Searching for Their Long-Lost Relatives

Fredericksen, Julie. "Searching for Their Long-Lost Relatives." Bismarck Tribune, 8 October 1993.

For many North Dakotans of German-Russian descent, reading new stories about the former Soviet Union and reunited Germany is more than just keeping up with current events. It's an attempt to find out what's happening to relatives as close as first and second cousins.

These same people are also eager to hear Peter Hilkes as he tours the state speaking about ethnic Germans living in the former Soviet Union or recently emigrated to Germany.

Hilkes, an internationally known researcher, scholar and speaker from East European Institute in Munich, Germany, is visiting North Dakota.

Accompanying Hilkes is Michael Miller of the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, Fargo. Miller says local audiences are interested in three main questions: What's life like for Germans still in Russia, what's life like for those who have gone back to Germany and how can they find their relatives in Germany and Russia?

Listeners learn that compared with other districts and regions, prospects for the future are much better for Germans in Western Siberia. They learn that Germans who have the possibility to emigrate - even those from Western Siberia - will try to do it. And they learn that, surprisingly, not many Germans from Russia want to emigrate to the United States.

The German ethnic identity has remained strong, even though their family may have moved to Russia in the days of Catherine the Great. "They're German, and they want to remain German. They want their children to remain German," he says.

They return to Germany despite the lack of jobs and accommodations, the competition from other immigrants, and the imposed idleness they find there. "They say, 'We did it for the children,' " Hilkes says. "Their view of Germany is from the last century - an unrealistic view."

While Hilkes and his institute are interested in the study of cultural assimilation, their goal is more than scholarly. They also want to help real-life people. Hilkes dreams of a triangle-shaped cooperative arrangement, the three points being the Ukraine, Munich, and North Dakota State University, site of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.

Miller is excited about the benefits to scholars and individuals here - discovering valuable historical records in the Ukraine, helping people find and write to relatives, helping people to actually make visits and meet each other. "There are a lot of North Dakotans who want to step on the soil where their ancestors once lived," he says.

That help goes both ways. "It's important for people in North Dakota to know there are 2 million Germans from Russia in the former Soviet Union - many, many with relatives in North Dakota," Miller says. "On a very small scale we can help some of them."

For example, Hilkes says, that could mean sending German language textbooks to Novosibirsk. His institute knows the ins and outs of the process, even to avoiding the Russian "mafia." But, he cautions, for now "Let's not think to big."

Hilkes will be speaking at these area locations: 7:30 p.m. today, St.Peter and Paul's Church, Strasburg; 2 p.m. Sunday, Blue Room, Glen Ullin; 7 p.m. Sunday, Assumption Abbey, Richardton; 7:30 p.m. Monday, Stickney Auditorium, Dickinson State University; 3 p.m. Tuesday, The Arts Center, Jamestown.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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