Old Chapter, New Books: Two Works Chronicle North Dakota's Germans From Russia

Herzog, Karen. "Old Chapter, New Books: Two Works Chronicle North Dakota's Germans From Russia." Bismarck Tribune, 20 August 2002, sec. 1B.

The image of the Germans from Russia is often that of hardworking, stoic, no-nonsense folks.

But stories of their culture are bookended by heartbreak and humor.

Two new books by North Dakota author Ronald J. Vossler explore those aspects of the lives of Germans from Russia, North Dakota's most populous ethnic group.

"Not Until the Combine is Paid and Other Jokes," is subtitled, "From the Oral Traditions of the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas" (Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries).

Most of Vossler's material comes from anecdotes, stories and jokes jotted down over decades in his attempt to record what remains of the disappearing oral traditions of that ethnic group.

Nearly all are in English; German punch lines and translations are included in many cases. The stories reflect the experiences of the pioneers - rock hauling, language misunderstandings between English and German speakers and farm life.

"Someone once told me that members of this ethnic group had both a hard nature and a strong faith in God," Vossler said. "I hope readers of this collection might add one more attribute - the strength of laughter."

The second book is dedicated to "the Germans in the Soviet Union who were deported, shot, starved or worked to death under the Soviet regime."

Information gleaned from 200 letters sent by Germans in the Soviet Union to newspapers and relatives in the Dakotas constitute what may be "one of the most remarkable odysseys of suffering of any ethnic group," Vossler said.

"We'll Meet Again in Heaven: Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives: 1925-1937" is a record of the "sorrow-letters" written by German villagers to their U.S. relatives.

Translated into English, the letters include folksy news of weather, harvest and village life, Vossler said, darkening into stories of privation, desperation, starvation, forced collectivization and deportation - and pleas for help - as the Soviet regime consolidated its power in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1932-1933 came "Crucifixion by Hunger" - Stalin's purposefully created "terror-famine." Letter-writers describe eating slaughtered pets, grass or anything else. That terror-famine is believed to have led to the deaths of 6 million to 10 million people, including at least 150,000 Germans from Russia.

Reading these letters, one senses imminent hunger, fear and death, Vossler said. The poverty and destitution of their daily lives is shocking, he said, but readers will hear in the voices the integrity of spirit of people trying to survive in a world few of us can even imagine.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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