Germans from Russia: They've Come far
Keen, Russ. "Germans from Russia: They've Come far." Aberdeen American News, 23 February 2009.
Ironically, the people who ended up comprising the Aberdeen area's most dominant culture suffered persecution as they began streaming onto the prairie scene.
"Dirty black Russians" is what some called Germans from Russia when they began arriving by trainloads in Aberdeen a century-plus ago, said Bud Schaffer, 68, of Aberdeen, a descendant of Germans from Russia.
The epithet came from fellow Europeans - Scandinavians who had already settled in the area, Schaffer said.
That's why lots of German immigrants - including Schaffer's grandfather - headed farther west to areas well known today for their German heritage, such as Hosmer and Eureka. These Germans wanted to distance themselves from the Scandinavians, Schaffer said.
The Aberdeen newspaper covered each train's arrival, reporting how many Germans were on each train and where the immigrants were headed, he said.
From 5 million to 6 million Germans from Russia came to North America, settling mostly in the central plains of the U.S. and Canada. They came in waves over several decades, Schaffer said. His grandfather came over as part of one of the later waves in 1906 - a wave that included about 2 million people, he said.
The U.S. Census Bureau lists German as the most common ancestry of people in Brown, Campbell, Day, Edmunds, Faulk, Marshall, McPherson, Potter, Spink and Walworth counties, as well as in Dickey County in North Dakota. Norwegian is the second-most prevalent ancestry in all these counties except Edmunds, McPherson and Potter. In Edmunds and McPherson, Russian is No. 2. In Potter, Irish is No. 2.
Happily, the day came when it was no big deal in the Aberdeen region for a German to marry a Scandinavian - as did Schaffer in 1968. Even so, about half a century after the Germans came to the area, they became suspect once again, when World War II broke out and Germany became an enemy of the U.S., he said.
He recalled how during the war some area teachers told students from German families, "If you can't speak English, stay home. Don't come to school."
Such comments weren't necessarily motivated by a belief that all U.S. people should speak the same language; they were often disparaging remarks, Schaffer said.
The dominance of the Germans from Russia culture in South Dakota is reflected in the state's official dessert, kuchen. It's a custard-like pie that can have a variety of fillings, usually a fruit.
The Schaffer family is experienced in making kuchen. Schaffer's son Troy, of Aberdeen, used to operate Prairie Treasures in Eureka. The business made four batches of kuchen (24 kuchens per batch) daily and delivered them to outlets in Aberdeen, Pierre and Sioux Falls.
Lesser-known German foods are still prepared in the Schaffer house. Every Christmas, the family dines on haluptzie, a cabbage-and-meat entree sometimes called pigs in a blanket, Schaffer said.
Then there's blachinda, a pastry turnover often filled with pumpkin. But the filling can be just about anything, Schaffer said. He recalled that his mother made blachinda with meat from rabbits he raised as a boy and gave these treats as Christmas presents.
His Scandinavian wife, Jean, is an accomplished cook of German dishes - taught by his mother, Schaffer said.
Schaffer is an accomplished genealogist. He has traced his family tree back to 1712 on his father's side and to 1790 on his mother's. He has 30 to 40 thick binders filled with genealogical data.
Schaffer credits several sources of help in his hobby: outstanding records kept by eastern European churches, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck, N.D., and the Internet.
Schaffer, who is retired from the Aberdeen Police Department, said he spends about four hours a day on his computer researching history and genealogy.
"When I make a new find I get excited," he said.
His interest in genealogy goes back to his teen years in the Leola area.
"I liked to go through cemeteries looking for the oldest person buried there."
Reprinted with permission of the Aberdeen American News,