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Memories of the Black Sea Germans:

Highlights of Their History and Heritage

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Height, Joseph Stuart. Memories of the Black Sea Germans: Highlights of Their History and Heritage. Bismarck, North Dakota: American German-Russian Sponsors, 1979.


When Dr. Joseph S. Height, professor, linguist, historian, wrote his two important books about the Germans from Russia, Paradise on the Steppe, which informs about the initial Catholic colonies and Homesteaders on the Steppe, which tells of the Lutheran colonies, he had more information than would fit into those books. He gathered this additional material into this book, Memories of the Black Sea Germans. It has two subtitles, "The Odyssey of a Pioneering People" on the cover and "Highlights of Their History and Heritage" on the title page. But, though the book is neither a compilation of personal reminiscences nor an organized history, as the title and subtitles might suggest, it is also more than an addendum to the other two. It is a fascinating collection of primary and cultural material and additional information, and it will answer questions many German-Russians have assumed have no answers. It repeats some material from the first two books, but it is useful even if you have read both of them.

There were two portions this reviewer found especially interesting: That the Black Sea colonies succeeded at the level they did was due in part, at the beginning, to a people-friendly genius, the Duc Armand de Richelieu, who served as governor of Odessa and the surrounding area for 11 1/2 years. When Alexander I brought Germans and a few other farmers into South Russia, he did not just abandon them to their own devices, he appointed Richelieu as governor to supervise them. Richelieu was a man with energy, intelligence, and imagination, plus a sense of style. Bored with life in Paris, he had come to Russia and participated in the battle of Ismail, an important event in the war that preceded the call for settlers. He wrote a directive, dated February 23, 1804, in which he outlined the pattern of settlement in the area. Dr. Height provides us with a copy of this. Richelieu, who was full of ideas, built up Odessa, where he arranged for the construction of Orthodox, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, established a hospital and a sanctuary for the poor, and an institution of higher education that later became the University of Odessa. He was a hands-on administrator who thought carefully about how the colonies should be organized. He established a nursery and pushed for the planting of trees and commercial crops. He personally visited the colonies and got to know the people. "Beloved by all the people, he had a paternal interest in their welfare and progress, listened to their grievances, gave them friendly counsel and encouragement, settled their disputes, and distributed alms to the poor. He...was strict in matters relating to discipline, thrift, and industry,..." After he left South Russia and returned to Paris, he arranged for shipments of grain from the Odessa area to ease a famine in France. The President of the Colonist Welfare Committee called him “the greatest benefactor in the history of the colonies."

Among several first-person accounts, in this book, of life at the time of colonization, is one written by J. G. Kohl in 1838. Kohl was a kind of roving reporter from Germany who spent some time in Lustdorf just 30 years after its founding. (Kohl's report also appears in Homesteaders on the Steppe.) "The sight of so many settlements really came to me as a surprise. I never encountered a similar scene on the steppes." He notes the presence of Greeks, Russians, and Cossack villages in the area. His report has descriptions of the German villages, the achievements and enterprise of their hardworking people, and the gardens (bashtans), in which watermelon (arboose) was king, though they also grew onions, cucumbers, pumpkins, potatoes, and a surprising variety of other vegetables and fruits. He observed an amusing habit among the Germans: "The people have an amazing skill in separating the sweet [sunflower] kernels from the small shells or husks, and they bite and crack them incessantly the livelong day ... Even when they are traveling across country, they usually take along a large head of sunflower seeds and hold it under one arm while they pick out kernel after kernel with the other."

Kohl inserts a human-interest vignette about the love life of a farmer's daughter, Babele, but he also does some hardheaded reporting. He compares the Russian farmers unfavorably with the industrious Germans. He notes that the colonists were required by the government to provide labor, such as general maintenance of roads and other common facilities. They were also required to lodge soldiers and provide transportation for persons connected with the government. He describes the primitive harvesting technology that wasted much grain. He notes the setup of the government within the colonies, and also the power of the Colonists Welfare Committee. On page 122, Dr. Height includes a dorfplan of Lustdorf dated 1944.

In this book, you will find the following materials, listed here roughly in chronological order, not necessarily in the order in which the items appear in the book:

- A "Prospectus of Privileges of the Colonists" dated March 20, 1804. This list, circulated in Germany when Russia sought colonists, is one German-Russians probably know from memory even if they have never seen the document itself.

- Information about who came to Russia and their experience along the way. Dr. Height describes the routes to Russia and the length of the treks. There are drawings of the flimsy Ulmer Schachtel, on which some immigrants sailed down the Danube. He tells of the quarantines and the suffering and hundreds of deaths that occurred.

- There are several early personal accounts by German-Russian pioneers.

-Dr. Height tells how Karl Stumpp obtained his records.

-A chronology and traditional celebrations of Christmas are instructive.

- There are lists of names. One that might be of interest is of persons who emigrated from Alsace.

- Stories are told in the German dialect as it was spoken in the Kutschurgan colonies, and there are poems in both German and English. Dr. Height paid attention to preservation of the language.

- Descriptions of customs and traditions, including verses are interesting.

- In an account that is always a favorite, Dr. Height includes an account of a festive 3-day wedding in Krasna.

- There are verbal sketches of some of the Catholic colonies.

-George Rath tells of the shooting of 87 men of Selz.

- There is a story of a village's flight west, just ahead of the advancing Russian Army, on March 12, 1944.

- In an excerpt from Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn praises the qualities of work and determination to survive and achieve that German deportees brought to their lives during the Stalinist exile.

- A man named Leo Ochs tells of the people’s determination to observe Christmas in a slave labor camp. "After the roll call and supper--a single bowl of sour cabbage broth--five of us who had our bunks in one corner of the barracks sat down together in a circle, and celebrated Christmas Eve. We celebrated the long-awaited first Holy Night, but only in our hearts, in memory of the beautiful Christmases we had enjoyed while we were still living in freedom."

- "A Mother Returns from Siberia" by Wolfgang Meyer describes how it was for a mother to embrace her son after 30 years.

- Dr. Height moves on to recount the lives of pioneers on the Dakota prairie and the story of the settlement of German-Russian Catholic families in Canada. This is refreshing because, though things were tough, nature was their challenge, not erratic governments and ethnic discrimination.

- The book has many maps and black and white pictures.

Dr. Height ends with a personal reflection in which he tells of his family's sojourn from the Kutschurgan colonies in Russia to Towner, North Dakota to Tramping Lake in Saskatchewan (where he was born in 1909). He relates how he came to write his three books and how, in a search to touch his heritage, he could visit Alsace in 1964. No trips to Russia were possible in his day.

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