Fading Heritage

Clemings, Russell. "Fading Heritage." Fresno Bee, 21 July 2002.

Diana Bell can see the future and it looks lonely.

From her seat at the Fresno genealogical library and museum run by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Bell is watching a major American ethnic group disappear.

"We're dying off," Bell said, sitting around a conference table with the leaders of the society's Central California chapter, all of them in their 70s and 80s.

"It makes us sad," she said. "We have trouble getting the young people to join in and help us with our projects. They're so busy; they don't have time."

Few ethnic groups have played a bigger role in San Joaquin Valley history than Bell's Germans from Russia.

Having emigrated from Germany to southern Russia in the late 18th century at the invitation of Catherine the Great, herself Prussian, the "Volga Germans" and their Black Sea brethren were made unwelcome in the century that followed.

In time, many made their way to the San Joaquin Valley, establishing "Rooshian Town" on Fresno's old west side and giving the city a distinctive meat pie called the beerock.

Then they had children, who had more children, who had more children, who gradually began to forget their heritage.

The Germans from Russia are not the only group facing such problems. Recently released data from the 2000 census show that fewer Americans than ever are claiming ancestries from the nations of northern and western Europe, including Germany.

In 1980, for example, the census counted an estimated 100,000 people in Fresno County who claimed English ancestry. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 69,000. By 2000, it had fallen to 46,000.

To varying degrees, similar declines occurred in the numbers of people claiming Irish, French and German ancestries. Meanwhile, there were increases in more broadly defined categories such as "American" and "European."

All of which suggests that, despite reports to the contrary, America still steadily assimilates its immigrants.

"It used to be that we talked about a melting pot," said John Tinker, a sociologist at California State University, Fresno. "Nowadays, we tend to talk about a tossed salad. But that's wrong. What really does happen with all of these groups, over time, is that they really do melt."

The census has not yet broken out specific numbers for Germans from Russia, and it's not clear how meaningful those numbers might be. Past surveys have suggested that not all Germans from Russia identify themselves as such. Many simply call themselves German.

That might explain why the estimated number of Fresno County residents who claimed German ancestry declined by more than 30% between 1990 and 2000.

Whatever the case, Bell and the others at the society's Fresno library and museum don't need the census to tell them what's going on.

Linda Smith was born in 1912 in Jost, a German village on the east bank of the Volga River downstream from the city of Saratov. When she was 2 weeks old, she moved to Fresno with her parents and older brother and sister. At 17, she became a naturalized citizen.

She married a man of English ancestry and had three daughters. Two of them take turns driving her to the historical society's events, and they help with some of its activities. But an interest in their German-from-Russia heritage seems limited, Smith said.

"I don't think it matters much to them, to any of them," she said.

Not so, says the eldest, Cathie Peterka. But even she concedes her interest isn't matched by her participation level.

"I think it's important, and I want my grandchildren to remember it," Peterka said. "But I don't belong [to the society's chapter] because I'm so involved in other things. If I belonged, I would feel guilty for having to say no all the time."

Smith isn't the first immigrant to watch her children develop interests that pull them away from their roots, said Hans Johnson, a demographer for the Public Policy Institute of California, which researches the state's economic, social and political conditions.

"It's the age-old story of immigrants and their dependents in the United States," Johnson said. "By the second generation, that contact with the country of origin is not as strong, and by the third generation, it's weakened quite a bit more."

For the Germans from Russia, however, this phenomenon is a break from their past.

Before coming to the United States, while still in their Russian villages, they were known for their insularity. They maintained their language, religions and traditions even after settling far away from their ancestors' homes.

The history of their migrations begins with the Seven Years War, when the nations of Europe tore each other apart in a struggle for control of colonial lands in North America and India.

When the war ended in 1763, central Europe lay in ruins. The people were poor, their prospects dismal.

More than a thousand miles away, opportunity beckoned. The Russian empress Catherine the Great issued a proclamation inviting foreign citizens to settle on the southern frontier, a region then largely unpopulated and seen as vulnerable to invasion by Asian nomads.

As inducements, Catherine offered freedom of religion -- at least for Christians -- freedom from taxes and military service, free transportation to Russia, free land, cash grants and the right to govern themselves internally.

Thousands of German families accepted the offer. The first arrivals settled along the Volga, establishing dozens of villages. Later, successive waves of other immigrants set up villages near Odessa, on the Black Sea in what is now southern Ukraine, in the Crimea and elsewhere between there and the Volga.

The migrations trailed off early in the 19th century. But those who had migrated spent most of that century in their new homes, farming, withstanding plagues and droughts, speaking German, practicing their religions (Lutheran, Catholic, Mennonite) and educating their children in their own schools.

Catherine's son and grandsons -- Paul I, Alexander I and Nicholas I -- allowed the German settlers to maintain their special status. But in 1871, Alexander II, Catherine's great-grandson, proclaimed that those privileges would be terminated in 10 years. Russian would be the language of their schools and business; the right to self-government would cease.

Two years after that, the first big wave of Germans from Russia arrived in the United States. Thousands more followed one year later, when a new decree made the Germans subject to military service.

"My dad served with the Russian army," said Smith, whose only recollection of Russia comes from what family members told her.

She had made plans to visit her birth village in 1980, but was refused permission. But she has been told by others that the village has crumbled, part of it submerged beneath the waters of a Soviet-era reservoir.

"A number of our people have gone back to their home villages," Bell said, "and there's nothing but rubble."

The Russian Revolution and its aftermath completed what the czar's decrees had begun.

In time, many of the Germans who were still in the Volga and Black Sea regions were banished to Siberia and central Asia. Famine claimed tens of thousands. Not until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 were large numbers of Germans able to leave; most went to Germany.

By that time, their North American brethren had become well established in their new communities.

The San Joaquin Valley received many. Far larger numbers settled in the upper Midwest, from Kansas to North Dakota. They farmed hard red winter wheat. They built new villages and churches and schools, and fought in World War II against their distant German cousins.

In Fresno, many of them lived on the city's west side in a neighborhood widely known as Rooshian Town. Their children attended Edison High School; their homes lay just west of Chinatown. Many of those homes were torn down in the middle of the century for freeways 99 and 41.

Their largest church, Cross Church, stood at San Diego and F streets until the freeway came. Then the old brick building was moved, painstakingly, to E and Los Angeles streets, where it still stands.

As generations grew to adulthood, they moved away from the west side. Many married people of different ethnicities. Their children may have been only vaguely aware of their ancestries, even though the society estimates that there are 100,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley with German-from-Russia forebears.

"We helped build this city, and people don't even know we exist," Bell said.

To maintain genealogical records and other artifacts of that heritage, a group of Germans from Russia organized the society's Central California chapter in 1971. Twelve years later, it used private donations to acquire an old fire station near Shields and West avenues for its library and museum.

Now the chapter has more than 600 individual members. But demographics do not favor its long-term survival, Bell said.

"The older generation, the first ones that came over from Russia, that generation is leaving us," she said. "And the ones who were first-born, they're getting up into their 80s and 90s."

Every fall, the chapter holds an Oktoberfest celebration at the Fresno Convention Center, its biggest annual fund-raiser. For days in advance, volunteers prepare noodles, beerocks and other traditional foods.

But as those volunteers age, the strain wears ever more on their aching legs and backs.

"I don't know how many more years we can do that," Bell said. "It's getting harder and harder."

Reprinted with permission of the Fresno Bee.

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