In Search of My Ancestors’ Homes in Teplitz and Kassel
Pietz, Daniel M. "In Search of My Ancestors' Homes in Teplitz and Kassel." Heritage Review, 43 no. 2, June 2013, 25-33.
By Daniel M. Pietz, GRHS Member, Fayetteville, North Carolina
It was Monday, May 26, 2011, day six of my 2011 Journey to the Homeland Tour sponsored by the North Dakota State University Libraries’ Germans from Russia Heritage Collection in Fargo. I arose after a fitful sleep, not sure if it was due to the lack of air conditioning, jet lag or anticipation of visiting my paternal former German village of Kassel. My journey had begun years earlier when I first thought of visiting my family’s ancestral villages in Ukraine. I wanted to stand on the same ground my ancestors stood and see the same view they saw when they looked out their window. I often wondered what the surrounding countryside would look like. How was the village situated? What did its fields look like? After experiencing my ancestors’ homeland, I felt that I would appreciate what they must have felt and thought, and how hard it must have been to give up those comfortable, familiar surroundings and leave for a foreign country called the United States of America. The germ of this idea had lain dormant in my mind for several years. I was aware of the Journey to the Homeland Tour, which takes place each year in May, and thought maybe someday I would participate. In November 2010, I made the decision and put down my deposit for the May 2011 tour.
I had great expectations of what I would experience. I knew that if I could see the countryside it would make a difference to me and motivate me to do more research and write about my ancestors’ experiences. To make my visit as meaningful as possible, I did as much research as I could prior to the trip. I felt that this would help me know what to expect when I arrived in those villages. I was able to obtain maps of my maternal and paternal ancestral villages—from 1940 for both and one from 1838 for my paternal village. From these maps, I was able to determine exactly where my ancestors had lived.
In 1905, my maternal grandfather (Andrew Kurtz) left Teplitz/Teplista (today), Bessarabia, Russia. As a young man, I remembered my grandfather’s stories about Teplitz, what happened to his family (his father died when he was eight), and his experiences as a hired hand on several southeastern South Dakota farms. From my research, I realized there was not much information about my ancestral villages other than the founding dates and who established them.
I discovered that my mother’s (Kurtz) family belonged to a group of religious zealots who had left Germany in 1817 as part of the Great Chiliast Migration to the South Caucasus. The Chiliasts (a Greek term meaning “a thousand years”) interpreted the Revelation of John as signifying that Christ would return in 1836 at Mount Zion in Jerusalem to establish a one-thousand-year reign. This religious fervor and apocalyptic anticipation had partly grown out of the many social and political upheavals during the recent Napoleonic Wars. Also, during the previous year of 1816, parts of North America and Europe suffered from what became known as “the year without summer” as a result of the massive April 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), further creating a sense of impending cataclysm among segments of the population already in distress. These individuals now wanted to live as near as possible to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The Caucasus region was the closest area to Jerusalem open to emigration, and many Chiliasts decided to move there. They started their journey in Ulm, Germany, and traveled on the Danube River in small barges to the Black Sea. During the Danube journey, they suffered from overcrowding, lack of food, tainted water and poor sanitation. After several months, they arrived in the Bessarabian Danube city of Ismail and were quarantined for several months from fall into winter. During the quarantine, over thirteen hundred died, and many families lost their adult members. After being released from quarantine, several families including the Kurtz family ended their journey by settling in nearby Teplitz, Bessarabia, while others continued to the Caucasus.1
I was not sure of the motivations or circumstances of my father’s family (Pietz). The Pietz family trail was non-existent for the period before 1815, with no information of its origins in Germany or when or why they left Germany. Articles about the village of Kassel that I had read before my trip made scant mention of anyone named Pietz. So, I assumed that my ancestors were common farm folks who went about their normal activities caring for their crops, animals and children and attending church on Sunday.
I researched old maps as well as current views of the villages of Kassel and Teplitz using satellite images. I had some difficulty finding satellite images, however. My first challenge was to determine the current village names, which were different than the original names and which appear in Russian/Ukrainian, not German. My second challenge was to find a satellite image site on the Internet using English search terms. Fortunately, I was contacted via e-mail by Dr. Sergey Yelizarov who was to be my guide for one of my village visits. He was a tremendous help in locating the satellite pictures and forwarding them to me. These images helped me to understand what I would see on my visit. My hope was that I could stand in one of the houses in which my ancestors had lived.
Dr. Yelizarov asked me if I was interested in any information from the Odessa Archive. I asked him to do a search of my family name, Pietz, and the village Kassel to see whether any mention of my ancestors existed. He was able to locate three documents from the archive. One of the documents had been translated and printed in the Heritage Review fifteen years ago. It covered the move in 1838 from the original location of Kassel to its current location. Two documents concerned my ancestor Friedrich Pietz who was the mayor of Kassel and his involvement in two separate village controversies. One of the files was in Russian, Odessa Archive 6-1-6628, and it dealt with a quarrel between Kassel colonists. From this file I learned something about village life and a scandal involving Friedrich’s first wife. The other file was in Germanic script, Odessa Archive 6-1-7350, and it described an unruly villager and the problems that he caused the mayor and the village.
The first day of the 2011 Homeland Tour involved travel from the United States to Frankfurt, Germany. Tour members spent the night there before continuing on to Odessa, Ukraine, the next day. I spent the third day on tour visiting my maternal family village of Teplitz in southwestern Ukraine. That day’s tour included three other people and visits to two other villages, Friedenstal/Mirnapolie and Neu-Elft/Novoselovka. Our group included a driver with a GPS unit and a female guide/interpreter who spoke English well, but who was unfamiliar with the former German villages. We traveled a couple of hours west of Odessa, passing through a corner of the country of Moldova. The condition of the roads left something to be desired as well as the directions on how to get from one village to the next. Our driver had to stop several times for directions, and most of the time the answer was a shrug of the shoulders, apparently a universal expression. We did manage to find our three villages with Teplitz being the last.
During the drive I was surprised by a couple of things. First, how similar the Black Sea coastal plain of Bessarabia was to eastern parts of North and South Dakota—relatively flat with rolling hills. Secondly, how close the villages were located to each other. We found ourselves in a vast open plain, yet the villages were about 5 miles apart, so that it was easy to see an adjacent village. I imagine that this was comforting to the first settlers and helped ease their feelings of isolation.
I was impressed by the location of Teplitz. It was situated next to a hillside along the edge of a broad, flat valley bisected by a small, dry stream. It was a picturesque scene with the city of Sarata in the foreground, the hills in the background, and fields surrounding the village. Prior to this tour, I had spoken to my second cousin who had visited Teplitz as part of a tour in 1998. That tour was designed for people who had evacuated the village in late 1940. My cousin showed me some photos and shared a few of his recollections of the area. I was excited about the visit because my cousin had a photo of my great-grandfather’s tombstone. I knew what it looked like, and I felt that I could easily locate it in the cemetery. I also had the Hof/lot number of my grandfather’s family home and my great-grandmother’s home thanks to the Teplitz Sippenbuch by Theophil Handel. My grandfather had spent his first ten years in Teplitz on Hof number eight. The 1940 map of Teplitz listed the lot numbers, and thus I knew the exact location of his house. I confirmed from the satellite view that the village layout had not changed much from the 1940 map. The location of the crossroads, school, cemetery, and other landmarks lined up, so that all I would have to do is count the number of houses or lots from a particular landmark to locate any place in the village.
After we arrived in Teplitz, our driver took us to the church plaza. I was under the impression that a church stood in Teplitz because I had a picture from my cousin showing members of his group walking up the steps in front of the church. What I did not realize was that the church had subsequently been destroyed and replaced with another building. The steps leading to the church site were still there. As our group stood by the main street reading a sign in German about the Lutheran church that had once stood there, a small boy of seven or eight came up to us and said, “Guten Tag”; he must have assumed that we were Germans. Our guide started talking to him and asked him whether he knew where the German cemetery was, and he pointed in the general direction. So, young Nikoli became our guide for locating the German cemetery. We walked about one hundred yards before we came to an overgrown area that held relatively new graves at the front. Behind the modern graves lay an area of dense brush and small trees. Nikoli led us through the undergrowth to an open place with about one hundred gravestones lined up in five rows. We later learned that in 1998, before the reunion tour in which my cousin participated, the city had been given funds to clean up the cemetery. The local school children at the time had located as many tombstones as they could (not all of them were in the cemetery) and lined them up in neat, orderly rows. Unfortunately, the markers were not placed where the departed were buried.
I searched in vain for my great-grandfather’s tombstone. I had a photo of the tombstone, so that I knew what it looked like, but it provided little help. Some of the stones had fallen over and were covered with grass. Also, most of the inscriptions were no longer legible due to the weathering of the stones—the markers were made from a sandstone-like material. I contrast this with the granite markers in the United States that look relatively new after 75 years. I was disappointed with the effort and after trudging around for half an hour in the hot sun, I proceeded with the others to look at the village.
My great-grandmother’s family lived close to the church, and we drove to that location. It was a little confusing since a school had been built on the same side of the street and apparently had replaced a couple of the original houses. I was certain that I was within one house of the one in which my great-grandmother had lived. We stopped in front of the house, which did not have the normal appearance of a German house; apparently it had been remodeled recently. The German-built houses are rectangular shaped with the narrow side facing the street, one story high with a tall peaked roof and thick stone walls plastered on the outside. There is usually a three- or four-foot tall rock wall in front of the house with a wide gate for equipment and a smaller gate for people.
The house we stopped at had an older woman in front of the stone fence tending a small flower garden. Our guide talked to her and found that this was a German house that had been remodeled recently on the outside, but the inside was left relatively unchanged from the original design. She invited us in for a tour of the house and showed us where they had moved a couple of doorways. The kitchen also had been moved to a different part of the house. It was interesting to see the layout of the house and appreciate the durable construction (thick stone walls and hand-made wooden floors) that had lasted for over a hundred years.
Then we drove to the village’s edge and located the house where my grandfather spent his first ten years. A high wall stood in front of the house, so that it was difficult to see the building. The current residents were not home, and thus we were unable to see or explore the area around it. Our guide asked one of the neighbors whether any German-built houses were in the area. She said that the only German-built house in the area lay next to my grandfather’s house. I was a little disappointed that I could not visit the house in which my grandfather was born and had spent his first ten years. All in all, it had been an exciting day locating the homesteads and seeing the village in which my maternal ancestors had grown up. Based on this experience I was looking forward to visiting my paternal ancestral village, certain that I would make some interesting discoveries. I had been told that the village was isolated. This fact led me to assume that it would not have changed much.
The village we visited before Teplitz was Neu-Elft, where many original German-built houses stood, including the original stone-front fences. Neu-Elft was a small, isolated farm town that modern times seemed to have passed by with its rustic houses and barns, rock walls, and narrow asphalt streets with numerous cow paths next to them. I assumed that my next village would be the same, given its isolation.
I was optimistic that I would next be able to locate a home from my father’s side of the family. The next day I was going to visit the former German village of Kassel about 80 miles north of Odessa. I had been told that Kassel was isolated and connected to other villages by gravel roads. On the satellite image, Kassel appeared to be a fairly large town, and I felt certain that it would have at least one of my ancestor’s houses intact.
It was a typical drive in the Ukraine, 70 miles per hour on the good roads and 5 miles per hour on the frequent pothole stretches—what a contrast in speed and comfort. After about 2 hours on paved roads, we reached the district center of Vel. Michaljlivka. From there we had 10 miles of “gravel” road before we reached Kassel or Velikikomarovka (present name). We were off to a shaky start on the gravel road because a long stretch of potholes and spent most of the first half mile on the road’s left or right shoulder. After that the road smoothed out and we reached our cruising speed of 25 miles per hour. We traveled mainly west, gradually climbing a long ridge that provided panoramic views of an adjacent valley and surrounding hills. All were covered with small grain and canola fields with a few scattered rows of trees (See photo #1). On this partly cloudy, warm spring day, the scenery proved breathtaking. The topography appeared much different than the relatively flat coastal plain that surrounds Odessa and the southern Bessarabia villages.
After seven miles we reached the top of a plateau and in the distance saw the village of Kassel. My guide for the day, Dr. Yelizarov, had provided an interesting commentary during the previous two hours of driving. He had our driver, Antonoli, stop by a sign written in Russian letters. Dr. Yelizarov said that it was a sign announcing the city limits of Velikokomarovka. He noted that the sign was new and that I should pose for a photo next to it since I was probably the first American to do so.
From the east edge of town we drove a short distance to “city hall” (on the 1940 map of Kassel this area is listed as the location of Pastorat, Zuletzt, Rathaus and Sobstgarten), a former German school that now housed the mayor’s office. My thought at this point was, “Why are we wasting our time talking to a local politician?” As it turned out, our visit to the mayor proved just the opposite! Dr. Yelizarov mentioned that the town had recently published a history book, but that it probably ignored the original settlers. The mayor was out, but his secretary called him, and he arrived in short time. Dr. Yelizarov made the introductions and explained who I was. The mayor was new, having been elected the previous year and probably had not received many foreign visitors. He mentioned that a new book about Kassel had been published and that it mentioned the Germans, and that I would find it interesting.
The mayor and Dr. Yelizarov talked about the local area and reviewed a map of Kassel from about 1940 as well as the city’s satellite image. The mayor’s secretary arrived with two books, and we stepped into the mayor’s office where he presented me with two books written by a local author detailing the history of Kassel/Velikokomarovka (See photo #2). Both books were written in Ukrainian: one covered the modern history of Kassel, and the other was entitled Renowned Germans, which I assumed covered Kassel’s early history (both books will be donated to the GRHS after I have them translated). In return for the books, I gave the mayor a small pin with the U.S. and Ukrainian flags, not quite a fair trade, but as the mayor remarked, “It is the thought that counts.”
We left city hall to view the nearby Lutheran church, believed to have been built in the early 1860s. The roof and spire were gone, but the walls intact. After the Russians took over, one of the first things they did was alter the church’s appearance by removing the spire. Many times churches were converted for other uses such as a community centers, night clubs and granaries. Today, the church stands with no doors, windows, or roof, but the nearly two-feet-thick walls make it appear as solid as ever. This solid construction protected the church from the elements as well as man-made destruction. As the typical tourist, I took numerous photos of the church and surrounding area (See photo #3).
The mayor, Dr. Yelizarov and I visited the school, which also housed a museum of the town’s history on the third floor. Unfortunately, the museum possessed little information about Kassel’s founders or their history. After declining an invitation to speak/visit a school class, we stopped by a well that supplied water to the school and city hall—another relic of the early settlers. The mayor insisted that I taste the water, which was fine and fortunately did not produce any stomach distress.
At this time, Dr. Yelizarov reminded the mayor that he was going to show us the original Kassel location on the map in his office. Dr. Yelizarov believed that its location was probably in the adjacent autonomous region of Trans-Dnieper, which stood a mile or so west of Kassel. The mayor said that the original location was in Ukraine, but that the only road to it went through Trans- Dnieper. We could not use that route because of me (a U.S. citizen has to go through an official customs/passport control crossing). Unfortunately, the nearest official crossing was quite a distance from Kassel.
Back in his office, the mayor showed us the exact location for the original village site (47 degrees, 6 minutes and 37 seconds north and 29 degrees, 36 minutes and 32 seconds east) (See photo #4). The original Kassel location had been home to the German founders from 1810 until they moved in 1838-1841 (one half of the village moved to the present location in 1838 with the rest following over the next several years). The move was prompted by lack of water in the community wells and flooding from a nearby intermittent stream.
We copied the location on our map, excited that we had found some new information and that in the future someone could visit it. Then, the mayor said, “Let’s go see this place.” He added that as a child he had visited this area and remembered playing there in the early 1970s. He explained that his mother-in-law was born there, too. So, off we went in our compact car, a Ford Fusion, driving about one-half mile north of the village before turning into a lane that followed the fields through waist-high grass. After a few minutes we came upon a muddy area and had to turn back. We then approached from a different direction and after driving another 20 minutes arrived in a valley with short grass. We drove along a trail until we came to another muddy area and stopped. At this point, we were at the south end of the original village.
The valley in which Kassel was first located is about one quarter of a mile wide, bordered by a streambed on the east and hills on the west. The valley extends north for several miles with a cultivated field about one mile north of our vantage point (See photo #5). The mayor showed us how the town was laid out along a road extending north-south with a row of houses on each side. He said there once was a rock cross on the east side of the streambed that had marked the village cemetery. He also showed us some disturbed areas that were the locations of former houses (See photo #6). I found several pieces of clay tile and stones in this area. There was also evidence of modern habitations such as a concrete pad and a clay tile with a red star on it indicating that it came from the communist era.
Dr. Yelizarov and I crossed the stream bed to look for evidence of a cemetery. Progress was difficult because decades earlier the area has been ploughed with deep furrows and trees planted in them. We found no evidence of a cemetery other than two clumps of lilac bushes, which are associated with German cemeteries in this area. We looked in the bushes, but found no head stones or other evidence of a cemetery. At the time, it did not seem logical based on the mayor’s information that these lilac bushes marked the original cemetery. In retrospect, it is possible that these lilacs did mark the location of Kassel’s first cemetery. Given the number of settlers and the fact that the village consisted of a single street, the village was possibly almost a mile long. After about 45 minutes of exploring, we returned to our car to find the mayor on his cell phone making several calls. When he finished his conversations, he said, “We are taking a shortcut back to Kassel”—the road through Trans-Dnieper. After five minutes and two checkpoints, we were back at city hall.
We returned to city hall to eat our packed lunch from the hotel and drink a beer which we had purchased earlier. Before the trip I had compared current satellite image of Velikokomarovka to a 1940 map of Kassel, locating several buildings on lots that had been occupied by three different Pietz ancestors and one Eberhardt ancestor. What I had not realized was that the original main street location (Hauptstrasse) was now situated several blocks west, so that the original main street was a side street on the eastern part of the town. After taking into account this change, we drove to the northeast part of Velikokomarovka. The side streets were rough, dirt roads, but fortunately were dry on that day (See photo #7). We drove to a lot where my ancestor, Friedrich Pietz, had his original homestead (later maps showed three different Pietz households occupying this lot as well as one adjacent one). Here we found rusted, abandoned buildings that appeared to be part of a factory or collective farm (See photo #8). Another Pietz homestead and Eberhardt homestead (maiden name of my great-great-grandmother) were located nearby, and we drove there. One homestead was a vacant lot, and the other was occupied by a modern-style house.
After these discoveries, I was deflated after the initial elation of finding the original Kassel location. I realized that I was not going to stand in the house of one of my paternal ancestors. About that time the mayor called Dr. Yelizarov and asked whether we wanted to see the only remaining German-built house in Kassel? We replied, “Yes,” followed the mayor’s directions and ended up on a narrow, one-lane dirt road in front of a lot with a German-built house (See photo #9). Here we met the mayor and a local farmer who was using the lot and house for the storage of his farm equipment. The owner was most welcoming and asked us a few questions about our trip and whether we wanted to have a drink with him (we declined). Then we toured the empty German-built house. I was impressed with the construction, as it had thick stone walls, original wood floors and unique door hinges (See photo #10). The house exterior was plaster, and in a couple of places where the plaster was missing the underlying stone structure was exposed. Dr. Yelizarov pointed out some of the design features that included the house’s south side or front with more and larger windows than the north side.
The landowner showed us the German-built, rock-lined well that is still in use. As we looked at the well, he asked us whether we wanted to see an original German cellar. He took us to the house next door where we met his neighbors who owned the cellar. The cellar was eight or ten feet underground with a dozen or so steps to reach it. The temperature that day was in the upper 80s. When I walked down the steps and entered the cellar, it actually felt cold. The cellar ceiling was about 6 feet from the floor, and the cellar offered ample storage space.
After saying our goodbyes and appreciation to the landowner and mayor, we drove to the cemetery, which was located southeast of town. The first thing I noticed was the modern graves of the current inhabitants. In back of these graves lay an overgrown area with shrubs and trees that were the German section of the cemetery (See photo #11). Because we were short on time, we did not explore the German section of the cemetery and left for our two-hour ride to Odessa.
It had been an interesting, exhilarating day for me. It was hard to believe that I had stood on the same ground where my ancestors had settled in a valley with a water supply that had proved quite inadequate to support a growing community. It was a real adventure to explore this valley and experience the mayor’s hospitality and friendliness.
Most of our tour participants said that this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them. I learned many things on this journey, compiling a list of some suggestions that may help the reader on his/her trip of a lifetime.
I would encourage future visitors to Kassel to search for where their ancestors first put down roots on the steppes of Russia. Also, if anyone has any information about the original settlement or location, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Pietz’s Suggestions from the 2011 Journey to the Homeland Tour:
- Remember that most of the “guides” are just translators and might know little or nothing about your village or the era in which your ancestors lived in that region—you need to be the “expert” on these things!
- Bring light-weight shirts/clothes if visiting in the summer. It was hot and humid in Odessa, but there were not many bugs.
- Almost no English is spoken in Odessa. Russian and Ukrainian are the primary languages, and it might be nice to know some basic words or expressions, but I would not spend a lot of time learning them.
- Bring a large garbage bag to store your dirty clothes in your suitcase to keep them separate from your clean clothes.
- Bring extra clothes in your carry-on bag in case your luggage is lost and you cannot get your luggage for a couple of days (this happened to several tour members).
- Do as much research as possible before your trip: old maps and current satellite photos can help you focus on the village and surrounding area.
- Gifts for locals—I had U.S./Ukraine flag pins—not much especially for the mayor of a village. I am not sure what would be appropriate, but it is something to consider.
- Tourist items/trinkets (T-shirts, coffee cups, etc.) remain scarce in Odessa and are not directed to Americans or English-speaking tourists.
- Bring appropriate chargers and electrical adapter(s) to renew batteries that you will need—if they are for critical items, then place them in your carry-on luggage
- Bring a light jacket—I needed one on the plane.
- Bring an abbreviated family tree in case other tour members ask about common ancestors, as it is easy to forget some of the maiden names in your earlier generations.
- If your family comes from a Bessarabian village, then plan on spending extra time at the Bessarabian House in Stuttgart, Germany. There is a treasure trove of information about your ancestors and their villages there.
- In Germany, do your currency exchange at the airport, as there were few currency exchange places other than Deutches Bank, which had a 3% commission. I am not sure of the cost if you exchange it in the U.S.
- Maintain a journal of your trip about the things you saw and did and include your thoughts and feelings about your experience.
- Carry a small pocket notebook to jot down your thoughts or information that you might discuss with other tour members. Later you can transfer it to your journal. This course of action prevents you from forgetting information that might come up in casual conversation.
- Think about bringing a digital tape recorder to record your thoughts, something much easier than writing. There is voice recognition software that might save you from typing up your thoughts.
- A video recorder is perhaps an alternative to a tape recorder. You can use it to record your thoughts and take pictures of the area, making it easier to share your travel experiences with family and friends later on.
Door with original hinge in German-built house in Kassel/Velikokomarovka.
Front of the last remaining German-built house in Kassel/Velikokomarovka.
Side street in Kassel/Velikokomarovka.
Location of original Pietz homestead.
The author indicating some disturbed areas, possibly foundations of former village buildings.
View of Kassel’s original location from south end looking north.
Mayor Ivanovich indicating Kassel’s original location.
View of the inside of Lutheran church.
Mayor Mikhail Ivanovich and the author with books of Kassel /Velikikomarovka history.
Countryside east of Kassel/Velikokomarovka.
Kassel/Velikokomarovka cemetery with new graves in front and German section in back obscured by trees and shrubs.
1. Ute Schmidt, Bessarabia: German Colonists on the Black Sea, trans. James T. Gessele (Fargo, ND: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2011), pp. 61-65.
Reprinted with permission of Heritage Review and Daniel M. Pietz.