Isadore "Ike" Appelhanz holds the charter to the chapter of the Volga-German club he helped found. Appelhanz has done extensive research to discover the history of his German ancestors, who made their home in western Russia before immigrating to the United States. Photo by Chris Ochsner
A nod to a Shared History: Residents of Volga-German Descent try to Honor the Traditions of Their Ancestors

Eakins, Paul. "A nod to a Shared History: Residents of Volga-German Descent try to Honor the Traditions of Their Ancestors." Topeka Capital-Journal, 3 August 2002.

Look through a Topeka phone book, and German names abound.

Appelhanz, Bauer, Mauer, Pfannenstiel, Porubsky, Zeigler -- too many to count.

Many of these families can trace their history back to immigrants called Volga-Germans, who came not from Germany but from a region along the Volga River in western Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Many of the Volga-Germans passed through Topeka and continued west, but hundreds also stayed in Topeka and made it their home. Like many Mexican immigrants of the time, the Germans worked for the Santa Fe Railway.

And like the Mexicans, who largely lived in Oakland on the east side of the railroad tracks, the Germans settled in their own neighborhood in North Topeka. The area was misnamed Little Russia by Topekans because the Volga-Germans had come from Russia.

In the years and generations since settling in Kansas, the Volga-Germans assimilated and became important parts of their communities. In many cases, the culture and language have more or less been forgotten. But some Topekans continue to honor their Volga-German ancestry.

Isadore "Ike" Appelhanz is the son of one of the later Volga-Germans to arrive.

Jacob Appelhanz came to Topeka in 1910 at the age of 20. Like many of the Volga-German immigrants, he had left his Russian village of Rothammel to avoid being drafted into the Russian army when he turned 21. Many of the Volga-Germans fled Russia to escape this fate during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

Once in the United States, however, the descendants of the Volga-Germans often served in the military, including Appelhanz and other members of his family.

"Over here, they didn't have an aversion to (the military), because they believed in the country, I guess," Ike Appelhanz said.

His relatives who remained in Russia later suffered because of their background. The villages that the Volga-Germans had built throughout western Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great were destroyed in 1941 by Joseph Stalin.

The people who didn't flee to Germany were sent to work camps in Siberia, called gulags, until after World War II.

Many didn't survive the harsh conditions.

"We don't even know where a lot of our relatives are," Appelhanz said. "They died in the gulags somewhere in nameless graves."

Appelhanz grew up often speaking German, although his children and grandchildren don't, and he has studied and practiced the language to remain fluent. Sitting in his home in southwest Topeka with his new puppy, he plays with it and scolds it, switching back and forth between English and German.

Most of the Volga-Germans who settled in Topeka were from the villages of Kamenka and Pfeifer, said Appelhanz, who has extensively studied the Volga-German history.

In Topeka, the immigrants built St. Joseph's Catholic Church near downtown and later founded Sacred Heart Parish in Oakland. Although the churches have become more diverse than their original Volga-German congregations, aspects of that heritage are still celebrated.

Since the 1960s, Sacred Heart Parish, 312 N.E. Freeman, has had a German Fest every June with traditional German foods, music and crafts.

"Older members of the parish began to sense that we were losing our heritage," so they started the festival, said Eileen Davis, who has written a history of the church.

Davis is involved in a local German club that allows Topekans to practice their German skills.

"That's one small way of trying to retain what's left of the culture," she said.

Davis, whose family was from West Germany, also helped start a German choir at Sacred Heart Parish. During midnight Mass each Christmas, the 10-person choir sings popular carols such as "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" in German and English.

However, much German heritage has been lost through the years in Topeka, Appelhanz said. Weddings don't last as long now and don't include the same kind of music as traditional weddings of the Volga-Germans, he said.

"We loved to have weddings. In the old country, it always lasted three days," Appelhanz said. "I loved the polka and the waltz. I could dance the polka all night."

Volga-German traditions

Although few descendants of the Volga-German immigrants who came to Topeka in the late 1800s and early 1900s speak German, some of the traditions of the old country remain. Isadore "Ike" Appelhanz explained traditions that some families still follow:

On Christmas Eve, it was a tradition among Catholic Volga-Germans to leave bread outside during the night to bless the food.

On New Year's Eve, Volga-German farmers would split an onion into four parts, put salt on them and leave them out overnight. Each segment of the onion represented three months of the year. The onion part that had the most moisture on it in the morning meant the corresponding three months would get the most rain in the coming year.

"Wunsching," which means "wishing" in German, is still celebrated by some of the older descendants of Volga-Germans in Topeka. On New Year's Day, families go to their friends' and relatives' houses to wish them a happy new year, where they eat and drink together.

In traditional German weddings, a man dresses as a fake bride, and a woman dresses as a fake groom in order to draw the attention of bad spirits to themselves and away from the real bride and groom.

Reprinted with permission of Topeka Capital-Journal.

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