|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
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.