Four Generations

Herzog, Karen. "Four Generations." Bismarck Tribune, 27 December 1997.

The language may be fading, but work ethic and faith persist among Germans from Russia.

"Sprechst du Deutsch?"

"Do you speak German?" Grandchildren in the 1950s were quizzed regularly by grandparents. Sometimes it descended as a wistful question, sometimes a demand. Did these younger grandchildren, those born after World War II, still speak the language of their grandparents, the Germans from Russia? Almost always, the answer was "nein," (no) or "ein bisschen," (a little).

The question hadn't been necessary a decade earlier -- grandchildren born before the early 1940s heard Deutsch and spoke Deutsch.

But times were different. The little 1950s baby boomers were Americanized by school, the movies and television, and also by their second-generation, bilingual parents.

The German language persists the longest in places like Logan and McIntosh counties, said Arnold Marzolf, retired professor at North Dakota State University. Those first immigrant settlers were at least 90 percent Germans from Russia, he said.

But even there, radio and television, war and work, and finally, paved highways, eroded the numbers of German speakers.

And, said Marzolf, "When they don't speak the language anymore, you've lost a lot of (the ethnic distinctiveness)."

Few are trying to hang on to the language now, Marzolf said. But many of those same little baby boomers, now in mid-life, are pausing to turn and discover where they came from, who their ancestors were.

The family of Clarence and Marilyn Bauman of Bismarck is typical in many ways of the pattern of assimilation that "Hansen's Model" describes.

Both Clarence, born in 1923, and Marilyn, born in 1932, are ethnic Germans from Russia. Three of their parents were born in South Russia, in the village of Hoffnungstal, and came to America as small children. Both have mothers in their 90s, still living in Java, S.D. The small town is predominantly occupied by German-Russians -- Clarence estimates about 75 percent.

Both grew up as part of the huge area of German-Russian concentration, "The Great Sauerkraut Pyramid," that extends north into McIntosh County and all the way up to Rugby and the Canadian border.

Their parents spoke German most of the time, nearly all their lives. Their parents spoke English when necessary, but would rather converse in German, Marilyn said.

"German was our first language, too," said Marilyn. Like many children of immigrants, she and her brother didn't speak English until they went to one-room country school. "It was very difficult for us. We'd fall back on our ways," she said. Marilyn can still vividly recall the swatting and smackings that came from her first-grade teacher if she lapsed into German.

For their children's generation, four ranging in age from 46 to 31, "Hansen's Model" holds true, as well. Steve, 46, Clyde, 44, Bill, 36, Amy, 31, understand German and speak a few phrases, but not a lot, Marilyn said. And Clyde's 15-year-old daughter speaks Spanish, Marilyn said, laughing. "That's what they're teaching."

"After (our generation) left the nest, the German-speaking in us more or less left, too. We didn't forget it, but we didn't use it," Clarence said.

But they still have fun speaking German with friends, getting together to laugh and remember the old phrases, the old stories, the German jokes that deflate at any attempt to translate them.

The German work ethnic lives on pretty well in the family, Marilyn said." We worked hard all our lives, grew up learning how to work," she said, milking cows, working hard in field and barn and house.

"All four children are really hard-working," she said, "but probably not as dedicated to the work ethnic as we are."

Marilyn still holds on to the foods that the family loves -- homemade sausage, homemade chicken and vegetable soups, kuchen, pfefferneuse and gingerbread. The kids' favorite is honey cookies; Christmas is not the same with the soft chewy cookies, she said.

The bonds of religious denomination have loosed also in their children's generations. Once nearly unheard of among the German-Russians to marry outside the Lutheran or Catholic churches, the Bauman children have spouses who are Wesleyan, Catholic and Lutheran.

They're all religious, Marilyn said, but attendance is not the mandatory every Sunday that it was for her generation. The Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck sponsors a all-German-language Advent service each year. "That probably will be given up before too long, because it's more and more difficult to find a preacher who can speak in German," said Marilyn."

As the people get older and die off, there are fewer all the time who can sing German or remember the German language."

"We fully well realize that ours is probably the last generation that will be holding on to the customs of our forebears," Clarence said, "and for that reason we feel that it's important at least for us to preserve whatever we can of that heritage."

"Just so that people someday know who we were," Marilyn said.

The Bauman family is typical in many ways, and unique in one. Clarence and Marilyn's son, Clyde, has performed for more than 20 years as "Mylo Hatzenbuhler" the comedic German-Russian Everyman, instantly recognizable to those who grew up amid the mangled accents and German syntax of the Sauerkraut Pyramid.

Clyde took three years of high school German, he said. "I wanted to know what the folks were talking about when they switched languages."

"Our distinctiveness makes us a source of humor from time to time," Clyde said. He sees the ethnic fading in the crowds who gather for his performances. Those 50 or older retain an accent; "in my age group, very seldom."

The "Mylo" character Clyde developed in college is very "time-specific," he believes. One generation later, and the recognition would likely have passed, disappearing with the fond memories of German grandparents' dialects and practices. At that point, "Mylo" as a spoof becomes a cultural anachronism, he said.

Respecting the tradition and being knowledgeable about it is key, he said. Clyde appreciates that the Germans from Russia Heritage Society doesn't pursue a "ghetto mentality," he said. "They're not promoting that separatism."

Ethnic heritage persists, but underground, in shared values, said the Rev. William Sherman, professor of sociology at North Dakota State University.

Values like:

  • A taste for the food of grandmothers, said Marzolf, the retired professor at NDSU. When his grandchildren came along, he remembers, they would sneak away to grandma's. "They wanted, loved, that food that we were tired of, such as knoepfle soup," Marzolf said.
  • Work. The Germans from Russia had a reputation has a thrifty, hard-working people, said Michael Miller, Germans from Russia bibliographer at North Dakota State University Libraries. That characteristic has been passed down so strongly that it continues today in these northern prairies, he said.
  • Politics. Politically conservative, heavily Republican and often aloof from politics, said Miller. That suspicion of the political process was sensitized by their experiences with government in Russia.
  • Religion. The foundation, wellspring and heart of the people, say most researchers. Religion has stayed strong through the years, said Miller, and Dakota Germans remain supportive of their parishes, dwindling as they are.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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