To Russia, From N.D. With Love...

Lind, Bob. "To Russia, From N.D. With Love..." Forum, 14 February 1993.

Mathaus Gunthner (lower right) and his family.
A man living deep in what used to be the Soviet Union eagerly read the letter from the United States, and he cried.

For the first time, contact had been made between two relatives who for years hadn’t known each other existed.

These two are distant relatives both geographically and genealogically.

Mathaus Gunthner is a former teacher who is struggling to survive in his country’s ruined economy in a city east of Moscow.

Sherrie Guenthner does child care in her home in Hazen, N.D., and does housekeeping.

Mathaus’ grandfather was a brother of Sherrie’s great-grandfather.

Started with Miller

An article in a newspaper led to their being in touch. It told of Mike Miller, the bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the North Dakota State University library in Fargo, receiving letters from people in Russia seeking family members in the United States.

"I saw the Gunthner name and I figured he had to be a relative," Sherrie says.

So she wrote to Mathaus. "He was in total heaven when he got my letter," she says. "He said we definitely were related. He said he cried and cried to hear from his relative."

More letters followed. His, in German, were translated for Sherrie by her mother. Hers, in English, were translated into German before they were mailed by two women of German descent in Hazen.

Hard times near Moscow

Mathaus’ letters told of a grim life.

Mathaus, now 77, and his wife, 69, live in a city of 500,000 people. Food is in short supply. Occasionally they can buy meat. Fruit and vegetables, when they’re available, are expensive. About the only food that’s plentiful is sauerkraut and Mathaus says they’re getting tired of it.

He has stood in a line from 4 a.m. until 4 p.m. to get food supplies sent from the United States. The lines are "like a snake," he says, winding long distances.

They can buy used clothing, but new clothing is not available.

If anybody has any possessions at all, they’re likely to be stolen.

Mathaus says the city is contaminated by radioactivity, but he hasn’t explained why.

He has a telephone, but it’s expensive and the rate continually climbs, so he may have to discontinue it.

Mathaus and his wife, who are Lutherans, meet with other Lutherans in homes. They have no church building. Lay people lead the groups.

As a former teacher, he receives a pension, but it’s not much. People who are working are doing better financially. He’d like to come to the United States, but he can’t afford it. He can get no help from his son, who is a doctor, or his daughter, who is an engineer, because they receive little pay.

Some Germans are going back to Germany. But Germany doesn’t want them. They’re considered "Russian pigs," a backlash from World War II. But these Germans don’t consider themselves Russian, either. Mathaus writes that "We are like the children of Isreal, with no home."

"We exist," Mathaus wrote, "but we don’t really live. (You should) thank God for your daily bread and be satisfied."

Mail often opened

Sherrie had been warned that sending packages to the Commonwealth of Independent States, as the former Soviet Union is now known, is risky. A woman said her package was delivered all right, but the contents had been stolen and had been replaced with rocks.

Sherrie took a chance, however. She sent a package to Mathaus last November. It included Spam, oatmeal, brownies, snack crackers, dried apricots and dried beans. To date, Mathaus apparently has not received it.

In fact, he wrote and asked why he hadn’t heard from Sherrie for some time. But Sherrie had written; her letters apparently aren’t getting through right now, either.

Sherrie’s great-grandfather came to the United States 100 years ago this year. But there’s no record of communication between his family here and those left behind from the early 1900s on.

Sherrie Guenthner
displays two of the cards
she received from a
relative in the former
Soviet Union.

Moving letters

Sherrie is deeply moved by Mathaus’ latters. Here are excerpts:

"We are happy that we have so many relatives in North Dakota. Many evenings we sit together and look at your pictures. We love you."

"We would love to see you. We would have so much to talk about. Too bad that we did not find you in such a long time. It took us over 50 years."

"You are very lucky your great-grandfather came to America or else you would be slaves like we are."

Miller will assist your search, too

Michael Miller hopes to unite other families with their relatives in the former Soviet Union.

Miller is one of those responsible for the German-Russian collection at the North Dakota State University Library. An article about the collection in a German language newspaper prompted several Germans living in Russia to write him seeking relatives in the United States.

Miller says those wishing help in finding relatives in Russia should write to him with as much specific information about them as possible including the village where the relatives lived.

He’s also interested in contacting people who were corresponding with relatives in Russia during the 1930s and 1940s as letters from them will aid in documenting what happened to the German-Russians who stayed in the Soviet Union.

Miller is seeking funds to allow him to visit Russia to produce a television documentary about families with relatives in North Dakota. His own grandparents lived in the Black Sea German colonies in the Ukraine.

Reprinted with permission of the Forum.

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