Unser Leute the Story of the German Russia People Part I

Halverson, Carol Just. "Unser Leute the Story of the German Russia People Part I." Prairies 9, no. 2: August 1985, 12-18.

PDF Document (PDF 705KB)

Our people. Who were they? Where did they come from? If we are German, how come my mother does not make sauerbraten? If we are Russian, why don’t we speak the language? I have a German name, and my ancestors had farms in Russia. That must mean I am a German Russian. But how did it all happen?

The history of our people is one of several migrations. The Meidinger family originated in Switzerland and arrived in Germany to the village of Neipperg, in the northern part of Wurttemburg Province, some time after the Thirty Year’s War ended in 1648. They were employed by the Duke of Neipperg to work in vineyards.

But by the mid-1700s Germany had become impoverished because of recurrent wars. Wurttemburg especially was hard-pressed in carrying more than its share in furnishing soldiers and horses as well as financing the Napoleonic wars. Economic failure, crowded conditions, and inadequate crops also created the need for “living space.”

It was during that century the Russian royal family took to the task of “Europeanizing” Russia by intermarriage with the princely houses of Germany. Thus, Catherine, a daughter of the house of Anhalt-Zerbst, was called to Russia to marry Peter, the heir to the throne. Peter became emperor in 1762, and soon alienated the army, nobility, and the church. Within months, a palace revolution unseated him, placing Catherine on the throne. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered by her partisans.

Enter Scene One
Catherine the Great
It was Catherine who thought of settling German peasants on her empty lands. She was aware of the political and economic problems in her native Germany and she saw the situation as an opportunity to bring industry and progress to Russia’s undeveloped frontier.

On July 22, 1763, Catherine, Empress of Russia, issued an invitation. It made generous promises, such as:
-Free transportation
-Generous allotments of free land
-Interest-free loans for 10 years
-Freedom from taxes for five to 30 years
-Freedom of religion
-Freedom from military conscription
-And, most important, freedom to keep their language

What more could our weary peasant ancestors ask for? It was a free trip to the Promised Land!

Exit Scene One
The first wave of immigrants were sent to settle along the Volga River to the east. They became known as the “Volga Germans.” In the south, in the Ukraine and along the Black Sea, came the next wave of immigrants. They were called the “Black Sea Germans.” They acted as a shield against Turkey. Settlement along the Black Sea began about the year 1804 when Catherine’s grandson, Czar Alexander I, aggressively pursued German immigrants to cultivate the arable land. No doubt Johann Leonhardt Meidinger and his wife, Barbara Muller, felt desperate in their decision to leave their homeland.

Enter Scene Two
Nun Ade, Du Mein Lieb, Heimatland
(Farewell, Oh My Dear Fatherland)
Farewell, oh my dear Fatherland, dear Fatherland, farewell.
I want to try fresh wind and sand, dear Fatherland, farewell
So I wander, singing heartily,
As one sings when one feels strong and free,
Dear Fatherland, farewell

How your sky looks down in heavenly blue, dear Fatherland, farewell.
And your trees and meadows fresh with dew, dear Fatherland, farewell.
God knows to you I’ll faithful be,
But now the far lands beckon me,
Dear Fatherland, farewell.

Nun ade, du mein lieb’ Heimatland,
lieb' Heimatland, ade!
Es geht jetzt fort zum fernen Strand,
lieb’ Heimatland, ade!
Und so sing’ ich denn mit frohem Mut,
wie man singet, wenn man wandern tut,
lieb’ Heimatland, ade.

The journey to Russia in those times was a test of strength and faith. The route varied according to the province of origin. It is believed our ancestors came down the Danube River in crowded boats to Galati in Moldovia and then across country to the Russian borer at Dubossary or Ovidiopol on the Dneister River. The journey by boat and wagon and often on foot took from two to five months and often meant wintering on the way.

Exit Scene Two
When they arrived at the border, the immigrants had to face a quarantine period and then live in primitive barracks for weeks or months before the settlement site was ready. Hardships were often beyond endurance. Many families were almost wiped out, and few reached the settlement sites intact. In those early years, in “New Russia,” the seaport of Odessa was little more than a fishing village. Moreover, the open steppes of South Russia had never been cultivated.

In Kassel, where the Meidingers settled, the German colonists clung to their language, religion, and culture. They were Evangelical Lutherans, and spoke with a Schwabian German dialect. In the years they lived in Russia, almost no one spoke Russian. Mothers sang these lullabies to their children, who passed the songs on to later generations:

Song: Schlaf, Kindlein, Schlaf
(Sleep, Baby, Sleep)
Sleep, Baby, Sleep;
Thy father tends the shop.
Thy mother shakes the branches small,
Lovely dreams in showers fall.
Sleep, baby, sleep.

Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf.
Der Vater hüt’t die Schaf.
Die Mutter schüttelt’s Baumelein,
Da fällt herab ein Traumelein.
Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf!

Song: Müde Bin Ich, Geh’ Zur Ruh’
(Weary Am I, to Rest Must Go)
Weary am I, to rest must go;
My eyelids close as well I know
Dear Father, that those eyes of Thine
Fondly, will bless this bed of mine.

Have I done some wrong today?
Dear Lord, for your grace I pray.
For Thy love and Jesus’ blood
Every error shall make good.

Müde bin ich, geh’ zur Ruh,’
Schliesse meine Augen zu;
Vater, lass die Augen Dein
Über meinem Bette sein.

Hab’ ich Unrecht heut’ getan,
Sieh’ es, lieber Gott, nicht an;
Deine Gnad’ und Jesu Blut,
Mache allen Schaden gut.

Exit Scene Three
A report of life in Kassel dated April 1848 reports the types of affliction the colonists endured. There were several years when crops were devastated by locusts, serious livestock epidemics, and outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. The same report, however, tells that a “decent and practical large schoolhouse was built where the children may become literate and receive the kind of religious instruction that teaches them to be virtuous and patriotic citizens.”

The importance of religious training exists today among the German Russians. Many in this audience remember walking in the church on their confirmation day, singing this song:

Enter Scene Four
Song: So Nimm Den Meine Hände
(Take Thou My Hand, O Father)
Take Thou my hand, O Father
And lead Thou me,
Until my journey endeth,
Alone I will not wander
One single day;
Be Thou my true Companion
And with me stay.

O cover with Thy mercy
My poor, weak heart!
Let every thought rebellious
From me depart.
Permit Thy child to linger
Here at Thy feet,
And blindly trust Thy goodness
With faith complete.

So nimm denn meine Hände und führe mich
Bis an mein selig Ende und ewig lich!
Ich mag allein nicht gehen nicht einen Schritt;
Wo du wirst gehn und stehen,
da nimm mich mit.

In Dein Erbarmen hülle mein schwaches Herz
Und mach es gänzlich stille in Freud und Schmerz:
Lass ruhn zu Deinen Fussen Dein armes Kind;
Es wird die Augen schliessen und glauben blind.

Exit Scene Four
Hard work meant survival in Russia. There was much to do and the old German saying, “Arbeit macht das Leben suss,” held true there as well.

In the very early years, education took a back seat due to the severe shortage of teachers. Some farmers could read and write, and they shared what skill they had. The clergy supervised education when possible, but their widespread parish duties kept them too busy to have great impact. None the less, the academic and spiritual education received by the first generation of German Russians offered a bright spot in the educational gloom hanging over the rest of Russia.

The German Russian people worked hard, prayed hard, and played hard, too. There were annual festivals celebrating May Day, the end of harvest, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter.

But a favorite among all German Russians was the wedding celebration! Weddings usually occurred during the late fall or winter so as not to interfere with the harvest/planting cycle.

If a fellow was unable to find a suitable bride, he would hire the services of a kuple (coopla) to do the job for him. The kuple was a professional marriage arranger, usually male, with a reputation for “finding a lid for every kettle.” The extent of the bridal search could depend on the size of the groom’s pocketbook. Of course, the match had to be sanctioned by the parents of both bride and groom. Once the terms were agreed upon, the plans were made.

Enter Scene Five
The bride and groom arrived at the church in a buggy hitched to a matching pair of horses which were adorned with ribbons and flowers. Before entering the church, and again upon leaving, a rifle shot rang out, a tradition stemming from an old superstition believing that the noise would distract any evil nearby.

The bride often wore dark blue or black, because it signified her maturity, and because dark-color fabrics were imported—and therefore an esteemed luxury. Around her waist, she wore a white sash, and on her head, she wore a Braut Kranz, a bridal wreath made out of wax candle beads or flowers.

The groom wore a black or blue suit adorned by a small bouquet and two long ribbons flowing from his shoulder. The ribbons and sash were a symbol of status because they were hard to come by. However, in the oldest meaning, the sashes were meant to ward off any bad omens.

This hymn was frequently sung by the congregation asking for guidance for the newlywed couple:

Song: “Jesu Geh’voran”
(Jesus, Still Lead On)
Jesus, lead the way
Through our life’s long day
And with faithful footstep ready
We will follow, ever ready.
Guide us by Thy hand
To the Fatherland.

Jesu, geh’voran,
Auf der Lebensbahn,
Und, wir willen nicht verweilen;
Dir getreulich, nachzueilen;
Führ uns an der Hand
Bis ins Vaterland!

Following the service, the guests gathered for the Hochzeit, a celebration at the home of the bride where everyone ate heartily, toasted one another with schnapps, and sang folksongs and hymns. A favorite was the old Lauterbach song:

Song: Z’Lauterbach
(In Lauterbach)
Lauterbach is where I lost my sock,
I won’t go home without it.
So I go back then to Lauterbach
Buy me another fit.

Lauterbach is where I lost my heart,
Living without, what a task!
Therefore, I must go to Lauterbach
My sweetheart for her’s I will ask.

Zu Lauterbach haw ich mei Strimpfel verlor’n
Un ohne Strumpf geh ich halt widder uff Lauterbach zue
Un kaaf m’r a Strimpfel ans Baan.

Exit Scene Five
By the 1870s life in the German Russian colonies was good. They were well-established and farms prospered. The children of the colonies received a fine education, and, in some cases, sons of the villages were even sent back to Germany for continued education.

The churches thrived, too. And in some of the larger villages, hospitals and institutions were established.

But clouds of gloom hovered nearby as the German colonists began their second century in Russia. During the reign of Alexander II, the Russians came to regard the German colonists with envy and distrust. The Russian upper class feared they were too influential. The Russian peasants resented the prosperity and special privileges the Germans enjoyed.

On June 4, 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked the rights and privileges granted by Catherine and her grandson, Alexander I. It created a shock wave of distrust and resentment throughout the German villages. Besides having their sons subject to military service, the colonists also faced the loss of traditional self-government and the unwanted beginnings of Russification of their village schools.

For some time the colonists had heard of a new uncultivated empire in a far off land called America. The “new land” had become available as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln. In 1874 Katharina Thurn Meidinger’s sisters and families left for Dakota Territory. They settled near Yankton in southeastern Dakota at a location known as Tripp. They soon wrote glowing letters home, reporting that their new land was comparable to that in Russia.

Following the harvest of 1884, Friedrich and Katharina, their young son, Andreas, and many others from Kassel made plans to emigrate to America. This song bade farewell to their families in Russia:

Enter Scene Six
Song: Jetzt Ist die Zeit und Stunde Da
(The Time and Hour is Now at Hand)
The time and hour is now at hand,
We’re moving to a foreign land.
Where souls by thousands prosper well,
Dauntless, with tears, we say farewell.

To our beloved ones and our kin,
We say farewell, and sigh within;
Weep not so hard that we must part,
It grieves our weary saddened heart.

Jetzt ist die Zeit und Stunde da.
Dass wir ziehn nach Amerika.
Viel tausend Seelen geht’s dort gut
Das tröstet unds und gibt uns Mut.

Die Wagen stehn schon vor der Tür.
Mit Weib und Kinden ziehen wir.
Die Pferde stehn schon angespannt,
Wir ziehen in ein fremdes Land.

Exit Scene Six
The immigrants were taken to Odessa where they boarded a train from Bremen in Germany. Upon arrival, they were required to pass a health exam before a ship ticket was issued to them. Following the exam, they were separated, mothers with young children, fathers with sons, and then everyone was given rooms, dormitory style, in a settlement house. There they awaited departure.

Enter Scene Seven
While waiting, there was time to contemplate their decision. Think of the apprehension and sadness, as well as excitement connected with such a move. Listen now as this pioneer sings his farewell in the form of this old German ballad:

Song: Die Lorelei
(The Lorelei)
I cannot discover the reason
I feel so sad today,
Some myth of the earliest ages,
I cannot drive it away.
The air is cool, it is evening,
The Rhine flows slowly by,
The peak of the mountain glitters
Against the evening sky.

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es be deuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
und ruhig fliesst der Rhein:
der Gipfel des Berges funkelt im Abendsonnenschein.

Exit Scene Seven
German Russian immigrants purchased steerage tickets because they were less expensive than first- or second-class tickets. This meant they were on the lowest level of the ship with 1,000 other passengers, slept in narrow beds, and felt every movement of the ship as it crossed the ocean.

The families had prepared fresh sausage and zweiback to take along on their journey. Nothing, however, could prepare them for the motion sickness, poor ventilation, and stark fear they encountered on their voyage. Certainly they were asking themselves whether life in the new land was worth the misery they had to endure to get there. They had abandoned the clean, predictable life in Kassel to ride a crowded, filthy train to Bremen, live in a dormitory, and then spend many days on the ocean coping with nausea, lice, poor drinking water, and frightened children. It was a grateful group of travelers offering prayers of thanksgiving when land was finally sighted.

The Meidinger family arrived at the port of New York aboard the S.S. Werra on October 18, 1884.

Friedrich was 25. His young bride was 22.

Once in America, they realized they could not communicate properly in English. They quickly learned a few essential words, such as yes, no, ticket, and Dakota.

Their destination was not complete, however, until they boarded yet another train to carry them to Chicago and on through to Yankton in Dakota where they were met by their relatives from Tripp.

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