German-Russian and Proud
Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, Speaker
Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention, Opening Ceremonies
Pierre South Dakota, 8 July 1994
Transcribed by Rebecca Pettit
Edited by Janel Wald and Linda Haag
....and I should also thank Bertha for asking me. I feel much honored,
as one of the new kids on the block, to be the keynote speaker. I'm
new to my understanding of my culture and when Esther was talking
about so many of the people in my generation, who have lost the culture
and haven't found the way back, you have led the way back for me and
I thank you all deeply for that.
When I was a little girl, my
grandma Roesch lived with us for part of the time and I remember
sitting at her feet in the bedroom we shared. After thirty years
in California, I have moved back to South Dakota to the house that
I grew up in. I do my writing in that very room and my grandmother
is always present. Let me read you just a little bit of the description
that I wrote about her in the fourth volume of my Daughters
of Dakota series.
||“I remember most of all her hands, thick and broad,
gnarled like two tree stumps. ‘She baked fifteen
loaves of bread a week,’ my aunt Marie told me, ‘kneaded
it all by hand- and her right arm was sort of deformed from
this. The bread always rose beautifully; I never knew of a failure.’”
She had thin, long hair and I remember she would tell me stories
as she would comb her hair with a comb; the teeth were so narrow
in that comb, and she [would] bring the comb through her hair and
then she'd braid it, and then put the braids up on top of her head.
And during that ceremony, I would hear the stories. Now many of
them were in German and I couldn't understand them but I always
caught the drift of them. One that she always told was when she
was a little girl in Russia her maiden name was Treftz. The teacher
would always tease her when she couldn't get something and he would
say, "Treftz nicht immer". She would tell this story over
and over, and I realize that I'm not telling it right because I
don't speak the language.
I never knew why, I never learned how to speak the language until
much later. I remember the trips that we would make to Roscoe, usually
on the weekends and there would be huge family dinners around the
table. One of my uncles was on the homestead and the other uncle
lived across the road and cousins of mine still are in that area
working the land. What I remember most, I think, from those times
was the warm embrace of what transpired in that group. People laughed,
not from their throats, but from their bellies. They laughed hard
and they laughed long and then someone would tell a story and they
would cry. And they cried as easily as they laughed. They were people
that on reflection seem very healthy in ways, they seemed to be
able to feel and feel deeply.
One story that always brought tears to the brothers and sisters,
telling the story about their oldest brother, who had been a young
child in Russia. He said, "I'm not going to the new country."
And they said, "Well of course you're going." They had
the passports and they were ready to leave. He became ill and died;
it was probably of encephalitis, right before they were to leave.
And my grandmother buried that son and came in a few days to a new
country. It's a pain so deep that, how people withstood that can
only be understood, I think, through the community that shared that
pain. It was not a pain that my grandmother carried by herself.
My father and my uncles and aunts tell me that every time someone
would come to visit, my grandmother would share that story and they
would all weep with her. The pain became shared by the community
and the joys were shared in the same way.
As a child I experienced this, but I experienced only the glow
of it from the outside. Because I couldn't speak the language, I
couldn't understand exactly what was going on and I couldn't be
part of that circle. I would ask, "Well, what did you say?
What did that mean?" And I remember being told things like,
"It loses something in the translation." My father and
one of his friends were laughing about the things they used to say
to each other on the playground. I'd say, "What does it mean?
What are you saying to each other?" They were laughing so hard,
tears in their eyes, and they'd try to sober up and explain: "Well,
it means I'm gonna hit you so hard that the snot is going to come
out of your nose and land on the wall across the room," and
I realized in that translation exactly how much I lost. Another
one they said was, "I'm going to pound you into the ground
but I'm going to sharpen you first." When we were little, you
used to tell me those terribly funny things, and then you wouldn't
translate them for us.
When I was in high school, it probably began in junior high; I
went through the period of greatest conservatism, as we all do in
our lives, when we don't want to be in any way different from everybody
else. At that point I became ashamed of that embracing circle, and
I didn't want anyone to know that my aunts and uncles spoke with
that kind of an accent. I worked very hard to take it out of my
own voice. Even though I'd never learned the language I had some
accent, and I went through a period of being very much alienated
from myself in that way. I got married and moved to California.
Of course, once I moved to California, to Sacramento, people would
say, "Well, that's right by Lodi. You better go visit your
relatives, you know. If you knock on any door in Lodi you'll find
a relative." I never went to Lodi. I went to California and
told no one that I was German-Russian. I told people that I was
from South Dakota, and decided to just do this completely new life.
Well, I started college and after a period, I suppose, I got a little
lonesome. And so I thought that I'd learn German; that would help
I went through an entire semester of it, and we still hadn't learned
the most important word in the German language. I went to the teacher,
finally toward the end of the semester, and I said "How come
you haven't talked at all about basoof? How come you haven't told
us that word?" And he said, "What's that?" And I
said, "That's the most important word in the German language.
My grandma, every other word she said to me was basoof. What does
it mean? I've taken this course for a whole semester and I haven't
answered the question yet." And he looked me straight in the
eye and he said, "There is no such word." I decided that
this man was an imposter. He certainly didn't know the German language.
He'd been teaching me some fake imitation the whole semester, and
I was going to have none of this. I dropped out of that class and
never took another one.
I began to write books on women's history. I remember one time
when my aunt Annie, some of you know Anne Roesch Larson, she is
my Godmother (which she may not always admit) and she also is really
my mentor in many ways now, and she said to me "Why do you
write about all those other people? Why don't you write about your
own people?" It took me probably ten years to understand the
wisdom of her counsel, which in German- Russian ways is never given
with, a perhaps, it's given as "this is what you ought to be
doing because I know" and of course, she was right and she
did know. It took me a while to come to that place. I think about
the things that brought me to the place of being not just proud
but hungry for everything that I can know about my culture. Hungry
with the deprivation of someone who never quite got it, who never
was quite there, who was always on the margin. Now longs to know
what sits at the center and will sit for hours with any of you that
will tell me stories as my grandma did.
I remember the first moment of real recognition was when I was
with the Great Plains Chautauqua in Dickinson, North Dakota. I walked
into a museum and it had an entire display of German-Russian heritage.
It was the first time I'd experienced that. I've since experienced
it in Eureka and other places where you've done such wonderful work
in reclaiming the culture. But I stood in front of this display
and I started weeping. I started looking at it and pretty soon I
couldn't read the displays anymore because it was the first time
that I had ever experienced my culture reflected as historically
We were always the outsiders, and here we were with our history,
and the importance of it reflected. Then through my parents I discovered
your society, our society, and my mother would send me clips from
the press of events that were given in Aberdeen. I was still living
in California. I made it to a few meetings when I was back here
visiting and I saw the pride that began to develop in my father
and my aunts and uncles and it was from this organization and the
reclaiming of that which had been taken away from us. I began at
that time to reclaim and to recognize and understand the strengths
that I'd been given through the culture that I've been born into.
I thought of one of them when the flags were presented. I thought
how few groups today present the flag and what group more than this
would not be held accountable, or it would be understood, if it
didn't celebrate the American Flag and the flag of South Dakota.
There were stories that were told to us of the things that were
done to our people during the First World War by the state of South
Dakota and by the United States. My father tells a story about not
being able to speak German when he was in school. The teacher drew
a circle around the school yard and when you entered into that circle
you could only speak English, and he thought that the teacher was
doing them a good favor in teaching them. The teacher was simply
obeying the law because if she had spoken in German she could have
The freedom of religion that was denied our people; in the churches
we were not allowed to worship, we were not allowed to worship in
the language in which we knew to address God. German was allowed
between two people, but if a third person was present, the law was
broken when the mother tongue was spoken. The Hutterites found no
freedom in the state of South Dakota. Their livestock was taken
for war bonds and their land was not allowed to be held common.
They were taken into the army and forced into prison when they refused
to fight. And they found freedom only in Canada when the United
States would not allow it.
One of the strengths I think that our people have (and I saw it
this morning and feel deeply moved by it) is the ability to forgive
and forgive even the unforgivable. The United States government
and the state of South Dakota have never given the German-Russian
people an apology for the treatment that was given them. The Hutterites
have never received an apology from the state of South Dakota for
the tremendous loss that they suffered during that period. And despite
that, the forgiveness that's represented in welcoming with the flags,
I think, is an extraordinary tribute to the spirit and the strength
of our people. The work ethic my children grew up with is a part
of the culture that I could give to them as I give now to my grandchildren.
What's a part time job for a German-Russian? Answer: a forty hour
week. When they're asked "How do you do these businesses that
you do and work as hard as you work?" My kids explain that
it's all genetic. I think whatever is in our genes and whatever
is in our cultural pool is something that really allows us to survive
and to overcome. To celebrate and to laugh and sometimes against
odds that are unimaginable. My grandmother found joy and she also
found the truth of her sorrow.
As I work to understand who I am as a German-Russian woman, I have
a request of you and that is that you teach me who I am and you
teach your children and your grandchildren (when they will listen).
Ours is a culture that needs to be preserved. I fear the loss of
the language, as I know you do. This is the only place on earth
that it is still spoken and when the last German- Russian speaker
in Strasburg or Hosmer or Eureka, or Lodi stops speaking the language,
it goes into the ground. The language will go into the ground, unless
we do some very strong things to make sure that the language is
kept. I'd really like to work with you on whatever cultural preservation
projects there are and we can create, so that the children like
me, who sit on the outside of that warm circle, can feel the glow
of sitting at the center.