Forbidden for 50 years we are writing to our relatives
in America Letters from Mathäus Günthner
Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer
Chautauqua Centennial, July 1, 1993,
University of North Dakota- Lake Region, Devil’s Lake
Letters from Mathäus Günthner
As I spend a pleasant June afternoon in one of America's favorite
small cities, Devils Lake, I wonder about the lives of our families,
relatives, and friends living in such places as Siberia, Russia.
"To Russia, from N.D., with love..." was the headline
of an article that appeared in The Forum on Valentine's Day in February.
Mathäus Günthner living in the heart of what used to be
the former Soviet Union anxiously waits and reads for letters from
his relatives on the plains of Dakota. Perhaps today Mathäus
and his family are reviewing correspondence from Sherrie Guenthner
of Hazen or Loretta Huber Busch of Rugby.
Until 1991 the Guenthners and the Hubers in North Dakota did not
know they had relatives in Russia. Bob Lind writes in The Forum,
"Mathäus Günthner is a former teacher who is struggling
to survive in his country's ruined economy in a city east of Moscow.
Sherrie Guenthner does child care in her home in Hazen and does
housekeeping. Mathäus' grandfather was a brother of Sherrie's
great-grandfather.” Sherrie lives on a thriving western North
Dakota farm homesteaded by German-Russian immigrants from the steppes
of Russia. Mathäus Günthner's ancestors once lived in
these same villages in south Russia. Sherrie's ancestors decided
to seek a new homeland in America. Her cousin, the parents of Mathäus
Günthners's father decided to stay in Russia. They suffered
the tragic fate of thousands of our German-Russian people who were
sent to Siberia.
"Mathäus' letters told of a grim life. Mathäus,
now 77, and his wife, 69, live in a city of 500,000 people. Food
is in short supply. Occasionally they can buy meat. Fruit and vegetables,
when they're available, are expensive. About the only food that's
plentiful is sauerkraut, and Mathäus says they're getting tired
of it. "
"He has stood in line from 4 a.m. until 4 p.m. to get food
supplies sent from the United States. They can buy used clothing,
but new clothing is not available. Mathäus says the city is
contaminated by radioactivity .He has a telephone, but it's expensive
and the rate continually climbs, so he may have to discontinue it."
Mathäus and his wife are of the Lutheran faith. They meet
with other Lutheran families in homes. There are few, if, any churches.
They hope and pray for a better life for their children and the
thousands of ethnic Germans who will remain in the Commonwealth
of Independent States, the former Soviet Union.
Sherrie Guenthner is deeply moved by the letters she receives.
Mathäus writes, "We are happy that we have so many relatives
in North Dakota. Many evenings we sit together and look at your
pictures. We love you. We would love to see you. We would have so
much to talk about. Too bad that we did not find you in such a long
time. It took us over 50 years. You are very lucky your great-grandfather
came to America or else you would be slaves like we are."
Sherrie's great-grandfather came to North Dakota 100 years ago
in 1893. Since the early 1930's there has been no communication
between his family in America and those left behind in Russia.
"When my Uncle Jakob and his family stayed with our parents
in 1906 he asked them to travel to the United States with them.
For two weeks Uncle Jakob and Aunt Katherine asked my parents if
they would like to undertake the trip to a distant foreign country.
Father did not want to and so we stayed in Russia,” Mathäus
Unfortunately, the decision to stay in Russia resulted in much
hardship such as being forced to work in labor camps. “We
were the most repressed people. I am one of the few who still lives.
I had to empty this bitter cup to the last drop," writes Mathäus.
Sherrie Gunthner said it was wonderful to have found these relatives.
“I would always think about those that stayed back and I always
wondered if they were still alive. Mathäus wrote that he cried
and cried when he got my letter because he was so happy to find
Those of us who have been so closely involved with our letters
from Russia have found this to be the most rewarding and touching
experience. Perhaps no greater reward in life can be than to know
one has reunited families after 50 years.
The German-Russians in the former Soviet Union learned about the
heritage of the Germans from Russia in North Dakota through an article
that appeared in the German-language newspaper, Neues Leben, which
is widely read by German throughout the CIS.
We have been helping families track down their relatives who immigrated
to North Dakota and throughout the United States and Canada between
1870 and 1920.
Letters from Paul Krüger
In addition to the Günthners Paul Krüger of Piketnoje,
Siberia wrote asking for help in tracing his relatives. We were
able to find several of the Krueger relatives and discovered Paul’s
uncle Otto Krueger was a United States Congressman from North Dakota
in the 1950’s. The Kruegers lived near Fessenden, North Dakota.
Congressman Otto Krueger served three terms in the United States
House of Representatives form 1952 to 1958. His brother served a
term in a slave labor camp in the Siberia.
Bernhardt Krüger was only 13 when he watched his 19-year-old
brother, Otto Krueger, leave in 1910 for America. Bernhardt and
his sister, Martha, decided to stay in Russia. The other eight children
of Gottlieb and Helene Krüger all went to America, settling
in Wells County, North Dakota.
In the Grand Forks Herald article of September 29, 1991, Lance
Nixon writes, “In 1944, when Otto was thinking of running
for state office in North Dakota Bernhardt Krüger, at about
age 47, was working in a labor camp in central Asia beside his son.
Their crime was being German at a time when Germany and Russia were
It is only now, as reforms are sweeping the former Soviet Union,
that the descendants of the Krueger brothers and sisters who immigrated
to the United States: Karl, Adoline, Maria, Emma, Julius, Leopold,
Gustav, and Otto are learning what happened to the family members
who stayed in Russia.
Paul Krüger has been writing to his relatives and to me sketching
with letters what happened to his family in the Soviet Union. Paul
writes, “Before the collectivism our family also had a small
farm in Reinfeld, 2 or 3 horses, a few cows, sheep, and poultry.
In 1933 we all had to go to the Kolkhoz or collective farm. In 1942
all Germans had to go to a so-called Trud Army (properly said concentration
camp). I was sent to a camp where I was building a train until June
1946 and was closely watched. My father came here later, but because
he had a heart ailment he was dismissed in 1944. My brother Karl
was in camp where he worked in the coal mine until 1945. My mother
was working during the war on a colochos.”
Lena Dyck wrote to tell how her parents would have liked to immigrate
to America or Canada. She writes, “1929 to 1930 was a difficult
time for us. Stalin gained power after Lenin’s death. There
were terrible conditions, people were deported, everything was left
behind. Whoever had a good economical farm was evacuated. We were
also on this list although my sister could not go; dad was also
sick, no mercy. At night during a cold winter about 1930 were put
on cattle trains destined for the far cold north deep into the woods.
I with other children was allowed to go back, but where to? I earned
my living with strangers, was not allowed to attend school as an
But there were good people who were helpful. I was allowed to visit
a hospital where I learned to be a nurse. Then again in 1937 and
1938 there was much terror. Among the Germans (in America) there
are also some who have experienced the war. From 1943 to 1945 I
was in Poland and Germany. Yet, we were caught and taken back to
the Soviet paradise. We came to the Ural region. It was a cruel
time during which we would hide our ancestry; we even were afraid
to speak German. Even now we are afraid, our future is not bright
and uncertain. Although there is glastnost in the country, the democracy
taught, no churches, and no German customs. People are packing their
suitcases yet where to go? Not all can go to Germany. If America
would take us in my husband and my only daughter would go.”
Paul Krüger, Mathäus, Günthner, and Lena Dyck have
become our friends. They continue to write and tell their story
of life in the former Soviet Union. They hope for a better life
for their children and grandchildren. They wonder about lives of
their relatives in North Dakota and America.
This is the story of our letters from Russia. Forbidden for 50
years we are writing to our relatives in America.
Let me extend an invitation to visit us at North Dakota State University.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the NDSU libraries
is one of the major resource collection in America. Join the Germans
from Russia Heritage Society with headquarters in Bismarck to help
us preserve this rich ethnic heritage in North Dakota.
My sincere appreciation to the Chautauqua Centennial Committee
for the opportunity to share these touching words with each of you.
May this historic Chautauqua weekend provide lasting memories for
the Devils Lake community.