prairie and developed like the neighboring places—Voltaire,
Norwich or Drake.
From here on, the detail of the chronicle is missing. Local German
speech newspapers like “Dakota Rundschau,” (Panorama)
“Der Deutsche Farmer” (The German Farmer) or “Der
Landmann,” (The Countryman) three titles, from time to time
200 German publications in the USA have long since been discontinued.
Chronicles like the Dakota journalist Warner have disappeared from
the scene forever.
Walter School, at that time, union President in Boston, once said,
“The International interweavings built an extremely complicated
mechanism. And they, the Germans abroad, are, as far as our land
is concerned, the oil in its functions. The attempt in Dakota; that
typical emigration land for Russian Germans who designate themselves
as Schwabian, Badeners, and Pfälzers by the way of their origin,
to look for that oil must, like each attempt, finally end.
German cultures and traditions were a little like yeast in the
fermentation process of the state. A people which has migrated from
one place to another, brings its ideas, its skills and knowledge
along. The shortest truth, never the less, here today is called
America. All else has been swallowed by the dark-room of the story.
The dialogue between the Dakota village Karlsruhe and Karlsruhe
in Germany ends with the epilog of sorrow at the cemetery of St.
Peter and Paul where the trail of the German pioneers ended. The
relatives of the earlier generation of the immigrants that lie buried
here were doubtless bound by the chains of their own time. Indeed,
they made use of the natural scientific thinking methods and had
the tools that were used to produce a moderate well being. But one
still felt their unchangeable lifestyle, their irrational discomfort
over their belief that they could not live up to standards unquestionably
accepted in this land.
The new generation of Karlsruhe is different. They are not dull
and faded. To this extent; as it was Americanized, all national
differences disappeared. “German-American” became for
them a base show that could no longer conform to reality. It let
itself no longer be touched by their German names – without
a tabu – from Germany, Russia, or their story.
The German pioneer lies in his grave at St. Peter and Paul. Over
his bones burns the new world, roar the exhaust pipes, and Düsen
jest paint vapor lines against the sky. And only he who looks back
might still see him as he stands fast frozen by winter, the weather-beaten
face with prominent cheekbones turned away from the icy wind, suspicion
in his eyes. Thus can one imagine him; how he sees the new world
with a feeling of curiosity, but also with the knowledge of being
at the place without fault, and presumably he is scolding himself.
But youth hears him no more. It has turned its back to him and calls
with outreached arms: “We are Americans, Americans from Karlsruhe!”
Our appreciation is extended to Alma M. Herman for translation of this article.