Back to the Roots

Bradley, Kimberly. "Back to the Roots." Oskar’s: The German-American Student Magazine 6, Winter 1993/1994.

Everyone knows that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and that many Americans take pride in who they are. Finding your “roots” has practically become an American national pastime. 21-year-old Eric Schmaltz, who studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, went all the way back to Germany to find the origins of his family.

“I always knew that my last name means ‘goose fat’ in German,” says Eric. He is one of the 52 million German-Americans who make up the biggest ethnic group in the U.S.

Eric became interested in his background when he was in seventh grade. A relative told him that most of the Schmaltzes in the North Dakota area (where both sides of Eric’s family originally come from) are the descendants not of Germans directly from Germany but of Germans who lived a few generations in Russia before emigrating to the U.S. Eric’s family was also one of these.

The passion was sparked; the search had begun. Eric knew by the time he was a high school senior that he would explore further. He wanted to know more about the meaning of his name, maybe learn some German, and maybe, just maybe, go and see the place where his ancestors came from. “I wanted to find out as much as I can about this stuff,” says Eric. “It was no problem deciding what to study in college. I knew right away that I wanted to study history, mostly because I was interested in my own personal history.”

Eric was lucky. In the 70’s, a North Dakota priest had traced the Schmaltz family all the way back to a small southern German town called Kapsweyer. This priest distributed his findings to the Schmaltz families in the area, and Eric had a copy of the family tree.

The facts were clear: in 1808 a young man named Josef Schmaltz had lived in Kapsweyer. He and his wife emigrated to Russia, where they settled near Odessa, in the Black Sea area. Almost exactly one hundred years later, their descendants – just as German as their forefathers – emigrated to America and made a home for themselves on the wild prairies of North Dakota.

Another eighty-five years later, Eric arrived in Kapsweyer with these facts in mind. Near the French border in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, Kapsweyer is the kind of village that you might pass by on the road if you blink a bit too long. Just a church, a few houses and shops, and a cemetery.

Eric began his search at the cemetery with his family tree and a German-English dictionary. Maybe he could find a gravestone with the Schmaltz name. At the churchyard was an old gardener, hoeing away in front of a gravestone with the name – Josef Schmaltz.

Of course it wasn’t THE Josef Schmaltz. The gardener explained what he knew. “The last Schmaltz in Kapsweyer, Hermann, died last year, but his widow is still alive and lives with her daughters in the next village,” said the rosy-cheeked old man. Did he know anything about the old Josef Schmaltz that had left for Russia nearly two hundred years before? “Lots of people went to Russia then,” he explained, “and during World War II Kapsweyer was completely evacuated and many of the people never came back,” he said. Eric set off for the next village of Steinfeld to see what he could find out.

“Does anyone here know about the family Schmaltz?” asked Eric in the Steinfeld bakery, the only place in town open on this hot Saturday afternoon. Munching on big salted pretzels, the two young women behind the counter dug out a small telephone book. “I think Mr. Nau’s wife’s maiden name was Schmaltz,” one of them said. “And look here are two other Schmaltzes.”

With the numbers in hand, Eric tried calling. He had mixed responses. One Mr. Schmaltz hung up on him, the other wasn’t interested in any distant American relatives. Eric sheepishly called the third number, and was happy to finally get a positive reaction. The Nau family was eager to meet him.

After a warm greeting, Eric was shocked to see that the family had a copy of the very same notebook, written by the priest from North Dakota, on their table. Eric was not the first Schmaltz to have gotten into contact with this family. Brigitte Schmaltz Nau showed Eric letters that she received from other American and Canadian Schmaltzes in the past. She also knew that many of her ancestors had left for Russia. Eric had, unbelievably and unexpectedly, found the right place.

“I never expected this,” says Eric. “I know that my line to these Schmaltzes isn’t direct, but to actually have found distant relatives in Germany is great.” The road from only knowing that his last name meant fat to meeting relatives from the “old country” was a long one, but after having met the Schmaltzes and seen the beautiful area, Eric’s connection to his personal history has deepened. “I’d like to go to Russia someday and find out if there is anyone there,” says Eric. He is also planning to write his senior thesis on the interesting story of the Russian-Germans. Maybe someday Eric will find a Schmaltz or two near the Black Sea.

Are you interested in finding out about your heritage? If you are a German-American and your forefathers emigrated directly from Germany, you may be able to find your distant relatives even mare easily than Eric. Good Luck!

For further information, contact:
The National Archives
Pennsylvania Ave. at 8th St
Washington, D.C. 20408
Tel. (202) 501-5500

The Story of the Russian-Germans

In 1763 Russian Czaress Catherine the Great, who had herself been a German princess, issued a decree inviting any and all Germans to come and live in Russia. Free.

Free land, free transportation, free religion, no military service, and the right to keep their own language and culture made this offer pretty attractive to a lot of Germans. Also important was the fact that poverty was widespread at the time and that whole regions of German territory lay in ruins in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War. Many Germans settled in the Black Sea and Volga regions of Russia in the late 1700’s, and even more came between 1804 and 1818, where most lived happy, German lives on the fertile land.

In 1871, however, Czar Alexander revoked most of the rights that Catherine had promised. What to do? Some stayed in Russia. Because most had no thoughts of returning to Germany, many emigrated to other places, most notably the U.S. and Canada. Most of the Black Sea Germans – like Josef Schmalz’s descendants – settled in what is now the Dakotas and become wheat farmers, and some later established vineyards in California. Many Russian-Germans emigrated, but there are still 2,300,000 ethnic Germans living in Russia. What about them?

This issue is currently a hot one in Germany. The German Constitution has always given ethnic Germans living in Russia – including those ancestors who left Germany generations ago – the option to return to Germany and become German citizens, with all the social benefits that includes. After the opening of the Iron Curtain in 1989, many Russian-Germans did just that.

In 1992, 200,000 Russian-Germans returned. Now the German government is considering limiting the number of Russian-Germans that are allowed in. The formalities for Russian-Germans who want to settle in Germany have become extremely complicated: they have to prove that they are of German heritage, and must be able to speak the German language. Because many of the Russian-Germans still in Russia fear that the “door” to Germany will soon close, more are deciding to relocate as soon as possible. Funds are being sent to the German settlements in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Omsk-Altai regions to give these people an incentive to stay where they are. The legacy of the Russian-Germans is a story that began over 200 years ago and that will continue far into the future.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller