The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe,
Children of the Prairie
Interview with Ron Vossler
Click here for German
The documentary film, The Germans from Russia: Children of
the Steppe, Children of the Prairie, tells the story of one
of America's most distinctive and enduring ethnic groups. Ron Vossler,
the film's scriptwriter, traces his own ancestry to German Russians
who claimed homesteads a century ago near Wishek, North Dakota,
where he grew up.
Educated at Arizona State University, he has held various jobs,
including farm laborer, archaeological fieldworker, small magazine
editor, and high school teacher in Lahore, Pakistan. Currently a
free-lance writer, and Senior Lecturer at the University of North
Dakota he is the recipient of various awards, such as the North
Dakota Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, and more
recently, the Larry Remele Fellowship from the North Dakota Humanities.
His publications include essays, book reviews, memoirs, and a
collection of short stories. Most recently his short story "Frieda
the Trowel Queen and the Lost Jehus of Gnadenthal County" appeared
in Forkroads: A Journal of Ethnic American Literature; and
two poems about travel in Ukraine and Russia were published in Journal
of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. He
is currently translating Stalin era famine letters, for a collection
entitled "The Crucifixion by Hunger of the Black Sea Germans."
Here are some of his responses to the questions about The Germans
Q. What do you feel is the theme of this film?
A. The prevailing theme of the documentary is, I think, the complexity
of both the history and the character of the Germans from Russia
ethnic group. It became apparent as I researched and wrote the script
that there was no simple answer to who these people were. There
seemed too much to say.
The easiest way to show this complexity, or the theme, was to
compose a series of paired contradictions which is how the documentary
begins: a practical people, who sought eternity; a people rooted
to the land, who were also wanders; progressive, yet traditional;
who wanted to forget, yet always remembered.
Q. How has your German-Russian background affected your work
on the documentary?
My background growing up in Wishek, North Dakota, which is the
heart of Germans from Russia country helped me considerably in writing
the script. I knew the history from the inside out, growing up hearing
German spoken by grandparents, ect. I knew, or felt I knew, what
typical German Russian attitudes, sounds, and behaviors were. I
knew and had heard some of the stories included in the documentary.
I saw firsthand from my grandparents and parents the urge to simultaneously
forget their own history, yet still adhere to fixed views of the
But that familiarity with German Russian life also presented a
few problems. During interviews I didn't always feel comfortable
asking people to tell their stories, or asking them questions about
their lives and attitudes. I still carried, I realized, some reluctance
to probe into people's lives, and I sometimes felt intrusive for
that went against what I'd been taught, to not talk directly about
the past, to let the dead alone."
My German Russian background also at times made it very difficult
to read and research on certain aspects of the documentary. So much
of the documentary had a personal component to it. After all, the
story I was telling was that of my direct ancestors, my grandparents,
my great grandparents. I felt compelled to try to get it right,
When I found and began to translate famine letters -- most of
those in the documentary were written to my relatives in America,
to my great grandmother, or my great uncle, or to my grandfather's
sister-in-law -- I felt deeply moved, and emotional. It was hard
to draw back and be objective to use language that was clear and
not emotional loaded, when I wrote things like "at its height in
the spring of 1933, one person died every three seconds..."
Q. What do you think viewers will take away from this documentary?
A. I think that viewers will begin to understand the rich drama
of this ethnic history. I think viewers will also see how distinctive
and enduring the Germans from Russia are. I think viewers will see
how the Germans from Russia were marked by the two great frontiers
they tamed, the steppes and the prairie, and how those frontiers
live on in the descendants of this ethnic group.
Q. What did you take away from your work on the film?
A. In doing all the research and writing and travel associated
with making this documentary, I felt like I'd finally come home
again, that I'd been true to my own background, to those who'd come
before me; that in some small sense I'd reshaped some of the suffering
of "unsera "Leute", the Germans from Russia, in an accurate, and
I hoped, at times, poetic account of an ethnic group whose history
had been long ignored by the general public.
I felt I was giving voice to a story which needed to be told,
that many wished would finally be told, like when my mother's 90-year-old
cousin, when we arrived to film her making strudels, took my face
in her hands and said, "Oh Ronnie, please don't let them forget
about us Germans here on the prairie..."