deutschen Kolonien in Suedrussland
Book review by Dr. Roland M. Wagner, Ph.D.
Keller, Konrad. Die Deutschen Kolonien in Suedrussland. Nurenberg, Germany: Historischer Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland, 2000.
In the preface to Fr. Konrad Keller's first volume on the German
Catholic colonies in South Russia, which appeared in Odessa in 1905,
he expressed this simple wish: "So go out, dear little book,
into the wide world!
tell of many a thing from bygone days
When Fr. Keller wrote these modest words, little did he realize
that one century later his books would continue to speak to the
descendants of the Germans from Russia, who are now widely dispersed
across the seas in several different countries. Last year, on the
75th anniversary of Fr. Keller's death, his books were released
once again in a new German edition by the Historischer Forschungsverein
der Deutschen aus Russland. This is but the latest incarnation,
and surely it will not be the last.
In Fr. Keller's first volume he sketches the background history
and geography of South Russia, and presents a table showing all
the German colonies, the year in which each was founded, the acreage
owned and size of population. Detailed histories are also provided
of Kleinliebenthal, Josephstal, Marienthal, and Franzfeld. His primary
source was the administrative archives in Odessa of the Welfare
Committee for the Foreign Colonists, especially the records of 1849.
In the second volume, which appeared in 1914, he presents detailed
lists of the founding families for the Catholic Beresan colonies,
drawn from the 1840 census records. He also consulted various local
parish archives which provided him with comparable records for Rastadt
from 1811 and for München from 1818.
The appearance of Fr. Keller's two volumes was timely indeed. As
Anton Bosch points out in his preface to the new German edition,
it coincided with several events that marked major turning points
for the German-Russians. The 100th anniversary of the founding of
the German colonies in South Russia was celebrated in 1909-1910,
as well as the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913.
These events took place shortly before the outbreak of the First
World War, at a time when the Germans in Russia were increasingly
being marginalized, subjected to harsh attacks in the Duma, and
demands for demonstrations of their loyalty. Fr. Keller's study
effectively commemorated the important role the German colonists
had played for over a century in Tsarist Russia. Appearing in their
own mother tongue, it was also a fitting validation of their ethnic
heritage. It became quite popular in the colonies, soon found in
almost every German-Russian household, where it was affectionately
known simply as "der Keller," or "das
The appearance of these volumes was also timely in that it coincided
with a massive wave of emigration from the Beresan colonies to Canada,
the USA, and Latin America, which had begun in the 1880s and continued
unabated until the onset of the First World War. Fr. Keller's books
enabled the emigrants to take a tiny piece of the homeland with
them, preserving the names of their ancestors and the stories of
their accomplishments in the Old Country as they departed to face
equally great challenges in a new environment.
Fr. Keller's volumes again played an important role in commemorating
the heritage of the German-Russians in the Dakotas during the 1920s.
At that time many of the first generation immigrants were reaching
older age, they were reflecting back on their origins, and a second
generation had emerged that was curious about its heritage. Everyone's
attention was also riveted to the Old Country by the reports of
the Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War, and the horrors suffered
by their relatives who had remained behind, news of which appeared
in almost every issue of the German language newspapers. At this
juncture it was timely that a partial edition of Fr. Keller's work
appeared in 1921, published by the Nord-Dakota Herold
in Dickinson. The newspaper initially ran a series of articles from
October 14 to December 23, each featuring the history of a Beresan
colony. The final installment announced that the series would be
reprinted in book form, under the title of die Deutsche Kolonien
in Südrussland, hauptsächlich im Gouvernement Cherson.
In addition to the featured articles, the book included the 1840
census data showing the founding families of the Beresan villages,
a comprehensive list of all the German colonies in Russia, the names
and colonies of origin of the first-generation immigrants in the
Dickinson area, as well as anecdotes about the Revolution and the
suffering of the colonists under the Bolsheviks. Although Fr. Keller
was not credited as the source, a cursory comparison of the content
shows that much of the book was a pastiche of his second volume.
The ensuing 50 years were a difficult time for the preservation
of German-Russian ethnic identity in the USA and Canada. The descendants
of the immigrants bore a dual stigma, being of German ancestry during
two world wars, as well as the pervasive suspicion against Soviet
Russia. During these years the emphasis was on assimilation, blending
into the mainstream, and losing one's accent. Fr. Keller's works
languished in near oblivion, copies became increasingly scarce and
the subject of rumor and speculation.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Fr. Keller's volumes had become
almost equally scarce. During the Second World War they briefly
proved to be useful while the Wehrmacht occupied the
Ukraine. The German Occupation Adminstration (Volksdeutsche
Mittelstelle) ordered that lists of the families in the
Beresan colonies be prepared, showing each family's place of origin
in Germany. John Philipps, who experienced these events first-hand,
noted, "to aid us in this [task], we used Konrad Keller's book,
'The German Colonies in South Russia.'" Most copies of the
books were lost during the chaos, the mass evacuation of the German
villages, and the widespread destruction of the war years.
By a fortunate coincidence in 1966, Anthony Becker in Canada and
Fr. George P. Aberle in Dickinson each managed to locate one of
the two volumes, after many years of searching. Recognizing the
importance and the rarity of their finds, they met and exchanged
copies, thereby preserving a complete set for posterity. Becker's
English translation of the volumes appeared in 1968 and 1973. German
scholars, including the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen
in Stuttgart as well as university libraries throughout the world,
sought out copies of Becker's English edition in order to meet their
own research needs.
This latest resurrection of Fr. Keller's books in the new German
edition, released last year by the Historischer Forschungsverein
der Deutschen aus Russland in Nürnberg will hopefully ensure
that new generations of Spät-Aussiedler in Germany will enjoy
the same access to the story of their heritage that their American
cousins have enjoyed through Becker's translation.
Fr. Keller's works have resurfaced at various points over the past
century, each time at a crucial juncture when the Germans from Russia
were undergoing a transition and they felt the need to pause and
reflect back on their origins. Doubtless these remarkable volumes
will continue to play a similar role in the future. Surely Fr. Keller
would have been amazed at the enduring interest in his "dear
little book[s]" that he released into the wide world nearly
one century ago, to "greet all the Beresan people, near and
far, and tell them about their grandparents and forefathers."
Content and Comparisons
The new German edition combines both of the original volumes in
a handsome hard-cover format, using modern typscript rather than
the original Gothic (Sütterlin), which has become difficult
to read for today's generations. The content of the English and
German editions is basically identical, with the major exception
being that the latter reprints Keller's original 20 page photo section
which was not included in Becker's translation. The photos include
overviews of the villages of Karslruhe, Speier, Sulz, Landau, Rastadt,
and Katharinental, their churches, the Zentralschule,
and various parish priests and prominent officials. The German edition
also includes a 7-page preface by the editor, Anton Bosch, and several
footnotes about various families adding information from "other
sources" (most likely from Karl Stumpp). Neither edition includes
an index to surnames.
The availability of this German edition made it possible to do
side-by-side comparisons of sample paragraphs to compare the accuracy
of the English translation. In general it held up well, quite faithful
to the original. Dr. Joseph Height, a former professor of German
and a renowned author on the German-Russians, also attested to the
quality of Becker's translation.
As is always the case, however, some errors inevitably creep into
long, detailed lists of information. The editor of the German edition
states that the authentic spellings of the place and family names
were preserved from the original edition. Comparisons between the
German and the English editions revealed several inconsistencies.
An asterisk denotes the presumed correct entry.