Arthur Flegel: Chronicler of the Long Trek
Kriessmann Willi. "Arthur Flegel: Chronicler of the Long Trek."New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, no. 19: 19, 13 March 2004.
Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder,
"...the broad horizon itself keep looking like a permanent
rise, carrying beyond it the promise and lure of paradise. But it
constantly continued to broaden, seemingly forever. At sundown the
steppe would be bathed in the hot glow of the most wonderful hues.
In the eastern part of the Nogaic Steppe around Melitopol, one encountered
toward the Northeast some beautiful villages with German names such
as Karlsruhe or Helenental. They lay amidst rich orchards. Houses
built of tough stone evidenced former prosperity. Their owners had
kept up their German language, expressed via dialects from Hesse,
Schwabia, the Palatinate and Alsace.
However, only the old men, the women, and children had been
left behind. The other men had long been dragged off by the Soviets..."
That is how Erich von Manstein, Field Marshall and one of the best
strategists of World War II, reports in his book "Verlorene
Siege [Lost Victories]" as he was leading his army through
the expanses of the steppes of South Russia. More than half a century
later, I am sitting across from Arthur Flegel in his home in Menlo
Park in Northern California. Surrounded by yellowing books, atlases,
video cassettes and an Apple computer, I am taking in a kind of
saga that fascinates in its overwhelming and incredible scope.
"The Long Trek" is the title Flegel has given to his
chronicle that follows his clan over a span of three hundred years,
from the heart of Europe into the formerly Russian Bessarabia, from
there into the expanses near the Volga and the Kuban rivers, to
the shores of the Caspian Sea in Iran, to the pampas of Argentina
and, finally, to Western America: Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado
After spending decades in painstaking research, Arthur has composed
his family history that, in its encompassing scope, can serve equally
well as a report on the fate of millions for that ethnic group called
German-Russians. He came into this world in 1917 in Bentley, North
Dakota. In very early childhood, at only two and one half years
of age, he found himself in Greeley, Colorado. From there he moved,
in 1927, to Kansas; until the death of his father in 1929, to reestablish
himself in Greeley again, mainly to be of help to his mother.
His family was blessed with many children; Arthur was the ninth
among ten. They spoke a German dialect tinged heavily with Schwabian
undertones, occasionally mixed with a few Russian-language terms.
He kept hearing curious place names such as Kulm and Leipzig, Rohrbach,
Lilienfeld and Kronental, Markorovka, Stavropol and Armavir.
His father Johann sometimes spoke: how at the age of 11, he had
made the long strenuous trek from Kulm in Bessarabia to Greater
Masokovo in the Northern Caucasus; and how at age 18 in 1890, he
had been recruited into the Czarist Army; and how after serving
seven years, he had returned to Masokovo.
That same year he [Johann] married Juliane Pflugradt from Lilienfeld
on the Kuban River. Only two years later, they undertook the long
journey from the River Kuban to Kulm/ND/USA. They crossed the River
Don at Rostov, reaching the Black Sea near Odessa, where their wagons
rolled through southern Europe across Hungary and eventually to
the harbor city of Bremen in the German Kaiser's Empire. After a
strenuous Atlantic passage they were, shortly before Christmas in
1899, finally able to hug their relatives of the Pflugradt and Beierle
clans - in Kulm, North Dakota.
Arthur always listened attentively with great care. Even in early
youth, he was no stranger to books and writing. His mother read
to him, usually in the evenings, after he had returned home from
working in the fields. Flegel's eyes beamed with pride, when he
told me that he still remembers the difficult sugar beet harvests
that contributed heavily to the livelihood of the Flegel family.
His bright mind soon took him from the furrows in the agriculture,
to higher academic education, and finally to the lofty environs
of the JC Penney store in Greeley.
Arthur's family expanded upon the births of three sons, Robert,
Mark and John. The urge to become self-sufficient culminated in
a family partnership comprising a furniture store in San Mateo,
California. In 1954 he opened "Flegel's Homefurnishing"
in Menlo Park.
Arthur Flegel dedicated his entire and strenuous efforts toward
expanding his enterprise, which eventually would attain a very fine
reputation in the San Francisco Bay area. He even gave of his immense
energy to benefit the city community, serving as the director of
the local chamber of commerce, in the Presbyterian church community,
the Rotarians, and the Historical Club for Germans from Russia.
It was especially in the ethnic German community, where he discovered
an interest close to his dreams. To satisfy his enormous urge to
search out more roots of his clan: During the following decades,
he undertook several trips to Germany, Russia, Poland, Romania,
former Czech Republic and Alsace. Tirelessly, he searched in churches
and community offices for records concerning the origins of his
clan. He visited cities, villages, hamlets and individual estates,
conversing with people who bore his family's name. In this manner
he was able to discover new branches of the clan, to collect written
material and photographs and, progressively amassed a remarkable
archive of his greater clan. His diligence was greatly rewarded:
When in 1978, a comprehensive three hundred-plus-page family chronicle
was published. "Flegel-Pflugrad Kinship - A chronicle of German
families from Russia to North America" was an immense, expansive
genealogy that spanned six generations. This chronicle encompassed
the history and geography of the heartland of Europe, the expanses
of the Volga, the Don and the Kuban rivers, as well as the pioneer
States of the American West. The widely-branched-out family tree
of the greater kinship includes the crowning glory of beautiful
German family names: FLEGEL - PFLUGRAD - SAUER - BEIERLE - PFENNIG
- MAUCH - HAUSSAUER - REUSCHER - KLEIBER - SPOHN - BURBACH.
During the middle of the 17th Century, as members of this family
set out from their traditional homes in Alsace, Hesse, Schwabia,
Bohemia, and Moravia, they were largely motivated by a number of
very serious reasons: devastating wars, suffering, poverty, famines,
religious prosecution, lack of available land, and the hated military
conscription. At that time "Germany" consisted of a myriad
mosaic of earldoms, principalities, dukedoms, free cities and markets.
Habsburg and Hohenzollern alone contained an oversupply of rulers
who were continually trying to expand their borders: Some toward
the Banat and Siebengebirgen, others toward the Oder and Weichsel
rivers. And beyond their borders, there were the immense and unending
expanses of the Romanov Czarist Empire reaching to the Ural Mountains
and even beyond.
When Czarina Catherine, the former princess of Zerbst-Anhalt, published
her manifesto which promised emigrants free land, exemption from
taxation, exemption from military service, German schools and their
own churches: Hundreds of German families streamed into the Czarist
Empire. On the Volga shores, on the Black Sea, on the Dneister River
and in Bessarabia, they came upon virgin soil. When Catherine's
successor, Czar Alexander I, continued these generous policies:
The stream of emigrants from Germany would reach as far as the Terek
and Kaban rivers in the Northern Caucasus.
First written documents concerning the Flegels emerge about the
same time. Elisabeth Flegel, nee Berg, emigrated to Bessarabia,
possibly after her husband's death, and died in 1835 at the age
of eighty, in the village of Kulm, a settlement on the Black Sea,
about one hundred twenty miles southwest of Odessa. In the course
of the next hundred years, folks by names such as the Flegels, Pflugrads,
Sauers, Haussauers, Mauchs, Beierles, Muellers and Pfennigs spread
across the wide Russian expanses. Joined by marriages and through
close kinship, their traces can be found in places such as Kulm
and Leipzig in Bessarabia, and Rohrbach in the Cherson. Their villages
of Lilienfeld and Kronental, Rosenfeld and Markosovka, Friedrichsfeld
and Alexanderfeld, lay between the Don, Kuban and Tere Rivers, in
faraway Northern Caucasus. They grew wheat and sunflowers, corn
and rye in those wide fields, while they produced a large number
of lively children.
This magnificence and splendor, gained through hard work, diligence,
and thrift, met a sudden end. Czar Alexander II rescinded the privileges
which had originally been promised "in perpetuity." His
manifesto of 1861 proved to be very hard on the German settlers:
They lost their autonomous administration, their youth was forced
into military service, German school instruction was limited to
Sunday school only, and Russian language instruction became a requirement.
The "Ukase" of 1871 by this Czar led to the exodus of
the major part of Germans in the Caucasus, Black Sea and Ukraine.
In contrast, the Volga-Germans seemed to be able to maintain their
independence and keep it going as far as into Stalin's time.
The Flegel clan undertook on a highly diverse set of travels. One
section was not willing to undergo the uncertainties and problems
of emigration and decided to remain in the old villages of Bessarabia
and North Caucasus. One family group escaped across the Caspian
Sea. Others found their way to as far as South America, from where
they returned to their former places after only a short stay. Arthur
Flegel's own parents finally established residence in Kulm, North
Those family groups who had remained in Russia suffered from the
confusion of revolutionary activities and loyalties between the
Czarist Eagle and the Red Star. The vast majority of the men was
arrested and would never return home. All possessions would eventually
be confiscated and declared to be the property of the state. The
remaining parts of families were degraded to the status of slaves
on the collective farms.
At the onset of World War II, the entire German population in the
Volga region was deported to Kazakhstan. And the finale exodus took
place, or is still taking place, as part of the dissolution of German
settlements in Kazakhstan. Descendants of former Volga-Germans are
finding new homes in Germany and, to a lesser degree, in Ukraine.
A few settlements were established around Trakena on the Koursiky
Lagoon in the now Russian enclave of Kalinigrad, formerly called
Place names as Kulm, Neu Lepzig, Bremen, Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin,
Wishek and Walhalla - all of these appear on the map of the state
of North Dakota. And in neighboring South Dakota, settlements with
names such as Zell, Humboldt, Wagner, Frankfurt evidence their German
founders. And in a country home in Menlo Park, under the shadow
of elm and oak trees, Arthur Flegel, grandson in a long chain of
pioneer farmers, and a chronicler who is highly conscious of his
traditions, remains as the guardian of a grand legacy of written
and pictorial material of past generations.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.