Journey to the Homeland

Vossler, Ron. "Journey to the Homeland." North Dakota Horizons, Winter 1997.


"It may be argued that the past is a country from which we all have emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity."-Salman Rushdie

Why explore a place our grandparents left long ago? In what ways, if any, does an ethnic past shape one's present life? Those are good questions for any American. Good questions, too, for the 50 tour group members, most of Black Sea German descent, who embarked mid-June from Minneapolis on the North Dakota State University Libraries-sponsored "Journey to the Homeland Tour: Germany and Ukraine."

Retracing history over the Atlantic

For tour members the answers to those questions lay in the history of the Black Sea Germans, a farming people who settled in large numbers in the Dakotas between 1886-1914.

It's a complex history, sprawling across two centuries and several continents. It included enough wars, famines and drama for any number of novels and movies. It forged a variety of 19th century Germanic peoples into one distinctive ethnic group, with its own language, culture and world view.

Yet the sweep of history is impersonal. Most tour members, if anything like this writer, struggled to locate themselves or their ancestors in such broad currents. But as our flight arced high over the Atlantic-over that same ocean our ancestors crossed by steamship a century earlier-it grew hard not to imagine those people as real people, as young and old, as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents-full of hope.
Tour director Michael Miller snapped this picture of several women milking cows by hand near Landau, Beresan Enclave, Ukraine.

To be honest, though, few of us knew the real story of such a journey, at least not to the surprising extent of this writer's seatmate, a retired educator who told colorful anecdotes about his grandparents' "passage" from Russia to America. And the way he told them, with humor, compassion and dignity, spoke volumes about the best qualities that Black Sea Germans bequeathed to their descendants.

During that first leg of our journey, until we glimpsed the icy crags of Greenland beyond the plane wing, he told stories that touched on tragic immigrant themes: of burials at sea for those who succumbed to the rigors of the steamship journey; of midwives birthing babies in the smelly steerages; of a grandfather, after a cross-country train ride from New York to South Dakota, falling dead at his first glimpse of the vast prairie emptiness of Dakota.

Sociologists maintain that the psychological effects of such "passages" still reverberate in the succeeding generations. And how could they not? For the second time in less than a century, the Black Sea Germans, a gregarious village people who'd settled the barren Russian steppe in the early 1800's, found themselves catapulted into an almost stone-age past: this time on a prairie frontier where that golden dream of America must have seemed only a stark illusion.

Other cultural groups, like the South African Boers in their "vortrekker sagas," proudly recount their history. The Black Sea Germans preferred to forget. They rarely spoke of the personal price, of that sudden plunge into a New World. Only scanty oral accounts, if any, were passed to the succeeding generations about that most heroic of achievements- settling the last American frontier. Later, two world wars against a German enemy only added ambivalence about their German heritage.

No wonder that many Black Sea German descendants, who comprise 30-40 percent of North Dakota's population, seldom speak in personal terms about that rich heritage. No wonder, either, that 50 tour members on this personal odyssey anxiously awaited the landing in Germany so they could explore firsthand the place where all that history began.

Swimming in the gene pool

That busy first week, headquartered in a Stuttgart, Germany, hotel, tour group members visited institutions that have documented the Black Sea German experience, including the Bessarabian Heimats-Museum and the Landsmannschaft.

More importantly, there was a bus trip, exploring parts of the "ur heimat" in southern Germany and the Alsace region, now part of France. It's the original homeland, once overcrowded and war-torn, from where German peasants and craftsmen, at the invitation of the Czars, emigrated to Russia between 1763-1862.

In the Alsatian village of Cleebourg, there was a strange convergence of time and language. Tour members easily spoke with the locals in a common mother tongue, the same Rhenish Ranconian Alsatian dialect once spoken in the Russian "colonies," the same dialect, with its melodic nuances, that many tour members knew growing up on the American plains.

It was in Stuttgart that tour members quickly learned that the Black Sea German ancestral pool is not large. Over conversations at breakfast, or in the hotel lobby or on the bus, they explored that labyrinthine, intermarried state of affairs of Black Sea German family life; they recited their "who married whoms." And in the process, they sometimes discovered that they were kin. This writer, no exception, found his own family net flung wide. At least a dozen of his 50 fellow travellers, in one way or another, were related to him.

The grand finale of the Stuttgart visit was the "Bundestreffen. " There, in a huge convention center, crowded more than 50,000 Black Sea German "Aussiedler. " They were the offspring of those who, instead of emigrating to America, had remained in the ancestral villages in Russia. Some were "verwanten," relatives, who tour members met for the first time. All of them had been swept back to Germany by the tides of World War II; or, after the collapse of communism they'd returned-some as recently as the past year-from post-war exile in the farthest fringes of the old Soviet Empire.

The NDSU Libraries information booth at the "Bundestreffen," manned by tour members, helped these Black Sea Germans contact their American relations. But in a sense, they are a lost people, these "Aussiedlers," the broken branches of the family tree, often disdained by both Germans and Russians. Yet, the younger generations seem a combination of both cultures, amply illustrated by several Siberian Germans who, with their gold teeth flashing, scribbled out the German names of their ancestral villages on the table placards with their own wobbly Cyrillic letters.

Tour member Brother Placid Gross, Richardton, visits with Antonia Welk Ivanova of Selz, Ukraine. Antonia is a relative of the late Lawrence Welk. Michael Miller photo.

At a gathering in Stuttgart, Germany, Ron Vossler helps a recent German immigrant from Siberia to locate relatives in North America. Vossler, Grand Forks, wrote the feature story for Horizons. Michael Miller photo.

After the "Bundestreffen," our tour flight departed for the Republic of Ukraine, roughly retracing from the air that overland trek of our ancestors to Russia two centuries earlier: over the former Czechoslovakia, skirting the Carpathian Mountains, then angling south along the winding Dniester River.

South of Kishinev, we got our first glimpse of the steppes, scrolling off into the hazy distance. There, around villages with single streets along the flood plain, were golden squares, fields of winter wheat and rye, ripening in the rich chernozem soil of "Sud Russland," now the countries of Moldova and Ukraine. It was there our forefathers were drawn by Czarist manifestos promising freedom and land; there, far from European civilization, that they founded German villages, islands in that vast Russian sea, in the first decades of the 1800s.

Odessa's faded beauty

Our airplane bumped down on what seemed a neglected two-lane rural highway. It was hard to believe, judging from the customs officials who seemed both harried and lackadaisical, that we'd once feared the Soviet Union. In a slow-moving line, we hefted our luggage and school supplies through the antechambers of an airport building. That dim light and bad repair, so reminiscent of prairie barns, prompted some tour members to tell farm life stories, about mid-century horseback rides to rural schools and German catechism classes on the Great Plains.

After the gloomy airport, Odessa seemed drenched with sunshine. It's a city of one million, whose noble architecture is ringed by bland, Stalinist-era, high-rise apartment buildings. In the city center, there were century-old buildings with ornate, crumbling facades. Wrought iron balcony railings, entwined with grape vines, hung heavy with laundry and blankets. Battered yellow trams and diesel-spewing buses plied crowded streets.

At our tour headquarters, the Chornoye More, the Black Sea Hotel, we awakened mornings, curtains billowing into the rooms, breezes heavy with the scent of the steppe and the sea. In the evenings, from the hotel windows or balconies, there was, along the eastern horizon, the shimmering waters of the Black Sea.

Exploring the enclaves

Accompanying the tour were Prairie Public Television staff personnel, whose cameras recorded the highlights for an upcoming documentary series on the Black Sea German experience. There were also drivers, guides and interpreters, who over the next week accompanied the tour members to the five enclaves established by Black Sea Germans within the old Russian Empire.

For tour members who grew up on the Great Plains, those enclave trips were both familiar and disconcerting. Once, bumping along a winding path between the villages of Rohrbach and Johannestal, it seemed like we travelled a North Dakota section line, headed to haul bales for the day.

Another time, lost on an unmarked road, tour members did as any prairie dweller would, navigating by the position of the sun.

In the Glueckstal Enclave around Kassel, there were broad valleys and sweeping, sculpted hills, just like in parts of western North Dakota. "Where is Hazen?" someone quipped. In Bessarabia, valleys seemed steeper and villages had tumbled yardwalls and wattled fences-which made the place seem older, more isolated.

In the Liebental and Kutschurgan Enclaves not far from Odessa, villages nestled among numerous vineyards and cherry trees. These villages also boasted intact rows of German houses, standing much as a century ago, with the family names-such as "Gotz" inscribed in stucco under the roof peaks.

U.S. and German cousins meet at the home of Melita and Andreas Karcher in Goppingen, Germany. (L. to R.) Leo and Frieda Brosowski, Mildred Thurn, Lean and Harold Grasmick, Herb Thurn, Melita and Andreas Karcher and their daughter, Melitta. Leah Grasmick, Lodi, Calif., and Herb Thurn, Bismarck, are brother and sister. Their mother was born in Germany. Frieda and Melita are their second cousins. Photo courtesy Herb and Mildred Thurn.

A Ukrainian woman cuts bread "the old way" in the Glueckstal enclave at Kassel. Photo courtesy Elaine Becker Morrison.

A song bridges the cultures

The most emotional moment for this writer occurred in Alt Postal, Bessarabia. There, tour members visited Vera Wolchow, an elderly woman whose father was Black Sea German. She'd suffered through much of the sad recent history of Bessarabia.

It was a hot day. We'd just finished exploring the cemetery, where many of this writer's ancestors lay buried. Tour members, preparing to leave, gathered around the van, which was parked in the dappled shade. Just then, a single, quavering voice drifted into the silence. It was old Vera, singing acappella.

Soon, two other tour members joined her. Together they sang "Gott Isch Die Liebe," the death-bed song of the protestant Black Sea Germans. Its words have often been the last ones on the lips of so many as they left this world, in this century or last, in the Ukraine or the wastes of Siberia, in Asian Kazakhstan or the Dakotas.

As those plaintive voices rose in unison-it's from the Ukrainians on the steppes that the Black Sea Germans learned such mournful singing-this writer felt deeply moved. For an instant, the high cloudless Ukrainian sky seemed the prairie heavens. The acacia trees were cottonwoods, soughing in the wind. And the voices were voices from his childhood on those summer Sunday mornings during revival services in the Lehr Tabernacle, that holy edifice in the heart of the Black Sea German evangelical country in North Dakota, where people knelt in the straw to pray.

For many tour members, it was emotional to come over the rise of a hill and see one's parents' or grandparents' village; to walk the dirt streets they once walked; to feel their presence in their houses or churches; to meet people who knew of them, or once had known them, like the elderly Ukrainian woman on her way home from a funeral, who'd once been a servant for this writer's relatives in Tarutino, Bessarabia, in the 1930s.

Churches and cemeteries

Sometimes tour members found their ancestors' graves. Generally, though, the tombstones, fashioned from soft rock and weather-scoured, were illegible. Many cemeteries had disappeared altogether. Near one village, in a place the Ukrainians call the Valley of the Big Mosquitos, there were only a few bits of human skull and pieces of cement scattered in a field, which had probably been bulldozed to clear space for a nearby Russian Orthodox cemetery.

In the Tschaba Valley near the village of Friedenstal-stacked on top of each other to fill a low spot in the road-there were layers of German tombstones. In the West, of course, that constitutes a sacrilegious act, despoiling a graveyard. But in the Ukraine, where cemeteries and burial mounds of vanished peoples have long been viewed as natural resources, it is, according to one source, not uncommon.

Tour members found that the old German churches dominate the village landscapes. Their looming gothic architecture, even without steeples, is imposing. Some churches have been converted into Russian Orthodox churches. During the Soviet era, they were used as clubs, cinemas, cultural centers or for grain storage.
Pictured are three members of the Ketterling family. LaRose Ketterling (left) of Mercer, N.D., and Harley Miller, Chehalis, Wash., visit with Melita Hochhalter, who was born in Kassel, Odessa district. Melita and her family were evacuated from Kassel in 1943 and lived in a refugee camp in Poland until 1945. Then the family was sent to a labor camp in Siberia. Melita and her family settled in Herleshausen, Germany, in 1972. Photo courtesy of Rose Ketterling.

Depending on the source, most steeples were removed as late as the Kruschev era; or during World War II to keep troops from using them as observation posts; or before that, in the 1930s, as Stalin tightened his grip on the land.

In the Glueckstal village of Kassel, tour members discovered that the Ukrainian villagers feel an affinity for the old Lutheran church, even though it was not their people who built it. Rather than construct a new school, the villagers say, their first priority is to rebuild their spiritual life after 70 years of communism. As they spoke about someday restoring that church, they related the following story; probably meant to be understood metaphorically, not literally.

A century and a half ago, when the German colonists first built the church, each family in Kassel, besides their labor, contributed immense quantities of milk, eggs and honey. It was from these agricultural products that an enduring cement was mixed to build the church walls. Newer structures have crumbled; yet those walls endure, several feet thick, as solid and immovable as the day they were built. "Go there and see for yourself," the villagers said, gesturing towards the church.

In the ancestral villages

Once, there were more than 3,000 German villages in Russia. It was from those villages, after the advent of Russification in the 1880s, that most immigrants departed to homestead in Dakota. It was in those villages that the relatives of the Dakota Germans remained in Russia, enduring civil war, Stalin's terror famines, and collectivization.

Finally, in the early 1940s, the old way of life in those ancestral villages was swept into oblivion. The Black Sea Germans were deported at gunpoint into Siberia or Kazakhstan by the Soviet army; or, the luckier ones, under the auspices of the retreating German army, trekked west, back to Poland or Germany itself. Now, other nationalities live in those villages, most recently, evacuees from the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl.

Yet, some original German houses still stand. Their roofs are covered with the old orange, glazed roof tiles, "dachsiegels." They have thick walls, with deep, inset windows. Sometimes they are bordered by sandstone walls, mortared over with blue plaster, against which elderly villagers on worn benches occasionally lean, just as one's own ancestors once must have.

Mel Maier (left) of Bismarck shares historic photos with a relative who recently immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union.

There were any number of sights and structures familiar to those acquainted with the Great Plains. In the Beresan village of Johannestal, pungent smells rose from square piles of "mischt," drying near some homes. That's dung mixed with straw and cut into blocks, a primitive fuel once used to heat sod houses in the Dakotas.

In some Ukrainian yards stood summer kitchens. In Bessarabia, there were "vorhauslas," shady, vine-covered bowers, attached to the front of some houses. In the Beresan enclave, one saw many outdoor root cellars with sloped roofs, "storm cellars" we called them around Wishek, N.D.

Some tour members stayed overnight in Ukrainian homes. They shared meals, with the children sometimes not joining the adults at the table-a cultural tradition familiar to older Black Sea German descendants. The cuisine, sometimes like their own prairie grandparents', might include bokklajohna (tomatoes) or kartoffellin (potatoes), or blintzes filled with cottage cheese, similar in shape, at least, to that Black Sea German delicacy "blachenda."

At one meal, a Ukrainian woman, clasping a round loaf of bread against her bosom, turned the knife blade towards herself, cutting thick slices with a rotating motion that reminded tour members of their own mother or grandmother's method of cutting bread.

Exploring Odessa

With the dust of the ancestral villages on their shoes; with the lingering smells in their nostrils of camilla plants or "vermut" weeds from overgrown bashtan/an-gardens; with images in their minds' eye of cattle herds, and geese flocks, and grain fields where John Deere combines stood echeloned in quiet rows-tour members returned each evening to Odessa.

Many tour members attended world-class operas or ballets. It was dreamlike to sit in the plush seats of the gilt-edged Odessa Opera House as the fluid voices of the singers filled the ornate building; and future shock, too, going on the same day from the archaic villages, where the elderly carried firewood, to put electronic-mail messages about the tour onto the World Wide Web at the Odessa State Polytechnical Institute.

During the days in Odessa, there were also tours, including visits to the famed Potemkin steps along the Black Sea shore; to monuments honoring great artists, like Pushkin; to the somber "Great Patriotic War" monument, where fresh, blood-red flower petals lay scattered on polished marble slabs.

Evenings at the hotel there were programs, where students in colorful folk costumes staged Ukrainian music. There was also a press conference, along with a seminar, where tour members explained their interests in their ancestral villages to an audience of university students and reporters.

A Catholic church dominates the landscape in Karlsruhe, Beresan Enclave, Ukraine. During the Soviet era, churches were used as clubs, cinemas, cultural centers or for grain storage. Photo by Michael Miller.

Throughout their Ukrainian stay, tour members distributed an extensive amount of school supplies, gathered from throughout America, to various villages in the enclaves. Other tour members delivered much needed medical supplies to hospitals in Odessa and Tarutino. The dedicated genealogists on the tour visited the Odessa archives, where the various passports and official documents of the Black Sea German villages are now stored.

As our time in Odessa dwindled, our tour took a day trip to Peterstal, a "container village," where Germans once exiled to Siberia and Kazakhstan during World War II now are resettling. It is a joint venture, funded by the German government, with labor and supplies from the Republic of the Ukraine, in an effort to limit the immigration of "Aussiedlers" back to Germany. There, in a newly-established entrepreneurial zone, a bakery produces several thousand loaves of bread each week. During a small ceremony after a meal, tour director Michael Miller announced to the gathering: "We Black Sea Germans in America have never forgotten our Siberian brothers and sisters."

Back to the future

That next day, our flight departed for Germany. As our plane followed the Dniester River again, we cast lingering glances over our shoulders, as our ancestors must have, leaving "Mother Russia."

So what did tour members learn on their journey? Did they answer those questions? Each might tell you something different. Perhaps they felt immense gratitude for their grandparents' fateful decision to immigrate to America-a choice which made them born in Dakota, not Siberia. Or, as one tour member put it, "Picking rocks on the prairie doesn't sound so bad now, compared to what the other Black Sea Germans who stayed behind suffered."

Perhaps tour members learned what they already knew but needed to affirm: that history, that Russia, left its mark on their grandparents and parents, and, in turn, on them; that though the past is buried, it is not always dead; that frontiers do not pass away, but endure in people. Or, as this writer discovered, that sometimes the most obvious, overlooked things provide solidity and substance to one's own life-like all the honey, milk and eggs in those church walls.

1997-98 tour information

For information about the 1997 and 1998 Journey to the Homeland tours contact Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599; or call 701-231-8416; or e-mail Michael M. Miller at

Helping the children

Those participating in the 1996 Journey to the Homeland tours were asked to bring with them a second piece of luggage filled with school supplies to be distributed to schools in Odessa and other villages.

On earlier trips to the Ukraine, Tour Director Michael M. Miller visited school classrooms and noticed a desperate need for not just textbooks, maps or even library books, but basic school supplies such as pencils and paper. Children played with pieces of broken toys.

The first shipment of school supplies arrived in the Ukraine in June. Those supplies were made available to teachers and students when the new school year began in September. However, more supplies are needed.

Suggested supplies include: atlases, maps, charts, tablets, pencils, erasers, pens, markers, crayons, chalk, tape, pencil sharpeners, scissors, construction paper, water color sets with brushes and rubber stamps with ink pads. Puzzles and games such as tinker toys, ball and jack sets, pick-up sticks and cards are also suggested.

Persons wishing to donate school supplies or make monetary donations to the Ukrainian School Supply Project called "Caring Hearts and Sharing Gifts for Ukrainian School Children" can do so by contacting Journey to the Homeland Tours, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 581055599; or call 701-231-8416; or e-mail Michael M. Miller at

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North Dakota Horizons magazine is published quarterly by the Greater North Dakota Association in conjunction with the North Dakota Tourism Department. Subcriptions are $15 for one year or $28 for two years. To subscribe, or for more information, write PO Box 2639, Bismarck ND 58502; or call 701-222-0929; or link to the Horizons web site at

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